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Chapter Fourteen

Honor leaned back with a small, pleased smile as her pinnace dropped planetward. She wasn't in uniform tonight, and she was delighted to have escaped that monkey suit. After a T-year of acculturation, she cheerfully admitted that female Grayson formal attire was more comfortable even than RMN uniform, much less Grayson uniform. And it didn't even have a necktie!


She chuckled at the thought and ran her fingers down Nimitz's spine. The 'cat arched his back, luxuriating in the caress, and she felt his own pleased anticipation. Nimitz liked Benjamin Mayhew and his family, who frankly doted on him in return. They owed him—and Honor, of course—their lives, but while Honor was uncomfortable with their gratitude, Nimitz was shamelessly prepared to luxuriate in it. They always laid in a supply of celery for his visits, and then there were Rachel, Theresa, and Jeanette, the three Mayhew children, who regarded him as the finest stuffed toy in the universe.


The Protector's personal armsmen had actually cringed when his daughters first discovered Nimitz's sinuous agility and willingness to play, for all of them had seen Palace Security's tapes of him ripping out assassins' throats with gory efficiency, but Honor hadn't been concerned. Treecats were sturdy enough to survive anything even a human two-year-old could dish out, and they loved the uncomplicated delight of children's emotions. Watching the Mayhew girls romp and squeal with Nimitz was like watching her own childhood discovery of him, though without the adoption bond, and she'd grown resigned to his abandonment anytime the kids were up.


Of course, tonight's backdrop was a bit grimmer than for most of her visits, she thought more soberly. She hadn't left her flagship in over a month, but she'd kept abreast of events planet-side, and Greg Paxton had helped her interpret them. She'd learned a lot from the intelligence officer, for he had the rare ability actually to stand back from his own cultural background and the unconscious acceptance of his birth mores which any member of any society took everywhere with him. He approached his world like the scholar he was, intent not simply upon seeing but on understanding, and in a way, his analytical viewpoint made him almost as much of an outside observer as Honor.


And, like her, Paxton was deeply troubled by Steadholder Burdette's stubborn refusal to accept the Sacristy's decision on Edmond Marchant. More, he'd pulled together some other alarming indicators she would otherwise have missed. Like how the number of outside protesters being shipped into Harrington Steading had actually increased despite her absence. She'd known that from Colonel Hill's reports, but what she hadn't considered was the cost behind the effort. The "protests" were increasingly well organized, their propaganda steadily more sophisticated, and the numbers suggested the protesters' hidden patrons were pouring even more financial support into the effort.


That last point was, in many ways, the most alarming, for it indicated a powerful support structure that was unpleasantly capable of self-concealment. So far, even Colonel Hill had been able to identify only one or two of its members, and they all seemed little more than middlemen.


But who was behind the demonstrations was an almost minor concern compared to their effect. They weren't making any ground in Harrington itself. In fact, Honor's subjects were growing more exasperated with them, not less, yet, perversely, the Harringtons' anger only enhanced their impact in other steadings. The news services were covering them, and the fact that the Harrington Guard and HCP had to provide permanent guards to keep her people from assaulting the demonstrators only gave their protests more weight with those already prepared to have reservations about a female steadholder.


Those protests were a constant, nagging irritant, but by themselves, they seemed unlikely to have any major influence on people who weren't already inclined to accept their viewpoint. Unfortunately, Paxton had picked up on another and far more worrisome factor: a handful of steadholders who were coming out in very guarded support of the demonstrations.


That was a new element. Aside from Burdette, who'd made no secret of his feelings from the moment Marchant was attacked, the Keys had initially maintained a dignified silence. Even those who hadn't cared to have a woman in their midst had apparently felt that agitation aimed at any steadholder was an affront to all steadholders. But that was changing. Steadholder Mueller had been the first to suggest publicly that perhaps there were two sides to the dispute. Steadholder Harrington was, after all, foreign born, a stranger to Grayson society, who'd refused to join the Church; under the circumstances, it was only natural for Graysons worried about seeing so much power in the hands of an out-worlder to express their perfectly natural fears.


It had been a very mild statement, but it had also been the first breach in the united silence of the Keys, and four more steadholders—Lords Kelly, Michaelson, Surtees, and Watson—had chimed in since. Like Mueller, their comments had been too restrained for anyone to call attacks, yet their very restraint lent them a dangerous aura of reasoned argument. People who weren't inclined to react with unthinking hostility to the thought of change were more likely to listen to—and ponder—them, particularly when they came from leaders regarded with the deference Grayson extended to its steadholders.


At least the Church was holding firm, but even there Paxton had found signs of subtle erosion. Reverend Hanks and the Sacristy had made the Church's position clear, and none of the Church's lower clergy had opposed the Elders' disciplinary actions against Marchant. But as Paxton had pointed out, there was a vast difference between simply not opposing the Sacristy and supporting it. A significant number of priests had chosen to maintain a dignified silence, and there was an ominous correlation between their churches' locations and the steadholders lending the protests such calm and reasonable support.


Honor felt a bit guilty over the time her intelligence officer was spending on something which had nothing whatsoever to do with the military situation, and she hoped he was being pessimistic, but his conclusions worried her. Polls showed the vast majority of Grayson's people continued to give their Protector overwhelming support, but a growing percentage had begun admitting to at least some reservations where she was concerned. After all, where there was so much smoke . . .


The balance was shifting, she thought, gazing out the view port. Not quickly or suddenly, but with slow, insidious gradualism. It was nothing overt, nothing anyone could put a finger on—or fight effectively—but it was there, like a thunderstorm on the horizon, and she hoped fervently that she and Paxton were both more alarmed than they ought to be.


* * *


Benjamin Mayhew and his family awaited her in the same private dining room where the Maccabeans had tried to kill them all. It wasn't the first time Honor had dined here since that day, yet she felt a small, familiar chill as she entered the room. The carpet which had been soaked with so much blood had been replaced and the bullet-spalled walls had been repaired, but the furnishings were all the same, and she wondered yet again how the Mayhews dealt with the memories when they ate here every night.


Probably they scarcely even thought about it now. Almost four years had passed, and there was a limit to how long any memory, however traumatic, could last before familiarity wore its jagged edges smooth. That reflection and its implications for her own on-going, if blessedly less frequent, bouts of depression struck a spark deep inside her, but she had no time to consider it before a tiny woman called her name with a smile.


"Honor!" Katherine Mayhew, Benjamin's first wife, hurried forward to greet her with a shocking lack of decorum. Of course, this was scarcely a state occasion, as Benjamin's invitation had made clear, but Honor was one of the Protector's vassals and a certain amount of standing on ceremony was indicated when she entered his presence.


No one seemed to care, however. Benjamin himself waved to her from across the room without bothering to stand—another gross violation of etiquette for any Grayson male when a woman entered a room—and Rachel, a sturdy six-year-old and the terror of the Palace nursery, made a beeline for Honor in her mother's wake.


"Nimitz!" she demanded, and the 'cat bleeked happily, then launched himself from Honor's shoulder. Rachel landed on her posterior with carpet-thumping energy and a crow of delight as ten kilos of treecat catapulted into her waiting arms, and her sisters came swarming forward.


Elaine Mayhew followed them, and Honor noted that Benjamin's junior wife was pregnant again. She was also much younger than Katherine, and she'd been shy and reserved with Honor at first, but now she simply gave her guest a cheerful wave, then waded into the mad swirl of little girls and treecat which was already building to near riot proportions.


"We'll never get them sorted out before dinner." Katherine chuckled.


"I'm sorry. He really does know how to behave better than this, but—" A squeal of delight drowned Honor's apology as Nimitz scurried up Theresa's back, braced velveted true-hands and hand-feet on the crown of her head, and vaulted over her to vanish under a couch. All three girls raced after him—"Catch-the-'Cat" (especially with things like furniture, parents, guests, and stoic armsmen for an obstacle course) was one of their favorite games—and Honor shrugged helplessly. "He likes children," she finished in a wry voice, and Katherine laughed out loud.


"I know he does, and they love him. Don't worry. They'll wear themselves out in a little bit, and we should have at least a lull for the meal. Come on."


Honor followed her over to Benjamin, who rose and clasped her hand firmly. It was her first visit to the Palace since High Admiral Matthews had offered her a commission, and despite the Protector's cheerful demeanor, she felt an unusually searching weight in his eyes as they examined her. Then he gave a little nod and relaxed.


"I'm glad to see you looking so well," he murmured through the racket of three children and a treecat, and Honor smiled a bit more crookedly than her artificial facial nerves could fully account for. Benjamin Mayhew's role in life had made him more adroit than most at concealing his feelings, but Honor didn't need Nimitz to guess what lay behind his scrutiny. Had her damages been that obvious, she wondered? And even as she asked herself, she knew the answer.


"Thank you," was all she said, and he smiled again.


"Have a seat." He waved at a comfortable chair, and looked up as his daughters thundered by in pursuit of a cream-and-gray blur of fur. "We figure it'll take about thirty minutes to burn off their initial energy charge, so I ordered dinner for nine."


"I really am sorry about—" Honor began again, and he shook his head.


"If we weren't happy to see it, Elaine would nip it in the bud," he assured her as Elaine forged past in a gallant effort to keep up with the children. Only Jeanette was "hers" in a biological sense, but it made absolutely no difference to any of them, and Honor had to admit that Grayson children had secure childhoods. Any Grayson child had as many mothers as her father had wives, yet it went further than that. The brutality of the Grayson planetary environment, especially in the first terrible generations, had created an infant mortality rate which still harrowed the Grayson soul. They regarded children as the most precious gift God had ever created, and that produced an awesomely nurturing mode of childrearing. Honor suspected Elaine was better at it than Katherine, for she was far more "traditional" than her tiny fellow wife. Katherine was the activist (inasmuch as Grayson had female activists yet) who carried the weight of the social and political duties of Grayson's First Consort, but she, too, found time for the children with an apparent ease that astonished Honor. It couldn't be as easy as Katherine made it look—Honor knew how full her own career made her day—but somehow she managed it.


"Benjamin's right," Katherine said now. "Nimitz is their favorite guest, and they haven't seen him in weeks. If he can stand it, we can."


"Nimitz," Honor said feelingly, "thinks they're the greatest thing since celery."


By that time, Nimitz, children, and Elaine, trailed by a pair of armsmen, had vanished through another door into the family's private quarters. The noise level dropped dramatically, and Benjamin chuckled.


"They seem to reciprocate his feelings," the Protector observed, and Honor sank into the indicated chair at his repeated wave. It was odd, she thought. This man was the direct ruler of an entire planet whose social mores were utterly alien to those of her home world, yet she felt completely relaxed and comfortable in his presence. Was it because Grayson wasn't her world by birth? Because she hadn't been raised to regard Benjamin Mayhew as her ruler? Or was it simpler than that? They'd been through a lot with each other in a relatively short time, as the universe measured such things. They trusted one another, and she wondered, suddenly, how many people the Protector of Grayson felt genuinely able to trust. The question took on added point in light of her own discussions with Gregory Paxton.


"Well," Benjamin said, breaking into her thoughts, "how do you like your new job, Admiral Harrington?"


"Better than I was afraid I might," she said honestly. "I wasn't too certain High Admiral Matthews was right to offer it to me at first, but—"


She gave a small shrug, and Benjamin nodded.


"I was a little unhappy about letting him ask you," he confessed, "but I think I'm glad I did. You look better, Honor. Much better." Katherine nodded from her own chair, facing Honor's, and Honor shrugged again.


"I am better, I think," she admitted.


"And you're satisfied with your squadron?"


"Not yet—but I will be!" Her smile thanked the Protector for the change of subject. "We just finished our first full-scale exercise against High Admiral Matthews and BatRon Two, and he handed us our heads. I had a surprise planned for him, but our execution fell apart. On the other hand, he's had four times as long to work up, and my people are all looking forward to a rematch."


"So you're satisfied with your officers?" There was a subtle emphasis in Benjamin's question, and Honor answered it with a nod.


"I am. High Admiral Matthews was right when he said they needed experience, but they're all working hard, and I'm completely satisfied with my flag captain." Which, she reflected, was true . . . or would be, if she could just get over her lingering, irrationally equivocal feelings. "Give me another two months, and I'll back them against any Manty"—she grinned as she used the word—"squadron you want to name."


"Good!" Benjamin returned her smile, and a last vestige of doubt disappeared from deep inside him. Despite the reports, he'd continued to worry that he might have let Matthews push him into pressing her into GSN uniform too soon, but her almond eyes reassured him. Shadows still lurked there, but the ghosts had retreated. This was once more the woman who'd saved his family and his world—a naval officer who'd refound the wellsprings of her capability and in the process, perhaps, found herself again, as well.


"Good," he repeated in a more serious voice, and saw her gaze sharpen. "High Admiral Matthews received formal notification from your—I mean, the Manticoran—Admiralty this afternoon. They'll be sending their last two squadrons of dreadnoughts forward to support Admiral White Haven next week."


"I'm surprised they waited so long," Honor said after a moment. "The Peeps have been shoring up the systems around Trevor's Star ever since they stopped him at Nightingale. The pressure to reinforce him has to be heavy."


"It is. I understand Admiral Caparelli also plans to send up two or three squadrons from Manticore's Home Fleet, as well."


"Ah?" Honor crossed her legs and rubbed her nose pensively. "That sounds like they're planning a fresh offensive," she murmured.


"You think they shouldn't?"


"I beg your pardon?" Honor blinked and looked at the Protector.


"I asked if you thought they shouldn't." She raised an eyebrow, and he shrugged. "You sounded a bit . . . oh, doubtful, I suppose."


"Not doubtful, Sir. Thoughtful. I was just wondering whether or not they plan to hit Nightingale again." It was Benjamin's turn to quirk an eyebrow, and she smiled. "Admiral White Haven has been known, on occasion, to, ah, do the unexpected. The Peep fleet base at Nightingale is certainly an important target, but since he knows they know that as well as he does, he might choose to use it for a little misdirection. After all, his real objective is Trevor's Star, and they have to have reinforced Nightingale pretty heavily after his last attack, so if he can convince them he intends to hit them there again and then launch his actual attack someplace else—" She broke off, and Benjamin smiled in understanding.


"Well, I think we can safely leave it in his hands, whatever he plans," he observed, and Honor nodded in agreement. "In the meantime, I understand at least one of the Home Fleet squadrons will pay us a visit in passing. High Admiral Matthews has been asked to set up a few days of war games to help it shake down before it joins Admiral White Haven."


"Good! We've exercised with Admiral Suarez, but we can use a new 'Aggressor Force.' Maybe their admiral will have a fresh trick or two to keep us on our toes."


"I'm sure he'll try," Katherine observed dryly.


"I'm sure you're right," Honor agreed, but her tone had changed. "Speaking of keeping people on their toes," she went on more slowly, "I've been a little worried about some of the things I've been hearing about events dirt-side here on Grayson."


"Burdette and his fellow idiots, you mean?" Benjamin snorted. She nodded, her expression serious, and he frowned. "I know he's got pretensions of rabble rousing, but so far all he's done is bluster, Honor."


"Maybe, but he's also getting more strident," she countered. "And I can't help thinking that people who take such strong public stances tend to paint themselves into corners and become prisoners of their own rhetoric."


"You mean that he may go so far he has no choice but to go still further?" Katherine asked.


"Something like that. But—" Honor paused, then frowned. "I'm sure you have better sources than I do, but Gregory Paxton and I have been keeping an eye on things as well as we can from off-planet, and I've been in regular contact with Howard and Colonel Hill. And from our perspective, it looks like Lord Burdette may not be the only problem."


"Oh?" Benjamin crossed his own legs, inviting her to continue with his eyes, and she sighed.


"It seems to us that there's more than one strand working out down here, Sir. Lord Burdette and the demonstrators in Harrington are one thread—the loud, public one, you might say—but there's something else going on, as well. Something a lot, well, quieter."


"You mean Mueller, Michaelson, and company?" Benjamin asked.


"Yes, Sir." Honor couldn't quite hide her relief at the Protector's response. He smiled, but it was more of a grimace, really, and she went on carefully. "I don't want to sound paranoid, but to me, they actually seem more dangerous than someone like Marchant or Burdette. They're so much less strident people may actually listen to them. And once people start listening to 'moderate' condemnations, the door's open for the extremists to begin sounding rational to them, as well."


"I see your point," Katherine said. She looked at her husband and frowned. "Didn't you discuss this with Prestwick last week?"


"I did, indeed," Benjamin confirmed. "And at the moment, neither we nor Planetary Security see any immediate cause for concern."


"Immediate cause?" his wife repeated, and he smiled sourly.


"You and Lady Harrington have nasty, suspicious minds, Cat," he said, "and you both pay too much attention to qualifiers. Yes, I said 'immediate,' as in 'things may change.' "


"How big a factor do you think the Sacristy's decision to defrock Marchant may be?" Honor asked. He cocked an eyebrow at her, and she shrugged. "Greg and I have been trying to get a read on that, but we don't have enough input. All the same, I'm uneasy about the ammunition it offers the reactionaries, and the last poll I saw was . . . worrying."


"The decision to discipline Marchant was Reverend Hanks' to make," Benjamin said after a moment. "He discussed it with me, since the Protectorship is technically the executive arm of the Church, but his decision to go forward with it was made only after a formal request from the majority of the Sacristy to do so. I suspect he had something to do with that majority's decision to petition him in the first place, but I make it a rule never to interfere in the Church's internal affairs. Given the amount of fire I've drawn over purely secular matters, the last thing I need is to look as if I'm strong-arming the Church into anything!"


He paused until Honor nodded her understanding, then went on.


"Having said that, I agree with his reasoning. Not only was Marchant's behavior unforgivable in any churchman, but it was also a deliberate act of defiance which the Sacristy simply could not overlook. He had to be slapped down—hard—before any core of clerical conservatives congealed behind him. I'm aware—as I'm sure you are, Honor, given that you have Paxton working on this—that there's been a sort of passive resistance from some churchmen, but now they have to restrict themselves to actions which don't openly support the error for which Marchant was disciplined or face the same consequences. I think that had to be established, and now that it has, Reverend Hanks is concentrating on starving the fire of fuel, on the one hand, and encouraging the more progressive clergy to speak out on behalf of reason on the other."


Honor nodded, but she also found her right hand playing with the Harrington Key. She grimaced and made herself let go of it.


"And the opinion polls, Sir? It seems to me—and to Greg—that the Marchant decision's been a factor in the numbers. Most of the people who admit to second thoughts about my, ah, suitability as a steadholder indicate that their doubts hinge on my 'infidel' status."


"No doubt," Benjamin acknowledged. "But your own people aren't worried by it, and, frankly, what citizens of other steadings think about you is largely irrelevant. Reverend Hanks and I both anticipated that there'd be a negative initial effect on public opinion, but we've got time for it to smooth out again, and the fact that you've never hidden your own religious convictions should help. That's the sort of personal integrity Graysons appreciate, once they fully consider it." He shook his head. "Under the circumstances, I think the Reverend's action was a wise one, and, as I say, at least it's told the reactionaries there's a line the Sacristy won't tolerate their crossing."


"I only wish there hadn't been any need for a line in the first place," Honor worried. "I don't like the thought of serving as the focus for all this craziness." She shook her head, irritated by her own choice of words. "What I mean, Sir, is that I regret providing a focus for it."


"Honor," Benjamin said quietly, "what I regret is having put you in a position where idiots determined to freeze my planet somewhere in the dark ages can attack you for being better than they are."


"I didn't mean—" Honor began with a blush, but he interrupted her gently.


"I understand exactly what you meant. And you're right; you have become the focus of the reactionaries. When I first shanghaied you as a steadholder, I told you we needed you as an example and a challenge, and I was right. But what I didn't warn you about—because I hadn't fully considered it myself—was that as an example of what women can and should aspire to, you'd also become the target of every idiot who insists women can't be such things. I regret that. At the same time, honesty compels me to admit that even if I had considered it, I wouldn't have let it stop me from drafting you . . . and knowing, as I now do, that your own sense of duty wouldn't have let you turn me down would only have made me feel guilty. It wouldn't have stopped me, because we do need you, and I have a responsibility as Protector of Grayson to see to it that we have you." Honor's blush darkened, and he shook his head at her. "But the fact is that if they didn't have you, the reactionaries would only find some other rallying point. People determined to stand in the path of progress can always find some emotional hook to hang their opposition on. You happen to be the hook for this particular bunch of idiots because they see you as the most dangerous person on Grayson, and, from their perspective, they're absolutely right. You are."


"I am?" Honor asked in surprise.


"You are," Benjamin repeated. "You're a hero to our people, even the ones who have doubts about the social reforms, which gives you a dangerous 'constituency' far beyond the bounds of your own steading. The number who have doubts about you may be growing just now, but the majority still sees you as both a woman and an officer who saved our world from our hereditary enemies, which undercuts our society's notions that women are weaker and must be protected. You've done an outstanding job as a steadholder, which presents an intolerable challenge to conservative steadholders who believe no woman could ever do their job. And you're an 'infidel' who not only respects and protects the Church in your steading but who's actually studied our Faith so well you can trade citations with a bigot like Marchant and pin his ears back. When you add all of that together, there's not a reactionary on the planet who doesn't see you—you personally, Honor Harrington—as the direct personification of every challenge to his position and pet bigotries, and it's all my fault for dragging you into it."


Honor sat silent, gazing deep into his eyes, then looked at Katherine, who nodded wryly in agreement.


"Sir—Benjamin—I don't want to provide that kind of focus," she repeated finally. He started to speak, but she raised a hand. "Not because I don't want people to hate me. Because I don't want to be the fulcrum they use to attack your reforms."


"If you weren't here, they'd just find another rallying point," Benjamin said again. "You happen to be the key as things stand, and, as it happens, you're a very good key from my perspective. Despite any slippage in the polls, you'd have to screw up in some truly spectacular fashion before you became a negative factor, and you're not the sort of person who screws up." He grinned. "Frankly, having the lunatics trying to use you as the 'fulcrum,' as you put it, is a vast relief to me. If you're going to be so damned bighearted that you don't blame me for putting you in the middle of such a mess, then for the Tester's sake, don't blame yourself for being there!"


"But—" Honor began, then stopped herself with another crooked smile. "All right, I'll shut up and be good. But you are keeping an eye on things?"


"Do you keep an eye on enemy force appreciations, Admiral Harrington?" Benjamin asked. She nodded with a wry grin of understanding, and he nodded back. "So do I. The sneaky bastards may surprise me from time to time, but not because I'm not paying attention, I assure you. Fair?"


"Fair, Sir," Honor said.


"Good! Because—" the Protector grinned and cocked an ear as a sudden ruckus headed their way from the nursery "—I think the holy terrors are returning to base, and if we can catch them, it's just about time for dinner!"


 



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