She broke off as a red light blinked on the corner of her terminal. She looked at it for a couple of heartbeats, then punched another key, and Bill Edwards' face appeared before her.

            "Yes, Bill?"

            "I'm sorry to disturb you, Ma'am, but there's an urgent priority call."

            "From whom?" Michelle asked with a frown.

            "It's a conference call, Ma'am — from Admiral Khumalo and Baroness Medusa."

            Despite herself, Michelle's eyes widened. It was an hour or two after local midnight in Thimble, and Khumalo's staff coordinated its work schedule with the governor's. So what had both of them up at this hour talking to her?

            I don't think I'm going to like the answer to that question, she thought.

            "Have they requested visual?" she asked Edwards, running one hand across her short, still damp hair and wondering how her voice could sound so calm.

            "No, Ma'am. In fact, the Governor isn't visual herself, and she specifically said it would be satisfactory for you to attend audio-only, as well."

            "Good." Michelle twitched a smile. "Chris would kill me if I let anyone see me sitting around in sweats for a conference with another flag officer and an imperial governor. Either that, or give me that terminally reproachful look of his! Go ahead and put it through, please, Bill."

            "Yes, Ma'am."

            Edwards disappeared, replaced almost instantly by a split screen. One quadrant showed Augustus Khumalo's face while the other displayed the wallpaper of Baroness Medusa's coat of arms. Khumalo was still in uniform, although he'd shed his tunic, and Michelle knew both of them were seeing the shield and crossed short swords of Achilles' wallpaper, overlaid with the two stars of her rank, instead of her.

            "Good evening, Admiral. Good evening, Governor," she said.

            "'Good morning,' you mean, don't you, Milady?" Khumalo responded with a tense smile.

            "I suppose I do, actually. Although we're still on Manticoran time aboard ship." Michelle smiled back, then cleared her throat. "I do have to wonder why the two of you are screening me this late in your day, however, Sir."

            "Technically, I don't suppose we really had to," Baroness Medusa's voice replied. "In fact, I suppose the reason we didn't wait until tomorrow is at least partly a case of misery loving company."

            "That sounds ominous," Michelle said cautiously.

            "A dispatch boat came in from the Lynx Terminus about twenty minutes ago, Milady," Khumalo said. "It carried an urgent dispatch. It would appear that three T-weeks ago, Admiral Webster was assassinated on Old Earth."

            Michelle inhaled abruptly. For a moment, it felt as if Khumalo had reached out of the terminal and slapped her. The shock was that sharp, that totally unexpected. And, on the heels of the shock, came the grief. The Webster and Henke families were close — her father's sister had married the present Duke of New Texas — and James Bowie Webster had been an unofficial uncle of hers since she was a little girl. He was one of the ones who had actively encouraged her to make the Navy her career, and despite his monumental seniority, their relationship had remained close after her graduation from Saganami Island, although their different duties and assignments had forced them to stay in touch mostly by letter. And now —

            She blinked burning eyes and shook her head sharply. She didn't have time to think about the personal aspects of it.

            "How did it happen?" she asked flatly.

            "That's still under investigation." Khumalo looked like a man with a mouth full of sour persimmons. "What has been definitely established so far, though, is that he was shot at close range on a public sidewalk — in front of the Opera House, in fact! — by none other than the Havenite ambassador to the League's personal driver."

            "My God!" Michelle stared at Khumalo's image.

            "Indeed," Medusa's voice said. "Gregor and I are still going over the official dispatch and the reports which accompanied it. From what we've seen so far, I have to wonder if this is another application of whatever it was they used to try to kill Duchess Harrington."

            "May I ask why, Governor?" Michelle's voice had sharpened with her memory of Tim Mears and his death.

            "Because the assassin shot him right in front of half a dozen security cameras, at least two or three policemen, and Admiral Webster's own bodyguard. If that doesn't constitute a suicide attack, then I don't know what would."

            "But why would the Havenites want to assassinate the Admiral?" Michelle heard the plaintiveness in her own voice.

            "I don't have a clue why they might have done it," Medusa said.

            "Neither do I," Khumalo agreed, and Michelle sat back, thinking furiously.

            James Webster had been one of the most popular officers in the Navy, both with his fellow service personnel and with the Manticoran public. An ex-First Space Lord, he'd been instrumental in breaking the criminally stupid, politically-inspired policies which had almost gotten Honor Harrington killed on Basilisk Station years ago. And he'd commanded Home Fleet throughout the first Havenite War, as well. For the last couple of T-years, he'd been the Star Kingdom's ambassador to the Solarian League, and from everything Michelle had heard, he'd done that job just as well as he'd done everything else.

            "This doesn't make sense," she said finally. "Admiral Webster's an ambassador these days, not a serving officer. And Old Earth is about as far away from Haven as someone could get."

            "Agreed," Medusa said. "In fact, if I'd had to look for someone to blame this on — without the obvious Havenite connection, at least — my first choice would have been Manpower."

            "Manpower?" Michelle's eyes narrowed.

            "They'd have to be uncommonly stupid — or crazy — to try something like this right in the middle of Chicago," Khumalo objected. "But," he continued, almost unwillingly, "if there's anyone in the galaxy Webster was beating up on, it was Manpower. Well, Manpower, the Jessyk Combine, and Technodyne. He's been giving them hell in the League media over their attempts to spin what happened in Monica, and my impression is that things were only going from bad to worse for them in that regard. I suppose it's at least remotely possible they got tired of having him bust their chops and decided to do something about it. Still stupid, especially in the long run, but possible. And to be fair, God knows Manpower's done other stupid things on occasion — like that raid on Catherine Montaigue's mansion, or that whole operation on Old Earth, when they kidnaped Zilwicki's daughter."

            "That's what I'm thinking," the governor agreed. "And you're right that killing him would be a really stupid thing for an outlaw bunch like Manpower to do. Unless, of course, they felt completely confident no one would ever be able to prove they'd had anything to do with it."