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Rain beat on the double-paned window, and the crackling fire behind Hamish Alexander, Earl of White Haven, danced as wind sucked over the chimney top. It was an archaic, even a barbaric, way to heat a room, but then, that wasn't the real reason it had been lit. The dreary chill of an early winter not yet ready for snow had settled over White Haven, seeping into bones and spirits, and the bright, popping hiss of an open fire still worked the ancient magic at need.

The thirteenth earl leaned back in the oversized wooden chair built to the eleventh earl's special orders and studied his guest. Sir James Bowie Webster, First Space Lord of the Manticoran Admiralty, wore the black and gold of a fleet admiral, but White Haven was in mufti.

"So it's official, is it?"

"Yep." Webster sipped hot coffee, then shrugged. "Can't say he's the man I'd have chosen, but my tenure ends in two months."

White Haven gave a little grimace but nodded. It was irritating, to say the least, when someone with Webster's talent had to step down as First Space Lord, but given the long careers the prolong anti-aging treatments produced, the Navy had long ago developed a policy of rotating its senior admirals regularly to keep them current with operational realities.

Webster grinned at his friend's expression, but his eyes were serious as he continued. "Someone has to replace me, and whatever else he may be, Caparelli's got a backbone. That may be important in the next year or so."

"A real thick backbone—to match the one in his head," White Haven muttered, and Webster snorted.

"You still haven't forgiven him for kicking your ass all over the soccer field at Saganami Island, have you?" he challenged.

"Why should I?" White Haven demanded with a gleam of humor. "It was a classic example of brute force over technique, and you know it."

"Besides, it pisses you off to lose."

"And it pisses me off to lose," the earl agreed wryly, then shrugged. "Well, as you say, he's got guts. And at least he won't have to put up with Janacek."

"Amen," Webster said fervently. The recently replaced civilian head of the Navy was very low on both officers' lists of favorite people.

"But," White Haven went on after a moment, "somehow I don't think you came all the way out here just to tell me Cromarty and Baroness Morncreek have picked Caparelli."

"Perceptive as usual." Webster set his cup aside and leaned forward, bracing his forearms on his knees. "The fact is, Lucien Cortez is staying on as Fifth Space Lord, but Caparelli's going to want to put his own personnel policies in place, and I'm here to get your input before I sign a few midnight command assignments." He waved a hand at White Haven's raised eyebrow. "Oh, it's his prerogative to make his own personnel decisions. I certainly wanted the same thing when I took over. But he's going to be feeling his way into things for a couple of months. Given the current situation in the PRH, I want him to have a solid team in the field during the transition."

"Makes sense," White Haven acknowledged.

"Glad you think so. At any rate, I'm fairly comfortable that I've got all the round pegs in the round little holes . . . with a few exceptions."

"Such as?"

"Hancock Station's the most important one. That's why I wanted to talk to you," Webster said, and White Haven grunted in understanding, for he had just returned from an inspection tour of the Royal Manticoran Navy's newest and, just possibly, most critical Fleet station.

The Hancock System's barren red dwarf had absolutely nothing to recommend it . . . except its location. It lay directly to galactic north of Manticore, ideally placed as an advanced picket for the systems of Yorik, Zanzibar, and Alizon, all members of the Kingdom's anti-Haven alliance. Perhaps more to the point, it was less than ten light-years from the Seaford Nine System, and Seaford Nine was one of the People's Republic of Haven's largest frontier bases. Which was very interesting, since Haven had absolutely nothing worth protecting within a good fifty light-years of it.

"Leave it to Mark Sarnow," the earl said, and Webster groaned.

"Damn it, I knew you were going to say that! He's too junior, and we both know it!"

"Junior or not, he's also the man who talked Alizon into signing up with the Alliance," White Haven countered, "not to mention having set Hancock up in the first place. And if you've read my report, you know what kind of job he's been doing out there."

"I'm not questioning his competence, only his seniority," Webster shot back. "No one admires the job he's done more than I do, but now that the yard facilities are coming on-line we're upgrading the station to a full task force. That means we need at least a vice admiral out there, and if I put a rear admiral—and a rear admiral of the red, at that!—in command, I'll have a mutiny on my hands."

"Then promote him."

"Lucien already bumped him from commodore at least two years early." Webster shook his head. "No, forget it, Hamish. Sarnow's good, but he just doesn't have the seniority for it."

"So who are you thinking of putting in?" White Haven demanded, then paused with an arrested expression. "Oh, no, Jim! Not me!"

"No." Webster sighed. "Mind you, there's no one I'd rather have out there, but even with the upgrade, it's only a vice admiral's slot. Besides, I want you closer to home if the fecal matter hits the rotary air impeller. No, I was thinking about Yancey Parks."

"Parks?" One of the earl's mobile eyebrows rose in surprise.

"He's almost as good a strategist as you are, and he's one hell of an organizer," Webster pointed out.

"Why do you sound like you're trying to convince yourself of that?" White Haven asked with a small smile, and Webster snorted.

"I'm not. I'm trying to convince you to agree with me."

"I don't know, Jim. . . ." The earl rose, clasping his hands behind him, to take a quick turn around his study. He gazed out into the wet night for a moment, then wheeled to stare down at the crackling flames.

"The thing that worries me," he said without turning his head, "is that Yancey's too much of a thinker."

"Since when has that been a liability? Weren't you just objecting to Caparelli because he's not one?"

"Touché," White Haven murmured with a chuckle.

"Not only that, he's been working with BuPlan on the general buildup in the sector. He knows it backward and forward, and the first priority has to be getting Hancock fully operational."

"That's true." The earl frowned down into the fire, then shook his head. "I don't know, Jim," he repeated. "There's just something about the idea that . . . bothers me." His hands fisted and opened behind him a time or two, then he wheeled to face the First Space Lord. "Maybe it's just that he doesn't have enough fire in his belly. I know he's got guts, but he second-guesses himself. Oh, he's got good strategic instincts when he listens to them, but sometimes he over-analyzes himself right into indecision."

"I think an analyst may be exactly what we need," Webster argued, and White Haven frowned a moment longer, then snorted.

"Tell you what—give him Sarnow as a squadron commander, and I'll give you my blessings."

"Blackmail!" Webster grumbled around a grin.

"So don't pay. You don't really need my approval, Your Lordship."

"True." Webster rubbed his craggy chin, then gave a sharp nod. "Done!" he said crisply.

"Good." The earl smiled and sat back down behind his desk before going on in an unnaturally casual tone. "By the way, Jim, there was something else I'd like to speak to you about while you're here."

"Oh?" Webster sipped coffee, regarding his friend levelly over the cup's rim, then lowered it. "What might that be? No—let me guess. It wouldn't be your newest protégée, Captain Harrington, would it?"

"I'd hardly call her that," White Haven objected.

"Oh? Then it must have been someone else who's been badgering Lucien and me to get her back into space," Webster said ironically

"She was Raoul's protégée, not mine. I simply happen to think she's one hell of an outstanding officer."

"Who happens to have gotten herself shot up so badly it's taken a T-year or so to put her back together."

"Oh, for God's sake!" White Haven snorted. "I haven't been monitoring her medical condition, but I've met the woman. She beat the hell out of a Peep battlecruiser that out-massed her damn nearly three-to-one after she'd been wounded! And I also know a bit about traumatic injuries, thank you." His mouth tightened, then he shook himself. "If she isn't back at a hundred percent physically by now, I'll eat my beret!"

"I can't argue with you there," Webster said pacifically, but behind his calm eyes he was surprised by the genuine anger in the earl's voice. "And as you're perfectly well aware, it's BuMed that's been throwing up the 'hold' signals. I want her back in space, Lucien wants her back in space, and you want her back in space, but they're concerned about the possibility of putting her back too quickly. They just think she may need more time."

"Get her back up on the horse, Jim," White Haven said impatiently.

"And if the Commanding Officers Board has a few reservations?"

"Reservations?!" White Haven half rose, and his eyes were dangerous.

"Will you please sit down and quit looking like you want to assault me?" Webster said with some asperity. The earl blinked, as if only then aware of his own expression, and twitched his shoulders. Then he resumed his seat and crossed his legs with a faint smile.

"Thank you," the First Space Lord said. "Look, Hamish, it's the psycho-babblers who're worried about her." White Haven started to say something quick and angry, but a raised hand stopped him. "Just hold your horses, will you?" Webster waited for his friend to settle back again, then continued.

"As you know perfectly well, even Lucien and I have to have a damned compelling case before we can override BuMed, especially for commanding officers, and Harrington's had a rough convalescence. I don't have all the details, but there were some fairly serious complications with her treatment, and as you yourself just said, you know better than I do how that can wear someone down."

He paused, holding the earl's eyes steadily, and White Haven's face tightened. His own wife had been a near-total invalid for years, and he bit his lip for a moment before he nodded.

"All right. From what I can make out, all the complications and therapy had her pretty low for a while, but she's bouncing back from that. What worries the psych types is all the people she lost in Grayson. Then there's Raoul. He was damned near a second father to her, from all I can make out, and he died when she wasn't even there. There's a lot of room for pain—and guilt—in something like that, Hamish, and she hasn't exactly been forthcoming in discussing it with anyone."

White Haven started to reply, then frowned. Harrington had lost nine hundred dead, with another three hundred wounded, stopping the battlecruiser Saladin, and he remembered the anguish he'd seen in her face when her defenses crumbled for just one moment.

"What do the evaluations show?" he asked after a moment.

"They're within acceptable limits. But don't forget her treecat," Webster said, then snorted. "BuMed certainly hasn't! I got a long, involved memo from Captain Harding about how that telempathic link can throw the testing parameters out of kilter."

"But it might also explain why she hasn't cried on the psychs' shoulders, too," White Haven said thoughtfully. "And without doubting Harding's sincerity for a moment, you know the head-shrinkers have never been happy about their inability to figure out just how that link works. But even they have to admit it can be a powerful stabilizing influence, and she's as stubborn as they come. If she can fight her way through something on her own, there's no way she's going to ask for help."

"Granted, but BuMed doesn't want to put her in a situation where she has to make the same sorts of decisions if she's hanging by her fingernails out of stubbornness. Too many lives could depend on her judgment—and putting her in that sort of crunch situation would be totally unfair to her, too."

"Agreed." White Haven plucked at his lip, then shook his head. "It's not going to happen, though. She's stubborn, yes, but she's not stupid, and I don't think she even knows how to lie to herself. If she were in real trouble, she'd tell us. Besides, both her parents are doctors, aren't they?"

"Yes." Webster's surprise that White Haven knew that showed in his voice. "In fact, her father's been in charge of her treatment. Why?"

"Because that means they're probably as aware of the potential for problems as BuPsych, and if there were one, they'd push her into getting help. People who raised a daughter like that don't lie to themselves, either. And unlike Harding, they've known her—and her relationship with the 'cat—since she was a child, now haven't they?"

"True," Webster agreed, and White Haven raised an eyebrow as he saw the First Lord's small smile.

"Something funny?" he growled, and Webster shook his head.

"No, no. Just go on with what you were saying."

"There's not a lot more to say. She's an outstanding officer who needs to get a deck back under her feet again, and BuMed is full of crap if they think she can't handle it." White Haven snorted derisively. "If they're so worried about her, why don't you give her something fairly sedate to ease back into command?"

"Well, you know, Lucien and I considered that," Webster said slowly, "but we decided against it." White Haven stiffened, and his friend looked back levelly for several seconds, then startled him with a rolling belly laugh. "Oh, hell, Hamish! You're too damned easy!"

"What?" White Haven blinked in confusion, then frowned. "What d'you mean, 'easy'?" he growled, and Webster shook his head and grinned.

"Put Harrington into something 'sedate'? Lord, she'd be chewing the bulkheads inside a week!" He laughed again at the earl's expression and leaned back in his chair. "Sorry," he said, not sounding particularly sorry, "but I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to twist your tail after all the grief you've given me over her. As a matter of fact, Lucien and I, um, overruled BuMed while you were out at Hancock. We figure she's up to snuff whatever the psycho-babblers think, so we're throwing her right back into the deep end."

"Deep end?"

"Indeed. We gave her Nike last week."

"Nike?" White Haven sat bolt upright, jaw dropping, then recovered and glared at his friend. "You bastard! Why didn't you just tell me?!"

"I told you you're too easy." Webster chuckled. "Got a bit of a God complex when it comes to faith in your own judgment, too." He cocked an eyebrow. "What made you assume I didn't share your opinion of her?"

"But last month you said—"

"I said we had to go through channels, and we did. Now we've done it. But it was certainly worth it to see you hot and bothered."

"I see." White Haven leaned back in his own chair, and his lips quivered. "All right, so you put one over on me. Next time it's my turn."

"I await the event with trepidation," Webster said dryly.

"Good, because I'm going to catch you when you least expect it." The earl tugged at an earlobe for a moment, then snorted. "But since you're putting her back on a bridge, why not—"

"You never quit, do you?" Webster demanded. "I've just given her the plum command slot in the entire Fleet! What more d'you want from me?"

"Calmly, Jim. Calmly! I was just going to say, why don't you send Nike out to Hancock Station as Sarnow's flagship when she commissions?"

Webster started to reply, then stopped with an arrested expression. He played with his coffee cup for a moment, and then he began to grin.

"You know, you might just have something there. Lord, won't all our other junior flag officers just howl if Sarnow cops Nike!"

"Of course they will, but that wasn't my point. I assume that the fact that you're giving Harrington Nike means that despite your 'tail twisting' you share my estimate of her capabilities?"

"Of course I do. She needs more seasoning before we start talking about flag rank, but she's definitely on the fast track."

"Well, she could learn a lot from Sarnow, and the two of them'd get along like a house on fire," White Haven said. "More than that, frankly, I'd feel a lot better if Parks had a pair like them to keep him on his toes."

"Um. I think I like it," Webster said slowly. "Of course, Yancey will have a fit. You know what a stickler for protocol and proper military courtesy he is. The way Harrington busted that asshole Houseman's chops in Yeltsin is probably going to stick in his craw."

"Let it. It'll be good for him, in the long run."

"All right, Hamish." The First Lord nodded crisply. "I'll do it. And I only wish I could be there to see Yancey's face when he finds out!"


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