Chapter 1: Tests of Ability

The bridge of the battlecruiser RMN Audacious really did not look that different from the captain's chair, Sheila tried to tell herself. She kept herself looking calm and totally in charge as she commanded the damaged ship back to Manticore. The third watch was quite calm as they approached the hyperlimit of the binary star, the tactical officer overseeing everything. (They had found that she seemed to have eyes in the back of her head, so they had fallen into the habit of not slacking off whenever she was on duty. Or at least slacking off too much, at any rate.)

'Too much stinky metal,' Voracious Curiosity sent from her perch on the left shoulder of her person. Her ears flicked to show she was in a humorous mood.

Sheila's eyes flickered over to the treecat only inches from her eyes with hidden humor. 'Of course. There isn't enough wood on Sphinx to make even a single battlecruiser.' "Lt. Masters, would you be so kind as to inform Captain Danvers and the XO that we will be approaching our hyperspace translation in thirty minutes?"

The junior officer of forty T-years of the Audacious nodded. "Yes, sir!" He trotted out of the bridge at a decent speed, radiating tightly controlled mental anger at the younger officer that was already a higher rank than him.

Ever since she had bonded with the scion treecat, Sheila had been discovering that she was becoming quite adept at picking up emotions in greater facility. And perhaps more, but she did not really have any close confidants that she could use to practice telepathy on other than VC. And that was rather redundant as the treecat already was an active telepath and empath.

Captain Senior Grade Tammy Danvers stepped onto her bridge, prompting Sheila to stand up instantly. "At ease, Lt. Commander. I think you can handle the translation down to real space."

Ah, a test.

'She tests you a lot,' VC noted telepathically, 'but at least she does not hate you.'

Sheila nodded ever so slightly and sent an acknowledgement of that point back her the eighteen T-month old treecat. "Certainly, captain. As you please." As a matter of fact, Danvers had tested her on everything and anything to do with commanding a queen's ship. She had a suspicion on why.

The minutes ticked down as they approached the translation point. They bled off a modicum of speed, but Sheila dropped them pretty hard through the different hyperspace barriers. The Audacious was a warship, after all. And while it was not a crash translation, it was not far off.

In a burst of energy, three-quarters of a kilometer of armored battleship appears back in normal space.

"Ready for FTL challenge?" Sheila called out to her tactical team as Astrogation chimed out the switchover from sails to impeller propulsion.

"Received and decoded," came Ensign's Garmin reply.

Even from just two years ago, the system had been greatly improved. Then, when Captain Harrington had deployed it in the Yeltsin system, it had been a fairly crude system and only able handle very short pulses that took an actual second to generate. The new systems could actually handle about five pulses a second without an acceleration penalty. For ship to ship communication, you could just flutter the edged of your wedge at the cost of five percent of your speed. The effective 'bandwidth' of that sort of communication was actually in millions of pulses a minute. Not recommended for full combat for the most part.

"Manticore System Command directs us to dock at HMSS Hepheastus," Garmin called out. "We've got our docking slip ready."

"Lt. Eivers?" Sheila called out in a cool voice.

"Course is plotted, commander," came George Eivers called out.

"File the flight plan and await SysCom's approval. Then engage at your leisure." Sheila studied the masses of impeller wedges moving to the terminus point and the inner system traffic near the asteroid and two inhabited planets.

'Home!' VC exclaimed excitedly. 'You promised to take me visiting mama!' The treecat was reading the display, though most of the information was above her understanding quite yet. But she had picked up the mental concept of 'Sphinx' from Sheila as she was reading the display.

Sheila sent a non-specific assurance on that even as she continued to crisply give out orders. It would only be three hours until Audacious slipped into its docking slip to repair it battle damage from Sharon's Star. The battered battlecruiser was in a sad state, with most of its port flank a ruin of shattered armor and weapons.

The door to Sheila's new house opened smoothly, letting VC streak in and start to explore the spartanly furnished four-bedroom stone rambler. Sheila followed more slowly, her luggage on a tow line behind her. Her eyes studied the curving slopes of grass that led to a short range of trees at the top of the ridge.

Her nearest neighbor was a good kilometer away and protected from any bombs that might go off by the small valley they were in. Sheila pursed her lips in frustration from when she had found out that Queen Elizabeth's security detail had been alerted to an intruder in her house from her self-improved security system at her old apartment. The bomb squad from Landing had managed to disable the incredibly explosive bomb that had been left for her homecoming. Living in public housing was no longer viable or safe for those around her.

This home had an even higher level of security, improved by her burgeoning and increasing intelligence. And the ability to bend physics when creating items, of course. The remotes here were almost sentient, whisking her luggage away.

The holotank lit up, switching to the local news. It appeared that the whole planet was still in an uproar over Harrington's killing of the younger son of the Earl North Hollow. The Young clan had its revenge, as the newsies reported that Honor had retired to Grayson and her Steading on half-pay from the navy.

The news muted as a call came in. "Sheila!" Daria Gold exclaimed as she actually got through. "I thought I heard your ship had come in."

"Hello, Daria. Made lieutenant? Very nice," the blonde demigoddess said with a soft smile as she sat down for the first time on her couch.

"My work on Vulcan seems to be paying off. I'm actually helping oversee the construction of a super-dreadnought." She gave a wide grin. "I heard from the grapevine that it's your improved inertial compensator that we are putting into production here."

"Stage 2 or Stage 3?" she asked curiously, double-checking the secure link. She was coming in on the interplanetary FTL link? Interesting, there was barely any lag as she calculated how far they were. Only about fort-five light seconds apart, after all.

"They are actually thinking of going all the way to Stage 4. That might raise a few eyebrows," Daria said with a snicker. Her physical aging had her look like a young fifteen instead of her true age of twenty-two.

Which was still better than Sheila's apparent 'stuck' age of twelve. She was just lucky she had been tall for her age.

But at least it was quite nice to catch up on her first friend from the Academy.

Stage 4 compensators was actually a twenty-five percent increase in acceleration, so quite potent. Super-dreadnoughts faster than most navies destroyers definitely would catch a lot of people's attention. It was too bad that the fleet was not getting fully upgraded yet, as they were not able to apply the new technology to all of the ships. There were at least another two stages of improvements, but there were physical manufacturing problems. That did not even count the Manticorian Hyperdrive yet, still a closely held secret though the People's Republic was starting to notice that Manticorian fleets were sometimes arriving much faster than expected.

Sheila and Daria were just catching up about the two Treecat siblings when a priority message appeared. "Daria? It looks like I have a priority message from the Admiralty. Catch up to you later?"

"I'll send you when I'll be in Landing next week, how's that?" Daria disconnected at Sheila's nod.

Sheila snapped to attention when First Space Lord Admiral of the Green Sir Thomas Caparelli appeared on her screen.

"At ease, commander. I'm just informing about your hearing in front of the House of Lords tomorrow. It should be perfectly standard, but I'm hearing some noises from the Opposition, so do be prepared to be grilled. The queen let me know this personally." The stocky admiral was starting to show worry lines.

Sheila narrowed her eyes as she realized that there was something larger going on. "Of course, sir. Is there anything else I should be aware of?"

"The old Earl of North Hollow is very upset with the military. He can't do anything directly to Harrington at this point, but he is 'punishing' us for our failure in stopping her from dueling with his son. I don't know how likely he is to try and block your out of zone promotion, but the rumors I'm hearing are unpleasant. Even if you never served directly under Harrington," Caparelli said ominously.

"Yes, sir." There really was nothing she could do other than to fret.

Sheila was sitting at the foot of the witness's table as the session was called into order. The rows of nobles on both sides of the room were quite full, much to her surprise. After all, there was only light business being brought up about purely functionary duties. She was quite aware that she was merely one among the dozen of officers being promoted 'out of zone'. Up above along the top and bottom of the balconies, news reporters and visitors were seated.

She did have to admit, she was probably the youngest ever, but she did have her own advantages. But it was probably a good idea that VC was not here. Hiding a wry grin, she noted that she was the only officer currently here in case she was called upon to testify. The speaker was dispensing his duties, hiding his stress quite clearly as he worked down the list.

Finally the speaker called out the first name of a young officer that was being promoted out of zone, going to full captain a good three years early. The debate was short and to the point, as he was promoted to fill a dead man's boots. Moving on, they now brought up her own promotion.

"A summary of the promotions for Lt. Commander Lady Manticoria a full four years in advance of regulation 'in service'. Does anyone wish to examine the officers jacket before we go over the requested promotion?" Baron Silverthorn asked of the nobles.

One of the Conservative Association piped up immediately. "This is pure favoritism! She is far too young for the duties of commanding a queen's ship!"

Sheila raised her eyebrow at that, as the man was a pure flunky for the older Earl North Hollow. That was a bit more clumsy than she expected.

Lady Greenriver signaled a counter-request. Nodding to the Speaker, she stood up. "Nobles all, we must remember that there is no age discrimination within the realm. This is fact and law which could lead to a lawsuit if approached incautiously."

"Let us refer to the bench to be guided by the account of law," Silverthorn called out.

The barrister quickly stood up as he finished pulling up the information on his portable computer. "Lady Greenriver is quite correct. Due to the effects of Prolong upon our society, laws protecting those that were physically and mentally capable were enacted; the Mellingwell Advocacy Bill. For the most part, this was to protect those that were aged, but it also protects those that are younger than they appear and are not at full growth."

"Let us keep to the matter of Baroness Lynx's record of service. Is there anything there that would indicate that she should be promoted (again!) in such unseemly speed?" the speaker called out. It was obvious which side Silverthorn was really on.

Baroness Mourncreek, First Lord of the Admiralty, signaled to the speaker and stood up. "Indeed there is, my esteemed nobles. I can truthfully state that without Baroness Lynx's contributions to the war effort, our defense of the realm would be significantly weaker."

"Specifics!" shouted out one of the Liberals.

"In such an open venue I can not go into full detail, but her work as an officer has contributed materially to the improvement of our fleet. Her tactical aid in such battles as Third Yeltsin are well documented, where her efforts were checked by a board of inquiry at the Tactical College. At least twenty percent of the wall that we captured intact there was due to her skill. And was noted by her superiors. She has been wounded in battle and even commanded a ship temporarily-"

"A point of contention!" called out another hack for North Hollow of the Conservative Association. "I had heard that there were rumors that the attack upon RMN Anglicus was actually orchestrated in order to advance Baroness Lynx's career!"

Sheila actually beat everyone to the punch as she signaled to be allowed to defend herself, something most officers would be unlikely to do. But her pointed debates during the last several years had toughened her to such thoughts. "Objection, Baron Pleasantisles. I would ask that any evidence be brought forth and charges laid at my feet rather than be slandered with such comments on unsubstantiated rumors. I would be more than willing to defend myself in a court of law, for I know beyond any doubt that I in no way instigated that horrific attack that murdered so many of my fellow officers." No one would doubt her sincerity or anger at the slight as she had let a lot of her anger show on her face while her voice had become even more clipped and proper. The flush of her cheeks laid hint to the anger just below her sternly held control.

Baron Silverthorn nodded to himself. "We shall respectfully stay within the official record. Unless you do have such evidence, baron?"

"I withdraw my point," he said in an angry tone.

Lady Greenriver actually signaled again. "Are all of these public records correct?" She was currently still reading the pad in front of her.

"That is her publicly available record. Only those upon the board of Naval Affairs are aware of the more secret projects she has been involved," Silverthorn admitted.

"Is it actually possible to get these sort of scores? It's a flat 4.0 down the entire course and graduated number one of her class!" another noble called out. "How is that possible?"

"Baroness Lynx, if you would respond to the question?" Baron Silver Thorn asked from his desk in the center of the proceeding.

Sheila stood up and gave him a small bow. "Certainly. My ladies and gentlemen, my lineage is well noted and part of my official jacket at this point. I inherited a modicum of my mother Athena's intellect. Where as my uncle was noted as being the strongest mortal, my talents lay within my ever expanding intelligence with war literally bred in my blood."

"And how is that fair to your fellow officers?" Lady Greenriver asked in deep gravity. The older noblewoman got a round murmurs at that.

The young woman nodded to noblewoman. "Would that everyone could have such talents, but that is not possible in this world. So it is unfair in one sense. But everyone has their talents that they must always work towards their pinnacle, baroness. While I may have been gifted with an incredible ability, it is still up to me to make the most of it for the betterment of the service and our star nation. I have sworn a solemn oath to serve and I will do so to the last breath I have." The murmurs were getting louder as the crowd realized this was far more than they had expected to see this day.

Sheila felt the spike of pure anger and venom from Earl North Hollow as he realized his plans to punish the Navy and her in particular were going to be thwarted. The feelings were very intense, along with a deep-seated fear.

Why would he fear her so? What had she done to antagonize him? And why did she get an image of a flask shattered in fury, gilded with Nordic runes?

Baroness Mourncreek signaled and stood up. "My lords, I have not heard any point of note that would demur us from advancing this outstanding officer in the service during this critical time. We would be remiss to not get the most out of her as quickly as possible. Our star nation needs every edge to bring an end to this war as quickly as possible."

The vote was closer than expected, but passed by a ten percent margin. The promotion to full commander and assignment to Saganami Island for command training was now a fact.

The newly-minted full commander stepped out of a rented aircar and waved over to Daria in front of the vacation cottage on the edge of a Sphinx Treecat preserve. VC jumped off of her shoulder and ran over to her brother. The two kittens were purring heavily as they rubbed their flanks together. The level of interplay on their thoughts was actually quite intense, causing Sheila to frown in consternation.

"What's up with those two?" the young lieutenant asked.

"I'm not actually sure." The demigoddess studied her friend a bit, then nodded to herself. "It's some very indepth telepathic exchange of some sort. I'm not sure how, but Voracious Curiosity is letting Atlas learn all of her memories since they've been apart."

The young woman from landing blinked and then blanched. "They can do that?" You could see her suddenly looking at Sheila in thought.

"I guess so, but VC hasn't really told me a lot of their culture. I think that's because she doesn't really know that much herself. Being adopted at six months old."

The two treecats had finished up their rapport and wandered back over to 'their' humans. Their looks easily conveyed their query as to when they were leaving.

"Well, they are ready to head into their range. Are you ready for your trek?" the blonde asked her brunette friend. She had informed Saganami Island of the trip and the fact that they may become overdue accidentally. Sheila actually expected as much, as they were heading into the Terra Icognita that housed the entrance to the Sphinxian Overworld.

Daria nodded. She was dressed very sensibly in long jeans, hiking boots and a overly tough shirt made of a material that could resist light pulsar fire. She even had a rifle and pistol, just to be on the safe side in case they ran into something nasty again. Her companion was dressed in a similar manner, though her pants were made of the same pulsar resitant material and she only carried a single pistol, not the rifle.

The aircar was set to be drive itself back to the city if they did not return in a week, something Sheila felt quite unlikely. They both settled the conform-backpacks and then took off up into the preserves on their chartered path. So it was only slightly surprising that they ran into a pair of rangers that 'happened' to be along.

"Hello, ladies. Off for a hike?" Ranger Collins asked. He had a larger and older treecat prowling at his feet, looking at the new pair of sibling warily.

"That's right. Our treecats want to head back to their range," Daria called out. She did a quick round of introductions.

Collins nodded. "Well, if you don't mind, McGuyver and I would not mind following you down this path. Pauline, we'll see you back at camp, right?"

The female ranger nodded as she headed to an aircar.

Sheila decided to ignore him for the while, chatting about Navy and the latest soccer series for the tri-planetary league. Manticore had several teams, while Sphynx and Gryphon only had three apiece.

"I think this is our path here," Sheila said, noting that VC and Atlas were looking down another slot canyons choked in trees and bushes. They had slithered off the path and into the trees, returning in just a minute.

"You probably won't be able to get past that. And it only goes back about fifty meters anyways," Collins called out.

"I think you would be surprised." Sheila pulled out her data pad to punch in a final message. VC had leaped into the trees. The demigoddess was right behind, easily crossing forty feet in an instant.

Atlas started up a tree while Daria squawked in frustration. "Wait for me!" She had to clamber up the tree as best as she could, but she was not going to be left behind.

That would be the last anyone saw of them for over a week.

Chapter 2: Divine Troubles and Enemy Plans

The mountains of Six-Legged Heaven stretched upwards into glaciers and snow, while green forests covered their roots. The scars from her battle against the Muspel giants was already muted and healing. Out of the forest stepped two large treecats and a young kitten behind them.

The left one was cream colored, but with hints of green upon her her paws and the tip of her tail. At her side and nearly twice the size of a normal treecat, black as ebon night with eyes that pierced the shadows stood a forbidding male.

Voracious Curiosity and Atlas both ran forward and rubbed their flanks upon their mother.

"Daria, this is Tree Mother and Night Hunter. I believe they are the main gods of the treecats and Voracious Curiosity and Strong Root's parents. The last little fellow is... Gentle Breeze." Sheila seemed quite happy right then with a wide smile that seemed almost alien on her face.

'Lost One, it is time for thine test,' a deep, dissonant mental voice inflicted itself as if from the darkest nights. 'You must learn sacrifice.'

Between one blink of absolute midnight and another, all of the treecats disappeared.

"That... is not a good sign," the demigoddess said worriedly.

The deep snarls of Hexapuma off in the distance reverberated like saw-blades of obsidian grinding into bedrock mountains.

"What the hell did he mean?" Daria asked worriedly.

"Considering VC and Atlas are also gone, the only thing I see left around here to sacrifice is you, Lt. Golds. And that is not going to happen. We need to get to high ground." With that, they took off through the deep forest.

It was only an hour later that the first Nemean Hexapuma caught up. Daria lined up her pulsar pistol carefully and fired at the fast moving hexapedial carnivore. Three of her fire shots hit even as a lightning bolt slammed home upon its forehead.

"Well, that could have been worse," Sheila admitted as she pulled her lightning bolt 'Athena's Favorite' from the monster. So she was quite tempted to swear as she saw the wound starting to heal. Of course it wouldn't be that easy. She danced backwards from its scything claws.

Daria had holstered her pistol and was busy scampering up to a higher level in the trees, one of the few things she had remembered from her survival training for Sphinx. Sheila caught up at the fifty foot mark, snagging her just before the Hexapuma could land where she had been climbing. The buffalo-sized Sphinxian had taken a two foot divot out of the tree where she had been climbing.

It had been a harrowing week for the two of them. Daria was currently sitting piggy-back on Sheila asleep, her arms tied around her neck as the young demigoddess ran. Her lungs burned nearly as much as the claws to her thigh and shoulder did. Nighthunter had sent a seemingly unlimited number of the obsidian-black Nemean Hexapuma after them.

At least they had figured out that they could be killed permanently with great effort. That had given them about six hours respite four days ago. Now the Hexapuma hunted them in pairs, which meant that fighting them was almost impossible for the young demigoddess. So fleeing had been the only option left. And even then they had been ambushed at times.

"You really think he is trying to make you sacrifice me?" Daria asked abruptly, startling the very tired girl that was carrying her.

"Yes, but you wouldn't even be here or been adopted by Atlas," Sheila replied through her ragged breathing. "So this is my fault and my responsibility."

The unstated question was if Nighthunter would actually kill her, which they were both fairly positive that he would. He seemed to be the harsher element, embodying the unforgiving nature of the dangers of the wild. And his instruments in forcing his views and opinion upon the humans was the obsidian black Hexapuma.

Snarls off in the distance caused an immediate reaction that Sheila was just too fogged to realize were a reaction, not planned action. So the ambush by another pair of nemean monsters was barely detected before they sprung at her. She only had time to spin Daria off her back and in front of her (held close in an almost hug) as she tried to leap away.

But the branch she was standing on would not give her any leverage as it fell to the ground with all of them, sliced by scimitar claws of obsidian edges sharper than surgical steel. Sabertooth maws then clamped down on her shoulder and leg, trying to pull her away so they could get to their real target. But, confused again, the young demigoddess refused to let them get to her with a tenacity that matched their nearly mindless obedience to orders.

'Stop. Killing her was never part of our agreement, Nighthunter,' the imposing voice of Treemother ordered as she appeared in front of the two humans and two nemean killing machines.

The snarl was both physical and mental, engulfing them all in a cold, icy hate. 'She must learn to leave the weak behind. Not everyone can be saved,' Nighthunter declared mentally as he stepped out of the shadows of the tree.

'Father, it is you that does not understand. To her, some things are worth more than her life,' Voracious Curiosity challenged in a stronger mind-voice than she would have thought she could muster.

Red eyes glowed from the black shadow, a snarl of the coldest winter that promised death.

'STOP! The test is over. Know this, daughter of the human goddess of wisdom and war, what you were to learn here was a harsh lesson. But it appears that we were the ones that underestimated what you would give up.' The Treemother's steps dripped life into the forest floor, brightening the green grass to an impossibly bright depth of life. 'I think you would sacrifice the lesser part if need be.'

'You are correct, Treemother,' Strength of the World said suddenly. 'But her own life she does not feel is worth that sacrifice of her friend.'

Nighthunter narrowed his eyes. 'Survival for only herself... is a selfish thing. Perhaps she has indeed passed this test. Let her think of it back in the human world'

And with that, the two Treecat gods disappeared. Gentle Breeze, the unadopted child of the trio walked up. 'She is badly hurt, brother and sister. Will she live?'

"What the hell was that?" Daria said after she finally struggled out of the vine ropes that had been holding her hands around Sheila's neck.

'That was then end of the test,' Strength of the World sent to her. 'Father says that she might have passed, though I wonder if he would have thought she passed if she had sacrificed you early.'

"That didn't make a damn bit of sense, Atlas," she complained to her companion.

Voracious Curiosity had started to lick some of the wounds on the fallen demigoddess, scraping the wounds painfully. The minor cuts and bruises mended, but the soul-searing bits of the main teeth were too ferocious to be dealt with so easily.

"Not quite the resounding win I was hoping for," the young woman complained.

"We're alive!" Daria said with a frantic tinge to her words. "I'd call that a miracle." She hugged her adopted treecat ever so tightly.

Commandant of the Advanced Tactical Course, Commodore Anthony Styles III, looked at the short row of ten officers. From a crusty old officer that had finally broken a red mark on his record with his actions at Yeltsin, to the youngest at the end who (charitably) looked like she had gone three rounds with a Sphynxian Hexapuma. She had her left arm in a cast and he could see walking casts on her lower legs.

"At ease." Everyone relaxed under his hard, blue eyes under his lined and aged features. "Commander Manticora, would you like a chair?"

"I'm fine, sir," she replied steadily.

"Very well. You are all Class 1-A of the command course. For the next three months, you will learn command. You will live tactics. And you will become the very best of officers." He walked up and down the isles. "And after you have finished this, you will be sent out to command ships in the Queen's name to defend her realm. You have all received your syllabus?"

They all nodded curtly.

"Very well. Dismissed. Manticoria, please stay," he ordered. He studied her. "I had heard you were injured, but nothing beyond that it was some sort of ritual. Would you care to explain how you endangered yourself and came to such harm?"

"It was a religious trial from Nighthunter, the Treecat hunter-war god. He was trying to make a point to me. During our disagreement, I got hurt for my efforts." She stood easily at attention.

"So a treecat did that to you?" Commodore Styles then thought for a second, then blinked. "A treecat god?"

"Actually, it was his giant Hexapuma pets that did the greater part of the injuries."

The commodore had actually seen a Hexapuma ripping into one of the larger herbivores of Sphinx one time on vacation. "I guess congratulations for surviving the incident." He shook his head wryly. "Be that as it may, I have to ask, do you need medical leave to heal up? There will be other opportunities for command training."

"It shouldn't slow me down too much. As long as I rest heavily in the evenings, I should be find."

"Very well." That was a good thing, as Styles was hoping to see how well she did here.


Thomas Theisman nodded to the pilot of his pinnace as he walked to the exit hatch. White Haven was essentially crushing any fleet he could around Trevor's Star, but even he was having trouble with the concentration of forces out there and at Barnett. And supposedly this fleet was going to be doing something about that.

Vice Admiral Alexander Thurston seemed like he had a decent idea of how to get the Manties to react. So he was only slightly worried about the upcoming surprise meeting. His command's 'citizen' commissioner, Denis LePic, seemed just as surprised as he was.

He stepped across the free-fall section and into the gravity of the battleship PNS Conquistador. His Citizen Commissioner was only a stumbling step behind him. "This is a little worrying that we aren't being allowed to bring our staff to a planning meeting."

"I'm sure there is a few reasons for that," the commissioner replied blandly.

The flag bridge was only a lift and a short walk from the boat bay. Thurston nodded to them as they entered. It looked like most of the other rear admirals had already arrived. But it was the petite woman with blonde hair cascading down her very civilian and expensive Parisian suit that caught his attention. He could think of few good reasons (and many personally bad reasons) for Cordelia Ransom, Secretary for Public Information and member of the Committee of Public Safety, to be here. The red-headed woman who was nearly as tall as he was at her side was studying them all intently, but stuck out quite a bit with her civilian skirt and jacket that looked to be from the Asgard Confederation.

"Admiral Theisman," Thurston called out. "You know Citizen Secretary Ransom, of course. This is Marjorie Sylvester, an important intelligence asset."

That almost made sense, but still didn't explain the public face of the revolution being here in a top secret meeting. "Citizen Secretary. Miss Sylvester," he replied politely. He was trying to figure if she was a first generation prolong or if she was actually younger than him without prolong. The streaks of gray made it hard to decide.

"This is all of your fleet commanders?" Cordelia asked as she looked them all over, her sharp dark-blue eyes studying them all.

"Yes it is. The citizen secretary wanted to speak to us all here about a rather interesting bit of information." Thurston knew that Ransom had combed his records about his ranking officers, so she was trying to play the 'I'm just a clueless girl' act.

"Very well. I have been as briefed about operation Dagger and Stalking Horse as I can to understand them. The details of Stalking Horse are really a bit confusing, but seems to be simple enough in concept that it should work to draw off the Manticorian super-dreadnought defense from Yeltsin. I suppose."

"We have a very high confidence that we can hit Yeltsin quite hard," the vice admiral said in calm acceptance.

Ransom did not look so convinced, but it was hard to say why. "We have an intelligence windfall that we think we want to use to our best ability. We have some substantive information that Honor Harrington has been given some command in the Grayson fleet. According to our analyst, we believe that she has likely been tapped for captain of one of their fleet ships, similar to how she was used in Hancock under Sarnow. If she is captured, we are thinking of having her shipped to Haven for sentencing on her murder of the Sirius." The blonde secretary of the committee then smiled. "We have also just recently been given information on another officer that appears to have just been shipped there. Frankly, our intelligence agents can't believe the Manties would ship such a promising technical officer to any ship command."

"Are we going to try and capture her to to break the secret of their advanced compensators?" Rear Admiral Chernov asked, distaste hidden only lightly in his voice.

"While that would be the best option, I've been told by the staff in the Octagon that it would be totally unfeasible to try and mount such an operation in the middle of an attack.

Thank god, Theisman thought to himself. You would think the rear-echelon pukes would know not to try and complicate what was already a fairly involved operation.

"No, we'd rather that she and her ship just did not survive the engagement in any shape or form. She is almost a beacon of the plutocratic nobility, based upon her supposed lineage. It is abhorrent that even the concept of rule by divine providence can even exist in our modern, enlightened age. Miss Sylvester?"

Thurston frowned at that, while Theisman carefully kept his face blank. Like a lot of officers, he had seen the HD recordings of the assassination attempt on the Protector of Grayson. Privately, he had even had his best electronic wizards try to spot the digital wizardry. He was unsure if their inability to spot any discrepancies was due to technical wizardry or not. Personally, he had a hard time believe in demigoddesses running around doing physically impossible feats of strength.

It appeared that most officers around the table felt the same.

The red-head nodded. "Some of my intelligence assets in Manticore space have been keeping an eye out for such a tidbit of information and have garnered a fairly accurate sensor map of the light cruiser RMN Phoebe under Commander Manticoria. Not only will it be a public coupe to kill this 'daughter of Athena' but from some sources, it appears that she was heavily involved in developing the advanced compensators and some project dealing with hyperdrives."

"I think we can let this one out of the bag to our illustrious officers," Cordelia said with a smile that carried no warmth nor caring.

"We think Manticore broke the Iota barrier. Several of our merchant ships from Asgard space have been keeping fairly regular shipments within Alliance space and we think we caught one of their courier's name having traversed the distance between Manticore and Casca in something that we believe in excess of 22 % faster than any courier could have physically travelled." The demigoddess of strife smiled at their consternation.

All of the admirals present were trying to wrap their heads around that concept. Thurston was the first to react. "We'll have to adjust our timetable for Dagger a little bit. And that is quite a bit worrisome about our long range naval doctrine."

Ransom looked a little confused for a seemingly innocent reason... for once. "Is that such a big deal?"

"Potentially. But for the most part... not for their ships of the line. While they will have better strategic information, they aren't likely to have much of their fleet upgraded. Though that does explain why they seem to be so responsive, which has had to hurt us at Barnett and Trevor's Star. If I had a brand new technology like that I would definitely upgrade our couriers first, which is why we probably spotted it there. But you can't just pull your fleet off active duty to upgrade them," the Vice Admiral stated as he adjusted to the shock. "We may want to see what we can do to get that technology ourselves ASAP. We have a lot bigger space to transmit messages across, so it will actually help us more than it will them." For the time being, anyways.

Thomas Theisman was considering that in his own head and not liking what he was coming up with. "And this commander was part of the project? Why did they give her a combat command?"

"She graduated on the command track a few years ago," Meredith Chavez said as he entered the conversation for the first time. "How she could get through the academy with skills in engineering like that makes you wonder why she did not end up in an engineering track. It's a total mystery."

"I heard she was on White Haven's command staff at Third Yeltsin. And I heard some strange things about what had happened there," Theisman interjected as he leaned against the holo-tank's bracing to ease his calves.

"You are referring to the fact that any time that fleet command shifted to a staff officer... that their ship was targeted within minutes of assuming command?" Thurston asked slowly. "That's pure supposition. If the Manties had that ability, they would have used it in other battles."

"How many of those battles had this Manticoria as part of their command staff?" Theisman asked carefully.

"You aren't seriously subscribing to some sort of supernatural power allowing her to target our command and control, are you?" Chavez asked in derision.

"Something strange happened there. From what I heard, the ships that we did get out of there were pretty much wrecks and the Manties captured nearly a quarter of the wall we had sent there. Even if a lot of them weren't that repairable, that's still a decent shot in the arm for their forces while being the largest single fleet loss in the history of our navy," Thurston noted. "But we are getting a bit far from the topic of discussion. I apologize for that, citizen secretary."

"No, I can see why you would be curious. Along with the loss of Manticore's major alliance with Grayson, the death of either of these 'heroes' of Manticore is something that we can not only capitalize internally, but might allow us to really crack open this alliance. With a bit of carefully worded set up in the Solarian League, we might even be able to get them to overturn the weapons technology embargo," Ransom explained carefully. "That's a bit of my job and Foreign Services, of course."

"In fact, with the new Lynx Junction, Manticore is pretty much a swear word to Solarian Shipping. And any more stress on Manticore is a good thing in my book," the Aesir demigoddess said with a hint of a ferocious smile. She pulled a small data pad from her pocket. "And here is her ship's specific sensor signature, though some of my personal contacts."

"So you want us to target her ship as a fairly high priority?" Thurston asked intently.

"Yes. Making sure she dies is a very high priority of the committee." Ransom looked almost hungry in a vicious, animalistic manner.

An hour later, Ransom and her two bodyguards were escorting Marjorie Sylvester back to Ransom's personal ship, the battlecruiser PNS Tepes. "So, for your continued support and smuggling Solarian technology, one death of a demigoddess thorn? This really appears to be a mutually beneficial agreement," the voice of Madam Guillotine said through her 'human mule'.

"Of course. Though I did not think you would be taking such an active interest in any revolution outside of the Solar League," Marjorie said in curiosity. "Sly Slaiger Lokison gets her permanently out of his hair and I finally get the chance to move into the Overworld as one of his proxies."

Madam G. just seemed amused, the lips of her human body twisting slightly. "Ah, yes. I would have thought you Aesir would have figured out your little trap of predestination."

"Perhaps a bit better than your revolution against your father, Baron Samedei? How many Millennium has that been going?" the much younger woman said as her face flushed in anger, almost matching her hair.

"I've been quite successful. In fact, there is something quite amazing in the near future. I wonder if you will be there for it? Your prolong seems to be fading a little bit," the goddess said through pouty lips.

"Well, this-" Marjorie said as she rubbed her hand through her hair, brightening up her red hair to the dark-red copper of her youth. "-is getting there. Though I admit, I'm very glad that prolong allowed me to live long enough."

Cordelia's lips turned up in a mocking smile. "True, so not a waste. Could I interest you in expanding our deal? My Incarnae loves her men, but is a bit afraid of the enemies she has made. Eitir? From a dead Jotun or Muspel, of course. We can't have pesky loyalty issues."

"And what would you offer in exchange for the life of an immortal giant?" the daughter of Slaiger Lokison asked cautiously.

"When your life is at Death's door, you may call upon me and I will grant you succor. Even Hel or her son the Prince of Hel, Djorgen, will have no sway over you," the goddess of violent revolution and death said as her eyes seemed to glimmer with impossible depths.

"That... is a godly gift," Marjorie admitted. "I agree. When next I visit, I will have it."

Madam Guillotine nodded and then laid her hand upon her shoulder, imprinting her mark of her namesake as a tattoo. "Then the deal is set." And she would be able to keep an eye upon her ally.

Marjorie nodded as she summoned her signature purple fire and then disappeared. She had a ritual to decipher from ancient books. Though the idea of summoning a horde of fire imps to torment your foe at fateful moment was very tempting.

Chapter 3: Command

Commander Baroness Lynx Sheila Henderson Parthenos Manticoria walked at a brisk pace down the crowded tubes of HMSS Hephaestus, towing her luggage behind her on the repulsor lift skids. The guards at the dock came to abrupt attention as they recognized her uniform and that she was headed to their station. There were dozens of crewmen in front of her.

The officer in charge quickly waved the regular crewmen and non-coms to the side. "May I see your papers?" he called out formally.

VC bleeked happily at his thoughts as the chaotic jumble came from all the regular crew suddenly being in the company of their commanding officer.

"Of course," Sheila replied, handing over her security chip. She waited patiently for him to scan it, but that was almost a formality.

"Everything appears fine, Commander Manticoria. And congratulations," the major said. He snapped off a sharp salute, followed by the rest of the guards and sailors.

Her return salute was so crisp it could cut a sheet of paper.

RMN Phoebe was stretched out on either side of the tube with umbilical attached, but the 'Cruiser Light' which was to be her first official command looked like it was only doing a light bit repair work on one of the laser mounts. She floated down the tube in perfect precision with her luggage. With a thrill in her heart, she put on her white beret of ship command.

She handed off her luggage to an automated drone and then headed to the bridge to take command.

"Captain on the bridge," bawled out the marine sentry at the main hatch even as he and his fellow came to attention.

"At ease. Lt. Commander Reynolds?" she asked of the older man just standing up out of the captain's chair.

"Baroness Commander Manticoria," he replied with a sharp salute and then accepted the data pad, verifying the transfer of command. "I do request relief of command." He had short, wavy brown hair and a close cropped beard and looked like he carried a powerful build on his body.

"I do hereby relieve you of command," she replied formally. Her fingers tapped in her authorization codes, then commed open the ship-wide overhead. The whistle sounded all through the ship as she read the order to take over command of a ship of the navy. "-thank you and I hope to meet each one of you shortly."

Lemius Reynolds was surprised at her pure presence. He had met natural leaders, such as well respected admirals like Givens, White Haven or even Harrington, but none of them had such an overwhelming direct impact. "Captain, did you wish to settle in or did you have something else in mind?"

"Let's just start with the highlights of our refit," the otherworldly girl asked of him.

To Reynolds, it looked like she was too pretty and had obviously spent too much money on body-sculpting. Along with her title, of course, so he immediately became a bit biased against her. "Phoebe is just finishing a standard refit for the laser mount 4. We've already had the second generation of compensators and they just put in the new Mark XXII hyperdrive. Other than that, we are just topping off our reserves in stores."

"The XXII? Already? It appears that we are going to be part of the fast reaction force assigned to Grayson then. That's Vice Admiral Mallsey's task force. Interesting," the young looking girl mused. "Set up a meeting of department heads and we'll go over out duties.

"Of course, captain." Fairly standard rote, but at least she appeared to know the strategy of her new ship's hardware, Reynolds had to admit.

Three hours later, the senior officers were all assembled in the captain's conference room. On an older ship like this, it was a bit cramped. Sheila studied her new officers from a strange and new perspective. She accepted their salutes then took a minute to shake hands as she moved to the top of the oval conference table.

Lieutenant Commander Lemius Reynolds was a self-possessed young officer. Just like herself, he had been promoted out of zone twice and had served with distinction at Third Yeltsin. A subtle tension existed as a barrier between them for some reason. She hoped it was not due to being promoted over him and taking command of the Phoebe.

Her chief engineer was the self-assured Lieutenant Commander Kent Briars. The red-head was only slightly paunchy, as he was a 'maverick' promoted from Manitcore's merchant marine fleet. His graying hair gave him a serious look even as his blue eyes twinkled merrily.

Lieutenant Senior Grade Charlemagne Tor Augustus was a very calm looking woman of dark skin and (strangely) blue eyes, which hinted at her background as an exotic beauty of a genie slave from Mesa. She was among the oldest here at forty-five and was supposed to be quite the wizard at tactics.

Fourth was Lieutenant Senior Grade Mary Loves, who was only three months behind in seniority. She had also just come aboard as the newest astrogrations officer. She had a plain face and a poorly healed up nose and was known as a bit of a hothead. Like her new captain, she was young for her position at twenty-eight years old and looked like a quite young fifteen years old.

Lastly was her Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Cherry Pattons-Smith, another plain-faced woman who was going a little flabby, her long, black hair down up in a braid down her back.

"Welcome everyone. How is everyone settling into their slots?" She listened to their pleasantries that everything seemed fine. "Lt. Commander Briars, I understand that we are only hours away from full readiness?"

The stocky engineer nodded. "That's right. I expect we'll have our order to leave any time now."

"You would be right. We are to undergo our abbreviated trials and then take haste to our posting in Yeltsin to join the Grayson defense fleet." Sheila studied her officers to see if any of them showed any problem with that and was happy enough to not see any. "This should be a fairly quiet posting, according to our dossier, but we are at war so I expect us to be at our one hundred and ten percent best. I've got some of my own personal imprint in training that I would like to run past you to see if you think will help out, but it is going to be your call." She turned to her XO.

"We are at establishment on all stores, " he responded to her unspoken question. "So all we are waiting on is our release."

"Good, though we'll want to see what we can squeeze from BuShips for extra supplies. Lt. Augustus, I understand we have six Middies?" Sheila continued, moving around the table as she got the status on all stations. Tactical, Astrogation, Engineering and Medical were all passed through.

It seemed like things moving along quite quickly.

"Very well, folks. I do believe we should know in the next day or so what our orders are and who we'll be escorting to Yeltsin. We will probably be the junior ship in any task force for the foreseeable future, so plan accordingly."

The Phoebe exited hyperspace in perfect formation for the short convoy. Six mega-freighters and the other escorts were exactly where they were supposed to be; two more light cruisers and a destroyer that quickly set their position to defend the frieghters. The Phoebe was actually on the sharp end of the stick as the lead scout. That did make things slightly tense and was very quiet on the bridge.

"Have we gotten our challenge yet, Lt. Loves?" Sheila called from her sacrosanct position of the captain's chair. She was petting Voracious Curiosity who was drowsing on her lap.

"Just received and responded to, captain," the plain-faced woman replied without any preamble. She had quickly found out that when the too-young seeming captain asked a question, she expected you to have already handled the basics. Her junior astrogator had gotten a slightly frosty treatment for not have a plot laid out for the obvious departures. "Course is plotted and we are just waiting for local Astro Control to give us the command."

Sheila was studying the plot closely. "I'd like a recon drone to give us a close up on that asteroid field. It's unlikely for there to be anyone there, but I'd rather be just safe than sorry."

Reynolds frowned at what he felt was a frivolous waste of a drone, but he could see why a captain might spend a drone. It was just highly unlikely that anyone could sneak in an attacker here.

The minutes counted down as they trundled down the path Grayson Astro Control had given them.

"Captain, I have a freighter that seems to be lying in the shadow of one of the smaller asteroid," Lt. SG Charlemagne (Charlie) Tor Augustus called out.

"Update firing solutions and put them in the can just to be on the safe side. Light up the freighter with active sensors from the drone," she called out immediately.

The strobe of radar and lidar hit the freighter without response, but the three light cruisers on the other side of the asteroid became quite visible.

"Contact! Three ships lying in the shadow, they are launching!" Charlie snapped out.

"Alpha-one defensive fire," the captain called out as she frowned. The emissions looked like something the Alliance would use, so this was likely a drill being run on her ships. So she would not fire on anything but their missiles until she they had 'killed her'.

VC was suddenly awake, looking around at the displays with long practice. 'Trap!?'

"Two hundred missiles incoming!" one of the assistant tactical officers shouted in a panic.

"Alpha three. Belly up and random barrel roll, Mary. All hands brace for damage." They must have had missile pods for that amount of missiles. So this was probably Lady Harrington's way of 'testing' them on awareness. She noted happily that the rest of the convoy was reacting, though making the immediate choice to try and duck across the hyperlimit by a sharp ninety degree change of course. That was a bit too simple, in her mind. But not her call.

"They all self-destructed and we have received a message that we are 'dead with seventeen hits' for the impromptu exercise. GNS Terrible was the transmission in the clear," Reynolds said in confusion.

"Well, that's enough to vaporize any light cruiser. Mary, would you convey our congratulations to Lady Harrington for the clean kill?" the young captain called out.

Far off in her super-dreadnought, Lady Harrington raised an eyebrow at the courtesy call from the 'killed' ship. "That was rather quick on the uptake," she said to her flag captain. "Send my gratitude for being a good sport. Thank you, Howard."

Captain Alfred Yu nodded slowly. "I'm a little concerned that she didn't try to take a shot at the three ships that just killed her."

"She took the only possible response to the attack." The Admiral of the Fleet frowned as she considered things, as she ran her hands across her command ribbons of sky-blue Grayson uniform sleeve. "Three to one odds, she might have gotten one or two hits, but severely weakened her defense. Even so, she was still killed." She wondered if the young captain had realized it was Alliance ships, so refused to even fire because of that? Honor decided she would have to ask. There weren't a lot of officers that would not have the mind to even think about that in the short fight. In fact, that exercise had been a little hotter than she planned, as they were supposed to get closer to range and then announce the kill at energy range.

"Only seventeen hits," Yu noted unhappily. Then he grinned cautiously. "Then again, we were expecting them to be totally surprised and only block a quarter of the missiles, not over ninety percent. So that's the 'pagan harlot of presumption', as the Grayson newsies call her?"

Honor just laughed at that. "It will be nice to not be the most hated woman in Grayson space right now."

Back on the Phoebe's bridge, they were settling down from the very sudden and startling exercise.

"That was not exactly the safest exercise. We could have killed some of their men," Lt. Commander Reynolds said in aggravation.

"That's why I didn't shoot at the ships, only their missiles. Well, other than the fact it was likely futile," the young captain noted lightly as she pet her Treecat who was starting to get quite a bit bigger as she hit her 'teen' years. "I wonder what other surprises that Admiral Harrington is going to throw at us?"

"Well, we'll just have to be at our best," the XO groused, very unhappy with the fake brush with death.

The captain's pinnace from Phoebe thrummed through the sound proofing as its forward edge started to bite into the atmosphere. Only another fifteen minutes and they would be landing at Harrington Steading for a private dinner with the rather (in)famous officer. The seventeen year old waited after they touched down.

"Don't forget your rebreather," the pilot called out.

"I've got it here," she said as she patted her belt. Not that she would use it, as she was sure she was mostly immune to the radioactive dust of the planet. VC had also grown rather tough herself and just purred in agreement.

There was only a single, old man at the end of the runway and one ground car. He was actually wearing his own rebreather, even though he was a native and was giving off quite the worried feeling as he noted that she and her Treecat were not, in fact, wearing theirs.

"You really should be wearing your filter. The dust storm is vicious right now," the old man called out, even as he held open the door. "I'm Howard Clinkscales, Harrington Major Domo."

"Commander Manticoria," she said as she quickly shook hands. "This is Voracious Curiosity."

The old Grayson gravely shook the Treecat's hand, then slipped in behind her into the back of the car. His dark eyes studied her curiously, then he grinned. "You don't happen to be planning on disrupting any more assassination attempts, do you?"

"No, but something could happen. That is the weight of duty and fate." Strangely, all Sheila could feel from him was polite interest and perhaps some wariness.

'He's a good person,' VC stated after a quick decision and touch of his mind glow.

Sheila grinned slightly at that. 'You are the native empath.' She leaned forward to peer out the car's window as she saw a sight that she had not seen since she was a child. "Baseball?"

"Well, at least you recognize it," Clinkscales said with a touch of whimsy in his voice as he remembered . "It's Grayson's planetary past time."

"That looks remarkably... normal, even after two thousand years." It had been a while since she had felt so home sick, the loss of everything she had in her previous life was suddenly tearing a painful hole in her heart.

Voracious Curiousity started purring even as she tried to fill that void.

The old soldier frowned as he realized he must have touched a sensitive issue. Just like his lady, the young girl was desperately holding to her Treecat as if her life depended on it suddenly. "I apologize if I was being discourteous."

"Nothing of the sort, just a reminder that I can never go back to the place I grew up. So I'll have to make a new home where I'm at," the young blonde replied even as the two rubbed their cheeks together. "Which is odd, I had always thought baseball was rather silly. Even the local team that my step-parents rooted for."

"No one can dictate their heart. My word, I had forgotten that you were born before Grayson was even colonized. You do look so young."

"I'm pretty sure that just about everyone looks young to you," she cautiously joked. "I am not quite eighteen yet, even if I was on ice for a very long time." In fact, her birthday was coming up shortly.

'That's better. Laughter is good for the soul,' VC telepathed as she continued to sooth her human.

"I almost wish I had prolong, but I think I've lived a full life," the old man said, thinking back fondly of his wife and children. He gestured across the back of the limo towards the large building up ahead. It was quite large for a manner, but it seemed to have a lot of people going in and out. "This is our stop."

They exited the limo and walked in a side entrance as they heard chants in the distance from the front of the building. "I seem to have picked up some angry protesters," the young demigoddess noted.

"Ah, yes. I thought they had decided that Harrington Steading wasn't the best place for that, but I think some of the locals don't necessarily disagree about you, even if they nearly worship the ground Lady Harrington walks. A bunch of foolishness, that. I found out that you aren't even officially affiliated with that temple in Landing and have never asked for anyone to worship you. A most modest deity," the old curmudgeon said with a rumbling laugh.

Sheila just sighed at that comment, something she had heard in too many forms over the last few months.

The staccato beat of practice swords drifted down the hall, causing VC to tilt her head slightly. 'Sword practice?'

"That's right, Voracious Curiosity. Sounds like sabers of some sort," Sheila replied.

With exquisite courtesy, Howards opened the door to an exercise room where a tall, muscular woman was being trounced by a smaller man. Both were wearing light padded suits and head protection and approximation of the Japanese katana with more European hilts.

Honor held up her hand. "I'm afraid we've over run our time, Master Dunlevy. Better luck next time."

Thomas Dunlevy, the second master of sword of Grayson just chuckled as he removed his own meshed helmet. "Just keep telling yourself that, milady. It's probably good for your bruised ego."

"I understand you were fencing valedictorian when you graduated from Saganami. That will probably be good for your standing as one of the Protector's champions," the older woman said, ignoring the good-natured comment. She towered over everyone in the room.

Sheila actually blinked in surprise at that. "I didn't realize that it was necessary. I'll have to make a saber, just in case. And perhaps find someone to practice against like yourself." Hadn't it been over a century since the last duel in the Keys? "There's not exactly a lot of call for sword dueling on her Majesty's ships." She suddenly had a rather inane thought of driving off boarders in their power armor with a cutlass.

"No, there really isn't. I don't think I've been keeping Master Dunlevy too busy, so he might be willing to cross sabers with you at some point," the lady of the house stated with a small smile. She gave a wave to her swordsmaster as he left to change. "Protector Benjamin asked that I talk with you about that. Did you see the protesters out front?" Honor continued after seeing her nod. "Unfortunately, you are probably the least liked Manticorian in existence. The Graysons at least only call you names, while the Masadans of Endicott... well, I wouldn't suggest ever trying to visit there with anything less than a army brigade of heavy armor."

Clinkscales chuckled suddenly. "You know, I just realized they are calling you the reincarnation of the Harlot of Satan, in spite of the fact that you were born before the colony ship left for Grayson."

"That might be a bit tricky, wouldn't it." Sheila tilted her head, her shot bob of blonde hair twisting slightly as she studied Nimitz as he carefully approached VC.

Her Treecat, on the other hand, leaped off her shoulder nuzzle a second with the older cat. They started sharing the very in depth telepathic communication between their kind. Honor's startelement was almost shouting loud telepathically.

'Quite the amazing thing, isn't it?' the demigoddess projected as she smiled at the antics of the Treecats.

Honor suddenly spun around so fast she almost tripped. "What was that?" she demanded.

"Lady Harrington?" Clinkscales asked in confusion.

Sheila was a bit surprised and it showed with her wide, green eyes. "Sorry, after bonding with Voracious Curiosity, I've developed a few telepathic talents and I'm afraid I surprised Lady Dame Admiral Harrington with an outburst."

"Ah, from her bond with Nimitz as they seem to share an extra wavelength together. The two seem to be done greeting each other." Clinkscales was very curious, but trying to not show it.

The much smaller, juvenile female looked at all the humans one at a time. 'Now what did you do?'

'I'm afraid I might have startled Laughs Brightly with my telepathic conversation,' Sheila admitted to her Treecat companion.

'Can hear me?' the timid and wavering mental voice of the admiral came to them.

Nimitz turned and looked at his human in surprise as the two Treecats and Sheila responded affirmatively, 'Yes.' Even if it was the equivalent of baby speak.

"Well, that is surprising. We'll have to trade notes," Sheila said brightly to change the subject.

"I believe Miranda is having a lunch held. Howard, would you mind escorting Commander Manticoria to the dining room and I'll catch up in just a minute?" At his nod, Honor retreated out a side door.

Sheila decided that the lady must have flown through her shower and wardrobe at something approaching MACH speeds, as she had barely been seated and chatting with Howard Clinkscales for only a few minutes. She stood up and bowed deeply. "Lady Harrington."

Honor accepted the bow with a nod. "I'm glad I didn't keep you waiting. Though I'm quite curious as to Nimitz's reaction to your friend."

"Voracious Curiosity? She shares a similar background to myself as daughter of the Tree Mother," Sheila admitted with a small shrug.

Howard and Honor blinked in surprise and then looked at the young cat that just bleeked at them in laughter then preened herself at all the attention.

"In fact, she's basically my minder and to remind me that Sphinx has more than just mortal concerns in the Star Kingdom," Sheila admitted carefully. "Though I could not imagine being without her."

The old soldier of Grayson was looking at the Treecat in quite the bemused shock. "I guess demigods are crawling out of the woodwork."

"They are more around than you think," the young, human demigoddess admitted.

"Could you answer my curiosity on a matter?" the Steadholder asked intently. "Why did you change your name to Manticoria? Some people have called it very strange, if not disrespectful. Some have even claimed it is a power play to the throne, though considering your friendship with the queen, I can't see that." Behind her, her Major Domo perked up as he had been wondering about that.

"I took my cue from my elder sisters. Brittania, Goddess of the Britons and Columbia, one of the patrons of the United States of America. This kingdom is mine to protect and cherish," the young demigoddess said. "Brittania is nominally the patron of Manticoria, but I do not think she will begrudge me in assuming her responsibility. If I can live up to my perhaps overblown attempt to match her example."

Honor whistled at that. "Well, you are definitely moving up quickly in the world."

The young demigoddess's dark feelings on that matter leaked to Voracious Curiosity who leaped off her artificial perch and onto her lap, purring heavily. "Sorry, I'm having bleak thoughts again today. I suppose, considering all things, I'm not doing too badly. I just keep failing to match up to my mother and her instant ascendance to prominence after bursting from Zeus's head, Hermes's stealing Apollo's cattle in his cradle and Hercules actually fending off monsters in his own cradle..." She hugged VC close to her.

Clinkscales snorted at that. "You are still alive and becoming one of the modern greats. Perhaps in a century or two you will be as well known as them. I don't think becoming maudlin over baseball teams is becoming an officer."

"She didn't try to break them up thinking they were fighting, did she?" Honor asked in muted horror (and humor!)

"No, unlike someone that we shan't mention, I did happen to know what they were doing. Baseball is actually older than I am after all," she replied with a wide grin. "It just gave me a bit of homesickness."

The old Grayson could not help himself and started laughing in a deep tone, startling everyone else in the room. That was when the first servants arrived with lunch and topics turned to lighter matters.

Chapter 4: Dance and Disaster

A month later and Sheila was starting to feel very good about her ship and crew. She was part of Grayson's screening element and had just finished a boundary patrol on the Hyperlimit in stealth and along Yeltsin's thick asteroid belt. She had actually ended up in charge, as the Lt. Commanders that captained the two destroyers may have had years of experience, but she had the rank.

At this point, they were settling in to Grayson's home fleet during the latest exercises. Following fleet tactical orders instead of helping to shape those same tactics and strategy under Admiral White Haven was quite frustrating to her, though she never let it show as she captained her pride, the RMN Phoebe.

Harrington had rearranged her fleet for a bit of chicanery that had to be seen to be believed. She had socked away a small taskforce of all second or third stage compensators and with some flagrant disregard to protocol rules on drones, had the Manticorian aggressors thinking that this was a larger fleet that was busy running clumsily away from a pincer trap while quite a significant force was skulking around ready to spring the trap.

"Coming up on turnover," Reynolds called out.

"Aye aye. Prepare for maneuver," Lt. SG Loves called out with well oiled effeciency.

"They should be picking us up on their sensors just about now," Sheila said carefully, wishing that VC could be on her shoulder. But in a normal combat situation, her Treecat was relegated to a life support module in her (too cramped) quarters. But at least she could feel her through their (soul?) telepathic-bond.

The 'enemy fleet' (in actuality a group of visiting super-dreadnoughts with escorts from Manticore on their way to Trevor's Star) suddenly became aware of of them as the hidden fleet suddenly disgorged loads of missile pods and then went to emergency speeds while fleeing. They were on the edge of the engagement envelope and shooting up the kilt where the only missile defense was missiles and lasers.

In the ninety seconds of their engagement, the battlecruisers and heavy cruisers had unloaded nearly five hundred missiles in their direction. By the time they were localized and the Manties could shoot back... they were at the range where missiles would be just barely ballistic. Which meant they were as good as useless.

And the Mantie admiral must have realized it too, as they just tried their best to deal with the two pronged attack. Most of the time it would be a matter of concentrating fire, but with their early damage (and loss of one of their walls) they were suddenly fighting defensively.

Three hours later, the aggressor force was routed handily, even though they had an even match in numbers. A little use of local resources like the fast missile colliers (that just had to be more of Admiral Harrington's chicanery in use) and the wall had again been suckered into another group of missile pods.

All in all, the Grayson forces were learning their way while changing the face of the battlefield forever.

"So you see here, with this implementation on Mantie automation, we can start building a cruiser just about anywhere. It's a little complicated keeping everything organized, but other than the Blackbird yards, we are really decentralized," Lt. Commander Jameson of the Grayson Navy was explaining to the visiting officers. The conference room in the main naval administration office in Austin was quite full of blue and black uniforms.

"I personally feel that Blackbird is actually a little exposed. As its not considered a populated planet, it would be incredibly easy for a fleet to pop, dash in through the meager hyperlimit around the gas giant and cripple the operations there," Sheila replied from across the table as she flicked through the positional data and designs of their shipyard. "The cellular level does seem to work, but I think that has to do with social expectations from your Church, actually. It instructs people to rise to challenges which promotes an awful lot of very competent people."

That got a laugh from the Manticorian and Grayson officers.

The door swished open as an ensign walked in at a double trot.

"Miller, we are in a meeting-!?" Jameson said until the ensign got close enough to whisper in his ear. "Gentlemen, if you would excuse me, but a matter of grave concern has come up." He gestured to the rest of the Grayson men to follow.

An hour later, they were informed that a massive construction accident had happened. Grayson's media establishments were going nuts with rumors of shoddy worksmanship, substandard materials, bribery and the death of four workers on sight.

"And I can't believe a word of it. This is Skydome's very first big project and is basically being set up to seed their business for the next twenty years. Admiral Harrington is not the sort of person that would ever skimp on something like this." Her blue-green eyes were studying the display quite closely.

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but at this time all our meetings are cancelled until further notice," the ensign replied.

That left Sheila to play hostess to several junior officers that had been part of the engineering and technical delegation in a hermetically sealed guest house in the capital.

They were all sitting in front of the holo-display as the media seemed to go insane. Accusations of shoddy worksmanship, substandard supplies, financial irregularities were the top of the news. The fact that there had been school children tours through the site had been brought up repeatedly.

Lt. Ayamo Stevenson just shook his head in bewilderment. "This really doesn't look good."

"There has to be a mistake. There is no way that Admiral Harrington would allow something like this to happen," Lt. Samantha Farles noted. She had served under Harrington previously and had a very high opinion of her.

"Even worse, it would have to be someone being stupidly incompetent," Sheila noted as she took a fruit juice from the robotic server. "Skimping on your first customer doesn't show everyone that you can build them."

Ayamo looked over in surprise at that. "Oh? You sound like you know more than the average off-worlder."

"I invested a little bit into that enterprise. Every person at Sky Domes is intensely dedicated to the project as they really believe it can help Grayson expand dramatically. There will still have to be emergency equipment, but open doors and porches to the yard sounded like a dream to them. And I can't see them skipping out on that at all." Sheila's blue-green eyes studied the vicious lambasting of the talking head on the news. "This is angering me with the way they are treating her."

That was when her personal com blipped and announced a priority call. She nodded to the other Manticorian officers and then stepped into the hall. "Commander Manticoria here," she said to the pickup. "Mr. David Luvien." How had he gotten this com-code?

The man that appeared on the screen was actually someone that Sheila well recognized, as he was one of the newsmen that had been ripping into Harrington and Sky Domes just moments ago. "Commander," he said briskly. "I'm here to get your comment about the horrendous disaster that has befallen Mueller Steading."

"A private inquiry or did you want a public statement?" Sheila asked, carefully emoting just a touch of worry.

Luvien hid a smirk on his face as he just about leaped onto the comment. He was young, only in his mid-thirties and quite ambitious. "A public statement."

Sheila had slipped her mind through the intervening computer systems with a small surge of legend, verifying that the news broadcast was on a timed broadcast delay. Mentally she went over a quick speech, then locked the delay down so it could not be interrupted due to a technical 'glitch'. "I would be happy to make a statement for the public, Mr. Luvien. Honor Harrington is one of the most dedicated, professional women I have ever met or served with. She embodies the best of loyalty to those above and below her and only wishes the best for her Steading and the people of Grayson. The engineers and officers of Sky Domes are dedicated to bringing their domes to everyone on Grayson, to help families grow up without having to live in fear in their own homes." Her legend surged, lending weight to her words even more greatly as Fate was twisted to her will. "I am sure that Harrington and Sky Domes will do everything in their power to find the cause behind this and resolve the problem."

"Ah, that's all. Thank you Commander Manticoria." The newscaster anchor did not actually look at all pleased as he seemed distracted by something someone was telling him off screen. "Goodbye."

Sheila wandered back in to see herself on the large holotank, looking very impressive in her black uniform with its mess of ribbons. She listened to herself as she made her statement, watching the other two Manticorian officer's reactions.

"That's some high octane speaking. I didn't realize you had any public speaking credentials," Lt. Stevenson said very slowly.

Lt. Farles eyes were quite wide as the words had shaken her to the core of her heart. "Well, I have to say I'm all ready to go offer up my services to help Dame Harrington."

"I didn't speak anything but the truth," Sheila tried to say modestly. "But I'm not going to let them spin this on her in the most negative way possible."

"How did you manage that?" Samantha Farles asked curiously.

"They must have had a small technical glitch in their broadcast control," the young demigoddess said in such a bland tone that it caused a laugh from the other two officers. "What would you like for supper?"

Honor Harrington had been struck savagely in the one place she had never thought possible, in her personal honor. She had been pulling herself back up from the brink after the murder of her beloved Paul, the man she had loved and even considered marrying. Coming to Grayson after being set on half-pay during the war she had trained for her entire life had been an act of desperation; to get away from the horrid memories and nightmares.

Now even here she was tasting the bitter ashes of despair as the local news lambasted her as a foreign cash monger, putting her interests before her people. She had turned off the news an hour ago and sat in her chair looking out into nothing, wondering if she had really failed herself and her people so horribly?

"Lady Harrington, I think you want to turn on the local news," James 'Mac' MacGuiness called out as he rushed into her private room.

A glimmer of hope was fed from the wonder she felt from her trusted valet. So when she turned on the holo display to listen to two news-heads arguing about a statement, she was a little confused. The linked connection to Sheila's statement as the girl's voice thrummed in her heart; her belief was strong and showed a faith that Honor was beginning to doubt in herself. But like a fire, the smallest spark could ignite a great blaze.

And it appeared that not all of Grayson was being taken in by poisoned words. News reporters that had been lambasting her an hour ago were now thoroughly questioning their own position and statements. Motives were brought up and discarded as Honor's service record and every other business venture was examined.

Those that still questioned Honor's innocence voraciously were suddenly being asked to show just one example of her previous failures or misconduct. The fact that her only documented reprimand had been for the assault on the Honorable Reginald Houseman, who had tried to order her to abandon Grayson to the Masadans did not help their cause to make Honor look worse. Even the killing of the hired gunman Summers and the death of the Earl North Hollow's son at her hands for the murder of her lover, Paul Tankersley showed her character quite clearly.

Suddenly, not everything looked quite so horrible any more. She had been reminded of why Sky Domes was being created and the will behind everyone involved. "Mac, get me a line to Sky Domes . We are going to cooperate fully with security and find out what really happened."

"Yes ma'am."

"How could they have blunted our plan? We had everything going perfectly! God seemed to be with us and we were getting the exact reaction we were aiming for," Marchent complained in their private meeting at the Mueller homestead. The defrocked priest was quite beside himself with anger and frustration.

Steadholder Burdette frowned as he checked the latest polls. Everything seemed to be building to the level of outcry where his faction could have easily ousted Harrington and seriously threatened the Protector's base of power. For four hours it had been going up like a rocket, then slammed into that other damned harlot's interview that somehow went out live. "Why didn't they squash that statement?"

"A 'technical' glitch. Or a miracle. And the facts from everything else that Harrington has ever done are overwhelming that she will not cut corners unless it is an emergency that requires it. Even her actions that received censure from her own government shows that it was only the pure cowardice of the ranking civilian that drove her to strike him across the face." Mueller hated to admit it, but he likely would have challenged the fool Houseman to a duel. And then run him through someplace painful that were not immediately fatal.

"How bad is it?" Burdette asked.

"We are not going to be able to push her out and with Benjamin protecting her... we might never be able to."

It was time to be looking at some cut-outs, he started to think. And some more drastic actions to protect his dear world, gifted to Graysons by God himself.

"At ease, commander. I would like to extend my personal thanks for your statement. It meant a lot to me and Grayson Sky Domes," Harrington said. She still looked a bit wan, but was back into fighting trim and could even sleep for a few hours here and there. Her mind shuddered away from how horrible things could have been if children had been killed as some lurid news reporters had envisioned and then told everyone that would listen.

Her personal steward McGuinness was thrilled, though he wished she slept even better. Her Armsman Andrew LaFollet silently echoed Mac's sentiments as Commander Sheila Manticoria smiled warmly at her.

"It was nothing but the truth. I've never seen you less than one hundred percent dedicated to doing your utmost and you bring that out in all of those under you, ma'am," the young demigoddess said, even as Voracious Curiosity nodded sagely. "I will admit that I tricked that newsie into a false sense of hope that he could skewer me with a poor sound bite. The fact that their time delay just happened to fail while on live TV had to be entirely bad luck on his part." She gave her superior officer a more feral grin there.

"I had wondered at the timing of that. I get the feeling that he will be a bit more cautious around you in the future. Sky Domes is tearing apart everything they can from their end, but they are a bit limited on data access. Planet Security has had to exclude them, though they have quite publicly gone on with all the information on their designs. Even if our competition could turn around and use it in the future on their own projects." That had troubled Honor just a little bit, but she could see why Clinksdale and Adam Gerrick had decided to do that. None of the technologies were exclusive to Grayson, having been purchased from Manticore as part of the economic incentives package when Grayson joined the Alliance.

"I have utmost confidence in Gerrick. I'm actually having to reign in my want to help, but a ship's captain, no matter how smart, should not be poking her nose into a ground engineering problems," the younger girl griped to herself. "I can't do everything on my own, of course."

"Just do your most at what you are allowed to do. I understand there is some pressure back in Manticore to force you onto the technical track. At least according to a little bird that happened by recently," the taller woman said.

Her eyes flickered over to Mac who was bringing in a platter of cheese and crackers along with her Armsman at the door. "I could probably do quite well there, but I need to impress upon my Legend a more martial imprint." At Honor's worried mental emote, she held up a hand. "That isn't to say I'm a glory hound, Lady Harrington, but that I have to push my legend along as far as I can. I still need to find out what happened to my mother and the more powerful I am, the more I can defend myself against Loki's son Slaiger, the new Norse God of Deceit. After all, our fates are entwined and he's already made several proxy attempts at killing me."

Honor's dark chocolate eyes gave her a brooding presence. "That is one of those downsides to your status, isn't it? Hercules had Hera's hatred, after all." She had actually studied up a bit on the old legends, like many people when Sheila's parentage had come up.

"She's not terribly fond of myself either, actually. But we were in the process of fighting a war against the released Titans," the girl noted as she shrugged again. She took her fruit juice from Mac with a smile.

"I still don't understand why you have such confidence in myself," Honor finally admitted slowly, then took a sip of her Tilman's.

"If you don't mind me interjecting?" Mac asked in a very polite tone. "I'm sure she just can see the superb officer that you try to project."

Honor grimaced that. "I'm not some sort of super-woman, unlike some present company."

"You managed to inspire me on my very first time in space. I might have been accidentally dragged along on the Fearless, but no manner of physical ability would have allowed me to survive. Just your wits, intelligence and bravery under fire in an truly trying situation. I studied the disaster you had been sent in to by Pavel Young. You could not have been given less support or more rope to hang yourself, yet you succeeded without an ounce of divine blood or favor." Sheila smiled. 'And we can feel how much you care for everyone.'

Honor felt her cheeks blush at the praise, especially at the pure and true feelings that the younger girl was letting her see. "That very nearly got me in trouble, but your refusal to press any charges along with the fact that you immediately joined the academy made the Admiralty only give me and my officers a verbal reprimand over it. It was a bit hectic." Now a deep amount of regret tinged her emotions.

That got her a quick mental scolding by two treecats and one human, much to her surprise.

"Admiral, let's leave it at Fate's whim. If it could send me centuries into the future, why could it not let me be inspired by you? Don't beat yourself up about that. We have too many important things to consider. Like the fact that this attack upon your reputation using your company and your people is just that; an attack." Sheila's eyes were quite cold. "The facts of some sort of accident had barely been reported and the first accusations of illegalities came out."

"It sure seems like that at times," Honor said while she shrugged helplessly as she held Nimitz to her chest.

"They had a fully researched blurb inside of fifteen minutes. While I could see someone jumping in on the bandwagon, it was too thoughtful and too well researched."

Honor nodded, wishing that this had all happened at a different time. With BatRonTwo moving to retake Casca, her command of the largest and most important defense fleet of Grayson weighed heavily on her shoulders. "So you are saying this is actually politically motivated." Honor's face had suddenly stilled as that shock hit her system.

"Yes. Some workers were killed and they are trying to use that to push their agenda against the Protector and yourself, Admiral." Sheila was frowning as she considered matters. Her supernatural powers lent themselves to her intellect and awareness, but her cute trick with the news reporter was about the best of her abilities to politically manipulate things. She had to admit to herself that she was more of a leader rather than an unscrupulous politician. "One thing we have to be aware of is that this could merely be the first step of a longer range plan that I think I've disrupted. They may become more desperate."

"Then I think the news that Adam Gerrick is on his way here for some reason is probably good news rather than more bad." Honor was thinking things through quite hard.

That did not quite cover the surprise as Adam Gerrick led Reverend Julius Hanks into the room. Sheila listened intently (and mentally congratulated the engineer for his concise and accurate work) as he explained that it had been external sabotage that had led to the domes collapsing.

"That explains why Mueller allowed a dome to be created. I had thought that unusual. A little clumsy, but who would suspect that he allowed it so that when it collapsed he could be the aggrieved partner, supposedly betrayed by 'that unnatural woman' and her godless ways. Not that I think you are godless, ma'am," Sheila said quickly.

"Please, call me Honor. What do you think, Reverend?" the admiral said as she rubbed her chin thoughtfully as she pet Nimitz.

"It does make a certain sense. Since people lives were lost, both from Sky Domes and Mueller's steading, this has become a matter of murder most heinous. Minister Sidemore is being brought in, as this could be construed as an act against the Sword. At least Prestwick with Planetary Security believes it quite possible," the man of faith admitted.

Honor tilted her head slightly. "And you are here?"

"To let you know that the Protector is taking this quite seriously. It obvious that parts of this are being manipulated quite heavily for the common man. In fact, if it had not been for the heartfelt recommendation given by Commander Manticoria, it is quite likely there would be strident calls to remove your Key."

That got an angry look from Honor and her Armsman.

"The Protector has called a meeting of the Keys to discuss this matter. Unfortunately, it does not look like we have any proof of who is behind it that will stand up in front of a court," Hanks admitted.

"Yes, but they don't know that. Carefully phrasing the summons to the Keys could tip them into making a mistake. But I think we should send Adam here to bed before we wake him. He is suffering from extreme exhaustion," Sheila said. "He'll be fine with rest, but he really should sleep for about six to ten hours."

Adam was indeed quite asleep, as he had finally felt able to rest once he had given over his burden to Lady Harrington.

Chapter 5: Assassination and Mayhem

Sheila shifted uncomfortably in the acceleration couch of Honor's pinnace. She had offered to head back to her command, but the admiral of Grayson had noted that she might be called to serve as witness as one of the holders of the Star of Grayson (and the second of Protector Mayhew champions.) She had given a raised eyebrow at the slightly less ragged form of Adam Gerrik as they went through the pomp and ceremony of getting an Admiral down to the ground who also happened to be a Steadholder.

"Sorry. But there was just so much to bring," the chief engineer of Sky Domes said apologetically.

"You were just lucky I was along to cart this mess," she grumped in good humor.

He had his mini-comp, data chips and miniature HD unit. On top of that he also had a complete hardcopy documentation of every stage of the Mueller project and his study teams' conclusions. That ran to over thirty kilos of paper that Honor's staff lieutenant had offered to carry. Only Sheila's ability to pick it up with one hand (dantily even!) had managed to dissuade him that it was not needed. Luckily for him, Sheila could do maneuver in Zero-G that most seasoned spacers did not believe possible to put all of his luggage away easily.

The young demigoddess was studying the civilian dressed Harrington. The dress seemed to suit her, the girl decided. She herself was wearing a simple formal suit of Manticorian make with a baby-blue ruffle. She petted Voracious Curiosity on her lap as they communed to quite a deep level.

Andrew LaFollet was in charge of the 'ground detachment' of the Harrington Armsmen. He appeared a bit unnerved that the slight girl who was only an inch taller than him had manhandled the heavy package with one hand, her duffle on the other.

Her own sword, something she had crafted in Phoebe's machine shop several months ago, was quite visible by its hilt sticking out. As the third ranking officer, she was sitting next to Honor as the Steadholder and Admiral. Reverend Hanks was a bit bemused by all the hoopla to take a simple shuttle.

'Shall we take time to practice?' the much taller woman asked telepathically, the emotional context quite overwhelming in eagerness. Nimitz and Voracious Curiosity both looked at her with wide eyes.

Sheila smiled at that even as she slightly nodded. 'Although you might want to tone done that slightly,' she telepathed back carefully with only a touch of commiseration. 'That might be considered shouting with your hands waving around.'

'Oh? Really?' Honor replied as her mental voice became steadier. 'I'm still amazed that I'm making any progress with this. I thought I was too old to adapt.'

'Too old? The Beowulf Medical Journals I've been reading have suggested that theoretically there might be a 'booster shot' type enhancement on the latest prolong. Mere mortals might live as long as they want, not just a few short centuries,' she replied with a giggle.

LaFollet put his best suffering expression on as he realized that the two women (well, one woman and one girl that could be his daughter) were obviously discussing something while being perfectly quiet in there seats.

'I don't know that I would want that, although I suppose having your family and friends around for longer might be appreciated,' Honor admitted after a moment consideration.

Sheila sent the image of children outliving their parents by decades and decades. 'I think it had to do with the trauma of first generation prolongs outliving their parents by such a large amount and the ever extending durations of prolong. We are defined by our parents.' The young demigoddess frowned. 'Even myself, though I have not found out what had happened to my own mother.'

'We all have to grow up some time,' the older woman tried to emote in a comforting manner.

That actually seemed to backfire, as Sheila's mood worsened. 'Everyone but myself. I appear to have accidentally stuck myself at eleven years of age.' The Pinnace started to cut through the upper atmosphere.

'So you will not change in appearance?' the Steadholder asked curiously.

That got Sheila to send back a bleak, humorless laugh even as VC snuggled up to her closer. 'I can change my appearance, but that isn't the truth. I wouldn't be me any more.'

"The expressions you are showing are quite interesting," Reverend Hanks noted curiously from across from Honor.

"Oh, sorry. We are, um, practicing projecting there," Sheila said, feeling very mortified at what was probably being very rude.

The pinnace suddenly lurched, then fell heavily off to port and dove vertically. The scream of air-breathing turbines rammed to full power and the pinnace was still veering sharply left in a desperate, controlled maneuver.

Honor had reached across the open area between her seat and Hanks, dragging his head.

"Crash positions!" Sheila yelled out.

The pinnace finished its dive and tried to pull out, but Master Chief Troubridge only almost pulled out perfectly. So he bounced the tail of the heavy assault shuttle, built of super-polymetals and meta-ceramics that would laugh at oldstyle 600lb. bombs.

The impeller-driven surface to air missile ripped the first one-sixth of the pinnace apart like an blender through a snowman. The pilot and crew all died instantly as they were composted into fragments and pureed flesh. The pinnace continued its destruction crash as Sheila desperately knocked away the falling overhead storage bays with inhuman strength. Hydrogen storage cells exploded after they ejected onto the tarmac even as the short stubby right wing and super-turbine cut a path through the concourse in a path of obliteration.

Dozens of people had died in the assassination attempt, but it had still failed to kill its target; Honor Harrington. VC and Nimitz were hissing in abject anger as Sheila pulled a three foot spike out of her shoulder while healing the serious gash on Honor's face and neck that almost caused her to bleed out. "Evacuate!" Sheila shouted even as she helped Reverend Hanks and Honor to their feet.

Lafollet groaned from where he lay bleeding to death if he did not get expert surgical help within seconds, his right arm crushed and shards of his ribs lay shattered in his broken chest.

A wave of Sheila's hand revitalized his life force, leaving him merely heavily bruised and unconscious. Then here petite boot slipped under him and flipped him onto her arm even as they moved to the emergency exit. They slid down the inflated escape tube to the tarmac, far away from the burning fires.

A quick glance around led Honor and Sheila both to head to the recessed edge of the runway.

"That was everyone," Sheila said to the survivors. They were a right mess, soot-covered, scorched and covered in more than a bit of blood.

VC suddenly hissed, looking off in the distance. A moment later, Nimitz joined in.

"What is that?" the battered Steadholder asked woozily.

"Supernatural troubles. Something is coming through the fires. Some sort of elemental fire demon. I think we are about to learn about a threat from their mythos," the young demigoddess said cautiously. Blue-green eyes passed over the figures, temporarily bolstering their life force.

Several varieties of creatures, crafted of purple fire, dashed around setting more and more of the spaceport ablaze. Emergency response teams were starting to find out that the fires were nearly impossible to quench as they seemed to ignore the need for fuel as it expanded behind the malicious spirits.

"We are needed to stop this before a lot more people get hurt. Stay here and keep your head down, Lady Harrington. This was likely focused at you or myself," Sheila shouted just before she took off in a blur.

Harrington guards had started to shoot at the burning monsters that were spreading fire in lurid trails of red fire. The roaring dragon leaped towards one of the young men, only to explode in the air as a lightning bolt struck with deafening power.

Fate seemed to fill the air, deadening Sheila and Voracious Curiosity's senses as much as the smoke tried to do. The pair hunted through the smoke. Abruptly, the young tree cat turned back the direction they had come from, snarling out her warbling war-cry.

Even in the middle of the blast-furnace heat, Sheila's heart chilled in sudden worry as she took off after her psychically-bonded companion. So she appeared through the smoke like a rocket just in time to see an old man step in between a Harrington guard and the Steadholder as the soldier fired his pulsar at short range.

A heavy presence of fate, of binding, was settling over the smoke-choked disaster as Sheila felt something that strove to hold her to only witness but not interfere as the old leader of Grayson's predominant Church of Humanity Unchained died in Honor Harrington's arms.

The murderous assassin raised his pistol to finish killing his target when he suddenly realized that he had just killed the most important religious leader of his world.

Sheila almost shot him anyways, but with a twist of her will, instead dashed across the ground towards the man.

"Lord, forgive me! I did not know! I did not know!" the assassin was screaming out in despair and outrage.

"Alive! We need him alive!" Honor called out as she saw the young girl hold up the frantically despondent assassin off the ground by his neck.

"She is a far better person than I am," Sheila said to the assassin in Harrington's soldier colors. "I would have just killed you."

Sheila stood in the back of the Conclave of Steadholders, feeling a bit like the fifth wheel. She kept half a mental ear as Nimitz and Voracious Curiosity conversed. Honor's Treecat had been quite happy that someone was able to finally clear up a lot of the confusion he had about Humanity and their (by the alien's thinking) strange ways.

The protector finally arrived, even as all the other Steadholder and newsies watched. More than a few of them realized something was abjectly wrong as the door warden neither challenged nor invited Benjamin Mayhew into the room. The older man walked to his near throne-like chair at the top of the horseshoe arrangement. Honor Harrington's seat was quite empty, her bared sword upon a cushion in front of her seat.

It was only after he started to speak of treason and traitors within the room that they realized that the 1st Elder of the Church of Humanity Unchained had not followed him in.

The drama played out with Honor entering the Conclave and demanding justice against Steadholder Burdette. Sheila's blue-green eyes studied the steadholders, noting men who held power. Burdette was a given, as his assassin had confessed being sent there. Mueller, on the other hand, was very convincing. She doubted that anyone else would have seen the minute tensing of his muscles that betrayed he had not been shocked at the idea of an attack on the Harrington Steadholder.

Sheila continued to listen as Honor made her entrance and declared her grievances for the murders of her people and the attempted murder of herself. Then it was her cue, as she decided to showcase herself in a legendary manner. Her hair lit up, like strands of sunlight as she stepped out of the shadows.

"Protector Mayhew," she called out as all eyes turned towards her. "More than Grayson was attacked, as allies against the encroaching Havenites were injured or killed. Two of her majesty's soldiers were killed while I myself was injured."

Burdette stared at her like she was some sort of strange vision that he could blink away. "This harlot declares that she is an injured party?"

The gathered Steadholders found themselves stuck between two imperatives. Their First Elder had been murdered and a Steadholder attacked, so their duty was clear. Yet their fear and hatred of the young girl who was flaunting her inhuman nature in front of them cried out to remove her from their sacred places.

"These are indeed serious charges," Mayhew said, hiding his surprise at her visage quite well. He studied the two women in front of him. One looked like some sort of Amazon, tall and regal in her Grayson style robes. The other looked like a very young girl in the navy blue formal uniform of Manticore. His eyes narrowed as he realized she was carrying a sword. Both of their treecats were watching the scene intently.

That was when the traitor made his last bid for his life, invoking the right of the duel to decide his fate. He had noted that his female opponent was a bit battered and thought it the easiest way to 'discredit' her and the Protector.

Honor Harrington's response to accept it did not surprise Sheila like it did almost everyone else, as they had sparred a few times and she knew how deadly the women had become with her Grayson style sword. Benjamin found himself stymied, as he did not want his champion killed. The tall woman from Sphynx took the choice from him, asking if he wanted him dead or just defeated.

The end (after a small delay for Burdette to have his sword delivered) was quite shocking, as Harrington killed him with moments of the first swing. On live HD, everyone saw the champion of the Protector mete out terrible justice.

It was only as Sheila was leaving that the newsies swarmed over to her. As she did not have any bodyguards and real prestige here, she was quite a bit more open game to the local paparazzi.

"Do you believe that it was divine justice?" an older, bald Grayson reporter asked bluntly.

"I do believe justice was served, as Steadholder Burdette has met his end after his heinous deeds," the girl replied simply. Even with her 'stuck' apparent age of eleven, she was nearly as tall most of the reporters.

"What is with your hair?" another, younger reporter demanded.

"I am merely making a statement of my status." She closed her eyes and in an eyeblink, the hair had turned (temporarily) to a white-blonde instead of the silky sunlight. "I have no reason to hide who and what I am."

"Would you have stepped up to accept the duel if Harrington had not?" a third reporter asked.

"There was never any doubt that she would do her duty, so I could do no less. I am afraid that it would have been less challenge than just me killing him. I do have some physical abilities far above a normal man or woman," she replied simply. At that point, she continued to her own air car.

"Steadholder Harrington would like you to accompany her back to her Steading and then to the fleet, Commander Manticoria," one of Protectors Own said as he slipped into the driver's seat.

"Certainly. Though I'm not sure what she wants," the teen mused to herself. She cuddled with her Treecat as she considered if she had hurt or helped matters here today.

Sheila followed Honor out of the pinnace and into the gravity control of the GNS Terrible. She was following along like a good, junior officer, though she would be happy to get back to her ship tomorrow. For the nonce, she was going to be debriefed on the whole sordid mess and how this should be explained in her official report back to Manticore (and to the Queen).

Honor was looking a bit muzzy, as Sheila had offered to help her nap out on the short trip into space. The tall woman with long, dark brown hair turned to the Manticorian officer. "Well, I still think I need a bit of real sleep. But I should be up in about six hours. We can go over the report to the Admiralty. I mean the Manticorian Admiralty. In the morning."

"I'll have a first draft ready for you. I am going to com the Phoebe and make sure that Lt. Commander Reynolds has any pressing paperwork that I have to do that he could not sign off on."

Honor nodded, even as she sleepily picked up Nimitz. Her Armsmen followed behind her, the lead one nodding to her as they passed.

So four hours later when the Peeps showed up, Sheila was still dressed and finishing up one of her very concise and easy to read reports.

The young demigoddess slipped into her uncomfortable skinsuit, avoiding thinking about the problem of Voracious Curiosity who did not have her own life support system here on-ship. That was back on the Phoebe. The com-chime at the door admitted a young lieutenant.

"Pardon me, miss, but the admiral sent me to make sure you are fine. She invited you to her command center at your convenience," the young Grayson explained.

'Send me to Laughs Brightly little safe-house,' VC telepathed to her human.

"That's a good idea. Why don't you run along to the admirals quarters," Sheila said to her Treecat. At the lieutenants questioning look, she gave him an explanation. "She figured out that the best place to stay would be in Nimitz's life support module."

"Smart that," he said in admiration.

VC took off down the corridor at a run, a literal blur of motion even as Sheila let herself be led to the admiral's command center off the bridge.

Honor looked up as she entered the bridge. "Manticoria. I want you to take a look here," she called out. Her command staff only looked a little surprised.

Her blue-green eyes studied the holo tank and the estimated ships in class and numbers. "That's a large number of battleships. A neat trick to gather those without tipping off NavInt, but not impossible. They are generally used for rear security and suppression of dissent. Troop and fast cargo ships? And staying beyond the hyper-limit. Not here for Grayson. Not nearly enough ships to occupy the planet and orbitals. So potentially here for a snatch and grab. And if they pull back after getting our specifications and samples of hardware, they can even hit Endicot on their way out. Just one of those freighters full of modern weapons could turn that whole occupation into a bloodbath."

Captain Yu whistled from his position on the main bridge where he had been listening in. "She's right. I can see the Peeps doing everything she mentioned just to make this a huge headache."

"We don't have the firepower to defeat that fleet," Honor noted flatly.

"No. Not even if they keep heading in fat and happy. "Mercedes Brigham, another older officer from Second Yeltsin, frowned. "They can just pull back out faster than us and then pound us from a distance. At least that is what I would do."

That was when it seemed like a light-switch had been flipped in Honor and Sheila's head.

"He doesn't know Battle Squadron 1 is here, otherwise he would not have his forces coming in like this," Honor voiced in bemused wonder. She was glad that she was slightly better rested than she had hoped. The nap on the flight up had helped quite a bit.

The demigoddess narrowed her eyes. "They know we captured their ships of the wall, but Grayson actually repaired it almost twice as fast as NavInt estimates the Peeps could have. So they think all these super-dreadnoughts that we could have repaired are actually out at Candor and Minette."

"That's why I wanted you here. Admiral Whitehaven gave you quite a recommendation from your time on his staff in your jacket. Manticoria, I want you to let your ship know that you have been temporarily reassigned to my staff," the admiral explained her thoughts. "Here's my plan."

A very messy fleet deployment started to take shape on the holo tank. The rest of her staff leaned forward as the quick plan shaped up.

Sheila keyed in a private transmission to the Phoebe. "Lt. Commander Reynolds, I have some good news and bad news."

The older, handsome man frowned as he looked into his pickup. "Let's hear the bad news first then, I suppose."

"It does not appear I will be released to resume command of the Phoebe. Which leads me to your good news, that you will be commanding a ship into the upcoming battle. I'm sure that will look good for a promotion board of your own." She gave him a quick smile.

"We'll do you proud, captain," Reynolds promised. He actually looked more than a little pleased at the situation.

The teen demigoddess turned back to the holotank, seeing the very 'sloppy looking' deployment that would hide the ten super-dreadnoughts in the middle of the formation that was the key to this desperate gamble. Honor went over what her deployment would be used for, which was basically a absolutely short range ambush to kick the guts out of the fleet.

"Any questions?" Honor asked as she looked over her group.

Her eyes flickered across the deployment, judging and weighing the options. "Post-contact tactics? If we have Battlecruiser Squadron 1 shape a course to the hyperlimit, we can have them microjump of zero-distance and deploy decoy beacons of an arriving 'relief force' just before we make before combat. If we get mauled, it might make break off their attack thinking that reinforcements could crush them." She quickly sketched in the air a locus for Brentworth's smaller fleet. He was currently doing his very best impression of a hole in space.

"Tricky." Honor considered the matter for five seconds. "Set it up, Commander Manticoria."

With that, the ships defending the system left the near Grayson orbit, looking very much like a confused panicked response and nothing like the very carefully planned illusion. Each superdreadnought had their missile-pods actually within their wedge, while all of the smaller ships had just enough pods to actually slow them to match the wall.

The Peeps noticed some discrepancies, but did not actually spot the hidden trap. Believing Honor's deception, Thurston then split off the second part of the mission, as they would be redundant for killing the Mantie 'battlecruisers' ahead of them. Sheila adjusted the planned deception after their immediate battle, though it was really timing.

Five minutes before contact, Battlecruiser 1 managed to make their shortest range hyper jump. They looked like a sloppy transition, even as they smartly launched drones that started broadcasting the emissions of two classes of super-dreadnoughts and one dreadnought. (Sheila was always against using a uniform squadron one type, as that was very rarely an actual occurrence in real life.)

Vice Admiral Alexander Thurston nearly had a heart attack, only to realize that the new 'task force' was too far to the rear and not able to catch up to him. He started giving out orders to track them while he grappled with the numbers. They were suddenly a lot closer to parity to his own fleet. He leaned forward to study his own holo tank. Both of his fleets could take the combined fleets, but it would take careful management not to be defeated in detail. So his order to hold the other fleet steady until after the first clash was a quite reasonable course. He was quickly moving to defeat them in detail (or so he thought.)

And the arrival had distracted his senior sensor techs from noticing Battlesquadron 1 slipping into a dispersion for their wall with their super-dreadnoughts. So the fleet was totally surprised when they reached missile range. Both fleet spat death into each other face, with the Peeps greatly stunned by the overwhelming attack.

Two things happened as both fleets hit their range. A full twenty percent of the lighter units of the Peeps fired as one, targeting RMN Phoebe as the Grayson SDs fired over seventeen hundred missiles right back in their faces.

It was a kick in the gut that the Peeps had not even expected, nor had any time to adapt to. With less than two minutes, Thurston barely had time to realize what had happened and to try and order a targeting change. That cost him nearly fifty seconds and one of his salvos of missiles. Theisman was only barely starting to shape his own course back to the main taskforce when his gravitic sensors told him of the massive launch of missiles that sent a chill up his back.

The heart of the PNS Task Force was hit by over eight hundred missiles as barely forty-five percent of the missiles were jammed, lured off course or destroyed. Admiral Thuston never knew exactly what had struck him down for sure in the last minutes of his life as all of his battleships were destroyed outright.

The return fire ripped into the center of the Grayson and Manticorean fleet, knocking two super-dreadnoughts out of action and wounding all the rest. GNS Terrible shuddered under the strain and battle damage. Over a third of the battlecruisers on the Grayson side were destroyed outright or knocked out of commission, with even greater losses among the lighter units. RMN Phoebe just disappeared, along with its sister escort as they came under too much fire.

CO Rear Admiral Thomas Theisman and People's Commissioner Dennis LePic just stared at the carnage on their long range sensors.

"What happened?" LePic demanded.

"We just got the worst suckerpunch in history is what happened." Theisman leaned closer to see what happened with the follow up waves.

Here the greater mass of the super-dreadnoughts really played up their strength, but the follow up salvos from the Peeps were only targeting the SDs. The true carnage happened when the carefully laid out wall of the line of SDs interpolated as the two fleets passed through each other. It was only twenty seconds while in energy range, but that was more than enough time.

The damage that full broadsides of a super-dreadnought could inflict was horrific, as not one battleship passed through and not many battlecruisers. Acting as if in perfect command, the Grayson fleet started to turn ponderously to meet up with the relief forces that had just arrived.

Theisman could not believe the sudden turnaround. It was like Third Yeltsin all over again. The rear admiral turned to his commissioner gravely. "I regret to inform you that taking Yeltsin or Endicott is now impossible, especially with the addition of the relief super-dreadnoughts that have just arrived." Something about the timing and how everything worked out seemed slightly too neat, but a quick tap of his command console brought up the disposition of the new fleet and its escorts. Five Sphinx-class SDs, two Manticore-class SDs and one Bellephorin-class dreadnought was a serious force.

He hesitated here for just a second. This could be an elaborate ruse. He had noted the transition and then conversion to wedge powered acceleration was slightly suspect. But no admiral that he knew would try to fake a dreadnought in his relief force. Unless it was someone willing to make a perfect deception.

"I-" LePic was a bit more capable of reading the holotank than he had let on. Even without that relief force, taking Yeltsin was likely to be a bloody affair, no matter how damaged those super-dreadnoughts were in the primary force. In fact, if the two forces converged, they would have sixteen super-dreadnoughts versus their remaining battleships and battlecruisers. "I fully agree, admiral. In fact, I order you to retreat so that we can retain as many of the people's lives as possible."

Theisman turned away from the holotank, sighing in relief. That order just made his whole life easier.

The buzzer on Honor's door sounded as she stepped into her shower. Mac would deal with the visitor while she cleaned up enough to sack out for four hours. She raised an eyebrow as she saw Sheila petting her treecat on her couch.

"Commander?" the admiral asked of the girl.

"Sorry, I was trying to wrap my head around the fact that the only reason Voracious Curiosity and I are alive is because we fell into the plot against your life, your honor." Her blue-green eyes were flat and listless, quite unlike her normal bright and inquisitive expression she normally wore.

Honor frowned as she tried to muddle her way through the situation. "While it is horrible what happened to your command, I am glad that you survived. That post-contact plan turned my adhoc desperation plan into something resembling a reasonable win."

Sheila nodded carefully. "Phoebe was specifically targeted for destruction at a fifty percent higher priority than any other light cruiser."

"Certainly not-" Honor cut herself off. "What sort of analysis shows that?" The younger officer rarely brought up something without the ability to back it up. She picked up Nimitz to hold him tight.

"I was going over the battle again, to try and figure out what we could have done better, though really getting us in close like you did was almost picture perfect, admiral. In the first salvo, almost twice as many missiles were fired at the Phoebe as compared to any lighter unit. In fact, they shot as many missiles at it as they did at our battlecruisers. They murdered my ship."

"You can't blame yourself for that." It was obvious to Honor's eyes that she did though.

"Can you think of any reason that a light cruiser should be singled out to be destroyed with all hands? Its inference, but I think someone killed my command in an attempt to murder me. They were-" Sheila's lips pulled back in a rictus of anger. "-collateral damage. I might as well have killed them myself."

The Steadholder frowned even as Mac brought in a snack and Tillman bear. The survivor's guilt would be horrendous... "What actions are you going to take to track this attack back to its instigators?" Get her thinking, focused on solving the problem.

Sheila blinked at that. "I hadn't- That's a wonderful thought. I can work with Grayson naval intelligence with the captured officers." VC purred as she rubbed her face against her human's cheek. "We know it is someone with pull in the People's Republic."

"Welcome to being hated. I shudder to think what would happen if I fell into their hands," Honor said with a tight smile. "I'll cut you some orders and talk to Protector Benjamin about what happened. I think he will be more than willing to help you in your investigation."

"Thank you, Lady Admiral Harrington. And thank you, Nimitz, for letting VC share your life support module," she finished by talking directly to the cat while layering on the more complex telepathic communication.

Nimitz turned his head and then nodded. Sheila stood up and bowed, then exited as gracefully as she could. Honor's warm, brown eyes watched her until the door closed, wishing for once that her burgeoning telepathic ability could not feel the young woman's despair so keenly.

Honor would have to make sure she got the counselling she would so desperately need.


Marjorie Sylvester was in bed when the news hit Asgard, weeks after the battle of Fourth Yeltsin. Her personal assistant made sure to forward her the information on the battle as a priority, along with the list of casualties. Her red hair was damp and matted, even as her skin glowed from her exertions of earlier. Languidly, she keyed open the holotank dimly in the darkness that was lit only by candles spread around her lavish bedroom.

Her blue eyes narrowed in consternation as she read the first, stunning bit of information. The Manticorians had smashed another Peep fleet, again making it look easy. The People's Republic was calling it a sham and an ambush that was designed to slaughter their people who just wished to free the Graysons from their unenlightened plutocratic rule, but anyone could read between the lines that Fourth Yeltsin had been another attack to destroy the anti-Peep alliance.

Her too pretty face showed a cold smile as she read through the list of destroyed ships. Phoebe was listed in the middle of the Royal Manticorian Navy losses. For a long second she had a high hope that her obstacle had been destroyed, only to be dashed as she read the list of medals of valor and distinction were laid out.

Even her summoning a curse of fire demons from deep in the heart of Musspelheim had failed to distract her from the most Fateful moment. The battle had to be the most fateful thing there, right?

"Is there a problem, lover?" her latest beau asked as he rolled over. "Don't be cold-"

"Shut up!" the daughter of Slaeger Lokison snarled. "Don't ever call me... that."

"What's the big deal?" the too handsome model she had picked up at the party last night asked. A hint of fear was starting to seep into his vain consciousness. "Let me warm you up-"

"Forbranna," she ordered as flames leaped from the candles in purple sparks.

Mikey Davidson looked at the sparks in awe until the first one landed on his unblemished skin. And started to burn as ordered.

Purple fire washed over the room scorching and scouring everything... everything but Marjorie Sylvester as she stood up from her charring bed. She ignored the walking corpse as he ran for the door, screaming in agony.

Marjorie, demigoddess of Ruination and Scorching, had planning to do. Nothing would stand in the way of her ascension.