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Chapter Twenty-Nine

The whisper of conversation seemed small and lost as the steadholders waited. No one dared raise his voice, and the tension in their ancient, horseshoe-shaped Conclave Chamber could have been chipped with a knife. No one knew what was to happen here this day, yet all feared it.


The events in Harrington Steading hung heavy in their minds. Fifty hours had passed since the first stunning reports, and still all they knew were rumors. But what had been ordered as a closed session of the Keys had become something else, and holo-vid cameras rimmed the Spectators' Gallery above them, waiting to carry whatever was to transpire here to every HD in the star system.


Yet they had no idea, no hint, of what that was to be. It was unheard of for them to be so ignorant, for there to be no Council leaks—not even a single media snippet—to provide some clue, yet it had happened. And so they sat, awaiting the Protector's arrival in confusion as great as any of their steaders', and like the cameras, their eyes clung to the vacant desk directly below the Protector's throne. The one blazoned with the Harrington arms and the seal of the Protector's Champion, whose velvet-padded brackets bore the naked blade of the Grayson Sword of State.


The one whose owner, if the rumors were true, lay dead or dying even as they sat and wondered.


Something happened. A stir ran through the Gallery, and the cameras swung towards the Chamber doors. The steadholders' eyes followed the lenses, their murmured conversations died, and when the massive wooden panels swung open, the whispering creak of their hinges was ear-shattering in the sudden silence.


Benjamin IX walked through those doors and into that silence with a face of stone. For the first time in living memory, the Door Warden neither challenged nor announced the Protector's entrance, and more than one steadholder's mouth went dry as the significance sank home.


There was one time, and only one, when the Protector might ignore the Keys' corporate equality with him in this, their Chamber . . . and that time was when he came to pass judgment upon one of them.


Burdette fought to control his expression, but his face tightened as the Protector walked to his throne in the horseshoe's bend with a slow, deliberate stride. Benjamin mounted to the dais and turned, seating himself, and only then did the Keys realize someone else was missing. Reverend Hanks, as the temporal head of Grayson, should have accompanied the Protector, and a hushed almost-sound of fresh confusion ran through the stillness as his absence registered.


"My Lords," Benjamin's voice was harsh as cold iron, "I come here tonight with the gravest news a Protector has brought this Conclave in six hundred years. I come with news of a treason which surpasses even that of Jared Mayhew, who called himself Maccabeus. A treason, My Lords, I did not believe any Grayson capable of committing . . . until Tuesday night."


Sweat dotted Burdette's brow, and he dared not blot it lest he betray himself to his peers. His heart hammered, and he stared out across the floor of the horseshoe at Samuel Mueller, but his ally looked as confused as any other man there, with no slightest hint that he suspected what Mayhew was talking about. Nor did he spare Burdette so much as a glance . . . and then the Protector spoke again, and all eyes, even Burdette's, snapped back to him as filings to a magnet.


"Tuesday night, My Lords, I had summoned you to a closed session. Each of you knew it. Each of you was pledged, and charged by law, to keep that summons secret. The purpose of that session was to acquaint you with new information concerning the collapse of the Mueller Middle School dome. I had informed none of you of that purpose, but someone among you guessed, and that someone did not wish you to learn of what I had discovered."


Benjamin paused, and the silence was absolute. Not even a reporter whispered into his hush phone.


"My Lords," the Protector said, "the collapse of that dome was not an accident." Someone gasped, but Benjamin continued in that same iron voice. "Nor was it the result of bad design, nor even, as you have been told, of faulty construction materials. That dome, My Lords, was made to collapse by men whose sole purpose was to discredit Steadholder Harrington."


A vast, deep susurration ran around the chamber, but the Protector continued speaking, and the sound died instantly.


"Tuesday night, I could only have told you my investigators believed that to be the case, and we knew even that much only because Adam Gerrick, Sky Domes' chief engineer, had performed a brilliant piece of reconstruction. For that reason, I wished Mr. Gerrick to be present, so that he could, if you so desired, explain his conclusions. I regret to inform you that it will not now be possible for him to do so, however, for Adam Gerrick is dead—dead with ninety-five other men and women in the crash of Lady Harrington's pinnace in Harrington Steading. And like the Mueller dome collapse, that crash was no accident. Adam Gerrick and the others who died with him were murdered. Murdered by the men who used a surface-to-air missile to shoot down that pinnace because Lady Harrington was aboard it. The same men, Steadholders of Grayson, who also murdered Reverend Julius Hanks."


For perhaps as much as ten seconds it totally failed to register. Benjamin hadn't even raised his voice, and the enormity of what he'd said was too vast for comprehension. The words meant nothing, for their meaning was impossible. They simply could not be true.


But then, suddenly, it did register, and a strangled shout sprang as a single, anguished cry of disbelief from seventy-nine throats, then died in an instant of fresh, stunned silence—of shock too profound for any words. But this silence lasted only a moment, and the sound which broke it was indescribable. Not yet words, for, once more, there were no words to hold the first, formless stirring of its fury.


William Fitzclarence staggered, clutching at his desk for support. No! It couldn't be!


His eyes darted to Mueller, but this time Mueller was as genuinely stunned as anyone—as stunned as Burdette himself—and when his shock faded, it was replaced by fury as dark as that of any other man in the Chamber. Nor was that fury feigned. It was all he could do not to glare accusingly at Burdette, but he stopped himself just in time, for to do so would be to reveal his own knowledge and brand himself as the man's accomplice.


The fool! Oh, the damned, bungling, incompetent fool! He couldn't have known Hanks would be there—not even he was stupid enough to do something like this knowingly! But neither had he checked, and if Mayhew truly knew who'd been responsible, if even the thinnest thread of evidence linking Mueller to Burdette were found—


Benjamin Mayhew sat on his throne and watched shock smash through the Conclave. He watched the first total disbelief change, saw its numb anesthesia vanish into the awareness of loss, into pain and a soul-deep rage he knew was mirrored in the face of every person watching the HD broadcast of this Conclave session, and then he stood.


That silent movement did what no shouted plea for order could have. It jerked every eye back to him, stilled every tongue, and his gaze swept from one end of the horseshoe of steadholders to the other.


"My Lords," his voice was harsh, still cold but wrapped now around a core of white-hot anger, "Tuesday night was the most shameful night in Grayson's history since the Fifty-Three were murdered in this very Chamber. For the first time in my memory, I am ashamed to own myself a Grayson and confess that I spring from the same planet as the men who could plan such acts out of bigotry, intolerance, fear, and ambition!"


His fury lashed them like a whip, and more than one steadholder physically recoiled from its ferocity.


"Yes, Reverend Hanks was murdered. The leader of our Church and Faith, the man chosen by Father Church as God's steward on this planet, was murdered, yet the motives for that crime are almost worse than the crime itself, for he wasn't even its true target. Oh, no, My Lords! The true target of this vicious, cowardly attack was a woman, a steadholder, a naval officer whose courage saved our world from conquest. The true purpose was to murder a woman whose sole offense was to be incomparably better than this planet has just proven it deserves!"


Benjamin Mayhew's wrath was a living presence, stalking through the Chamber with claws and fangs of fire, but then he closed his eyes and drew a deep breath, and when he spoke again, his voice was very, very quiet.


"What have we become, My Lords? What has happened to our world and our Faith that Grayson men can convince themselves God Himself calls them to destroy a blameless woman simply because she is different? Simply because she challenges us to grow beyond ourselves, to become more and better than we are, just as the Tester Himself demands of us? What possible explanation—what conceivable reason—can men who claim to love God give for using the murder of children—our children, My Lords!—to destroy a woman who has done only good for our world and offered her very life to protect all its children? Tell me that, My Lords. For the love of the God we say we serve, how did we let this happen? How could we let it happen?"


No voice answered. No word was spoken, for the shame cut too deep. For all their fear, all their resentment of the changes in their world and the erosion of their power, most of the men in that Chamber were decent ones whose limitations were those of their rearing. In the final analysis, their anger at Honor Harrington and Benjamin Mayhew sprang from the way in which she and the Protector's reforms offended their concept of proper social behavior, and that concept rested upon rules they'd been taught as children. But they were no longer children, and in that moment, they saw themselves through the pitiless lens of their Protector's anguished words and shrank from what they saw.


"My Lords, Tuesday night Reverend Hanks faced that question, and he answered it," Benjamin said softly, and saw his own pain etched in the steadholders' faces as he spoke Hanks' name. "Reverend Hanks knew how poisoned with hate Lady Harrington's enemies had become, and he took our duty to prevent such crimes upon his own shoulders and, as the Tester's own Son calls upon each of us to do at need, he chose to die so that someone else might live. When the murderers who shot down Lady Harrington's pinnace realized she'd survived its crash—" a fresh stir ran through the Chamber at the news that she had survived, but his words gave them no chance to consider it yet "—they attacked her more directly, determined to complete the foulness to which they had set their hands, and they found her alone and defenseless, for she had sent her armsmen back to attempt the rescue of those still trapped in the wreckage of her pinnace.


"But she was not quite alone," Benjamin said more softly yet, "for when a man who'd donned the uniform of her own Guard came upon her with a gun, Reverend Hanks was with her. And when the Reverend realized the purpose of that man, he put his own body between her and her killer, and that—that, My Lords—is how our Reverend died. Giving his life to protect the blameless, as all who call themselves godly have been charged to do by the Tester, the Intercessor, and the Comforter."


He stopped speaking and raised his hand as if in signal. The silence in the Chamber was once more a living thing as the whipsawed steadholders wondered what that signal foretold, and then, unexpectedly, the massive doors opened once more, and Honor Harrington stepped through them.


The click of her heels echoed and reechoed in the stillness as she moved down the stone-floored Chamber's length like a tall, slender flame of white and green. The Harrington Key glittered on her breast below the Star of Grayson, and the Star's scarlet ribbon was stained with darker spots whose origin every man in that chamber guessed. The dark line of a deep cut, already responding to quick heal, seamed her forehead, and her right cheek was brutally bruised and discolored. The fluffy pelt of the treecat on her shoulder was singed and scorched, yet he held his head as high as she held her own, gazing, as she, straight at the Protector. It was as if they and Benjamin were alone in the Chamber, and the pain in her eyes—the sorrow for the deaths of her own people, and always and above all for the gentle and compassionate man who had died for her—was a weight no man there could face. They stared at her, frozen in shame, grief, and fear, and she ignored them all as she walked to the foot of Benjamin IX's throne.


"Your Grace, I come before you for justice." Her soprano voice was a thing of cold steel, the pain in it deeper even than the pain in her eyes. "By my oath to you, I call upon yours to me. As I swore to protect and guard my people, so I now require your aid to that end, for he who has killed and maimed my steaders carries the key of a steadholder, and I may not touch him while he shelters behind its protection."


The entire Chamber held its breath as it recognized the formal appeal to the Protector's Justice, unheard in this Chamber in generations, and then Benjamin spoke.


"By my oath to you, I honor your demand for justice, My Lady. If any man in this Chamber has offended against you or yours, name him, and if you bear proof of his crimes, then steadholder or no, he shall answer for them as the laws of God and Man decree."


William Fitzclarence stared in horror at the woman before the throne, for he knew, now. Even through his own shock at the news of Reverend Hanks' death, he knew. Mayhew would never have allowed it to go this far unless the harlot did have proof, and his promise of justice was a sentence of death.


"Your Grace, I have proof," Honor said, and her anguish at the deaths of Julius Hanks, Adam Gerrick, Jared Sutton, Frederick Sully, Gilbert Troubridge, and ninety-one other men and women fused with a rage as deep and bitter as that of any man in that Chamber as she turned from the throne at last and looked straight at Burdette.


"I name my enemy William Allen Hillman Fitzclarence, Steadholder Burdette," she said in a voice colder than the heart of space. Her treecat hissed, baring his fangs, and Burdette's knees sagged as every eye in the Chamber turned upon him like the closing jaws of a trap. "I accuse him of murder, of treason, of my own attempted assassination, and of conspiring in the murder of children and of Reverend Julius Hanks. I bring before you the witnessed and sealed confession of Edward Julius Martin of Burdette Steading, freely offered under the law of Church and Sword, that William Fitzclarence personally ordered my death; that William Fitzclarence, Edmond Augustus Marchant, his steader, Samuel Marchant Harding, also his steader, Austin Vincent Taylor, also his steader, and twenty-seven other men in his service, contrived the collapse of the Mueller Middle School dome and the deaths of fifty-two men and thirty children; and that as a direct consequence of William Fitzclarence's orders, the Reverend Julius Hanks, First Elder of the Church of Humanity Unchained, died giving his own life that I might live."


She paused, and Burdette's ragged breathing was the only sound in the vast, hushed Chamber. She let the silence linger while a small cruel part of her—one whose vicious strength shocked her—savored what must be running through his mind, and then she raised her right hand and pointed at him.


"Your Grace, by your oath to me and the proofs I have offered, I claim the life of William Allen Hillman Fitzclarence as forfeit for his crimes, for his cruelty, and for his violation of his sacred oaths to you, to this Conclave, to the People of Grayson, and to God Himself."


"My Lady," Benjamin Mayhew said softly, "by my oath to you, you shall have it."


* * *


William Fitzclarence stared at Honor Harrington as his fellow steadholders recoiled from him, and terror filled him. No. No, it couldn't happen! Mayhew and the bitch had twisted and perverted all he'd tried to accomplish, made God's Own work into something ugly and vile, and now his very life had been cast into the hands of an infidel whore unworthy to breathe the air of God's world? God would not permit this. He wouldn't!


Yet even as he thought that, the stone-faced Protector gestured, and four armsmen of the Steadholders' Guard, each in the colors of a different steading, crossed the Chamber floor and started up the shallow steps towards him. Their faces were as hard as the Protector's own, their eyes as filled with hate for him—for God's warrior!—as those of the bitch who'd brought Satan's poison into his world, and he knew it was happening. That his life would end, and that he would be remembered not as the man who'd fought with every weapon at his command against sin and damnation, but as a murderer of children. As the man who'd ordered the murder of God's Steward when he hadn't even known Hanks was there! The ruin of his world, the destruction of all he believed in, of God's Own law was upon him, and there was nothing he could d—


"Wait!"


He lunged to his feet, and his bellow shook the Chamber. He saw Mayhew twitch at his sudden shout, but the bitch didn't even blink, and somehow that gave him fresh strength. There was a way, he told himself. There was still a way to destroy her and, in her destruction, prove he was God's champion.


For a moment he thought the oncoming armsmen would ignore his cry, but then the officer at their head looked at the Protector, and Mayhew raised a hand. He said nothing, simply stood waiting with contempt plain on his face, and Burdette descended to the Conclave floor. He brushed through the armsmen with cold disdain and threw the bitch a single hate-filled glare, then turned to face the Keys of Grayson.


"My Lords," he cried, "I do not dispute the facts this harlot claims, nor do I regret any of my acts! I say only that I neither desired nor ordered Reverend Hanks' death, and that no man can prove against me, for I never even knew he would be present. But yes—yes, My Lords!—I did each and every other thing this foreign-born whore claims, and I would do them again—do them a thousand times again!—before I let an infidel fornicator and this traitor who calls himself Protector pollute and poison a world sacred to God!"


He saw the other steadholders' shock as he admitted his guilt. No, as he proclaimed it and flung it in the bitch's face! And he understood their confusion, for they didn't know what he intended. A rush of power, the assurance that God was with him yet, filled him, and he wheeled to glare at Benjamin Mayhew.


"I reject your right to condemn me to death in order to silence God's voice of opposition to your corrupt abuse of power! As is my ancient right before God, the law, and this Conclave, I challenge your decree! Let your Champion stand forth and prove the true will of God sword-to-sword, in the ancient way of our fathers, and may God preserve the righteous!"


Exultation filled him as he saw Mayhew's astonishment, and he snarled in triumph, for he'd trapped the bastard in his own snare. If he would assume the ancient powers of the Protector, turn back the clock and exert his despotism, then he must accept the Protector's ancient limitations, as well, and his so-called "Champion" was the bitch on the Conclave floor. The harlot God had brought openly within reach of Burdette's own sword at last.


Echoes of consternation ran around the Chamber, and centuries of decorum were forgotten as a dozen steadholders shouted in protest. But Burdette ignored them and locked his triumphant eyes with Mayhew's. He knew the harlot had toyed with the sword since her own people had driven her to Grayson in disgrace, but she'd been here little more than a year and spent the last three months in space. No doubt what little she'd learned had slipped away through lack of practice, while he held the rank of Master Second. Like any other Grayson, he'd thought the sword's serious use a thing of the past, but now he understood at last the true reason God had inspired him to become its master.


It was for this moment. This single day, when he would master another Sword by striking down the Harlot of Satan before the eyes of every Grayson in the star system. And when she fell, when God's will was made evident to every eye, her death would also nullify Mayhew's sentence of death, for under the Protector's own precious Constitution, a steadholder's victory protected him forever from any aspect of the decree for which he'd cried challenge!


Benjamin Mayhew gazed down at Burdette's triumphant face, and his heart was cold within him while he cursed his own stupidity. He should have considered this possibility, should have allowed for it, but no one had claimed challenge right in over three hundred years! It was a throwback to barbarism, but he should have expected it, for this man was a barbarian.


His right hand fisted at his side, and his eyes went bleak and cold. In that moment, he wanted nothing in the universe as much as he wanted William Fitzclarence dead on the Chamber floor. Yet whatever he wanted, he also knew Honor had slept for less than three hours in the fifty since her pinnace went down, that she had four broken ribs quick heal had only begun to repair, and that under her clothing she was covered with brutal bruises. She was running on adrenaline and stim tabs, and he had no idea how she could show so little sign of fatigue or physical pain as she stood proudly erect before the Keys, but he knew she was in no fit state to meet a man with Burdette's sword skill. Even if she'd been fresh and unhurt, she'd first touched even a practice blade barely a year before, while Burdette had advanced to the planetary quarterfinals no less than three times, and the rogue steadholder would never settle for first blood. He meant to kill her, and the odds were overwhelming that he could.


He could renounce his own decree, Benjamin thought, and in the renunciation accept his Champion's defeat without exposing Honor to Burdette's blade, but the entire population of Yeltsin's Star was watching. The blow to the Protectorship's power and prestige would be severe, and if the people of Grayson thought he'd surrendered because Honor was afraid to face Burdette—


But then he looked down at Honor, at her waiting eyes—calm and still, despite Burdette's challenge and her own pain—and knew he had no choice. Legally, it made no difference if the Protector accepted defeat or his Champion was slain. In either case, his decree was nullified, and Benjamin Mayhew had no right to ask this woman he owed so much to throw away her life on the threadbare chance that she might, somehow, defeat an opponent with thirty times her experience.


"My Lady, I know of your injuries," he said, and pitched his voice so that it carried to every ear and microphone. He was determined that everyone watching should know he'd surrendered only because of her injuries, and not because he'd ever doubted her courage. "I do not believe you are physically fit to accept this man's challenge in my defense, and so—"


Honor raised a hand, and shock stopped him in midsentence. No one ever interrupted the Protector of Grayson when he spoke from the throne! It was unheard of, but she seemed unaware of that. She simply gazed up at him, never even turning to glance at Burdette, and her cold, dispassionate soprano was as clear and carrying as his own voice had been.


"Your Grace," she said, "I have only one question. Do you wish this man crippled, or dead?"


Benjamin twitched in surprise too great to conceal and a gasp of disbelief went up from the steadholders, but her question had snatched any chance to avoid the challenge from his hands. It was her choice now, not his, and as he gazed down into her dark, almond eyes, he saw again the woman who'd saved his own family from assassination against impossible odds. For just one moment he prayed desperately that she could somehow work one more miracle for herself, for him, and for his world, and then he drew a deep breath.


"My Lady," the Protector of Grayson told his Champion, "I do not wish him to leave this Chamber alive."


"As you will it, Your Grace." Honor bowed in formal salute and stepped up to her own desk. She lifted Nimitz from her shoulder, and he sat tall and still, ears flat but quiet, as she took the Grayson Sword of State from its padded brackets. That jeweled yet deadly weapon had been forged six hundred years before for the hand of Benjamin the Great, but it remained as lethal as of old, and its polished blade—marked with the ripple pattern of what Old Terra had called Damascus steel—flashed in her own hand as she stepped back down to face her enemy.


"My Lord," Lady Honor Harrington said coldly, "send for your sword—and may God preserve the righteous."


* * *


William Fitzclarence stood with his eyes on Harrington, and sneered inwardly at her stupidity. Did she actually believe even her demonic master could protect her now? Was she that stupid?


He glanced at his chrono again, taking care to look almost bored. By law, he could not leave the Chamber without forfeiting the legal protection of his challenge, so he'd been forced to send one of his armsmen to fetch his sword. How fortunate that he'd brought it to the capital with him. He always did, of course, when he was unsure how long he would be here, for he made it a point to work out with it regularly. But, no, it wasn't fortune at all, was it? It was part of God's plan to make him the Sword of the Lord.


There was a stir among the steadholders seated above him, hovering like so many frightened birds, as the Chamber doors opened once more. His armsman entered, carrying the sheathed Burdette blade that forty generations of steadholders had called their own, and he held out his hand. The well-worn hilt slid into his palm like an old and trusted friend, and he turned to the harlot.


She stood as she'd stood since he'd sent for his sword, waiting, the Sword of State braced upright on the polished stone floor before her, hands folded on its pommel, and there was no expression on her face. Not fear, not hate, not concern, not even anger. Nothing at all, only those cold, still eyes.


He felt a sudden, unexpected shiver as his own gaze met those eyes directly, for their very emptiness held something frightening. I am Death, they seemed to say, but only for a moment. Only until he reminded himself of his own skill, and he snorted in contempt. This fornicating trollop thought she was Death? His lip curled, and he spat on the polished floor. She was only the Devil's whore, and her eyes were only eyes, whatever lies they tried to tell. The time had come to close them forever, and steel whispered as he drew his blade.


* * *


Honor watched Burdette draw his sword and saw the glitter of its edge. Like the ancient Japanese blades they so resembled, the swords of Grayson were the work of craftsmen who knew perfection was an impossible goal yet forever sought to attain it. For a millennium they'd polished and perfected their art, and even today, the handful who remained forged the glowing steel blow by blow upon the anvil. They folded each blade again and again to give it its magnificent temper, then honed it to an edge any razor might envy and few could match, and the very perfection of its function defined the form which gave it such lethal beauty.


No doubt modern technology could have duplicated those swords, but they weren't the proper product of modern technology. And preposterous though it was for a modern naval officer to meet a murderous religious fanatic with a weapon which had been five hundred years out of date before ever Man left Old Terra for the stars, there was an indefinable rightness to this moment. She knew Burdette was far more experienced than she, that he'd spent years proving his ability in the fencing salles of Grayson, and she felt the aches and stabbing pain flashes of a body too battered for something like this. But that didn't change her strange, perfect sense of rightness.


She toed off her shoes and stepped forward, gown swirling about her legs, her stockinged feet silent on the stone floor, and despite her fatigue, her mind was as still as her face. She took her position directly before Benjamin's throne, and knew every man in that enormous room expected to see her die.


Yet for all his confidence, Burdette had forgotten—or perhaps never learned—something Honor knew only too well. He thought it would be like the fencing salle. But they weren't in a salle, and unlike him, she knew where they truly were, for it was a place she'd been before . . . and he hadn't. He'd ordered murder done, but he himself had never killed—just as he'd never before come in reach of an intended victim with a weapon in her hand.


Burdette advanced to face her with the arrogant, confident stride of a conqueror. He paused to execute a brief limbering up exercise, and she watched impassively, wondering if he even began to appreciate the difference between competition fencing and this. Fencing was like a training kata in coup de vitesse. It was designed to perfect the moves, to practice them, not to use them. And in the salle, a touch was only a touch.


* * *


Burdette finished loosening his muscles, and that confident corner of his mind sneered afresh as the harlot took her stance. She'd adopted a low-guard position, with the blade extended at a slight diagonal, the hilt just above her waist and the tip angled down. She tried to hide it, but she was favoring her right side—perhaps that was the "injury" Mayhew had mentioned? If so, it might well explain her stance, for the low-guard put less strain on the muscles there.


But the low-guard, as his very first swordmaster had taught him, was a position of weakness. It invited attack rather than positioning to attack, and his sword rose into the high-guard as he took his own stance, weight spread evenly, right foot cocked and slightly back, and his hilt just above eye-level so that he could see her clearly while his blade hovered to strike.


* * *


Honor watched him with the eyes of a woman who'd trained in the martial arts for almost forty years, and the hard-learned, poised relaxation of all those years hummed softly within her. She felt her weariness, the pain of broken ribs, the ache in bruised muscles, the stiffness of her left shoulder, but then she commanded her body to ignore those things, and her body obeyed.


There were two terms Master Thomas had taught her in her first week of training. "The dominance" and "the crease," he'd called them. The "dominance" was the clash of wills, the war of personal confidence fought before the first blow was struck to establish who held psychological domination over the other. But the "crease" was something else, a reference to the tiny wrinkling of the forehead when the moment of decision came. Of course, "crease" was only a convenient label for an infinite set of permutations, he'd stressed, for every swordsman announced the commitment to attack in a different way. All fencers were taught to look for the crease, and competition fencers researched opponents exhaustively before a match, for though the signal might be subtle, it was also constant. Every swordsman had one; it was something he simply could not train completely out of himself. But because there were so very many possible creases, Master Thomas had explained while they sat cross-legged in sunlight on the salle floor, most swordmasters emphasized the dominance over the crease, for it was a simpler and a surer thing to defeat your opponent's will than to look for something one might or might not recognize even if one saw it.


But the true master of the sword, he'd said that quiet day, was she who had learned to rely not on her enemy's weakness, but upon her own strength. She who understood that the difference between the salle and what Honor faced today—between fencing, the art, and life or death by the sword—was always in the crease, not the dominance.


Honor knew she'd taken longer to grasp his meaning than someone with her background should have. But once she had, and after she'd studied the library information on Japan, she'd also realized why—on Grayson, as in the ancient islands of the samurai—a formal duel almost always both began and ended with a single stroke.


* * *


An edge of puzzlement flickered in Burdette's mind as she simply stood there. He, too, had been taught about the dominance and the crease, and he'd used both to his advantage in many competitions. But he was certain she had no more idea of what his crease was than he did of hers; surely she didn't think she could somehow deduce it at this late date!


Or perhaps she did. Perhaps she was too new to the sword to have sorted out all the metaphysical claptrap from the practical reality, but William Fitzclarence was too experienced to allow himself to be distracted from the real and practical when he held a live blade.


He held his position, and his upper lip curled as he reached out for the dominance. That was the part of every match he'd always enjoyed most. The invisible thrust and parry, that tension as the stronger will drove the weaker to open itself to attack, and he licked mental chops at the thought of driving the harlot.


But then the curl smoothed from his lip and his eyes widened, for there was no clash. His intense concentration simply disappeared against her, like a sword thrust into bottomless black water which enveloped it without resistance, and a bead of sweat trickled down his cheek. What was wrong with her? He was the master here, she the tyro. She had to feel the pressure, the gnawing tension . . . the fear. Why wasn't she attacking to end it?


* * *


Honor waited, poised and still, centered physically and mentally, her eyes watching every part of his body without focusing on any. She felt his frustration, but it was as distant and unimportant as the ache of her broken ribs. She simply waited—and then, suddenly, she moved.


She never knew, then or later, what William Fitzclarence's "crease" was. She simply knew she'd recognized it. That something deep inside her saw the moment he committed himself, the instant his arms tightened to bring his blade slashing down.


The instant in which he was entirely focused on the attack, and not on defense.


Her body responded to that recognition with the trained reaction speed of someone born and bred at the bottom of a gravity well fifteen percent more powerful than her opponent's. Her blade flashed up in a blinding, backhand arc, and the Sword of State's razor-sharp spine opened Burdette's torso from right hip to left shoulder. Clothing and flesh parted like cobwebs, and she heard the start of his explosive cry as shock and pain froze his blade. But he never completed that scream, for even as it rose in his throat and he began to fold forward over his opened belly, her wrists turned easily, and she slashed back to her left in a flashing continuation of her original movement, backed by all the whip-crack power of her body, and William Fitzclarence's head leapt from his shoulders in a geyser of blood.


 


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Framed