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Chapter Ten

GNS Terrible floated alone in her parking orbit, a double-ended hammerhead of dazzling white, her flanks punctuated with three geometrically precise rows of dots. At first, she looked like some exquisitely detailed model scaled to a child's hand, but the pinnace swept on towards her, closing at an angle to permit Honor a clear view, and her new flagship swelled quickly as the range dropped. Terrible seemed to grow rather than come nearer, expanding first from a toy into a ship, and then into the true leviathan she was as the pinnace came close enough to become its own reference point.


From dots, her weapon bays became hatches vast enough to dock the pinnace with ease. Phased radar arrays, point defense laser clusters, and the sharp blades of gravitic sensors swelled into sharp definition, and her drive nodes, four times the pinnace's size, stood out boldly. She was enormous, eight million tons of starship—over four kilometers long and with a maximum beam of six hundred meters, jeweled with the green and white lights of a moored starship—and Honor stared raptly out the view port as the pinnace spiraled along the superdreadnought's length to show her every detail.


Terrible had none of the grace of Honor's last command. HMS Nike had been a battlecruiser, sleek and arrogant with carefully blended speed and firepower. Terrible wasn't sleek. She was a ponderous mountain of white, built not to raid and run, not to pursue lighter units to destruction or use her own speed to evade more powerful foes, but for the crushing violence of the wall of battle. She was designed to absorb damage that would reduce any less mighty craft to splinters and remain in action, and no mere battlecruiser could live within the reach of her energy batteries.


She wasn't the first SD Honor had served upon, but her power dwarfed any ship she'd ever commanded . . . and there were six such vessels in BatRon One. The thought sent a cold shiver down Honor's spine, yet that shiver went almost unnoticed in the intensity of her study. Her trained eye picked out differences between Terrible and her Manticoran-built counterparts—the more numerous, closer-spaced tubes of her missile armament, arranged on a single deck rather than intermixed with her energy weapons; the numbers of small craft docking points that supplemented her boat bays; the arrangement of her running lights—and the depths of her mind flickered with first impressions. Terrible's missile armament would give her a heavy throw weight, but she had less magazine space for a sustained engagement than a Manticoran SD. The tubes' tight arrangement made a single hit more likely to take out multiple launchers, as well, Honor mused, then nodded to herself. Peep walls had always seemed overly loose to her, but now she understood. With that missile layout and their poorer point defense, they'd have to maintain separation so ships could roll to interpose their impeller wedges against incoming laser heads or see their own missile batteries blown away from outside energy range, and—


Her thoughts broke off as the pinnace killed its wedge and went to auxiliary thrusters. It swept in below the ship on final approach, and she felt the gentle shudder as the boat bay tractors locked on. The thrusters died, and the pinnace floated up into a vast, brightly lit cavern and settled into the docking buffers. Mechanical mooring arms locked, and Captain Yu stood as the docking tube and umbilicals extended themselves. He stepped back, clearing the way for LaFollet to take his proper position at his Steadholder's shoulder, while the pinnace's flight engineer checked the hatch telltales. A green light announced a good seal and pressure, and the engineer cracked the hatch.


Yu said nothing. He simply stood there, hands clasped behind him, and waited while Honor climbed out of her own seat. She settled Nimitz on her shoulder once more, adjusted her cap, and walked slowly to the hatch while the other passengers got themselves into formation to disembark. Then she drew a deep and (she hoped) unobtrusive breath, reached for the green-hued grab bar, and swung herself into the tube's zero-gee.


* * *


A shouted command sounded as Honor swam the last few meters of the tube and caught another grab bar to swing herself over the interface into Terrible's onboard grav field, and she braced herself as the golden notes of a bugle washed over her. Most admirals would have been greeted with the bosun's pipe she was used to; Honor, unfortunately, was a steadholder, which meant she was doomed to hear the fanfare from the Steadholders' March whenever she boarded or left. Under normal circumstances, she rather liked old-fashioned, lung-powered brasses, and she knew the exuberant march was impossible to render on a bosun's pipe, but she made a mental note to have them point the bugle in another direction. The tube made an excellent amplifier.


She stepped forward and reminded herself to salute the Grayson planetary flag on the boat bay's forward bulkhead before facing the side party. That, too, was something new to remember, but at least the GSN had agreed to let its borrowed Manticoran personnel retain the RMN salute they were used to. She snapped her hand down from her cap brim, then turned to the side party and a crowd which seemed too large for any boat bay gallery, even an SD's.


An honor guard of Grayson Marines, their brown-and-green uniforms distinguished from the Army's only by the crossed starships on their collars, stood at attention along the transverse bulkheads. The ship carried a full battalion, plus attached support units, and it seemed all of them must be present, though she knew better. A solid block of ratings and petty officers in blue-and-white undress coveralls stood against the longitudinal bulkhead, and another, smaller block of officers waited beyond the side party, headed by a wiry young man in a commander's uniform who must be Yu's executive officer.


The commander saluted as the bugle died, and Honor returned it.


"Permission to come aboard, Sir?" she asked.


"Permission granted, My Lady." The commander's soft Grayson accent carried clearly through the sudden silence.


"Thank you." Honor stepped across the painted line on the deck, formally boarding her flagship for the first time. Andrew LaFollet followed at her right shoulder with Captain Yu at her left, and then the captain stepped around her to join the commander.


"Welcome aboard Terrible, My Lady," he said. "May I present my executive officer, Commander Allenby?"


"Commander." Honor extended her hand, and the right corner of her mouth twitched as she watched the dictates of military courtesy override the older rules Allenby's society had programmed into him. His heels came together with a barely audible click, but he didn't bow over her hand. He simply gripped it firmly, and she approved of the slight twinkle in his brown eyes as he saw her ghost of a smile.


"My Lady," he murmured, and stepped back as Yu beckoned to the officers beyond him.


"Your staff, Admiral. I thought we might wait until you've gotten settled in before introducing you to the remainder of my senior officers, if that's acceptable?"


"Of course, Captain." Honor nodded and turned as the first member of her staff stepped forward.


"Commander Frederick Bagwell, your operations officer, Milady," Mercedes Brigham murmured from beside Yu.


"Commander Bagwell." Honor studied the brown-haired commander as she shook his hand. There wasn't much humor in his lean face, and his precise, very correct air made him seem older than his thirty-odd T-years, but he looked confident enough.


"My Lady," he replied, then stepped aside.


"Commander Allen Sewell, Milady. Your astrogator," Brigham said, and Honor smiled involuntarily as Sewell took her hand and grinned at her. The commander was black-haired and very dark. He was also a veritable giant for a Grayson, barely five centimeters shorter than Honor, and his dark eyes were as mischievous as Bagwell's were serious as he gripped her hand and bowed, managing to combine both military and traditional courtesy with total aplomb.


"Welcome aboard, Lady Harrington," he rumbled in a deep, musical bass, and stepped back beside the shorter ops officer.


"Lieutenant Commander Howard Brannigan, your communications officer," Mercedes announced. Brannigan was a hazel-eyed, sandy-haired man, and one of the very few Graysons Honor had seen with facial hair. He sported a magnificent handlebar mustache and a neatly trimmed beard, and though the rings on his uniform cuffs were edged in the white the Grayson Navy used to denote reservists, he had an air of tough competence.


"My Lady," he said gruffly, squeezing her hand hard, and stepped aside for another lieutenant commander.


"Lieutenant Commander Gregory Paxton, Milady. Your intelligence officer," Mercedes said, and Honor nodded.


"Commander Paxton. I've heard High Admiral Matthews speak of you. He seems to think highly of your work."


"Thank you, My Lady." Paxton was older than her other officers, and, like Brannigan, he was a reservist. Unlike the com officer, however, he didn't look a great deal like an officer, despite his uniform. His dark hair was thinning, his sideburns were a startling white, he was more than a bit portly, and he wore a permanent expression of bemusement, but his brown eyes were bright and sharp. He also wore a small pin on his left lapel—a rolled scroll—and Honor reached out to touch it with the forefinger of her free hand.


"You're still a member of the Society, Commander?"


"Yes, My Lady. On extended leave, I'm afraid, but still a member." He seemed pleased by her recognition, and she smiled. Gregory Paxton held a triple doctorate in history, religion, and economics. He'd resigned the Austin Grayson Chair of History at Mayhew University and the chairmanship of the Grayson Society to accept his commission, and Honor was both amazed and delighted that Matthews had been willing to spare him from the General Staff.


He gave her hand another squeeze, then stepped back to be replaced by yet another lieutenant commander, this one a flaming redhead with the insignia of the Office of Shipbuilding.


"Lieutenant Commander Stephen Matthews, Milady. Our logistics officer."


"Commander Matthews." Honor felt her head cock despite herself as she took his hand, and Matthews smiled crookedly.


"Yes, My Lady. I'm one of those Matthews. The nose always seems to give us away."


"I see." Honor returned his smile and wondered just what his relationship to the high admiral was. The conditions of Grayson's settlement had resulted in enormous, intricately linked clan structures, and she knew the Matthews family was one of the larger ones, but aside from his coloring, the lieutenant commander looked enough like High Admiral Matthews to be his son. He was too old for that—she thought—but the resemblance was almost uncanny.


He seemed to be waiting for her to say something more, which probably wasn't too surprising. He must get a lot of reactions, positive and negative alike, simply because of his family connections.


"Well, I'll try not to hold your nose against you, Commander," she murmured, and his smile turned into a grin as he stepped back.


"Lieutenant Commander Abraham Jackson, Milady. Your staff chaplain," Mercedes said quietly.


Honor tensed slightly, and Nimitz's ears pricked as Jackson stepped forward. For the first time, she felt more than a bit uncomfortable, for the RMN had no Chaplains Corps, and she was uncertain how to react. Worse, she had no idea how Jackson might feel about serving on an infidel's staff—particularly when that infidel had just been involved in the politically charged defrocking of another priest.


"Lady Harrington." Jackson's pleasant voice was deeper than Matthews' but much lighter than Sewell's. His green eyes met hers frankly as he took her hand, and she felt an inner quiver of released tension at what she saw in them—then scolded herself for feeling it. She should have known High Admiral Matthews and Reverend Hanks would see to it that the man assigned as her staff chaplain was no bigot. Jackson smiled slightly—a curiously gentle smile, uncannily like Reverend Hanks'—and squeezed her hand firmly. "It's a great pleasure to meet you at last, My Lady."


"Thank you, Commander. I hope you feel that way after you've had to put up with me for a while," she said with an answering smile, and he chuckled as he stepped back beside Matthews.


"And last but not least, Milady," Mercedes said, "your flag lieutenant, Lieutenant Jared Sutton."


"Lieutenant." Honor extended her hand once more, and this time she had to bite back a laugh. Sutton was short even by Grayson standards, a wiry young man with intensely black hair and anxious brown eyes that reminded her irresistibly of a puppy's. He was still young enough he'd probably received the original first-generation prolong treatments, and his feet and hands looked too big for the rest of him.


"M-M-My Lady," he got out as he took her hand, then blushed bright red as his stutter betrayed his nervousness. She felt a wash of compassion for him, but she looked him straight in the eye and made her mouth firm.


"Lieutenant. I hope you're ready to be worked hard." Dismay flickered in his eyes, and she lowered her eyebrows. "An admiral's flag lieutenant is the most overworked officer on her staff," she went on grimly. "He has to know everything she and her chief of staff know, and God help him if he screws anything up!" Sutton stared at her and squared his shoulders, snapping to a sort of parade rest without ever releasing her hand, and his expression was too much for her. She felt the grim line of her mouth begin to collapse, and reached out to pat him on the shoulder.


"And he's also the most under-appreciated officer on her staff—by everyone except her," she said, and his dismay vanished into a huge smile.


"Yes, Ma'am!" he said. "I'll try not to let you down, My Lady."


"I'm sure you will, Lieutenant, and I expect you'll succeed." She gave his shoulder another pat, then folded her hands behind her. She didn't know any of them, aside from Mercedes, but they looked good. Solid. And she could tell a lot about Mercedes' estimate of them from the way she'd introduced them. All in all, she thought High Admiral Matthews had done well by her.


"I'm sure we'll all get to know one another quickly," she said after a moment. "We're certainly going to have enough on our plates to see that we do, at any rate!" Several of them smiled back at her, and she nodded. "I'd like to meet with all of you—and especially you, Commander Paxton—for an initial brief as soon as I've had a chance to get settled in." She glanced at the time and date display on the bulkhead. "If you'd be kind enough to assemble in the flag briefing room at ten-hundred, I'll see you all then."


Nods and murmurs of agreement answered, and she turned back to Yu. "I'd appreciate your joining us, as well, Captain," she said more formally.


"Of course, My Lady."


"Thank you. And now, I think it's time I went and got started on that settling in."


"Yes, My Lady," Yu replied. "May I escort you to your quarters?" There was a slight pause between the two sentences, and Honor shook her head.


"No, thank you, Captain. I've taken up enough of your time. Captain Brigham can show me the way; she and I need to discuss a few things, anyway."


"Of course, My Lady," Yu murmured once more, his dark eyes still and just a bit opaque.


"Thank you. I'll see you all at ten-hundred, then." Honor glanced over her shoulder at Mercedes. "Captain Brigham?"


"Yes, Ma'am. If you'll follow me, please?"


The Marines snapped to present arms as Honor followed her chief of staff past them, trailed by her armsmen and James MacGuiness, and she nodded in acknowledgment of the courtesy. Then Mercedes led her into the lift and punched a destination into the panel, and Honor leaned back against the wall and let her breath whoosh out in relief as the doors closed.


"And thank the Lord that's done!" she said. Mercedes chuckled, and Honor sniffed. "All very well for you. You already knew all those people!"


"Yes, Ma'am, I did. But I'm only a captain—you're an admiral. That gives you a certain advantage when it comes to introductions."


"Ha!" Honor removed her cap to run a hand over her braided hair, and Nimitz bleeked a laugh and made a grab for her hand. She evaded him with practiced ease and gave him a gentle thump on the nose, then waved her cap at the other people in the lift.


"You already know Mac, Mercedes, but let me introduce you to my other keepers. This is Major Andrew LaFollet, my personal armsman and the head of my security detachment." Brigham smiled and nodded, and Honor gestured at the others. "And this is Armsman Candless and Armsman Howard. They go everywhere with me, the poor fellows. Gentlemen, in case you missed it, this is Captain Brigham, my chief of staff. Keep an eye on her and don't let that calm demeanor fool you. She has a low and evil sense of humor."


"A base libel, Milady. My sense of humor isn't low."


The armsmen grinned just as a soft chime announced the lift's arrival. Mercedes waited for Honor to lead the way out, then escorted her down a passage. The Marine sentry who would have guarded Honor's quarters aboard a Manticoran warship was nowhere in evidence; instead, Simon Mattingly stood outside the hatch and came to attention at his Steadholder's appearance.


"My Lady. Captain Brigham."


"I see I don't have to make any introductions here," Honor observed.


"No, My Lady. Captain Brigham was very helpful in making the security arrangements."


"As a good chief of staff should be," Honor approved. Mattingly smiled and pressed the admittance key, and Honor turned to LaFollet. "Andrew, take Jamie and Eddy and go get yourselves settled in. Captain Brigham and I have a lot to discuss."


"Of course, My Lady. I'll be back by oh-nine-thirty to escort you to your meeting."


"I don't think that will be nec—" Honor began, then sighed at the familiar mulish look in his eyes. "All right, Andrew. All right! I'll be good."


"Thank you, My Lady," the major said without a flicker of triumph, and Honor shook her head as the hatch slid shut behind her.


"Those people," she said feelingly, "are—"


"—extremely attached to you, Milady," Mercedes interposed. Honor paused, then shut her mouth and nodded.


"Exactly what I was about to say," she agreed, and turned to examine her new quarters. "Heavens, I could play soccer in here!"


"Not quite, Milady, but close," Mercedes agreed. "Peep admirals travel first class, and the GSN didn't see any reason to reduce your cubage."


Honor shook her head and turned in place in the center of her day cabin. She'd always thought Manticoran flag officers were magnificently housed, but this surpassed anything she'd ever imagined. The day cabin was at least ten meters on a side—stupendous for any warship—and the sleeping cabin, just visible through an open hatch, was on the same lavish scale. She waded across the thick, rich carpet of GSN-blue to open a closed hatch and shook her head again as she found a dining cabin large enough to host a state dinner. The original Havenite fittings had been stripped during refit, but the Grayson Navy had refurnished in palatial style, and she pursed her lips as she examined her enormous desk and discovered it was made of natural wood.


"I could get to like this," she announced finally, "but we need to have Nimitz's module gold-plated, Mac. It looks positively plebeian against all this magnificence."


The 'cat made a soft, scolding sound on her shoulder and leapt to the top of his bulkhead-mounted life support module. He sat up and wrapped his tail around his true-feet, craning his head about while he, too, inspected their new quarters, and Honor grinned as he radiated smug satisfaction over their link.


"I believe Nimitz is satisfied the way things are, Ma'am," MacGuiness remarked in a tone which indicated his own agreement with the 'cat.


"Nimitz," Honor said severely, "is a shameless hedonist." She sank onto a comfortable couch and stretched her long legs luxuriously. "Of course, he's not the only shameless hedonist in this cabin."


"Indeed, Ma'am?" MacGuiness said blandly.


"Indeed." Honor closed her eyes, then sat up. "Why don't you go see what your own quarters are like, Mac? Captain Brigham and I have some catching up to do. No doubt she can show me where the buzzer is if I need you."


"Of course, Ma'am." The steward nodded respectfully to the chief of staff and excused himself, and Honor pointed to a chair that faced her couch.


"Sit down, Mercedes," she invited. The older woman accepted with a small smile, crossing her legs and placing her cap in her lap, and Honor studied her from under slightly lowered lids.


Mercedes Brigham was a native of Gryphon. She was also a second-generation prolong recipient and old enough to be Honor's mother, which meant her black hair was stranded with white, and, despite over half a century in space, her dark skin still wore the weathered look of her birth world's climate. She'd never been beautiful, but her comfortable, lived-in face was attractive. They'd first met six T-years ago, when Mercedes had been Honor's sailing master in the light cruiser Fearless. Despite her long career, she'd been only a lieutenant at the time, and, after so many years in grade, she'd accepted that she would never attain command rank. Now she sat facing Honor in her captain's uniform, and she was still the same quietly competent, confident officer she'd always been.


And that, Honor thought silently, was truly remarkable, given what had happened to Madrigal's crew on Blackbird.


"Well," she said at last, "I'm delighted to see you again, Mercedes. And, needless to say, I'm also delighted you've finally gotten the rank you always deserved."


"Thank you, Ma'am. I'm still getting used to it myself." Mercedes looked down at the narrower four gold rings on her sleeve. "The Graysons bumped me when the Fleet made me a 'loaner,' but the Admiralty made me a full commander when they let me out of Bassingford. I'm not sure they expected me to keep it, though." She grimaced. "I think BuPers expected it to be my separation rank."


"Oh?" Honor asked in a carefully neutral voice.


"Yes, Ma'am. My counselor advised me to consider retirement—with full pension, of course. I'm afraid I, ah, told her where to stick her advice."


Honor's mouth twitched. "I doubt she took that very well."


"I see you've had your own run-ins with the shrinks, Ma'am," Mercedes observed, then waved one hand. "Oh, she meant well, and I really am grateful for the way they put me back together, but I don't think they realize how good a job they did. Their own tests passed me fit for duty, and they still figured I should 'take it easy' getting back into harness!"


"I imagine part of it's the nature of what happened to you," Honor said quietly.


"I'm not the first person who was ever raped, Ma'am."


Honor was silent for a moment. What had happened to Mercedes Brigham was far too brutal to dismiss with a single word, even one as ugly as "rape," and still worse had happened to other members of Madrigal's crew. Mercedes' crew. People she was responsible for. Honor knew from bitter experience the terrible guilt an officer felt when she lost her people in combat. How much more terrible must it be to lose them to sadistic, systematic torture?


Yet she detected no evasion or denial in Mercedes' tone. The older woman wasn't trying to pretend what she'd endured had been less hideous than it had. Her voice was simply that of someone who'd come to terms with it more completely than Honor suspected she could have, and she shook her head and made herself speak with a matching calm.


"I know you aren't, but I think the Navy feels a sort of institutional guilt. No one expected any of what happened, but the Admiralty knew when they sent us out that neither Masada nor Grayson had ever signed the Deneb Accords—and that they were both . . . a bit backward, shall we say? We all know how POWs can be abused, but it'd been a long time since anything like Blackbird happened to RMN personnel, and we let ourselves forget it might happen to us. It's going to be a while before the Fleet forgives itself for that."


"I understand that, but having people who should know better try to wrap you up in cotton isn't exactly the best way to put you back on your feet, Ma'am. And there's a point where having someone explain over and over that it wasn't your fault makes you start wondering if they're telling you that so firmly because they think maybe it was. I know whose fault it was, and all of 'em are dead now, thanks to you, the Marines, and Grayson. I just wish everyone else would figure out I know and let it drop." The captain shook her head. "I know they mean well, but it can get mighty wearing. Still," her eyes darkened, "I suppose sometimes they have to tell you an awful lot of times before you start believing it."


"Like Mai-ling," Honor sighed, and Mercedes' face tightened.


"Like Mai-ling," she agreed. She stared down at her cap for a long, silent moment, then inhaled. "I'll be honest, Ma'am—I do have nightmares, but they're not really about me. They're about Mai-ling. About knowing what was happening to her at the same time when I couldn't do a damned thing to stop it." She raised her eyes once more. "Accepting that I couldn't have kept them off her was harder than accepting what happened to me. She was only a kid, and she couldn't believe anyone would do what those animals did to her. That's what I can't forgive, Ma'am—and the reason I'm out here."


"Oh?" Honor said neutrally, and Mercedes smiled grimly.


"I believe in the hair of the dog, Ma'am. That's why I volunteered for the Endicott occupation force. I wanted to watch the bastards who'd sent Captain Williams and his pigs to Blackbird squirm."


"I see." Honor leaned back, and the harshness of Mercedes' voice told her the real reason the psychs had worried about her. "And did you?"


"Yes." The captain looked back down at her cap, and the single word came out leached of all feeling. Then she sighed. "Yes, I saw them squirm. And before you ask, Ma'am, I've already figured out why the shrinks didn't want me out here. They figured their tests might not have caught something and I'd lose it." She looked back up at Honor, and there was a sort of strange whimsy in her grim smile.


"They might even have been right. There was one time—" She broke off and shrugged. "Have you been to Masada since the occupation, Ma'am?"


"No." Honor shook her head. "I've considered it, but never very seriously. If there's one person in the galaxy those lunatics really hate, I'm her, and Andrew would shoot me himself—somewhere harmless, like an arm or a leg—to keep me out of their range."


"That would be wise of him, Ma'am. You know, before I saw the place myself, I wondered why the Kingdom should have to shoulder the full burden of occupying it. I mean, we're stretched way too thin as it is, and Endicott's just a hop and a skip from Yeltsin, so why not let the Graysons supply the troops? But those people—" The chief of staff shook her head and rubbed her upper arms as if against a chill.


"Is it really that bad?" Honor asked quietly.


"Worse," Mercedes said bleakly. "Remember when we first came out here? How hard we found it to understand how Grayson women could accept their status?" Honor nodded, and Mercedes shrugged. "Compared to Graysons, Masadan women are downright scary. They're not even people. They're property . . . and ninety percent of them seem to accept that that's the way it's supposed to be." She shook her head. "Of the few who don't, half aren't sure the occupation's going to last. They're too terrified to do anything about the way they've been treated, but the ones who aren't afraid are almost worse. The homicide rate on Masada doubled in the first six months of the occupation, and something like two-thirds of the extra bodies were 'husbands'—if you can call the pigs that—who'd been murdered by their 'wives.' Some of them were rather artistic, too, like Elder Simonds' wives. The cops never did find all of his body parts."


"Good Lord," Honor murmured, and Mercedes nodded.


"It hasn't just been limited to women getting even with 'husbands,' either. The overwhelming majority of Masadans still believe in their so-called religion, but a lot of those who don't have some pretty nasty personal scores to pay off. A quarter of the church elders were murdered by their parishioners before General Marcel put the others into protective custody . . . and that only started the survivors howling about the 'oppression of the Faith'! The whole place is still under martial law, General Marcel's had a hell of a time finding anything resembling a body of responsible moderates to act as the local government, and no one on the planet has any idea how to run a nontheocratic state. Under the circumstances, the mere thought of putting in Grayson occupation troops would touch off an explosion, and there's no way Marcel's MPs have managed to confiscate all the weapons on the planet."


Honor leaned further back and steepled her fingers under her chin as she frowned at her chief of staff. The Grayson 'faxes reported on Masada regularly, but they'd taken a distinctly hands-off approach. That had surprised her, given the centuries of hatred between the two planets, and her frown deepened as she wondered for the first time if perhaps the Council hadn't "convinced" the reporters to don kid gloves in hopes of sedating public opinion. Of course, the Star Kingdom, not Grayson, had officially claimed the Endicott System as a protectorate by right of conquest. That gave the Graysons a certain insulation from the Masadan occupation . . . and from what Mercedes was saying, that might be the smartest thing anyone had done yet. It was a pity anyone had to occupy the place, but the Alliance couldn't afford to leave a strategically located planet full of implacably hostile fanatics unoccupied.


"How would you rate the potential for real trouble?" she asked finally, and Mercedes shrugged.


"If you mean a general insurrection, not very great as long as we control the high orbitals. There are still lots of small arms floating around, but Marcel's managed to confiscate all their heavy weapons—we hope!—and they understand what a kinetic interdiction strike would do to anyone stupid enough to come out in the open. Couple that with ground-based Marine combat teams to support the MPs and rapid response forces deployed from orbit, all with modern weapons and battle armor, and any sort of mass resistance would be a quick form of suicide. But that hasn't prevented a lot of sabotage and more or less spontaneous acts of guerrilla warfare. Maybe worse, some of them have figured out we don't like killing people in job lots. We're seeing some really ugly 'peaceful demonstrations,' and their organizers keep pushing. I think they're trying to see how far they can go before someone on our side pulls the trigger and creates a brand new crop of martyrs."


"Wonderful." Honor pinched the bridge of her nose and grimaced. "If they do push that far, it'll give the Liberals and Progressives back home another reason to moan about our 'brutal, imperialist' policy in the system!"


"Just thank God the Masadans haven't figured that out, Milady," Mercedes said darkly. "Their traditions are so different from ours that they don't seem to realize our government actually has to listen to people who disagree with it. If they ever do realize, and start playing to the newsies . . ."


She shrugged once more, and Honor nodded.


"At any rate," Mercedes went on after a moment, "that's the real reason I transferred to Grayson service, Ma'am. They needed officers, and I needed to get away from Masada before I did something I'd regret. I mean, I know the Graysons hanged the bastards who actually raped and murdered my people, but a part of me blames all Masadans for it, and with so many of them actively pushing to see how far they can go, it'd be too easy to—"


She broke off and closed her eyes for a moment, and her nostrils flared. Then her eyes reopened. They met her admiral's levelly, and what Honor saw in them reassured her. Mercedes had her own devils, but she recognized them and had them under control. And that, Honor told herself with a familiar tinge of bitterness, was the most anyone could ask of herself. Yet there was still one thing she had to know, and there was only one way to find out.


"And Captain Yu?" She asked the question quietly, and Mercedes smiled faintly.


"You mean do I blame him for what happened to Madrigal, Ma'am?" Honor nodded, and she shook her head. "He was doing his job. There was nothing personal in it, and he didn't have a thing to do with what happened on Blackbird. In fact, he protested the way our people were turned over to Williams after he had us picked up."


"He did?" Honor asked sharply. "That never came out at Williams' trial."


"The Grayson prosecutors didn't know about it at the time, Milady, and Yu was never charged. Unlike Theisman, he didn't have any personal knowledge of events on Blackbird, so he wasn't even called to testify, and Williams was the only man on Blackbird who knew about it. Do you think he was going to say anything that might make 'that traitor Yu' look better to us?" Mercedes snorted bitterly.


"So how did you find out? Did he tell you?" Despite herself, Honor couldn't quite keep an uncharacteristic edge out of her tone, and Mercedes looked at her in surprise.


"No, Ma'am. The first things we seized after our initial landings were the Masadan archives and the Havenite embassy records. We were too late to get any of the Peeps' secure files, but we made a pretty clean sweep of the Masadans', and Sword Simonds had filed copies of Captain Yu's 'insubordinate' protests."


"I see." Honor looked away, and her cheekbones heated as she realized she'd wanted Yu to be the one who'd told Mercedes about his protests. That she'd wanted to believe they were a self-serving invention. Her flush grew hotter as she faced her own petty desire to cling to something for which she could blame her new flag captain, and Nimitz looked up from his perch on the module. She felt him chiding her for her self-condemning thoughts, but this time she knew he was wrong.


"I see," she repeated more naturally, and returned her gaze to the older woman. "So I take it you don't have any problems serving with him?"


"None," Mercedes said firmly. "He's in a hell of a spot, Ma'am, and I'm damned if I would've put myself in one like it. He could've gone back to Manticore after the Office of Shipbuilding finished with him, you know. It was his own decision to stay out here. I don't doubt High Admiral Matthews is glad to have him—he really is as good as his reputation—but whatever he may say, he has to know there are still a lot of Grayson officers who're just waiting for him to make a mistake so they can pounce."


"I know," Honor murmured softly, and felt another stab of shame at her own readiness to do just that. She drummed the fingers of one hand lightly on a couch arm for a moment, then shrugged. "Well, if you're happy with him, Ms. Chief of Staff, then I suppose the least I can do is keep an open mind."


Mercedes nodded a wordless acceptance of the admission implicit in those words, and Honor smiled wryly. Mercedes always had been a calm, tactful sort.


"All right, then. Enough about Captain Yu. Let me get Mac in here with some cocoa for me and a cup of coffee for you, and you can give me a thumbnail brief on the rest of the staff, as well."


 


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Framed