Michelle found it difficult to believe the countess hadn't known anything about what was going on, however. Nor was she the only one. That very point had been raised quite broadly in the Star Kingdom's newsfaxes, and it had undoubtedly contributed to her disintegrating Liberal Party's decision to "regretfully accept her resignation" as its leader with indecent haste. Whether she'd actually known or not, she damned well ought to have known, in Michelle's opinion, but it truly did appear that her main offense (legally speaking, at least)  had been terminal political stupidity. And it had been terminal. Her retirement as the Liberal Party's official leader had been followed by her virtual retirement from the House of Lords, as well, and it seemed obvious her political career was over. For that matter, despite the speed with which it had dumped her and sought to disassociate itself from the High Ridge "excesses," New Kiev's Liberal Party, which had been dominated by its aristocratic wing from its very inception, was also deceased for all intents and purposes. The new Liberal Party which had emerged under the leadership of the Honorable Catherine Montaigne, the ex-Countess of the Tor, was a very different — and much brawnier and less couth — creature than anything with which New Kiev had ever been associated, and the majority of its strength came from Montaigne's bloc in the House of Commons.

            Personally, Michelle far preferred Montaigne's "Liberals" to New Kiev's "Liberals," and she always had.

            But Jacqueline Houseman's associations had all been with the aristocratic old guard, and the fall of that old guard had pretty much cut off her access to the Manticoran political establishment, as well. Which hadn't exactly broken Michelle Henke's heart.

            But then there was Frazier Houseman, the only son of Reginald and Jacqueline's Uncle Jasper. Frazier, unfortunately, looked as much like Reginald Houseman as Michael Oversteegen looked like a younger edition of his uncle . . . Michael Janvier, also known as the Baron of High Ridge. The fact that Michael despised the uncle for whom he had been named and thought most of the Conservative Association's political leaders between them hadn't had the intelligence of a rutabaga, didn't mean he didn't share his family's conservative and aristocratic view of the universe. He was considerably smarter than most of the Conservative Association, and (in Michelle's opinion) possessed of vastly more integrity, not to mention a powerful sense of noblesse oblige, but that didn't precisely make him the champion of egalitarianism. And the fact that Frazier despised his cousin and had been known, upon occasion, to remark that if Reginald and Jacqueline's brains had been fissionable material, both of them in combination probably wouldn't have sufficed to blow a gnat's nose, didn't mean that he didn't share his family's liberal and aristocratic view of the universe. Which would undoubtedly make the two of them the proverbial oil and water in any political discussion.

            Fortunately — and this was the cause of Michelle's surprise — Frazier Houseman gave every appearance of being just as capable as an officer in Her Majesty's Navy as Michael Oversteegen was. Whether or not their mutual competence could overcome the inevitable political antipathy between them was another question, of course.

            You have better things to do than think about Houseman's pedigree, she scolded herself. Besides, given the number of absolute idiots who have somehow ripened on your family tree over the centuries, you might want to be a little cautious about throwing first stones, even if you only do it inside your own head.

            "I don't think our initial deployment plan is going to work anymore, Shulamit," she said out loud.

            "I wish I could disagree with you, Ma'am," Onassis replied sourly. The commodore was a short, not particularly heavy but opulently curved brunette with what would probably have been called a "Mediterranean complexion" back on Old Terra. She was also quite attractive, despite her present thoughtful and unhappy scowl.

            "At the same time, though, Admiral," Conner pointed out, "Admiral O'Malley's recall gives even more point to the necessity of getting someone out in the region of Monica to replace him ASAP."

            "Agreed, Jerome. Agreed," Michelle said, nodding. "In fact, I think you and I are going to have to expedite the First Division's departure. I'm thinking now that we need to pay a 'courtesy visit' to Monica as quickly as possible, and then establish ourselves — or at least a couple of our ships — permanently at Tillerman. Where the main change is going to be necessary is in our original plans for Shulamit."

            She swivelled her eyes back to Onassis.

            "Instead of splitting your division up and sending it out to touch base with the various systems here in the Quadrant, I think we're going to need to keep you right here at Spindle, concentrated."

            "I won't be accomplishing very much parked here in orbit, Ma'am," Onassis pointed out.

            "Maybe not. But whether you're actively accomplishing anything or not, you'll be doing something which has just become critical — keeping a powerful, concentrated force right here under Admiral Khumalo's hand. I need to be out there at Monica, just in case. At the same time, though, Admiral Khumalo needs a powerful naval element he can use as a fire brigade if something goes wrong while I'm away. And you, for your sins, are the Squadron's second-ranking officer. That means you draw the short straw. Clear?"

            "Clear, Ma'am." Onassis smiled briefly and sourly. "I said I wished I could disagree with you, and I do. Wish that, I mean. Unfortunately, I can't."

            "I know you'd rather be doing something . . . more active," Michelle said sympathetically. "Unfortunately, they also serve who wait in orbit, and that's what you're going to have to do right now. Hopefully, once Rear Admiral Oversteegen comes forward, I can shuffle this off onto him. After all," she smiled a bit nastily, "he'll be Tenth Fleet's second-ranking officer. Which will just happen to make him ideal for leaving here in a central position whenever I can find a good reason I have to be somewhere else, won't it?"

            Onassis grinned, and Captain Lecter smothered a chuckle. But then Michelle's expression sobered.

            "I'd really prefer not to have any additional surprises from back home while I'm away, Shulamit. That doesn't necessarily mean it isn't going to happen. If it does, I expect you to give Admiral Khumalo and Baroness Medusa the full benefit of your own views and insights. Is that understood, as well?"

            "Yes, Ma'am." Onassis nodded, and Michelle carefully did not nod back. That was about as close as she could come to telling Onassis that, despite her growing respect for Augustus Khumalo, she continued to cherish a few doubts where his purely military insight was concerned. She more than half-expected those doubts to die a natural death in the not too distant future, but until they did, it was one of her responsibilities to be sure he had the very best advice she could provide for him, whether she did the providing in person or by proxy.

            "Very well," she said, checking the time display. "It's about time for lunch. I've asked Vicki and the other skippers and their XOs to join us, and I intend to make it a working meal. I also intend to tell all of them how pleased I am with the readiness state we've managed to attain. We still have a ways to go, but we're in far better shape than we were, and I expect that improvement to continue. And I am well aware that I owe everyone in this compartment a matching vote of thanks for that happy state of affairs. So, all of you, consider yourselves patted on the back."

            Her subordinates smiled at her, and she smiled back, then braced both hands flat on the tabletop as she pushed herself to her feet.

            "And on that note, I think I hear a cob salad calling my name. And since I do, it would only be courteous if I went and let it find me."