"Is it really that bad, Sir?"

            "It's probably worse, Milady," Khumalo growled. "I don't doubt you've had your own run-ins with League arrogance over the years. I don't know any serving officer who hasn't. But we've been rather more . . . irritating to them since the Talbotters applied for admission to the Star Kingdom. Or Star Empire, or whatever." He waved one hand. "I don't think there's much doubt Frontier Security was completely confident Talbott was just one more cluster they'd get around to gobbling up whenever they decided it was convenient. Instead, we turned up, and that really, really pissed them off. Which has only made them even more arrogant pains in the arse."

            "You mentioned Ambassador Corvisart, Sir," Captain Armstrong observed quietly. "When we left the Star Kingdom, we were only beginning to get reports on what she was finding out there. May I assume she's dug a little deeper in the meantime?"

            "Oh, yes, Captain." Khumalo showed his teeth in a tight smile. "I think you could safely say that. And the deeper she gets, the worse it smells."

            "Was OFS directly involved, Sir?" Michelle asked.

            "Of course it was, Milady." Khumalo snorted. "There's no need for any 'investigation' to tell us that! Proving it — especially to the satisfaction of the notoriously and scrupulously impartial League legal system — is something else, of course." The irony in his tone could have withered an entire forest of Sphinxian picket-wood. "Nothing happens in the Verge — nothing that could possibly have an impact on the League, at any rate — without Frontier Security's involvement. In this case, though, it's actually beginning to look like OFS wasn't the primary player."

            "They weren't, Sir?" There was surprise in Michelle's voice, and Khumalo smiled again, grimly, as he heard it.

            "That's what it's beginning to look like," he repeated. "As a matter of fact, most of the straws in the wind, including President Tyler's testimony, suggest that the prime mover was Manpower."

            Michelle's eyes widened, and Khumalo shrugged.

            "Commander Chandler and Mr. O'Shaughnessy will be able to give you a lot more detail on this than I can, Milady. But according to Ambassador Corvisart and her on-site investigators, our original theory that Manpower and the Jessyk Combine were being used as cat's-paws by Frontier Security had things reversed. We've known from the beginning that Commissioner Verrochio has a very . . . comfortable relationship with Manpower and several other Mesan 'corporations.' We assumed — wrongly, apparently — that it was him using that relationship to convince Manpower to serve as his deniable conduit to Nordbrandt and the other terrorist movements here in the Quadrant. From what Corvisart is turning up now, though, it looks like it was actually the other way around."

            "Manpower wanted control of the Lynx Terminus?" Michelle shook her head. "I can understand why they'd want us as far away from their home system as they could get us. We've never made any secret of how we feel about the slave trade, after all. But my understanding was that the entire objective of the operation was for Monica to end up controlling the Cluster and the Lynx Terminus as a front for Frontier Security. That would suit Manpower a lot better than what's actually happening, of course, but going about it this way sounds awfully ambitious for a bunch of criminals."

            "'Ambitious' is actually a pretty severe understatement, Milady. They've tried a few other high-stakes maneuvers in the past, but right offhand, I can't think of another one that was this risky and 'ambitious' of them, either. Still, that's the way it's beginning to look. And, considered from one perspective, it's a perfectly logical extension of their usual mode of operation. Not only would it have pushed us six hundred-plus light-years further away from their headquarters, but it would have given them another set of hooks, this time into Tyler and Monica. I'm sure they would have shown a substantial profit, over the long term, on their ability to manipulate traffic through the terminus, as well, and they didn't even have to come up with the battlecruisers they supplied. Those came from Technodyne."

            "That's been confirmed, Sir?"

            "It has." Khumalo nodded. "Apparently, they were officially stricken from the Sollies' shiplist to make room for the new Nevadas, and Technodyne saw a way to turn an extra profit on them. We've recovered some electronic records which make it pretty clear Technodyne, at least, has been paying some attention to the rumors about our new systems. It looks as if they expected to get the chance for a close look at our hardware when the unfinished terminus forts had to surrender to Tyler. And they were probably slated for their own share of the income Manpower expected to be raking off from Jessyk's manipulation of the terminus traffic."

            Michelle nodded slowly. What Khumalo had just said made plenty of sense, but the notion was going to take some getting used to.

            It does hang together, though, she reflected. And poking the Star Kingdom in the eye really isn't as risky for them as it would be for someone else. After all, we're already effectively at war with them over the slave trade. I suppose that from their perspective it was a question of how much worse it could get. And looked at that way, running even a fairly substantial risk to keep our frontiers from moving six hundred light-years closer to them would have an awful lot to recommend it.

            "Well, whoever was really in charge, and wherever they were really headed," Khumalo continued, "I'm sure Ambassador Corvisart is going to uncover quite a few more things our good friend Commissioner Verrochio would just as soon stayed buried. But Monica and the Solarian League aren't our sole concerns here in the Quadrant, Milady."

            He leaned back in his chair, his expression intent.

            "As Captain Terekhov discovered during his brief tour with us before he went trotting off to Monica," Khumalo's smile was quirky, "the new influx of merchant shipping being attracted into the Quadrant by the Lynx Terminus is attracting pirates right along with it. We need to make it clear that this isn't going to be a healthy place for them to operate. That's going to get easier when those light attack craft everyone keeps promising me actually get here, of course. A couple of squadrons of LACs will keep just about any pirate I can imagine out of the star system they're patrolling, at any rate. And having 'their' LAC groups assigned to each new member system will help them realize we're really serious about integrating them into a Cluster-wide security system.

            "At the same time, there are threats LACs alone aren't going to be able to deter, and we have to be aware of other potential flash points, whether with OFS or with one of the other single-system star nations out here. Her Majesty has made it quite clear that we're supposed to convince the locals that the Star Empire is going to be a good neighbor. I think she's right that, over time, quite a few more of the local star systems are going to recognize a good thing when they see it and seek admission to the Quadrant. That's for the future, though. For right now, it's our job to make it plain to them that while we're perfectly willing to assist them in dealing with mutual problems — like piracy — we aren't using that assistance as a way to wedge our foot into their doors so we can gobble them up more easily.

            "And, of course, there are our equally good friends on New Tuscany."

            "I gathered from Admiral Givens' briefings that New Tuscany wasn't exactly likely to be very happy with us," Michelle said.

            "No, they aren't. And the fact that Joachim Alquezar's Constitutional Union Party has a clear majority in the new Quadrant Parliament isn't making them any happier. Andrieaux Yvernau hates his guts, and vice versa. In fact, probably the only person in the entire cluster Yvernau hates more than he hates Alquezar is Bernardus Van Dort . . . and the first thing Prime Minister Alquezar did was to name Van Dort a special minister without portfolio as soon as he got back from Monica aboard Hercules."

            "I have to admit that I'm more than a little surprised Yvernau could have survived politically after the Convention repudiated his position so thoroughly, Sir," Michelle said cautiously, venturing warily into the political waters she normally kept her toes well clear of.

            "I wouldn't say he came through it unscathed, Milady," Khumalo replied. "He didn't get hammered as badly as Tonkovic, of course, but he probably burned twenty or thirty T-years worth of political favors salvaging his position back home."