AUTHOR'S NOTE: I'll be honest. I had a tough time figuring out how to end this chapter, which is the last of this story arc. Thank goodness for YouTube, since after a quick dose of some of the greatest movie speeches (namely Gene Hackman's in Crimson Tide and Al Pacino's in Scent of a Woman), I finally found what I was looking for. Originally, I was going to have this big final confrontation between Marion Rhialla and Sun-Tzu Liao, but it turned out too Mary Sue and too long, so I deleted it and I'll save that for some other chapter. Funny how things work: this story is supposed to be about Sheila Arla-Vlata, but this particular arc ended up being more about Marion Rhialla. Looks like she's managed to take over her own character! The next arc will be more Sheila-centered, I promise. (It'll also have more 'Mech battles. I apologize for making Snowbird's Interlude a little too talky.)

Just a quick note and a bit of a spoiler, since it won't be mentioned again in the story. There's no real way the FedCom would know that the Clans are planning to attack Vantaa (which is against canon anyway), and therefore no real way to get Sheila and Company off Outreach and to Vantaa to participate in the campaign. So I had to come up with a reason why the FedCom has advance warning, which is the result of a ComStar "leak." In reality (as much as a sci-fi universe can claim that), the leak is coming from no less than Precentor Martial Anastasius Focht. As Lost Destiny tells us, Focht is not completely loyal to the nutbar Primus Myndo Waterly, and so once he has the information that the Clans are going after Vantaa—information, incidentally, passed to him by a "certain someone" in Clan Wolf (not Phelan, but he looks like Sean Connery)—he gives MIIO a little heads up. Focht never struck me as being entirely comfortable with Waterly selling the Inner Sphere down the river, or having a sudden change of heart when he learns the Clans are after Terra. So it stands to reason that, if he saw a way to throw sand in the gears, he'd take it. And it's literary license, so there.

I also figured that the Clans' target being Terra would be no secret to Jaime Wolf, and there was no reason to keep that knowledge from the rest of the Inner Sphere. ComStar ironically is the last to get the word. And the "old dead guy" that Rhialla mentions is Dwight Eisenhower, from his speech to the men going ashore at Normandy on June 6, 1944.

As always, thanks for sticking with me and for the reviews (especially Kat Wylder). I'll have the next story arc (called Snowbird Chained, uh oh) started up hopefully next week. BTW, we're halfway through what I've got planned for the Snowbirds.

Wolf's Dragoons General Headquarters

Harlech, Outreach, Sarna March, Federated Commonwealth

15 May 3051

Duke Samuel Bonner stood behind a podium marked with the Federated Commonwealth's sunburst-and-fist, but he pointedly wore a large tie brooch with the old Steiner fist in it. He was in the middle of a speech, and warming up to a conclusion. "Solaris VII has always been a place where everyone can gather. Not in peace, necessarily…" He paused and flashed a winning grin as the audience laughed. "…but at least common ground. And though our Houses have been at war since the fall of the Star League, the people have always found that common ground. It has usually been in the economic sphere, in trade. And that is what the 194th Annual Solaris Trade Fair is all about: promoting the economic well-being, not just of House Steiner, but all the peoples of the Inner Sphere."

He paused again, this time as polite applause broke out in the cavernous Solaris City Convention Center. When it had died down, he continued. "This year, however, it is different. We do not meet with the knowledge that there is a raid or an attack somewhere along the frontiers, something depressingly common during our lifetimes. No, my friends, this time we meet at a time of war, of true, ugly, pointless war. I refer of course, to the Clans." This time, Bonner was interrupted by murmuring, and it did not sound pleasant. "I hear you," he said, nodding. "I hear you loud and clear. I call it pointless because we, the common people, do not even know why the Clans have come from the Periphery to attack us. They have savaged our brave men and women in the Tamar Pact, and for what? We don't know." His voice dropped an octave. "And what are our House leaders doing? Sitting on Outreach. Making plans. Doing nothing. Have we even asked the Clans what brings them here? Do they have legitimate reasons? Did Hanse Davion offer to marry his son off to one of them, or is he waiting for Theodore Kurita to make an offer?" More laughter. Bonner smiled. "My friends, this is not a place for a soapbox, but I must ask: why don't we talk to the Clans? Isn't that the mistake our fathers and grandfathers made during the Succession Wars? Didn't Katrina Steiner ask in 3022 'What are we fighting for?' I ask that question. If Hanse Davion isn't willing to ask that question, perhaps we should ask it for him." There was scattered applause and cheers, and then the image on the holovid was frozen, by the very man Bonner had been speaking of.

Hanse Davion sighed heavily and rubbed his chest, which was starting to ache again, and then his temples, which had been aching for awhile. Justin Allard looked on sympathetically. "I'd like to say that Bonner is just mouthing off, Highness, but the fact is, at least some of the sentiment he's expressing is shared by the common people. They want to know who the Clans are, and why they're attacking."

Melissa Steiner was the one who answered, and angrily. "I can understand that sentiment," she snapped, "but the fact is, Justin, he's doing more than just expressing the will of the people. He's actively undermining us. He was only on Furillo 48 hours after returning from Outreach before he was already talking about negotiating with the Clans!" She motioned at the holovid. "He couches it in pretty phrases here, but the result is the same: he wants to surrender before we've even properly started fighting!"

"The people are tired—" Justin began.

"I know that," Melissa interrupted him. "We can't just roll over and die for the Clans just because we're tired from fighting each other!"

Hanse put a hand on his wife's arm. Melissa was usually calm and collected; in fact, it was widely accepted that it was she who was a brake on Hanse's ambitions. Yet she could be every bit as fiery as her husband when she had to be. "No one's saying that, my love. We're going to fight, and we're going to win." He nodded at Bonner's image. "What people like him don't understand is, these things take time. Not every war can be like the Fourth Succession War."

"Or the War of '39," Justin added. "You are indeed correct, Archon. Bonner is undermining us. But he's only the tip of the iceberg. Behind him is Ryan Steiner. We've heard rumors—unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, just rumors—that Ryan has considered offering the Clans a separate peace between the Isle of Skye and them. It would complicate things, to say the least." Justin shrugged. "Of course, we have just as unsubstantiated rumors that Ryan's enemies in the Estates General are trying to paint him as an appeaser."

"And Selvin Kelswa?" Melissa asked.

"Kelswa is, for now, firmly in our camp, Archon. The only way he'd sign a separate peace with the Clans is if they offered to leave the worlds lost in the Tamar March. They're not likely to do that, so Kelswa will stand with us, especially as it looks like Tamar is squarely in Clan Wolf's path. He's not going to like the rumors of our nonaggression pact with House Kurita, but he's smart enough to wait until the war's over."

Hanse nodded. "For once, we can count on Kelswa's boneheaded stubborness." He looked at Bonner's image again. "It doesn't surprise me that Ryan is using Bonner as a catspaw. He'll run the peace proposal up the flagpole to see if anyone salutes it. If they don't, then Bonner will be discarded. That doesn't worry me." He reached out and switched off the holovid. "What worries me, Justin, is that we know he met with Romano Liao while he was here."

"He made no secret of it, Highness. Obstensibly, it was to secure a contract for Furillo to export mineral water to a few Liao planets. That part is true, and Romano did agree to it. Bonner has always been an advocate of free trade. His meeting with Romano didn't last longer than ten minutes, that much we know. What we also know, that frankly bothers me, is that she dismissed her guards. That's highly unusual with someone as paranoid as Romano."

"So do we think he's trying to set up a deal with Romano?" Melissa asked.

"It would do him little good. Romano's insane, but she's not completely stupid. Liao troops would never live long enough to reach Furillo or Skye, and the ones that did wouldn't last long. If she offered him something, it wasn't troops, and Bonner's a self-made millionaire—he doesn't need money. I honestly don't know what she could offer." Justin shrugged. "It may be just as simple as a trade pact. I'm sure that they did discuss Free Skye at some point, but Romano's never shown more than a fleeting interest in it."

"Find out, Justin," Hanse said, then softened his tone. "Sorry. You have enough on your plate as it is."

"Not to worry, your Highness," Justin grinned. "We've got a whole office full of people tracking Romano's grandiose schemes."

"Romano can keep. What about the Clan front? How are we doing getting troops up there?"

"It's going well enough," Justin replied. "Naturally, we're stretched to the limit with JumpShip capacity, even with the St. Ives Compact helping. Still, we should have roughly thirty regiments on the line by the end of summer. If Wolf is right, and the main target of the Clan offensive is Terra, we can expect them to make a direct line for it. They'll expand the 'wedge,' as it were, but we can probably expect that wedge to truncate the closer they get to Terra. I think we can rule out a strike towards, say, Adelaide or Hood IV." Justin brought up a map of the Inner Sphere's coreward section and pointed to Twycross and Planting. "If the Clans follow at least typical strategic thinking, they'll want to eliminate our penetrations at these points first. The Smoke Jaguars are already going to have to work around having an enemy in their rear; I doubt the Jade Falcons or the Wolves will be similarly inclined. We can expect the first blows to land in this area."

Hanse nodded, thinking. What he wanted to do was launch a massive counteroffensive, retaking the worlds and showing fools like Bonner that he wasn't merely sitting on Outreach. Unfortunately, given the Clans' superiority in weapons and training, estimates were that he'd need at least fifty regiments to do it, and unless the Clans were kind enough to allow him until the beginning of 3052, he would not get them in time—and even then, it meant dangerously stripping the border garrisons with the other Successor States. Hanse felt he could trust Theodore Kurita, and possibly Thomas Marik. Romano Liao he could and would never trust. So, in the meantime, it meant doing a little bit of typical strategic thinking himself. The cardinal rule in containing offensives like the Clans' was to hold the shoulders, stiffen those, and trade space for time at the front of the penetration. Then, when he had the forces, Hanse could launch an offensive at the base of the penetration and cut the Clans off from presumably their homeworlds. If Kurita did the same, they could meet in the middle. There were two flies in that ointment, though: one was assuming that Kurita would ever be able to muster that strength, as they were already up against the figurative wall. The second was assuming that the AFFC could slow the penetration at all. Looking at the map, Hanse could see that the strategic thing to do was to evacuate Twycross, Planting, Seiduts, and Vantaa, which would shorten the line. Yet to do that would cause an uproar in House Steiner's Estates General, who demanded that the AFFC at least put up a token fight for worlds. It would also cause unrest among the AFFC itself, which had spilled a great deal of blood to retake Twycross and Planting; Hanse, being a soldier himself, knew the old adage that ground fought for took on almost holy significance for those who fought to take it. And in any case, even he had a tough time convincing himself of the need to evacuate two planets, Seiduts and Vantaa, that the invaders hadn't even attacked yet. Then he noticed that Justin was staring at him, holding message sheets in his hand. "I'm sorry, Justin; I wandered off a bit there. You have some evidence that the Clans are going to hit there, then?"

"Yes, Highness…and I have to admit, it's a little strange because of the origins of the message." Justin pointed to the map again, this time at Romulus, which was a Federated Commonwealth world held by the Jade Falcons, and Mozrije, which was a Rasalhagian world held by Clan Wolf. "According to this report, there has been a buildup in supplies and DropShips on these two worlds. It's all the telltale signs of an offensive. However, we're not receiving reports from any other Clan-held world, even those where we still have agents able to transmit, such as Trellwan and Persistence. I even took the liberty of having a chat with one of the ISF people in Theodore Kurita's entourage, and he admitted they had no signs of movement from the Ghost Bears or the Smoke Jaguars, at all."

Hanse rubbed his chin. "A limited offensive then, to clear the Twycross or Planting salients. Or both." A sudden thought struck him. "Or neither. Justin, as I recall, most of our strength in that sector is concentrated at Vantaa."

"Yes, Highness. Two battalions of the 10th Donegal Guards; Alpha and Bravo Battalions of the 12th Star Guards' 3rd Regiment; and the three battalions of the Sentinels, all under Marshal Sarah Steiner's command. All three units are refitting from losses taken in the first offensive, or the Planting operation. Calla Bighorn-Vlata theoretically has four battalions, since he recently concluded a deal with the mercenary 719th Striker Regiment to merge the two units under the Sentinel banner, but those battalions are very understrength. The 719th got manhandled on Steelton in the first wave."

"Still, understrength or not, that's the better part of three regiments there, not counting supporting units. We've only got one regiment each holding Twycross and Planting at this point." Hanse leaned forward. "Justin, if I was the Clan commander, I'd hit there. It's what our old friend Clausewitz called the schwerpunkt, the decisive point."

"I concur, Highness."

"Why was the origin of the message strange, Justin?" Melissa asked.

"Because it didn't originate with any known agents we had on Romulus or Mozrije. In fact, we've never had agents on Mozrije, because it was a rather minor world in Rasalhague space. I can accept that perhaps we're hearing from a newly formed resistance movement on Romulus, but why would a Rasalhagian unit on Mozrije transmit to the AFFC, using proper codes?" Justin shook his head. "No, all evidence points that the source was or is in ComStar."

"That could make sense," Melissa said. "Just because we've evidence that ComStar is at least passively working with the Clans doesn't mean that all the Precentors are going along with whatever ridiculousness Myndo Waterly has come up with."

"Again, Archon, I concur. It wouldn't be the first time, either. We've been monitoring a lot of coded traffic between ComGuard units behind the Clan lines and the Precentor Martial's office on Terra. What we can read shows that there are a lot of ComGuards who want to know why they aren't teaming up with AFFC, Kungsarme, or DCMS units to resist the Clans. Unfortunately, we don't know what the Precentor Martial is replying—or even where he is. He was spotted on Terra a month ago, but that was the first time he was spotted in over a year, almost two."

"We'll worry about him later as well," Hanse said. "In the meantime, we'd better let Sarah know she's most likely next on the hit parade, as it were." He paused, remembering. "And we'd also better order Sheila Arla-Vlata and her people back to Vantaa. Calla will need all his battalion commanders. I'd like to leave them here on Outreach, but I see no choice." Hanse smiled without humor. "Justin, let Jaime Wolf know—and tell him I want to host a dinner tonight for the Snowbirds. We might as well send them off with a full belly."

Sheila gave her uniform another tug to straighten an almost invisible wrinkle, then settled the powder blue cape around her shoulders. She fastened it, then realized her hair was caught up in the cape. With a growl, she pulled her hair free, only to have it become unraveled from where it was caught at the nape of her neck. "Oh, dammit!" she exclaimed in frustration.

Max, who had gotten his own cape on, walked over and, fending off Sheila's hands, tightened the simple clasp that held the ponytail together. "How's that?"

"Fine," she said grumpily.


"A little. I mean, it's not every day you get a dinner party thrown in your honor by Hanse Davion." She blew out her breath. "Bad enough we get orders to rejoin the regiment before the training's finished, since that can only mean we're going back into the shit. It's worse to have to simply hobnob with a bunch of nobles before you go." She shook her head. "And I hate long goodbyes. It feels too much like a last supper for the condemned or something."

"Let's try to have fun."

"Yeah, right." She held up her hands. "Look at that. Shaking like a damn leaf. I don't shake this bad when people are shooting at me."

Max mischeviously kissed her neck. "I could calm you down, you know." He kissed his way up to her ear.

Sheila felt a wonderful tingle go from her head to her toes and settle somewhere below her stomach. "Don't," she whispered. "It took me the better part of an hour to get everything right."

"And it'll take the better part of five minutes to get it off."

Sheila was tempted, very much so, but turned around and kissed Max's nose. "You horny bastard."

"Won't deny it. I told you that women in uniform turn me on."

There was a knock at the door. "Hey, lovebirds," came Tooriu Kku's voice. "We're gonna be late."

Sheila and Max sighed at the same time. "Saved by the bell," Sheila said, then winked at her husband. "Looks like you'll have to take a rain check there."

"I'll hold you to it," he grinned back. "Shall we?" He formally bowed and took her hand.

Dinner proved to be much better than either had anticipated. For one thing, the Liao contingent had ignored the invitation, though Marik had sent his highest ranking officer present on Outreach, Maria Zuritas. With Sun-Tzu gone, the atmosphere was much more collegial, even informal. Sheila was surprised to see Hanse Davion and Theodore Kurita chatting amiably in the company of Jaime Wolf, but even more surprising was Victor Steiner-Davion and Hohiro Kurita. They were not exactly chummy, but neither were they attempting to one-up the other, and even seemed to be engaged in friendly conversation. Hohiro still bristled when Victor spoke to Omi Kurita briefly, but such an occurrence would have led to a fight only a few weeks earlier. Kai seemed to be out of his shell without his cousin around, and Cassandra was her usual affable self. As they sat down to dinner, Ragnar insisted on formally seating Marion Rhialla. In recent simulations, Ragnar had at last earned the right to be called "Mister Magnusson" with respect rather than derision; it was clear that his dislike for Marion had become genuine affection, and even a little bit of heroine worship.

The dinner itself was punctuated with a few notable occurrences. First of all, Sheila and Max had been sat to the right of the dinner's host, Hanse Davion; the symbology was not lost on them or anyone else. Dinner was heroic and excellent, as apparently Wolf's Dragoons' elite status extended to their cooks. The nobles had no trouble with what silverware was appropriate and what the dining-in etiquette was, but the mercenaries had to learn as they went. This resulted in Elfa Brownoak nearly flinging her beef Wellington into the lap of Justin Allard, and Tooriu Kku inadvertently letting loose a stentorian belch that silenced all conversation for a moment. Without missing a beat, Tooriu merely looked around and expressed his admiration of the chef. "On my world, that's how we thank them," he said, which brought knowing nods and a few chuckles. Sheila covered her mouth with her napkin, knowing that Tooriu hadn't been to his homeworld of Tukayyid since he was three and knew next to nothing about it.

Once dinner was finished, Hanse Davion stood and proposed the first of the traditional toasts, to the colors—in this case, his own realm's, then Wolf's Dragoons, and then to the other Houses represented—all but House Liao, to which Zuritas did not object. As per the ritual, Theodore Kurita then stood and proposed a toast to Hanse Davion, followed by a toast to Jaime Wolf. When he had sat down, Jaime stood and proposed the last of the formal toasts: that to the honored dead, represented by an empty chair at the far end of the table. Unlike the other toasts, this was drank with water. Sheila noticed that most of those present, including herself, only took a small sip of wine in response to the toasts, but Marion Rhialla knocked down her wine and had her glass refilled. She began to worry, as Elfa had mentioned that Marion had gotten there early and started drinking immediately. It was hard to tell when Marion got well and truly tight, but the last thing Sheila wanted or needed was a scene. Still, since neither Romano nor Sun-Tzu Liao were there, the possibility was remote.

When the formal toasts were finished, Victor Steiner-Davion stood. "When we began this training," he said, "I wasn't so naïve to think I knew everything, but neither did I think such a diverse group of people could be forged into a unified weapon. We still have a ways to go—" he glanced at Hohiro Kurita "—but we're getting there. I'm quite saddened to see Sheila and her Snowbirds leave, though I recognize the need. She took on a great deal of responsibility and even, you might say, risked her reputation and possibly her life to teach a bunch of upstart royals how to survive." Victor paused, then shook his head. "No, that's not right. She helped teach us how to win. And though I might have won the last few simulator battles just a bit…" There were scattered laughs at that; Victor had twice ambushed Sheila and wrecked her Shruiken with AC/20 fire. "Despite all that, despite all the rough spots of a job I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, she stuck with it." Victor raised his wineglass, followed by all the others. "To Lieutenant Commander Sheila Arla-Vlata: our comrade and, most importantly, our friend."

"To the Lieutenant Commander," the others intoned. Sheila turned deep red and wondered if anyone would mind terribly if she passed out. Never in her wildest dreams did she think she would be toasted by the most powerful people in the Inner Sphere, but here she was.

Max took her hand and whispered, too low for anyone but her to hear, "You've come a long way, babe."

Once they had drank, they began to sit again, but Kai Allard-Liao cleared his throat. "If the Chair does not mind…"

Hanse nodded. "The Chair recognizes Major Allard-Liao."

"Thank you, sir." Kai looked around. "A few weeks ago, I was the center of a brief circle of compliments—what Lance Commander Rhialla called a 'digusting round-robin." He paused as the table erupted once more in laughter. "I was told I was one of the best MechWarriors in the Inner Sphere." Kai shook his head. "Well, that's debatable, but we'll leave it for some other time. In any case, Victor told me, 'We're glad you're on our side.' Maybe so. But I tell you, having been on the receiving end of the Snowbirds, I am glad that they are on our side. So…to the Snowbirds."

"To the Snowbirds!" everyone said.

"Hell yeah," Tooriu almost shouted, which brought more laughter.

Next it was Hohiro Kurita who asked to be recognized. "I echo Prince Victor's remarks towards Commander Arla-Vlata, and I thank my friend Major Allard-Liao for proposing a toast I had hoped to make." That shocked Sheila: not only was Kai suddenly Hohiro's friend, but he had noticeably and undoubtedly purposely left the Lieutenant off of her rank. "Certainly all the Snowbirds have given their utmost to our training, but I do not think they will mind if I recognize two certain individuals for going above and beyond the call of duty.

"When I came here," Hohiro continued, "I had seen combat on Turtle Bay and Wolcott, so I did not consider myself inexperienced. However…as my father would probably agree…" Hohiro smiled at Theodore "…I would say that I lacked humility. We as buso-senshi, what we Kuritans call MechWarriors, tend to identify with our 'Mechs and believe ourselves above the world. To a certain extent, that is true: we obey a higher calling. Yet we tend to forget that, unlike our 'Mechs, we are not twenty feet tall. Sometimes, it is good to be reminded of that fact, and it is infinitely better to be reminded of that by a friend rather than an enemy." Hohiro reached into a pocket, and took out an embroidered silk handkerchief. "In Roman times, I am told, a conquering hero would have someone placed in his chariot to remind that hero that he was still mortal." He handed the kerchief to Ragnar. "Please hand this to MechWarrior Maysa Bari, Prince Magnusson—who is that someone to our little group." Hohiro's smile widened as Maysa's look of terror grew. "MechWarrior Bari, this is what the Davions refer to as a 'preemptive strike.'" He raised his glass. "To Buso-senshi Maysa Bari."

The toast was repeated, and sure enough, Maysa began dabbing at her eyes. "If I may beg one more toast," Hohiro said. "I had forgotten something my parents and my line had attempted to instill in me since my birth: that the meaning of samurai is 'he who serves.' Too often, because of the circumstances of our lives, we who hold power and formal titles tend to forget that it is we who serve our nation, not the other way around. My buso-senshi may be willing to die for me, but it is I who must be willing to lead them and set an example. And though I would not put it in quite the same, ah, method as she would, Lance Commander Rhialla has stated on several occasions that we nobles bleed red and put on our pants one leg at a time as anyone else, high-born or low-born. May we never, never forget that." Once more, he raised his glass. "To Rhialla Marion-sama. Keirei!" He bowed low to her, keeping the glass level, giving her the Japanese word for salute and adding the honorific for a higher lord. The royals and the Snowbirds quickly aped Hohiro's motion, repeated a moment later by the others, though not nearly as low.

Once the toast was drunk, everyone sat, but Elfa, with a devilish grin at Marion, yelled "Speech! Speech!" It was quickly taken up by the rest of the table. Marion actually turned red and shook her head, but finally she straightened up. "Okay, fine, fine," she said, weaving slightly. "I'm just drunk enough to accept, Elfa."

Marion looked around and her eyes settled on Sheila. "I know what Sheila's thinking right now: how she's being toasted by the ruler of the Federated Commonwealth, the Draconis Combine, the Free Rasalhague Republic, and the second best mercenary unit in the Inner Sphere." That brought guffaws, led by Jaime Wolf; there was no doubt who Marion thought the best was. "Well, I'll add myself to that list. If someone had ever told me I'd be toasted by the Fox and the Dragon, I'd have told them that the only one who was toasted was them, and not in the formal military-approved fashion." More laughter, and Marion let it die before continuing. "I guess it's not bad for the daughter of a Bellatrix coal miner and someone who has a price on her head courtesy of the Capellan Confederation. And Mister Kurita…" they shared a smile at that "…I thank your for your words from the bottom of my heart, which I assure you I do have. In fact, I might even cry, if Maysa wasn't crying for the two of us. If you hadn't said that you learned humility from me, Mister Kurita, I'd say my training was wasted. If you, Mister Steiner-Davion, hadn't said you had learned how to win, I'd say the training was wasted as well. Since you did learn, we succeeded to this point…though I'm sure my good friend MacKenzie Wolf will finish out the training as well as I could.

"So, if Prince Davion will permit me to ramble on a little, let me leave you with one last piece of advice." She took a quick drink. "What I and the others have given you is the second most precious thing anyone can give you in this life, save for life itself in the form of a child. We have given you our experience—experience paid for in the blood of our comrades." She nodded towards the empty chair. "I heard Mister Allard-Liao say a week or two ago, in that ridiculous trial of Chancellor Liao's, that the blood of the men who died in the Great Gash was on his hands. To that I say, and the chair will forgive me, bullshit. The only way the blood of those men is on anyone's hands—Mister Allard-Liao's, Sheila's, mine, Kanrei Kurita's, or Prince Davion's—is if we do not learn from their example and benefit from their sacrifice. Otherwise, they truly were murdered rather than simply killed.

"We pilot BattleMechs. They are the most lethal killing machines devised by mankind next to thermonuclear weapons. In one 'Mech, we have the combined firepower of some small nations a thousand years ago; certainly more firepower than in the entire Terran world combined two thousand years ago. But it is not the 'Mech that means anything, despite what the public thinks. It is the man, or the woman inside it."

Marion paused and bit her lip a little. "Now I'd better wrap this up, before I start blubbering and need Maysa's hankie. And remember that I'm drunk. You'll never see me this fucking eloquent sober, I assure you. As I said, it is the man or the woman that counts in the machine. During all that training, I called you royals all kinds of nasty names, made fun of your parentage, and generally tried to make you feel as low as a snake's ass. Well, not any longer." She picked up her glass, prompting the others to stand. "Today, I call you Prince Victor Steiner-Davion, Prince Hohiro Kurita, Prince Kai Allard-Liao, Prince Ragnar Magnusson, Chu-sa Shin Yodama, Kommandant Galen Cox, Lady Cassandra Allard-Liao, Major Max Canis-Vlata, Lieutenant Commander Sheila Arla-Vlata." She raised the glass. "To quote some old dead guy, the eyes of the world are upon you, the hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. To all of you, my brothers and sisters in all but blood: charge your glasses high." She paused just for a second as she raised the glass to her lips. "And to hell with the Clans!"

"Amen!" Tooriu sang out.

"Amen," everyone repeated.