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Chapter Three

Any semi-automatic pistol was a technological antique, but this one was more so than most. In point of fact, its design was over two thousand T-years old, for it was an exact replica of what had once been known as a "Model 1911A1" firing a ".45 ACP" cartridge. It was quite a handful, with an unloaded weight of just under 1.3 kilograms in Grayson's 1.17 standard gravities, and the recoil was formidable. Its antiquity didn't make it any less noisy, either, and despite their ear protectors, more than one of the armsmen on the neighboring firing lanes winced as the 11.43-millimeter slug rumbled down range at a mere 275 MPS. That was a paltry velocity, even beside the auto-loaders to which the Grayson tech base had been limited before the Yeltsin System joined the Alliance, much less the 2,000-plus MPS at which a modern pulser punched out its darts, but the massive fifteen-gram bullet still reached the end of its twenty-five-meter journey with formidable kinetic energy. The jacketed slug exploded through the equally anachronistic paper target's "X" ring in a shower of small, white fragments, then vanished in a fiery flash as it plowed into the focused grav wall "backstop" and vaporized.

The deep, rolling "Boom!" of the archaic handgun cut through the high-pitched whine of the pulsers again, then a third time, a fourth. Seven echoing shots thundered with precise, elegant timing, and the center of the target disappeared, replaced by a single gaping hole.

Admiral Lady Dame Honor Harrington, Countess and Steadholder Harrington, lowered the pistol from her preferred two-hand shooting stance, checked to be certain the slide had locked open on an empty magazine, and laid the weapon on the counter in front of her before taking off her shooting glasses and acoustic ear muffs. Major Andrew LaFollet, her personal armsman and chief bodyguard, stood behind her, wearing his own eye and ear protection, and shook his head as she pressed a button and the target hummed back towards her. Lady Harrington's hand cannon had been a gift from High Admiral Wesley Matthews, and LaFollet wondered how the GSN's military commander in chief had discovered she would like such an outré present. However he'd figured it out, he'd certainly been right. Lady Harrington took the noisy, propellant-spewing, eardrum-shattering monster to the range, whether aboard her superdreadnought flagship or here at the Harrington Guard's outdoor small arms range, at least once a week, and she seemed to draw almost as much pleasure from the ritual of cleaning it after each firing session as she did from battering everyone else's ears with the thing.

She took the target down and put her pocket rule on it, measuring the three-centimeter group with evident satisfaction. Despite his own reservations about the thunderous, archaic weapon, LaFollet found her accuracy with it both impressive and reassuring. Anyone who'd seen her on the Landing City dueling grounds knew she hit what she shot at, but as the man charged with keeping her alive he was always glad to see her demonstrate her ability to look after herself.

He snorted in wry amusement at the thought. She hardly looked it, standing there like a slim green and white flame in her ankle-length gown and hip-length vest, silky brown hair falling loose over her shoulders, but she was probably the most dangerous person on the range . . . including Andrew LaFollet. She continued to work out regularly with her armsmen, and though they'd improved markedly in their own mastery of her favored coup de vitesse, she still threw them around the mat with absurd ease.

Of course, at just over a hundred and ninety centimeters she was taller than any of them, and her birth world's gravity well, almost fifteen percent deeper than Grayson's, had given her impressive strength and reflexes. She might be slim, but that sinewy slimness was all firm, hard-trained muscle. Yet that wasn't the real reason she made it seem so easy. The real reason was that although the third-generation prolong treatments she'd received as a child might make her look like someone's barely post-adolescent sister, she was actually thirteen T-years older than LaFollet himself, and she'd spent over thirty-six years training in the coup. That meant she'd been practicing for as long as LaFollet had been alive, though even he sometimes had trouble believing that was possible when he looked at her youthful, exotically beautiful face.

She finished examining the target and drew a stylus from her pocket to note the date on it, then placed it with a dozen other perforated sheets of paper and slipped the handgun into its carrying case. She put both extra magazines in with it and sealed the case, tucked it under her arm, slid her shooting glasses into a pocket, and gathered up her ear protectors, and the almond eyes she'd inherited from her Chinese mother twinkled as LaFollet tried not to sigh in relief.

"All done, Andrew," she said, and the two of them walked away from the range towards Harrington House's rear entrance. A sleek, six-limbed, cream-and-gray Sphinx treecat rose from his peaceful repose in a patch of sunlight, stretched lazily, and padded to meet them as LaFollet pulled off his ear muffs, and she laughed.

"Nimitz seems to share your opinion of the noise level," she observed, bending to scoop the 'cat up. He bleeked a cheerful agreement with her comment, and she laughed again as she set him on her shoulder. He took his normal position—mid-limbs' hand-paws sinking centimeter-long claws into her vest's shoulder while his true-feet dug in just below her shoulder blade—and flirted his fluffy tail as LaFollet smiled back at her.

"It's not just the noise, My Lady. It's the energy level. That's a brute-force weapon if I ever saw one."

"True, but it's more fun than a pulser, too," Honor replied. "I'd prefer something more modern in a fight myself, to be perfectly honest, but it does speak with authority, doesn't it?"

"I can't argue with you there, My Lady," LaFollet admitted, eyes sweeping their surroundings in the automatic threat search of his calling even here, on Harrington House's immaculate grounds. "And I'm not so sure it would be all that useless in a fight, either. If nothing else, the sheer racket ought to give you the advantage of surprise."

"You're probably right," she agreed. The artificial nerves in the rebuilt left side of her face pulled her smile just a bit off center, but her eyes danced. "Maybe I should take away the Guard's pulsers and see if the High Admiral can't get me enough for all of you, too."

"Thank you, My Lady, but I'm quite satisfied with my pulser," LaFollet replied with exquisite politeness. "I carried a chemical-burner of my own, if not one quite that, ah, formidable, for ten years before you upgraded us. Now I'm spoiled."

"Don't say I never offered," she teased, and nodded to the sentry who opened Harrington House's back door for them.

"I won't," LaFollet assured her as the closing door cut off the sounds from the range behind them. "You know, My Lady, there's something I've wanted to ask you," he added. She quirked an eyebrow and nodded for him to go on. "Back on Manticore, before your duel with Summervale, Colonel Ramirez was a lot more nervous than he tried to show. I told him I'd seen you practicing and that you were no slouch with a handgun, but I've always wondered just how you got so good with one myself."

"I grew up on Sphinx," Honor replied, and it was his turn to crook an eyebrow. "Sphinx has been settled for almost six hundred T-years," she explained, "but a third of the planet's still Crown land, which means virgin wilderness, and the Harrington homestead backs smack up to the Copper Wall Nature Preserve. Lots of things on Sphinx wouldn't mind finding out how people taste, and most adults and older children pack guns in the Outback as a matter of course."

"But not antiques like that one, I'll bet," LaFollet returned, gesturing at the pistol case under her left arm.

"No," she admitted. "That's my Uncle Jacques' fault."

"Uncle Jacques?"

"My mom's older brother. He came out from Beowulf to visit us for about a year when I was, oh, twelve T-years old, and he belongs to the Society for Creative Anachronisms. They're a weird group that enjoys recreating the past the way it ought to have been. Uncle Jacques' own favorite period was the second-century Ante Diaspora—uh, that would be the twentieth-century," she added, since Grayson still used the ancient Gregorian calendar "—and he was Planetary Reserve Grand Pistol Champion that year. He's just as handsome as Mother is beautiful, too, and I adored him." She rolled her eyes with a grin. "I followed him around like a love-struck puppy, which must have been maddening, but he never showed it. Instead, he taught me to shoot what he called real guns, and"—she chuckled—"Nimitz didn't like the muzzle blast then, either."

"That's because Nimitz is a cultured and discerning individual, My Lady."

"Ha! Anyway, I kept it up pretty regularly till I went off to the Academy, and I considered going out for the pistol team then. But I was already pretty good with small arms and I'd only started studying the coup about four years before I passed the entrance exams, so I decided to stick with the martial arts and wound up on the unarmed combat team, instead."

"I see." LaFollet took two or three more strides, then grinned wryly. "In case I've never mentioned it before, My Lady, you're not very much like a typical Grayson lady. Guns, unarmed combat. . . . Maybe I should hide behind you the next time it hits the fan."

"Why, Andrew! What a shocking thing to say to your Steadholder!"

LaFollet chuckled in reply, yet he couldn't help thinking she was quite right. Normally, no properly brought up Grayson male would even have considered discussing such violent subjects with a properly brought up female. But Lady Harrington hadn't been brought up as a Grayson, and the local rules defining proper behavior were changing, anyway. The changes must seem slow to an outsider, but to a Grayson, whose life was built on tradition, they'd come with bewildering speed over the past six T-years, and the woman Andrew LaFollet guarded with his life was the reason they had.

It was odd, but she was probably less aware of those changes than anyone else on the planet, for she came from a society which would have greeted the very notion that men and women might be considered unequal with incomprehension. But Grayson's deeply traditional, patriarchal society and religion had evolved in a thousand years of isolation on a world whose lethal concentrations of heavy metals made it its own people's worst enemy. The bedrock strength of those traditions meant any change was bound to be incremental, not something that happened overnight, but LaFollet was constantly aware of the small, subtle adjustments taking place around him. For the most part, he thought they were good changes—not always comfortable ones, as the group of religious zealots who'd tried to destroy his Steadholder little more than a year ago had demonstrated, but good ones. Yet he was virtually certain Lady Harrington still didn't realize the extent to which younger Grayson women were beginning to reshape their own lives around the pattern she and the other Manticoran women serving in Grayson's naval forces provided. Not that Grayson showed any particular signs of turning into a mirror image of the Star Kingdom. Instead, its people were evolving a new pattern all their own, and he often wondered where it would end.

They reached the end of the short passage and took the lift to Harrington House's second floor, where Honor's private quarters were located. An older man with thinning sandy hair and gray eyes was waiting when the lift doors opened, and she cocked her head.

"Hello, Mac. What can I do for you?" she asked.

"We've just received a message from the space facility, Ma'am." Like Honor, James MacGuiness wore civilian clothes, as befitted his role as Harrington House's majordomo, but he was the only member of her personal staff who ever addressed her as anything other than "My Lady." There was a very simple reason for that; Master Chief Steward MacGuiness had been her personal steward and—as she was fond of saying—chief keeper for over eight years, and that made him the only member of her household who'd known her even before she'd been knighted, far less become a countess and steadholder. He normally addressed her as "Milady" in front of visitors, but in private he had a tendency to revert to the older military courtesy.

"What sort of message?" she asked, and he smiled broadly.

"It's from Captain Henke, Ma'am. Agni made her alpha translation three hours ago."

"Mike's here?" Honor said delightedly. "That's wonderful! When do we expect her?"

"She'll be landing in about another hour, Ma'am." Something about MacGuiness's tone was a bit odd, and Honor looked a question at him. "She's not alone, Ma'am," the steward said. "Admiral White Haven is with her, and he's asked if it would be convenient for him to accompany her to Harrington House."

"Earl White Haven? Here?" Honor blinked, and MacGuiness nodded. "Did he say anything about the reason for his visit?"

"No, Ma'am. He just asked if you could see him."

"Of course I can!" She stood in thought for another moment, then shook herself and handed the gun case to MacGuiness. "I suppose I should get tidied up, under the circumstances. Would you see about cleaning this for me, Mac?"

"Of course, Ma'am."

"Thank you. And I suppose you'd better tell Miranda I need her, too."

"I already have, Ma'am. She said she'd meet you in your dressing room."

"Then I shouldn't keep her waiting." Honor nodded and swept off down the corridor to her waiting maid, and her mind whirred as she tried to guess why White Haven wanted to see her.


A knock on the frame of the open door alerted Honor, and she looked up with a smile as MacGuiness ushered her visitors into her spacious, sunny office. Aside from Nimitz and LaFollet, whose constant presence was required under Grayson law, she was alone, for Howard Clinckscales, her regent and administrative executive, was in Austin City for the day, conferring with Chancellor Prestwick, and she rose and walked around her desk, holding out her hand to the slim woman whose skin was barely a shade lighter than her space-black RMN uniform.

"Mike! Why didn't you warn me you were coming?" she demanded as the other woman clasped her hand firmly.

"Because I didn't know I was." Captain (JG) the Honorable Michelle Henke's husky, soft-textured contralto was wry, and she grinned at her host. Mike Henke was a first-cousin of Queen Elizabeth, with the unmistakable features of the House of Winton, but she'd also been Honor's roommate and social mentor at the Academy's Saganami Island campus. Despite the vast social gulf between them, she'd become Honor's closest friend, and her eyes were warm. "Agni's just been reassigned to Sixth Fleet, and Admiral White Haven nabbed us for a taxi."

"I see." Honor gave Henke's hand another squeeze, then turned to the tall, broad shouldered admiral who'd accompanied her. "My Lord," she said more formally, extending her hand once more. "I'm delighted to see you again."

"And I to see you, Milady," he replied, equally formally, and her cheekbones heated as he bent to kiss her hand instead of shaking it. It was the proper way to greet a woman on Grayson, and she'd become accustomed to it under most circumstances. But she felt uncomfortable when White Haven did it. She knew, intellectually, that her steadholder's rank actually took precedence over his, but her title was barely six years old while the Earldom of White Haven dated from the very founding of the Star Kingdom, and he was also one of the two or three most respected flag officers of the navy in which she'd served for over thirty years.

He straightened, and his blue eyes twinkled, as if he understood exactly what she felt and was chiding her for it. She hadn't seen him in almost three T-years—since, in fact, the day she'd gone into exile on half-pay—and she was privately shocked by the fresh, deep lines around those twinkling eyes, but she only smiled.

"Please, sit down," she invited, gesturing to the chairs clustered around a coffee table. Nimitz hopped down from his wall-mounted perch as they obeyed her invitation, and Henke laughed as he padded across the table to hold out one strong, wiry true-hand to her.

"It's good to see you, too, Stinker," the captain said, shaking the proffered hand. "Raided any good celery patches lately?"

Nimitz sniffed his opinion of her idea of humor, but Honor felt his own pleasure over their empathic link. Even people from Manticore and Gryphon, the other two inhabited planets of the Star Kingdom's home system, were distinctly prone to underestimate the intelligence of Sphinx's treecats, but Mike and Nimitz were old friends. She knew as well as Honor that he was brighter than most two-footed people and, despite his inability to form the sounds required to speak it, understood more Standard English than most Manticoran adolescents.

She also knew about the addiction every 'cat shared, and she grinned again as she fished a stalk of celery from the pocket of her tunic and passed it over. Nimitz grabbed it happily and started chewing before his person had time to say a word, far less object, and Honor sighed.

"Not here five minutes, and already you're encouraging him! You're an evil person, Mike Henke."

"Comes from the friends I associate with," Henke replied cheerfully, and it was Honor's turn to laugh.

Hamish Alexander leaned back in his chair and watched the others with unobtrusive intensity. The last time he'd seen Honor Harrington had been after the duel in which she'd killed Pavel Young, the Earl of North Hollow. The duel which had cost her her career had come very close to costing her her life, as well, when North Hollow turned early and shot her in the back, and her left arm and surgically rebuilt shoulder had still been immobilized at their last meeting. Yet her physical wound had been nothing beside the ones which had cut deep into her heart.

His own eyes darkened as he remembered her pain. Killing North Hollow might have avenged the paid-for murder of the man she loved, but it couldn't bring Paul Tankersley back to life. It had made it possible for her to survive his loss, perhaps, yet it had done nothing to lessen her anguish. White Haven had tried to prevent that duel, for he'd known what it would mean for her career, but he'd been wrong to try. It had been something she'd had to do, an act of justice whose inevitability had stemmed from the very things which made her what she was. He'd accepted that, in the end, however much he regretted the consequences, and he wondered if she realized how completely he'd come to understand her motives—or how much he knew about grief and loss. His own wife had been a total invalid for over fifty T-years. Before the freak air car accident, Emily Alexander had been the Star Kingdom's most beloved HD actress, and the anguish he still felt at seeing her dauntless will and courage locked into a frail, useless prison of the flesh had taught Hamish Alexander all about the pain love could inflict.

But this woman wasn't the grief-haunted, white faced officer he remembered from that day aboard the battlecruiser Nike. It was also the first time he'd ever seen her out of uniform, and he was amazed by how comfortable she looked in her Grayson attire. And how regal. Did she even realize how much she'd changed? How much she'd grown? She'd always been a superb officer, but she'd gained something else here on Grayson. She was half his own age, yet he was acutely conscious of the understated power of her presence as she laughed with Captain Henke. He sensed an underlying melancholy behind the laughter, where the awareness of how much loss could hurt cut deep, yet that background sorrow only seemed to hone her strength, as if the anguish she'd survived had tempered the steel within her, and he was glad. Glad for her and for the Royal Manticoran Navy. There were far too few Queen's officers of her caliber, and he wanted her back in Manticoran uniform . . . even if it meant accepting the Breslau command.

She finished laughing with Henke and looked up.

"Excuse me, My Lord. Captain Henke and Nimitz are old cronies, but I shouldn't have let that distract me. How can I help you, Sir?"

"I'm here as a messenger, Dame Honor," he replied. "Her Majesty asked me to see you."

"Her Majesty?" Honor sat up straighter as the earl nodded.

"I've been deputized to ask you to accept recall to active duty, Milady," he said quietly, and the sudden, brilliant light in her chocolate-dark eyes stunned him. She started to speak, then closed her mouth and made herself inhale deeply, and he saw the light dim. It didn't fade; rather it was as if it had been banked by an awareness of all the permutations of who and what she had become, and he felt a fresh sense of respect for the ways she'd grown.

"Active duty?" she repeated after a moment. "I'm honored, of course, My Lord, but I'm sure you and Her Majesty are both aware of the other obligations I'm now under?"

"We are, and so is the Admiralty," White Haven replied in that same, quiet voice. "What you've done here, not merely as Steadholder Harrington but as an officer of the Grayson Navy, has been a tremendous accomplishment, and that's why Her Majesty has asked me to request that you accept recall. She's also charged me to inform you that she will not—now or ever—attempt to command you to do so. The Star Kingdom has treated you very badly—"

Honor started to speak, but he raised his hand. "Please, Milady. It has, and you know it. Specifically, the House of Lords has treated you with a contempt which is a slur upon you, your uniform and personal honor, and the honor of the Star Kingdom. Her Majesty knows it, Duke Cromarty knows it, the Navy knows it, and so do most of our citizens, and no one could possibly blame you for remaining here, where you've been shown the respect you deserve, instead."

Honor's face blazed, but her link to Nimitz carried the earl's sincerity to her. The 'cats had always been able to sense human emotions, but as far as she knew, she was the first human who'd ever been able to sense a 'cat's emotions—or, through Nimitz, other humans' emotions—in return. It was an ability she'd developed only over the last five and a half T-years, and, in some ways, she was still dealing with its ramifications. Though she'd come to accept the extension of her senses, there were still times she wished she couldn't feel others' emotions, and this was one of them. She knew it was a one-way link. White Haven couldn't possibly feel her own reaction to his emotions, but the deep, sympathetic respect welling into her from him was horribly embarrassing. Whatever anyone else might think of her, she was too well aware of her faults and weaknesses to believe for one moment that she deserved to be regarded so.

"That wasn't what I meant, My Lord," she said after a moment. Her soprano came out just a little husky, and she cleared her throat. "I understand why the Lords reacted the way they did. I may not agree with them, but I understand, and I was fairly certain at the time what their response would be. What I meant was that I've accepted my duties and position as a steadholder, not to mention my commission in the GSN. I have obligations I can't simply ignore, however much I'd love to get back into active service for the Star Kingdom again."

She glanced over her shoulder at Andrew LaFollet, standing silent and expressionless in his position behind her chair, and she felt his emotions, too. They were more confused than White Haven's, a blend of fierce approval at the notion that she would be allowed to vindicate herself in Manticoran service mixed with a cold agreement with White Haven's assessment of how the Star Kingdom had treated her and an uneasy fear over what a return to active service with the RMN might mean for the safety of the woman he was charged to protect. But she sensed no pressure either way from him. He was a Grayson armsman. His duty was to guard his Steadholder, not to tell her what to do. That prevented him neither from trying, with exquisitely polite, mulish obstinacy, to manipulate her if he thought she was in danger nor from taking action against anyone who offered her insult, but he would never attempt to dictate to her conscience. Yet this went deeper than that, just as his devotion to her did. What he wanted was for her to do what she felt was right, and she drew a subtle strength from that as she turned back to White Haven.

"I understand exactly what you're saying, Milady, and I respect it," the earl said. "As I say, Her Majesty is simply asking you to consider it, and she's instructed the Admiralty to abide by your decision. If you choose not to return to active duty, you'll be free to remain on half-pay status for as long as you wish—until you do decide to return."

"Just what, exactly, is it that the Admiralty wants me to do?"

"I wish I could say they have a job commensurate with your accomplishments, Milady, but I can't," he replied frankly. "We're assembling a small Q-ship squadron for deployment to Silesia. I assume you're at least generally aware of conditions there?" Honor nodded, and he shrugged. "We can't commit the forces the situation truly requires, but the pressure is growing to do something, and this is the best the Admiralty can manage. But if they can't send adequate forces, they'd prefer to send the best officer they can in hopes that she can accomplish something despite her limited resources."

Honor regarded him thoughtfully, tasting the emotions behind the words through Nimitz. Then she smiled one of her crooked smiles, and this time there was no humor in it.

"I don't think that's the only reason they want me, My Lord," she said shrewdly, and he nodded without surprise. He'd always known she was sharp.

"Frankly, Milady, you're right. If Admiral Caparelli were free to do so, he would prefer to promote you to the flag rank you've proved you deserve and give you a squadron of the wall, or at least your own battlecruiser squadron. But he can't do that. The same political factors which forced him to put you on half-pay are still present, though they've weakened somewhat."

"Then why should I accept this offer?" Anger edged her voice, White Haven noted with approval, and her almond eyes flashed. "Forgive me, My Lord, but it sounds like what you're really offering me is a chance to be shuffled off to another Basilisk Station—with the same sort of inadequate resources I had there!"

"In a sense, I am," he admitted. "But looked at another way, it's a window of opportunity to get back into Manticoran uniform at all. And much as it angers me to say so, that window is the best we're likely to see for quite some time. Believe me, the Admiralty considered very carefully before offering you the command. Neither Baroness Morncreek nor the First Space Lord told me so in so many words, but they wouldn't have offered it to you if not for other considerations."

"Which are?" she asked tightly.

"Milady, you're one of the Navy's finest officers," White Haven said flatly. "If not for political enemies—enemies you made in no small part because you did your duty so well—you'd already be at least a commodore, and the Fleet is well aware of why you aren't. But in this instance, some of those very enemies nominated you for the slot."

Honor's nostrils flared in surprise, and he nodded slowly. She sat back in her chair, reaching out to Nimitz as he flowed into her lap. The 'cat cocked his head, turning his grass-green gaze on the admiral, and she lifted him in her arms. She held him to her breasts, one hand rubbing his chest, and her eyes commanded White Haven to continue.

"We can't be sure of all her reasons, but Countess New Kiev suggested you," the earl said. "I'm quite certain someone else put her up to it, but the rest of the Opposition either went along or made no comment. The current Earl North Hollow was the only peer who actively opposed the idea, and after what happened to his brother, he almost had to—either that or openly admit what sort of scum Pavel Young really was.

"As I say, we're not certain why they did it. Partly, I suppose, it's because however much they hate you, they have to realize how good you are. Another factor may be what happened in the last general election. They took a real beating at the polls, and the way they've treated you was one of the hot-button emotional issues, so perhaps they see this as a way to recover some lost ground without giving you the kind of command you truly deserve. And they may have even less savory motives. Let's be honest; the odds against your achieving much with only four Q-ships are high, however good you are, so they may see this as a chance to set you up for a failure they can use to justify the way they've treated you in the past."

Honor nodded slowly, following his logic, and an icy core of anger burned within her pleasure at the thought of getting back into Manticoran uniform again at last.

"Under most circumstances," White Haven said levelly, "I'd advise against accepting, because if they are counting on the odds against you, they've got a point. But these aren't most circumstances, and whoever's orchestrating their strategy is a shrewd customer. Since the Opposition itself has suggested you, the Admiralty has almost no choice but to offer you the slot. If it doesn't, or if you turn it down, the Opposition will be able to say you had your chance and rejected it. In the long run, that probably wouldn't be enough to keep you from returning to the Queen's service eventually, but it would probably delay your recall for at least another full T-year, possibly longer, and it would certainly make your final return much more difficult.

"On the other hand, if you do accept the command, you probably won't have to hold it for more than six to eight months. By that time, the war situation will probably have changed enough to free up the light forces we need for Silesia. Even if it hasn't, enough additional Q-ships will be available to make a real dent in our problems there. In either case, once you're back on active duty for any reason, the Admiralty will be free to assign you to other duties, as it sees fit, after a suitable interval. Given the fact that the Lords have to confirm promotions out of the zone, it will probably still be impossible to jump you to the rank you've demonstrated you're ready to handle, but that won't keep the Admiralty from giving you the acting authority you deserve."

"So what you're saying, My Lord, is that you think I should accept it," Honor said. White Haven hesitated briefly, then nodded.

"I suppose I am," he sighed. "It goes against the grain—I'd far rather have you commanding one of my squadrons in Sixth Fleet—but given the situation, it's almost a case of paying your dues. It's not fair. In fact, it's damned unfair. But it's also the way it is." He twitched his shoulders unhappily. "As I say, no one could blame you if you decided to stay here, and I'm sure Protector Benjamin and High Admiral Matthews, to say nothing of the people of Harrington Steading, will want you to do just that. But I'll be honest, Milady. We need you as badly as Grayson does, if in a different way. We're up against the most powerful Navy in space, in terms of sheer tonnage, in a fight for our very survival. Chasing pirates in Silesia may not seem of life or death importance to the Sky Kingdom, because it isn't. But if sending you off to do that for a few months is the only way we can get you back for the things we do need you for, it's a price the Admiralty is prepared to pay. The question is whether or not you're prepared to pay it."

Honor frowned thoughtfully at him, fingers stroking gently through Nimitz's soft fur, and the 'cat's subsonic purr rumbled as she held him against her. That cold anger at the prospect of accepting what was in many ways a calculated insult still burned within her, yet she knew White Haven was right. He was asking her to give up command of a squadron of superdreadnoughts and her position as the second ranking officer of an entire navy to accept command of four converted merchantmen in a strategic backwater, yet he was right. The Opposition did have the power to demand that from her as the price of regaining her place in the navy of her birth kingdom and the vindication of her professional abilities.

She sat silent for almost three full minutes, then sighed.

"I won't say yes or no, My Lord. Not right now. But I will discuss it with Protector Benjamin and the High Admiral. I realize you have to get back to your command, but if you could possibly see your way to remaining here as my guest for a day or so, I'd appreciate it. I'd like to discuss the matter with you again after I've spoken to the Protector and Admiral Matthews."

"Of course, Milady," he said.

"Thank you. And now," she stood, "if you and Captain Henke would join me for supper, my chef would love to introduce you both to authentic Grayson cuisine."


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