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Chapter Two

Soft classical music made a fitting background to the elegantly attired men and women in the huge room. A sumptuous meal lay in ruins behind them, and they clustered in small groups, glasses in hand, while the seaside murmur of their voices competed with the music. It was a scene of relaxed wealth and power, but there was little relaxation in Klaus Hauptman's voice.

The trillionaire stood with a woman who was only marginally his inferior in terms of wealth and power and a man who wasn't even in the running. Not that the Houseman clan was poor, but its wealth was "old money," and most of its members disdained anything so crass as actual commerce. Of course, one had to have managers, hired hands to see to the maintenance of one's family fortune, but it was hardly the sort of thing gentlemen did.

In his own way, Reginald Houseman shared that prejudice against the nouveau riche—and by Houseman standards, even the Hauptman fortune was very nouveau indeed—but he was widely acknowledged as one of the half-dozen top economists of the Star Kingdom.

He was not, however, so recognized by Klaus Hauptman, who regarded him with virtually unmitigated contempt. Despite Houseman's innumerable academic credentials, Hauptman considered him a dilettante who personified the ancient cliché that "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach," and Houseman's sublime self-importance was immensely irritating to a man who'd proven his own competence in the one way no one could question: by succeeding. Not that Houseman was a total idiot. For all his intellectual bigotry, he'd proven a facile and often effective advocate of using private sector incentives to power public economic strategies. Hauptman considered it unfortunate that the man was so firmly wedded to the notion that governments were equipped—as they manifestly were not—to tell private enterprise how to do its job, but even he had to admit Houseman had paid his dues as a policy analyst.

Up until six years before, he'd also been a rising star in the diplomatic service, and he was still called in as an occasional outside consultant. But when Queen Elizabeth III took a personal dislike to a man, only the hardiest politico would propose actually employing him in the Crown's service. Nor had the Houseman family's powerful connections within the Liberal Party been an asset since the war began. The Liberals' longstanding opposition to the Star Kingdom's military expenditures as "alarmist and provocative" had dealt their entire platform a body blow when the People's Republic launched its sneak attack. Worse, the Liberals had joined the Conservative Association and Progressives in opposition to the Cromarty Government following the bungled coup which had destroyed the Republic's old leadership. They'd attempted to block a formal declaration of war in a bid to prevent active operations because they'd believed the regime arising from the chaos of the coup offered an opportunity for a negotiated settlement. Indeed, many of them, including Reginald Houseman, still felt a priceless opportunity had been squandered.

Neither Her Majesty nor the Duke of Cromarty, her Prime Minister, agreed. Nor, for that matter, did the electorate. The Liberals had taken a pounding in the last general election, with crippling consequences in the House of Commons. They remained a force to be reckoned with in the Lords, but even there they'd suffered defections to Cromarty's Centrists. The party faithful regarded those defecting opportunists with all the scorn such ideological traitors merited, but their loss was an inescapable reality, and the erosion of their power base had forced the Liberal leadership into even closer alliance with the Conservatives—a profoundly unnatural state of affairs made tolerable only because both parties, for their own reasons, remained bitterly and personally opposed to the current Government and all its minions.

Their alliance had, however, proved of considerable value to Klaus Hauptman. Always a shrewd investor, he'd spent years cementing personal (and, via judicious campaign contributions, financial) ties all across the political spectrum. Now that the Liberals and Conservatives had been driven together and regarded themselves as a beleaguered minority, his patronage was even more important to both parties. And while the Opposition was mainly aware of the clout it had lost, Hauptman knew Cromarty's crowd remained nervous about its thin majority in the Lords, and he'd learned to use his influence with the Liberals and Conservatives to considerable effect.

As he was using it tonight.

"So that's the best they'll do," he said grimly. "No additional task forces. Not even a single destroyer squadron. All they're prepared to offer us is four ships—just four! And 'armed merchant cruisers,' at that!"

"Oh, calm down, Klaus!" Erika Dempsey replied wryly. "I agree it's hardly likely to make much difference, but they are trying. Given the pressure they're under, I'm surprised they've managed even this much so quickly. And they're certainly right to concentrate on Breslau. Why, my cartel's lost nine ships in that sector in the last eight months alone. If they can make any sort of hole in the pirates there, surely that's worth something."

Hauptman snorted. Privately, he was inclined to agree, not that he intended to say any such thing until he'd trolled the bait before Houseman properly, and he wished Erika hadn't joined the conversation. The Dempsey Cartel was second only to the Hauptman Cartel, and Erika, who'd headed it for sixty T-years, was as sharp as she was attractive. Hauptman, who respected very few people, most assuredly did respect her, but the last thing he needed just now was the voice of sweet reason. Fortunately, Houseman didn't seem particularly susceptible to her logic.

"I'm afraid Klaus is right, Ms. Dempsey," he said regretfully. "Four armed merchantmen won't accomplish much, if only because of sheer scale. They can only be in so many places at once, and they're hardly ships of the wall. Any competent raider squadron could swarm one of them under, and there are at least three secessionist governments in Breslau and Posnan at the moment. All of them are recruiting privateers who won't take kindly to any imperialist adventures on our part."

Erika Dempsey rolled her eyes. She had little use for the Liberals, and Houseman's last sentence was straight out of their ideological bible. Worse, Houseman, for all his opposition to the current war, regarded himself as a military expert. He considered any use of force proof of failed diplomacy and stupidity, but that didn't keep him from being fascinated—though always, of course, from a safe distance—with the subject. He was quick to proclaim that his interest stemmed solely from the fact that, like a physician, any peace-loving diplomat must study the disease against which he fought, but Hauptman doubted the claim fooled anyone but his fellow idealogues. The truth was that Reginald Houseman was firmly convinced that had he been one of those evil, militarist conquerors like Napoleon Bonaparte or Gustav Anderman—which, thank God, he was not, of course—he would have been far better at it than they had. As it was, his study of the military not only allowed him to enjoy the vicarious thrill of indulging in something evil and decadent out of the highest motives but also gave him a certain standing as one of the Liberal Party's "military experts," and the fact that most Queen's officers, whatever their branch of service, regarded him as an arrant coward didn't faze him in the least. Indeed, he interpreted their contempt as fear-based hostility spawned by how close to home his trenchant criticisms of the military establishment hit.

"At this point, Mr. Houseman," Dempsey said in a chill voice, "I'm prepared to settle for any 'imperialist adventure' I can get if it means men and women in my employ won't be killed."

"I quite understand your viewpoint," Houseman assured her, apparently oblivious to her contempt. "The problem is that it won't work. I doubt even Edward Saganami—or any other admiral I can think of offhand, for that matter—could accomplish anything with such weak forces. In fact, the most probable outcome is that whoever the Admiralty sends out will lose all his own ships." He shook his head sadly. "The Navy's done a lot of shortsighted things in the last three T-years. I'm very much afraid this is just one more of them."

Dempsey looked at him for a moment, then sniffed and stalked away. Hauptman watched her go with a sense of relief and returned his own attention to Houseman.

"I'm afraid you're right, Reginald," he said. "Nonetheless, this is all we're going to get. Under the circumstances, I'd like to maximize whatever chance of success it has."

"If the Admiralty insists on doing something this stupid, I don't see a lot we can do,. They're sending a grossly inadequate force straight into the lion's den. Any competent student of history could tell them they're simply going to lose those ships."

For just a moment, and despite his own plans, Hauptman felt an overpowering urge to slap some sense into the younger man. It wouldn't be the first time someone had tried it; unfortunately, it didn't seem to have done much good the last time, and Hauptman's designs didn't allow him to show his contempt as openly as Erika had.

"I understand that," he said instead, "and no doubt you're right. But I'd like to get the most good we can out of them before they're destroyed."

"Cold blooded, but probably realistic, I'm afraid," Houseman sighed, and Hauptman hid a mental grin. For all his pious opposition to "militarism," Houseman, like many theorists, was less moved by the thought of casualties than the "militarists" he scorned. After all, the people who died had all volunteered to be Myrmidons, and one couldn't make an omelette without cracking a few eggs. Hauptman's own observation was that people who actually had to send others to die tended to consider their options far more carefully than armchair "experts." He himself rather regretted the fact that he shared Houseman's estimate of the Q-ships' probable fate, but at least Houseman's response told him we was reaching the buttons he'd wanted to punch.

"Absolutely," he said. "But the problem is that without a capable officer in command, the chance they'll do any good before they're lost is minimal. At the same time, I hardly think we can expect the Admiralty to send a capable officer to command a forlorn hope like this—especially if it's no more than a sop to ease political pressure on them. We're more likely to see them shuffling it off on some incompetent they'll be just as happy to be rid of when the shooting's over."

"Of course we are," Houseman agreed instantly, ready, as always, to ascribe the most Machiavellian motives to the militarists.

"Well, in that case, I think we should make it our business to exert every possible pressure to keep them from doing just that," Hauptman said persuasively. "If this is all the support they're going to give us, we have every right to demand that they make it as effective as possible."

"I can see that," Houseman replied in a thoughtful tone. He was obviously running through a mental file of possible COs, but it was no part of Hauptman's plan to let Houseman make his own suggestion. Not, at least, until he'd gotten his own nominee into the running. The trick was to do it in a way which wouldn't let Houseman instantly reject Hauptman's candidate.

"The problem," the magnate said with a finely blended mix of casualness and thoughtful consideration, "is finding an officer who might be able to do some good and who they'd also be willing to risk losing. It wouldn't do to push for someone who's too much of a thinker, either." Houseman raised an eyebrow, and Hauptman shrugged. "I mean, what we need is someone who's a good fighter. We need a tactician, someone who knows how to employ his ships effectively but isn't likely to recognize the ultimate futility of his mission. Anyone with the judgment to consider things realistically is likely to recognize that the whole operation's no more than a gesture, and that means he'd be unlikely to operate aggressively enough to do us much good."

He held his mental breath as Houseman considered that. What he'd really just said was that they needed someone who would charge into battle and get himself and several thousand other people killed, and he was honest enough—with himself, at any rate—to admit that saying so was fairly sordid. Still, it was the business of people in uniform to fight, and people who did things like that often got killed. If they managed to help salvage his battered position in Silesia in the process, he was willing to live with that. Houseman, on the other hand, had no direct interest in Silesia. In his case, the entire affair was little more than an intellectual consideration, and even now Hauptman wasn't certain the other was cold blooded enough to sentence men and women to probable death when the casualties would be real and not simply numbers in a simulation.

"I see what you mean," Houseman murmured, gazing down into his wineglass. He rubbed an eyebrow, then shrugged. "I'd hate to see anyone killed unnecessarily, of course, but if the Admiralty's set on this, you're right about the ideal sort of officer to send." He smiled thinly. "What you're saying is that we need someone with more balls than brains but with the tactical ability to make his stupidity count."

"That's exactly what I'm saying." Despite his own careful maneuvering, Hauptman was repelled by Houseman's amused contempt for someone prepared to die in the performance of his duty. Not that he intended to say so. "And I also think I may have just the officer in mind," he said instead, with an answering smile.

"Oh?" Something in his tone made Houseman look up. Vague suspicion showed in his brown eyes, but there was a flicker of anticipation, as well. He loved the sensation of being on the "inside" of high-level machinations, and Hauptman knew it. Just as he knew it was a sensation he'd been denied ever since that unfortunate incident on the planet Grayson.

"Harrington," the magnate said softly, and saw the instant fury that flashed through Houseman at the mere mention of the name.

"Harrington? You must be joking! The woman's an absolute lunatic!"

"Of course she is. But didn't we just agree a lunatic is what we need?" Hauptman countered. "I've had my own problems with her, as I'm sure you realize, but lunatic or not, she's compiled a hell of a record in combat. I'd never suggest her for any assignment that required someone who could actually see the big picture or think, but she'd be perfect for a job like this."

Houseman's nostrils flared, and a bright patch of red burned on either cheekbone. Of all the people in the universe, he hated Honor Harrington most . . . as Hauptman was perfectly well aware. And little though he might agree with Houseman on any other subject, Hauptman found himself in accord with the economist where Harrington was concerned.

Unlike Houseman, he refused to underestimate her—again—but that didn't mean he liked her. She'd caused him profound embarrassment and not a little financial loss eight T-years ago when she'd uncovered his cartel's involvement in a Peep plot to seize control of the Basilisk System. Not that Hauptman had known anything about his employees' activities. He'd managed, fortunately, to prove that in a court of law, yet his personal innocence hadn't saved him from massive fines—or prevented the blackening of his cartel's good name and, by extension, his own.

Klaus Hauptman was not a man who tolerated interference well. He knew that, and he admitted, intellectually, that it was a weakness. But it was also a part of his strength, the driving energy that propelled him to one triumph after another, and so he was willing to endure the occasional instances in which his choleric disposition betrayed him into error.

Usually. Oh, yes, he thought. Usually. But not in Harrington's case. She hadn't simply embarrassed him; she'd threatened him.

He clenched his jaw, memory replaying the incident while he let Houseman grapple with his own rage. Hauptman had gone out to Basilisk Station personally when Harrington's officious interference had become intolerable. He hadn't known at the time about any Peep plots or where it was all going to lead, but the woman had been costing him money, and her seizure of one of his vessels for carrying contraband had been exactly the sort of slap in the face he was least able to handle. And because it was, he'd gone out to smack her down. But it hadn't worked out that way. She'd actually defied him, as if she didn't even realize—or care—that he was Klaus Hauptman. She'd been careful to phrase it in officialese, hiding behind her precious uniform and her status as the station's acting commander, but she'd all but accused him of direct complicity in smuggling.

She'd punched his buttons. He admitted it, just as he admitted he really ought to have kept a closer eye on his factors' operations. But, damn it, how could he monitor something as vast as the Hauptman Cartel in that kind of detail? That was why he had factors, to see to the details he couldn't possibly deal with. And even if she'd been totally justified—she hadn't been, but even if she had—where did the daughter of a mere yeoman get off talking to him that way? She'd been a two-for-a-dollar commander, CO of a mere light cruiser he could have bought out of pocket change, so how dared she use that cold, cutting tone to him?

But she had dared, and in his rage he'd taken the gloves off. She hadn't known his cartel held a majority interest in her physician parents' medical partnership on Sphinx. All it should have required was an offhand mention of the possible consequences to her family if she forced him to defend himself and his good name through unofficial channels, but she'd not only refused to back down, she'd trumped his threat with a far more deadly one.

No one else had heard it. That was the sole redeeming facet of the entire affair, for it meant no one else knew she'd actually threatened to kill him if he ever dared to move against her parents in any way.

Despite his own deep, burning fury, Hauptman felt a chill even now at the memory of her ice-cold, almond eyes, for she'd meant it. He'd known it then, and three years ago she'd proven just how real the threat had been when she killed not one but two men, one a professional duelist, on the field of honor. If anything had been needed to tell him it would be advisable to move very cautiously against her, those two duels had done it.

Yet his hatred for her was one of the very few things he and Houseman truly had in common, for she was also the one who'd ruined Houseman's diplomatic career. It was Harrington who hadn't simply refused his order to pull her squadron out of the Yeltsin System, abandoning the planet Grayson to conquest by a Peep proxy, but actually struck him when he tried to intimidate her into accepting it. She'd knocked him clear off his feet in front of witnesses, and the searing contempt with which she'd spoken to him had simply been too good to be kept quiet. By now, everyone who mattered knew precisely what she'd said, the cold, vicious accuracy with which she'd laid bare his cowardice, and the official reprimand she'd caught for striking a Crown envoy had been more than offset by the knighthood which came with it—not to mention all the honors the people of Grayson had heaped upon their planet's savior.

"I can't believe you're serious." Houseman's cold, stiff voice pulled Hauptman back to the present. "My God, man! The woman's no better than a common murderer! You know how she hounded North Hollow into that duel. She actually had the sheer effrontery to challenge him on the floor of the House of Lords, then shot him down like an animal after his gun was empty! You can't seriously suggest her for any command after we finally got her out of uniform."

"Of course I can." Hauptman gave the younger man a cold, thin smile. "Just because she's a fool—even a dangerous fool—is no reason not to use her to our own advantage. Think about it, Reginald. Whatever else she is, she's an effective combat commander. Oh, I agree she should be kept on a leash between battles. She's arrogant as sin, and I doubt she's ever even tried to control her temper. Hell, let's be honest and admit she's got the makings of a homicidal maniac! But she does know how to fight. It may be the only thing she's good for, but if anyone's likely to really hurt the pirates before they kill her, she is."

He let his voice go silky soft with the last sentence, coming down just a bit harder on the word "kill," and something ugly flared in Houseman's eyes. Neither of them would ever say so, but the message had been passed, and he watched the younger man draw a deep breath.

"Even if I assumed you're right—and I'm not saying I do—I don't see how it would be possible," Houseman said finally. "She's on half-pay, and Cromarty would never propose recalling her to active duty. After the way she challenged North Hollow on the floor, the entire House would rise up in revolt at the mere suggestion."

"Maybe," Hauptman replied, though he had his doubts on that point. Two years ago, Houseman would undoubtedly have been correct; now Hauptman was less certain. Harrington had retreated to Grayson to take up her role as Steadholder Harrington, the direct feudal ruler of the Steading of Harrington which the Graysons had created after her defense of their planet. Given Houseman's ignoble role in that same defense, it was hardly surprising that he denigrated the importance of such foreign titles, but the Hauptman Cartel was deeply involved in the vast industrial and military programs underway in the Yeltsin System since Grayson had joined the Manticoran Alliance. Given his own experience with her, Hauptman had made a careful study of Harrington's position on Grayson, and he knew she wielded a greater power and influence there than anyone short of the Duke of Cromarty himself wielded in the Star Kingdom.

Just for starters, she was probably, whether the Graysons realized it or not, the wealthiest person on their planet, especially since her Sky Domes Ltd. had begun turning a profit. When the Manticoran interests Willard Neufsteiler oversaw for her were added in, she was almost certainly a billionaire in her own right by now, which wasn't bad for someone whose initial capital had come solely from prize money awards. But her wealth hardly mattered to the Graysons. She'd not only saved them from foreign conquest, but also become one of the eighty-odd great nobles who ruled their world, not to mention the second ranking officer in their navy. Despite the lingering repugnance the more conservative of Grayson's theocratic people might feel for her, most Graysons regarded her with near idolatry.

More than that, she'd actually saved the system a second time early last year. Whatever the House of Lords might think, the newsfaxes' accounts of the Fourth Battle of Yeltsin had made her almost as much a hero to the Star Kingdom's population as she was on Grayson itself. If the Cromarty Government ever felt confident enough of its majority in the Lords to try bringing her back into Manticoran uniform, Hauptman felt certain the attempt would succeed.

Unfortunately, Cromarty and the Admiralty seemed unwilling to risk the inevitable, nasty floor fight. And even if they'd been willing to, it was extremely unlikely they would even consider wasting someone like her on the command of four armed merchantmen so far from the front. But if the proposal came from somewhere else. . . .

"Look, Reginald," he said persuasively. "We're agreed Harrington's a loose warhead, but I think we're also agreed that if we could get her sent to Silesia she might at least do some damage to the pirates when she went off, right?"

Houseman nodded, his obvious unwillingness to admit even that much clearly tempered by the appeal of sending someone he hated off to an assignment with an excellent chance of getting her killed.

"All right. At the same time, let's admit that she's still very popular with the Navy. The Admiralty would love to get her back in Manticoran uniform, wouldn't they?"

Again Houseman nodded, and Hauptman shrugged.

"Well, what do you think would happen if we suggested assigning her to Silesia? Think about it for a minute. If the Opposition supports her for the command, don't you think the Admiralty would jump at the chance to 'rehabilitate' her?"

"I suppose they would," Houseman agreed sourly. "But what makes you think she'd accept even if they offered it to her? She's off playing tin god in Yeltsin. Why should she give up her position as the number two officer in their piddling little navy to accept something like this?"

"Because it is 'a piddling little navy'," Hauptman said. It wasn't, and only Houseman's bitter hatred for anything to do with the Yeltsin System could lead even him to suggest it was. The Grayson Space Navy had grown into a very respectable fleet, with a core of ten ex-Peep superdreadnoughts and its first three home-built ships of the wall. From the perspective of personal ambition, Harrington would be insane to resign her position as second in command of the explosively expanding GSN to resume her rank as a mere captain in the Manticoran Navy. But for all his own hatred of her, Hauptman understood her far better than Houseman did. Whatever else she might have become, Honor Harrington had been born a Manticoran, and she'd spent four decades building her career and reputation in the service of her Queen. She had both personal courage and an undeniable, deeply ingrained sense of duty, he admitted grudgingly, and that sense of duty could only be reinforced by her inevitable desire to justify herself by reclaiming a place in the Navy from which she'd been banished by her enemies. Oh no. If she was offered the job, she'd take it, though it would never do to tell Houseman the real reasons she would.

"She may be queen frog in the Grayson Navy," he said instead, "but that's a pretty small puddle compared to our Navy. Their whole fleet wouldn't make two full strength squadrons of the wall, Reginald—you know that even better than I do. If she ever expects to exercise real fleet command, there's only one place she can do it, and that's right here."

Houseman grunted and threw back a long swallow of wine, then lowered the empty glass and stared down into it once more. Hauptman felt the conflicting emotions ripping through the younger man and laid a hand on his shoulder.

"I know I'm asking a lot, Reginald," he said compassionately. "It would take a big man to even consider putting someone who'd assaulted him back into the Queen's uniform. But I can't think of anyone who fits the profile this mission requires better than she does. And while it would be a great pity to see any officer killed in the line of duty, you have to admit that someone as unstable as Harrington would be less of a loss than some other people you can think of."

With anyone else, that last barb would have been too blatant, but the fresh flicker in Houseman's eye was intensely satisfying.

"Why are you discussing it with me?" he asked after a moment, and Hauptman shrugged.

"Your family has a lot of influence in the Liberal Party. That means it has influence with the Opposition generally, and given your own in-depth military knowledge and, ah, experience with her, any recommendation from you would have to carry a lot of weight with other people who have doubts about her. If you were to suggest her to Countess New Kiev for the assignment, the Party leadership would almost have to take it seriously."

"You really are asking a lot of me, Klaus," Houseman said heavily.

"I know," Hauptman repeated. "But if the Opposition nominates her, Cromarty, Morncreek, and Caparelli will jump at the chance."

"What about the Conservatives and the Progressives?" Houseman countered. "Their peers aren't going to like the idea any more than Countess New Kiev will."

"I've already spoken to Baron High Ridge," Hauptman admitted. "He's not happy about it, and he refuses to commit the Conservatives to officially support Harrington for the slot, but he has agreed to release them to vote their own consciences." Houseman's eyes narrowed, and then he nodded slowly, for both of them knew "releasing them to vote their consciences" was no more than a diplomatic fiction to allow High Ridge to maintain his official opposition while effectively instructing his followers to support the move. "As for the Progressives," Hauptman went on, "Earl Gray Hill and Lady Descroix have agreed to abstain in any vote. But none of them will actually put Harrington forward. That's why it's so important that you and your family speak to New Kiev about it."

"I see." Houseman plucked at his lower lip for an endless moment, then sighed heavily. "All right, Klaus. I'll speak to her. It goes against the grain, mind you, but I'll defer to your judgment and do what I can to support you."

"Thank you, Reginald. I appreciate it," Hauptman said with quiet sincerity.

He gave the younger man's shoulder a squeeze, then nodded and walked back towards the bar with his empty whiskey glass. He needed a fresh drink to take the taste of pandering to Houseman's prejudices out of his mouth—in fact, it might not be a bad idea to wash his hands, as well—but it had been worth it. Four armed merchantmen were unlikely to make much difference in the grand scale of things, but it was just possible they would, and they were far more likely to do so with someone like Harrington in command.

Of course, as he'd been at some pains to point out to Houseman, it was even more likely that she'd get herself killed before she could accomplish anything. That would be a pity, but there was at least a chance that she'd do some good.

And the bottom line, he told himself as he handed his glass to the bar keep with a smile, was that whether she managed to stop the pirates or the pirates managed to kill her, he still came out ahead.


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