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White Haven's pinnace, unlike the ones which had followed it into the boat bay, was almost empty when it left. He and Honor, as befitted their seniority, sat in the two seats closest to the hatch, but those seats were a virtual island, surrounded by emptiness as their juniors gave them space. Andrew LaFollet, Honor's personal armsman, sat directly behind them, and Lieutenant Robards, White Haven's flag lieutenant, sat two rows back from there, with Warner Caslet, Carson Clinkscales, Solomon Marchant, Jasper Mayhew, Scotty Tremaine, and Senior Chief Horace Harkness scattered out behind him. Alistair McKeon should have been there, but he had remained behind with Jesus Ramirez, Honor's second-in-command, to help organize the transfer of her Elysians to the planetary surface.
She really ought to have stayed aboard Farnese and organized that transfer herself, but White Haven had been politely insistent about the need to get her and her story on their joint way to higher authority. So Alistair had remained behind, along with the other survivors who'd been with her since their capture in Adler, and she glanced over her shoulder one more time at the handful of people who would accompany her on the next stage of her journey, then returned her attention to the man seated beside her.
It was easier than it had been. One thing about moments of tempestuous emotion, she'd discovered: they simply could not be sustained. Indeed, the stronger they were, the faster it seemed people had to step back to gather their inner breath if they intended to cope with their lives. Which, fortunately, both she and White Haven did. The murmuring undercurrent remained, flowing between them even if she was the only one who could sense it, but it was bearable. Something she could deal with, if not ignore.
Sure it is. I'll just keep telling myself that.
"I'm sure it will be months before we get all the details straight, Milady," the earl said, and Honor hid a wry mental grimace at his formality. He clearly had no intention of calling her by her given name . . . which was probably wise of him. "Lord knows we've only scratched the surface so far! Still, there are a few things I simply have to ask you about right now."
"Such as, My Lord?"
"Well, for one thing, just what the devil does 'ENS' stand for?"
"I beg your pardon?" Honor cocked her head at him.
"I can understand why they're not 'HMS,' given that you've been acting in your Grayson persona, not your Manticoran one," White Haven said, gesturing at the blue uniform she wore. "But that being the case, I would have expected your units to be designated as Grayson ships. Obviously they aren't, and I haven't been able to come up with any other organization, except perhaps the Erewhon Navy, to fit your terminology."
"Oh." Honor gave him one of her crooked smiles and shrugged. "That was Commodore Ramirez's idea."
"The big San Martino?" White Haven asked, frowning as he tried to be sure he'd fitted the right name to the right face on a com screen.
"That's him," Honor agreed. "He was the senior officer in Camp Infernowe never would have been able to pull it off without his supportand he thought that given the fact that we were escaping from a planet officially called Hades, we ought to call ourselves the Elysian Space Navy. So we did."
"I see." White Haven rubbed his chin, then grinned at her. "You do realize you've managed to open yet another can of legal worms, don't you?"
"I beg your pardon?" Honor repeated in a rather different tone, and he laughed at her obvious puzzlement.
"Well, you were acting as a Grayson, My Lady . . . and you're a steadholder. If I remember correctly, the Grayson Constitution has a very interesting provision about armed forces commanded by its steadholders."
"It" Honor broke off and stared at him, her single natural eye very wide, and she heard the sudden hiss of an indrawn breath from the armsman behind her.
"No doubt you're better informed than I am," White Haven said into her sudden silence, "but it was my understanding that steadholders were specifically limited to no more than fifty personal armed retainers, like the Major here." He nodded courteously over his shoulder at LaFollet.
"That's correct, My Lord," Honor agreed after a moment. She'd been Steadholder Harrington for so long that it no longer seemed unnatural to have somehow become a great feudal magnate, yet she hadn't even thought about the possible constitutional implications of her actions on Hell.
She should have, for this was one point on which the Constitution was totally unforgiving. Every armsman in the service of Harrington Steading answered to Honor in one way or another, but most did so only indirectly, through the administrative machinery of her steading's police forces. Only fifty were her personal liege men, sworn to her service, and not the steading's. Any order she gave those fifty men had the force of law, so long as it did not violate the Constitution, and the fact that she'd given it shielded them from any consequences for having obeyed even if it did. She could be held responsible for it; they could not, but those fifty were the only personal force Steadholder Harrington was permitted.
Steadholders might command other military forces from within the chain of command of the Grayson Army or Navy, but to satisfy the Constitution, the command of those forces must be lodged in the established Grayson military with the specific approval of the planet's ruler. And Protector Benjamin IX had not said a word about anything called "the Elysian Space Navy."
She looked over her shoulder at LaFollet, and her armsman gazed back. His face was calm enough, but his gray eyes looked a bit anxious, and she raised an eyebrow.
"Just how badly have I stepped on my sword, Andrew?" she asked him, and despite himself, he smiled, for "sword" had a very specific connotation on Grayson. But then he sobered.
"I don't really know, My Lady. I suppose I ought to've said something about it, but it never occurred to me at the time. The Constitution is pretty blunt, though, and I think at least one steadholder was actually executed for violating the ban. That was three hundred years ago or so, but"
He shrugged, and Honor chuckled.
"Not a good precedent, however long ago it was," she murmured, and turned back to White Haven. "I guess I should have gone ahead and called them units in the Grayson Navy after all, My Lord."
"That or the RMN," he said judiciously. "You hold legal rank in both, so the chain of command would have covered you in either, I imagine. But it might be just a little awkward the way things actually worked out. Nathan and I" he flicked a small nod at the imperturbable young lieutenant behind them "discussed this on our way to Farnese. He actually went so far as to consult Benjamin the Great's library. I don't believe there's been a precedent since the one Major LaFollet just referred to, but the fact that a steadholder not only held command in but actually created a military force not authorized by the Protector could be a real problem. Not with Benjamin, of course." A casual shooing gesture of his right hand banished that possibility to well-deserved limbo. "But there are still those on Grayson who feel more than a little . . . uncomfortable with his reforms and see you as the emblem of them. I have no doubt that some members of that faction would love to find a way to embarrass youand himby seizing on any weapon, even one as specious as that sort of pettifogging legalism. I'm sure Benjamin's advisers will see the problem as soon as I did, but I thought it might be as well to point it out to you now so you could be thinking about it."
"Oh, thank you, My Lord," Honor said, and both of them chuckled. It was a brief moment, but it felt good. At least we can still act naturally around one another. And who knows? If we act that way long enough, maybe it will actually become natural again. That would be nice. I think.
She brushed the thought aside and leaned back, crossing her legs and ignoring Nimitz's mock-indignant protest as her lap shifted under him.
"I trust you haven't had any more interesting thoughts, My Lord?" she said politely to White Haven, and the earl smiled.
"No, I haven't," he assured her, then rather spoiled the reassurance by adding, "On the other hand, you have been gone for over two T-years, Milady, and everyone thought you were dead. There are bound to be quite a few complications waiting for you to straighten out, don't you think?"
"Indeed I do." She sighed, and ran the fingers of her hand through her short-cropped hair. She missed the longer, more luxuriant length she'd managed to produce before her capture, but the Peeps had shaved it all away in the brig of PNS Tepes, and the loss of her arm had made it impractical to grow it all the way back out.
"I'm sure there are, as well, Milady," White Haven said, and shrugged as she glanced at him again. "I have no real idea what they might be. Well, there are one or two things I can think of, but I feel it would be more advisable to let Protector Benjamin discuss them with you."
His face was admirably calm, but Honor felt a sudden prickle of suspicion. He did know something, she thought, but whatever it was, he didn't expect it to have serious or unpleasant repercussions. There wasn't enough worry in his feelings for that. But there was a hefty dose of wicked amusement, a sense of anticipation that fell short (barely) of gloating but was definitely of the naughty little boy "I've got a seeeeecret!" sort.
She eyed him with scant favor, and he smiled beatifically. Like their shared laughter of a few moments before, the amusement flickering in his depths was a vast relief compared to the emotions he had no intention of ever expressing to her, and she was glad. That did not, however, make her feel a bit better when it came to worrying over just what sort of land mines could afford him so much anticipatory delight.
"There've been a few problems back home in the Star Kingdom that I do know about, however," he went on after a moment. "For one thing, your title was passed on to your cousin Devon when you were officially declared dead."
"Devon?" Honor rubbed the tip of her nose, then shrugged. "I never really wanted to be a countess anyway," she said. "Her Majesty insisted on itI certainly didn't!so I really can't complain if someone else has the title now. And I suppose Devon is my legal heir, though I hadn't thought much about it." She grinned crookedly. "I suppose I should have considered it long ago, but I'm still not really used to thinking in dynastic terms. Of course," she chuckled wickedly, "neither was Devon! Do you happen to know how he took his sudden elevation?"
"Grumpily, I understand." White Haven shook his head. "Said it was all a bunch of tomfoolery that would only get in the way of his research on his current monograph."
"That's Devon," Honor agreed with something very like a giggle. "He's probably the best historian I know, but getting his nose out of the past has always been all but impossible!"
"So I was told. On the other hand, Her Majesty insisted someone had to carry on the Harrington title. She was quite firm about it, according to my brother." White Haven paused, and Honor nodded her understanding. William Alexander was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the second ranking member of the Cromarty Government. If anyone was likely to be privy to Queen Elizabeth's thinking, he was. "She personally discussed it with your cousin . . . at some length, I understand," the earl added.
"Oh, dear!" Honor shook her head, her good eye brimming with delight. She'd had her own experience of Elizabeth III in insistent mode, and the thought of dear, stuffy, bookish Devon in the same position filled her with unholy glee.
"Well, she also got around to actually providing some lands to go with the title, as well," White Haven told her. "So at least the new Earl Harrington found himself with the income to support his new dignities."
"She did?" Honor demanded, and he nodded. "What sort of lands?"
"Quite a nice chunk of the Crown Reserve in the Unicorn Belt, I believe," he said, and Honor blinked.
The term "lands" was used in the Star Kingdom as a generic label for any income-producing holding associated with a patent of nobility. It was a sloppy term, but, then, both the original colonial charter and the Constitution tended to be a bit sloppy in places, as well. The same term had been used from the very earliest days of the Manticore colony to refer to any income source, whether it was actual lands, mineral or development rights, fishery rights, a chunk of the broadcast spectrum for HD, or any other of a whole host of grants, which had been shared out among the original colonists in proportion to their financial contributions to the colonizing expedition. Probably as much as a third of the Star Kingdom's current hereditary peerage held no actual land on any planetary surface as a direct consequence of its ennoblement. Well, no, that wasn't quite true. Virtually all the hereditary members of the Lords had at least acquired properly titled seats somewhere to support their aristocratic dignity, but the real income which had permitted them to do so often came from very different sources.
Still, it was highly unusual these days for the Crown to dip into the Crown Reserve to create those income sources, if for no other reason than that the Reserve had dwindled over the years since the Star Kingdom's founding. The usual procedure was for the Crown to request the Commons to approve the creation of the required "lands" as a charge on the public purse, not to split them off from the bundle of lands which still belonged personally to Elizabeth III, which was what the Crown Reserve really was. And that was especially true for a hereditary title like her own, since unlike the grants for life titles, its holdings would remain permanently associated with it. So if the Queen had irrevocably alienated part of the fabulously wealthy Unicorn asteroid belt from the Crown in Devon's favor, she'd clearly been serious about her desire for the Harrington title to be properly maintained.
A sudden thought struck her, and she stiffened in her chair.
"Excuse me, My Lord, but you said Devon inherited my Manticoran title?" The earl nodded. "Do you happen to know what Grayson did about my steadholdership? Did they pass it on to Devon, as well?"
"I believe there was some discussion of that," White Haven said after a moment, and Honor's eye narrowed as the sense of amusement she'd already tasted peaked momentarily. "In the end, however, they made other arrangements."
"I really don't think it would be proper for me to go into that, Milady," he told her, with a commendably straight face. "It's a rather complicated situation, and your sudden return from the dead is only going to make it even more complicated. And since it's a purely domestic Grayson problem, I'm not entitled to any say in its resolution. In fact, it would probably be inappropriate even for me to express an opinion about it."
"I see." Honor regarded him very levelly for a moment, then smiled thinly. "I see, indeed, My Lord, and perhaps someday the opportunity will arise for me to repay your admirable self-restraint in kind."
"We can always hope, Milady," he agreed. "On the other hand, I doubt very much that I'll ever make a dramatic return from the dead following my very public execution."
"If I'd guessed that whatever it is you're so darkly hinting at was waiting for me, I certainly would have thought twice about the idea," Honor said tartly, and he chuckled. But then his face and his emotions sobered.
"In all honesty, Milady, and all jesting aside, Grayson was thrown into far more disorder by the report of your death than the Star Kingdom was. We have scores of earls and countesses in the Star Kingdom; there are less than ninety steadholders on Grayson. There were all sorts of repercussions there, and that's why I agreed with Admiral Kuzak and Governor Kershaw that you ought to return to Grayson first."
Honor nodded yet again. Although White Haven's Eighth Fleet was based on Trevor's Star while it prepared for operations elsewhere, Theodosia Kuzak was the system's military CO. She was junior to White Haven, but her Third Fleet was still tasked as the system's primary defensive unit.
Governor Winston Kershaw was her civilian counterpart: the Manticoran Alliance's official administrator and head of the commission overseeing the organization of San Martin's post-liberation planetary government. He was also a younger brother of Jonathan Kershaw, Steadholder Denby, and one of Benjamin IX's stronger supporters, and he'd been quite . . . firm about how best to handle the political aspects of Honor's return. In particular, he'd been adamant in insisting that word of her return must remain completely confidential until she'd had a chance to meet personally with Benjamin.
"I still don't know if I completely agree with the Governor," she said after a moment, but White Haven shook his head.
"I think he's absolutely correct," he disagreed. "The political and diplomatic consequences of your escape are going to be enormous, and Grayson deserves to know the full details first. We'll send a courier boat ahead to both Yeltsin and Manticore, but the dispatches will be classified at the highest level available to us. Not even the courier boats' crews will know what they say, and we're clamping a security blackout on the story here. I can't guarantee it, but I doubt very much that Her Majesty will allow a hint of the information to leak into the system data nets until the Protector's government has had an opportunity to debrief you in person and decide how to deal with it."
"Are you certain about that, My Lord?" Honor asked him. "I don't question the basic logic, but why not send me in a courier boat rather than a dispatch? And why the long way around instead of by way of Manticore? It's going to take over three weeks for me to get to Grayson without using the Junction. That seems like an awful long time to try to keep the arrival of so many people on San Martin a secret!"
"As far as keeping secrets is concerned, there's no real problem. Oh, I doubt the secret will keep very long in local space. The story's just too good. It's bound to get out, sooner probably rather than later, but we control both termini of the Junction. That means nobody outside this system will hear a thing about it until we let the word out through Manticore or somebody carries the news elsewhere through a regular hyper trip. Which means no one on the outside is going to hear a thing about it for at least several weeks, and probably a lot longer than that, given the traffic control we've clamped down locally. Especially since McQueen sprang her damned offensives."
"One thing that did was make it very plain that we've been lax in our security arrangements. They clearly had hellishly good intelligence for most of their ops, and they had to have gotten it someway. 'Neutral shipping' in the Junction probably explains a good bit of it, at least in the case of Basilisk and Trevor's Star. Plain old visual examination can tell them a lot about what they see, and the Government has decided that we simply can't restrict Junction traffic patterns much further. That's the real reason we're cutting down on military Junction transits as much as we can, especially transits by new construction we don't want the Peeps to know about."
He shrugged, in acceptance of orders from his civilian superiors, if not in actual agreement with them.
"Anyway, I'm confident we can at least keep the news from breaking until after Grayson's had an opportunity to decide how to handle it domestically. As for sending you the long way around, that's a consequence of the ship we're using, since it's part of that new construction we're keeping people from seeing. But that was Governor Kershaw's call, and while I'm sure you would have preferred a shorter voyage, it's certainly appropriate to send you home on the senior Grayson ship present. And even if it weren't, I'm not foolish enough to argue with a bunch of Graysons about it!"
He grinned at her expression, then sobered.
"In addition, your transit time will give Her Majesty and the Protector both some time to consider how they want to handle the official announcement before you actually arrive. And they're going to want to give it some very careful thought, I'm sure." He shook his head. "I can't even begin to imagine how it will all play out on the diplomatic front. You do appreciate what a monumental black eye you've just given the Peeps in general and State Security and Public Information in particular, don't you?"
"I have wiled away the occasional hour on the way here thinking about that," Honor admitted, and it was White Haven's turn to smile at the wicked gleam in her eye. "In fact, honesty compels me to admit that I've actually spent a bit of time here and there gloating over it," she went on. "Especially the bit about my execution." The amusement in her eye vanished, replaced by a hard, dangerous light which would have made White Haven acutely uneasy if it had been directed at him. "I've seen the imagery myself now, you know. It was in Farnese's memory." She shivered involuntarily at the memory of her own brutal "execution," but the light in her eye never faded. "I think I know exactly how my parents must have reacted to that. And Mac and Miranda." Her jaw tightened for a moment. "Whoever put that particular bit of sick, sadistic footage together has a lot to answer for, and knowing how hard Pierre and Saint-Just will shortly be looking for a scapegoat has afforded me considerable consolation over the past few weeks."
"I'm sure it has," White Haven agreed. "And judging from even the brief report you've had time to give us so far, I imagine the consequences will actually go a lot further than that in the end. You do realize that you've just executedyou should pardon the expressionthe largest mass prison break in the history of mankind, don't you? You got outwhat? Four hundred thousand people?"
"Something close to that, once Cynthia Gonsalves gets here," Honor said, and he nodded at the correction. Captain Cynthia Gonsalves, late of the Alto Verdan Navy, had left the Cerberus System well before Honor, but her transports were far slower than the warships and assault ships Honor had managed to secure. Which meant it would be weeks yet before the first wave of escapees actually arrived.
"Well, that has to be the largest number of POWs ever to escape in a single operation," White Haven pointed out, "and the sheer scale of the thing is almost unimportant beside where you managed to escape from. State Security will never recover from the blow to its reputation, and that doesn't even consider what's going to happen when people like Amos Parnell start talking to the newsies about who actually carried out the Harris Assassination!"
The earl shrugged, and Honor nodded. No doubt Public Information would do its best to discredit anything the ex-Chief of Naval Operations of the People's Navy might say, but not even Public Information was going to be able to shrug this one off, especially in the face of the files Honor's people had lifted from Camp Charon's own security records. She suspected that PubIn was going to have just a bit of a problem convincing people that the commandant of StateSec's most important prison hadn't known what he was talking about when he taunted Legislaturalist prisoners with the truth behind the Harris Assassination's civilian massacre. And once it truly registered that the Committee of Public Safety, organized to prevent the overthrow of the state by the "traitorous" naval officers responsible for the coup attempt, was headed by the man who had in fact masterminded the entire operation, the effect on interstellar diplomacy was likely to be profound.
"As a matter of fact," White Haven went on much more quietly, breaking into her train of thought, "as delighted as I am to see you back on both a personal and a professional basis," she felt his emotions shy away from the word "personal," but the intensity of his train of thought helped pull him past it, "the effect on the Alliance's morale will probably be even more important, in the short term, at least. Frankly, Milady, we need some good news rather badly. Esther McQueen's managed to throw us firmly back onto the defensive for the first time since Third Yeltsin, and that's shaken the Alliance's morale seriously, especially among its civilians. Which means all the Allied governments are going to be absolutely delighted to see you."
Honor shuddered. She knew he was right, yet she hated even to think about the media circus the news was bound to spawn. All she wanted to do whenever she contemplated it was to run far, far away and hide, but she couldn't. She had responsibilities she couldn't evadeeven, she thought smolderingly, if he won't tell me just what sort of "arrangements" they made on Grayson! And even if she hadn't had those responsibilities, she could see the propaganda value too clearly. She detested the idea of being turned into some kind of larger-than-life icon. She'd already had more than her fair taste of that, had to put up with more media intrusiveness than any individual should have to tolerate, and this was going to be infinitely worse.
But none of that mattered, except, perhaps, on a personal basis.
"I understand, My Lord," she said. "I hate it, and I'd do anything I could to avoid the media frenzy, but I understand."
"I know you do, Milady," he said. Very few people, perhaps, would have believed she truly loathed the very thought of the adulation soon to be channeled her way, but Hamish Alexander was one of those few, and she smiled gratefully at him.
He began to say something else, then stopped as a soft chime sounded. He leaned forward to look across her and out the view port beside her, and nodded in satisfaction.
"And here's your transport to Grayson, Milady," he announced. Honor glanced at him for a moment, then turned to look out the port herself, and Nimitz pushed up to stand in her lap. He pressed his nose to the armorplast, then twitched his whiskers as he, too, saw the white mountain of battle steel drifting in the void, bejeweled with the green and white lights of an "anchored" starship.
The superdreadnought was one of the largest ships Honor had ever seen. Possibly the largest warship, she reflected, her experienced eye estimating its tonnage from the relative size of the huge ship's weapons hatches and impeller nodes, although she supposed she might have seen larger merchant vessels. That was her first thought, but then she noted the odd, distinctive profile of the after hammerhead, and her eye narrowed in sudden recognition.
"That's a Medusa!" she said sharply.
"In a manner of speaking," White Haven agreed. "Actually, though, the Graysons built her, not us. It seems they got hold of the plans for the new class about the same time BuShips did back home . . . and they had a bit less deadwood and conservative stick-in-the-mud opposition to deal with."
He added the last phrase in a dust-dry voice, and Honor turned back to the port to hide her expression as her mouth quirked uncontrollably. She remembered that shattering night in her library only too well for personal reasons, but she also recalled that one Hamish Alexander had been one of the conservative sticks-in-the-mud who'd opposed the initial concept of the hollow-cored, pod-armed missile SDs. She, on the other hand, had written the final recommendations which had led to the Medusa design's actual formulation as her last duty as a member of the Weapons Development Board.
"And have they been tested in action, My Lord?" she inquired after a moment, as soon as she felt she could keep her voice level.
"On a limited scale," he said very seriously, "and they performed exactly as you predicted they would, Milady. We don't have enough of them yet, but they're absolutely devastating when used properly. And so" he glanced over his shoulder at the other, lower-ranking officers behind them, none of whom had been cleared for information they had no pressing need to know "have certain other elements of the new fleet mix you described to me that night."
"Indeed?" Honor turned to look at him, and he nodded.
"Indeed. We haven't used any of them, including the new SDs, en masse yet. We're still ramping up our numbers in the new classes and weapons, because we'd like to commit them in really useful numbers rather than penny-packets that will give the enemy time to adjust and work out countermeasures. At the moment, we hope and believe that the Peep analysts haven't been able to put together a clear picture of their capabilities from the limited use we've been forced to make of them so far. That's one reason we're not sending any of the new types through the Junction except in emergencies; we don't want anyone who might whisper in StateSec's ear getting a good look at them. But within a few more months, Citizen Secretary McQueen and the Committee of Public Safety ought to be getting a very unpleasant surprise."
She nodded in understanding without taking her attention off the ship waiting for her. There were a few differences between the completed ship and the design studies she'd seen, but not very many, and she felt a curious, semiparental surge of pride as she saw the reality of the concept she and her colleagues on the WDB had debated so hotly.
"Just one more thing," White Haven said very quietly, pitching his voice too low even for Robards and LaFollet to have heard, and she glanced at him. "This ship, and the others like her in Grayson service, were all built in the Blackbird Yard you arranged the basic funding for, Milady. So, in a very real sense, you're a keel plate owner of all of them. That's one reason we felt she'd be the perfect ship to take you home again."
Honor met his eyes, then nodded.
"Thank you for telling me, My Lord," she said, equally quietly.
Even as she spoke, the pinnace gave the tiny quiver trained reflexes recognized as the lock-on of docking tractors. The ship was no longer a ship beyond the port; it was simply a vast, endless expanse of alloy and weapons, completely filling the view port and waiting in all its megaton majesty to receive her as the minnow of their pinnace drifted into the brilliantly lit belly of the white whale.
The tractors adjusted the pinnace with finicky precision before settling it into its docking cradle, and Honor felt her breathing quicken and blinked on tears as she gazed in through the armorplast wall of the boat bay gallery. The massed ranks of Grayson blue, leavened here and there with the black-on-gold of RMN personnel on detachment to their ally's navy, woke a sudden, almost unbearable stab of homesickness, and even from here she could feel the fierce, exultant beat of their emotions.
It was odd, she reflected. She truly had become a woman of two worlds. Child of the cold, mountainous majesty of the Star Kingdom's Sphinx, yes, always that. But she was also a woman of Grayson, and something of that sometimes backward and maddening world, with its almost frightening dynamism and fierce, direct loyalties and animosities, had infused itself into her, as well. She understood its people now, as she never had when first she met them, and perhaps that had been inevitable. However different they might have been on the surface, in one respect they had always been alike, she and the people of Grayson.
Responsibility. Neither she nor they had ever been able to run fast enough to escape it. In an odd way, even those who'd hated her most for the changes she'd brought their world had understood her almost perfectly, just as she'd come to understand them. And so, as she felt those exultant waves of emotion rolling over her from the bay gallery, she understood the people behind them, and the understanding welcomed her home.
"After you, Milady," White Haven said, standing and gesturing at the hatch as the green light blinked above it. She glanced at him, and he smiled. "In this navy, you're senior to me, Lady Harrington. And even if you weren't, I would never be stupid enough to come between you and a shipload of Graysons at a moment like this!"
She blushed darkly, but then she had to laugh, and she rose with an answering smile.
He helped her get Nimitz's carrier back into place on her back, then let her precede him down the docking tube, and she felt the beat of the superdreadnought crew's excitement, almost as if waves of over-pressure were pulsing down the tube to meet her. It was as overwhelming, in a very different way, as the emotional storm aboard Farnese had been, making it difficult to think. But swimming a tube, even with only one arm, was something she could have done in her sleep, and she fell back on the almost instinctive skills of a forty-plus-year naval career. Yet as she approached the grab bar at the end of the tube, she felt something else, even through the pulse beat of welcome from the waiting Graysons. It was a small thing, yet it glittered with its own brilliant delight and anticipation, and it came from behind her.
She wanted to look over her shoulder at White Haven, just to see if his expression matched the ripple of someone else's laughter echoing in the back of her mind. And, she admitted, for any clue as to what he was so amused over. But there was no time, and she gripped the bar and swung out into the rich, golden notes of the Steadholder's March.
She'd braced herself as best she could, but nothing could really have prepared her. The music, the storm of uniforms, lit by the lightning flashes of gold braid and rank insignia, the presented arms of the Marine honor guard, the whirlwind of emotion and welcomeand, yes, vengefulness as they saw her missing arm and paralyzed faceall of it crashed over her. And with it came something else: a roar of cheering not even Grayson naval discipline could have hoped to stifle. She felt Nimitz quivering in his carrier, shared his almost dazed response to the sensations flooding through him like some polychromatic roll of thunder that went on and on and on, and it was all she could do to carry through the instinct-level protocol for boarding a ship.
She turned to salute the Grayson planetary flag on the boat bay's forward bulkhead, then turned back to salute the ship's captain, and felt her heart leap as she recognized Captain Thomas Greentree. The chunky, brown-haired Grayson's face looked as if his smile were about to split it in two, and beyond him, she recognized another familiar face. Admiral Judah Yanakov's smile was, if possible, even broader than Greentree's, and somehow its welcome went perfectly with the hard, dangerous light in his eyes as he saw the stump of her arm. She knew him too well to doubt what that light portended, and she made a mental note to talk to himat lengthas soon as possible. But now was not the time, and she looked behind him, letting her gaze sweep the gallery as she waited for the cheers to fade.
It was a spacious gallery, even for a superdreadnought, and
Her thoughts chopped off as she saw the ship's crest on the bulkhead behind the honor guard. The basis of the crest was glaringly obvious. She'd seen the same set of arms every time she looked at her own steadholder's key . . . and if there'd been any question at all of where it had come from, the ship's name blazoned above it would have dispelled it immediately.
She stared at the crest, unable to look away even though she knew her reaction was fully validating the torrent of amusement she felt flooding from the Earl of White Haven. And it was probably as well for the earl's continued existence that she couldn't turn away, she realized later, for if she'd been able to, and if he'd been smirking even a tenth as broadly as she suspected he had, and if he'd been in arm's reach . . .
But she had no time to think about such things just then, for the tumult about her was dying, and Thomas Greentree decided to ignore the strict demands of naval protocol just this once. His hand came down from its salute even before hers did, and it reached out, catching hers in a crushing clasp of welcome before she could say a word.
"Welcome home, My Lady!" he said, and if his voice was husky with emotion, it also echoed in the sudden quiet. "Welcome home. And welcome aboard the Honor Harrington!"
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