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Chapter Four

Soft music from real, live musicians drifted through the dim, intimately lit restaurant on the delicious smells of a hundred worlds' cuisine. Cosmo's, the most exclusive night spot in the city of Landing, boasted that no one had ever ordered a dish its kitchen couldn't supply. That was no small claim, given the stupendous volume of shipping (and the passengers who went with it) which passed through the central terminus of the Manticore Wormhole Junction, but Honor could believe it.


She'd been to Cosmo's exactly once before, when her mother had settled for that after Honor refused the Academy graduation gift she'd initially had in mind. Honor had been too goggle-eyed with curiosity to pay much attention to the food then; this time around she was not only older but here in the role of hostess, and she'd discovered that the chefs' handiwork was even better than Cosmo's owners claimed.


It certainly ought to be, considering its price tag—not that she begrudged a penny of it. Willard Neufsteiler hadn't said so yet, but his 'cat-with-a-celery-stick expression told her she could afford it.


Neufsteiler had represented Honor's financial interests for almost five T-years, and she was profoundly grateful she'd fallen into his hands. He had a few quirks that could be irritating, like his childlike delight in delaying the disclosure of good news to tease her, but he was scrupulously honest, and he had an uncanny investment sense. Honor's prize money from Basilisk Station had made her a millionaire; Neufsteiler's management had made her a multi-millionaire several times over. Which meant the least she could do was buy him an occasional supper, even at Cosmo's prices, and put up with his version of a sense of humor.


She raised her wineglass at the thought, using it to hide her smile. But she wasn't here simply to hear Willard's report, and her eyes circled the table, lighting with a deeper warmth as they brushed over Paul Tankersley before settling on the newest pair of replacements to report aboard Nike.


The battlecruiser's attached Marine battalion had suffered heavier losses in Hancock, proportionate to its numbers, than any other department. Both Lieutenant Colonel Klein and Major Flanders, his exec, had been killed in action, and Klein's senior company commander was on indefinite medical leave for his wounds. Captain Tyler, the ranking survivor, had done well, considering her relative inexperience, but everyone knew she was only acting CO. Yet the Admiralty had been in no hurry to relieve her or even to replace the other casualties. Intellectually, Honor found it hard to blame Their Lordships. Her Marines weren't likely to be dropped into combat while Nike was under repair, after all, and the Navy had other things on its mind. But it had been hard not to resent the effect on her people's morale and training schedules.


That much, at least, was about to change, she thought with intense satisfaction, because the Admiralty had shown unusually good sense when it finally picked Klein's successor.


Colonel Tomas Santiago Ramirez had been a major the last time Honor saw him. He'd commanded HMS Fearless's Marines at Yeltsin's Star, and she suspected that the job he'd done then had something to do with his rapid promotion since. Whether it did or not, he certainly deserved his new rank, and Honor was delighted to see him again.


The colonel was an émigré from San Martin, which explained his almost fearsomely imposing presence. He, his sisters, and his mother had fled San Martin via the Trevor's Star terminal of the Manticore Worm Hole Junction even as the Havenite occupation fleet moved in, crushing the out-classed San Martin Navy and killing his father in the process. Ramirez had been only twelve at the time, but people reached physical maturity early on San Martin, and the colonel reflected the gravity to which he'd been born.


The first adjective to occur to anyone on first sight of him was "big," but "enormous" was a better choice. His height wasn't much above average, but he was huge-boned and squat with lumpy muscle, a man whose beer-barrel neck tapered sharply to merge with his head. Paul Tankersley sat beside him at the table, and the difference between them was instructive. Paul was a chunky, powerful man, despite his relative shortness, but Ramirez's shoulders were twice as broad as his, and the colonel's upper arms were thicker than most men's thighs. At a hundred and eighty-three centimeters, he massed over a hundred and fifty kilos, and if there were three excess grams of fat anywhere about his person, twenty T-years of Marine phys-ed had been unable to find them.


His new exec was another matter. Major Susan Hibson, another veteran of the Blackbird Raid and the Second Battle of Yeltsin, was as dark skinned and haired as Ramirez, but she was almost petite, with startling, sea-green eyes in a face which was much tougher than the colonel's. It was a good face, with finely chiseled features, but there was no softness in it. It wasn't harsh; it simply warned all comers that the woman who wore it had never had the slightest interest in figuring out how to back up for anyone.


It was the first time Ramirez and Hibson had served together since Yeltsin's Star, and Honor was delighted to see them both. Between them, this pair would blow any rust off of Nike's Marines in record time.


She lowered her glass, and their waiter reappeared like an alert genie to refill it. He circled the table, checking all the others, as well, then disappeared again without a word. Good as he was, he could have taken a few lessons in total unobtrusiveness from her own steward, but perhaps he was supposed to be seen to make certain the customers were aware of the service for which they were paying.


She smiled at the thought and toyed with the notion of calling him back to order a cup of cocoa, but even her sweet tooth had been momentarily sated by the baklava they'd just finished. Besides, offering Paul such an opening to twit her over her beverage of choice might not be the smartest thing she could do.


She decided against it, not without regret, and offered Nimitz another stick of celery. The mâitre d' hadn't turned a hair when she arrived with the 'cat. He couldn't see many of them here on Manticore, but he'd simply snapped his fingers to summon a waiter with a highchair that worked equally well for infant humans or adult treecats and had it placed at Honor's elbow. Nimitz had settled himself into it with the dignity of a monarch assuming his throne, and his table manners, always excellent on formal occasions, had been even better than usual. As a rule, Honor tried to keep his celery intake to a minimum. Much as he loved it, he had the wrong enzymes to digest Terran cellulose, but this time he'd earned it, and she rubbed his ears as he crunched blissfully away.


"I still can't believe how much he likes that stuff." Neufsteiler shook his head. "You'd think he'd get tired of it eventually, Dame Honor."


"The average life expectancy of a Sphinx treecat is about two hundred and fifty years," Honor told him, "and there's no record of any 'cat ever getting tired of celery."


"Really?" Amusement glinted in Neufsteiler's voice, and Honor shook her head.


"Really. I scold him about it, but it never fazes him. And, in a way, I suppose I'm actually grateful for it."


"Grateful?" Paul Tankersley chuckled. "I have to say I'd never have suspected it from the way you go on at me for slipping him his fix!"


"That's because you spoil him," she said severely. "And I didn't actually mean to say I was grateful for his addiction. I was speaking of treecats in general."


"Why?" Neufsteiler asked.


"Because it was celery that first brought humans and 'cats together."


"This I've got to hear!" Tankersley laughed and sat back in his chair. "Assuming, of course, that you're not pulling my leg," he added. Nimitz paused in his chewing to give him a haughty look, and Honor smiled.


"No, I'm serious. Humans didn't go out of their way to study 'cats when they first arrived on Sphinx. The first colonists had other things on their minds; they hardly even realized treecats existed, and none of the survey teams ever guessed how intelligent they really are. Personally, I think that's because of their size. No one's ever encountered another intelligent species with such a low body mass, and no one expected to . . . which is probably why the survey crews never looked closely enough to realize they're tool-users."


"I'd never heard that, Ma'am," Colonel Ramirez sounded surprised. His voice was as deep as one might have expected from that enormous chest, but his San Martin accent softened its rumble with almost musical overtones. "I don't doubt you, of course, but I've always been fascinated by treecats. I've read everything I could find on them, and I've never seen a hint of that."


"I don't doubt it, Tomas." Honor glanced around the table, then shrugged and looked back at Ramirez. "In fact, I'd be surprised if you've found much about their social organization, either. Am I right?"


"Well, yes, Ma'am, now that you mention it." Ramirez rubbed his chin. "I have found a fair amount on their physiology, and the literature on their adoption bonds with humans is fairly extensive. Not that it explains very much. Every 'expert' seems to have a different explanation for just how it works."


"And the best any of them can offer is a 'hypothesis,' right?" Honor asked, and Ramirez nodded. "Well, the truth is that most people who know much about 'cats aren't talking. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a conspiracy of silence, but the xenologists who drop by to study them either get adopted themselves or else don't seem to learn very much before they get bored and leave. Those who do get adopted usually wind up working for the Sphinx Forestry Commission, and treecats are a protected species, which means the planetary authorities—including Forestry's xenologists—discourage people from bugging them. In fact, almost all Sphinxians tend to be extremely protective where the 'cats are concerned. We just don't talk about them very much, except with people we trust. Which, in turn, tends to keep the available off-planet literature on them in the schoolgirl primer category, but they're definitely tool-makers. Oh, we're talking very simple implements, about on the order of Neolithic man's, but you should see the flint hand-axes and other artifacts some of the Sphinx 'cat communities turn out. Of course, they're not very interested in ornaments or personal possessions without some specific utility. And those who adopt humans—like Mister Greedy Guts over there—don't really need tools. They've got people to do the heavy work for them."


Nimitz made a sound suspiciously like a quelling sniff, and she chuckled and handed him another stick of celery. The bribe was accepted with becoming graciousness, and she returned her attention to her guests.


"The thing is, even after over three local years—almost sixteen T-years—on Sphinx, the colonists had made even less contact with the 'cats than the survey crews had. They were smart enough to stay out of sight and out of mind while they adjusted to the sudden intrusion of humans, and the settlers had more than enough other things to worry about. But that changed once they had their greenhouses in and started growing something besides staple food crops. Personally, I suspect the 'cats had been making reconnaissances of the homesteads right along—believe me, you don't see a 'cat in the wild unless he wants you to—and no one had ever considered the need to lock a greenhouse. Until, that was, every single head of celery started vanishing swiftly and silently away in the dark of night."


"You're kidding me. They were stealing the stuff?" Neufsteiler laughed, and Honor nodded.


"Absolutely, though I doubt they thought of it that way. 'Cats don't have much sense of individual property. It took me years to explain the concept to Nimitz, and he still thinks it's one of humanity's sillier notions. But the Great Vanishing Celery Mystery caused a sensation, let me tell you! You wouldn't believe some of the theories the settlers came up with to explain the traceless disappearance of that plant and only that plant. Not that anyone came particularly close to the truth. I mean, think about it. Can you conceive of anything less likely—or more ridiculous on the face of it—than that a bunch of carnivorous, extraterrestrial arboreals should be staging commando raids on greenhouses in the dead of night just to steal celery?"


"No, I don't suppose I can." Ramirez's deep voice rippled with amusement. Nimitz went to some lengths to ignore it, and Hibson laughed.


"I doubt even a Marine would think of that one, Ma'am," the major agreed.


"Neither did anyone on Sphinx—until the night a ten-year-old girl couldn't sleep and caught one of them in the act."


"So she blew the whistle on them?" Neufsteiler chuckled, but Honor shook her head.


"Nope. She didn't tell a soul."


"Then how did the settlers find out what was going on?" Paul demanded.


"Oh, now, that's another story. If you're real nice to me, I may even tell it someday."


"Ha! I bet you don't know the rest of it!"


"Nice try, Paul, but you're not going to goad me into telling. I will tell you one thing, though."


She paused, eyes laughing while he glared at her in exasperation. But she knew his sense of curiosity too well, and he capitulated with a sigh.


"All right, I'll ask. What will you tell me?"


"The little girl in question?" Honor raised her eyebrows, and he nodded. "Her last name was Harrington," she told him smugly. "You might say 'cats run in the family."


"I might also say her present-day descendant's questionable sense of humor will lead her to an evil end if she doesn't come clean."


"We'll see about that. Maybe you can think of something to bribe me with."


"Maybe I can, at that," he murmured so wickedly Honor blushed.


"You're really not going to tell us, are you?" Neufsteiler asked. Neither he nor the two Marines seemed to notice Honor's blush, and she shook her head at the prize agent with a grateful if teasing smile. "Then maybe I shouldn't tell you why I wanted to see you."


"Ah, but you and I have a fiduciary relationship. Unlike you, I can sue."


"And probably would, too." Neufsteiler shook his head at her perfidy, but he grinned, as well, and produced a small sheaf of hardcopy. "Take a look at this," he suggested, and slid it across the table to her.


Honor unfolded the sheets of printout, ran her eye down the neat columns of figures . . . and froze.


"You're joking!" she gasped, but Neufsteiler shook his head with a broad smile.


"I most assuredly am not, Dame Honor. The first quarterly income from your estates on Grayson came in just about the time the prize court made its official award on those dreadnoughts you and Admiral Danislav captured in Hancock. As of—" he glanced at his chrono "—six hours ago, your net worth was exactly what it says on that report."


Honor stared at him in disbelief, almost numb, then slid the report to Tankersley. He glanced at the bottom line and pursed his lips silently.


"I wouldn't exactly say the major merchant cartels have to start worrying about you," he said after a moment, "but I've got some bottom land on Gryphon I'd like to show you."


Honor smiled at him, but the reaction was almost automatic, and shock still rippled through her. She came of yeoman stock. Her parents were undeniably well off, thanks to the performance of their medical partnership, but the majority of yeoman families were land-rich and money-poor, especially on Sphinx. It had been hard enough for her to accept that her prize money from Basilisk had made her a millionaire, but this—!


"You're sure there's not some mistake, Willard?" she asked hesitantly.


"Dame Honor," he said patiently, "a dreadnought is valued at somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty-two billion dollars, and the prize court awards three percent of the value of a surrendered enemy ship to the task force which captured it, assuming the Navy buys the prize into service. Of that total, the flag captains of said task force split twelve percent among themselves, and there were only four flag captains in Hancock at the time Admiral Chin surrendered. The Admiralty survey judged two of her five surviving dreadnoughts too badly damaged for repair, but the Navy bought the other three in. Now, three percent of ninety-six billion dollars is two-point-eight-eight billion, and twelve percent of that is three hundred forty-five million, plus change. Which means, dear lady, that your share comes to a paltry eighty-six million four hundred thousand dollars—exclusive of the lighter vessels surrendered with them. Of course, they only added another six million to your total award, so I suppose we don't have to worry about them. Believe me, those figures are correct. In fact, if you look at page three, you'll see that the most junior enlisted person serving under you will receive almost fifty thousand dollars."


Honor hardly even heard the last remark. She'd known she was bound to receive a hefty award, but she'd never imagined one this hefty. Why, it almost quadrupled her total net worth! The thought of that much money was frightening, and especially since prize money was untaxable. She got to keep every penny!


She shook her head numbly.


"What in God's name am I going to do with all this?" she asked almost plaintively, and Neufsteiler chuckled.


"I'm sure you'll think of something, Milady. In the meantime, you can leave it in my hands, if you wish. I've got my eye on several promising opportunities, but I don't want you to rush into anything. Give yourself a few days to adjust to the idea, then let me show you some annual reports and projected returns before you decide where to put it."


"I—" Honor shook herself again and grinned crookedly. "I think that sounds like an excellent idea, Willard."


"So do I. After all, I get five percent of net for managing your interests. Although," Neufsteiler managed to produce a mournful expression, "the Exchequer does get a cut from my share."


"Poor fellow." Honor's eyes twinkled as she came back on balance. "I guess that means you're going to stick me with the check after all."


"The first lesson a banker learns, Milady."


"Well, in that case I—"


Honor broke off as someone called her name. She twisted around, and her face lit as she recognized the three men walking toward her table.


"Alistair!" She shoved up out of her chair and reached out to shake hands. "And Andy and Rafe, too! What are you three doing here?!"


"Well, we checked with Captain Henke, and she told us where you were, Ma'am," Andreas Venizelos explained, "so Captain McKeon said he'd pick up the cover charge to come looking for you." Honor laughed, and Venizelos grinned. "It was only right, Ma'am. He is the senior officer, after all."


"A point you'd better remember, Commander," McKeon observed darkly.


"Aye, aye, Sir!" Venizelos snapped a sharp salute, and Honor laughed again, her eyes bright and happy as her waiter did his materialization trick again, producing chairs for the new arrivals.


"Don't worry about it, Alistair. I just discovered that I've become a woman of substance, and this is my party. Are you three hungry?"


"Not really. We ate before we went looking for you aboard Nike." Some of the humor faded from McKeon's eyes, and he shook his head. "I wish to hell you'd be a little more careful. Just once I'd like to see you take a ship over without getting it—and you—shot to bits."


"So would I," she said softly as she heard the concern in his voice. Then she shook herself. "Before I completely forget my manners, let me make the introductions. I think all three of you know Colonel Ramirez and Major Hibson?"


McKeon nodded and extended his hand, first to Ramirez and then to Hibson. "I see congratulations are in order," he said, indicating their rank insignia. "Looks like the Corps recognizes talent when it sees it."


"It certainly does," Honor agreed, and gestured to Paul. "This fellow is Captain Paul Tankersley, Hephaestus' newest deputy constructor, and this is Willard Neufsteiler, my agent. Paul, Willard, these are Captain Alistair McKeon, Commander Andreas Venizelos, and Lieutenant—no," she corrected herself, "Lieutenant Commander Rafe Cardones." She gave Cardones an approving smile and tapped the new half ring on his cuff as Tankersley reached across the table to shake hands with the new arrivals in turn. "Congratulations, Rafe!"


"Thank you, Ma'am—I mean, Dame Honor." Cardones colored slightly, and Honor swallowed a chuckle. Rafael Cardones was very young for his rank. He'd earned it the hard way, but there were still traces of the awkward puppy of a junior-grade lieutenant she'd first met five T-years before.


"Well!" She leaned back and looked from face to face. "May I ask what brings all three of you here together looking for me?"


"Oh, this and that." McKeon accepted a wineglass from the waiter and waved it at his two companions. "Andy and I are assigned to Home Fleet, and both our ships are currently docked at Hephaestus, so it seemed like a good opportunity to pay you a call."


"And you, Rafe?"


"Me?" Cardones grinned. "I'm Nike's new tac officer, Ma'am."


"You are? That's wonderful, Rafe! But when did that happen?"


"About six hours ago, Ma'am."


"Well, welcome aboard, Guns!" She slapped his forearm with a grin, then frowned. "But no one said anything about Commander Chandler leaving. I'm delighted to see you, but I hate losing her."


"You're not, Ma'am. Things are still pretty confused at the moment, but I brought Captain Henke a general list of transfers and replacements when I reported aboard. From what I understand, BuPers is bumping Commander Chandler over from Tactical to replace Captain Henke when they move her to Agni. I'm afraid you're stuck with both of us, Skipper."


"I can stand it," Honor told him, and turned to McKeon and pointed to the four gold cuff bands on his sleeves. "They told me you were getting your fourth ring, Alistair. I think that shows remarkably good judgment on someone's part. Congratulations."


"I think some of your reputation rubbed off on me," McKeon said wryly, enjoying the delicate blush on her cheeks.


"So what did they give you?"


"Prince Adrian." McKeon's pleasure was obvious, and Honor nodded in approval. Prince Adrian might be smaller than one of the newer Star Knights, but the two-hundred-forty-thousand-ton heavy cruiser was still a powerful unit. She was, in fact, an outstanding prize for a junior-grade captain . . . and no more than Alistair deserved.


"Is Scotty still with you?"


"Indeed he is," McKeon said, then chuckled.


"What?" Honor asked.


"Someone else came aboard right after he did. I believe you know him. Senior Chief Petty Officer Harkness."


"Harkness made senior chief?!"


"Word of honor." McKeon raised his hand solemnly. "Took him thirty-odd years to make chief and keep it, but it looks like Scotty's been some sort of stabilizing influence."


"You're not telling me he's turned over a new leaf!"


"No, just that he hasn't happened across a Marine in a bar or fallen afoul of a customs inspection yet. On the other hand, it may just stick this time."


"I'll believe it when I see it." Honor shook her head in fond memory, then looked at Venizelos. "And what did our lords and masters give you, Andy?"


"Nothing so splendid as a heavy cruiser, Ma'am, but I'm not complaining." Venizelos grinned. "I took over Apollo from Captain Truman when the yard finished her repairs."


"Outstanding, both of you." Honor raised her glass in silent toast, and a rare sense of complete satisfaction filled her as she contemplated their well-deserved good fortune. And her own, she thought, glancing at Paul.


"Thank you," McKeon said, returning her salute with his own glass, then leaned back in his own chair. "And now that we've run you to ground and told you what we've been up to, I want to hear the real story about what happened in Hancock. From what I've already heard," he shot her a knowing grin, "it sounds like you've been up to your old tricks again, Dame Honor!"


 



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