He paused, and Michelle nodded. The most urgent priorities of the new war emergency construction programs had focused on producing as many ships of the wall, pod-laying superdreadnoughts like Honor's Imperator, as was physically possible. It couldn't have been any other way, given the overwhelming primacy the new "podnaughts" had attained. Because of that emphasis, lighter ships, like cruisers and destroyers, had been assigned a much lower building priority. Large numbers had been projected, and, indeed, laid down, but only after the needs of the superdreadnought-building programs had already been met. As a result, construction had been much slower to begin on those smaller, lighter units.

            On the other hand, it took much less time to build a destroyer or a cruiser — or even one of the new battlecruisers — than it did to build a ship of the wall. Which meant there'd been time to refine their designs and get classes like the new Nike-class battlecruisers and Roland-class destroyers into the pipeline. And it also meant that, despite their later start, truly enormous numbers of brand-new ships "below the wall" were already in the process of working up for service. But although the adoption of such vastly increased automation meant the once vast gulf between the absolute numbers of noncommissioned and enlisted personnel required by a superdreadnought and a mere battlecruiser had shrunk substantially, a battlecruiser still required almost as many officers as a superdreadnought. And while the new LACs might free up large numbers of starships which might once have been tied down on picket, patrol, or anti-piracy system security, each of them required its own slice of officers and enlisted, as well, which, in turn, put an even greater strain on the available supply of trained personnel.

            "Here's what we have in mind, Milady," Cortez said, leaning forward and folding his hands on his desk blotter. "Initially, we'd earmarked somewhere around two thirds of the new cruisers and battlecruisers for Admiral Sarnow's command in Silesia. That, unfortunately, was before the situation in Talbott blew up in our faces. So now it looks as if we're basically going to be reversing the proportions we'd originally projected and sending two thirds of them to Talbott, instead. Including you, Admiral."

            "Me, my Lord?" she asked when he paused as if to invite comment.

            "You," he confirmed. "We're giving you the 106th."

            For a moment, it failed to register. Then her eyes flared wide in astonishment. He couldn't be serious! That was her first thought. And on its heels, came another.

            "Sir Lucian," she began, "I don't –"

            "We're not going to have that particular discussion, Milady," Cortez interrupted her. She closed her mouth, sitting back in her chair, and he gazed at her sternly. "You've been not-pestering Captain Shaw for a billet, and now you've got one, and this decision has nothing to do with the fact that you're the Queen's cousin. It has to do with the fact that you are a highly experienced officer, who has just returned from demonstrating exactly how capable you are, and who — to be frank — we can't use where we'd most like to use you. But if we can't give you a superdreadnought division or squadron and send you back to Eighth Fleet, the 106th is, in the Admiralty's considered opinion, absolutely the next best use we can make of you."

            Michelle bit her tongue rather firmly, remembering a conversation with Honor on this same topic. She still wasn't fully convinced favoritism had played no part at all in the Admiralty's decision. Still, she had to admit Honor had also had a point. The fact that Michelle had spent so long guarding against even the appearance of playing the patronage game which had so bedeviled the prewar Manticoran officer corps might, indeed, have made her overly sensitive in some respects.

            "Having said that, however," Cortez continued, "and to be completely honest, there are some factors in your orders which don't relate directly to your demonstrated capabilities as a combat commander. Not to the decision to give you the 106th, but to the decision as to where to send you — and it — after giving it to you."

            Michelle's eyes narrowed as she sensed the impending fall of the second shoe, and Cortez smiled a bit crookedly.

            "No, Milady, we didn't make any deals with Mount Royal Palace," he told her. "But the fact is that we've known from the beginning that we couldn't permanently leave Vice Admiral O'Malley in Talbott, for a lot of reasons. Among them, the fact that he's just about due for his third star. Another is that we have a task group of Medusa-Bs waiting for him when he gets it. But we're going to need someone to replace him in Talbott, and we're going to be recalling the pod battlecruisers we borrowed from Grayson when we deployed him in the first place. We're replacing them with the 106th, and we're replacing him with you . . . Vice Admiral Gold Peak."

            Michelle stiffened in her chair, and Cortez's smile grew broader.

            "You were already on the list before Solon," he told her. "In fact, the promotion board had acted before Ajax was lost, although the paperwork was still being processed. And then things got a little complicated when we thought you were dead, of course. That's been straightened out, however, and some of those factors other than your combat skills are coming into play here, as well. For one thing, it's been decided Admiral Khumalo will also be promoted. In fact, he's already been notified of his promotion to vice admiral. His date of rank precedes your own, so he'll still be senior to you, and he'll be staying on as the Talbott Station commander."

            Michelle kept her mouth shut . . . not without difficulty, and this time Cortez allowed his smile to slide over into a chuckle. Then he sobered.

            "I'm sorry, Milady. I shouldn't have laughed, but your expression . . . ."

            He shook his head.

            "No, My Lord, I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean –"

            "Milady, you aren't the only one who's been . . . under-impressed by Augustus Khumalo over the years. To be honest, there'd been serious consideration of recalling him from Talbott before this situation with Monica blew up. And, the truth is, he's always been more of an administrator than a combat officer. But he demonstrated a lot of moral courage — more, to be honest, than I, for one, ever really thought he had, I'm a bit ashamed to admit — when he backed Terekhov to the hilt. His instincts turned out to be very sound in that instance, and he really is a superior administrator. Hopefully that's going to be more important than tactical acumen, assuming we can avoid a war with the League. And his and Terekhov's response to what every Talbotter is convinced was an OFS plot to annex the entire Cluster has made both of them extremely popular in Talbott. A lot of people would be very unhappy if we recalled him and replaced him with someone else at this particular time.

            "All of that's true, but it still seems to us here at Admiralty House that he's going to need someone who has the combat experience he lacks as his second-in-command. Given your availability — and the fact that you aren't available for service with Eighth Fleet any longer — you're well suited to provide that for him. And, quite frankly, the fact that you stand so high in the succession, not to mention the fact that he's directly related to you through the Wintons, should give you an extra handle for influence with him. Not to mention the fact that your relationship to Her Majesty should also help to underscore the Government's support for the Cluster under the new constitution."

            Michelle nodded slowly. In a sense, what Cortez had just said demonstrated that politics and her birth had, indeed, helped to dictate the Admiralty's policy. On the other hand, she couldn't disagree with a single one of the points he'd made, and little though she might like politics, she'd always known political and military strategy were inextricably entwined. As that ancient Old Terran military historian Honor was so fond of quoting had put it, the setting of national goals was a political decision, and war represented the pursuit of those same political goals by nonpolitical means.

            "I know this doesn't constitute much warning," Cortez continued. "And I'm afraid you aren't going to have time to assemble your own staff. For that matter, you're not going to have time to properly work up your new squadron, either. From the last report I received, I'm not even sure all of your ships will have completed their acceptance trials before you have to depart. I've done my best to pull together as strong a team for you as I could, however."