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Chapter Twenty-Five

Work schedules scrolled down Honor's terminal as she worked her methodical way through the mountains of paperwork which had risen like crustal folds in her absence. Fortunately, Eve Chandler was as outstanding as an exec as she'd been as a tac officer. Most of Honor's responsibility was limited to signing off on the decisions Eve had already made, but it still left an appalling amount of data to wade through, and, for once, Honor was just as happy it did. It deprived her of free time she might have spent fretting.


She finished the current report and took a break to nibble a cheese wedge from the plate MacGuiness had left at her elbow. Nike would be ready for trials and recommissioning within another four weeks, five at the outside, and that woke a stir of satisfaction even through her somber mood. The first reports were coming back as the Star Kingdom assumed the offensive, and half a dozen Peep bases had already fallen into Manticoran hands. Twice that many sorely needed ships of the wall had surrendered intact, and the public was delighted, but it was unlikely the run of cheap successes would last long. The Peoples' Republic of Haven was simply too huge, and the Committee of Public Safety had secured control of too many of the core systems, major fleet bases, and home defense squadrons. The Peeps had spent something like eighty T-years building up their military; they'd still have plenty of firepower once they got over the shock of the Star Kingdom's renewed operations.


Which meant, given the Fleet's eternal need for battlecruisers, that the Fifth Battlecruiser Squadron's assignment to Home Fleet probably wouldn't last long. Battlecruisers combined too much firepower, cruising endurance, and mobility for that. Honor could already see half a dozen places where they were needed, and she was impatient to report her ship's availability for duty.


Yet for the first time, she was torn between professional eagerness and another need. Ramirez and Livitnikov had completed the arrangements for her to meet Summervale in another two days, but Summervale was only the first step. She had no intention of leaving Pavel Young alive behind her when she took her ship into action again, which meant she had to deal with him before new orders took her out of the home system. She frowned at the thought and leaned back, crossing her legs, and clasped her hands on a raised knee while she brooded, only to look up at a soft sound from the perch above her desk.


A smile banished her frown as Nimitz hung from the perch on his prehensile tail and chittered at her. He sent himself swinging back and forth as soon as he had her attention, and his true-hands made snatching motions at her tray of hors d'oeuvres. He could have sneaked down and stolen one without a sound if he'd chosen to, but that wasn't what he wanted. He shared her determination to kill Summervale and North Hollow, and his confidence in her ability to do just that was absolute, but he wasn't about to let her fret herself back into her earlier, killing depression in the meantime.


He chittered again, louder, and his pendulum motion increased. She knew what he intended, and her hands darted out to snatch the tray away, but it was too late.


He gave himself a last swing and released his tail-hold, flipping himself through the air, and his true-hands flashed with unerring accuracy as he sailed across the tray. He grabbed up a pair of stuffed celery sticks, and his four rear limbs took the impact as he landed on the corner of her desk. His mid-limbs' hand-feet gripped the edge of the desk, pivoting him through a neat forward somersault, and he hit the deck with a thump. He vanished under the coffee table in a streak of cream-and-gray fur, and she heard his exultant bleek of triumph as he absconded with his prizes.


"All right, Stinker, you got me," she told him, getting down on her hands and knees on the carpet to peer under the table. His buzzing purr was complacent, and he crunched celery at her. Cheese stuffing clotted his whiskers, and one hand-foot combed them clean as she shook a finger at him. "On the other hand," she continued ominously, "we both know what this is going to do to your appetite for supper, so don't blame me if—"


She broke off and started to jerk upright as her com chimed. Her head, unfortunately, was still under the edge of the coffee table, and she yelped as her skull clipped it hard. Her short braid absorbed a good bit of the impact, but not enough to keep her from sitting down rather abruptly on the carpet.


The attention signal chimed again, and she rose on her knees, rubbing the back of her head, just as MacGuiness padded in from his pantry. The steward paused, and the faint, perpetual worry he couldn't seem to banish faded for just an instant. He and Nimitz knew one another of old, and it didn't take a genius to realize what had been going on.


He cleared his throat and shook his head before he continued to the com, and Honor stayed on her knees a moment longer, smiling fondly at his back, then pushed herself to her feet as he pressed the acceptance key.


"Captain's quarters, Chief MacGuiness speaking," he announced with another long-suffering glance at his captain.


"Com officer of the watch," another voice said. "Is the Captain available, Chief? I have a com request for her from the flagship."


"She'll be with you in a moment, Lieutenant Hammond," MacGuiness replied, and stepped aside as Honor arrived, still rubbing the back of her head. The lieutenant on the screen saw her and cleared his throat.


"Com request from the flagship, Skipper. It's the Admiral."


"Thank you, Jack." Honor brushed a few stray strands of hair into place and gave her uniform a quick pat-down check, then seated herself and nodded. "Put it through, please."


"Yes, Ma'am."


Lieutenant Hammond's face blinked out in favor of Admiral White Haven's, and Honor smiled at him.


"Good afternoon, Sir. What can I do for you?"


"Captain." White Haven nodded to her, then glanced at MacGuiness, just visible at the edge of the com's visual field. The steward took the hint and vanished, and the admiral returned his attention to Honor.


He studied her in silence for a moment, and what he saw both pleased and worried him. The stark, wounded look had faded, but her calm attentiveness didn't fool him, for the truth showed in her eyes: those huge, expressive eyes that gave away her true thoughts to anyone who knew to watch them, however masklike her expression might be. There was a hardness in them, a glitter that lurked just beneath their surface. He saw it, and wondered how she was going to react to what he had to say.


"I'm not comming on official business, Dame Honor," he said. An eyebrow curved, she cocked her head to one side, and he drew a breath he hoped she didn't notice and plunged in without further preamble.


"I'm sure you must realize that everyone knows about your meeting with Summervale." Her eyes hardened a bit more, and she nodded. "I realize the details of these affairs are supposed to be confidential, but the challenge was issued rather . . . publicly," he went on. "I've just been alerted that the media have picked up on it and that newsies from all the major services plan to be in attendance."


Honor said nothing, but he saw the hand on her desk clench as he continued.


"In addition, there's what I can only call a furor over the remarks which passed between you in Dempsey's, Dame Honor. There's some confusion over the exact wording, but there's general agreement that you deliberately provoked him into challenging you."


He paused, and she nodded again, silently. He wasn't certain whether it represented agreement or simple acknowledgment, and he rubbed an eyebrow in an unusual nervous gesture. This was going to be harder than he'd feared, and his baritone was quietly intense when he spoke once more.


"Dame Honor, I don't believe any reasonable person can or would fault you for that. Both Summervale's reputation and the fact that he set out to goad Captain Tankersley into striking him are well known, yet I can't say I'm happy about your meeting him. I don't approve of duels in general, and I don't like the thought of your tangling with a professional killer on his own ground, but that's your option under the law." Her eyes seemed to soften a bit, and he braced himself for her reaction to his next words.


"Unfortunately, a few members of the media have also picked up on the charges you leveled against Earl North Hollow." He paused, and his blue eyes invited—no, demanded—a response.


"I can't say I'm surprised by that, Sir," she said. He frowned and rubbed his eyebrow again, and she felt the intensity of his measuring gaze.


"I don't doubt that you aren't surprised, Captain," he said after a moment. "What I want to know is whether or not you meant for them to."


Honor considered for a moment, then shrugged.


"Yes, Sir, I did," she said quietly.


"Why?" he asked bluntly, his voice harsh with either worry or anger, but she didn't flinch.


"Because the charges are accurate, Sir. Pavel Young hired Summervale to kill Paul Tankersley and me. He specifically directed that Paul be killed first—apparently because he hated him for 'betraying' him by siding with me, but also because his real motive was to punish me."


"Do you realize what you're saying, Dame Honor? You're accusing a peer of the realm of hiring an assassin."


"Yes, Sir, I am."


"Do you have any evidence to support that charge?" he demanded.


"I do, Sir," she replied with no discernible emotion at all, and his eyes widened.


"Then why haven't you presented it to the authorities? Duels may be legal, but paying a professional duelist to kill your enemies certainly isn't!"


"I haven't approached the authorities because my evidence wouldn't be legally admissible in a criminal prosecution, Sir." He frowned, and she went on quietly. "Despite that, it's absolutely conclusive. Summervale admitted his complicity before witnesses."


"What witnesses?" His voice was sharp, but she shook her head.


"I'm sorry, Sir, but I must respectfully decline to answer that question."


The admiral's eyes narrowed, and Honor found it difficult to maintain her calm expression under their weight.


"I see," he went on after a brief, pregnant pause. "This evidence—I'm assuming it's a recording of some sort—was obtained under less than legal circumstances, and you're shielding whoever obtained it, aren't you?"


"Sir, I respectfully decline to answer that question."


White Haven snorted, but he didn't press it, and she inhaled in relief, only to stiffen as he leaned towards his pickup with a stony expression.


"Do you intend to challenge Earl North Hollow, as well, Dame Honor?"


"I intend, My Lord, to see justice done." Her voice was equally quiet, with the tang of distant ice, and he closed his eyes briefly.


"I want you to . . . think very carefully about that, Captain. The situation in the House of Lords remains extremely delicate. The Government managed to find a majority to support the declaration, but just barely, and its working majority is still very, very narrow. More to the point, North Hollow played a pivotal roll in getting the declaration voted out. Any hint of fresh scandal attached to his name, especially one which involves you, could have disastrous consequences."


"That, My Lord, is not my concern," Honor said flatly.


"Then it ought to be. If the Opposition—"


"My Lord—" for the first time in her life, Honor Harrington interrupted a flag officer, and her voice was hard "—the Opposition means very little to me at the moment. The man I loved was killed—murdered—at Pavel Young's orders." White Haven started to speak again, but she went right on, all pretense of detachment vanished. "I know it—and, I believe, you know it—but I can't prove it to the satisfaction of a court of law. That leaves me only one option, and that option, Sir, is my legal right in this Kingdom. I intend to exercise it, regardless of any political considerations."


She jerked to an incandescent halt, appalled at herself for speaking to an admiral—any admiral, but especially this one—in such fashion. Her veneer of self-control was far thinner than she'd realized, and electricity jittered in her nerves, yet she met his eyes unflinchingly, and her own were agate hard.


Fragile silence hovered for a moment, then, finally, White Haven squared his shoulders and drew a deep breath.


"My concern, Dame Honor, is not for North Hollow. It's not even for the Government—or, at any rate, not directly. It's for you and the consequences of any action you may take against him."


"I'm prepared to accept the consequences, My Lord."


"Well I'm not!" His eyes snapped with anger for the first time, anger directed squarely at her. "Duke Cromarty's Government will survive, but if you challenge Pavel Young to a duel—worse, if you challenge him and kill him—the Opposition will explode. You thought it was bad before and during the court-martial? Well, Captain, it'll be a thousand times worse after this one! The Opposition will demand your head on a platter, and the Duke will have no choice but to give it to them! Can't you see that?!"


"I'm not a politician, My Lord. I'm a naval officer." Honor met his gaze without evasion, but there was a pleading note in her voice which surprised even her. The hurt of White Haven's sudden anger cut deep. It was suddenly the most important thing in her world that he understand, and she raised one hand at her com screen in an imploring gesture. "I know my duty, my responsibilities, as a Queen's officer, but doesn't the Kingdom have some duty to me, Sir? Didn't Paul Tankersley deserve better than to be killed because a man who hates me paid for it? Damn it, Sir," her quiet, intense voice shook with passion as she stared at him, "I owe Paul—and myself!"


White Haven flinched as if she'd struck him, but he shook his head slowly.


"I sympathize, Captain. I truly do. But I once told you direct action isn't always the best response. If you pursue this, you'll destroy yourself and your career."


"Then what's the point, Sir?" The anger had gone out of her voice, and despair softened the hardness of her eyes, yet she held his gaze with a forlorn pride that cut him to the heart. "All I ask of my Queen and my Kingdom—all I've ever asked—is justice, My Lord. That's all I have a right to ask for, but I have a right to it. Isn't that what's supposed to separate us from the Peeps?" He winced, and she went on in that soft, pleading voice. "I don't understand politics, Sir. I don't understand what gives a Pavel Young the right to destroy everything he touches and hide behind the importance of compromise and political consensus. But I understand duty and common decency. I understand justice, and if no one else can give it to me, then just this once I'll take it for myself, whatever it costs."


"And you'll end your career." It was White Haven's turn to plead. "You're right; duels are legal, and there won't be any criminal charges. You won't be court-martialed. But you'll be relieved of your command. It doesn't matter how justified your actions are. If you kill him, they'll take Nike away from you, Honor. They'll put you on the beach and let you rot there, and there won't be anything I or anyone else can do to stop them."


It was the first time he'd ever used her given name without any other title, and she knew, at last, that the rumors were true. Whether it was because of his friendship with Admiral Courvosier or simply because he believed in her she didn't know, but White Haven had made her career his personal project. Perhaps that meant she owed him agreement, or at least the careful consideration of his arguments, but this time—just this once—that was more than she had to give.


"I'm sorry, Sir," she said softly, her eyes begging, almost against her will, for his acceptance. "If my career is the price I have to pay, then I'll pay it. I'm out of options, and this time someone is going to call Pavel Young to account."


"I can't let you do that, Captain." The earl's voice was hard, harsher than she'd ever heard it, and anger glittered in his eyes. "You may be too pigheaded to realize it, but your career matters more than a dozen Pavel Youngs! Just because we're rolling the Peeps up right now doesn't mean we'll go on doing it forever, and you know it as well as I do! We're in a war for the very survival of this Kingdom, and the Navy's invested thirty years in you. You're a resource, Captain Harrington—a weapon—and you have no right—no right at all!—to throw that weapon away. You talk about duty, Captain? Well, your duty is to your Queen, not to yourself!"


Honor jerked back, her face bone-white, and opened her mouth, but his furious voice rolled over her like a hurricane.


"The Navy needs you. The Kingdom needs you. You've proven that every time you made the hard call, every time you pulled off one of your goddamned miracles! You have no right to turn your back on all of us to pursue your own, personal vendetta, whatever Pavel Young did to you!" He leaned even closer to his pickup, his eyes hard as stone. "The fact that you can't see that doesn't make it any less true, Captain, and I am ordering you—ordering you, as your superior officer—not to challenge the Earl of North Hollow to a duel!"


 


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