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Chapter Thirty

The Earl of North Hollow squirmed, trying to get comfortable in the luxurious chair. He failed, but perhaps that was because his discomfort wasn't physical. Cool air drifted about him, and the quiet of the House of Lords was broken only by the woman standing to address her colleagues.


North Hollow surveyed the speaker with coldly contemptuous eyes. Lady Greenriver was thin as a rail, with a voice that was anything but musical. She was also one of the few nonaligned peers who enjoyed near universal respect, and she'd been gassing away in support of the special additional military appropriation for over fifteen minutes. Which, given her voice and looks, was fourteen and a half minutes too long.


Who cared about the appropriation, anyway? The damned Navy could piss in a vac suit, as far as North Hollow was concerned. It wasn't going to be a roll call vote, so he could vent a little spleen by voting against it without anyone knowing, and he intended to do just that. Fuck them. Fuck them all. He knew how the Fleet must be delighting in the fresh humiliation the bitch was inflicting upon him. Well, let them. He was building his own political machine, and once the bitch was out of the way—


His thoughts broke. The bitch. It always came back to her, and he could no longer lie even to himself. He was terrified of her. He felt like a hunted rabbit, dashing from one bit of cover to another, and there were jokes—jokes about him—in the cloakrooms. He knew it; he'd seen the way conversations broke off when he appeared, then resumed about some utterly inconsequential subject. Even here the bitch could reach him, destroy him. She'd already taken away his Navy career; now she was hounding him again when she should already be dead, damn her to hell!


He closed his eyes, and damp hands clenched into fists. She was like some monster out of myth—like a hydra. He hacked and hacked at her, until anything human would have lain down and died, and every time the bitch simply climbed back to her feet and came after him again. She wasn't a hydra; she was Juggernaut, rumbling along on his heels, pursuing him remorselessly until he stumbled and fell and she could crush him at last, and—


He clenched his fists tighter, and forced his breathing to slow until the panic attack retreated into sick, roiling nausea.


She wasn't Juggernaut, damn it! She was mortal, not mythical—and anything that was mortal could be killed. Those incompetent fuckers might have missed her at Regiano's, but sooner or later someone else would get lucky, and Georgia could go fuck herself if she thought she was going to talk him out of having Harrington killed! He wanted her dead. He wanted her rotting in the ground so he could piss on her grave, because until she was dead he was a prisoner. He could only hide in his residence or cower here behind Parliament's security while she walked around heaping contempt upon his name.


The bitch. The puking, baseborn bitch! Who the hell did she think she was to hound him this way?! Why, his family could have bought and sold hers a dozen times over before she started rolling in her fucking prize money! She was nothing, just one more yeoman slut, and a deeply hidden part of him hated her most of all for the contempt he'd seen in her eyes the first day they ever met. She'd been a fuzzy-haired, homely, stupid commoner, yet she'd dared to look at him without awe, without fear. With contempt.


His teeth grated, but at least Greenriver was sitting down at last. He tried to find some comfort in the blessed silence of her grating voice, then checked the huge time display above the Speaker's desk. Another three hours and he could leave. His mouth twisted afresh at the thought. Leave. The other lords could take themselves off to their clubs, to restaurants, or the theater. No madwomen were waiting to kill them. But the Earl of North Hollow could only scurry out to his limousine, race home to his residence, and hide there the same way he'd hidden here, and—


His thoughts hiccuped as the House doors opened. There was some sort of stir down there, and he frowned as he shifted position to watch. Someone was talking to the Sergeant-At-Arms—someone wearing the red-embroidered black of formal robes over one of the chivalrous order's scarlet and gold splendor. The Sergeant seemed confused, from the way he was shaking his head, but the newcomer waved an insistent arm, and the Sergeant gestured to the Speaker.


The unusual commotion piqued North Hollow's interest despite his frustration and fear. No one else in the House chamber wore formal robes, for this was a regular working session. Full regalia was trotted out only on ceremonial occasions like the Address from the Throne or for a new peer's maiden speech, and he couldn't remember seeing any new names on the roster.


He brought the day's agenda up on the terminal at his ornate desk, but it offered no clues. And now the Speaker himself was striding over to the door.


North Hollow's forehead creased, but at least the disruption was something different, and he could use any diversion that offered. He watched the Speaker reach the newcomer and stop dead, then wheel on the Sergeant with a quick, choppy wave of his hands. The Sergeant spread his arms, eloquently disclaiming any responsibility, and North Hollow chuckled at the comedy playing out before him. The Speaker confronted the newcomer, shaking his head adamantly, but then the headshakes stopped. He folded his arms, cocking his head to one side and listening intently, then nodded with slow, manifest unwillingness. The newcomer said something else, and the Speaker nodded again, then threw his hands up in disgust as the newcomer made some additional point.


Buzzing conversation echoed around the chamber, and some of the peers were rising and flowing toward the door. North Hollow saw the closest ones stop dead exactly as the Speaker had, then wheel back to the peers behind them, gesticulating and muttering animatedly, and some were looking back at those of their colleagues who were still seated. North Hollow had shunned any close association with his fellows ever since Harrington leveled her charges, but now his own curiosity was roused. He pushed himself up out of his seat, then stopped as the Speaker stepped out of the knot of bodies. He returned to his desk, and his spine was stiff with either outrage or anger.


North Hollow sank back into his chair as the clot around the door began to shed bodies, and the Speaker seated himself behind his desk with an angry flounce. He picked up his ceremonial gavel and pounded it on the rest under the microphone. The sharp, jarring impacts echoed through the chamber, and he leaned towards his own microphone.


"Be seated, My Lords and Ladies," his voice boomed, and North Hollow had never heard just that note from the Speaker. The gavel fell again, so hard the handle cracked and the head flew up to rattle against the mike. "Be seated, My Lords and Ladies!" the Speaker repeated even more loudly, and the sound of his voice chivvied the peers back to their places like frightened birds.


The buzz of conversation died, and the Speaker stared out at the chamber. He waited for total silence, then cleared his throat.


"My Lords and Ladies, I crave your indulgence," he said harshly, not sounding as if he craved anything of the sort. "I apologize for this interruption of your deliberations, but under the rules of this House, I have no choice." He turned his head, almost as if against his will, to look toward the robed figure at the door, then turned back to his microphone.


"I have just been reminded," he announced, "of a seldom used rule. It is customary—" he turned to glare at the newcomer again "—for new peers to send decent notice to this House, and to be sponsored, before taking their place among us. Under certain circumstances, however, including the exigencies of the Queen's Service, new members may be delayed in taking their seats or, as I have just been reminded, may appear before us at a time convenient to them if their duty to the Crown will make it impossible for them to appear at one convenient to the House as a whole."


North Hollow rubbed his beard, wondering what in hell the Speaker was talking about. Exigencies of the Queen's Service?


"That rule has just been invoked, My Lords and Ladies," the Speaker said heavily. "A member who wishes to make her maiden address to the House informs me this may be her last opportunity for some months due to the demands of the Service. As such, I have no choice but to permit this irregularity."


The buzzing mutter was back, louder than ever, and heads were turning to peer toward the rear of the House. No, not toward the rear, North Hollow realized. They were peering at him, and sudden dread gripped him as the Speaker gestured to the robed newcomer.


The stranger crossed to stand before the Speaker's desk, then turned to face the House. Her hands went up, drawing back the blood-red cowl of the Knights of the Order of King Roger, and Pavel Young lunged up out of his seat with a strangled cry of horror as Honor Harrington smiled coldly up at him.


* * *


Honor's hands trembled in the concealing folds of her robes as she let them fall back to her sides, but she hardly noticed. Her eyes were locked on Pavel Young as he jerked to his feet, his face white with sudden understanding. His head whipped about, like a trapped animal searching desperately for escape, but there was none. This time he couldn't run away, not without everyone in this chamber knowing that he'd run. And, perhaps even more terrifying to a man like him, his only exit route would have brought him within arm's reach of her.


Hate boiled within her, battering her with the need to attack him physically, but she simply folded her hands before her and let her eyes move across the rest of the seated peers. Some of them looked as horrified as Young; others simply seemed confused, and a very few were watching her with narrow, alert eyes. The House's judicial air had shattered like so much fragile glass, and the Sergeant-At-Arms moved closer to her, as if he feared he might have to restrain her forcibly. She felt the uncertainty shudder about her, as if they sensed the hunger of the predator who had suddenly appeared among them.


"My Lords and Ladies," she said finally, her soprano rising clearly amid the quivering tension, "I apologize to this House for the unseemly fashion in which I have interrupted its proceedings. But, as the Speaker has said, my ship is under orders to depart Manticore as soon as her repairs and working up period are completed. The demands of restoring a Queen's ship to full efficiency will be a heavy burden on my time, and, of course, my departure from the system will make it impossible for me to appear before you after my ship is once more ready for deployment."


She paused, tasting the silence and savoring the terror that hovered almost visibly above Pavel Young, and drew a deep breath.


"I cannot in good conscience leave Manticore, however, without discharging one of the gravest duties any peer owes to Her Majesty, this House, and the Realm as a whole. Specifically, My Lords and Ladies, it is my duty to inform you that one of your members has, by his own actions, not only demonstrated that he is unfit to sit among you but made himself a reproach to and a slur upon the very honor of the Kingdom."


Someone blurted a chopped-off exclamation of disbelief, as if unable to credit her sheer effrontery, but her calm, clear voice was like a wizard's spell. They knew what she was going to say, yet no one could move. They could only sit there, staring at her, and she felt the power of the moment like fire in her veins.


"My Lords and Ladies, there is among you a man who has conspired at murder rather than face his enemies himself. A would-be rapist, a coward, and a man who hired a paid duelist to kill another. A man who sent armed thugs into a public restaurant only two days ago to murder someone else and failed in his purpose by the narrowest margin." The spell was beginning to fray. Peers began to rise, their voices starting to sound in protest, but her soprano cut through the stir like a knife, and her eyes were fixed on Pavel Young.


"My Lords and Ladies, I accuse Pavel Young, Earl North Hollow, of murder and attempted murder. I accuse him of the callous and unforgivable abuse of power, of cowardice in the face of the enemy, of attempted rape, and of being unfit not simply for the high office he holds but for life itself. I call him coward and scum, beneath the contempt of honest and upright subjects of this Kingdom, whose honor is profaned by his mere presence among them, and I challenge him, before you all, to meet me upon the field of honor, there to pay once and for all for his acts!"


 


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