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Chapter Twenty-Six

The shuttle grounded at Capital Field, Landing's main space-to-ground facility. The hundred-meter polished granite spire commemorating the landing of the sublight transport Jason's first shuttle of colonists loomed up nearby, sparkling with blood-red reflections of the rising sun, but Honor had no attention to spare it.


She rose from her seat, and there was nothing within her but stillness. Every human emotion had been banished, leaving only the stillness as she turned to the hatch and stepped out into the warm, hushed morning. Andrew LaFollet, James Candless, and Tomas Ramirez followed at her heels; aside from them, she was alone as she walked to the waiting ground car.


It was odd. Nothing seemed quite real, nothing impinged directly upon her, yet everything about her was preternaturally clear and sharp. She moved through the quiet, apart from it yet immersed in it, and her face was calm as LaFollet opened the ground car's door for her.


Her detached, focused purpose was hard come by and dearly won. The confrontation with Admiral White Haven had shaken her more than she dared admit, even to herself. His fierce insistence had stunned her, and it hadn't gotten any better. She couldn't give him what he wanted, and her inability had infuriated him. She'd tried to explain, but he'd only snapped out a repetition of his order and cut the circuit, leaving her to stare at a blank screen.


The cruelty of his anger at such a time had cut soul deep. She needed confidence and focus; the last thing she needed on the brink of a fight for her very life was a personal quarrel with an officer she respected deeply. Why couldn't he understand that this was something she had to do? How could he bark out orders—illegal orders—he knew had to upset her at a time like this?


She didn't know. She only knew it had hurt, and that it had taken her hours to regain the honed, steely edge of her purpose. She regretted the breach between them, but she couldn't let it deflect her. If White Haven couldn't or wouldn't understand that, there was nothing she could do about it.


She shifted slightly in the contoured car seat, feeling the lightness of her right shoulder, and a deeper pang pierced her detachment before she could banish it once more. Nimitz hadn't wanted to stay behind with MacGuiness. For the first time she could remember, he'd fought her decision—actually hissed and bared his fangs at her while anger boiled through their link—but she'd refused to relent. He couldn't be with her on the field itself, and she had no doubt what he'd do if she'd let him join the spectators and the worst happened. He was blindingly fast and well armed, but Denver Summervale would have researched treecats when he planned his vicious campaign; he'd know as well as she did how Nimitz would react, and it was unlikely his magazine would be empty when she went down.


She sighed and raised one hand, touching the pad on which he should have ridden, and closed her eyes to concentrate on what was to come.


* * *


Tomas Ramirez sat in the jump seat facing the Captain, the pistol case heavy in his lap, and wished he could feel as calm as she looked. But this was the second time he'd made this trip in less than a month, and nausea twisted his stomach as he remembered the last time.


At least the Captain knew what she was doing, he told himself. Paul had been less focused, as if he'd been more baffled by events . . . or because he was less of a killer than the Captain. Ramirez had seen her in action. He had no doubt of her determination; it was only her skill he questioned, for Denver Summervale had killed more than fifty people on fields just like this.


He turned his head and glanced at the Grayson armsmen flanking her on either side. Candless was trying hard to hide his own anxiety, but LaFollet looked almost as calm as the Captain herself. A part of Ramirez hated the major for that nearly as much as it envied him, but he shook it off and made himself remember what LaFollet had said when he expressed his own concern.


"I don't know about duels, Colonel," the armsman had said. "Grayson law doesn't allow them. But I've seen the Steadholder on the range."


"On the range!" Ramirez had snorted, fists bunching with muscle on the table between them. "This won't be a target match, Major, and the Captain's a Navy officer, not a Marine. The Navy doesn't train its people with small arms, not even pulsers, the way the Corps does. Summervale knows exactly what he's doing, and he's a crack shot with those damned antiques!"


"I presume that by 'antiques' you're referring to the pistols?" LaFollet had asked, and Ramirez had grunted frustrated agreement, then blinked as LaFollet barked a laugh. "I can't say anything about this Summervale's ability, Colonel, but believe me, he can't be any better with them than Lady Harrington. I know."


"How can you be so positive of that?" Ramirez had demanded.


"Experience, Sir. What you call antiques would have been first-line issue for Palace Security two years ago. We didn't have the tech base to build grav-drivers small enough to make pulsers practical."


Ramirez had frowned at him, longing to believe the younger man knew what he was talking about, but almost afraid to let himself.


"She's that good?" he'd asked, and LaFollet had nodded.


"Colonel, I was a small arms instructor for my last two years with Security. I know a natural shot when I see one, and Lady Harrington is just that." It had been his turn to frown, and he'd run a hand through his hair. "I'll admit I didn't expect her to be particularly good with something that old-fashioned myself, but I discussed it with Captain Henke, and she said something that stuck in my mind. She said the Steadholder's always tested very high for kinesthesia, that it's something your Navy looks for. I hadn't heard the term before, but I think it's what you or I might call situational awareness. She always knows where she is—and where anything else is in relation to her." He'd shrugged. "Anyway, trust me. Any shot of hers will go exactly where she wants it to."


"If she gets one off," Ramirez had muttered, thumping the tabletop with his fist. "God, I know she's fast. Her reflexes are at least as good as mine, and mine are better than almost any native Manticoran I've ever met. But you have to see Summervale to believe how quick he is, and he's been here before." He'd shaken his head, hating himself for doubting the Captain but unable to stop himself. "I don't know, Major. I just don't know," he'd sighed.


Now he looked away from the Grayson officer and stared out the window while he prayed LaFollet's confidence was justified.


* * *


The ground car slowed, and Honor opened her eyes as it glided through the gate in the vine-grown stone wall and crunched to a halt on the graveled drive. The sun hung just above the eastern horizon, the last of its blood-red color fading into white and gold, and the emerald carpet of smooth, close-cropped Terran grass glittered with dew like diamond dust.


She followed LaFollet out of the car, flaring her nostrils to inhale the smell of growing things, and a square-shouldered, brown-haired man met her. He wore the plain gray uniform of the Landing City Police with a black brassard and a heavy military-issue pulser, and he bowed to her.


"Good morning, Lady Harrington. I'm Lieutenant Castellaño, LCPD. I will be serving as Master of the Field this morning."


"Lieutenant." Honor returned his bow, and something like embarrassment flickered in his eyes as she straightened. She raised an eyebrow, and he waved a hand at the crowd of people clustered down one side of the field.


"Milady, I'm sorry about this." Chagrin deepened his voice, and he glared at the spectators. "It's indecent, but I can't legally exclude them."


"The media?" Honor asked.


"Yes, Milady. They're out in force, and those . . . people up there—" he jabbed a disgusted finger at a smaller cluster atop a small hill at the far end of the field "—have telephotos and shotgun mikes to catch every word. They're treating this like some sort of circus, Milady."


"I see." Honor surveyed her audience for a moment, brown eyes bleak, then touched Castellaño lightly on the shoulder. "It's not your fault. As you say, we can't exclude them. I suppose—" her lips twitched with dour humor "—the best we can hope for is a stray shot in their direction."


Castellaño twitched, unprepared for even that biting a jest, then gave her a small, humorless smile of his own.


"I suppose it is, Milady." He shook himself. "Well, then. If you'd come with me, please?"


"Of course," Honor murmured. She and her companions fell in behind him, their feet leaving dark blotches in the silver dew as they crossed the grass. A simple fence, no more than a white wooden rail on uprights, ran around an absolutely level stretch of grass at the center of the field, and Castellaño paused with an apologetic glance at LaFollet and Candless as they reached it.


"Excuse me, Milady. I was informed about your guardsmen, of course, but the law prohibits the presence of any armed supporters of either party at a meeting. If they wish to remain, they'll have to surrender their weapons."


Both Graysons stiffened in instant rebellion, and LaFollet opened his mouth to protest—only to close it with a snap as Honor raised a hand.


"I understand, Lieutenant," she said, and turned to her armsmen. "Andrew. Jamie." LaFollet met her eyes for just a moment, hovering on the brink of refusal, then sighed and drew the pulser from his holster. He handed it to Castellaño, and Candless followed a moment later.


"And now the other one, Andrew," Honor said in that same quiet voice.


LaFollet's eyes widened, and Ramirez glanced at him in surprise. The Grayson's jaw clenched and his entire body tensed, but then he sighed again. His left hand made a strange little motion, and a small pulser popped out of his sleeve into it. It was short-barreled and compact, designed as a weapon of last resort but no less deadly for that, and he grimaced as he passed it over.


"I didn't know you knew about that, My Lady."


"I know you didn't." She smiled and punched his shoulder lightly.


"Well, if you figured it out, someone else can," he muttered. "Now I'm going to have to find someplace else to hide it."


"I'm sure you'll think of something," she reassured him as Castellaño took the small weapon without expression, but Ramirez was still looking at LaFollet—and wondering if the armsman would have mentioned that hideout to him if he hadn't agreed to let him openly retain his weapons on shipboard.


"Thank you, Milady," Castellaño said. A policewoman appeared magically at his side, and he handed the weaponry to her, then raised his hand to wave toward the fenced-off grass. "Are you ready, Milady?"


"I am." Honor shrugged her shoulders as if settling their weight, then glanced at Ramirez. "All right, Tomas. Let's be about it," she said quietly.


* * *


Denver Summervale stood on his killing ground and watched his latest victim cross the wet grass toward him. He wore the dark clothing of the experienced duelist, without a trace of color to give his opponent a mark, and he hid a smirk as he studied Harrington. The captain was in uniform, its gold braid glittering in the sunlight. The three golden stars embroidered on her left breast made a nice aiming point, and he decided to put at least one bullet through the middle one.


Castellaño escorted her toward him, and Summervale's mouth curled. The Master of the Field's neutrality was required by law, and Castellaño was oppressively honorable and conscientious. He couldn't show partiality—not openly—but he hated and despised Summervale. That was why he'd chosen to greet Harrington in person and leave Summervale to one of his subordinates. The duelist knew it, and it amused him.


Honor and Ramirez stopped two meters from Summervale and Livitnikov, facing them while the morning breeze plucked at their hair. Castellaño nodded to the uniformed officer who'd accompanied Summervale, then turned to face both duelists and cleared his throat.


"Mr. Summervale, Lady Harrington. It is my first and foremost duty to urge a peaceful resolution of your differences, even at this late date. I ask you both now: can you not compose your quarrel?"


Honor said nothing. Summervale only eyed the Master of the Field contemptuously and said, "Get on with it. I'm meeting someone for breakfast."


Castellaño's face hardened, but he swallowed any retort and raised his right hand, fingers crooking as if to grasp something. "In that case, present your weapons."


Ramirez and Livitnikov opened their pistol cases, and matte-finish blued steel gleamed dully in the sunlight. Castellaño chose one pistol at random from the pair in each case and examined them with quick, skilled fingers and knowing eyes. He worked each action twice, then handed one weapon to Honor and the other to Summervale and looked at the seconds.


"Load, gentlemen," he said, and watched as each of them loaded ten fat, gleaming rounds into a magazine. Ramirez snapped the last old-fashioned brass cartridge into place and handed the magazine to Honor as Livitnikov handed its twin to Summervale.


"Load, Mr. Summervale," Castellaño said, and steel clicked as Summervale slid the magazine into the butt of his pistol and slapped it once to be sure it was seated securely. He made the simple task an almost ritualistic gesture, rich with confidence, and smiled thinly.


"Load, Lady Harrington," the Master of the Field said, and she loaded her own pistol without Summervale's flamboyance. Castellaño regarded them both with grim eyes for a moment, then nodded.


"Take your places," he said.


Ramirez laid a hand on Honor's shoulder and squeezed briefly, smiling confidently even as his eyes worried, and she reached up to pat his hand once before she turned away. She made her way to one of the white circles on the dark green grass and turned to face Summervale as he took his place on the matching circle forty meters from her. Castellaño stood to one side, exactly halfway between them, and raised his voice against the morning breeze.


"Mr. Summervale, Milady, you may chamber."


Honor pulled back the slide, jacking a round into the chamber. The harsh, metallic sound echoed back to her as Summervale followed suit, and she was searingly aware of the hushed stillness. Tattered snatches of conversation came to her, faint and distant, enhancing the quiet rather than breaking it, as vulture-like newsies huddled over their mikes, and Summervale's sneering eyes glittered at her across the shaven grass.


Castellaño drew his pulser and raised his voice once more.


"You have agreed to meet under the Ellington Protocol." He drew a white handkerchief from his pocket and held it up in his left hand, fluttering in the breeze. "When I drop my handkerchief, you will each raise your weapon and fire. Fire will continue until one of you falls or drops your weapon in token of surrender. Should either of those things happen, the other will cease fire immediately. If he or she fails to do so, it will be my duty to stop him or her in any way I can, up to and including the use of deadly force. Do you understand, Mr. Summervale?" Summervale nodded curtly, and Castellaño looked at Honor. "Lady Harrington?"


"Understood," she said quietly.


"Very well. Take your positions."


Summervale turned his right side to Honor, his arm straight down beside him, pointing the muzzle of his weapon at the grass. Honor stood facing him squarely, her own pistol aimed at the ground, and his mouth wrinkled into a snarl of pleasure at the proof of her inexperience. This was going to be even easier than he'd hoped, he thought. The idiot was giving him the entire width of her body as a target, and he felt an ugly little shiver of lust at the thought of pumping his hate into her.


Honor twitched her left eye socket's muscles, bringing up the lowest telescopic setting on her cybernetic eye to watch his face. She saw his snarl, but her own expressionless face mirrored the hollow, singing stillness at her core as white cloth fluttered at the edge of her vision. Tension crackled in the morning air, and even the newsies fell silent as they stared at the motionless tableau.


Castellaño opened his hand. The handkerchief leapt into the air, frisking in the playful breeze, and Denver Summervale's brain glowed with merciless fire as his hand came up. The pistol was an extension of his nerves, rising into the classic duelist's stance with the oiled speed of long practice while his eyes remained fixed on Harrington. His target was graven in his mind, waiting only to merge with his weapon's rising sights, when white flame blossomed from her hand and a spike of Hell slammed into his belly.


He grunted in disbelief, eyes bulging in shock, and the fire flashed again. A second sledgehammer slammed him, centimeters above the agony of the first shot, and astonishment flickered through him. She hadn't raised her hand. She hadn't even raised her hand! She was firing from the hip, and—


A third shot cracked out, and another huge smear of crimson blotted his black tunic. His pistol hand was weighted with iron, and he looked down stupidly at the blood pulsing from his chest.


This couldn't happen. It was impossible for him to—


A fourth shot roared, punching into him less than a centimeter from the third, and he screamed as much in fury as in agony. No! The bitch couldn't kill him! Not before he got even one shot into her!


He looked back up, staring at her, wavering on his feet, and his gun was back at his side. He didn't remember lowering it, and now hers was up in full extension. He stared at her, seeing the wisps of smoke blowing from her muzzle in the breeze, and bared his teeth in hatred. Blood bubbled in his nostrils, his knees began to buckle, but somehow he stayed on his feet and slowly, grimly, fought to bring his gun hand up.


Honor Harrington watched him over the sights of her pistol. She saw the hate on his face, the terrible realization of what had happened, the venomous determination as his pistol wavered up centimeter by agonized centimeter. It was coming up, rising toward firing position while he snarled at her, and there was no emotion at all in her brown eyes as her fifth bullet smashed squarely through the bridge of his nose.


 


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