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Chapter Eleven

Bosun's pipes twittered, the side party snapped to attention, and the young lieutenant at its head saluted as Honor stepped into HMS Queen Caitrin's boat bay. She managed not to smile, retaining her cool, calm captain's expression while Nimitz preened on her shoulder, as if all the stir were in his personal honor, yet satisfaction of her own flickered when she saw the officer waiting beyond the side party. The stupendous superdreadnought dwarfed her own command, but Earl White Haven's flag captain had come down in person to greet her.


"Welcome aboard, Lady Harrington." Captain Frederick Goldstein had the professional stature one might have expected of Admiral White Haven's flag captain. He was not only one of the RMN's most respected captains, but one of its most senior, as well. Rumor had him on the next short list for flag rank, and he smiled in genuine welcome.


"Thank you, Sir," she said, gripping his hand, and his smile grew.


"I imagine you're just as happy to get out of Nike without meeting a newsie," he suggested, and it was Honor's turn to smile.


"I'm afraid they have gotten to be more than a bit of a pain, Sir."


"Just between us, Dame Honor, they always have been. And, also just between us, let me take this chance to congratulate you on Hancock. That was well done, Captain. Very well done."


"Thank you, Sir," Honor said again with quiet sincerity. An officer like Goldstein knew exactly what Hancock must have been like, and that made a compliment from him more precious than any amount of civilian adulation. "I wish I could take the credit," she added, "but it was Admiral Sarnow's battle plan, and we had good people to make it work. And we were lucky, too."


"I don't doubt it." Goldstein's eyes approved her tone as much as her words. "I know Mark Sarnow, and I know what sort of squadron he must've put together. But it took sense, and guts, to take advantage of what he gave you and keep going when it all fell in your lap. Some people wouldn't have—like a certain officer whose name we won't mention."


Honor bobbed her head in silent acknowledgment, and Goldstein motioned for her to accompany him from the boat bay gallery. He was shorter than she, which forced her to shorten her stride slightly as they walked down the passage, but he moved with brisk, quick energy and waved her into the lift ahead of him. The trip was a lengthy one—not surprisingly, given Queen Caitrin's size—but it didn't seem that way. Goldstein had been White Haven's flag captain ever since the earl had shifted his flag to Queen Caitrin before the battles of Third Yeltsin, Chelsea, and Mendoza, and he laid them out for her in clear, concise detail in response to her questions. The first of those engagements had dwarfed Hancock's scale, yet he managed to distill its essence into a few, crisp sentences. Not that he used brevity to depress her pretension in asking. Indeed, he made all three battles come alive in a way no official after-action report could have, and he did it without lecturing or condescending. It was a professional discussion between equals, despite the difference in their ages and seniority, and Honor felt more than a little regret when they reached Admiral White Haven's cabin at last and Goldstein bade her farewell with another handshake. But it wasn't until the admiral's Marine sentry had announced her that she suddenly wondered why he'd excused himself. He was the admiral's flag captain, and she was about to join the task force in the same capacity for another admiral. Surely this would have been an excellent opportunity for them to get to know one another . . . unless there was some reason White Haven wanted to see her alone?


An eyebrow crooked at the thought, but she smoothed it quickly as the hatch slid open and she found herself face to face with the admiral himself.


"Dame Honor." White Haven held out his hand in welcome. "It's good to see you again. Please, come in."


Honor obeyed the invitation, and memories of their last meeting replayed in her mind. That had been after the Second Battle of Yeltsin, and she had to suppress a smile as she remembered his lecture on the virtue of restraining her temper. Not that she hadn't deserved it, but since then she'd heard a few tales about times when he'd lost his temper which gave a certain "do as I say, not as I do" air to his admonition. On the other hand, one of the more famous episodes had singed every hair on then-Admiral Sir Edward Janacek's head, and White Haven had spent four T-years dirt-side on half-pay when Janacek became First Lord, so perhaps his warning had come from hard experience.


"Have a seat," White Haven went on, waving her toward an armchair. His steward appeared almost as silently as MacGuiness could have managed, offering her a glass of wine, and she accepted it with a murmured thanks.


The tall, dark-haired admiral sank into a facing chair and leaned back, then raised his own wineglass in Honor's direction.


"To a job very well done, Dame Honor," he said, and this time she blushed. It was one thing when a fellow captain, however senior, complimented her, but only nine active-duty officers in the entire Royal Navy were senior to Earl White Haven. She nodded her silent thanks, unable to think of a verbal response that wouldn't sound either stuffy or foolish, and his answering smile was almost gentle, touched with understanding and a trace of compassion.


"Not to embarrass you, Dame Honor, but I've seen how the newsies are chewing you up over this whole court-martial business. It's become more important to them, somehow, than what you and your people did in Hancock. That's more than a little disgusting, but it's also how politics often seem to work. The Fleet, however, knows better . . . as do I. I wish I could say I was surprised by your performance, but I know your record, and Hancock was no less than I would have expected of you. That's one reason I specifically requested BatCruRon Five's assignment to TF Four, and I'm delighted the Admiralty saw fit to grant that request."


"I—" Honor paused and cleared her throat, half-stunned by the immensity of the implied compliment. "Thank you, Sir. I appreciate it, and I hope you'll continue to be pleased."


"I'm sure I will." He paused to sip wine, then sighed. "I'm sure I will," he repeated, "but I'm also afraid the politics aren't quite behind us yet. To be frank, that's the real reason I invited you tonight, and, if you'll forgive me, I might as well dispose of the main business before Captain Goldstein returns."


Honor's eyebrows rose. She couldn't stop them, and White Haven gave a dry chuckle.


"Oh, yes. He and the officers of my staff will be joining us for supper, but I thought it would be just as well to make the explanations in private. You see, you're about to go on extended leave."


"I beg your pardon, Sir?" She must have misunderstood. Her ship was under repair, new personnel were coming aboard to replace casualties, and she had a brand new executive officer. No captain with all that on her plate had any business taking an extended leave. A day or two here and there to visit her parents or stretch her legs ground-side might make sense, but leaving Eve Chandler to deal with so many responsibilities in her absence would be inexcusable. Nor, for that matter, had she even requested leave!


"I said you're going on leave. In fact, I suggest—unofficially, of course—that you visit your holdings on Grayson for, oh, a month or two."


"But—" Honor closed her mouth and gave White Haven a sharp look. "May I ask why, Sir? Unofficially, of course."


"Certainly you may." The admiral met her gaze without evasion. "I might say you've more than earned it, which would be true. But saying it will be extremely convenient for the Government has the added virtue of being frank."


"Am I that big an embarrassment, Sir?" The question came out more bitterly, she knew, than any captain should speak to an admiral of White Haven's seniority, but this was too much. Was she going to be run entirely out of the Star Kingdom by the Government after all she'd already endured from the Opposition? Pent up frustration surged high inside her, fanned to the brink of explosion at receiving her marching orders from an officer she respected so highly, and Nimitz stiffened on her shoulder, surprised by the sudden spike of her emotions, but White Haven didn't even frown.


"I suppose it may seem that way, Dame Honor, and I'm sorry." His deep voice was as level as his eyes, and the understanding in it made her ashamed of her own anger—which only made it worse. She reached up and lifted Nimitz down into her lap, trying to soothe his ear-flattened indignation with physical caresses while she fought her own bitterness and tried to damp its echoes in the treecat, and White Haven went on in that same unflinching tone.


"The truth is that you are an embarrassment, though certainly not through any fault of your own. In fact, the exemplary way you've done your duty, coupled with what's going on elsewhere, is what makes you an embarrassment."


He leaned further back and crossed his legs, and Honor felt her anger begin to ebb as she realized how serious his expression was.


"The situation in the People's Republic is getting worse, not better," he said quietly. "We're picking up reports of some sort of purge, complete with mass executions, against the Legislaturalists who survived the Harris Assassination. To date, we have confirmation that they've shot over a hundred captains and flag officers, as well, and at least twice that many other senior officers have simply disappeared. Some of their middle-level commanders are actually resorting to armed resistance, no doubt in self-preservation, and at least eight star systems have declared their independence from the central government. That hasn't kept this Committee of Public Safety's chairman, a Mr. Pierre, from securing control of most of the major fleet bases, though, and there are disturbing indications that some sort of revolutionary fervor is sweeping the Haven System itself. The Dolists are no longer simply sitting around passively collecting their Basic Living Stipends. Pierre's managed to get them genuinely involved for the first time in living memory, and several other systems, mostly among those the Peeps have controlled longest and brought most thoroughly under central control, are experiencing the same thing."


The admiral paused for a moment, watching her expression, and nodded as her lips tightened.


"Exactly, Dame Honor. Our analysts are hopelessly divided on what it all means, of course. The coup—or whatever it was—completely blindsided us, and the various think tanks are all scrambling to build new models. In the meantime, no one knows what's really going on, or where it's likely to lead. Some of us, including myself and Duke Cromarty, believe we're seeing the evolution of something far more dangerous than the old regime ever was. Pierre's shown excellent tactical sense by concentrating on the major bases and most heavily populated systems first. If his committee, or junta, or whatever we want to call it, can secure its position there, which is exactly what it seems to be doing, it can always snap back up weaker, break-away systems later, especially if it brings genuine popular support to bear on the problem."


He paused, and Honor nodded slowly, fingers gentle on Nimitz's ears.


"And shooting admirals lets them put their own people in command positions when they start doing that," she murmured.


"Precisely. It means they'll have reliable fleet commanders—officers who owe their new positions solely to the committee's patronage—when they get back around to us, as well." White Haven shrugged. "It's costing them in terms of experience, at least in the short run. For your private information—and this is classified data, Dame Honor—several of their better flag officers have fled the Republic. Some have even come over to us, and, according to them, their Navy had nothing to do with the Harris assassination. For myself, I'm inclined to believe them, which, in turn, raises some very interesting questions about Mr. Pierre and his fellows, particularly in light of how quickly they moved to prevent a 'military coup.'


"But the key point is that until what's happening becomes so obvious no one can dispute it, the members of our own factions are free to assume whatever best suits their own prejudices. To be completely honest, that's probably true of myself and Duke Cromarty, as well, but Cromarty doesn't have the luxury of debating Havenite affairs over brandy at his club. He has to act in the real world, and that, I'm afraid, is where you come in."


"Me, Sir?" Honor was frowning, but in concentration now, not frustration. White Haven's frankness had soothed away her anger, and listening to his analysis was like hearing a fleet commander laying out her units' missions and ops plans.


"You. Raoul Courvosier once told me you dislike politics, Dame Honor. I wish he were here to explain this to you himself, but he's not, and this time you're in them right up to your neck."


Honor felt a familiar pain at the reminder of Admiral Courvosier's death, but there was something else under the hurt. She'd never imagined that Courvosier had discussed her with anyone else, especially not to the extent that remark suggested. Her surprise showed, and White Haven smiled sadly.


"Raoul and I were close friends, Dame Honor, and he always considered you one of his most outstanding students. As a matter of fact, he once told me he regarded you as the daughter he'd never had. He was extremely proud of you, and I don't think he'd be disappointed—or surprised—by how amply you've justified his confidence."


Honor blinked on sudden tears. Courvosier had never told her that. He wouldn't have, of course, yet the bitterest hurt when she'd lost him in Yeltsin had been her deep, undying regret that she'd never told him how much he meant to her, either. But if that was truly how he'd seen her, perhaps it meant he'd already known. That he'd always known.


"Thank you, Sir," she said finally, her voice husky. "For telling me that. The Admiral meant a great deal to me, too."


"I know he did," White Haven said quietly, "and I wish with all my heart that he were here today. But the point at hand, Captain, is that whether you like politics or not, this time you have to play by the politicos' rules."


"Yes, Sir." Honor cleared her throat and nodded. "I understand, Sir. Just tell me what you want me to do."


White Haven smiled his approval and uncrossed his legs, leaning forward to brace his elbows on his knees.


"At the moment, the Opposition parties, each for its own reasons, want to leave Haven to its own devices. They've chosen to endorse the analysts who believe the Peeps are genuinely trying to reform themselves—or at least that they'll self-destruct if we refuse to provide a foreign threat for them to rally against. That's an attractive proposition. In fact, it's downright seductive. Unfortunately, I believe, as does Duke Cromarty, that it's the wrong proposition. That we have to hit them now, while they're still divided and before their Committee of Public Safety fully consolidates its power.


"The Opposition disagrees, which is the reason so many disparate political groups have rallied to Young's defense. They're looking for anything to tie up the Lords and avoid a declaration of war until Haven collapses. The notion that Young's court-martial was politically motivated is bullshit, but it's highly emotional bullshit, and politics is a game of perceptions. They know that, and they're using the uproar over the verdict to paralyze substantive action on any other issue. Unfortunately, in order to defend Young, they have to attack you, and, quite frankly, your record gives many of them more than sufficient reason—by their lights, at least—to want your scalp."


"So you want me out of reach of the media," Honor said flatly.


"Exactly, Dame Honor. I know you've been avoiding interviews, but the newsies aren't going to give up as long as the Opposition keeps the issue alive. In a way, the fact that you've been essentially sequestered aboard Nike actually plays into the Opposition's hands. They can speculate on what you've got to hide, why you don't want to meet the media and 'present your side,' but if you do make yourself available, you give them the opportunity to twist whatever you say to suit their own purposes."


"But won't sending me to Grayson only make that even worse, Sir? I mean, won't it look like I'm running away?"


"It may. On the other hand, you're also Steadholder Harrington."


He paused again, cocking an eyebrow, and Honor nodded. White Haven had been present when Benjamin Mayhew named her to the position.


"You and I know Protector Benjamin understood when he asked you to assume the office that your duties as a naval officer would limit your ability to be physically present on Grayson," the admiral continued. "The Protector has been in touch with Duke Cromarty, however, and he's officially requested permission to summon you to attend the Conclave of Steadholders, which convenes on Grayson in three weeks. I'm sure Her Majesty would give you special leave to attend in any event, but under the present circumstances the opPORT 75,111,59,151,192,118 >

"Well, yes, Sir, I know. But—" Honor paused, unable to express her own ambivalent feelings. She was a member of the Manticoran peerage, but she'd never been fully comfortable with the idea, particularly when her only real claim to that status was her Grayson title. No Manticoran had ever before been seated in the Lords on the basis of foreign holdings, and she'd been more than pleased to let things slide for as long as the Crown was prepared to forget about seating her there.


"A problem, Dame Honor?" White Haven asked, and she drew courage from the gentle, understanding irony of his tone.


"Sir, I'd just as soon not take my seat. As you say, I don't like politics. I usually don't understand them very well, either, and I don't like the idea of voting on things I can't understand. I try to avoid making decisions about things I'm not qualified to judge, Sir. And, frankly, given the irregularity of my title, I'd feel presumptuous if I tried."


White Haven cocked his head and studied her expression for a moment, then smiled faintly.


"I don't think that's going to be a very viable option, Captain. And I remind you that membership in the House of Lords will require you to make far fewer decisions than your position as Steadholder Harrington will."


"I realize that, My Lord." Honor returned his gaze with serious eyes. "As a matter of fact, if I'd realized all the office of steadholder entails, Protector Benjamin would never have talked me into accepting it. But he did. That means I'm stuck with it, and I can only say that I'm more grateful than I could ever express that he found such an outstanding regent for me. And at least he understood from the outset that I could never remain on Grayson full-time—that I'm going to have to delegate my authority there."


White Haven allowed his smile to become an equally faint frown. "Should I understand, then, that you intend to be no more than a figurehead? That you're going to delegate your Grayson responsibilities to someone more qualified than yourself?"


"No, Sir, you should not." Honor felt herself flush at the carefully metered sting in his voice. "I accepted the position, and whether I knew what I was doing at the time or not is beside the point. It's mine now, and any officer who's ever commanded a Queen's ship understands responsibilities. I have no choice but to learn my duties to Grayson and discharge them to the very best of my ability, and I intend to do so." White Haven's eyes softened, and she went on in a quieter voice. "But the prospect frightens me, Sir, and I'd rather not assume still more responsibility and make still more decisions in our own House of Lords at the same time."


"I'd say that indicates you'd vote a great deal more responsibly than many of our present peers," White Haven said seriously, and her blush turned darker. The earl's title dated back to the Star Kingdom's founding, yet her own ennoblement meant that, technically, she was his equal. It made her feel uncomfortable, like a little girl dressing up as an adult woman, and she squirmed in her chair.


"The operative point, however," White Haven went on after a moment, "is that Her Majesty wants you seated there, and she isn't especially pleased with Duke Cromarty for having delayed this long. I understand she expressed herself quite, um, forcefully on the subject."


Honor's blush turned scarlet at the thought, and he chuckled.


"You may as well give in gracefully, Captain. Unless you want to explain your reservations to Her Majesty?"


Honor shook her head quickly, and White Haven laughed out loud.


"In that case, I think we can treat the subject as closed. At the same time, it would be wiser to wait until the declaration's clinched before we throw another log on the fire, and sending you off to Grayson will let us delay until after Young's seated and the votes are counted."


Honor stared down at Nimitz's ears and nodded. Personally, she would have preferred delaying it permanently. White Haven smiled at the crown of her bent head and reclaimed his wineglass, sipping at it to give her a moment to adjust to the news, and silence stretched out between them, only to be shattered by the quiet buzz of the admittance signal from the cabin hatch.


"Ah!" White Haven glanced at his chrono and spoke briskly as Honor looked up. "Captain Goldstein and company, right on schedule. Never forget, Dame Honor, that admirals demand strict punctuality on all social occasions."


Honor smiled at the change of subject. "I believe they mentioned something to that effect at the Academy, My Lord."


"I always knew the Academy was good for something, Milady." White Haven smiled back and stood as the signal buzzed once more. "And now that we've got the political claptra">

"In that case, I think we can treat the subject as closed. At the same time, it would be wiser to wait until the declaration's clinched before we throw another log on the fire, and sending you off to Grayson will let us delay until after Young's seated and the votes are counted."


Honor stared down at Nimitz's ears and nodded. Personally, she would have preferred delaying it permanently. White Haven smiled at the crown of her bent head and reclaimed his wineglass, sipping at it to give her a moment to adjust to the news, and silence stretched out between them, only to be shattered by the quiet buzz of the admittance signal from the cabin hatch.


"Ah!" White Haven glanced at his chrono and spoke briskly as Honor looked up. "Captain Goldstein and company, right on schedule. Never forget, Dame Honor, that admirals demand strict punctuality on all social occasions."


Honor smiled at the change of subject. "I believe they mentioned something to that effect at the Academy, My Lord."


"I always knew the Academy was good for something, Milady." White Haven smiled back and stood as the signal buzzed once more. "And now that we've got the political claptrap out of the way, I hope you're prepared to tell us all firsthand what happened in Hancock." His smile turned into a grin. "What really happened. I think you'll find you're among friends here."


 


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