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Epilogue

Honor Harrington stood in the captain's cabin of HMS Nike, her cabin no longer, and watched James MacGuiness dismounting Nimitz's life-support module from the bulkhead. Most of her personal possessions had already been removed, and Jamie Candless moved past her with the sealed carry-all that held her last uniforms. Andrew LaFollet stood outside the cabin hatch with Simon Mattingly, and Nimitz bleeked softly at her from the back of a couch.


She looked down at the 'cat, trying to smile, and the tip of her index finger stroked between his ears. He looked back up at her, rising high on the couch back. One true-hand gripped her tunic for balance, and the other reached up to touch her cheek with exquisite gentleness. She felt his concern, but for once she could not respond with assurance that all would be well.


She tried—again—to shift her immobilized left arm and winced with the stab of pain that rewarded her forgetfulness. She was lucky, though it had been hard to convince Nimitz of it. He'd known the instant she came back aboard and nearly torn the sickbay hatch down, then crouched taut and anxious just beyond the sterile field, purring as if to burst, while Fritz Montoya put her under to repair her shoulder. He hadn't been able to use all original parts; the bullet had shattered her left scapula, then torn up and out through the point of her shoulder, demolishing the joint in passing and barely missing the main artery. Quick heal could do a lot, yet Fritz had been forced to rebuild her shoulder socket to give it something to work around, and his face had been knotted with disapproval while he worked.


But Honor wasn't concerned about her shoulder. Fritz Montoya, as she knew from painful personal experience, did good work, and, extensive as the repairs had been, they were all routine procedures. Yet there were wounds no doctor could heal, and she bit her lip against a pain not of her body as she touched the plain black beret on her bare desk and faced the brutal amputation of her future.


She didn't regret her actions. She couldn't, and she'd known the price going in. She'd thought it worth paying then; she thought so still. It was only that the pain was so much worse than she'd thought possible.


She didn't mind the vote excluding her from the House of Lords, or the group of news services tearing her apart for her "brutality" in gunning down a man with an empty gun. Pavel Young's life had been forfeit from the moment he turned upon her. In the eyes of the law, it mattered less than nothing whether it had been Lieutenant Castellaño's fire or hers that executed sentence upon him, but it mattered to her.


She'd expected to feel pleasure at his death, yet she didn't. Cold, merciless satisfaction, yes. A sense that justice had been done at last, a grim sense of completion that it had come at her hand and one of rightness at the sordid ignobility of his end. It was something she'd had to do, a scale that had to be righted, but there was no pleasure in it, and the emptiness of her tomorrows stretched bleakly before her. In a sense, Young, too, had won. He'd taken Paul from her, and she'd sacrificed the career she'd spent thirty years building, the joy of doing the one thing in the universe she'd been born to do in the service of her Queen, to destroy him.


She sighed as MacGuiness disconnected the last fitting and two ratings lifted the life-support module between them in a counter-grav collar. They carried it carefully through the hatch and down the passage, and LaFollet stepped just inside the hatch and looked at her as they passed.


"Are you ready, My Lady?" the man who'd twice saved her life asked, and she nodded.


"Mac?" she said quietly.


"Of course, Ma'am." MacGuiness held out his arms, and Nimitz leapt up into them. He climbed to the shoulder pad the steward wore, the one Honor couldn't offer him until her wounds healed. MacGuiness was a native Manticoran, and the 'cat's weight was a heavy burden for anyone reared on the Kingdom's capital planet, but he held himself up with a curious pride. He raised one hand to Nimitz, and the 'cat brushed his head against its palm as he would have against Honor's, then sat upright and still, his eyes on his person.


She looked back for a moment, then lifted the black beret from her desk. She faced the mirror, adjusting it one-handedly on her head, accepting the loss of the white one a starship's captain wore. She settled it to her satisfaction, determined to go into exile with her appearance perfect, and turned back to the others.


"Lead the way, Andrew," she told LaFollet, and the major started through the hatch and down the passage, then stopped. His spine stiffened in surprise, and he came to attention as a broad-shouldered man a centimeter taller than Honor rounded a bend in the uniform of an RMN admiral.


"Dame Honor," Hamish Alexander said quietly.


"Admiral." Honor's eyes stung, and she bit her lip harder. She'd hoped to avoid this. She'd even refused to return two com calls from White Haven, despising her own cowardice but unable to face the man who'd tried to save her career from herself. Her feelings were too raw, too ambiguous, the memory of his anger too painful. She'd come to suspect in recent weeks just how deep an interest he'd taken in her career, and the thought that he might believe she'd failed him by throwing it away was too much to bear on top of everything else.


"May I have a word in private, Dame Honor?" White Haven's voice was soft, and she felt a tingle of shock as she realized it was almost pleading. She longed to tell him no, that she had no time. She actually started to, but then she stopped. He must know she'd ignored his calls, yet he'd come to her in person. However he might despise her, she owed him at least the courtesy of the meeting he sought.


"Of course, My Lord." Her voice was flat with her effort to keep emotion from it, and she nodded to her henchmen. "Wait for me in the passage, please."


MacGuiness nodded, and he and LaFollet stood outside the hatch as it closed behind White Haven. She turned to face him, knowing her face was a mask, and he looked around the stripped cabin. There was an awkwardness about him, a strange sense of imbalance, and he cleared his throat.


"Have you decided where you're going?" he asked finally.


"Back to Grayson." She shrugged her good shoulder, and the fingers of her right hand stroked the captain's uniform she wore. She was still entitled to that, just as she was still entitled to take MacGuiness with her, though she would have left him behind, had he asked. They hadn't been able to cashier her despite the scandal; all they could do was send her the letter which "regretted to inform her" that Their Lordships could find no command for her at this time. She was on the beach, reduced to half-pay, and part of her wondered why she hadn't ended the agony by simply resigning.


"Grayson," White Haven murmured. "That's good. You need to get away for a while, put it all in perspective."


"I'm going to Grayson because at least I can still do something useful there, My Lord, not to put things in 'perspective.' " Honor heard the bitterness in her own voice, and this time she couldn't stop it. He turned back to her, and she faced him, slim and tall, defiant and yet oddly vulnerable in the silent cabin which had once been hers.


"You were right, My Lord," she went on harshly. "You told me what would happen. I—" She swallowed and looked away, then made herself go on. "I know I've disappointed you, Sir. I . . . regret that. Not what I did, or why, but that I disappointed you."


"Don't," he said quietly, and her eyes snapped back to him in astonishment. "Dame Honor, do you know the real reason I was so furious with you when you rejected my illegal order to you?" he asked after a moment.


"Because you knew what would happen. That I'd end my career," she said around the lump in her throat.


"Bushwah!" White Haven snorted, and she twitched in fresh surprise and an echo of pain. He saw the hurt in her eyes and reached out quickly. "What?" he asked much more gently, and she gave her head a little toss and inhaled deeply.


"That was what the Admiral—Admiral Courvosier—always said to me when I came up with the wrong answer, Sir," she said softly.


"Really?" White Haven smiled crookedly, and this time he touched her, resting his hand on her good shoulder. "I'm not surprised. It's what he used to say to me, too." His hand tightened gently. "He was a good man, Honor. A good teacher and a better friend, and he always had the eye. He knew the stars when he saw them, and I think—" he looked directly into her eyes "—that he might be prouder of you now than he ever was before."


"Proud, Sir?" This time her voice did break, and she blinked on stinging tears.


"Proud. The reason I was so angry with you, Honor, was that you made me forget the very first principle of command: never give an order you know won't be obeyed. The fact that it was an illegal order only aggravated my anger, and I took it out on you. That's what I came here for—to tell you that . . . and to apologize."


"Apologize?" She stared at him through the spangles of her tears, unable to understand, and he nodded.


"You did the right thing, Honor Harrington," he said softly. "You're catching hell for it now, but it was the only thing you could do and still be you, and what you are is a very fine thing indeed, Captain. Never doubt that. Never let the bastards snapping at your heels convince you otherwise."


"Is this some sort of pep talk now that the damage is done, Sir?" She was shocked by the vicious note in her own voice and raised her hand half-apologetically, but he only shook it off with a toss of his head.


"It is not. You're on half-pay now. Well, you're not unique in that. I've been on half-pay more than once, and never for a reason as good as yours. This war is going to last a long time, Captain. Peep resistance is already stiffening, and they still have the tonnage advantage. We'll cut deeper before they can stop us, but then it's going to be stalemate while each of us looks for a fresh advantage. I think we'll find one in time, but it's going to take time, and, as Raoul once told me on an occasion somewhat like this one, 'This, too, shall pass.' We need you, Captain. I know that, the Admiralty knows it, Her Majesty knows it, and one day the Kingdom will remember it."


Honor's mouth trembled with the need to believe him and the fear of more pain to come if she let herself, and he squeezed her shoulder again.


"Go to Grayson, Honor. Take your medicine. You don't deserve it, but no one ever said life was fair. But don't think this is the end. The scandal will die down eventually, the Navy will know it needs you, and, in time, even the House of Lords will realize it. You'll come home, Lady Harrington, and when you do, there'll be a command deck under your feet again."


"You're not just—? I mean, do you mean it, Sir?" She stared into his eyes, begging for honesty, and he nodded.


"Of course I do. It may take time, but it'll come, Honor. And when it does, I'll welcome you under my flag any day, anywhere, for any mission." He shook her lightly with each phrase, and she felt her trembling mouth firm. It blossomed in a smile—a shy smile, and fragile, but her first since Pavel Young's death—and he nodded. Then he released her and stood back with an answering smile.


"Thank you, Sir," she said softly.


"Don't thank me, Dame Honor. Just go out there and spit in the eye of any bastard who looks at you sideways, hear me?"


"Aye, aye, Sir." She blinked her misty eyes, nodded to him, and turned back to the hatch, and Hamish Alexander watched Dame Honor Harrington walk down the passage between Andrew LaFollet and James MacGuiness with her head high.


THE END

 


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