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Chapter One

Like all public buildings on Grayson, Protector's Palace lay under a controlled-environment dome, but a corner of the grounds held another, smaller dome, as well. It was a greenhouse, and High Admiral Wesley Matthews braced himself as an armsman in the House of Mayhew's maroon and gold opened its door for him. An almost visible wave of humid heat swirled out, and he sighed and unhooked his tunic collar, but that was as far as he intended to go. This time he was going to stay in proper uniform if it killed him.


"Hello, Wesley." Benjamin Mayhew IX, Protector of Grayson, greeted his senior military officer without looking up from whatever he was doing.


"Good morning, Your Grace." Matthews' respectful reply sounded curiously stifled, for the climate in here was even worse than he'd expected. The Protector was in shirtsleeves, his forehead beaded with perspiration, and the high admiral mopped at his own suddenly streaming face, looked at the enviro display, and winced. Resolution was no defense against a temperature of forty degrees centigrade and a ninety-six percent humidity, and he grimaced and stripped off his uniform tunic to emulate his ruler.


The rustle of fabric wasn't loud, but it was very quiet in the greenhouse. The soft sound carried well, and Benjamin looked up with a grin.


"Did you turn the thermostat up just for me, Your Grace?" Matthews inquired, and Benjamin looked innocent.


"Of course not, Wesley. Why would I do such a thing?"


Matthews arched a polite eyebrow, and the Protector chuckled. Wesley Matthews was extraordinarily young for his rank, even for a world like Grayson, where the prolong anti-aging treatments were only just becoming available. He'd jumped from commodore to commander-in-chief of the Grayson Space Navy less than four T-years ago, and like Bernard Yanakov, the man he'd succeeded, he was baffled by his Protector's taste in hobbies. Floriculture and flower arrangement were high art forms on Grayson, but they were traditionally female ones. Matthews willingly admitted that his ruler produced breathtaking arrangements, yet it still seemed an . . . odd avocation for a head of state. Bernard Yanakov, however, had been Benjamin Mayhew's older cousin, as well as his senior admiral, which had given him certain advantages Matthews lacked. He'd known the Protector literally since birth and twitted him about his hobby for years; Matthews couldn't do that—which hadn't kept Benjamin from guessing how he felt.


Matthews had been vastly relieved when the Protector chose to be amused rather than offended, yet sometimes he wondered if things had worked out so well after all. Benjamin took a positive glee in summoning him for meetings during which he puttered about with vases and cut flowers or which just happened to take place in spots like this greenhouse furnace. It had become a sort of shared joke, and Tester knew they both needed any relaxation they could find these days, but this time the heat and humidity were almost overwhelming.


"Actually," Benjamin said after a moment, "I hadn't intended to inflict anything quite this, ah, energetic upon you, Wesley, but I didn't have much choice." His voice was genuinely contrite, yet he also returned his attention to the blossom before him, and Matthews stepped closer, fascinated despite himself, as the Protector manipulated a collecting probe with surgical precision and continued his apology, if such it was.


"This is a specimen of Hibson's Orchid from Indus, in the Mithra System. Beautiful, isn't it?"


"Yes, it is, Your Grace," Matthews murmured. The bell-shaped flower was an incredibly subtle blend of blues and dark purples with a deep-throated, golden core shot with scarlet, and the admiral felt an odd, drifting sensation, as if he were falling into its perfumed depths. The feeling was so strong he had to shake himself, and Benjamin laughed softly.


"Indeed it is, but it's extremely difficult to propagate off-planet, and the male flower only blossoms for a single day once every three T-years. I've been fascinated by it since I first saw it in a conservatory on Old Earth, and I think I'm on the brink of developing a hybrid that will bloom about twice as frequently. Unfortunately, timing is everything in a project like this, and reproducing its natural environment is critical. I'm afraid I didn't expect it to flower today, and I hadn't actually expected to drag you out here when you asked to drop by, but if I don't jump on it right now—"


He shrugged, and Matthews nodded, forgetting for once to assume his proper attitude of martyred tolerance as the orchid's beauty worked upon him. He stood in respectful silence while Benjamin finished collecting the pollen and examined his treasure under a magnifier with intense satisfaction.


"Now we just have to wait for these to open," he said more briskly, waving to the tight-furled buds on another vine.


"And how long will that take, Your Grace?" Matthews asked politely, and Benjamin chuckled again.


"At least another forty hours, so I don't expect you to stand around and wait." The Protector slid his pollen into a storage unit, wiped sweat from his forehead, and gestured to the door, and Matthews sighed in relief.


He followed his ruler from the greenhouse, and Benjamin's armsman fell in at their heels while they crossed to a comfortable nook beside a splashing fountain. The Protector took a seat and waved Matthews into a facing chair, then leaned back as a servant appeared with towels and iced drinks. The admiral scrubbed his soaking hair briskly, then mopped his face and sipped gratefully, and Benjamin crossed his legs.


"Now, Wesley. What was it you wanted to see me about?"


"Lady Harrington, Your Grace," Matthews replied promptly. Benjamin sighed, and the admiral leaned forward persuasively. "I know you still think it's too soon, Your Grace, but we need her. We need her very badly, indeed."


"I understand that," Benjamin said patiently, "but I'm not going to push her. She's still recovering, Wesley. She needs time."


"It's been over nine months, Your Grace." Matthews' tone was respectful but stubborn.


"I realize that, and I also realize how valuable she could be to you, but her life's hardly been what you could call easy, now has it?" Benjamin held the admiral's eyes, and Matthews shook his head. "She deserves however long she needs to heal," the Protector went on, "and I intend to see she has it. Wait till she's ready, Wesley."


"But how will we know when she is ready if you won't even let me ask her about it?"


Benjamin frowned, then nodded as if against his will.


"A point," he admitted. "Definitely a point, but—" He broke off with an angry little shrug and sipped his own drink before he continued. "The problem is that I don't think she's gotten herself put back together again. I can't be certain—she's not the sort to cry on people's shoulders—but Katherine's gotten more out of her than I think she realizes, and it was bad, Wesley. Really bad. I was afraid we were going to lose her completely for a few months, and the way certain elements have reacted to her hasn't helped."


Matthews grunted in understanding, and a look of something very like guilt crossed Benjamin's face.


"I knew some of the reactionaries would come into the open once they got over the initial shock, but I didn't expect them to be quite this blatant, and I should have." The Protector's free hand fisted and pounded his knee while he grimaced in distaste. "I still think it was the right move," he went on, as if to himself. "We need her as a steadholder, but if I'd realized what it was going to cost her, I never would have done it. And when you add the protesters to Captain Tankersley's death—"


"Your Grace," Matthews said firmly, "this isn't something for you to blame yourself over. We didn't have anything to do with Captain Tankersley's murder, and Lady Harrington knows it. Even if she didn't, you were right; we do need her as a steadholder if the reforms are going to stand, and whatever the lunatic fringe thinks, most of our people respect her deeply. I'm quite sure she knows that, too, and she's a very strong person. We both know that, because we've both seen her in action. She'll get through this."


"I hope so, Wesley. I hope to God she will," Benjamin murmured.


"She will. But that brings me back to my point. We need her naval experience just as badly as we need her as a steadholder, and with all due respect, Your Grace, I think we're doing her a disservice by not telling her so."


It was the admiral's strongest statement of disagreement with his own view Benjamin had heard yet, and he frowned. Not angrily, but in consideration. Matthews recognized his expression and sat waiting while Grayson's ruler ran back through the arguments and counter arguments.


"I don't know," he said finally. "You may be right, but I still want to give her as much time as we can."


"Again with all due respect, Your Grace, I think that's a mistake. You're the one who insists we have to learn to treat women with full equality. I believe you're right about that, and I think most of our people are coming around to the same view, whether they like it or not. But I also think you haven't quite learned to do it yourself yet." Benjamin stiffened, and Matthews went on in a calm, measured tone. "I mean no disrespect, but you're trying to protect her. That's a very fine thing, exactly what I would expect from any decent Grayson . . . but would you try quite so hard if she were a man?"


The Protector's eyes narrowed, his expression arrested, and then he shook his head in chagrin. Unlike most Graysons, he'd been educated off-world, on Old Terra herself. The traditional Grayson view held that asking women to bear the same responsibilities as men was a perversion of nature, but he'd been exposed to a society in which the notion that men and women might possibly be considered unequal would have been regarded as equally grotesque, and he'd accepted that view. Yet at the bottom of all his genuine commitment to it, he was a Grayson, and one who owed his entire family's lives to Honor Harrington. How much had his auto-reflex instinct to protect her affected his judgment?


"You may be right," he said at last. "I don't think I want you to be, but that's beside the point." He rubbed his chin for another long moment, then met Matthews' eyes once more. "I'm not saying I agree or disagree with you, but what makes it so urgent to press the point right this minute?"


"The Manticorans will have to pull their last capital units out of Yeltsin within two months, Your Grace," the admiral said quietly.


"They will?" Benjamin sat up, and Matthews nodded. "No one's said anything about it to me or Chancellor Prestwick—not yet, at least."


"I didn't say the decision had been made, Your Grace. Nor did I say they wanted to. I said they'd have to do it. They won't have any choice."


"Why not?"


"Because the momentum is shifting." Matthews laid his tunic across his lap, extracted an old-fashioned hardcopy note pad from one pocket, and opened it to double-check the figures he'd jotted in it.


"In the war's first six months," he said, "Manticore captured nineteen Havenite star systems, including two major fleet bases. Their total capital ship losses during that time were two superdreadnoughts and five dreadnoughts, against which they destroyed forty Havenite ships of the wall. They also added thirty-one capital ships to their own order of battle—twenty-six captured units, exclusive of the eleven Admiral White Haven gave us after Third Yeltsin, and five more from new construction. That put them within roughly ninety percent of the Peeps' remaining ships of the wall, and they had the advantage of the initiative, not to mention the edge the People's Navy's confusion and shattered morale gave them.


"In the last three months, however, the RMN's captured only two systems and lost nineteen capital ships doing it—including the ten they lost at Nightingale, where they didn't take the system. The Peeps are still taking heavier losses, but remember that they have all those battleships. They may be too small for proper ships of the wall, but they provide a rear area coverage the Manties can't match without diverting dreadnoughts or superdreadnoughts, which frees a higher percentage of the Peeps' ships of the wall for front-line use. Put simply, the Peeps still have more ships to lose than Manticore does, and the war is slowing down, Your Grace. Peep resistance is stiffening, and the Manties are transferring more and more of their own strength to the front in an effort to hang onto their momentum."


"How bad is it?" Benjamin asked intently.


"As I say, their losses are climbing. They've already reduced their Home Fleet to barely a third of its prewar strength, and it's not enough. I think they know it, too, but they also know the Peeps are going to bring them more or less to a halt in another few months. They're trying to push as hard as they can before that happens—to get as deep into the People's Republic as possible before the Peeps can start thinking about counterattacks. That means they're going to start calling in every ship they can spare—maybe even a few more than they can withdraw with complete safety. Given that the last of our own SDs recommissions in January, Yeltsin's Star is certainly one place they can trust to look after itself. In light of that, I'm astonished they haven't already pulled out the last of their capital units. Certainly no strategist worth his salt will leave them here much longer, Your Grace. They can't."


Benjamin rubbed his chin again. "I knew things were slowing down, but I hadn't realized how drastically. What's changed, Wesley?"


"That's hard to say, Your Grace, but I've been in correspondence with Admiral Caparelli, and Admiral Givens at the Manties' ONI confirms that this Committee of Public Safety that's running the PRH has consolidated all previous security organs under one new, monster umbrella. You'd have to look back to Old Earth's Totalitarian Age for a parallel to how ruthlessly they've purged their officer corps, and there are rumors they're sending out 'political officers' to watchdog their fleet commanders. Their purges cost them virtually all their senior—and experienced—flag officers, and the officers they haven't killed off are competing out of their class against the RMN, but the ones who survive are learning . . . and they know what'll happen if they fail the new regime. Add in some sort of political commissars to remind them of that, and you get a navy with a powerful will to fight. They're far clumsier than the Manties, but their navy's still bigger, and once some of their new admirals start lasting long enough to gain the experience their predecessors had—"


Matthews shrugged, and the Protector nodded unhappily.


"Do you expect Manticore to totally lose the initiative?"


"Not totally, Your Grace. What I do expect is a period of balance . . . and then for things to get really nasty. I imagine the Peeps will try a few counterattacks, but I also expect the Manties to chew them up when they do. I can't predict events with any certainty, but I can give you my personal estimate of what's going to happen, if you want to hear it."


Benjamin nodded, and Matthews raised his hand, extending one finger at a time as he made his points.


"First, there'll be a period of stalemate, with both sides skirmishing for advantage but with neither daring to withdraw too many ships of the wall from the main combat area. Second, the Alliance will get its industry fully cranked up. The Manties are already there. They had eighteen of the wall under construction in the Star Kingdom itself from prewar programs; those units are now proceeding on a crash priority basis to commission over the next six months, and their new war program will start delivering additional units within ten months. Our own yards will complete our first home-built SD about the same time, and the Manty yards in Grendelsbane and Talbot will do the same. Once we hit our stride, we'll be turning out four or five of the wall a month.


"On the Peeps' side, they've already effectively lost their advantage in ships of the wall, and the Manties have taken out a half dozen of their major forward service bases. That means simply repairing battle damage will put a greater strain on their building yards and, in turn, slow construction rates. Despite its size, their industrial plant's less efficient than the Alliance's, and I don't think they can outbuild us. On the other hand, we can't outbuild them, either, certainly not by a decisive margin, and they still have the battleships I already mentioned. Which means, three, that this is going to be a long, long war unless one side or the other completely screws up.


"In the long run, the decisive factor will probably be the relative strengths of our political systems. At the moment, Pierre and his Committee have instituted what amounts to a reign of terror. Whether or not they can sustain that, or find something more stable to replace it, is the critical question in my own view, because this war isn't about territory anymore. It's become a war for survival; someone—either the Kingdom of Manticore and its allies, including us, or the People's Republic of Haven—is going down this time, Your Grace. For good."


Protector Benjamin nodded slowly. Matthews' assessment of the war's political dimensions dovetailed exactly with his own, and he'd developed a powerful respect for the high admiral's military judgment.


"And that, Your Grace," Matthews said quietly, "is why we need Lady Harrington. Virtually our entire cadre of senior officers was wiped out in the Masadan War, and we're promoting men who've never skippered anything heavier than a light attack craft to command destroyers and cruisers—even battlecruisers. My own experience is limited enough by Manticoran standards, and when the Manties pull out, I'll be the most experienced officer we've got . . . except for Lady Harrington."


"But she's a Manticoran officer. Would they even let us have her?"


"I think their Admiralty would be happy to," Matthews replied. "It wasn't their idea to put her on half-pay, and, historically, the Star Kingdom often 'loans' half-pay officers to allies. They've already loaned us a lot of other officers and enlisted people, for that matter. I don't know what political impact commissioning Lady Harrington in our Navy would have, of course. Given her expulsion from their House of Lords, I suppose it might be viewed pretty negatively, but my impression is that Queen Elizabeth is firmly in Lady Harrington's corner."


"She is, and so is most of the House of Commons," Benjamin murmured. He leaned back and closed his eyes in thought, then sighed. "Let me think about it. I agree with your assessment, and I agree we need her, but whether it's parochial and protective of me or not, I refuse to place fresh demands on her until I'm certain she's ready to bear them. It won't do her or us any good to drive her too hard too soon."


"No, Your Grace," Wesley Matthews said respectfully, but deep inside he knew he'd won. Benjamin Mayhew was a good man, one who cared deeply for the woman who'd saved his world from Masada forty-two T-months ago, but he was also the planetary ruler of Grayson. In the end, the overriding responsibility of that position would force him to put Honor Harrington into Grayson uniform . . . whatever it cost her.


 



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