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Chapter Twenty-Eight

Admiral Sir Thomas Caparelli put on a pleasant expression as his personal yeoman opened his office door. The Earl of White Haven walked past the petty officer with a courteous if absentminded nod, and Caparelli rose behind his desk to extend a hand.


White Haven gripped it, then took a chair at a gesture. Caparelli settled into his own chair and tipped it back while he regarded his guest and made a mental bet on the reason for this visit. He and White Haven seldom met except on professional matters, for there was little love lost between them. The First Space Lord respected the earl, but he'd never liked him much, and he was well aware White Haven felt the same way about him. Which made it unlikely the other man was here for social reasons.


"Thank you for seeing me on such short notice," White Haven said, and Caparelli shrugged.


"You're the second in command of Home Fleet, Admiral. When you ask to see me, I assume you have a reason. What can I do for you?"


"I'm afraid it's a bit complicated." White Haven ran a hand through his dark, white-streaked hair, and Caparelli blinked. One of the things he most disliked about White Haven was his unflappable (and usually justified, damn it) self-confidence. He wasn't used to seeing the earl uncertain or nervous. Angry, yes, and sometimes savagely sarcastic with slower thinkers, but nervous?


The First Space Lord made himself wait, saying nothing, his courteous expression attentive, and White Haven sighed.


"It's about Lady Harrington," he said, and Caparelli nodded inside as he won his bet.


"I assume," he chose his words with care, "that what you actually mean is that it's about Lady Harrington and Pavel Young."


"You assume correctly." White Haven seemed to realize he was still running his hand through his hair and stopped with a sour twist of his lips. "I attempted to reason with her when I realized what she— No," he shook his head with a bitter self-reproach Caparelli had never seen from him, "I didn't try to reason with her; I lectured her. In fact," he met the First Space Lord's eyes, "I ordered her not to meet Young."


"You ordered an officer not to meet a civilian in a duel?" Caparelli couldn't keep his eyebrows down, and White Haven shrugged. He looked angry—at himself, not at anyone else or even at having made that admission to someone who'd never been his friend.


"Yes," he growled, and pounded the arm of his chair gently. "If I'd had a gram of sense, I would've realized that was only going to—" He cut himself off and shook his head again. "I realize I was out of line, but I couldn't just stand by and watch her destroy her career. And you and I both know that's exactly will happen if she kills him."


Caparelli nodded, wishing he could argue the point. It was just like White Haven to try ordering Harrington off Young, but in this case the First Space Lord found himself in unwilling agreement with the earl about the consequences. And while he might have been prepared to be prejudiced against a White Haven protégée on general principles, the thought of losing an officer of Harrington's caliber at a time like this was a depressing one.


"Well, it didn't work," White Haven admitted heavily, "and the way I came at it guarantees I can't go back and convince her to see reason."


"Assuming it would be 'reason' from her viewpoint," Caparelli said. White Haven looked up sharply, and the First Space Lord shrugged. "I've heard her allegations. Assuming they're valid—and I think they are—then I'd want exactly the same thing in her place. Wouldn't you?"


White Haven looked away. He said nothing, but his very silence replied for him, and Caparelli frowned. It looked as if the earl was trying to convince himself he wouldn't have wanted what Harrington did, and self-deception wasn't like him.


"At any rate," the First Space Lord said before the silence grew too uncomfortable, "I suppose you've come to me in hopes I can do something?" White Haven nodded unwillingly, as if he hated admitting he was asking for help, and Caparelli sighed. "I sympathize, My Lord, and I don't want to lose her either, but she's within her legal rights."


"I know." White Haven chewed his lip, and his sense of duty warred with his emotions. Cromarty had passed along the Queen's message—and its explicit warning—but he couldn't just sit by. Besides, what he had in mind wasn't the same thing as pressuring Harrington. Not quite.


"I realize that no one has the command authority to stop her," he said after a moment, "but I've been reading the background briefs on our operations beyond Santander. We're going to need battlecruisers out there any day now."


He fell silent, eyes intent on the First Space Lord, and Caparelli scowled. He didn't like what he was hearing, but he liked the prospect of watching Harrington self-destruct even less.


"Are you willing to give up Nike?" he asked, and White Haven grimaced.


"I'll give up the entire Fifth Squadron if I have to," he said flatly.


"But Nike's still under repair," Caparelli murmured. He turned to his terminal and tapped keys, and his screen blinked obediently. "She won't even leave the yard for another two weeks, and then she'll have to work up again." He shook his head. "We're looking at a month before we could deploy her. The way Harrington's pushing this thing, I doubt that would be soon enough."


"We could transfer her to another ship," White Haven said, manifestly unhappy with his own suggestion but making it nonetheless.


"No, we couldn't." Caparelli cut the idea down in its tracks. "We have no cause to take Nike away from her—not yet, anyway." He met White Haven's imploring gaze sternly despite his unwilling sympathy. "What you're suggesting—what we're suggesting—is already highly improper, but Nike's our best battlecruiser command; taking her away from Harrington could only be seen as a demotion. And even if that weren't true, it would be a dead giveaway of what we're really after." He shook his head again. "No, My Lord. I'll cut her orders for Santander ASAP, but that's as far as I'll go. As far as I can go. Is that understood?"


"Yes, Sir." White Haven closed his eyes, his face oddly exhausted and worn, then opened them again. "Yes, Sir. I understand. And . . . thank you."


Caparelli nodded. He wanted to mark it down as a favor the earl owed him, but he couldn't. In fact, he felt a bit uncomfortable at being thanked when he could do so little.


"Don't mention it, My Lord," he said gruffly. He rose, terminating the interview, and held out his hand again. "I'll get together with Pat Givens and have the orders cut this afternoon. I'll also have a word with Admiral Cheviot and try to get Nike's repairs expedited. If his yard dogs can get her out of the slip soon enough, recommissioning her may keep Lady Harrington too occupied to do anything drastic before we get her out-system. At any rate, we'll give it our best shot, I promise."


* * *


Willard Neufsteiler shaded his eyes against the Landing sun as the air limo slid toward him. It touched down on Pad Three atop Brancusi Tower, and a man in a jade-green tunic and trousers of lighter green climbed out to scan his surroundings before he stepped aside for a tall, black-and-gold-uniformed woman. Two more bodyguards fell in at her heels, forming a hollow, protective triangle about her, and Neufsteiler waved as she started toward him.


He was frankly amazed Dame Honor had managed to make it ground-side without the media finding out, but she seemed to be developing her own way of dealing with newsies. Or perhaps it was simpler than that. After watching her in action, they might just be frightened of crowding her.


Her handshake was firm when she reached him, but he felt a pang of sorrow as he saw her face. The laughing joy of their supper at Cosmo's had died with Paul Tankersley, and even the 'cat on her shoulder was subdued and tense. She looked neither broken nor defeated, yet there was a bleakness, a sense of ice under the surface, and something else he couldn't quite put a finger on: a strange, electric shiver that defied identification. It wasn't his fault he didn't recognize it; he'd never stood on a command deck with Captain Harrington when she took her ship into battle.


He led the way to a lift and punched a destination.


"It's such a lovely day," he said, waving a hand at the golden, sunlit city beyond the transparent lift wall as it sped down the outside of the tower, "that I thought we might meet in Regiano's, if that's all right with you, Dame Honor. I've reserved an upper section to insure privacy."


Honor looked at him. He met her eyes with the half-hidden worry she'd grown too accustomed to seeing in the faces about her, and the effort he'd put into making his voice light was almost painful. She wished her friends would stop fretting. There was nothing they could do, and their concern was one more burden she longed to shed, but she made herself smile.


"That sounds fine, Willard," she said.


"Excuse me, My Lady, but that's a security risk." Neufsteiler blinked in surprise as the auburn-haired head of Dame Honor's guards protested in a soft, foreign accent. "We haven't had time to check out the restaurant."


"I think we can live with that, Andrew."


"My Lady, you've warned this North Hollow you're coming for him." There was a stubborn edge in Major LaFollet's voice. "It would solve his problem neatly if something happened to you first."


Neufsteiler blinked. Was the man suggesting what Neufsteiler thought he was suggesting?


"The same idea had occurred to me," Honor replied quietly, "but I don't plan on jumping at shadows. Besides, no one knew we were coming. Even the newsies missed us this time around."


"The fact that we think no one knows is no proof they don't, My Lady, and you're not exactly the hardest person to identify if someone sees you. Please, I'd feel much better if you stuck to your original schedule and met in Mr. Neufsteiler's offices."


"Dame Honor, if you think it would be better—" Neufsteiler began, but she shook her head.


"I think it might be safer, Willard, but that doesn't necessarily make it better." She smiled and touched her chief armsman's shoulder. "Major LaFollet is determined to keep me alive." The edge of fondness in her voice surprised Neufsteiler, and he watched her give the Grayson a gentle shake. "We're still working on how much veto right that gives him—aren't we, Andrew?"


"I'm not asking for veto right, My Lady. All I want is a little commonsense caution."


"Which I'm willing to give you, within limits." Honor released LaFollet's shoulder, but her smile didn't fade. Nimitz raised his ears, cocking his head to regard the major with bright green eyes, and she felt the armsman's frustration-tinged concern for her through her link to the 'cat. "I know I'm a trial to you, Andrew, but I've spent my entire life going where I wanted without armed guards. I'm willing to admit I can't get away with that any longer, but there are limits to the precautions I'm willing to take."


LaFollet opened his mouth, then hesitated, visibly reconsidering his words, and sighed. "You're my Steadholder, My Lady," he said. "If you want to go to a restaurant, we'll go, and I hope I'm worrying about nothing. But if anything does happen, I expect you to take my orders."


He gave her a mulish look, and she nibbled her lower lip as she gazed back down at him. Then she nodded. "All right, Andrew. If something happens, you're in charge. I'll even put up with your telling me 'I told you so.' "


"Thank you, My Lady. I hope you don't have to," LaFollet said. Honor patted his shoulder again, then looked back at Neufsteiler.


"In the meantime, Willard, where are we on our Grayson funds transfer?"


"Um, we're doing fine, Milady," Neufsteiler had to give himself a mental shake at the change of subject, "though I'm afraid the transaction was a bit more complicated than you apparently assumed. Since you're a Manticoran subject and your major financial holdings are here, you're technically subject to Manticoran corporate taxes even on out-system investments. There are ways around that, however, and I've already transferred four million to Regent Clinkscales. I drew up the incorporation papers under Grayson law; that let us take advantage of the most-favored-nation status and the tax credit incentives the Crown has extended to Grayson. In combination, that was enough to get us off with no tax burden at all on this one, but it put us right at the limit for a single-investor project, unless we can get a special exemption from the Exchequer. I think we can, under the circumstances, but given your status as steadholder, it might not be a bad idea to transfer everything to Grayson. I'm still looking at your steading's fiscal structure, but there are two or three very interesting Grayson tax provisions that—"


Honor nodded, reaching up to stroke Nimitz and listening with half her attention while the lift whizzed down the five-hundred-story tower and she stared out at the Star Kingdom's thriving capital. She knew her memory would play it all back for her, word for word, when she needed to think about it. Just now she had other things on her mind, and as long as Willard was satisfied with his financial maneuvers, she could concentrate on what really mattered.


* * *


Regiano's was a high-ceilinged, airy restaurant that sprawled up and down through a five-story atrium. It fell midway between Dempsey's and Cosmo's for sheer swank, but it had a lively yet relaxed air all its own, and if its staff weren't accustomed to seeing Sphinx treecats for lunch, they'd recovered quickly. No one had suggested anything about leaving pets at the door, and they'd produced a highchair for him with commendable speed. Besides, the food was good. It was not the "authentic Old Earth Italian" cuisine Regiano's owners claimed—Honor had met real Italian cooking and knew the difference—but it was tasty enough for her to forgive them, and their wine cellar was excellent.


She sat back to let the waiter remove her plate and sipped a glass of the house rosé. Its pleasant little bite suggested a Sphinx vineyard, and she let it roll over her tongue while she waited for the waiters to complete their duties and disappear.


She and her companions sat on a platform of polished golden oak that floated eight meters above the floor. She couldn't decide whether the architect had used grav plates under the platform or corner tractors from the overhead. It could have been either, for there were no other platforms directly above or beneath, but it didn't really matter. The hovering effect was pleasant, and its position gave them both the privacy of isolation and a commanding lookout post for Andrew LaFollet.


She looked over her shoulder at the major and felt a pang of remorse. He and his men hadn't eaten, and they couldn't quite hide their unhappiness. The very things that made her table's position so pleasant also brought it into clear sight of everyone. LaFollet had done his very best not to wince when he looked at all the possible sightlines, but his unhappy acceptance made her feel a little guilty. She supposed any good security officer required a streak of paranoia, and she made a mental note to keep that in mind for the future. There was no point in distressing someone so obviously devoted to her well-being as long as she could compromise without feeling like a prisoner.


The last waiter vanished down the platform stairs, and she lowered her glass and looked at Neufsteiler. They'd finished all her official business over lunch; now it was time for the real purpose of her visit.


"Well?" she asked quietly.


Neufsteiler glanced around, checking for eavesdroppers out of sheer instinct, then shrugged.


"You can't get to him, Milady," he said, equally quietly. "He's holed up in his official residence, and he's only coming out to visit the Lords."


Honor frowned and ran an index finger up and down the stem of her wineglass while she berated herself. There were advantages to the approach she'd taken—at the very least, the entire Kingdom knew what North Hollow had attempted—but she'd also warned him of what she intended, and he'd done the one thing she hadn't counted on.


He was hiding from her, and it was proving surprisingly effective. As long as he refused to sue for slander, she might as well not even have her illegal recording, unless she chose to hand it directly to the media, and that could have disastrous consequences for the people who'd obtained it for her. And as long as he avoided meeting her face-to-face, no one could accuse him of declining her challenge. He was trying to wait her out, counting on the Navy to order her out of the home system sooner or later, and she wondered if he'd heard about the orders the Admiralty had already cut. She had five days, possibly six before Nike left the slip; after that, she'd either have to resign her commission or buckle down to her duties and give up on him for the present.


It was the coward's approach, but that shouldn't have surprised her. And, in the meantime, the Opposition 'faxes were playing the refrain she'd half expected. Most were doing their best to turn her into some sort of ravening monster, lashing out at her old enemy in pure hatred without a scrap of proof, but the more dangerous ones simply oozed sympathy for her. She'd been through so much, lost the man she loved in the brutal senselessness of a duel—a practice it was past time the Kingdom outlawed, anyway—and she wasn't thinking clearly. Who could blame her for striking out in her pain? Captain Tankersley's death had been a tragedy, and it was as understandable as it was irrational for her to want to blame someone, anyone, for it. Yet that didn't mean she was right to blame the Earl of North Hollow, and readers should remember all that had already passed between them and remind themselves that the earl was also a victim. The fact that she blamed him for it—yes, and truly believed she was right—didn't necessarily make him guilty; it simply meant she was prepared to see him as the enemy when she needed a target so desperately. In the absence of conclusive proof, he must be extended the presumption of innocence, and his own, cool-headed refusal to pour fresh fuel on the fire was to be applauded.


Nimitz bleeked softly as he caught the bitter trend of her emotions, and she drew herself back. She gave the 'cat a gentle, apologetic caress and lifted him into her lap, and he responded with a forgiving purr as she returned to her reflections with determined dispassion.


The Opposition's efforts went on and on, she thought, and this time the Government 'faxes were silent on her behalf. She couldn't blame them for that. Whatever happened, the political fallout was going to be brutal. They had no choice but to distance themselves from it, especially when the Opposition was practically praying they wouldn't, and she'd discovered she could accept that. Indeed, a part of her was glad. This was between her and Pavel Young; she didn't want anyone to intervene.


"Are you certain he's not coming out at all?" she asked finally.


"Positive." Neufsteiler leaned toward her, his voice even lower. "We've gotten someone inside his staff, Milady. He's only a chauffeur, but he's in a position to see all their movement schedules."


"I've got to get to him," she murmured. "There has to be some time—even if it's only for a few minutes—when I can catch him. All I need is long enough to issue the challenge, Willard." She paused, frowning down into her wine. "If he's going to Parliament, then maybe what we need is someone inside that end of the pipeline. He's got to be moving around the building. If we can get hold of his schedule, then maybe—"


"Milady, I'll try," Neufsteiler sighed, "but the odds are mighty long. He knows you're hunting him, and he's got the advantage of being planet-side all the time. Getting his schedule with enough advance warning for you to get down here and take advantage of it . . . ?" He shook his head, then sighed again. "Well, we're already spending over eighty thousand a day on it; a few more operatives won't pad the bill by that much."


"Good man. In that case, I think—"


"Down!"


A hand like a steel claw fastened on Honor's shoulder, and her eyes popped wide in surprise as Andrew LaFollet snatched her backward. Her chair flew across the platform and arced toward the atrium floor, and LaFollet was already hurling her under the table. She'd never imagined he had that sort of strength, and she grunted as his weight came down on top of her.


Nimitz had catapulted from her lap an instant before LaFollet grabbed her, warned by the armsman's suddenly peaking emotions, and she heard the tearing-canvas sound of his war cry as she hit the floor. Berserk rage flooded down her link to him, and she managed to reach out and snatch him close an instant before he could hurl himself to attack whatever threatened them.


It was as well she had, for her mind was still trying to catch up with what was happening when she heard the snarling whine of a pulser. Explosive darts ripped their way up the stairs the waiters had used—the stairs Nimitz would have used—and shredded the end of the dining platform, and Neufsteiler cried out as a jagged splinter drove into his back. Then Candless was there, jerking her financial agent out of the line of fire, and a pulser had appeared in his other hand. She tried to rise, still struggling to control a snarling, hissing treecat with one hand, and LaFollet smashed her back flat with an elbow and a snarled curse the instant she started to move. Stars spangled her vision, his weight shifted on her back, and a pulser whined in her very ear as the patrons' screams and shouts began at last.


She turned her head, dimly aware that she was gasping for breath from how hard LaFollet had hurled her down, and saw her chief armsman's solid darts rip through a human body in a spray of blood. A sawed-off pulse rifle flew through the air as LaFollet's target went down, but someone was still firing. A body fell heavily beside her, and LaFollet rolled off her and went to one knee, gray eyes merciless as he laid his pulser barrel over his forearm and blew another victim apart. Candless took a third gunman down, then a fourth, and suddenly the firing was over and there was only the bedlam of panicked human beings as they stampeded for the exits.


"Shit!" LaFollet was on his feet, pulser weaving like a serpent as he tried in vain to draw another bead. She started to push up to her knees, and he didn't even look at her. "Stay down, My Lady! There were at least two more of them. I think they're using the crowd for cover to get out of here, but if they try another shot—"


She went flat again, still clutching Nimitz. But the 'cat's fury was ebbing as he realized Honor was safe. She released him cautiously, and he whirled to check her, then leapt up on the table and crouched there, still hissing and ready to attack but under control.


Honor breathed a sigh of relief and turned quickly to crawl toward Armsman Howard. The young man's face was gray as he tried with one hand to staunch the blood spurting from his thigh, but his gun hand was still up, his pulser ready even as his eyes glazed. She felt herself beginning to tremble at last, but her mind was amazingly clear. She stripped her belt purse from under her tunic and looped the strap about his leg above the wound. It must have been another flying splinter, not a direct hit, her brain said dispassionately; he still had a leg, and he gasped as she jerked the crude tourniquet tight. Then he sighed and slumped sideways, but the arterial spurt had slowed and stopped, and she caught up his pulser and crawled over to Neufsteiler.


The financier was moaning in pain, and a raw-looking stump of wood stood out of his right shoulder like a stubby arrow. She caught his head, twisting it around to look into his eyes, then sighed in relief. They were dark with pain and terror, but clear, with no sign of shock, and she patted his cheek.


"Hang on, Willard. Help's on its way," she murmured, and looked back up as LaFollet lowered his pulser at last. The armsman surveyed the carnage that had once been a pleasant restaurant and drew a deep, shaky breath.


"I think we made it, My Lady." He went to one knee beside Howard and checked Honor's tourniquet, then felt the young man's pulse. "Good work with that belt, My Lady. We might have lost him without it."


"And it would have been my fault," Honor said quietly. LaFollet turned his head, and she met his eyes squarely. "I should have listened to you."


"Well, to be perfectly honest, I didn't really think he'd try something this brazen myself," LaFollet said, and Honor nodded. Neither of them doubted for a moment who'd been behind it. "I was just being cautious, and, for that matter, you were right, My Lady. He couldn't have had them waiting for us, or they'd have tried sooner. In fact, it was seeing them come in together and how hard they were scanning the crowd that caught my attention." The major shook his head. "He must have had them on standby, just waiting for someone to tell them where to find you. We were lucky, My Lady."


"No, Major. I was lucky; you were good. Very good, all of you. Remind me to think about raises all around when Willard's patched up."


LaFollet's eyes crinkled at the humor in her voice. It wasn't much, but it was more than most people could have managed, and he pointed an index finger at her.


"Don't worry about raises, My Lady. We're all indecently rich by Grayson standards already. But the next time I give you some advice, promise to spend at least a few minutes considering that I might be right."


"Aye, aye, Sir," she said, and rose to her knees in Howard's blood as the first police officers came rushing into the wreckage below with drawn weapons.


 



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