Shoupe stirred in her chair, and Khumalo glanced at her.

            "I know that expression, Loretta," he said. "I take it you disagree?"

            "Not entirely, Sir," his chief of staff replied. "I think O'Shaughnessy has a point, though. The real reason Yvernau's political career didn't come to a screeching halt is that a majority of his friends and neighbors back home agree with him."

            Shoupe looked at Michelle.

            "It's evident that Yvernau and those who think like him decided the citizens rights provisions of the new constitution would upset their self-serving little applecart on New Tuscany. They aren't prepared to have that happen, so they opted out of the annexation. But one of the reasons they did that was because they figure they'll share in any general economic improvement in the Cluster due to simple proximity, and that our mere presence will protect them from Frontier Security whether that's what we're setting out to do, or not."

            "I know that's what Yvernau thought, and I suppose I can't really dispute O'Shaughnessy's belief that quite a few of his fellow oligarchs think the same way," Khumalo said. It was obvious to Michelle that he was discussing the situation with Shoupe, and the fact that she seemed comfortable maintaining a contrary viewpoint — and that he wasn't hammering her for it — said good things about their working relationship, in her opinion.

            "But even if that's what Yvernau and some of the others think," the vice admiral continued, "it's not what all of them think. Some of them are royally pissed that the Convention didn't do things Yvernau's way in the first place. Quite a few of them blame us — well, Baroness Medusa, at least — just as much as they do Alquezar and Van Dort. And for a lot of the others, the danger the example of the Quadrant and the Star Empir poses is going to far outweigh any trade advantages or protection against OFS. Nordbrandt's terror campaign against her own oligarchs on Kornati scares the stuffing out of that crew. What they're going to see is that their own lower class is going to be watching the example of what's happening to their counterparts here in the Quadrant. Which isn't exactly likely to contribute to the oligarchs' efforts to keep the lid screwed down."

            "Which means exactly what for us, Sir?" Michelle asked, and he  snorted.

            "If I knew the answer to that question, I wouldn't need to work for a living. I'd just sit around picking winners in the local air car races! I know the Baroness, Mr. O'Shaughnessy, Prime Minister Alquezar, and Mr. Van Dort — all of whom, frankly, are much better than I am at political analysis — are all thinking hard about that same question, and I don't believe they've come up with an answer for it yet, either. The thing I can't quite get out of my own mind, though, is that Yvernau and his crew were stupid enough to cut off their noses to spite their own faces when they couldn't get the Convention to swallow their line. I'm afraid I'm not prepared to put anything anyone who’s that stupid, and we're not exactly the favorite people on their list, either. So I just can't shake the suspicion that they're going to be looking for anything they can do to cause problems. The only real question in my mind where that's concerned is how much risk they're willing to run in the process. How far are they actually prepared to push us in order to demonstrate that we don't scare them?"

            Michelle nodded again. If she'd been one of the chief crooks in one of the local kleptocracies, she would have been doing everything she could to avoid ticking off Manticore, whether it was the Old Star Kingdom or this newfangled Star Empire. The last thing she'd have done would be to risk goading it into some sort of unfortunately permanent reaction. Then again, she wasn't one of the chief crooks, and even if she had been, she wouldn't have been stupid enough to have embraced Andrieaux Yvernau's political strategy in the first place. Which meant she had no idea how valid Khumalo's concerns might be.

            "Even if my concerns prove totally unfounded," the Talbott Station CO continued, "and, to be honest, nothing would please me more than to see exactly that happen, New Tuscany is still going to be one of our more potentially sensitive concerns. The disappearance of the various protective tariffs and other trade barriers here in the Quadrant is going to have a significant impact on local shipping patterns, and New Tuscany is probably going to be one of the major outside players in those patterns, at least in local terms. We're going to have to be careful about how we handle New Tuscan-registry merchant vessels, and I won't be a bit surprised if we encounter all kinds of customs disputes. So we're going to require at least some naval presence permanently in the vicinity of New Tuscany, Marian, Scarlet, and Pequod."

            "Yes, Sir," Michelle agreed.

            Khumalo started to say something more, but Shoupe cleared her throat quietly. He glanced at her, and she tapped one fingertip on her chrono.

            "Point taken, Loretta," he said with a smile, and returned his attention to Michelle.

            "What Captain Shoupe has just tactfully reminded me of is that dinner engagement with Baroness Medusa I mentioned to you. She's expecting us in Thimble in about three hours, and I imagine you and Captain Armstrong would like to return to Achilles to prepare. Mess dress, I'm afraid, since Prime Minister Alquezar will also be present. And the Baroness also asked me to extend an invitation to all of your captains and their senior officers."

            "That's rather a large number of people Sir," Michelle pointed out diffidently, and he chuckled.

            "Believe me, Milady, Baroness Medusa is aware of that. She has rather a large banquet room in her official residence, and I believe she visualizes this as an opportunity for the Prime Minister and several other important local political figures to meet your personnel. She sees it as a major first step in fostering their confidence in us, and I think she has a point."

            "That makes perfectly good sense to me, Sir. As long as she's got that large banquet room to fit us all into."

            "I believe we'll manage, Admiral Gold Peak," Khumalo assured her.