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Chapter Five

"I guess it's time I was going." Michelle Henke sighed. Her left shoulder bore the horseshoe-shaped name patch of her new command, and the ribbon of the CGM gleamed white and blue on the left breast of her space-black tunic. That tunic was barely a shade darker than her skin, but her coloring made the new white beret of a starship commander stand out even more sharply, and the four equally new gold pips of a junior-grade captain flashed back splinters of light from her collar. Honor wished she'd been able to pass her own junior-grade pips on to her friend. It was an unofficial tradition when an exec was promoted, but Honor had skipped that rank on her own way up. Yet new insignia or old, Mike looked better than merely perfect; she looked right.


"I guess it is." Honor reached out to adjust the scarlet-and-gold shoulder flash of the Navy's snarling, rampant manticore on Henke's right sleeve. "I'm glad for you, Mike. I hate seeing you go—I'd hoped we'd have more time together—but God knows you deserve it."


"I told you when you came aboard that I wouldn't be content with anything less than a cruiser of my own, didn't I?" Henke shrugged and smiled. "You should know I always get my way."


"I suppose you do," Honor agreed. "Let me walk you to the boat bay."


Henke nodded, and Honor glanced at Senior Chief Steward James MacGuiness as she lifted Nimitz to her shoulder. Her steward's face was expressionless, but one eyelid dipped minutely, and she returned the tiny wink with a casual nod and followed Henke out the hatch.


They stepped past the Marine sentry who guarded the quarters of Nike's captain and made their way to the lift. The passage was deserted, as it usually was in officer's country, but Honor noted the way Henke's eyes flitted about. Nike's entire wardroom had joined Honor in hosting a congratulatory dinner the night before, yet it was traditional for a ship's senior officers to "accidentally" bump into a departing exec and wish her well in her new post, as well, especially when she was leaving to assume command of a ship of her own.


Only there wasn't a sign of them today, and a shadow darkened Henke's eyes. She looked as if she were about to speak, then shrugged and stepped into the lift. Honor punched their destination code and stood beside her, engaging in inconsequential conversation. She kept her voice light, jollying Henke out of her disappointment, and actually got her friend to laugh as the two of them watched the location display flicker. The lift moved swiftly and silently, but the trip took an unusually long time, for they were headed for Boat Bay Three. Of all Nike's boat bays, Three was least conveniently placed in relation to the captain's quarters, but unrepaired battle damage meant both forward docking facilities were still unserviceable.


They reached their destination, the lift door opened, and Honor waved Henke out with a flourish. Henke laughed and responded with a regal bow, but then her head snapped up in shock as the opening notes of the fanfare of the Saganami March suddenly rippled pure and golden over the boat bay speakers.


She spun to face the boat bay gallery, eyes wide, and a command cut through the majestic strains of the Royal Manticoran Navy's anthem.


"Preeeesent arms!" it barked, and hands slapped pulser stocks with crisp precision as the Marine honor guard obeyed. Colonel Ramirez and Major Hibson were there, but they stood to one side, watching as Captain Tyler, the senior Marine to survive the Battle of Hancock, whipped her dress sword up in salute. She and her people were a solid block of gorgeous green-and-black dress uniforms, but the gallery bulkheads were lined with Navy officers and ratings, all stiffly at attention to form a black-and-gold double line to the side party waiting at the mouth of the boarding tube.


Henke turned back to Honor, eyes bright.


"You set me up!" she accused under cover of the anthem, and Honor shook her head.


"Not me. It was the crew's idea. I just had Mac warn them you were on your way."


Henke started to say something more, then swallowed and turned back to the gallery. She squared her shoulders and marched down its length between the rigid lines with Honor at her heels. They reached the boarding tube, and Commander Chandler snapped a parade-ground salute.


Henke returned it, and the diminutive redhead who'd replaced her as Nike's exec extended her hand as the music died.


"Congratulations, Captain Henke," she said. "We'll miss you. But on behalf of Nike's officers and crew, I wish you Godspeed and good hunting."


"Thank you, Commander." Henke's contralto was huskier than usual, and she swallowed again. "You've got a good ship and good people, Eve. Take care of them. And—" she managed a smile "—try to keep the Skipper out of trouble."


"I will, Ma'am." Chandler saluted once more, then stepped back, and bosun's pipes twittered in formal salute to a departing starship's commander. Henke gripped Honor's hand once more, hard, and stepped into the tube without another backward glance.


* * *


Pavel Young turned from the window as the soft chime sounded. He paused a moment to twitch his uniform straight, then pressed the admittance key and watched the door to his quarters open.


The Marine sentry in the hall beyond wasn't the symbol of respect she would have been aboard ship. She was Young's keeper, the formal symbol of his disgraced status, and her cool, impersonal expression shouted her own judgment upon him. His mouth tightened at the fresh reminder, and his seething anger and humiliation surged up stronger than ever as the counter-grav life-support chair hummed past her into his sitting room.


The man in the chair was barely ninety T-years old, not even early middle age in a society with prolong, but his color was bad and he filled the chair in a billow of obesity that always made Young more aware than he liked of his own thickening middle. There were limits to how much even modern medicine could limit the consequences of a lifetime's catastrophic self-indulgence.


The chair purred into the center of the room, and the Tenth Earl of North Hollow leaned back in it to regard his eldest son from fat-pouched eyes.


"So," he wheezed. "Put your foot in it this time, didn't you?"


"I acted as I felt best under the circumstances, Father," Young said stiffly, and the earl's snort sent a ripple through his mountainous girth.


"Save it for the court, boy! You fucked up—don't try to pretend you didn't. Not with me. Especially not"—his piggy little eyes hardened— "if you expect me to get you out of this with your hide!"


Young swallowed hard. He'd thought he was already as frightened as he could get; the suggestion that this time his father might not be able to save him proved he hadn't been.


"Better." The earl moved his chair over to the window and glanced out, then pivoted back to face his son. "I can't believe you were stupid enough to fuck up this way with that bitch in charge," he grunted. Like Young himself, he seldom used Honor Harrington's name, but Young flushed under the scathing contempt in his voice, for this time it wasn't aimed at her. "Damn, boy! Hasn't she made enough problems for you without this?" The earl waved a slablike hand at the closed, guarded door. "What the hell were you using for brains?!"


Young bit his lip, and fresh anger burned like sick fire. What did his father know about it? He hadn't seen his ship at the middle of a missile storm!


"Twelve minutes. That's what made the difference," that high, wheezy voice went on. "All you had to do was stick it out for twelve more minutes, and none of this would've happened!"


"I made the best decision I could, Sir," Young said, and knew it was a lie. He could feel the terrible echoes of unthinking, paralyzing panic even now.


"Bullshit. You ran for it." Young flushed crimson, but the earl ignored it and continued, as if speaking to himself. "Should never've sent you into the Navy in the first place. Suppose I always knew you didn't have the stomach for it."


Young stared at him, unable to speak, and North Hollow sighed.


"Well, that's all air out the lock, now." He seemed to realize his son was still stiffly at attention and jabbed a sausage-shaped finger at a chair. "Oh, sit down, boy. Sit down!" Young obeyed with machinelike rigidity, and his father sighed again. "I know I wasn't there, Pavel," he said more gently. "And I know things like this happen. The important thing now is how we get you out of it. I've got a few irons already in the fire, but before I can do anything effective I've got to know exactly what happened. Not just the official record—what you were thinking. Really thinking," he added with a sharp, piercing look. "Don't bullshit me now, boy. There's too much at stake."


"I realize that, Father," Young said in a low voice.


"Good." The earl reached out to pat his knee and settled his chair to the carpet. "Then suppose you start with everything you can remember. Save the justifications for the court and just tell me what happened."


* * *


Admiral of the Green Hamish Alexander, Thirteenth Earl of White Haven, stared at his younger brother and heir across the snowy white tablecloth while their grim-faced host, Admiral Sir James Bowie Webster, Commander in Chief Home Fleet, watched them both.


"I can't believe this," White Haven said at last. His own flagship had been back in Manticore orbit for less than an hour when Webster "invited" him aboard HMS Manticore for supper. Now he shook his head like a man in a bad dream. "I knew things were screwed up, but Caparelli's dispatches never suggested it was this bad!"


"We didn't know how bad it was going to get when he sent you your last download and ordered you home, Hamish." William Alexander shrugged almost apologetically. "We knew we'd lost Wallace and his cronies, but we didn't know the Conservative Association was going to sign on with the Opposition, too."


"Damn it, Willie, we've got to hit the Peeps now! They're falling apart before our eyes—they didn't even fire a shot when I moved on Chelsea!—but if they get their feet back under them . . ." The earl let his voice trail off, and his brother shrugged.


"You're preaching to the converted, Hamish. The Duke's calling in every favor from the last fifty years, but the Opposition's standing firm for now. I think the Liberals have truly convinced themselves they're looking at a genuine reform movement on Haven. As for the Progressives—! I doubt Gray Hill and Lady Descroix would recognize a principle if it bit them, but they've persuaded the Progressive rank and file that the Peeps will simply self-destruct if we just let them alone."


"That's horseshit, Willie!" Webster put down his cup so angrily coffee slopped over the brim. "Goddamn it, don't any of them read history?!"


"No, they don't." William's own anger was apparent in his over-controlled voice. "It's not 'relevant.' "


"Idiots!" White Haven grunted. He shoved himself up out of his chair and took a quick, frustrated turn around Webster's dining cabin. "This is a classic situation. The Havenite government's been a disaster in waiting for decades, but this new Committee of Public Safety is a whole 'nother animal. I don't care what their propaganda says, they're no more reformers than the Conservative Association is, and they're ruthless as hell. Your own sources report they've already shot over a dozen admirals! If we don't smash them before they finish consolidating, we're going to be up against something ten times as dangerous as Harris and his stooges ever were."


"At least they may shoot enough of their commanders to give us an edge." William sounded like a man trying to convince himself the cloud really had a silver lining, and his brother snorted harshly.


"You never did read your Napoleon, did you, Willie?" Alexander shook his head, and White Haven grinned crookedly. "When Napoleon built the army that conquered most of Europe, he did it by turning lieutenants, sergeants—even corporals!—into colonels and generals. His troops used to say there was a field marshal's baton in every knapsack, that anyone could rise to the heights once the old regime was out of the way. Well, the Legislaturalists are gone now. Sure, the new regime's costing itself a lot of experience by killing off the old guard, but it's also offering non-Legislaturalists their first real chance at the top. Damn it, all we need is a Peep officer corps with a genuine stake in the system and the chance to rise on merit!"


"And that doesn't even consider the other new motivating factor," Webster threw in. William looked at him, and the admiral shrugged. "Come back with your shield or on it," he said. "Anyone who disappoints the new regime will go the same way Parnell went." An expression of genuine regret crossed his features, and he sighed. "The man was an enemy, and I hated the system he represented, but damn it all, he deserved better than that."


"He certainly did." White Haven dumped himself back into his chair and reached for his own coffee cup. "He was good, Jim. Better than I thought. I had him cold in Yeltsin. He never had a clue we were there, or in such strength, before we opened up on him, and he still managed to get almost half his fleet out of it. And then his own government shot him for 'treason'!" The earl sipped coffee, then shook his head sadly and drew a deep breath.


"All right, Willie. Jim and I understand the Duke's problems, but what, exactly, do you expect me to do? Everyone knows I support the Centrists, and not"—he managed a tired smile—"just because my baby brother's in the Cabinet. I doubt I can change too many minds you and he can't already get to."


"Actually," William said uncomfortably, "I'm afraid you're going to be more central to the situation than you think."


"Me?" White Haven said skeptically. He glanced at Webster, but his friend only shrugged his own ignorance, and they both looked back at William.


"You," Alexander sighed, and leaned back in his chair. "I'm not supposed to know this, but the court's been appointed for Pavel Young, Hamish."


"And about fucking time!" Webster snorted, but something in Alexander's voice sounded warning bells deep in White Haven's brain, and his eyes sharpened. William met them levelly and nodded.


"You're on it. In fact, you're its senior member."


"Oh, Jesus!" Webster groaned in sudden understanding. White Haven said nothing for a long moment as he gazed at his brother, and then he spoke very carefully.


"Willie, I'm willing to do a great many things for Allen Summervale, but I draw the line at this. You tell the Duke that if I'm appointed to sit on a court—even Pavel Young's—I'm going to listen to the evidence and make my decision on that basis and only that basis."


"No one's asking you to do anything else!" William snapped. Blue eyes flashed into matching eyes of Alexander blue, and White Haven raised a hand in apology. His brother glared at him a moment longer, then sighed. "Sorry, Hamish. Sorry. It's just that—"


He broke off and closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them once more, his face was calm.


"Look, we're not trying to influence you, but the last thing any of us need—including you—is for you to get blindsided, all right?"


" 'Blindsided'?" White Haven repeated, and William nodded.


"I know the selection process is supposed to avoid any possibility of favoritism in the selection of a court-martial's board, but this time it's boomeranged on us big time, Ham. You're on the court, all right—and so are Sonja Hemphill, Rex Jurgens, and Antoinette Lemaitre."


White Haven winced, and Webster swallowed an oath of disbelief. Silence lingered once more until the earl broke it.


"Who're the other two?" he asked.


"Thor Simengaard and Admiral Kuzak."


"Um." White Haven frowned and crossed his legs while he rubbed an eyebrow. "Theodosia Kuzak's as apolitical as they come," he said after a moment. "She'll look at the evidence, and only the evidence. Simengaard's more problematical, but I expect if he listens to his prejudices he'll come down against Young. Of course, I haven't seen any of the evidence yet—for that matter, I don't officially know what the charges are—but I don't think he'd care for Young on general principles."


"Which still leaves the other three," William pointed out, "and North Hollow is pulling out all the stops. Unless I miss my guess, he's going to talk High Ridge into making the Conservatives' continued support for the Opposition contingent on the outcome of the trial, and that'll bring the Liberals and Progressives in on it, too. They smell blood, maybe even the chance to bring the Duke's Government down despite the Crown's support. They won't pass up the chance, and if getting his son off is the price tag—" He broke off with an eloquent shrug.


"Does he really have that much clout, Willie?" Webster put in.


"Hell, Jim! You should know that as well as I do, after so long as First Space Lord! The old bastard is the Association whip in the Lords. Worse, he knows where every political body on Manticore is buried. You think he won't exhume every one of them to save his son's neck?" Alexander's lip curled, and Webster nodded slow agreement.


"How do you expect him to come at it, Willie?" White Haven asked.


"We don't know yet. At the moment, he's demanding we drop the charges in their entirety, but he has to know that's not going to happen. Her Majesty's made her own position clear and, Opposition or not, that's going to carry weight in a lot of minds. He's got Janacek in his corner as an advisor, though, and that worries us. Janacek may be a hide-bound, reactionary old bastard, but he knows the Navy side of the street as well as North Hollow knows the political one. At the moment, I think they're just trying to stake out an initial bargaining position, but between them, they're going to come up with something more effective. You can count on that."


"And I get to serve as president of the court. Wonderful." White Haven unfolded his legs and slid further down in his chair.


"And you get to serve as president," his brother confirmed. "I don't envy you—and I'm not even going to try to suggest what you ought to do. Aside from the fact that you'd take my head off for it, no one knows enough yet to suggest anything. But this is shaping up as the nastiest fight I can remember, Ham, and it's not going to get better."


"An understatement if I ever heard one." White Haven studied the toes of his polished boots and brooded, then managed a sour grin. "I suppose it's no more than my just desserts, Jim," he said almost whimsically, and both the others looked at him in surprise.


"What do you mean?" Webster asked.


"Didn't I suggest sending Sarnow to Hancock with Harrington as his flag captain?"


"It seemed like a good idea to me, too, Hamish. And judging from the after-action reports, it was a damned good job we did send them out."


"Agreed." White Haven pushed himself a bit higher in his chair and frowned. "By the way, how's Sarnow doing?"


"He looks like hell," Webster said candidly, "but the medics are pleased. He lost both legs right at the knee, and his internal injuries are nothing to sneeze at, but they say the quick heal's taken hold nicely. You couldn't prove it by me, but that's what they say. Of course, he's going to be on the sick list for months once they start regenerating his legs."


"At least they can," White Haven murmured, and Webster and his brother looked at one another in silence. The earl sat wordless for several seconds, then gave another sigh. "All right, Willie, I'm warned. Tell the Duke I'll do my damnedest to hold down the political fallout, but if the evidence supports the charges, tell him there's no way I'm letting Young walk, either. If that makes the situation worse, I'm sorry, but that's the way it is."


"I know that, jerk." William smiled sadly at his older brother and reached out to squeeze his forearm in a rare physical display of affection. "Hell, I knew that before I came up here!"


"I imagine you did," White Haven agreed with a tiny smile. He glanced at the bulkhead chrono and pushed himself back to his feet. "All right," he said more briskly, "I'm warned. And now, much though it grieves me to walk out on such august personages, I haven't seen Emily in almost four months, and it's just about dawn at White Haven. So if you'll excuse me—?"


"We'll walk you to the boat bay," Webster said.


 



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