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Chapter Twenty

Michelle Henke stepped out of the lift and straightened her shoulders as she started down the passage. The hatch at its end was flanked by two guards, one a Royal Manticoran Marine corporal, the other a Grayson armsman in the green livery of the Steading of Harrington. Armed foreign nationals weren't normally allowed aboard a Manticoran warship, but the white-faced, mechanical parody of a human beyond that hatch was a visiting noblewoman as well as an RMN captain. Henke doubted Honor would have requested or even authorized her armsman's presence under normal circumstances; as it was, she probably didn't even know the Grayson contingent was on board.


She reached the guards, who saluted in perfect unison.


"At ease," she said, and her mouth tried to smile, despite her depression, as the Marine dropped into parade rest and the armsman, not to be outdone, assumed the Grayson equivalent. But the fragile smile vanished even more quickly than it had come, and she looked at the Marine.


"I'd like to see Lady Harrington. Please tell her I'm here."


The corporal started to reach for the button, then drew his hand back when the armsman turned his head to give him a level look. Henke pretended not to notice but sighed mentally. No doubt if she'd said she wanted to see Captain Harrington the armsman would have let the Marine have his way, but her choice of title let him assume she wasn't here on RMN business. The fierce protectiveness of Honor's Grayson attendants had startled her—until she discovered they not only knew about Paul's death but the verdict in the Young court-martial, as well. None of them ever discussed either incident, but their very silence only underscored their distrust in Manticore's ability to protect her . . . and Henke couldn't disagree with them.


She gave herself a mental shake, cursing the way her own mind savaged her with memories of her cousin, as the armsman pressed the button.


"Yes?" It was James MacGuiness' voice, not Honor's, and the armsman cleared his throat.


"Captain Henke to see the Steadholder, Mr. MacGuiness."


"Thank you, Jamie."


A soft tone sounded and the hatch began to open. The armsman moved aside, and Henke stepped past him. A worn-looking MacGuiness met her just inside the hatch, his swollen, bloodshot eyes weary. The sleeping cabin across the main compartment was sealed, and there was no sign of Nimitz.


"How is she, Mac?" There was no way Honor could hear her in the sleeping cabin, but Henke kept her voice low, almost a whisper.


"No change, Ma'am." MacGuiness met her look with one that dropped its own barriers to reveal the depth of his anxious grief. "No change at all. She just lies there, Ma'am."


The steward wrung his hands in uncharacteristic helplessness, and, despite the vast difference in their ranks, Henke put an arm around the older man and squeezed tightly. He closed his eyes for just a moment, then she felt him draw a deep breath and released him.


"Nimitz?" she asked in that same quiet voice.


"The same." MacGuiness shook himself and stepped back, gesturing her toward a chair as if just remembering his manners. "He won't eat," the steward said as Henke sat. "Not even celery." His mouth quivered in a fleeting, sad smile. "He just lies on her chest and purrs to her, Ma'am . . . and I don't think she even hears him at all."


Henke leaned back and rubbed her face with both hands in a futile effort to scrub away her own fear. She'd never seen Honor like this—never imagined she could be like this. She hadn't shed a single tear when Henke told her. She'd only swayed, white-faced, her brown eyes those of a maimed animal that didn't understand its own pain. Not even the heartbreaking keen of Nimitz's lament had seemed to touch her.


Then she'd turned to Clinkscales, still without a tear, expressionless as a statue, no longer human but a thing of ice, and her voice hadn't even quivered as she gave her orders. Nor had she seemed to hear him when he tried to speak to her, tried to express his sympathy. She'd simply gone right on in that terrible, undead voice, and he'd darted one agonized glance at Henke and bent his head in acceptance. Fifteen minutes later, Honor had been in Henke's pinnace, headed for Agni.


She hadn't spoken to Henke—hadn't even turned her head when Henke spoke to her. She might as well have been on another planet, not in the seat just across the pinnace aisle. She'd simply sat there, dry-eyed, clutching Nimitz to her chest while she stared straight ahead.


That had been two days ago. Agni had been delayed breaking orbit by the need to take on reactor mass, and Lord Clinkscales and Protector Benjamin had insisted on holding her another six hours while they transferred up an entourage for Honor. The Protector hadn't said so in so many words, but his tone conveyed a message Henke would never have dared ignore: Honor Harrington would return to the Star Kingdom only in a way that made Grayson's support for one of its own unmistakable.


Honor hadn't even noticed. She'd retired to her sleeping cabin, a silent, white-faced ghost with eyes of agony, and Henke was terrified for her. If not even Nimitz could reach her, perhaps there was nothing left to reach. Mike Henke was probably the one human in the universe who knew how desperately lonely Honor had been, how much courage it had taken to let Paul into her heart at all, and how much she'd loved him once she had. Now Paul was gone, and—


Henke's worries broke off in mid-thought, and her head snapped up as the sleeping cabin hatch opened.


Honor wore her captain's uniform, not the Grayson gown in which she'd come aboard, and Nimitz rode her shoulder. She was perfectly, immaculately groomed, but not even the 'cat's fluffy coat could hide his gauntness, and Honor was even worse. She was drawn and ashen, her lips bloodless in a hollowed face. She wore no makeup, and the strong bones of her facial structure, graceful no more, poked at her skin like eroded mountain crags.


"Honor?" Henke stood slowly, as if afraid of frightening some wounded wild thing, and her soft voice ached with pain of her own.


"Mike." No expression crossed Honor's face, and her eyes were worse than dead. They were brown flint, frozen and cold, like steel quenched in agony, but at least there was recognition in them once more. Recognition and something more—a frightening something. They moved to MacGuiness. "Mac."


Henke felt her own eyes sting. That flat, emotionless soprano could have been a computer's. There was no life in it, no feeling but a pain deeper than the stars.


Honor said nothing more. She simply started for the main hatch. She went through it with a slow, measured tread, and both sentries snapped to attention. She didn't even see them as she walked past.


MacGuiness looked at Henke, his eyes raw with appeal, and she nodded, then hurried after Honor. She didn't say anything more. She was afraid to. She only walked beside her friend, and Nimitz was hunched and silent on Honor's shoulder, his tail hanging down her back like a forlorn and lifeless banner.


Honor punched a destination into the lift control panel, and Henke's eyes widened, then narrowed, as she recognized it. She started to speak, but she didn't. She simply folded her hands behind her and waited.


The journey seemed to take forever, yet the lift door slid open at last, and Honor stepped out into the light cruiser's armory. The senior chief master sergeant who served as Agni's Marine armorer looked up from a service manual's display, then snapped to attention behind the long, high counter.


"Is the range clear, Sergeant?" Honor asked in that same, dead voice.


"Uh, yes, Milady. It is." The armorer didn't sound happy to confirm that, but she didn't seem to notice.


"Then issue me an automatic," she said. "Ten millimeter."


The sergeant looked over Honor's shoulder at his captain. He was a man who'd spent a lifetime with weapons, and the thought of putting one into the hands of a woman who spoke like that frightened him. It frightened Henke, too, but she bit her lip and nodded.


The sergeant swallowed, then reached under the counter and produced a memo board.


"Please fill out the requisition while I get it, Milady," he said.


Honor began tapping keys. The sergeant watched her a moment, then turned away toward the weapons storage, only to stop as Honor spoke again.


"I need filled ten-round magazines. Ten of them. And four boxes of shells."


"I—" The sergeant cut himself off and nodded. "Yes, Milady. Ten charged magazines and two hundred rounds in the box."


He vanished into the weapons storage, and Henke stepped up to Honor's side. She watched the long fingers tapping memo keys with slow, painful precision, and her own face was troubled. The Star Kingdom's military hadn't used chemical-powered firearms in over three T-centuries, for no firearm ever made could match the single-hit lethality of the hyper-velocity darts of a pulser or pulse rifle. A man hit in the hand by a pulser dart might—if he was very, very lucky—survive with the mere loss of his arm, and that made auto-loading pistols antiques, yet every Manticoran warship carried a few of them, precisely because their wounds were survivable. They were always available, and always in the traditional ten-millimeter caliber, yet never issued for duty use; they had only one function, and as long as duels were legal they were carried for those who wished to practice with them.


But they could be used for other purposes.


Honor finished filling out the requisition form and thumbprinted the scan pad, then slid the memo board back across the counter. She stood there, hands at her sides, waiting, until the sergeant returned.


"Here you are, Milady." He laid the heavy, holstered pistol and a set of ear-protectors on the counter, his reluctance obvious. He followed them with a second pair, their connector strip adjusted to something approximating the size of a treecat's head, though Honor hadn't requested them, then placed an ammunition carrier beside them with even greater reluctance.


"Thank you." Honor scooped up the pistol and attached its magnetic pad to her belt, then reached for the protectors with one hand and the ammunition with the other, but Henke's hand snapped out. It came down on the ammunition carrier, pinning it to the counter, and Honor looked at her.


"Honor, I—" Henke began, but her voice died. How could she ask her best friend the question she had to ask? Yet if she didn't, how could she live with the consequences if—


"Don't worry, Mike." There was no life, no expression, in Honor's voice, but her mouth moved in a cold, dead travesty of a smile. "Nimitz won't let me do that. Besides," the first trace of feeling touched her face—an ugly, hungry twist of her lips, more sensed than seen and somehow more frightening than anything she'd done or said yet, "I have something more important to do."


Henke stared into her eyes for a moment, then sighed and lifted her hand. Honor slid the ammunition carrier off the counter, looping the strap over her left shoulder and settling the heavy pouch at her side. She nodded once to Henke, then looked at the armorer.


"Program the range, Sergeant. Standard Manticoran gravity on the plates. Set the range gate for forty meters. Human targets."


She turned without another word, and stepped through the firing range hatch.


 



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