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Chapter Thirty-One

"Well, she doesn't do anything by halves, does she?" Bitter amusement colored William Alexander's voice, and the Duke of Cromarty fought an urge to snarl at him.


"You might put it that way, I suppose," he said instead. He shook his head angrily, then opened the balcony's sliding doors. Alexander followed him out into the breezy dark, and the two of them stood three hundred stories above the streets of Landing. Air car running lights drifted like rainbow bubbles beneath a huge moon, and black-barred banks of moon-silvered cloud gathered on the damp breath of approaching rain. Distant lightning flickered somewhere along the eastern rim of the world, and the capital's lights glittered below them. More rivers of light swept up the flanks of other towers, like the carelessly spilled jewels of some elvish queen, and the Prime Minister stared at them as if an answer hid among their beauty.


But there was no answer. Honor Harrington had snatched events totally out of his hands. Queen Elizabeth might have forbidden anyone to pressure Harrington, but Cromarty had known the fix was in. The civilian government and Navy alike had conspired to save her by keeping her from North Hollow's throat, yet she'd found her way to him despite the odds against her.


"Do you know," Alexander murmured in the darkness, "I still can't believe she had the sheer gall."


"I doubt North Hollow believed it, either." Cromarty leaned on the railing, filling his lungs with cool night air while breeze ruffled his hair.


"He wouldn't have been there if he had," Alexander agreed. The Chancellor of the Exchequer stood beside his political leader and mentor, peering down at the rivers of light, and shook his head. "Just between the two of us, Allen, she's right, you know," he said very quietly.


"Right and wrong don't come into it." Cromarty turned eyes spangled with reflected glitter upon Alexander. "She's found the one way to positively guarantee the alienation of every member of the House of Lords."


"Oh, no, Allen. Not all of us."


"All right, then," Cromarty snorted, "you and Hamish vote to support her. Hell, I'll even join you. That'll give her three votes; if you can find three more to go with them, then you should be the goddamned prime minister!"


Alexander bit his lip but said nothing. What, after all, could he say? There was no doubt in his mind that Lady Harrington's hand had been forced by the attempt on her life—just as he'd never doubted who'd been responsible for that attempt. He'd never met her, but he'd discussed her enough with his brother to feel certain she would never have used the House of Lords or her own membership in it in such fashion if there'd been any other way to get to North Hollow. And he'd watched the House recordings of her short, impassioned speech and seen no theatrics, no false drama. She hadn't played the assembled peerage of the Kingdom for fools; she'd come before them as her court of last resort, and the sincerity—and truth—of her charges had echoed in her every word.


But the House didn't see it that way. The House was affronted by her assault upon its dignity. The House was furious at the cynical manner in which she'd twisted its rules and procedures to suit her own ends. The House knew a rules mechanic when it saw one, and it was determined to punish her for daring to pervert its magisterial dignity.


"How bad is it, really?" he asked after a moment, and Cromarty sighed, more in sorrow than in anger this time.


"High Ridge has already entered a motion to exclude her. He wanted to strip her of her title outright, but a solid majority of the Commons—including almost half the Liberal MPs, if you can believe it!—is lined up with Her Majesty. That will protect her title and quash any move to trump up some sort of criminal charge against her, but not even the Queen can force the Lords to seat a peer they've voted to exclude. She's gone, Willie. I'll be surprised if five percent of the House opposes the vote."


"And after?" There was a core of anger and frustration under the quiet in Alexander's voice, and Cromarty's shoulders slumped.


"You mean after she kills him." It wasn't a question, and he sensed Alexander's nod in the darkness and turned away from the railing to fling himself into a lounger. He leaned back, closing his eyes, and wished he could escape the next few days as easily as he could blot away Landing's lights.


Harrington had well and truly backed North Hollow into a corner. Furious as the Lords were, she'd thrown her charges and challenge into his very teeth. He could no longer evade them, and that meant he could no longer ignore them. If he tried, he'd lose not simply his political base but everything in life that mattered to a man like him, for he would be outcast. A pariah, ignored by his one-time equals and an object of contempt to his inferiors—not merely a coward, but guilty by self-confession of Harrington's every charge.


It was ridiculous on the face of it, a throwback to the barbarism of trial by combat, yet that made it no less true. Even a gutless wonder like North Hollow had recognized that. His tenor voice had quivered with unmistakable terror when he accepted her challenge, but he'd accepted it.


And he was a dead man.


He'd held out for the Dreyfus Protocol, but after the way Harrington had cut Denver down, there was no question in Cromarty's mind that one shot was all she needed, and only an idiot could believe she'd settle for wounding him. She meant to kill him, and she would, and when she did—


"She's finished, Willie," he said finally, his voice soft with pain, and not for Pavel Young. "When she kills him, the same bullet will kill her own career. We can't save her. In fact, I'll have to initiate her removal from command myself to hold the Progressives in the Lords."


"It's not right, Allen." Alexander turned his back to the city's fairyscape, leaning his elbows on the balcony's rail. "She's the real victim. It's not her fault this is the only way she can get justice."


"I know," Cromarty never opened his eyes, "and I wish to God I could do something. But I have a government to hold together and a war to fight."


"I know." Alexander sighed, then laughed softly, sadly, without a trace of humor. "Even Hamish knows that, Allen. For that matter, Dame Honor herself knows she hasn't left you any choice."


"Which only makes me feel even worse." The duke opened his eyes and turned his head to meet Alexander's gaze, and even in the darkness, the younger man saw the sorrow in his face. "Tell me, Willie," the Prime Minister of Manticore said softly, "why anyone but a madman would want my job?"


* * *


Lieutenant Commander Rafael Cardones looked up as the bridge lift opened. He was officer of the watch, supervising the skeleton bridge crew of a ship in a repair slip, and he came to his feet quickly as the Captain stepped from the lift. One of her green-uniformed armsmen followed her, but the Grayson parked himself against the bulkhead, standing at parade rest and watching his steadholder as she walked to the command chair at the center of the bridge.


She moved slowly, hands folded behind her, and her face was composed and serene. But Rafael Cardones knew her too well. He'd seen that same serenity while she kicked a dispirited, hostile crew back to life . . . and when she'd taken a crippled heavy cruiser on a death-ride straight into a battlecruiser's broadside. Now he saw it again, on the night before she met a man who hated her with a pistol in her hand, and he wondered how many years she'd needed to perfect that mask. How long to learn to hide her fear? To learn how to radiate confidence to her crew by concealing her own mortality from them? And how long, how many nights of pain and loneliness, to hide the fact that she cared—cared more than she should ever let herself care—about the people around her?


She stopped beside the command chair, and one hand stroked the stored displays and readouts the way a horsewoman might caress a beloved mount. She stood there, staring into the depths of the main visual display, only her hand moving, as if it were independent of the rest of her. He saw the pain in her eyes, despite her mask, and suddenly, he understood.


She was saying goodbye. Not just to Nike, but to the Navy, and fear filled him. Fear for her, but for himself, as well. She might die tomorrow, he told himself, yet only his intellect spoke, for his heart, his emotions, knew better. Pavel Young couldn't kill the Captain. The very idea was ludicrous.


But even if she lived, her career would end. She'd been told that too often to doubt it, and it was a price she'd chosen to pay. Yet when she lost the Navy, the Navy would lose her. Someone else would command HMS Nike and all the other ships she might have commanded, and someone else could never replace her, be all the things she'd been. No one could, and Rafael Cardones and Alistair McKeon, Andreas Venizelos and Eve Chandler and Tomas Ramirez, would all be diminished by it. Something special and wonderful would have gone out of their lives, and it would leave them the poorer for having known and lost it.


He was ashamed of himself. Ashamed for thinking of what he wanted, what he needed from her, yet he couldn't help it. Part of him wanted to shout at her, to curse her for abandoning the people who depended upon her, and another part wanted to weep for what leaving them behind must be costing her. He was trapped between his tangled emotions, unable to speak while his eyes burned, and then her treecat raised his head on her shoulder, looking in Cardones' direction. The 'cat's prick ears twitched, his green eyes glowed, and the Captain turned her head, as well.


"Rafe," she said very softly.


"Skipper." He had to clear his throat twice before the word came out, and she nodded to him, then looked back down and ran her hand along the arm of her command chair once more. He could feel her need to sit in that chair one more time, to look around her bridge and know it was hers. But she didn't. She only stood there, looking down at it, her long, strong fingers stroking its arm with delicate grace, and Cardones raised a hand. He held it out to her, with no idea of what he meant to do with it or say to her, and then she drew a deep breath and stepped back from the chair. She turned and saw his hand, and he opened his mouth, but she shook her head.


It was a tiny movement, barely seen, yet it crystallized all she was. It was a captain's headshake, its authority so absolute and unquestionable there would never be a need to enunciate it. And as he recognized it, Cardones recognized something he'd always known without quite realizing that he knew. Her authority came not from her rank; it came from who and what she was, not what the Navy had made her. Or perhaps it was even more complex than that. Perhaps the Navy had made her what she was, yet if that were true, she had long since become more than the sum of her parts.


She was Honor Harrington, he thought. No more and no less, and no one and nothing could ever take that from her, whatever happened.


He lowered his hand to his side, and she drew herself to her full height and straightened her shoulders.


"Carry on, Commander," she said quietly.


"Aye, aye, Ma'am." His voice was just as quiet, but he came to attention as he spoke, and his hand rose to the band of his beret in a salute that would have done Saganami Island proud.


Pain flickered in her eyes, and sadness, yet there was more to it than that. A measuring something that he dared to hope was approval, as if she were passing something more precious than life itself into his keeping.


And then she nodded and turned away and walked away without another word, and HMS Nike's bridge was suddenly a smaller, a lonelier, and an infinitely poorer place than it had been only a moment before.


 


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Framed