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Chapter Nine

Honor Harrington leaned back in her waiting room chair, eyes closed, and tried to pretend she was asleep. She doubted she was fooling anyone . . . and she knew she wasn't fooling Paul Tankersley. Nimitz was a soft, warm weight in her lap, and the 'cat's empathic sense linked her to Paul's emotions as he sat beside her. She'd felt his growing concern as the endless hours stretched longer and longer, and his matching worry had only made her own worse, but she was grateful for his willingness to leave her in peace, without the well-meant efforts at reassurance someone else might have inflicted upon her.


It was taking too long. From the moment she'd learned who was on the court, she'd feared only one thing, and every agonizing tick of the wait deepened that fear. The memory of the Queen's warning about the political considerations she had no choice but to face burned like acid in an open wound. A hung verdict would be almost worse than an acquittal, she thought wretchedly. A way for Young to walk, to flaunt the protection of his family's influence yet again, and she didn't know if she could endure that.


* * *


The conference room didn't really stink of sweat and stale hate, White Haven thought, but it still felt as if the air conditioner had packed it in. Not that he blamed it. The psychic ferocity of the last several hours had been more than enough to overwhelm any inanimate object unfortunate enough to be exposed to it.


He sat back in his chair, tunic hanging over its back, and rubbed his aching eyes, trying not to show his depression as the debate lapsed once more into stormy silence. Not that "debate," with its implications of discussion and reasoned argument, was the right word. There was no sign that any of the court's members—himself included, he admitted wearily—would yield even a fraction. Mindful of his position as president of the court, he'd let Kuzak and Simengaard carry the battle to Jurgens and Lemaitre. Sonja Hemphill had said even less than he—in fact, she'd said virtually nothing, despite her seniority—but the other two had more than compensated, and she'd voted in lockstep with them. They'd balloted on the charges eight more times with no change at all, and a dull, sick headache hammered in his temples.


"Look," he said finally, "we've been arguing for hours, and no one has even addressed the actual evidence or testimony." His voice sounded as tired as he felt, despite his effort to put energy into it. "Does anyone here question the facts as presented by the prosecution?"


No one replied, and he lowered his hand with a sigh.


"That's what I thought. And that means we're deadlocked not on what Lord Young did or didn't do, not on what Lady Harrington did or didn't do, but on the parameters we apply to our decision. We haven't moved a millimeter."


"And I don't believe we're going to . . . Sir." Jurgens voice had grown hoarse, but he met White Haven's eyes defiantly. "I contend, and will continue to contend, that Lord Young acted within the scope of the Articles of War, and that makes nonsense of this entire proceeding."


"I agree," Commodore Lemaitre said. Kuzak and Simengaard looked murderous, but White Haven raised a hand once more before either could speak.


"That's as may be, Admiral Jurgens," he said, "but I seriously doubt another board will share your view. If we return a hung verdict, the Admiralty will have no choice but to impanel another court—one whose decision will almost certainly be against Lord Young."


"In your own words, Sir, that's as may be," Jurgens replied. "I can only vote my conscience, based on my own understanding of the relevant law."


"Regardless of the political consequences to the war effort, Admiral. Is that it?" White Haven could have bitten his tongue off the instant he spoke, but it was too late, and Jurgens' eyes flamed as the words were finally said.


"I took an oath to decide this case based on the evidence and my understanding of the Articles of War, Sir," he said almost spitefully. "The political ramifications are beside the point. Since politics have been brought up, however, I will say that this entire trial is about politics. Its sole purpose is to convict Lord Young on a capital charge simply to help a cabal of politicians and senior officers wring political advantage from satisfying Captain Harrington's personal thirst for vengeance!"


"What?!" Thor Simengaard half rose, glaring across at his superior, and his huge fists gripped the table edge as if to reduce it to splinters.


"It's common knowledge, Captain," Jurgens snarled. "Harrington has hated Young ever since they were at the Academy together. Now she's the mob's darling, finally in a position to finish him off through this farce of a court-martial, and certain senior officers"—he kept his eyes fixed on Simengaard, refusing to look at White Haven—"are prepared to adopt any sort of legal mumbo-jumbo to give her his head on a platter and mobilize public opinion against the Opposition. Well, I, for one, won't be a party to it!"


A thick, inarticulate sound guttered in Simengaard's throat, but Lemaitre's sharp voice cut across it.


"I believe you've raised an excellent point, Admiral Jurgens." She turned her own glare on Simengaard. "And I might add that the Government's choice of Captain Harrington as their standard bearer in this matter is disturbing. Highly disturbing. Her record clearly demonstrates that she's hot-tempered and vindictive—and not simply where Lord Young is concerned, Captain. I need hardly remind you that she assaulted a Crown envoy in Yeltsin, nor that she attempted to murder POWs in her charge in that same system. Her tendency to insubordination and arrogance is clearly established, as well. I remind you of her testimony before the Weapons Development Board—testimony that was a direct attack upon Admiral Hemphill as its then chairwoman!"


Sonja Hemphill winced and raised a hand, only to let it fall as Lemaitre went on spitting out her exhausted anger.


"The woman is a menace! And I don't care who may have endorsed her actions in Hancock! No one is above the law, Captain Simengaard—no one!—and it is my intention, following this court-martial, to request the Judge Advocate General, on my own authority, to thoroughly investigate her conduct with an eye to possible charges of mutiny arising from her brazen usurpation of command authority in Hancock!"


"I'll endorse that request, Commodore," Jurgens snapped, and Simengaard and Kuzak exploded almost in unison.


White Haven slumped in his chair, aghast at what his slip of the tongue had unleashed. Rank was forgotten as the four officers leaned across the table, shouting at one another in a tidal wave of fury. Only Sonja Hemphill sat silent, her expression sick, as the solemnity of a court-martial disintegrated.


The earl shook his head like an exhausted fighter, and then he rose to his feet and slammed both fists on the table like white-knuckled sledgehammers.


"Silence!"


His bellow shook the room, and the disputants jerked around as one to stare at him. The naked fury on his face stunned them wordless, and he braced himself on the polished conference table as he glared at them all.


"Sit down!" he snapped. They hesitated, and his lips drew back in a snarl. "Now!" he barked, and the explosive syllable drove them back into their chairs like a blow.


"You will all now listen to me," he went on in an icy, over-controlled voice, "because I will say this only once. I will have the next person who raises his or her voice in this room, on either side of the discussion, for any reason, regardless of rank, up on charges for conduct unbecoming! Is that clear?" Crackling silence answered for them, and he inhaled deeply and forced himself back down in his own chair.


"This is a court-martial. Whatever our views or disagreements, we will conduct ourselves as senior officers of Her Majesty's Navy and not as a bunch of juvenile hooligans. If you cannot maintain the rudiments of common civility in the give and take of normal conversation, then I will impose formal parliamentary rules of procedure and recognize each of you, individually."


Kuzak and Simengaard looked abashed and ashamed, and Lemaitre looked frightened and sullen. Only Jurgens returned the earl's glare measure for measure, and there was no give in his face.


"With all due respect, Admiral White Haven," the effort it took to keep his voice level was obvious, "there's no point in further deliberation. This is a hung court. Whatever certain members of the board want, they're not going to get a vote to convict. In my opinion, you, as president of the court, have only one option."


"Indeed, Admiral Jurgens? And what might my single option be?" The calm in White Haven's voice was deadly.


"To announce that we are unable to reach a verdict and recommend that all charges be dropped."


"Dropped?" Simengaard strangled his incredulous response just short of a shout, and Jurgens jerked a nod without ever looking away from White Haven.


"Dropped." He didn't try to hide his triumph. "As you yourself have pointed out, Admiral, the political situation is critical. A decision to retry Lord Young would only make that crisis worse. As president, you have the right to make whatever recommendation you like, but the decision will be made at a higher level, and I doubt very much that Duke Cromarty will thank the Admiralty for pursuing the matter. Under the circumstances, the most constructive thing you can do is advise against a retrial. Such a recommendation from within the Service would give the Government an out, a graceful way for it to drop the charges so that Duke Cromarty—and the Opposition—can put this all behind them and get on with the war."


White Haven's clenched jaw ached with fury at the vicious satisfaction in Jurgens' tone. The man had taken the gloves off at last. He was no longer even pretending, for this was the end to which he'd worked from the beginning.


"A moment, Admiral White Haven." Theodosia Kuzak's frozen-helium voice quivered with the effort it cost her to restrain her own temper, and her eyes were jade ice as she looked at Jurgens.


"Admiral Jurgens, you've seen the evidence. You know, as well as anyone else in this room, that Pavel Young panicked. That he ran. That by pulling out he exposed his comrades—other members of the Queen's Service—to enemy fire, and that scores, probably hundreds, of them died as a result. You know that. Forget about any enmity for or by Lady Harrington. Forget about the letter of the law or his 'understanding of the situation.' He betrayed his oath and his comrades, and they know he did it, and this court is charged with far more than merely determining his guilt or innocence. Fine, narrow distinctions of law and clever legal tactics may have their place in a civilian court, but this is a military court. We're also charged with protecting the Queen's Navy. With insuring its discipline and safeguarding its morale and fighting power. You know—you must know—what the larger consequences will be if the Fleet discovers we refuse to punish arrant cowardice! Are you telling us that, knowing all that, you're still willing to use specious legalisms and political pressure to save scum like Young from a firing squad? My God, man! Can't you see what you're doing?"


Jurgens looked away from her and hunched his shoulders, and she turned to Lemaitre and Hemphill.


"Can't any of you see?" She was no longer furious. She was pleading with them. "Are all three of you prepared to just sit there and see this disgrace to our uniform and honor walk away?"


Commodore Lemaitre shifted in her chair and joined Jurgens in refusing to meet Kuzak's gaze, but Sonja Hemphill raised her head. She looked all around the table, then locked almost defiant eyes with her fellow admiral.


"No, Admiral Kuzak," she said softly. "I'm not prepared to see that."


Jurgens' head whipped up. He and Lemaitre both turned on Hemphill, their faces incredulous, and Jurgens started to suck in air to speak. But Hemphill ignored them to swivel her gaze to White Haven, and the corners of her tight mouth twitched with the ghost of a smile as she saw the matching astonishment in his eyes.


"I will not vote to convict Lord Young of the capital charges against him, Sir." Her voice was low, but her words were crisp in the stillness. "Whether he was legally within his rights to refuse Lady Harrington's orders or whether he was bound by his understanding of the situation to accept them is immaterial to that decision."


She paused, and White Haven nodded slowly. That simple statement might well be construed as abandonment of her sworn impartiality, but at least she'd had the honesty to admit the truth. Unlike Jurgens or Lemaitre.


"At the same time, I will not allow a man like Lord Young to escape punishment," she went on in that same level voice. "Whatever the legal right or wrong of his actions, they were inexcusable. Accordingly, I have a . . . compromise to suggest."


* * *


Someone knocked on the waiting room door. Honor twitched in her chair, astonished to realize she actually had managed to nod off, then opened her eyes. She turned her head, and an expressionless Admiralty yeoman wearing a court-martial brassard looked back at her from the doorway


"The Court will reconvene in ten minutes, ladies and gentlemen," the yeoman announced. He withdrew, and she barely heard him knocking on another door through the sudden thunder of her pulse.


* * *


There were fewer spectators than before, but witnesses freed from their formal segregation once they'd testified made up some of the numbers, and the entire audience seemed to be in motion as it flowed out to find places. Not even the usual advantage of Honor's height let her see clearly, and she clung painfully tight to Paul's hand. She hated that sign of weakness, but she couldn't stop herself, and Nimitz was taut and quivering on her shoulder. They inched their way down the central aisle, and suddenly she was almost afraid to look at the judges already reassembled in their places behind the long table.


She and Paul found chairs and sat, and she drew a deep, deep breath. She raised her eyes to the court—and gasped as relief stabbed like a knife.


Admiral White Haven sat square-shouldered and silent, Pavel Young's sword lying on his blotter, and the hilt was toward him.


She felt herself begin to tremble, heard the sudden, rising murmur of voices as others noted the sword's position, and a harsh, choking sound came from her right. She turned toward it, and her mouth tightened as she saw the monstrously obese man in the counter-grav life-support chair. The Earl of North Hollow's fat face was pasty white, his eyes shocked. Both of Young's younger brothers sat with their father, flanking his chair, and their faces were almost as pale as his. Something deep inside her said she should feel pity for North Hollow, that however loathsome Young might be, he was the earl's son. But she couldn't. Perhaps worse, she didn't even want to.


There was a fresh stir, and then the sharp, musical notes of the bell as White Haven struck it once more with the small hammer.


"This court is in session," the admiral announced, and nodded to the Marines flanking the side door. One of them vanished through it, and the entire courtroom held its breath. Then the door reopened, and Pavel Young marched through it, flanked by his guards.


Young's bearded face worked. His fight to keep it blank was obvious, but his cheeks twitched and sweat gleamed on his forehead. The wait had been agonizing for her, Honor thought; it must have been a foretaste of Hell for him, and she was shocked by how glad that made her feel.


Young hardly even saw her. His eyes were locked straight ahead, as if keeping them there could delay the inevitable moment just a few more seconds. But then he reached the defense table and turned toward the judges, and he could delay no longer. His gaze dropped to the sword, and his heart stopped.


The point was toward him. The point was toward him, and a sudden wave of terror engulfed him as that single, horrible fact penetrated.


He felt himself trembling and tried to stop it, but he couldn't. Nor could he keep his head from turning, stop himself from looking over his shoulder. His eyes met his father's, raw with panic and desperate appeal, and his father's expression of frightened, furious impotence drove a dagger of terror into his belly. He wrenched his gaze away, and not even the hatred as he saw his one-time executive officer sitting beside Harrington—sitting there holding the bitch's hand!—could penetrate the ice about his soul.


"The prisoner will face the court."


White Haven's cold voice cut through the stillness, and Young's head snapped around in sheer, mechanical reflex. He swallowed, trying not to sway in numb despair, and White Haven cleared his throat.


"Captain Lord Young, you have been tried by court-martial on the specifications named against you. Are you prepared to hear its verdict?"


He swallowed again. And then a third time, trying to moisten his kiln-dry mouth as the proceedings' drawn out, formal agony flayed his nerves. It was like some exquisite torture, yet he was trapped within it, and some last flicker of pride gave him the strength.


"Yes." The word came out hoarse but clear, and White Haven nodded.


"Very well. On the first specification of the charges, that you did violate the Twenty-Third Article of War, this court, by vote of four to two, finds you guilty as charged." Someone groaned behind him—his father, he thought—and his own hands clenched at his sides as White Haven's voice rolled out, deep and dispassionate as doomsday.


"On the second specification of the charges, that you did violate the Twenty-Sixth Article of War, this court, by vote of four to two, finds you guilty as charged.


"On the third specification of the charges, that your actions did expose other units of the task group to severe damage and casualties, this court, by vote of four to two, finds you guilty as charged.


"On the fourth specification of the charges," even through his sick despair, Young heard White Haven's voice shift, "that your actions constituted and did result from personal cowardice, this court, having voted three for conviction and three for acquittal, has been unable to reach a verdict."


There was a louder, more incredulous chorus of gasps, and Young twitched in disbelief. Unable to reach a verdict? That—


"On the fifth specification," White Haven continued in that same, flat tone, "that your actions did constitute desertion in the face of the enemy as defined by the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth Articles of War, this court, having voted three for conviction and three for acquittal, has been unable to reach a verdict."


Pavel Young felt the stir of shocked hope. A hung verdict. They'd reached a hung verdict on the only two charges that really counted, the only ones that could send him before a firing squad! Electricity sparkled up and down his nerves, and the sound of his own breathing was harsh in his nostrils.


"Inability to reach a verdict," White Haven said flatly, "does not constitute an acquittal, but the accused enjoys the presumption of innocence. Accordingly, the court has no option at this time but to dismiss the fourth and fifth specifications of the charges against you."


Honor Harrington sat stiff and still in her chair, paralyzed by a horror that had matched each surge of Pavel Young's relief. Again. He'd done it again. The first three specifications weren't even enough to get him out of uniform—not with his family's power. Half-pay, letters of censure, yes. As Lady Morncreek had promised, he would be beached forever, never to serve on active duty again, but it wouldn't matter. He'd evaded execution and beaten the system where it truly counted, for the Admiralty would never refile charges in such a politically divisive trial and climate, and she wanted to vomit as the sudden relaxation of his shoulders told her he'd realized the same thing.


Admiral White Haven was still speaking, yet it was merely noise without meaning. She could only sit there, frozen in a moment of petrified sickness. But then, suddenly, the meaningless noise became words once more, and she felt Paul's hand tighten on hers like a talon.


" . . . the duty of this court," White Haven was saying, "to decide the penalty which attaches to the crimes of which you stand convicted, and it is the view of a two-thirds majority of the court, irrespective of the votes on specifications four and five of the charges against you, that your conduct in course of the Battle of Hancock demonstrates a culpable negligence and lack of character which exceed any acceptable in an officer of Her Majesty's Navy. This court therefore rules, by vote of four to two, that the accused, Captain Lord Pavel Young, shall be stripped of all rank, rights, privileges, and prerogatives as a captain in the Royal Manticoran Navy and dishonorably dismissed the Service as unfit to wear the Queen's uniform, judgment to be executed within three days of this hour.


"This court stands adjourned."


The clear, sweet notes of the bell sang once more. They struck through Honor like bolts of cleansing silver lightning, but they were something very different for Pavel Young. They were almost worse than execution. A deliberate dismissal, as if he were too far beneath contempt—too petty—even to shoot. The knowledge that he'd been spared execution only to endure the disgrace of a formal expulsion from the Service and a lifetime as an object of disdain.


He swayed in an ashen-faced horror immeasurably more agonizing for his momentary belief that he'd escaped destruction. The dead, stunned silence of the whipsawed spectators was pregnant with the first as yet unspoken whispers of his shame, and his soul writhed in anticipation of the rising background murmur. And then he jerked as a shrill, electronic wail sounded behind him.


He couldn't place it. For a heartbeat, two—three—he heard it with no recognition at all, and then he wheeled in sudden understanding.


The medical alert screamed, tearing at his nerves, and he stared, unable to move, as the Earl of North Hollow slumped flaccidly forward in his wailing life-support chair.


 


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