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Chapter Three

Honor watched the landing pad grow beneath her cutter and reminded herself this wasn't the first time she'd been to Mount Royal Palace. She reminded herself of that quite sternly, and that her status had changed since her first visit, as well. Then she'd been a commoner; now she was not only a decorated captain of the list but a knight and a peer of the realm—none of which lightened her nervousness at all.


She smiled wryly at her own tension and glanced at her executive officer. Commander The Honorable Michelle Henke looked perfectly at ease . . . as well she might; unlike her captain, Mike was simply dropping by to visit the head of the senior branch of her own family. Nimitz looked up from Honor's lap, twitching his fluffy tail as if to chide her inner turmoil, and she reached down to stroke his ears. The movement caught Henke's eyes, and the commander looked up with an impish grin.


"Nerves, eh?" Her husky, almost furry contralto was rich with fond amusement, and Honor shrugged.


"Unlike some people, I'm not accustomed to rubbing elbows with royalty."


"Odd. I would've thought you'd be getting used to it by now," Henke replied deadpan.


Honor snorted, but she had to admit (and not as modestly as she would have liked) that Mike had a point. Most officers spent their entire careers without ever receiving their monarch's personal thanks, yet this would be the fourth time for Honor—and the third in barely five T-years. It was almost as frightening as it was flattering, but it was more than that, as well. She'd met her ruler as a person, as the individual behind the symbol of her crown, and she'd found that person worthy of her loyalty.


Elizabeth III had been Queen for almost eleven Manticoran years—over eighteen T-years—since her father's tragic death in a grav-skiing accident. She was the sixteenth monarch in direct descent from Roger I, founder of the House of Winton, and she had all of her dynasty's dignity and poise. She also had an intense and personal charisma all her own, despite a sometimes prickly personality. Honor had heard about her temper and the personal determination, one might even say obstinacy, which would have done any of her Sphinxian subjects proud. It was rumored she held grudges till they died of old age, then had them stuffed and mounted, but Honor could live with that. The Queen was equally loyal to those who served her kingdom well. Some political analysts argued that her fiercely direct personality hampered delicate political and diplomatic maneuvers, but she compensated with inexhaustible energy and absolute integrity, and she'd made resistance to Havenite encroachment her life's work.


All of that was true and important, yet it was almost inconsequential to Honor. Elizabeth III was the woman to whom she'd sworn her loyalty as an officer and her fealty as a countess. She was the Star Kingdom of Manticore to Honor Harrington. Not an infallible, superior being to be venerated, but a living, sometimes quirky, occasionally exasperating human being who nonetheless represented all Honor insisted her kingdom be. Honor was sworn to lay down her life in the Crown's service, and while she had no particular inclination toward martyrdom, it was a vast relief to know Elizabeth Adrienne Samantha Annette Winton was worthy of that oath.


The cutter slid into a smooth hover, then descended in a soft whine of counter-grav. The hatch opened, and Honor rose and set Nimitz on her shoulder. By tradition so old it actually predated the Navy's acceptance of treecats on active duty, 'cats accompanied their adopted humans when they answered a royal summons. Seven of Manticore's last nine monarchs, including Elizabeth herself, had been adopted on visits to Sphinx, almost as if the 'cats had known they were coming and lain in wait for them. Indeed, there was a standing joke—on Sphinx, at least—that the Crown ruled only in consultation with the 'cats. Honor smiled politely whenever someone told the hoary old chestnut, but she sometimes suspected there was an element of truth in it. Certainly Nimitz was never shy about registering approval or disapproval of her actions!


She smothered a smile at the familiar thought, then led Henke through the hatch. Normally, Henke would have exited first, since her birth would have taken precedence over her junior rank under these special circumstances, but Honor was a countess as well as a captain. It was odd, yet this was the first time she'd truly realized that she'd overtaken her oldest friend's social rank as well as her military one. She wasn't certain she liked it, but there was no time to reflect upon it as the honor guard snapped to attention. The mustachioed major at its head wore the scarlet facings of the Queen's Own Regiment and the shoulder flash of the Copper Walls Battalion, the component drawn from Honor's homeworld, and obvious delight at the honor paid a fellow Sphinxian warred with expressionless discipline as he flashed a salute.


Honor and Henke returned it, and he returned his hand to his side with parade ground precision.


"Lady Harrington. Commander Henke. I am Major Dupre, your escort." His clipped Sphinx accent was like a breath of home, and he stepped crisply to the side to gesture toward the pad exit.


"Thank you, Major," Honor replied, and headed in the indicated direction with Henke in tow and butterflies dancing in her middle.


* * *


The walk took longer than Honor had expected, and she suddenly realized they weren't following the route she'd taken on her previous visits. In fact, they weren't headed for the hideously incongruous block of the Crown Chancery at all. Honor was just as happy—the architect who'd designed the Chancery a T-century before had suffered from a terminal case of the "functional" school that clashed horribly with the older, more graceful sections of the palace—but the unexpected diversion gave her butterflies bigger wings. The Queen had received her in the Blue Hall on each of her previous visits. The official throne room was roughly the size of a soccer field, with a soaring ceiling guaranteed to intimidate anyone, but the thought of meeting her sovereign in closer, less formal proximity was oddly terrifying.


She scolded herself. She had no right to think anything of the sort was in the offing. It was presumptuous, if nothing else, and—


Major Dupre made a sudden turn towards the very oldest part of the palace, and Honor cleared her throat.


"Excuse me, Major, but where, exactly, are we going?"


"King Michael's Tower, Milady." Dupre seemed surprised, as if anyone should have known where she was, but Honor heard Henke inhale behind her. She looked over her shoulder, but Mike had recovered from her surprise—if that was what it had been—and returned her gaze with a brown-eyed innocence her cousin Paul couldn't have bettered.


Honor spared her bland-faced exec a fulminating look, then turned back to the square finger of native stone looming before them. It wasn't much of a "tower" by the standards of a counter-grav civilization, but it thrust up with a certain imposing grace, and something prodded at the back of her mind. It was elusive, whatever it was, and she scrolled through her mental files, trying to ferret it out. Was it something she'd read somewhere?


The Manticoran media had reached a sort of gentleman's agreement with the Crown almost at the Kingdom's founding. In return for an official policy of public availability to the press and restraint in invoking the Official Secrets and Defense of the Realm Acts, the royal family's personal life was effectively off-limits, but there'd been something in the Landing Times about—


And then she remembered. King Michael's Tower was Queen Elizabeth's private retreat, open only to her closest political allies and intimates.


Her head started to whip back around to Henke, but it was too late; they were already at the tower entrance. The uniformed sentries snapped to attention as the door swung open, and Honor made herself swallow her questions and follow Dupre without comment.


The major led them down an airy, sunlit hall to an old-fashioned, straight-line elevator that had to be part of the tower's original equipment and punched a destination. The elevator didn't even use internal grav lifters, but the car rose surprisingly smoothly for such an obsolete device, and the doors opened onto another spacious hall in the tower's upper stories. There were no sentries in evidence, but Honor knew sophisticated security systems were observing their every move and schooled her face into a calm she was far from feeling as she accompanied the major to a closed door of age-darkened wood. He rapped once, sharply, on the carved panel, then opened it.


"Your Majesty," he announced in a carrying voice, "Lady Harrington and Commander Henke."


"Thank you, Andre," someone said, and the major stood aside for Honor and Henke to pass him, then closed the door silently behind them.


Honor swallowed and walked forward across a sea of rich, rust-red carpet. Details of comfortable but simple furnishings registered on the periphery of her brain, but her eyes were on the two women in old-fashioned, overstuffed armchairs that faced her across a coffee table.


There would have been no possible way to mistake the woman on the right, even without the treecat on her shoulder. Her warm-tinted mahogany skin was lighter than Michelle Henke's, but it was darker than most Manticorans', and the similarity between her features and Henke's was even more remarkable in person. She wasn't as pretty as Mike, Honor thought, but there was even more character in her face, and her eyes were sharp, direct, and intense.


Queen Elizabeth rose as the two officers approached her, and Honor went to one knee. As a commoner, she would have been expected only to bow; a deeper and more formal acknowledgment of her liege lady was required from a peer, but the Queen chuckled.


"Get up, Dame Honor." Even her voice sounded like Mike's, Honor thought, with that same husky timbre. She looked up, flustered and a bit uncertain, and the Queen chuckled. "This is a private audience, Captain. We can save the formalities for another time."


"Uh, yes, Your Majesty." Honor flushed as her voice stumbled, but she managed to rise with something like her normal grace, and the Queen nodded.


"Better," she approved. She held out her hand, and Honor felt every centimeter of her height—and all of them off balance—as she automatically took it. Elizabeth's grip was firm, and the cream and gray 'cat on her shoulder cocked its head at Nimitz. The Queen's companion was smaller and slimmer than Nimitz. Fewer age bars ringed its tail, but its eyes were just as bright and green, and Honor felt the very fringe of a deep and subtle exchange between it and Nimitz. Then the 'cats nodded to one another, and Nimitz gave a soft "bleek" and relaxed on her own shoulder.


She looked at the Queen, and Elizabeth smiled wryly.


"I was going to introduce Ariel, but it seems he's already introduced himself." Her tone was so droll Honor's lips twitched, and much of her uncertainty fell away. The Queen released her hand and turned to Henke.


"Well, well! If it isn't Cousin Mike!"


"Your Majesty." Henke shook hands in turn—much more naturally than her captain had, Honor noted—and Elizabeth shook her head again.


"So formal, Captain Henke?"


"I—" Henke began, then paused. "What did you say?" she demanded after a moment, and the Queen chuckled.


"I said 'Captain,' Mike. You are familiar with the rank?"


"Well, of course I am, but—" Henke bit off what she'd started to say, and the Queen laughed aloud at her expression and looked at Honor.


"I can only put Mike's flattering deference down to your influence, Dame Honor. I seem to recall at least one occasion on which she kicked me in the shin. Both shins, in fact."


"Only after you dumped sand down my swimsuit," Henke said. "Wet sand. And I seem to recall Mother sending us both to bed without supper. Which," she added, "was grossly unfair, since you were the one who'd started it!"


Honor managed—barely—not to quail at her exec's astringent tone. Mike might be the oldest daughter of a cadet branch of the royal family, and Honor had always envied her comfortable assurance with the most loftily born of aristocrats, but this—!


"Ah, but I was a guest!" Honor relaxed as the Queen grinned with obvious delight. "It was your responsibility to be a gracious host to your future monarch."


"Sure it was. But don't go changing subjects on me. What's this 'Captain Henke' business?"


"Sit down, both of you." The Queen pointed at a couch and waited until they had obeyed. Nimitz swarmed down into Honor's lap as soon as she was seated, and Ariel flowed down into the Queen's lap with equal alacrity.


"Good," she said, then nodded to the woman in the second armchair. "I don't believe either of you have met Baroness Morncreek?" she asked.


Honor looked at the woman who'd replaced Sir Edward Janacek as First Lord of the Admiralty and castigated herself for not having recognized her before. The totally unexpected informality of the occasion offered a fair excuse, but she should have known who Morncreek was without being prodded. She realized the others were awaiting her reply and gave herself a mental shake.


"No, Your Majesty. I'm afraid I've never had the privilege."


"I hope you still think it's a 'privilege' when we're done, Captain." There was a wry, almost bitter note in the Queen's voice, but it vanished so quickly Honor wasn't certain she'd actually heard it. "At any rate, Mike," Elizabeth went on, "I think I'll let Lady Morncreek explain. Francine?"


"Of course, Your Majesty," Morncreek murmured, then turned to Henke. "Despite Her Majesty's somewhat unconventional and premature way of expressing herself, Commander Henke, she's essentially correct. As of this afternoon, you're a junior-grade captain." Henke's jaw dropped, and Morncreek smiled. "In addition, you'll be receiving formal orders detailing you as commanding officer of Her Majesty's light cruiser Agni within the week. Congratulations, Captain."


Henke stared at her, then wheeled to her cousin.


"Was this your idea, Beth?" she demanded almost accusingly, but the Queen shook her head.


"Blame Dame Honor, not me, Mike. I know how you hate trading on the family name, but Lady Morncreek tells me it's customary to promote the executive officer of a captain who distinguishes herself in action. Of course, if it really bothers you, I can probably get them to take it back."


"Don't you dare!"


"I thought you'd feel that way," the Queen murmured. "Once it was explained there was no wicked and unworthy nepotism involved, of course."


Henke gave her a quelling glance, then looked back at Morncreek.


"Thank you, Milady," she said in a much more serious voice.


"You're welcome, Captain."


"And now, Dame Honor, it's your turn," the Queen said, and Honor straightened. "We'll take care of the formalities—including the award of a richly deserved thank you—later in the Blue Hall, but I've decided to appoint you to the rank of Colonel of Marines, as well."


Honor's eyes widened in surprise as great as Henke's. Appointment as a colonel of Marines was a way for the Crown to show special approval of a captain too junior for promotion to flag rank, and very few officers ever received the honor. It wouldn't change her actual authority in any way, but she would receive a colonel's salary in addition to her regular pay, and the appointment was an unequivocal indication of royal favor.


"Thank you, Your Majesty," she managed, and the Queen shook her head.


"Don't thank me, Dame Honor," she said in an entirely serious voice. "If any officer ever deserved it, you do."


Honor's face heated, and she made a small, uncomfortable gesture. Elizabeth only nodded as if she'd expected no other reaction, for which Honor was grateful, but then she leaned back in her chair with a sigh.


"And now that we've given you the good news, ladies, it's time to consider some a little less pleasant," she said. Honor felt Henke stiffen on the couch beside her, and Nimitz raised his head in her lap. The Queen said nothing else for a few seconds, then shrugged.


"How much do you know about the situation in the Lords, Dame Honor?"


"Very little, Your Majesty." Honor knew her tone was guarded and wished it weren't. The Queen raised her eyebrows, and Honor stifled a shrug of her own. "We've only been in-system about fourteen hours, Your Majesty, and I'm afraid I'm not much of a student of politics. To be perfectly honest, I don't like them very much."


"Hard to blame you, in light of your experiences," the Queen said. "And I'm afraid what's going on right now won't make you any fonder of them. Unfortunately, you're squarely in the middle of a major political crisis, and I need you to understand exactly what's happening."


"I'm in the middle of a crisis, Ma'am?" Honor blurted, and the Queen nodded.


"You are. Through no fault of your own, I hasten to add, but you are. Let me explain."


Elizabeth crossed her legs and stroked Ariel's spine with a frown.


"The problem, Dame Honor, is that the House of Lords has chosen to irritate me immensely. At the moment, the Opposition parties have united in a solid front against the Centrists and Crown Loyalists, which leaves Duke Cromarty short of a working majority in the upper chamber. Which, in turn, means our entire military policy is frozen until he can beg, borrow, or steal the votes to regain control. I'm sure I don't have to tell you what that means in terms of fighting the war?"


"No, Your Majesty." Honor was stunned by the revelation, yet not even shock could quite keep the sour disgust out of her voice. The Queen smiled wryly, but it was a fleeting smile that vanished quickly, and she continued in a level voice.


"I need that majority restored, Dame Honor. I need it badly. At the moment, the Peeps are in wild disarray, but that won't last, and I can't do a thing about it as long as the Opposition blocks a formal declaration of war. And I'm very much afraid rumors of Lord Young's court-martial are already having an impact on their resistance."


Honor leaned back against the couch cushions, and puzzlement and the beginning of apprehension darkened her eyes.


"Too many members of the Opposition dislike you, Captain," the Queen said quietly. "It's not your fault. Your service has been exemplary—more than that, it's been outstanding, and I suspect you're even more popular in the Commons than you are unpopular in the Lords. In fact, you're something of a hero to the population in general, but your very success has embarrassed the Opposition's leadership. You underscored their mistakes and made them look stupid in Basilisk, and as for what happened in Yeltsin—"


She shrugged, and Honor bit her lip. For the first time, she genuinely regretted striking Reginald Houseman. He'd deserved it, but she'd let her temper get away from her, and now it seemed his prominent family's connections to the Liberal Party were going to bring that home to roost. And not just for her, she thought miserably as she recognized the worry in her Queen's voice.


"Don't distress yourself, Dame Honor." Elizabeth's voice was gentle, and Honor made herself meet her eyes. "I didn't interfere when you were reprimanded because I make it a rule to leave the Navy to the Admiralty. And, frankly, because you were out of line. On the other hand, I understand how it happened, and, speaking as a woman and not your Queen, I only wish you'd hit him harder. Nor should you feel that you've created the situation in the Lords. You didn't. But smacking Houseman did make you anathema to the Liberals, and now the charges against Lord Young have made you even more unpopular with the Conservatives. To be blunt, too many of the idiots opposing Duke Cromarty also dislike you, and because of who Lord Young is, his father and his cronies are seizing on that emotional reaction to you in an effort to protect him."


She paused, and silence stretched out for long, endless seconds. Honor bore it as long as she could, then cleared her throat and broke it.


"What can I do, Your Majesty?" she asked.


"You can understand what's happening," Elizabeth said simply. She saw the sick pain in Honor's eyes and shook her head quickly. "No, I'm not going to quash the charges against Young!" Honor inhaled in deep, painful relief, but the Queen wasn't quite done. "What I'm afraid of is that his trial, by the nature of things, is going to make the present political crisis even worse."


Fresh worry flared in Honor's eyes, and the Queen waved to Morncreek, who leaned toward Honor across the coffee table.


"As of this moment, Captain Harrington, the Admiralty has assembled a court to try Lord Young on the charges and specifications laid against him by Admiral Parks. Officially, I can have no opinion on those charges until the court reaches its verdict, but since I have no voice in that decision, I'll tell you, personally and off the record, that my reading of the evidence supports only a guilty verdict. The problem is that the charges carry a death sentence, which means the Earl of North Hollow is pulling every lever in sight to save his son's life, and the Conservatives as a whole seem to think they can turn the trial to advantage against the Duke. They're already screaming behind the scenes, and I expect that to get nothing but worse—and more public—once the charges are officially announced and the media gets hold of them. And while I can't tell you who's on the court, the political struggle in the Lords is likely to spill over onto it . . . and vice versa. Are you with me so far?"


Honor nodded, trying to hide her dread that Young was somehow going to evade the consequences yet again. She watched Baroness Morncreek's face with almost painful intensity, unaware of how sick her own expression was, and felt Henke squeeze her shoulder gently.


"We are not going to let him walk, Dame Honor," Morncreek said, "but we're sailing into a minefield here. We have to approach it far more cautiously than it deserves because of the other ramifications. The most important thing of all is for you to be extremely careful. The press is going to hound you for comment from the instant we release the official account of the Battle of Hancock, and it is imperative, absolutely imperative, that you say nothing about the trial, the charges, or the events which led up to them. It's grossly unfair to you, and I apologize from the bottom of my heart, but you must keep as low a profile as possible until after the verdict is in."


"Of course, Ma'am." Honor bit her lip again, then made herself ask, "But if you'll forgive me for asking, just what impact do you expect all of this to have on the trial's outcome?"


"I hope it won't have one, but I can't guarantee it," Morncreek said honestly. "We don't know enough about the tactics they're likely to pursue. At the moment, the Conservatives are pushing for outright dismissal of all charges. That much, at least, I can promise you won't happen." Morncreek glanced at the Queen, and her lips firmed. "In addition, although it's highly irregular for me to say this, I can also promise you Young will never again serve on active duty. Whatever the trial's outcome, no First Lord—not even Admiral Janacek—will ever take him off half-pay again, politics or no. Beyond that, however, things are so up in the air that even I can't guess where they're headed. And that, to be perfectly honest, is why I'm here today. Because we don't know . . . and because I damned well owe you a personal explanation of what may be forcing our hand!"


There was too much frustration in Morncreek's voice for Honor to doubt her sincerity, and she nodded slowly. Dark, bitter anger had replaced her earlier numbness where Young was concerned, but she understood. The same forces which had saved him so many times before were rallying to his defense once more, and the timing meant not even the Crown could guarantee their defeat. She wanted to weep in sheer, sick loathing, but she only nodded once more, and the Queen met her eyes compassionately.


"I want you to know, Dame Honor, that I am deeply and sincerely sorry. I've already informed both Duke Cromarty and Admiral Cordwainer that I want this trial to proceed on the basis of the current charges and with the full rigor of the Articles of War. But I have to be aware of my responsibilities to the realm, as well. I can't—literally cannot—allow the enormous debt the Kingdom owes you to outweigh the need for a viable military response to the threat Haven poses."


"I . . . understand, Your Majesty. And please don't apologize." The very idea of hearing her Queen apologize to her was repugnant to Honor, and she made herself smile.


"Thank you," Elizabeth said softly. She held Honor's eyes for a long moment, then shook herself. "At any rate, I intend for this entire Kingdom to know how I regard you. That's the reason for your appointment as Colonel of Marines, of course, but I want you to understand something, Dame Honor. When we walk into the Blue Hall in a few minutes and I express my thanks as Queen of Manticore for your actions in Hancock, it won't be a formality. Nor will I ever allow myself to forget how much I owe you."


 



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