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Chapter Twenty-Seven

The Earl of North Hollow hunched in his armchair, face white, and clutched a glass of Terran whiskey. Quiet music played from his luxurious suite's hidden speakers, yet he heard nothing but the terrified thudding of his own heart.


God. God! What was he going to do?!


He threw back a swallow of the expensive whiskey. It burned like raw lava and exploded in his belly, and he closed his eyes and scrubbed the cold glass across his sweating forehead.


He couldn't believe how wrong things had gone. That traitorous bastard Tankersley had gone down exactly as planned, and he'd exulted as he savored his triumph over the bitch. He'd hurt her this time. Oh, yes, he'd hurt her, and he'd tasted her pain like sweet, sweet wine. He'd known when Agni departed to take her the news, and he'd counted the hours and treated himself to supper at Cosmo's and a celebratory night with Georgia on the day he calculated word had reached her, then waited in tingling anticipation for her return.


But then she had returned, and the disaster had begun.


How? How had the bitch guessed he'd hired Summervale? Even the media hostile to North Hollow had handled that part of her initial confrontation with the assassin with unwonted care—possibly from an unwillingness to let the bitch use them against him, but more probably from the monumental damages any court might award for libeling a peer. Yet her charges had leaked anyway, and when it reached North Hollow's ears, he'd reviled himself with every curse he could think of for having met personally with the bungling incompetent.


Someone must have seen them. Someone must have known and given—or sold—the information to the bitch or one of her ass-kissing friends. He'd known it was dangerous, but Georgia had assured him Summervale was the best, and his record had certainly seemed to support her claim. When you wanted the best, you had to play by their rules, even if there was an element of risk. That was what he'd told himself when Summervale demanded to meet him face-to-face to close the deal, and he'd done it.


Damn it. Damn it to Hell! He'd been certain someone had seen them and whispered the news in Harrington's ear, but now it might be even worse than that, and the icy breath of space blew through his bones at the thought.


He'd watched the duel. He'd regretted the newsies' failure to get to Harrington sooner, for he'd looked forward to seeing her face and savoring her pain. But he'd told himself it was even better this way. Her elusiveness had been the last ingredient the media needed to whip up a hurricane of speculation and innuendo. They'd played the avenging lover angle to the hilt, turned her into some sort of tragic heroine as she prepared to go up against the fearsome duelist who'd killed the man she loved. North Hollow had laughed out loud at their tear-jerking coverage, because underneath all their emotional blather they'd been working the story for all it was worth. They'd actually taken crews out to the dueling grounds, and he'd leaned back with a glass of fine brandy to watch her destruction in full, glorious color.


But it hadn't worked out that way, and he shuddered as he recalled what had happened. Summervale had moved like a striking serpent while the bitch hadn't seemed to move at all. She'd simply stood there, facing her killer—and then she'd fired before Summervale's gun was halfway into position.


North Hollow's jaw had dropped, his face blanching, as Summervale staggered. The whole thing had happened with blinding speed, yet time had crawled, as well. He'd heard each shot, each separate, explosive burst of sound. He'd seen his highly-paid killer jerking like a marionette as the bullets slammed home, and his eyes had been wide and shocked as Summervale's head exploded with the last round.


It was impossible. It couldn't have happened. Harrington was a Navy officer, for God's sake! Where in hell had she learned to shoot that way?


The question had boiled through his brain, but then one of the news services had replayed the entire event even as the medics hurried forward to do their useless best, and he'd seen something that replaced his shock with terror. One of the cameras had been focused on Harrington, bringing her face so close it filled the HD tank, and North Hollow had seen her expression. He'd seen the icy control worse than any raw hatred, the implacable purpose drained of all emotion, and known he looked upon the face of Death itself.


He'd sat there, trembling, trying to understand, and then the newsies had swarmed onto the field like scavengers. They'd boiled about her, shouting questions and thrusting microphones at her despite the best efforts of the police and her own fucking bodyguards, and she'd handed her pistol to the Marine colonel at her side and looked squarely into the cameras and held up her hand like some sort of goddamned queen.


The newsies' babble had died into silence, and her eyes had seemed to leap out of the HD. They'd stared straight into his soul, and her voice had been just as cold, just as hard, as those liquid helium eyes.


"I'm not taking any questions, ladies and gentlemen," she'd said, "but I do have a short statement."


Someone had tried to shout another question, but even his own fellows had hushed him, and then she'd said it.


"Denver Summervale killed someone I loved. What's happened here today won't bring Paul Tankersley back to me. I know that. Nothing can bring him back, but I can seek justice from the man who had him murdered."


The camera focused on her face had twitched, and confusion had hovered almost visibly over the newsies.


"But, Lady Harrington," someone had said at last, "Captain Tankersley was killed in a duel, and you've just—"


"I know how he died," she'd cut the speaker off. "But Summervale was hired—paid—to kill him." Someone had hissed in surprise. Someone else had uttered a muffled oath as he remembered the reports of her initial exchange with Summervale, and North Hollow had heard his own, frightened whimper hanging in the silence of his luxurious suite.


"I accuse," she'd said, "the Earl of North Hollow of hiring Denver Summervale to kill not merely Paul Tankersley but myself, as well." She'd paused, and her thin smile had frozen North Hollow's blood. "As soon as possible, I will so accuse the Earl in person. Good day, ladies and gentlemen."


* * *


The Duke of Cromarty groaned as he watched the ghastly newscast yet again. Just when he'd thought things were settling down, this had to happen! His switchboard was already swamped by calls from Opposition leaders, all furiously demanding that he do something about Captain Harrington's slanderous accusations, but there wasn't anything he could do. The woman was a lunatic! Didn't she know what would happen when she accused a peer of the realm of hiring a professional killer?!


He switched the HD off and buried his face in his hands. He couldn't feel any sympathy for Denver. He didn't even want to. If anyone ever deserved to die it was Denver, and part of the duke felt only relief that he was finally gone, but having a member of the Prime Minister's family, however disgraced, in the middle of something like this was a serious blow to the Government.


He shuddered at the very thought of how the Opposition might use that once it realized what a weapon it held, but how would North Hollow himself react? The man was fundamentally stupid, yet he had a certain cunning and an instinct for the jugular. The Young family were little more than well born, wealthy thugs, yet they'd acquired an indisputable taste for using their power. Pavel Young was less intelligent—and even more arrogant, hard as that was to believe—than his father had been, but he was certainly ambitious. He'd plunged into the game of schemes and maneuvers with the courage of invincible ignorance, unfettered by any hindering principles, and, so far, his gutter instincts had served him well. He'd astonished far more astute and experienced political tacticians by the way he'd positioned himself in the Lords as a voice of sweet reason, willing, in order to rally the Kingdom in this time of national crisis, to overlook the way the Government had allowed the Navy to vilify him. Cromarty didn't doubt he'd wax too ambitious and destroy himself in time, but he'd played his chosen part to perfection so far, which only made this mess even worse.


The duke straightened in his chair. The logical thing for North Hollow to do was sue for slander, since the law forbade duels between the parties to any litigation. But what if he couldn't sue? What if Harrington was right? What if he had hired Denver—and she had proof of it?


Cromarty frowned, rubbing his palms slowly together before him. If that were the case—and the earl was certainly capable of something just that vicious—then he wouldn't dare resort to the courts. All Harrington had to do was present her evidence to refute the charge of slander, and North Hollow could kiss any possible political power goodbye forever.


But if he didn't sue, what else could he do? There was no mistaking Harrington's threat, and the brutal, astonishing efficiency with which she'd demolished Denver was chilling proof she could make good on it. That she would make good on it the instant she came close enough to North Hollow to challenge him.


Was it possible the earl would refuse the challenge? Cromarty gnawed his lip for a moment, trying to second-guess the imponderables. North Hollow was a coward, but would even that let him refuse to meet her? Proving his cowardice to the entire Kingdom would be as fatal to any career in politics as being proven a murderer, but he might believe that if he met her—and survived the experience—he could survive the scandal, as well. Certainly the Opposition 'faxes would back his efforts to put it behind him; they'd have to, for they would be tarred by their own association with him if the scandal destroyed him.


But he wouldn't live through it. The very thought was ridiculous after watching her cut Denver down, and the way she'd done it was horrifying. That meeting had been an execution, not a duel. Denver had been totally out of his class without ever realizing it; she'd shot him so many times not because she'd had to, but because she'd wanted to.


And if she ever got Pavel Young onto a dueling field, she'd do exactly the same thing to him.


The Duke of Cromarty couldn't remember the last time he'd been physically afraid of someone, but Honor Harrington terrified him. He doubted anyone who saw the record chips would ever forget her expression—her non-expression—as she shot Denver down, and if a Queen's officer took down a peer of the realm the same way—


The duke shuddered, then drew a deep breath and turned to his com. There was only one person who might be able to prevent disaster, and he punched her code into his terminal and waited for the liveried receptionist to answer.


"Mount Royal Palace. How may I—? Oh, good afternoon, Your Grace."


"Good afternoon, Kevin. I need to speak to Her Majesty."


"Just a moment, Your Grace." The receptionist looked down, checking the schedule stored in his database, then frowned. "I'm sorry, Your Grace, but she's closeted with the Zanzibaran ambassador."


"I see." Cromarty leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers under his chin in thought. "When will she be free?" he asked after a moment.


"Not for some time, I'm afraid, Your Grace," the receptionist said, then paused as the duke's expression registered. Elizabeth III didn't pick idiots to screen calls on her private line. "Excuse me, Your Grace, but is this an emergency?"


"I don't know," Cromarty said, and his own admission surprised a wintry smile out of him. It vanished as quickly as it had come, and he lowered his hands to his desk. "It certainly has the potential to become one, at any rate. I think—" He paused again, then nodded. "Interrupt her, Kevin. Tell her I must speak with her as soon as possible."


"Of course, Your Grace. Do you want to hold?"


"Yes, please."


The receptionist nodded and disappeared, replaced by the Star Kingdom's coat of arms, and Cromarty drummed nervously on his desk. Some prime ministers had made themselves monumentally unpopular with their monarchs by disturbing them with things that could have waited. Cromarty knew that, and the fact that he made a practice of not interrupting his Queen unless he absolutely had to was a not inconsequential factor in their close working relationship. It also meant that Elizabeth normally accepted his calls with minimal delay, and he sighed in relief as she appeared on his screen in less than five minutes.


"Allen," she said without preamble.


"Your Majesty."


"I hope this really is important, Allen. The Ambassador is nervous about the notion that our new deployments will pull the picket squadron out of Zanzibar. It's taking more stroking to settle him down than we'd expected."


"I'm sorry, Your Majesty, but I think we may have a situation."


"What sort of 'situation'?" Elizabeth's voice sharpened and her eyes narrowed. "You know I always hate to hear that word from you, Allen!"


"I'm sorry," he repeated, "but I'm afraid it's accurate. Have you seen a news broadcast in the last hour or so?"


"No. I've been tied up with the Ambassador. Why? What's happened?"


"Lady Harrington just killed my cousin Denver." Elizabeth's eyes widened, and Cromarty shook his head. "No, I'm not upset about it. Or, rather, I am, but not because she killed him. You know how he's hurt the family for years, Your Majesty. He took a positively sadistic pleasure in doing it."


"Yes, I do know." Elizabeth's voice was quiet, and she nibbled her lower lip. "I knew they were going to meet, of course. I imagine everyone in the Kingdom did. And, given what you've just said, I won't scruple to tell you that I'm as relieved as I am surprised that she won."


"I think we were all wasting our worry on the wrong party this time, Your Majesty," Cromarty said flatly. "She hit him four times before he could fall, then put a fifth bullet right through his head."


Elizabeth's eyes widened still further, and she pursed her lips in a silent whistle.


"That, however, is the least of our problems," the duke went on. "The media were there in force. They've splashed every gory moment of it over the services on a system-wide hookup—and they've also been carrying Lady Harrington's statement, as well."


"Statement?" The Queen sounded puzzled, and Cromarty nodded.


"Yes, Your Majesty, her statement. She's formally accused the Earl of North Hollow of paying Denver to kill Tankersley—and her."


"My God," Elizabeth whispered, and the duke felt a sort of masochistic satisfaction at her obvious shock. He watched her eyes narrow and waited patiently as the wheels began to turn. It took her less than thirty seconds to run through all the permutations he'd already considered and look squarely back out of the screen at him again.


"Did he?" she asked, and Cromarty shrugged.


"I have no evidence one way or the other, Your Majesty. It's certainly possible, and I very much doubt that Lady Harrington would accuse him unless she had some sort of proof to back it."


Elizabeth nodded, rubbing her cheekbone with a knuckle. "If she does have evidence, she'll act on it." She might have been speaking to herself, but her eyes never looked away from the Prime Minister's. "For that matter, she never would have told the media unless she planned to kill him." She nodded to herself, and her voice sharpened. "How bad will the fallout be if she does?"


"Bad, Your Majesty. Possibly very bad. If she kills him the same way she did Denver, it may even be disastrous." The Prime Minister shivered. "You haven't seen it yet, Your Majesty. I wish I hadn't. If she takes North Hollow out the same way, the Opposition will go mad. We may be looking at a crisis even worse than the declaration fight."


"Damage control?" the Queen asked crisply.


"Difficult, but not impossible—maybe. We'll probably lose the Conservative Association, whatever happens, but we've brought in almost enough Progressives to offset that, and the New Men are on our team, at least for now. The Liberals are almost certain to join the Conservatives in demanding Harrington's head. Even if we give it to them, they'll probably go even further into Opposition. If we don't give it to them, the Progressives will go with them. Even in the best case, this is going to hurt us badly, Your Majesty."


"But your majority will survive?"


"If we give them Harrington it will, Your Majesty. Or I think it will, at any rate. I can't be certain. At this point, I can't even begin to guess how the Commons will react. Harrington's been almost a patron saint to them ever since Basilisk, but with something like this—"


He shrugged, and Elizabeth frowned. He let her think about it for several seconds, then cleared his throat.


"I see only one optimum solution, Your Majesty," he said.


"Really?" The Queen chuckled without humor. "I fail to see anything 'optimum' about this one, Allen!"


"I happen to know that Earl White Haven has already ordered Lady Harrington not to pursue a challenge to North Hollow," the duke began, "and—"


"Ordered her?" Elizabeth's face hardened, and a dangerous sparkle crept into her eyes. "He ordered her not to challenge him?"


"Yes, Your Majesty, he—"


"He violated the Articles of War is what he did!" Elizabeth snapped. "If North Hollow were still a serving officer he would have been within his rights, but he doesn't have a leg to stand on in this case! Dame Honor would be fully justified in filing charges against him."


"I realize that, Your Majesty." Cromarty realized he was sweating and made himself not wipe his forehead. He recognized the signs, and Elizabeth III in a temper was not something he cared to confront. "I believe," he went on carefully, "he was concerned with the consequences to her career. And while he undoubtedly exceeded his authority, his concern was certainly justified."


"And Hamish Alexander has always been willing to ignore the rules when he thought he was right," the Queen added in a flat voice.


"Well, yes, Your Majesty. But he generally is right, and I don't think, in this case, that we—"


"Oh, stop defending him, Allen!" Elizabeth brooded in silence for a long minute, then shrugged. "I don't like it—and you can tell him so for me—but you're probably right. It's not my affair unless Dame Honor does elect to file charges."


"Yes, Your Majesty." Cromarty managed to hide his relief and leaned toward his pickup. "But the point I was going to make is that he was right, both about the effect on her career and about the political fallout." Elizabeth nodded unwillingly, and the duke put on his most persuasive expression. "Since he was right, and since Dame Honor clearly has no intention of accepting his arguments or his order, I thought perhaps—"


"Stop right there." The hardness was back in Elizabeth's eyes. "If you're going to suggest that I order her to drop it, you can forget it."


"But, Your Majesty, the consequences—"


"I said I won't do it, Allen."


"But perhaps if you simply spoke to her, Your Majesty. If you explained the situation and just asked her not to—"


"No." The single word came out flat and cold, and Cromarty closed his mouth. He knew that tone. The Queen looked at him for a moment, her eyes harder than ever, but then her face softened and a strange expression crossed it, one almost of shame.


"I won't pressure her, Allen." Elizabeth's voice was very quiet. "I can't. If I asked her not to, she probably wouldn't, and it would be utterly unfair to her. If we'd done our job in the first place, North Hollow would have been convicted of cowardice. We wouldn't have cashiered him, Allen; we would've shot him, and none of this would have happened."


"You know why we couldn't, Your Majesty," Cromarty said softly.


"Yes, I do, and it doesn't make me feel one bit better. We failed her, Allen. It's already cost her the man she loved, and it's our fault. My God, if this Kingdom ever owed any of its subjects justice, it was her, and we didn't give it to her." She shook her head. "No, Allen. If this is the only way Dame Honor can finish the job we should have done, I won't stop her."


"Please, Your Majesty. If not to avoid the political consequences, think of the effect on her. There won't be any way we can protect her. She'll lose her career, and we'll lose one of our most outstanding young captains."


"Do you think Dame Honor doesn't know that?" Elizabeth asked softly. Her eyes demanded the truth, and Cromarty shook his head silently. "Nor do I. And if she knows the price and she's willing to pay it, I'm not going to tell her she can't. And neither are you, Allen Summervale. I forbid you to pressure her in any way, and you tell Earl White Haven the same goes for him."


 



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