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Chapter Four

"Welcome back, Your Grace."


"Thank you, Mercedes."


Honor followed Simon Mattingly through the private arrivals gate and held out her hand to the sturdy, plain-faced woman waiting for her in the Landing City VIP shuttle pad concourse. Mercedes Brigham still wore the commodore's uniform of her Manticoran rank rather than the rear admiral's star she would have been entitled to in Grayson's service. For that matter, she really ought to have traded in the double planets of her commodore's insignia even in the RMN. Honor knew perfectly well that Brigham had quietly made it clear to BuPers that she preferred her position as Honor's chief of staff, and promotion to rear admiral would have made her too senior for the slot. Honor had tried to convince her otherwise, though not as hard as she really felt she ought to have, but Mercedes had only grinned.


"If I really want command, Ma'am," she'd said, "all I have to do is go back to Grayson. At the moment, I think I'm more useful where I am. So unless you want to fire me . . ."


"And welcome back to you, too, Stinker," Brigham said now, reaching up to offer Nimitz her hand in turn. The treecat shook it solemnly, then flirted his tail and bleeked a laugh. Brigham chuckled, then turned back to Honor, her expression sympathetic.


"You look a bit frazzled, Your Grace."


"It's been a busy ten days," Honor conceded.


"Was it as hectic as you were afraid it would be?"


"No," Honor said. "Honestly, it wasn't. Not quite, at any rate. Austen's confirmation as regent went very smoothly. There was a little opposition, mostly from Mueller. I don't think the present Lord Mueller is quite as reconciled to his father's execution as he tries to make it seem, and he's starting to regain a little of his steading's old influence in the Opposition. But Benjamin, Owens, Yanakov, and Mackenzie steamrollered the nomination through."


"I assume," Brigham continued as LaFollet and Spencer Hawke came through the gate to hover watchfully at Honor's back and four more armsmen in Harrington green appeared, heavily laden with baggage, "that you had an opportunity to discuss the general situation with High Admiral Matthews?"


"I did. Not that either one of us was able to add a great deal to the other's understanding." Honor grimaced. "At the moment, the 'situation' at least has the advantage of a certain grim simplicity."


"The other side is still trying to complicate it, though, Your Grace," Brigham said. "Did you hear about the raid on Alizon?"


"Yes." Honor looked at her sharply. "The preliminary dispatch came in just before Tankersley broke Grayson orbit, but there weren't any details. How bad was it?"


"Nowhere near as bad as what McQueen did in their Operation Icarus," Brigham said quickly. "Not that it was exactly good, you understand. We lost a couple of our own freighters, and they blew the hell out of a respectable chunk of the asteroid extraction platforms and mining boats. But human casualties were very low and they never got close enough to hit the main industrial platforms. None of our people even got scratched, and the Alizonians only lost a half-dozen or so miners." She twitched one shoulder in a half-shrug. "Even that looks like it was an accident. From everything I've seen, they appear to have done their dead level best to play it according to the rules."


"They used LACs? No hyper-capable units?"


"Only LACs, Your Grace." If Brigham was surprised by Honor's questions, she showed no sign of it. "According to Alizon Defense Command, they lost between thirty and forty of them, too. All to the missile pods."


"Did our LACs engage at all?" Honor asked, and Brigham gave her a thin smile.


"By the strangest turn of fate, no, Your Grace. I know what you're thinking, and Alizon Defense Command thought the same thing. This was a probing attack, testing our defenses. If they'd wanted to do serious damage to the system infrastructure, they'd have attacked in much heavier strength. So when Defense Command realized we were up against a raid that probably wasn't even going to try to penetrate the inner defenses, not a serious assault on the system, all our Shrikes and Ferrets and—especially—Katanas stayed covert. So did the outer-system pods, for that matter. ONI gives us ninety percent-plus odds that the Peeps never even saw them."


"Good," Honor said, then nodded towards the concourse exit where the armored air limo in Harrington livery waited. Mattingly had already taken up his post beside it, and her entire party flowed into motion towards him.


"It's not very likely someone like Theisman isn't going to figure the LACs, at least, were there, anyway," she continued, "but at least he wasn't able to confirm it." She frowned thoughtfully. "Have you heard anything about Alizon's reaction to the attack?"


"Not officially." Brigham stood aside to let the baggage-toting armsmen load their burdens into the limo's luggage compartment. "We only got Defense Command's preliminary report five days ago. The Admiralty copied all of Admiral Simon's dispatches and after-action reports to us, but I haven't seen anything on the civilian side. According to certain sources of mine in Sir Thomas' shop, though, the Alizonians aren't what you might call pleased about it."


"As if that's a surprise," Honor snorted.


"Well, they did get the piss blown out of them the last time around, Your Grace," Brigham observed. "And after the way High Ridge and his bunch treated them, we've probably run our store of goodwill pretty close to rock bottom. Do you know Admiral Simon?"


"Not personally." Honor shook her head. "I know he's young for his rank, that he's a Saganami graduate, and that he's got a good reputation with us, as well as his own people. That's about it."


"Actually, that sums him up pretty well, except that I'd add that he's always been one of the stronger supporters of the Alliance. But even the dispatches from him I've seen make some pretty pointed references to how understrength the system defenses would have been against a real attack." She grimaced. "I'm guessing the civilians are going to be even more pointed about it, and I can't blame them. They're going to want some concrete demonstration of our willingness—and ability—to protect them from an Icarus repeat."


"Which is exactly why Theisman did it." Honor sighed. "I liked it so much better when Pierre and Saint-Just didn't trust their navy enough to let it do its job properly."


"At least we've managed to get back our own first team at Admiralty House," Brigham said encouragingly. "That's something."


"Quite a bit, actually," Honor agreed. "I'm looking forward to getting a firsthand brief from Sir Thomas."


"And Earl White Haven?"


Brigham's tone could not have been more natural, but Honor tasted the commodore's sudden spike of combined curiosity and concern.


"I'm sure we'll also discuss the situation," she replied after the briefest of pauses. "I know the Queen wants to see both of us tomorrow. I feel confident she's going to want a current briefing of her own, then, and it's pretty obvious Eighth Fleet is going to be a politically sensitive command, as well as a military one. I'm sure he'll have quite a bit to say in that regard as First Lord, probably both on and off the record. In fact, the Earl and Lady Emily have invited me to spend a few days as their guest at White Haven. Probably at least in part so that we can spend the time discussing all the ramifications."


"I see." Brigham gazed at her for a moment, then smiled. "It still seems odd to have him stuck on the civilian side instead of commanding a fleet, doesn't it?" She shook her head. "Still, I guess he's where we need him most right now. Ah, will you be taking any of the staff to White Haven with you, Your Grace?"


"Probably just Andrew, Spencer, and Simon," Honor said offhandedly. "Oh, and Mac. I'd like to take Miranda, as well, but I'm not going to pull her out of the Bay House for a stay this short. I need her staying on top of things right where she is."


"Of course, Your Grace," Brigham murmured, and gestured for Honor to enter the limo in front of her. "Please remember to give the Earl my respects."


* * *

"Honor!"


Honor looked up quickly, with a huge smile, as the husky contralto called her name. The frail-looking, golden-haired woman in the life-support chair just inside the main entry of the Alexander family seat at White Haven smiled back, and her deep-green eyes gleamed with welcome.


"It's wonderful to see you back—you and Nimitz," the other woman continued. "How long can you say this time?"


"It's wonderful to see you, too, Emily," Honor said, striding quickly across the entry hall. She'd never been one to bestow easy public kisses, but she bent and kissed Emily Alexander's cheek. The older women reached up with her right arm—the only portion of her body below the neck that she could move at all—and laid the palm of her hand against Honor's cheek, in reply.


"Are you keeping her in shape, Sandra?" Honor asked the tallish, square-shouldered brunette standing beside the life-support chair.


"We try, Your Grace," Sandra Thurston, Lady Alexander's personal nurse, said and favored Honor with a welcoming smile. "I suspect seeing you again is going to do more for her than I ever could, though."


"Oh, nonsense!" Honor replied with a slight blush, then straightened to look at the man standing directly behind Lady Alexander's chair.


"It's good to see you again, too, Nico," she said.


"And you, Your Grace," White Haven's majordomo murmured with a slight bow. "Welcome back to White Haven."


"Thank you," Honor said, and smiled at him. The edge of defensive resentment Nico Havenhurst had felt the first time he saw her here had vanished, and he returned her smile, then he looked past her to the armsmen carrying in her baggage.


"If you'll excuse me, Your Grace, Milady," he said, with another small bow, this time to both women, "I'll attend to Her Grace's things." Emily nodded agreement, and he turned to Honor's armsmen. "I've arranged to lodge Her Grace in the Blue Suite, Colonel," he told LaFollet. "You and her other armsmen will be in the Bachelor's Wing. The billiard room is between that and the main house, directly adjacent to the only direct access stair to the Blue Suite, so I thought it might provide you with a relatively comfortable guardroom. I hope that's satisfactory?"


He looked innocently at Honor's senior personal armsman, and LaFollet gazed back for just an instant, then nodded.


"Perfectly," he replied. He looked at Honor's other two personal armsmen. "Simon, you and Spencer go ahead and get things organized. Then get some sleep. I'll cover things here through dinner, and you two lucky fellows will get the night shift."


"Rank, you see," Mattingly said to Hawke, "hath its privileges. He gets a good night's sleep."


"And well deserved it will be, too," LaFollet agreed equably as the youngest member of Honor's personal detachment grinned. "Now, move along." He made shooing motions with both hands. "There's a good lad," he added with a wicked grin.


"You know," Emily said as Honor's armed retainers trooped past her in Nico's wake, "I'd forgotten how much more . . . placid it is around here when your myrmidons are away."


"They do have a tendency to liven the place up, don't they," Honor said dryly, regarding LaFollet with an expression which combined amusement and resignation in near-equal measure. The armsman returned it with a look of total innocence, and she shook her head and turned back to Emily. "Mac went on to the Bay House to collect the mail, check in with Miranda, and get her report on things generally. He'll be arriving in another couple of hours."


"I know. He screened me from Landing with his schedule. Nico's already made arrangements for his arrival, too." Emily smiled crookedly. "One thing we've got plenty of in this rambling edifice is bedroom space."


Honor tasted the mingled affection, humor, and small, lingering trace of sorrow which accompanied Emily's last sentence and reached out again, almost involuntarily, to rest one hand on the other woman's shoulder. As always, the fragile delicacy of the invalid's flesh and bones under her hand was almost shocking, so totally at odds with the inner vitality of the woman trapped within it.


"I know," she said softly, and Emily reached up to lay her working hand briefly atop Honor's.


"Yes, I imagine you do," she said more briskly, still smiling. "And Hamish will be here shortly, as well. He screened to say he's been delayed by some Admiralty House business. Nothing critical, just details that have to be dealt with. And, yes, Nimitz," she said, looking directly at the 'cat on Honor's shoulder, "Samantha is just fine. I'm sure she'll be just as eager to see you as you are to see her when she and Hamish get here."


Nimitz rose higher, true-hands flashing, and Emily chuckled as she read the signs.


"Yes, I think you could say she's missed you as much as she would have missed celery. Possibly even a little more than that."


Nimitz bleeked with laughter, and Honor shook her head.


"You two are bad influences on each other," she observed severely.


"Nonsense. Both of us were completely beyond salvage before we ever met, Honor," Emily replied serenely.


"I'm sure." Honor glanced over her shoulder at LaFollet, and the colonel smiled faintly.


"If you'll pardon me for a moment, My Lady," he said, "I need to speak to the limo driver before he parks the car. With your permission?"


"Of course, Andrew," she said and watched fondly as he stepped back outside.


"Ah, I think I might just go and check with Tabitha about the supper menu, Milady," Thurston said to Emily. "You'll keep an eye on her till I get back, Your Grace?" she added innocently to Honor.


"Of course I will," Honor said gravely, and Thurston smiled and disappeared, leaving her alone with Emily and Nimitz.


"My goodness," Emily murmured as the door closed behind her. "She did that very neatly. And I didn't think anything could overcome that professional paranoia of his! For all he knows, assassins are lurking in the great hall right this moment."


"Andrew does more than simply protect me physically, Emily," Honor said. "He also does his best to let me cling to at least the illusion of a little bit of privacy." Her smile was more crooked than the one the artificial nerves in the left side of her face normally produced. "Of course, we both know it's only an illusion, but that doesn't make it any less important to me."


"No, I don't suppose it does," Emily said gently. "We Manticoran aristocrats think we live in fishbowls, but compared to you Grayson steadholders—" She shook her head. "I suppose it really is necessary, in your case, at least, given how many people seem to have tried to kill you over the years. But I often wonder how you can stand it without going mad."


"There are times I wonder, too," Honor admitted. "Mostly, though, it's my armsmen themselves who keep me sane. Graysons have had a thousand years to adjust to the peculiarities of their own traditions, and it's amazing how 'invisible' an armsman can make himself. But it's more than that, too. They just . . . become a part of you. I suppose it's like your relationship with Nico or Sandra, or mine with Mac, but with an added dimension. They know everything about me, Emily, and every single one of them will go to his grave without ever betraying a confidence of mine. That's what Grayson armsmen do."


"Then I suppose I envy you as much as I pity you," Emily said.


"You might want to keep some of that sympathy for yourself," Honor said. Emily arched an eyebrow, and Honor gave her another off-center smile. "If things go on as they have, you and Hamish are going to find my armsmen interfering in your lives almost as much as they do in the lives of my mother and father. Andrew will be as discreet about it as he possibly can, but it will happen."


Emily gazed at her for several seconds, then sighed.


"Yes," she said finally. "I can see that. In fact, I realized it while you were still in Sidemore. But I think I'm discovering that adjusting to the reality is a little more . . . complicated than I'd anticipated."


"I don't doubt it, and I'm sorry," Honor said softly. "You don't deserve all the complications I've inflicted on your life."


"Nonsense!" Emily shook her head firmly. "Just desserts don't come into it. Or, as Hamish has always been fond of saying—when he thinks I don't hear him, of course—shit happens."


Honor's mouth twitched, and Emily smiled at her as she smothered a giggle.


"You didn't plan any of this, Honor," Emily continued, "any more than Hamish did. In fact, if memory serves, the two of you were busy making everyone—Nimitz, Samantha, and myself included—thoroughly miserable because of your absolute determination not to 'inflict' any complications on my life. I may not like having to deal with all of them, but I don't regret any of them. You know that."


She looked Honor straight in the eye, and Honor nodded slowly. Emily was one of the small number of people who knew her empathic link with Nimitz was so deep, so intense, that she'd actually developed something very like the treecats' ability to sense the emotions of those about her. Which meant she did know Emily was being completely honest with her.


"Then Hamish and I are remarkably lucky people," she said. Emily made a small throwing away gesture with her mobile hand, and Honor inhaled a deep breath. "However, the question I'm sure Andrew stepped outside so I could ask you was whether it was genuine Admiralty business that detained Hamish, or simply good strategy on a more personal level."


"Both, I think," Emily said, green eyes twinkling. "Admiralty House has been keeping him late quite a bit these past few months," she went on more soberly, "and I don't doubt for a moment that he really is busy trying to club the latest batch of pseudogators to crawl out of the swamp. But it's also true we both thought it might be a bit more . . . politic if he stayed busy with routine matters while I got my friend Honor settled in here at White Haven instead of rushing home to greet you himself. Not," she added dryly, "that I don't expect his 'greeting' to be about as enthusiastic as you're likely to survive when he does get here."


Honor felt herself actually blushing, and Emily laughed delightedly.


"Oh, Honor! You really are so, so . . . so Sphinxian!"


"I can't help it," Honor protested. "I mean, Mother's from Beowulf, so I suppose I ought to be more, well, liberated, or whatever, but I'm not, all right?" She gave the older woman's shoulder a gently cautious shake. "You and Hamish may be from decadent old Manticore, but you're right, I am from Sphinx. And, just to make things worse, for the last eighteen T-years I've been from Grayson, too. Can you think of a planet less well suited to developing a sophisticated attitude about this sort of thing?"


"Actually, I'd think the Grayson element might help, really," Emily said, only half humorously. "I mean, they do have that tradition of multiple wives."


"That's multiple wives, Emily," Honor said dryly. "They're not so big on unmarried lovers. Especially when one of the lovers in question is married to someone else."


"I wonder if they might be just a bit more understanding than you think they would." Emily shook her head quickly, and continued before Honor could open her mouth. "I'm not suggesting you run home to find out, Honor! You're a steadholder. I understand that, and I understand you're not free to run the risks as Steadholder Harrington that you might run as simply Honor Harrington, just as you and Hamish can't openly display your feelings here in the Star Kingdom after the way those bastards tried to smear both of you last year. But I really do think you're both still being harder on yourselves for feelings neither of you sought than most other people would be."


"You're a remarkable woman, Emily Alexander," Honor said after a moment. "I see exactly why Hamish loves you as much as he does." She touched the older woman's cheek gently. "And I don't deserve to have you understand so deeply."


"You're not a very good judge of what you deserve, Honor," Emily said. "But," she went on more briskly, "before we get too maudlin, why don't we take ourselves off to the conservatory?" She grinned mischievously. "If we hurry, we can disappear before Colonel LaFollet comes back inside and see how long it takes him to find you again. Won't that be fun?"


 


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