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Chapter Thirty-Two

The rain which had begun late last night ended as Pavel Young's ground car passed through the gate in the vine-covered stone wall. He heard the distinctive, slurred crunch of wet gravel as the ground-effect counter-grav field died and the car settled, and the last silver beads of rain trembled down his window while hollow terror consumed him.


His chauffeur climbed out and came around to open his door, and Pavel stepped out into the gusty, wet morning. His brother Stefan followed with the pistol case, as silent as he'd been through the entire drive here, and Pavel wondered once more what he was thinking.


He shouldn't have been able to wonder that; he shouldn't have been able to wonder anything through his terrible, panicky horror. He tasted the fear, like vomit at the back of his throat, yet his brain raced madly down a dozen different tracks at once with a sort of fevered clarity, as if it sought preservation by disassociating itself from the moment.


Chill humidity lay against his cheek like clammy fingers, misty cloud raced low overhead, enveloping the towers of Landing beyond the dueling grounds' wall, and gusts of wind slapped like open hands at his clothing and the trees along the inner face of the wall. He heard it sucking at leaves and branches, blowing spatters of rain from them, sighing and rustling with mournful life, and he flinched as a gray-uniformed policewoman appeared.


"Good morning, My Lord," she said. "I'm Sergeant MacClinton. Lieutenant Castellaño will be serving as Master of the Field this morning, and he's asked me, with his compliments, to escort you to the field."


The Earl of North Hollow nodded. It was a choppy, spastic movement, but he dared not trust his voice. MacClinton was a trim, attractive woman, the sort who normally started him speculating on her skills in bed. Today she only made him long desperately to live, made him want to cling to her, to beg her to make this all some nightmare that would pass and leave him unscathed.


He looked into her face, searching for . . . something, and what he saw beneath her professional neutrality was contempt overlaid by something far worse. MacClinton's eyes were distant and detached, as if looking upon a dead man who awaited only the grisly mechanics of dying to make his death official.


He looked away quickly and swallowed, and then he was following her against his will across the rainsoaked grass. The dense sod squelched, soaking his feet, and another corner of his damnably racing mind reflected that he should have worn boots instead of low-topped shoes. He wanted to scream at the utter banality of his own thoughts, and his jaws ached from the pressure on his clenched teeth.


And then they stopped, and a strangling bolus of terror choked the breath in his throat as he came face-to-face with Honor Harrington.


She didn't even look at him, and somehow that was infinitely more terrifying than hatred would have been. She stood beside Colonel Ramirez, strong face framed in a few, windblown curls that had escaped her short braid. Stray drops of water glittered on her hair and beret, as if she'd arrived early to wait for him, and there was no emotion on her face. None at all. He could see only her left profile from where he stood, watching numbly as Castellaño recited the useless formal plea for reconciliation before he examined and selected the pistols. Ramirez and Stefan loaded the magazines at his command, their fingers flicking, flicking on the brass cartridge cases, and the stillness—the focused, empty calm of Harrington's expression—mocked his own terror more cruelly than any sneer. Her confidence was a fist about his heart, squeezing with fingers of steel, and panic filled him like poison.


She'd destroyed him. She would complete his destruction in a few more moments, yet his death would be no more than a punctuation. His decades-long efforts to punish her, to break and humble her, had failed. More than failed, for she'd turned the tables and brought him to this shameful, degrading end after agonizing days of waiting for the axe to fall. She hadn't just made him afraid; she'd made him know he was afraid, exposed his shameful terror for all to see and made him live with it night after night, until he woke whimpering in his sweatsoaked sheets.


Hate pushed back some of the fear, but that was a mixed blessing. The paralysis eased, yet that only made the strobes of his panic sharper, more terrible in the clarity with which he perceived them. Sweat oozed down his temples in fat, oily snakes, and the air felt suddenly colder. The automatic pistol weighed his right hand like an anchor when he took it, and the fingers of his left hand were so numb he almost dropped the magazine Stefan handed him.


"Load, Lady Harrington." North Hollow's eyes were wide and fixed, showing white all around their rims, as he watched Harrington slide the five-round magazine into the butt of her pistol with a smooth precision so graceful it seemed choreographed.


"Load, Lord North Hollow," Castellaño said, and he fumbled clumsily with his weapon. The magazine tried to slip from his sweaty fingers, twisting like a live thing before he got it in place, and he flushed with humiliation while Castellaño waited for him to complete the simple mechanical task. He watched Ramirez touch Harrington's shoulder, saw the grim approval on his face before he turned away, and longed for the simple comfort of feeling the same touch from his brother. But Stefan only closed the pistol case and stepped back with cold hauteur, an expression that promised Harrington she was far from done with the Youngs whatever happened here, and in that moment, fleetingly and imperfectly, Pavel Young glimpsed the fundamental hollowness of his entire family. The futility and nihilism that infused them all. The arrogance that kept Stefan from even considering the value of one last physical contact.


It was an ephemeral awareness, swept away by his terror almost before he perceived it, yet it was enough to touch him with fresh hatred for the woman who had shown it to him. It was as if his own mind were determined to deal him one last, searing humiliation—the realization that even if he somehow managed to kill Harrington she would still have won. Unlike him, she'd achieved something, left something behind her that people would remember with respect, while he'd done nothing, left nothing but a memory of contempt beside which even oblivion was to be preferred.


"Take your places," Castellaño said, and Young turned to put his back to Harrington's. Her presence cut the wind, radiating a warmth against his spine that was sensed, not felt, and he swallowed again and again, desperately, fighting his nausea, as the Master of the Field spoke quietly.


"You have agreed to meet under the Dreyfus Protocol," he said. "At the command of 'Walk,' you will each take thirty paces. At the command of 'Stop,' you will immediately stop and stand in place, awaiting my next command. Upon the command 'Turn,' you will turn, and each of you will fire one round and one round only. If neither is hit in the first exchange, you will each lower your weapon and stand in place once more until I have asked both parties if honor is satisfied. If both answers are in the negative, you will take two paces forward upon the command 'Walk.' You will then stand in place once more until the command 'Fire,' when you will once more fire one round and one round only. The procedure will repeat until one party declares honor is satisfied, until one of you is wounded, or until your magazines are empty. Do you understand, Lord North Hollow?"


"I—" He cleared his throat and willed iron into his voice. "I do," he said more clearly, and Castellaño nodded.


"Lady Harrington?"


"Understood." The single word came out low-voiced but clear, with none of his own panic, and North Hollow fought the need to dash sweat from his eyes.


"You may chamber," Castellaño said, and the earl winced at the crisp, metallic sound behind him. The slide of his own pistol slipped in his sweaty fingers. It took him two attempts to chamber a round, and patches of dull crimson burned on his cheekbones as he lowered the weapon once more.


"Walk," Castellaño commanded, and North Hollow closed his eyes, fighting to keep his spine straight, as he took the first step and the terror roared inside him.


One shot. That was all he had to survive before he could declare "honor" was satisfied and escape. Just one shot at a full sixty paces; surely she would miss at that range!


Another step, cold feet wet in his soaked shoes, earthy-smelling sod squelching underfoot, wind plucking at his sweatsoaked hair, and the memory of Denver Summervale's death replaying in hideous detail behind his eyes.


A third pace, and he saw Summervale jerk from the first hit, saw the ease with which Harrington pumped bullet after bullet into him, saw his head explode with the final round, and horror gagged him. She wouldn't miss. Not at sixty paces or at six hundred. She was a demon, a monster whose sole function was to destroy him, and she wouldn't—couldn't—fail in her task.


A fourth pace, and he felt himself listing to the side as the pistol in his hand weighted his heart and soul. He blinked desperately against the mist filming his eyes, fighting to breathe.


A fifth pace. A sixth. A seventh, and with each of them the terror grew, blotting away the previous clarity of his racing thoughts, crushing him in a vise of steel. He heard a soft, endless whimper and realized vaguely that it was his own, and something happened deep inside him.


* * *


Honor felt him behind her, walking away from her, and kept her eyes fixed on the horizon. The newsies were out in force once more, huddling against the wet wind as they crouched behind their cameras and microphones, but she paid them no heed. She was focused, focused as never before, even against Summervale. She would have only one shot, so it must be perfect. No shooting from the hip, no rushing. A centered, balanced turn, careful on the treacherous wet grass. Take his fire, dare him to hit her with his own rushed shot, then capture him in her sights. Hold him there. Take up the slack. Exhale. Steady her arm and squeeze, squeeze, squeeze, until—


"Down!"


Only one voice would have shouted that word at a time like this, and for only one reason. It came out with the same hard, unwavering authority she'd heard once before, snapping into her brain like lightning, unthinkable to dispute and impossible to disobey. She didn't think. She didn't even realize until later that she'd heard or recognized the voice at all. She simply moved, hurling herself down and to the right before the first echo reached her.


Pain. Agony roaring in her left shoulder as something exploded behind her. Crimson spraying out before her in a steaming fan that beaded the sodden grass with rubies. Another explosion and something screaming past her. Another, and then she struck the ground in another crescendo of pain while a fourth and fifth explosion crashed behind her and she rolled to her left, biting back a scream of white-hot torment as her shoulder hit the grass, and the reactions of thirty-five T-years of martial arts training brought her back to her knees in the muddy, bloody grass.


Pavel Young stood facing her, less than twenty meters away, his gun hand wavering before him in a cloud of gunsmoke. Blood pumped from her shattered shoulder, splinters of bone glittered white in the wound, her left arm was a dead, immobile weight of agony, and her brain was clear as frozen crystal. The corner of her eye saw Castellaño, his face twisted in fury, his pulser already swinging down to fire. There could be only one penalty for Young's action, and the Master of the Field's gun hand flashed toward its target. But shock at the unbelievable breach of every rule of conduct had held him for a fraction of a second, and he moved so slowly. Everything moved so slowly, like figures in a dream, and somehow her own hand was already up before her, the pistol in full extension.


Young stared at her, wide-eyed and mad, still clutching his empty weapon, and the automatic bucked in her hand. A crimson rose blossomed on Young's chest, and she rode the recoil up, brought her hand back down, fired again. And again. And then Castellaño's pulser finally snarled. The burst of darts ripped through Pavel Young in a spray of blood and shredded tissue, but he was already dead, with three ten-millimeter rounds, in a group small enough to cover with a child's hand, where once his heart had been.


 


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