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Chapter Thirty-One

Admiral Lady Dame Honor Alexander-Harrington, Duchess and Steadholder Harrington (and possibly—Hamish wasn't certain exactly how it would work out—Countess White Haven), walked across the shuttle pad lounge in a euphoric haze.


Being married was going to take some getting used to. This floating feeling of joy and relaxation—the knowledge that she'd truly come home at last—was worth any price, yet she already foresaw all sorts of problems on Grayson, once news of the marriage became public. Grayson conventions denoting marital status all assumed the husband's surname would be adopted by all of his wives. But those same conventions had also always assumed any steadholder would be male, and she had a pretty shrewd notion the Conclave of Steadholders wouldn't take kindly to the notion of changing the Harrington Dynasty to the Alexander Dynasty in the very first generation of the Steading. Plus, of course, the fact that they were going to have to deal with the fact that the Steadholder was the junior wife of a man who stood completely outside the succession.


Personally, she was rather looking forward to watching her fellow steadholders work their way through the problems. It would do their residually patriarchal little hearts good, she thought as she counted noses in her travel party. Then she frowned, as she came up a nose short.


"Wasn't Tim supposed to hop back up with us?" she asked MacGuiness.


"Yes, he was, My Lady." MacGuiness shook his head with an irritated expression. "But he screened last night, and I forgot to tell you. He'll be catching the next shuttle flight back. Something about his younger sister's birthday, I believe. Technically, he's got another thirty-six hours before he's due to report back aboard, so I told him I didn't think there'd be any problem."


"Oh." Honor rubbed the tip of her nose for a moment, then shrugged. "You were right, of course. And goodness knows a birthday party's more important—and probably a lot more fun—than riding back to the flagship with a stodgy old flag officer."


"Nonsense, My Lady," MacGuiness said with an absolutely straight face. "I'm sure he doesn't think of you as old."


"And you, Mac, may not get a lot older," she told him with a smile.


"I'm terrified, Your Grace," he said sedately.


* * *

"You did what?" Michelle Henke asked, staring at Honor.


"I said that while I was back on Manticore and didn't have anything better to do, I went ahead and got married," Honor repeated with a huge smile. "It . . . seemed like the thing to do."


She shrugged, and Nimitz bleeked with laughter on her shoulder as the two of them enjoyed Henke's poleaxed mind-glow.


"But . . . but . . . but—"


"Mike, you sound like one of those antique motorboats Uncle Jacques and his SCA buddies play with."


Henke closed her mouth, and her stunned expression began to transform itself into one of outrage.


"You married Hamish Alexander—and his wife—and you didn't even invite me?!"


"Mike, I almost didn't get invited," Honor said. "Reverend Sullivan, Archbishop Telmachi, my mother, Hamish and Emily—I think about thirty percent of the entire population of Manticore!—knew about it before anybody bothered to tell me. And when the Reverend suggests you get married right now instead of—how did he put it? Oh, yes—instead of continuing to 'cavort in sin' with your intended groom, it takes more intestinal fortitude than I just discovered I have to say no."


"Yeah, sure you don't." Henke eyed her narrowly. "I've known treecats—hell, I've known boulders—less stubborn then you are, Honor Harrington. No way in the world did anyone hold a pulser to your head and make you do this!"


"Well, that's true," Honor admitted. "In fact, I'm a more than a little ticked off with myself for not having thought of this and proposed it myself months ago. It's just, after the High Ridge smear campaign, it never occurred to me."


"Even if it had," Henke said shrewdly, "you wouldn't have suggested it. You'd have just sat on it and hoped the idea occurred to Emily."


"You might be right," Honor said, after a moment. "I hadn't really thought about that while I was busy kicking myself for being so slow."


"Honor, you're my best friend in the universe, but I've got to tell you, you've got one blind spot about two kilometers wide. It's funny, given that you're also the only functional two-foot empath I know, but it's true. You are constitutionally incapable of suggesting anything that will get you what you want if it might step on someone else. And you're so incapable of it, that you go into some sort of immediate internal denial where the very possibility of suggesting it is concerned."


"I do not!"


"You do so." Henke looked at Nimitz. "Doesn't she, Stinker?"


Nimitz looked down at Henke from Honor's shoulder for a moment, and then nodded firmly.


"See? Even your furry minion knows it. Which is one reason this marriage of yours is going to be so good for you. Somehow, I don't see Hamish and Emily Alexander—or Hamish and Emily Alexander-Harrington, I suppose now—letting you get away with that anymore."


Honor considered protesting further, but she didn't. And one reason she didn't, she admitted to herself, was that she wasn't positive she could, and be honest. The notion certainly bore thinking on, at any rate.


"Whatever," she said, instead, smiling at Henke. "But the main thing is that, aside from Mac and my armsmen, you're the only one in the Fleet who knows. I'm going to tell Alice and Alistair, as well, but no one else. Not for a while."


"Marriage licenses and wedding certificates are public records, Honor," Henke pointed out. "You can't keep this one quiet for long."


"Longer than you might think," Honor replied with an urchin-like grin. "Since I'm Steadholder Harrington, and a steadholder outranks a duchess or an earl, the license and certificate are both being filed on Steadholder Harrington's planet of residence. In the Public Records Office of Harrington Steading, as a matter of fact. Reverend Sullivan offered to take care of it for me."


"Well, wasn't that nice of him," Henke said with a matching grin. "I don't suppose they're likely to get temporarily misfiled, are they?"


"No, they aren't," Honor said, more seriously. "They're important official documents, so we're not going to be playing any games with them. But we're also not going to mention to anyone that they're there, and while the records are public, they have to be requested, so we'll know if anyone accesses them." She shrugged. "We couldn't keep it secret forever, even if we wanted to, which we don't. This will just buy a little more time."


"But why buy it in the first place?" Henke frowned. "Like Emily said, this solves all your problems. Except, of course, for the people who're going to suggest that the fact that you're marrying them now probably proves Hayes was right with his original rumors about you and Hamish."


"The main reason is my command and Hamish's position at the Admiralty," Honor admitted. "Hamish's theory is that since the First Lord, unlike the First Space Lord, is a civilian without any authority to issue orders to uniformed personnel, he's not in my direct chain of command, and so there's been no official prohibition against our . . . involvement from the start. Unfortunately, that's currently just his opinion. Before we go public, we want to be certain the courts are going to agree with him."


"And if they don't?" Henke frowned again. Rules-lawyering was very unlike the Honor Harrington she'd always known.


"And if they don't, the solution's relatively simple. I resign my Manticoran commission, and High Admiral Matthews makes Admiral Steadholder Harrington available to the Alliance to command Eighth Fleet. That we know would be legal, since there's no similar prohibition in Grayson service. But it would be complicated and an obvious case of finding a way to technically comply with the law, and we'd all prefer to simply find out that what we're doing is legal in the first place under the Star Kingdom's Articles of War."


"And how long will it take for you to determine whether or not it is?"


"Not too long, I hope. I've got Richard Maxwell working on it now, and he feels confident he can have a definitive opinion for us within a month or so. Which is actually moving at light-speed for the legal system, you know. In the meantime, we've got to get Cutworm III organized and launched, and no one at Admiralty House or here in the Fleet needs to be worrying about something like this while we're planning an op."


"I don't suppose I can argue about that," Henke said. "Personally, given who you and Hamish are—not to mention Emily—I figure you could probably get away with just about anything short of murder!"


"Maybe we could," Honor said with a frown of her own, "but that's one game I really don't want to start playing."


"Honor, you've earned a little slack, a little special consideration," Henke told her quietly.


"Some people may think so. And, in some respects, I suppose I do, too," Honor said slowly. "But the minute I begin demanding some sort of free pass, I turn into someone I don't want to be."


"Yes, I guess you would," Henke said, shaking her head with a slight, rueful smile. "Which is probably one reason everyone else would be so willing to give it to you. Oh, well." She shook herself. "I guess we'll just have to put up with you the way you are."


* * *

"And don't forget to write this time!"


"Mom!" Lieutenant Timothy Meares protested. "I always write! You know I do!"


"But not often enough," she said firmly, with an impish smile, as she banked into the final approach to Landing Field's parking bays.


"All right. All right," he sighed, giving in with a smile of his own. "I'll try to write more often. Assuming the Admiral gives me the free time."


"Don't you go blaming your slackness on Duchess Harrington," his mother scolded. "She doesn't keep you that busy."


"Yes, she does," Meares objected in tones of profound innocence. "I swear she does!"


"Then you won't mind me dropping her a little note of my own to ask her not to overwork my baby boy that way?"


"Don't you dare!" Meares protested with a laugh.


"That's what I thought," his mother said complacently. "Mothers know these things, you know."


"And they fight dirty, too."


"Of course they do. They're mothers."


The air car settled into the designated parking bay, and she turned to look at him, her expression suddenly much more serious.


"Your father and I are very proud of you, Tim," she said quietly. "And we worry about you. I know—I know!" She raised one hand when he started to protest. "You're safer on the flagship than you would be almost anywhere else. But a lot of mothers and fathers who thought their children were safe before the Peeps started shooting again found out they were wrong. We're not lying awake at night, unable to sleep. But we do worry, because we love you. So . . . be careful, all right?"


"I promise, Mom," he said, and kissed her cheek. Then he climbed out of the car, collected his single light bag, and waved goodbye.


His mother watched him step onto the pedestrian slideway. She watched him until he disappeared into the crowd, then lifted the air car into the exit traffic lanes and headed home.


She never noticed the nondescript man who also watched her son head for the departure concourse.


* * *

"I wish we were getting a few reinforcements, Ma'am," Rafael Cardones said as he, Simon Mattingly, and Honor and Nimitz walked down the passage away from the flag briefing room where the first preliminary meeting for Cutworm III had just broken up.


"So do I," Honor replied. "But realistically, it's only been three months since we activated Eighth Fleet. It's going to be at least a few more months before we start seeing anything else, I'm afraid."


"Three months." Cardones shook his head. "It doesn't seem anywhere near that long, somehow, Ma'am."


"That's because of how much more intense the operational pace has been this time around," Honor said with a shrug. "For us, at least. Time is probably dragging for the folks in Home Fleet and Third Fleet." It was her turn to shake her head. "I was always fortunate, as a captain. Except possibly for Hancock Station, I never got anchored to one of the major defensive fleets and had to sit around cooling my heels for months at a time with nothing but simulations to keep my people sharp."


"No, you didn't," Cardones said dryly. "If I recall correctly, Your Grace, you were generally too busy getting the crap shot out of your ship to worry about something like that."


"Picky, picky, picky," Honor said, and the flag captain chuckled. "At least it kept my people from getting bored," she added, and he laughed harder.


Honor smiled, and the four of them stepped through the hatch onto Imperator's flag bridge.


It was fairly late in the shipboard day, and the watch was at a minimum. Mattingly peeled off, just inside the hatch, and Honor and Cardones crossed the spacious command deck to stand on its far side, gazing into the main visual display. The endless depths of space lay before them, crystal clear and sooty black, spangled with stars.


"Beautiful, isn't it, Ma'am?" Cardones asked quietly.


"And it looks so peaceful," Honor agreed.


"Too bad looks can be so deceiving," her flag captain said.


"I know what you mean. But let's not get too moody. It's always been 'deceiving,' you know. Think about what each of those tiny little, cool-looking stars is like when you get close to it. Not so 'peaceful' then, is it?"


"You do have an interesting perspective on things, sometimes, Your Grace," Cardones observed.


"Do I?"


Honor turned her head as the hatch opened again and Timothy Meares walked through it, carrying his memo board under his arm. The flag lieutenant had stayed behind to tidy up his notes of the session.


"If my perspective seems odd," she continued, turning back to Cardones, "it's only because—"


Her voice chopped off as abruptly as a guillotine blade, and she whirled back towards the hatch even as Nimitz catapulted off her shoulder with a bloodcurdling, tearing-canvas snarl. Cardones' jaw dropped, and he started to turn himself, but he was far too slow.


"Simon!" Honor shouted, even as her right hand flashed up, caught Cardones by the front of his tunic, and flung him towards the floor with all the brutal power of her genetically engineered heavy-world musculature.


The armsman's head snapped up, but he lacked Honor's empathic sense. He couldn't taste what she tasted—couldn't recognize the sudden, surging horror radiating from Timothy Meares as the young man abruptly found his body responding to the orders of someone—or something—else.


It wasn't Mattingly's fault. Timothy Meares was part of his Steadholder's official family. He was her aide, her student, almost an adoptive son. He'd been alone in her company literally thousands of times, and Mattingly knew he was no threat. And so, he was totally unprepared when Meares' right hand reached out casually—so casually—in passing . . . and snaked Mattingly's pulser out of his holster.


The armsman reacted almost instantly. Despite the totality of his surprise, his own arm lashed out, seeking to recapture the weapon, or at least immobilize it. But "almost instantly" wasn't quite good enough, and the pulser snarled.


"Simon!"


This time it was no shout. Honor screamed her armsman's name in useless protest as the burst of heavy-caliber darts ripped into his abdomen and tracked upward into his chest. His uniform tunic, like Honor's, which had been modified to resist Nimitz's claws, was made of antiballistic fabric, but it wasn't designed to resist military-grade pulser fire at point-blank range, and Mattingly went down in an explosion of blood.


Honor felt the agony of his death, but there was no time to grieve. And agonizing as what had just happened to Mattingly was, it was actually less agonizing than what she tasted from Timothy Meares. His horror, shock, disbelief and guilt as his hand killed a man who'd been his friend was like some horrifying shroud. She could feel him screaming in protest, fighting with desperate futility, as his arm came up, sweeping around the bridge, holding down the stud on the stolen pulser.


A hurricane of darts shrieked across Flag Bridge. Two Plotting ratings went down, one of them screaming horribly. The Communications section exploded as the darts chewed their way through displays, consoles, chair backs. The deadly muzzle tracked onward, slicing the bandsaw of hyper-velocity darts across Andrea Jaruwalski's unmanned station and killing the Tactical quartermaster of the watch. And yet, even as the carnage mounted, Honor knew it was all incidental. She knew her horrified flag lieutenant's actual target.


Nimitz hit the back of a command chair, bounding towards Meares, but the cyclone of darts slammed into the chair. They missed the 'cat, but the chair literally exploded under him, and not even his reflexes could keep him from falling to the deck. He landed with his feet under him, already prepared to bound upward once again, but he'd lost too much time. He couldn't possibly reach the flag lieutenant before the pulser in Meares' hand found Honor.


Honor felt it coming. Felt the useless denial screaming in Timothy Meares' mind. Knew the flag lieutenant literally could not resist whatever hideous compulsion had seized him. Knew he would rather have died himself than do what he'd just done. What he was about to do.


She didn't think about it, not consciously. She simply reacted, just as she'd reacted by throwing Rafael Cardones out of the line of fire. Reacted with the trained instincts of over forty years of practice in the martial arts, and with the muscle memory she'd drilled into herself on the firing range under her Jason Bay mansion.


Her artificial left hand flexed oddly. It rose before her, forefinger rigid, and in the instant before Timothy Meares' fire reached her, the tip of that forefinger exploded as a five-dart burst of pulser fire ripped across the flag bridge and the flag lieutenant's head erupted in a ghastly spray of gray, red, and pulverized white bone.


 


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