What was scariest about that particular analysis, in Michelle’s opinion, was the possibility that the Republic might actually have had an at least plausible motive for killing off their own conference. Given the dispute over how the current war had started, Pritchart and her advisers would scarcely be likely to reinitiate operations in a way that openly sabotaged a peace conference she’d initiated. So if some inkling of the Star Kingdom’s accelerated building programs or – far worse – some hint of Apollo’s existence had somehow leaked to Nouveau Paris only after Pritchart had suggested her meeting with Elizabeth, and if Pritchart and Theisman had concluded that the newly discovered threat left them no option but to seek a decisive military victory before those ships or those new weapons could be added to the balance against them, then it was entirely possible that they would have been delighted if they could get Beth to kill the conference for them.

            And if that was what lay behind this operation, whoever had planned it had shown a devastating grasp of Beth’s psychology. The timing, and the technique, could not possibly have been better selected to drive Elizabeth Winton into an incandescent fury. Given the fact that the previous Havenite régime had already attempted to assassinate her and had succeeded in killing her uncle and cousin — who'd just happened to be Michelle's father and brother — and her beloved prime minister, expecting any other result would have been ludicrous. Not only that, but that assassination attempt had been planned and executed by Oscar Saint-Just for the express purpose of furthering a political strategy when he had no viable military strategy. So the theory that Pritchart — or some rogue element in her security services, Michelle reminded herself almost desperately — had deliberately chosen to use a variant on the same theme as a means to sabotage the summit meeting for some reason of their own was nowhere near as insane as Michelle would have preferred for it to be. In fact, she couldn't think of a single other hypothesis for why someone would have carried out those two particular assassinations in that particular fashion on the same damned day.

            And Beth and her advisers are also right about who knew about the summit, she thought bleakly. If someone was actually out to sabotage it, they had to know about it in the first place, and who could possibly have found out in time to put something like this together? Word would still have had to get to them somehow, and they would've had to get their assassination orders out in time, and Manpower is too far away for that. You simply can't get dispatch boats back and forth between Mesa and Torch — or Noveau Paris, for that matter! — quickly enough for them to have found out what was happening, formulated a plan to stop it, and sent out the execution orders. Even if they’re using the Junction and Trevor’s Star under cover of some legitimate corporation or news organization or diplomatic boat, they're just plain too far outside the command and control loop to physically pass the needed orders. For that matter, everyone is outside the command and control loop . . . except, of course, for one of the two star nations setting the damned thing up in the first place! And even if you assume someone else did find out about it, and had time to set it up, what possible motive could that "someone else" have had for sabotaging a summit meeting like this one?

            Well, if that was what the mastermind behind the operation had wanted, he'd gotten it. The same dispatch boat which had brought news of the attack on Torch had brought with it a copy of Elizabeth's white-hot denunciatory note to Eloise Pritchart. The note which had informed Pritchart that the Star Kingdom of Manticore would be resuming military operations immediately. And as a part of the shift in deployment stances that implied, Vice Admiral Blaine and Vice Admiral O'Malley had been ordered to concentrate all of their Home Fleet forces at the Lynx Terminus as quickly as possible.

            Which was what had so thoroughly destabilized the preliminary plans she, Khumalo, Medusa, and Krietzmann had been working out.

            At least they’d been in a position last night to discuss a few contingencies– like the Star Kingdom’s potential withdrawal from the peace conference – without drawing official attention to them. Which meant that, little as any of them had cared for the possibility, she actually knew how the government and Vice Admiral Khumalo were likely to respond now.

            "All right."

            She let her chair come back upright, then swiveled it to face Lecter, Commodore Shulamit Onasis, and Captain Jerome Conner, the senior officer of BatCruDiv 106.1, the 106th's first division. Gervais Archer sat quietly to one side, taking notes, as always, and Onasis had brought her own chief of staff, Lieutenant Commander Dabney McIver, who was just as much a Gryphon highlander as Ron Larson, while Conner was accompanied by his executive officer, Commander Frazier Houseman.

            Houseman had come as a considerable surprise to Michelle, and she looked forward to the first time he came face-to-face with Rear Admiral Oversteegen. Or, for that matter, with Honor! Houseman was a first cousin of Reginald Houseman, who was probably the single Manticoran political figure who most loathed Honor Harrington . . . and vice versa, since Pavel Young was dead. Of course, the competition for which politico most hated her would undoubtedly have been fierce, but Houseman had the unique distinction of being the only surviving member of the Manticoran political establishment who had been — literally — knocked on his wealthy, cowardly ass by Honor.

            And of being loathed by the Navy in general almost as much as he was loathed by Honor.

            His career and his influence alike had taken a powerful nosedive after that embarrassing little incident at Yeltsin’s Star, although there were still members of his Liberal Party (such of it as survived, after its disastrous alliance with the Conservative Association in the High Ridge government) who continued to support him as a victim of "the Salamander's" notoriously brutal and vicious temperament. They were, however, noticeably thinner on the ground than they once had been. Perhaps that owed something to the fact that Houseman had accepted the position of Second Lord of Admiralty in the Janacek Admiralty. At the time, it had probably seemed like a good idea, since it had restored him to the first ranks of political power in the Star Kingdom and finally allowed him to do something about the "bloated and ridiculously over expensive" state of the Navy which he had decried for decades.

            Unfortunately, it also meant he had been personally and directly responsible for planning and carrying out the Navy’s deliberate build-down. Unlike Janacek, who had committed suicide when the enormity of his failure became obvious at the opening of the current war, Houseman had opted for the less drastic option of resigning his office in disgrace. And despite the investigation which had led directly to formal charges of corruption, malfeasance, bribery, and half a dozen other criminal activities on the part of Baron High Ridge, a dozen of his personal aides, eleven senior members of the Conservative Association in the House of Lords (including the current Earl of North Hollow), two Liberal Party peers, three unaligned peers, seventeen members of the Progressive Party's representation in the House of Commons, and over two dozen prominent members of the Manticoran business community, it appeared Houseman had at least not been guilty of any outright violations of the law.

            Because of that, he had been able to retire into the safer, if far less prestigious (or remunerative), fields of academia. His sister, Jacqueline, had never been formally associated with the High Ridge Government, although her longtime position as one of Countess New Kiev's unofficial financial advisers had still managed to bring her into the outer radius of fallout when that government collapsed. Fortunately for New Kiev (and Jacqueline), New Kiev had probably been the only member of High Ridge's cabinet and inner circle who hadn't been personally party to any of his criminal activities.