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Chapter Sixteen

Honor Harrington squared her shoulders and tried not to feel absurd as she strode down the arched, ancient hallway in a swishing rustle.


In three decades as a Queen's officer, Honor had never worn a skirt. In fact, she'd never worn one at all, and she'd been pleased (whenever she considered it) that they'd gone out of style—again—fifty Manticoran years ago. They were worse than useless in zero gee and almost equally impractical for most other things she did with her time, yet they also showed a stubborn refusal to die once and for all. They were actually making a modest comeback in the Star Kingdom even now . . . among idiots with the money to replace entire wardrobes and a need to be on the cutting edge of every fashion trend, anyway.


Unfortunately, Grayson women didn't wear trousers. Period. Which had led to something very like panic among the protocolists when she arrived without a single gown to her name.


She'd started out by refusing even to consider wearing one, but it was hard enough for half the Graysons she met to deal with the concept of a female steadholder in the first place. The notion of seeing not merely a woman but a woman in trousers in the sacred precincts of Steadholder Hall had threatened more conservative thinkers with heart failure. Even the "Modernists" had viewed the idea with sufficiently mixed feelings for Protector Benjamin, the man who'd seized avidly upon Honor's achievements to initiate Grayson's mammoth social reforms, to beg her to reconsider.


That was the point at which she'd finally given in—if less than graciously. It all seemed so silly, and she felt like an actress dressed for some historical costume drama. Worse, she'd seen the graceful way Grayson women managed their flowing, traditional skirts and knew perfectly well she couldn't match it. But Admiral Courvosier had lectured her once on the importance of diplomacy, and she supposed this was a time for a negotiated surrender.


So now she made her way down the echoing stone hall towards the huge, closed portals, Nimitz cradled in her arms (her gown lacked the padded shoulder protection of her naval uniforms), while floor-length fabric swirled about her legs. There was something oddly sensual about the sensation, but she felt totally out of place in the unfamiliar garment and had to keep reminding herself to shorten her long stride to something more decorous. And, she thought with a wry twist of her lips, she probably looked as ridiculous as she felt.


She was wrong about that. Her gown was the work of Grayson's finest designer, and she had too little experience with civilian fashions to realize quite how daring it was by local standards. Its unadorned white native spider silk set off the dark, jewel-toned green of her hip-length vest—suede, not the traditional brocade—and together they made the most of her tall, muscular slenderness, dark hair, and pale complexion. They clung to her, flowed with her movements, enshrouding her as tradition decreed but without trying to pretend there wasn't a female body at their heart or to hide the athletic grace of her movements. She wore no jewels (that much tradition, at least, she was still prepared to reject), but the Star of Grayson glittered golden on her breast. She'd felt odd about that, too, for Manticoran dress codes proscribed decorations for civilian dress, but she wasn't a civilian on Grayson, whatever she might wear. A steadholder not only wielded a personal feudal authority which would have stunned most Manticoran aristocrats but commanded the Army units based in his (or her) steading, as well. As such, medals were worn on all official occasions . . . and Honor Harrington, off-worlder or no, was the sole living holder of Grayson's highest award for valor.


She swept down the hall in a swirl of white, uncovered brown hair loose over her shoulders, cream-and-gray treecat in her arms, and that, too, might have struck some observers as odd. On most non-Manticoran planets, bringing a "pet" to such a ceremony would have made things even worse, yet the people of this world knew Nimitz, and no one had even suggested leaving him behind. Not on Grayson.


The hall seemed to stretch forever, lined with troopers from the Steadholders' Guard, not regular Army personnel, who went to one knee as she passed, and tension shivered in her middle. She rehearsed the formalities to come in her mind as she went, yet she felt no calmer to know she had her lines down pat. Protector Benjamin had invested her with her steading before she returned to Manticore for medical treatment, but that had been only an acknowledgment of things to come. The Steading of Harrington had existed only on paper. Now it had people, towns, the beginnings of industry. It was real, and that made it time for her to formally face the Conclave of Steadholders, the final arbiter of her fitness for her office. To accept her role as the protector and ruler of people—of her people—and assume a direct authority over their lives and well-being such as no Manticoran noble had ever known. She knew that, and she'd done her best to prepare herself for it, but deep inside she was still Honor Harrington, a yeoman's daughter from Sphinx, and that part of her wanted nothing in the galaxy more than to turn and run for her life.


She reached the enormous iron-strapped double doors of the Conclave Chamber at last. Those ponderous barriers dated back almost seven hundred T-years; there were firing slits in the walls flanking them, and the left-hand panel was pitted with jagged bullet holes. Honor's knowledge of Grayson history remained incomplete, but she'd learned enough to pause and incline her head in deep respect to those pits. The plaque beneath them listed the names of The Fifty-Three and their personal armsmen, the men who had held the Conclave Chamber to the last against the attempted coup which had begun the Grayson Civil War. In the end, the Faithful had brought up tanks, grinding down this very passage over the bodies of the Steadholder's Guard, blown the right-hand door to splinters, and thrown in an entire company of infantry in a desperate bid to capture at least some of the steadholders as hostages, but none of The Fifty-Three had been taken alive.


The last guardsmen went to one knee as she bowed to the plaque, and she straightened, drew an even deeper breath, and grasped the iron knocker.


The harsh iron-on-iron clang echoed in the hall. There was a moment of stillness; then the huge, centimeters-thick panels swung slowly open, and light spilled out through them. She faced a man armed with a naked sword, looking past him to the ranks of steadholders seated about the horseshoe-shaped chamber beyond him. The Door Warden's costume was a gold-braid-encrusted anachronism even more magnificent than her own gown, yet it was recognizably that of the regular Army, and his collar bore the opened Bible and sword of the Protector, not the patriarch's key of the Steadholders' Guard.


"Who petitions audience of the Protector?" he demanded, and despite her nervousness, Honor's soprano voice rang clear and unwavering in the words of ancient formula.


"I seek audience of no man. I come not to petition, but to claim admittance to the Conclave and be seated therein, as is my right."


"By what authority?" the Door Warden challenged. His sword fell into a guard position, and Nimitz mirrored Honor's movement as her head rose proudly.


"By my own authority, under God and the Law," she returned.


"Name yourself," the Warden commanded.


"I am Honor Stephanie Harrington, daughter of Alfred Harrington, come to claim of right my place as Steadholder Harrington," Honor replied, and the Warden stepped back a pace and lowered his sword in formal acknowledgment of the gathered steadholders' equality with the Protector.


"Then enter this place, that the Conclave of Steadholders may judge your fitness for the office you claim, as is its ancient right," he intoned, and Honor stepped forward in a swirl of skirts.


So far, so good, she told herself, trying to stop the frantic mental recitation of her lines. The fact that she was a woman had required some surgery on the millennium-old formulas; the fact that she was technically an infidel had required still more. But she was here now, she reminded herself, standing in the center of the vast chamber while the massed steadholders of Grayson looked down upon her in silence.


The door boomed softly shut behind her, and the Door Warden stepped past her. He went to one knee before the throne of Benjamin IX, Protector of Grayson, resting the tip of the jeweled Sword of State on the stone floor, and bowed over its simple, cross-shaped guard.


"Your Grace, I present to you and to this Conclave Honor Stephanie Harrington, daughter of Alfred Harrington, who comes claiming a place among your steadholders."


Benjamin Mayhew nodded gravely and gazed down upon Honor for a long, silent moment, then raised his eyes to sweep the rows of seats.


"Steadholders," his voice was crisp and clear in the chamber's splendid acoustics, "this woman claims right to a seat among you. Would any challenge her fitness so to do?"


Static crackled up and down Honor's nerves, for Mayhew's question was not the formality it would normally have been. Grayson reactionaries were more reactionary than most, and the upheavals rending their social fabric had all begun with her. A majority of Graysons supported the changes which had come upon them, if with varying degrees of enthusiasm; the minority who didn't, opposed them with militant fervor. She'd read and heard their bitter rhetoric since her arrival, and the opportunity to challenge a mere woman as unfit echoed in the silence, waiting for someone to take it up.


But no one did, and Mayhew nodded once more.


"Would any speak in her favor?" he asked quietly, and a vast, rumbling response of "Aye," came back to him. Not all of the Conclave's members joined it, but none opposed it, and Mayhew smiled down at her.


"Your claim is freely granted by your peers, Lady Harrington. Come now and take your place among them."


Cloth rustled as the other steadholders stood, and Honor climbed the broad, shallow steps of stone to the second tier of seats to stand directly before the Protector. Two small velvet cushions had been placed before his throne, and she set Nimitz carefully on one and went to her knees on the other. It wasn't as easy as one might have thought, given her encumbering skirts, but she could never have managed a proper curtsy. One or two pairs of feet shuffled as she knelt as a man would have, but no voice spoke as the Door Warden stepped past her and surrendered the Sword of State to Mayhew.


The Protector reversed it and extended its hilt to Honor, and she laid her hands upon it. She was startled, despite her nervousness, to see the quiver in her fingers and looked up at Mayhew, and the Protector's encouraging smile stilled their tremble.


"Honor Stephanie Harrington," Mayhew said quietly, "are you prepared, in the presence of the assembled Steadholders of Grayson, to swear fealty to the Protector and People of Grayson under the eyes of God and His Holy Church?"


"I am, Your Grace, yet I may do so only with two reservations." Honor withdrew her hands from the sword hilt, but there was no refusal in her clear soprano, and Mayhew nodded. He knew what was coming, of course. There'd been quite a bit of discussion over ways to deal with this point.


"It is your ancient and lawful right to state reservations to your oath," he said. "Yet it is also the right of this Conclave to reject those reservations and deny your place, should it find them offensive to it. Do you acknowledge that right?"


"I do, Your Grace."


"Then state your first reservation."


"As Your Grace knows, I am also a subject of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, a member of its peerage, and an officer in the Queen's Navy. As such, I am under obligations I cannot honorably disregard. Nor may I abandon the nation to which I was born or my oaths to my Queen to accept even a steadholder's high office, or swear fealty to Grayson without reserving to myself the right and responsibility to meet and perform my duties to her."


Mayhew nodded once more, then looked over her head at the Conclave.


"My Lords, this seems to me a right and honorable declaration, but the judgment in such matters must be yours. Does any man here dispute this woman's right to hold steading on Grayson with this limitation?"


Silence answered, and the Protector turned back to Honor.


"And your second reservation is?"


"Your Grace, I am not a communicant of the Church of Humanity Unchained. I respect its doctrines and teachings," which, Honor was relieved to reflect, was true, despite a certain lingering sexism on their part, now that she'd had a chance to read them, "but I am not of your faith."


"I see." Mayhew sounded graver—with reason. The Church had learned by horrible example to stay out of politics, but Grayson remained an essentially theocratic world. The Act of Toleration legalizing other faiths was barely a century old, and no steadholder not of the Church had ever held office.


The Protector looked at the white-haired man standing at his right. The Reverend Julius Hanks, spiritual head of the Church of Humanity Unchained, was growing frail with age, but his simple black garments and antique clerical collar stood out starkly against the glitter and richness of the other costumes in the chamber.


"Reverend," Mayhew said, "this reservation touches upon the Church and so falls within your province. How say you?"


Hanks laid one hand on Honor's head, and she felt no patronization in the gesture. She was no member of his Church, yet neither was she immune to the obvious sincerity of his personal faith as he smiled down at her.


"Lady Harrington, you say you are not of our Faith, but there are many ways to God." Someone hissed as if at the voice of heresy, but no one spoke. "Do you believe in God, my child?"


"I do, Reverend," Honor replied, quietly but firmly.


"And do you serve Him to the best of your ability as your heart gives you to understand His will for you?"


"I do."


"Will you, as steadholder, guard and protect the right of your people to worship God as their own hearts call them so to do?"


"I will."


"Will you respect and guard the sanctity of our Faith as you would your own?"


"I will."


Hanks nodded and turned to Mayhew.


"Your Grace, this woman is not of our Faith, yet she has so declared before us all, making no effort to pretend otherwise. More, she stands proven a good and godly woman, one who hazarded her own life and suffered grievous wounds to protect not only our Church but our world when we had no claim upon her. I say to you, and to the Conclave," he turned to face the steadholders, and his resonant voice rose higher and stronger, "that God knows His own. The Church accepts this woman as its champion and defender, whatever the faith through which she may serve God's will in her own life."


Another, deeper silence answered. Hanks stood a moment longer, meeting all eyes, then stepped back beside the throne, and Mayhew looked down at Honor.


"Your reservations have been noted and accepted by the lords secular and temporal of Grayson, Honor Stephanie Harrington. Do you swear now, before us all, that they constitute your sole reservations of heart and soul and mind?"


"I do so swear, Your Grace."


"Then I call upon you to swear fealty before your peers," the Protector said, and Honor replaced her hands upon the sword hilt.


"Do you, Honor Stephanie Harrington, daughter of Alfred Harrington, with the afore noted reservations, swear fealty to the Protector and People of Grayson?"


"I do."


"Will you bear true service to the Protector and People of Grayson?"


"I will."


"Do you swear, before God and this Conclave, to honor, preserve, and protect the Constitution of Grayson, and to protect and guide your people, guarding them as your own children? Will you swear to nurture them in time of peace, lead them in time of war, and govern them always with justice tempered by mercy, as God shall give you the wisdom so to do?"


"I do so swear," Honor said softly, and Mayhew nodded.


"I accept your oath, Honor Stephanie Harrington. And as Protector of Grayson, I will answer fealty with fealty, protection with protection, justice with justice, and oathbreaking with vengeance, so help me God."


The Protector's right hand slid down to cover both of hers, squeezing hard for an instant. Then he returned the sword to the Warden, and Reverend Hanks handed him a gleaming double-handful of golden glory. He shook it out reverently, and Honor bent her head for him to hang the massive chain about her neck. The patriarch's key of a steadholder glittered below the Star of Grayson, and the Protector stood to take her hand in his own.


"Rise, then, Lady Harrington, Steadholder Harrington!" he said loudly, and she obeyed, remembering at the last moment not to tread upon the hem of her gown. She turned to face the Conclave at Mayhew's gesture, and a roar of acclaim rolled up against the crowded chamber's walls.


She stared out into the sea of sound, cheeks flushed, head high, and knew reservations still lingered behind some of those cheers. But she also knew those cheering men had risen above a thousand years of tradition and bone-deep prejudice to admit a woman to their ranks. They might have done it only under the pressure of onrushing events and the unrelenting insistence of their ruler. Many of them must resent her, not merely as a woman but as the out-worlder who was the very agent and symbol of terrifying change. Yet they'd done it, and despite her own fears, she had meant every word of her formal oaths.


Nimitz rose high on his own cushion, patting her thigh. She looked down and bent to gather him up once more, and a louder, more spontaneous acclamation greeted the gesture. The 'cat raised his head, preening before the ovation, and a tension release of laughter and applause answered as Honor held him higher with a huge smile of her own.


The Warden stepped forward and touched her elbow. She turned toward him, and he extended the Sword of State on his opened palms and bowed to her across it. It wasn't easy to take the weapon gracefully with an armful of treecat, but Nimitz surprised her with his cooperation. He climbed onto her unpadded shoulder on velveted true-feet and hand-feet, without the claws he would normally have used, and braced himself with exquisite care, one true-hand on the crown of her head, as she accepted the sword from the Warden.


That, too, was unprecedented. The Steading of Harrington was the newest on Grayson; as such, she would normally have retired to the horseshoe's far end and uppermost tier after giving her oath, as befitted her steading's lack of seniority. But she also wore the Star of Grayson, and that, though she hadn't known it when the medal was presented, made her Protector's Champion.


She held the sword carefully, praying Nimitz's clawless restraint would last, and walked to the carved wooden desk beside the throne. It bore both her Grayson coat of arms and the crossed swords of the Protector's Champion, and she sighed in relief as Nimitz leapt lightly down onto it. He drew himself up to his full height and sat on his rearmost pairs of limbs, curling his fluffy, prehensile tail about his clawed hand-feet and true-feet with regal grace while she laid the Sword of State in the padded brackets prepared to receive it.


The craggy-faced old man seated in the steadholder's chair behind the desk rose, bowed, and extended a slender, silver-headed staff to her.


"As you take your rightful place, Lady, I surrender my badge of office and my actions to your judgment," Howard Clinkscales said.


Honor took the staff of regency from him and held it in both hands, and her smile was warmer than protocol demanded. Benjamin Mayhew had made an inspired choice when he named Clinkscales as her regent. The old warhorse was one of the most honest men on Grayson; perhaps even more important, he was also one of the most conservative, with deep reservations about the changes his Protector demanded, and everyone knew it. Which meant his willingness to serve as her regent had probably done more to consolidate her position than anything else could have.


"Your service requires no judgment." She held the rod back out to him, and their gazes met as he grasped it. "Nor could I—or anyone else—praise you as your actions deserve," she added, and the old man's eyes widened, for her last sentence had stepped beyond the bounds of formal usage.


"Thank you, My Lady," he murmured, and bowed more deeply than before as he accepted his staff of office once more. Honor took her place before the steadholder's chair he'd vacated, and he moved to the second chair at its right. They turned back to face the Conclave together, and Julius Hanks stepped forward beside the Protector's throne.


"And now, My Lords—and Lady—" the Reverend turned to bestow a sparkling smile upon Grayson's newest steadholder "—let us ask God's blessing upon our deliberations this day."


 



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