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Chapter Four

The woman in her mirror was still a stranger, but she was becoming gradually more familiar. Honor ran the brush over her shoulder-length hair once more, then handed it to Miranda LaFollet and stood. She turned before her reflection, running her hands down her hip-length vest to smooth a tiny wrinkle from its rich, jade-green suede, and studied the drape of her white gown. She'd actually grown accustomed to her skirts, and while she still considered them utterly impractical, she'd come to the grudging conclusion she actually liked the way they looked.


She cocked her head, inspecting her image as if it were a junior officer reporting to her command for the first time, and Miranda watched, poised to repair any real or imagined flaws in her appearance.


Honor's refusal to surround herself with the army of servants steadholder tradition required irritated some members of the Harrington House staff, who felt it reduced their own consequence. That view left Honor unmoved, yet she'd capitulated—unwillingly—to the demand that she retain at least one female servant. None of her household dared comment on the fact that MacGuiness was a man, which automatically made him totally unacceptable as a woman's personal attendant, but it had offered her public critics ready-made ammunition. Besides, Mac was fully occupied as her majordomo, and he'd been no more familiar with Grayson notions of style than she when they arrived.


She'd expected it to be hard to find a maid she could stand, but then Andrew LaFollet had somewhat diffidently suggested his sister Miranda. The fact that she was the major's sister automatically recommended her to Honor, and if Miranda wasn't the woman to storm the bastions of male supremacy, she was a sturdy-minded, independent sort.


Honor had feared Miranda might feel her official title of "maid" was somehow slighting, but the occupation had a far higher social status on Grayson than the word might imply to an off-worlder. An upper-class Grayson woman's maid was a well paid, highly respected professional, not a menial, and Miranda suited Honor very well. She needed a companion and cultural guide far more than she did a servant, and Miranda had slipped into the role with ease. She could flutter a bit too anxiously over Honor's appearance, but that seemed an inescapable part of any Grayson woman's cultural baggage. Which, Honor conceded, made sense on a planet where women outnumbered men three to one and the only fully acceptable female career for almost a millennium had been that of wife and mother. And while she might wish Miranda would hover a little less, she knew her new role required her to master the skills Miranda had to teach her. It wasn't really all that different from a naval officer's need always to present the best possible appearance; all that had changed were the rules which defined what the proper appearance was.


Now she took her hat from Miranda with a nod of thanks and set it on her head with a small smile. She preferred a uniform beret or the style which once had been called a fedora, yet a sort of impish delight chased the sadness from her eyes as she adjusted this one and admired herself in the mirror.


Like most Grayson women's hats, this one was broad-brimmed, but its right side turned sharply up. The rolled brim resembled a Sphinx Forestry Commission ranger's bush hat, and she'd insisted upon it largely for the same reason the SFC had: treecats rode their people's shoulders, and a normal brim would have gotten in Nimitz's way. But it also gave the hat a certain dashing elegance, which was only emphasized by its almost stark simplicity. It was white, and it rejected the usual bright-colored, multi-plumed adornments of traditional women's hats in favor of a simple band, exactly the same dark jade green as her vest, that split into a waist-length, twin-tailed ribbon train. Like her gown's long, elegant sweep, it emphasized her height and flowed with her movements, and it was part of the image she'd deliberately cultivated.


Upper-class Grayson women reminded Honor irresistibly of Old Earth peacocks. They were gorgeous, colorful, lively . . . and too baroque for her tastes. Their jewels were ornate, their loose-fitting vests rich with brocade and embroidery, their gowns a billow of body-shrouding skirts and pleats and lace. Honor's were none of those things, and not by happenstance. Such styles would have made someone her height look as huge as a house, she thought, and she hadn't needed Miranda's painfully tactful expression to tell her she lacked the native Grayson's ability to manage such costumes gracefully. She was working on it, but those skills were harder to acquire than they appeared, especially for someone who'd spent a lifetime in uniform, so she'd reminded herself that a good tactician overcame disadvantages by maximizing her advantages. If she couldn't cope with local fashion, then it was time to trade ruthlessly on her steadholder's status to set fashion, instead, and Miranda had dived into the project with enthusiasm.


Honor's sharply carved beauty was the sort which blossomed only with maturity, and the prolong process had stretched that maturation out over more than twenty T-years. As a consequence, she understood exactly how the ugly duckling had felt, and she suspected that was one reason she'd always loved athletics—it was a sort of compensation prize for her face that not only kept her in peak condition but maximized the assets she did have. Yet whatever her subconscious reasoning might have been, she knew she was both fit and trim and that she moved well, and her uncluttered yet flowing garments emphasized the graceful lines of her body and carriage with a frankness which once would have horrified Grayson society.


She gave the mirror one of the curtsies she'd practiced so hard to master and chuckled as the stately lady in the mirror returned it with aristocratic hauteur. That reflection was a far cry from her childhood as a yeoman's daughter on Sphinx, and anything less like Captain Honor Harrington, Royal Manticoran Navy, was impossible to imagine.


Which was probably a good thing, she told herself with a spurt of familiar bitterness, for she no longer was Captain Harrington. Oh, she was still entitled to the uniform she'd worn for three decades, but she refused to wear it. It wasn't the Navy's fault she'd been stripped of her command and placed on inactive, half-pay status. If it was anyone's "fault," it was hers, for she'd known the politicians would leave the Navy no choice when she shot a peer of the realm in a duel. But however it had happened, Honor Harrington would not cling to the symbolic crutch of a uniform whose responsibilities had been denied her. When the time came to assume those responsibilities once more, if it ever came, then—


She heard a scolding bleek and turned to open her arms to Nimitz, and he leapt into her embrace and flowed up onto her shoulder. He was careful to avoid her hat's streamers as he sank his hand-feet's claws into her vest just above her right collarbone, and she felt the familiar pressure against her shoulder blade as his true-feet's matching claws dug in further down her back to support his normal, half-standing perch. Those murderous claws were just over a half-centimeter long, but what looked like natural suede was nothing of the sort, and she wondered who was happiest about that, Nimitz, or Andrew LaFollet? The tabbard-like vest was made of the same material that was sewn into her uniform tunics to protect them from Nimitz's claws; the fact that it would also stop light-caliber pulser darts was simply a welcome plus from the viewpoint of her chief armsman.


She grinned at the thought and reached up to scratch Nimitz's chin, then made one last, finicky adjustment to the only two items of "jewelry" she wore. The golden Star of Grayson gleamed on its blood-red ribbon about her throat, and the equally golden patriarch's key of a steadholder hung just below it on its heavy, intricately worked chain. They were required dress on formal occasions, which today certainly was. Besides, she thought with a lurking glint of humor, she supposed she might as well admit she liked the way they looked.


"Well?" she said to Miranda, and her maid gave her an equally intense scrutiny, then nodded.


"You look lovely, My Lady," she said, and Honor chuckled.


"I'll take that in the spirit it was intended, but you really shouldn't fib to your Steadholder, Miranda."


"Of course not, My Lady. That's why I don't." Miranda's gray eyes, so like her brother's, gleamed with mischief, and Honor shook her head.


"Have you ever considered a diplomatic career?" she asked. "You'd be a natural."


Miranda grinned, Nimitz bleeked his own soft laugh into her ear, and Honor drew one last, deep breath, nodded a passing grade to her reflection, and turned to the door and her waiting armsmen.


 


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