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Chapter Twenty-Three

Tomas Ramirez cocked his chair back in his small shipboard office and studied the green-uniformed man across his desk. Major Andrew LaFollet returned his gaze with equally measuring gray eyes, and there was a subsurface tension between them; not anger or distrust, but the sort of wariness two guard dogs might have exhibited on first meeting.


"So, Major," Ramirez said at last, "am I to understand you and your men are permanently assigned to Lady Harrington? I'd gathered from what Commander Chandler told me that this was in the nature of a temporary assignment on Protector Benjamin's authority."


"I'm sorry about the confusion, Sir." LaFollet was tall for a Grayson, with a solid, well-muscled physique, but he was still a head shorter than Ramirez and looked almost puny in comparison. He was also ten years younger than the colonel, though they looked very much the same age thanks to Ramirez's prolong treatments, yet there was no lack of confidence in his face or posture. He ran a hand through his dark, auburn hair and frowned, obviously considering the best way to make himself understood to this foreigner.


"At the moment, Colonel," he said in his soft, slow Grayson accent, raising his eyes to examine some point above Ramirez's head, "the Steadholder doesn't seem to be thinking very clearly." The look in his eyes when he lowered them once more warned the colonel that anyone who tried to make his statement into a criticism would regret it. "I suspect she thinks we are a temporary fixture."


"But she's wrong," Ramirez suggested after a moment.


"Yes, Sir. By Grayson law, a steadholder must be accompanied by his—or, in this case, her—personal guard at all times, on Grayson or off."


"Even in the Star Kingdom?"


"On Grayson or off, Sir," LaFollet repeated, and Ramirez blinked.


"Major, I can appreciate that you didn't make the law, but Lady Harrington is also an officer in the Queen's Navy."


"I understand that, Sir."


"But what you may not understand is that general regs prohibit the presence of armed civilians or foreign nationals on a Queen's ship. To put it plainly, Major LaFollet, your presence here is illegal."


"I'm sorry to hear that, Colonel," LaFollet said politely, and Ramirez sighed.


"You're not going to make this any easier on me, are you, Major?" he asked wryly.


"It's not my intention to cause difficulties for you, the Royal Manticoran Navy, or the Star Kingdom, Colonel. It is my intention to do my duty, as my oath requires, and protect my Steadholder."


"The Royal Marines protect the captains of Her Majesty's starships," Ramirez said, his deep voice a bit flatter and harder.


"Meaning no disrespect, Colonel, that's beside the point. And," the major's eyes were very level, "while I understand that nothing which happened was your fault, or the Royal Marines', Lady Harrington has suffered enough."


Ramirez's jaw clenched for a moment, but then he drew a deep breath and forced himself to sit back. LaFollet's voice could not have been more respectful, and a part of the colonel agreed with his quiet accusation. He thought for a moment, then decided to try another tack.


"Major, Lady Harrington may not return to Grayson for years now that Parliament has voted to declare war and we're resuming active operations. Are you and your—what, ten men? Twelve?"


"There are a total of twelve of us, Sir."


"Twelve, then. Are all twelve of you ready to spend that long off Grayson when the Corps is prepared to guarantee Lady Harrington's safety?"


"She won't be aboard ship for that entire time, Sir. Whenever she leaves it, she leaves her Marine sentry behind. And in answer to your question, we aren't off Grayson as long as we're with our Steadholder." Ramirez couldn't quite stop his eyes from rolling upward, and LaFollet allowed himself a small smile. "Nonetheless, Sir, I take your point, and the answer is yes. We're prepared to spend however long we have to off Grayson."


"You can speak for all of your men?"


"Could you speak for yours, Sir?" LaFollet held the colonel's eye until Ramirez nodded grudgingly. "So can I, Sir. And, as I understand is true for your own Marines, every member of the Harrington Guard is a volunteer."


"May I ask why you volunteered?" In the wrong tone, that question could have been insulting; as it was, it was honestly curious, and LaFollet shrugged.


"Certainly, Sir. I was assigned to Palace Security prior to the Maccabeus coup attempt. So was my older brother, as a member of Protector Benjamin's personal guard. He was killed, and Lady Harrington not only took over his duty to guard the Protector but killed his murderer with her bare hands—before she went out to protect my entire planet." He met Ramirez's gaze very steadily. "Grayson owes her its freedom; my family owes her life debt for completing the task my brother couldn't and avenging his death. I volunteered for the Harrington Steadholder's Guard the day its formation was announced."


Ramirez leaned further back, his eyes probing. "I see. Forgive me for asking this, Major, but I know from my own reading of the 'faxes that not all Graysons are pleased to have a woman as a steadholder. Given that, are you confident all your men share your feelings?"


"They all volunteered for this specific assignment, Colonel." An edge of frost crept into LaFollet's voice for the first time. "As for their personal motivations, Armsman Candless' father died aboard Covington at the Battle of Blackbird. Corporal Mattingly's older brother died aboard Saul in the same battle. Armsman Yard lost a cousin and an uncle in First Yeltsin; another cousin survived Blackbird only because Lady Harrington insisted that every Grayson life pod be picked up, despite the risk that Saladin would return before they were found. His transponder was damaged, and our sensors couldn't find him; Fearless's could . . . and did. There isn't a man in my detachment—or the entire Guard, for that matter—who didn't join because he owes Lady Harrington a personal debt, but that's only part of it. She's . . . special, Sir. I don't know exactly how to explain it, but—"


"You don't have to," Ramirez murmured, and LaFollet glanced at him. Something in the colonel's eyes made his shoulders relax, and he lowered his eyes once more, staring intently down at his hand as he ran it over the arm of his chair.


"It's . . . not proper for a Grayson to say this, Sir," he said quietly, "but we joined her guard because we love her." He stopped rubbing the chair arm and looked back up into Ramirez's eyes. "More than that, she's our Steadholder, our personal liege lady. We owe her exactly the same duty you owe your Queen, Colonel, and we intend to discharge it. I understand the Protector has instructed our ambassador to convey that same information to your Prime Minister."


Ramirez rubbed an eyebrow slowly. He recognized intransigence when he saw it, and the matter of the Captain's legal status as a foreign noblewoman raised questions he was more than pleased he didn't have to settle. More importantly, LaFollet had a point—possibly an even better one than he knew—about the Captain's security, for it was unlikely North Hollow would simply give up if Denver Summervale failed to kill her. Ramirez's Marines couldn't guarantee her safety once she left her ship, but from what he'd seen so far of Andrew LaFollet and his men, it would take nothing short of a tactical nuclear weapon to get past them.


He wondered how much that was affecting his judgment. Probably more than he ought to allow. No, scratch the probably. It was certainly carrying more weight with him than it should, and he didn't very much care.


"All right, Major," he said finally. "I understand your position, and, just between us, I'm glad to see you. Until and unless competent authority directs me to enforce the regs against your bearing arms aboard ship, you keep your sidearms. I'll also arrange for one of your people to join the Captain's regular Marine sentry at all times, and you'll be informed whenever she leaves Nike. More than that will have to be worked out between you and Dame Honor, but I know the Captain, and I don't think you're going to have much luck getting a guard posted inside her quarters, whatever Grayson law says."


"Of course not, Sir." LaFollet blushed brightly at the suggestion, and the colonel hid a smile behind his hand. Then he sobered.


"I'm afraid there's another thing you're going to have to accept, though, Major LaFollet. Not from me or the Navy, but from Dame Honor herself." LaFollet raised an eyebrow, and Ramirez sighed. "You know, of course, about Captain Tankersley's death?" The armsman nodded, and Ramirez shrugged, not entirely happily. "The Captain knows who did it. I expect she'll be doing something about that, and you won't be able to protect her when she does."


"We realize that, Sir. We don't like it, but frankly, Colonel, we wouldn't try to stop her if we could."


Ramirez couldn't quite hide his surprise at LaFollet's coldly vicious response. Grayson mores were ironclad, and the notion of unmarried people carrying on sexual relationships violated about a third of them. LaFollet smiled thinly at his surprise but said nothing, and the colonel began to realize just how much the Captain's Grayson subjects truly cared for her.


"Well, in that case, Major," he said, rising and extending his hand, "welcome aboard. Come with me and let me introduce you to the rest of my officers and my senior noncoms. After that, we'll see about finding you and your people some quarters and adjusting the guard roster."


"Thank you, Sir." LaFollet's hand was almost lost in Ramirez's huge paw, but he squeezed back firmly. "We appreciate it."


* * *


Honor's eyes opened. For the first time in far too long she woke to something more than frozen emptiness. The pain was still there, still locked away in its armored cocoon, for nothing had changed in at least one respect: she dared not set it free until she had dealt with its cause. But there was a new, poisonous certainty in her heart. An old and familiar venom. She knew her enemy now. She was no longer the victim of something she couldn't understand, but rather of something she understood only too well, and somehow that cracked the ice about her soul.


Nimitz rolled off her chest as she sat up in bed and brushed hair out of her eyes, and she felt the difference in him, as well. The 'cat had hated Denver Summervale from the beginning, and not simply for the pain he'd caused Honor. That would have been enough, but Nimitz had learned to love Paul Tankersley in his own right. And perhaps that was the difference in him, as it was the difference in her. They knew the author of their pain, and the reason for it, and the conflict between them—between Honor's urge towards dissolution and Nimitz's fierce determination to keep her alive—had vanished into a shared and implacable resolve to destroy their enemies.


She swung her feet to the decksole and let her hand rest lightly, lovingly, on the space where Paul should have lain. She could do that, now; could face the pain, even if she dared not let herself feel it to the full just yet. It was odd, a corner of her brain thought. She'd heard so many tales about the way love could save one's sanity; no one had ever told her hate could do the same.


She pushed herself up and padded into the head to brush her teeth, and her memory replayed the record chip Ramirez had left her. She was certain the colonel had edited it a bit, yet she had no doubt of the recording's truth. It was unfortunate that it would never be admissible in a court of law, even had she dared submit it to one. Ramirez had been more than simply reticent about the circumstances, but the curious, pain-shadowed breathlessness of Summervale's voice when he abruptly began speaking told her all she needed to know about how he'd been convinced to "volunteer" the information.


She finished brushing her teeth, and if the face in her mirror remained wan and wounded, at least she recognized it again, and in its eyes she saw wonder. Awe, perhaps, that so many people would risk so much for her.


She rinsed her toothbrush, unplugged it, and put it away, all without taking her eyes from her mirrored image. All those people, involved in something which could easily have cost them their careers. Which still might, for there was no way their operation could remain secret forever. Summervale wouldn't complain. Any investigation was likely to turn up the record chip, and, legally obtained or not, it would ruin a man in his profession. It might even get him killed before he could talk about one of his other "clients."


Yet even if he never said a thing, rumors would leak sooner or later. Too many people knew too many of the bits and pieces. Eventually, someone would let a word too many slip over a beer or in a bull session, for the story was simply too good to keep sealed. She doubted any of it could ever be proven—she knew Alistair and Tomas too well to believe they would have left themselves uncovered—but that didn't mean no one in authority would believe it.


They had to know that as well as she did, yet they'd done it anyway. They'd done it for her, and perhaps, just perhaps, that meant it wasn't simple hate which had broken her zombielike state. Their willingness to accept that risk for her had done as much as her hatred, and that willingness sprang from its own sort of love.


Her eyes stung, and she closed them tightly, lips trembling as the tears came at last. They slid down her cheeks, silent as snow and oddly gentle. They couldn't wash away the armor she held stubbornly in place to protect her purpose, yet they cleansed it. They . . . purified it in some mysterious way, made it only armor and no longer ice, and she leaned her forehead against the mirror and let them come. Nimitz hopped up onto the lavatory and stood on his true-feet to clasp her upper arm in his true-hands and press his muzzle against her shoulder. His soft, inaudible croon vibrated into her as he welcomed her tears, and she turned and swept him into her arms.


She was never certain how long she wept, and it didn't really matter. It wasn't something to be measured by clocks, cut up into minutes and seconds. Trying to would have cheapened it. She only knew that when she dried her eyes again she was . . . different. Mike had feared for her sanity, and she knew, now, that she'd been right to fear. But the madness had passed. The lethal purpose remained, yet it was as sane as it was cold, as rational as it was obsessive.


She blew her nose, then dressed without buzzing MacGuiness. She knew where he hid her uniforms, and he deserved to sleep late. God knew he'd put in too many thankless hours hovering over her with nothing to show for it but dead-eyed silence from her.


She adjusted her uniform with precision and gathered her shoulder-length hair in a simple braid. It didn't reach very far down her back, but it was enough, and she tied it with a black silk ribbon, the color of mourning and vengeance, before she turned to her terminal.


The messages she'd dreaded waited, headed by a tearful recording from her mother and father. She couldn't have faced that without breaking before she'd heard Summervale's recorded voice; now she could listen and recognize the love in her parents' voices. More than recognize; she could feel it now.


There were others, even more than she'd feared, headed by a personal recording from Queen Elizabeth herself. Duke Cromarty had sent her a stiffer, more formal message, but the sympathy in his voice was genuine, and there were others—from Admiral Caparelli on behalf of the Lords of Admiralty, from Lady Morncreek, from Paul's CO, from Ernestine Corell and Mark Sarnow . . . even from Dame Estelle Matsuko, Her Majesty's Resident Commissioner for Medusan Affairs, and Rear Admiral Michel Reynaud, Astro Control Service CO in Basilisk.


They hurt. They hurt terribly, each one reminding her of all she'd lost, but it was a hurt she could bear now. She had to stop to dry her eyes more than once, yet she worked her way to the end, and two-thirds of the way through, she looked down to find a steaming cup of cocoa at her elbow.


She smiled at the offering in mingled tenderness and pain and turned her head before MacGuiness could vanish back into his pantry.


"Mac," she said softly.


He froze and turned back to face her, and her heart twisted. He wore a ratty old robe over his pajamas, the first time, day or night, she'd ever seen him out of uniform, and his face looked old and worn—and fragile. So fragile. His eyes were almost afraid to hope, and she held out a hand to him.


He came closer and took it, and she squeezed his fingers hard.


"Thanks, Mac. I appreciate it." Her voice was so soft he could barely hear her, yet it was her voice again, and he knew she was thanking him for far more than a cup of cocoa. His red-rimmed eyes gleamed with suspicious moisture, and he ducked his head and squeezed her hand back.


"You're welcome, Ma'am," he husked, then cleared his throat, gave himself a shake, and wagged one finger at her. "You stay right where you are," he commanded. "I'll have your breakfast in fifteen minutes, and you've missed too many meals as it is!"


"Yes, Sir," she said meekly, and the twitch of his mouth as he fought not to smile warmed her soul.


* * *


Honor finished the last of a huge breakfast and blotted her mouth with her napkin. It was odd, but she couldn't remember a single meal between her last one on Grayson and this. There must have been some, but her memory was completely blank when she tried to recall them. She felt a fresh pang of guilt for the way she must have treated MacGuiness, but Nimitz made a soft sound, almost a chiding one, from across the table, and she gave him a small smile.


"That was delicious, Mac. Thank you."


"I'm glad you enjoyed it, Ma'am, and—"


The steward broke off and turned away as the com terminal hummed. "Captain's quarters, Chief Steward MacGuiness speaking," he acknowledged.


"I have a com request for the Captain, Chief," George Monet's voice replied. "It's from Admiral White Haven."


"Put it through, George," Honor called as she stood. The com officer waited until she entered the terminal's visual range, and she thought she saw him sag a little in relief when he saw her expression, but he only nodded.


"Of course, Ma'am. Switching now."


His image disappeared, replaced by the admiral's. White Haven's blue eyes were intent, but his face was calm and he nodded courteously to her.


"Good morning, Dame Honor. I'm sorry to disturb you so early on your first morning back."


"It's not a disturbance, Sir. How may I be of service?"


"I commed for two reasons, actually. First, I wanted to express my condolences in person. Captain Tankersley was a fine officer and a fine man, a loss not simply to the Service but to everyone who knew him."


"Thank you, Sir." Honor's soprano was just a bit husky, and he pretended not to notice when she cleared her throat.


"The second reason I screened," he continued, "was to inform you that, during your absence, Parliament finally voted out the declaration of war. We resumed active operations against Haven as of zero-one-hundred hours last Wednesday." Honor nodded, and he went on. "Since we're attached to Home Fleet, our own operational posture won't be materially affected, at least in the short term, but it's more important than ever to expedite your repairs."


"Yes, Sir." Honor felt her cheekbones heat. "I'm afraid I haven't brought myself up to date just yet, Sir, but as soon—"


"Don't rush yourself," White Haven interrupted almost gently. "Commander Chandler's done an excellent job in your absence, and I'm certainly not trying to pressure you. This is for your information, not for any action I expect out of you. Besides," he allowed himself a smile, "it's in the yard dogs' hands, not yours or mine."


"Thank you, Sir." Honor tried to hide her humiliation at being caught uninformed about the state of her command, but her flush darkened, giving her away, and White Haven cocked his head.


"As your task force commander," he said after a moment, "I am instructing you to take some time getting yourself back into harness, Dame Honor. A day or two won't do the Service any harm, and—" his eyes softened "—I know you missed Captain Tankersley's funeral. I imagine you have quite a few items of personal business to attend to."


"Yes, Sir. I do." It came out harder and colder than Honor had meant it to, and the admiral's face went very still. Not with surprise, but with confirmation . . . and perhaps a trace of fear. Summervale was an experienced duelist, one who had killed many times in "affairs of honor." White Haven had never approved of dueling, legal or not, and the thought of Honor Harrington dead on the grass chilled his heart.


He opened his mouth to argue with her, then closed it without a word. Anything he could have said would have been useless; he knew that, and he had no right to presume to argue with her, anyway.


"In that case, Captain," he said instead, "I'll have orders cut giving you three days more of official leave. If you need more, we'll arrange it."


"Thank you, Sir," she said again, and her voice was much softer. She'd recognized his first impulse, and she was grateful for the second thoughts that left the arguments unvoiced.


"Until later, then, Dame Honor," he said quietly, and cut the connection.


 


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