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Chapter Four

The Grayson light cruiser Nathan twitched as the powerful tractor locked onto her, and her helmsman cut the reaction thrusters he'd been using for the last eighteen minutes and rolled his ship on her gyros as Her Majesty's Space Station Vulcan drew Nathan's hammerhead bow steadily into the cavernous docking bay. Nathan's captain sat silent in his command chair, refusing to jostle his helmsman's elbow, but he'd watched the entire operation with more than normal anxiety. Not only was his ship maneuvering under the eyes of one of the galaxy's premiere navies, but he also had a steadholder on board, and that was enough to make any skipper nervous.


Honor understood what Commander Tinsdale was feeling, which was why she'd declined his respectful invitation to share his bridge for the final approach, much as she would have loved to accept. Despite the length of her own naval career, or perhaps because of it, she felt an almost sensual delight in watching any well-executed maneuver, however routine, yet Tinsdale didn't need a great feudal lady who also happened to be an admiral breathing down his neck.


That was why she sat before her cabin view screen, instead. She watched Nathan's bow settle into place with smooth precision, but for all her concentration, she wasn't as focused on the operation as she normally would have been, and she tried to analyze her own feelings.


The space-black and gold of the RMN's uniform felt alien after eighteen T-months in the blue-on-blue of Grayson, and she was surprised by how much she missed the broad gold stripes and collar stars of her Grayson rank. It was . . . odd to be a "mere" senior-grade captain once more, and she felt vaguely undressed without the heavy gold chain of the Harrington Key about her neck. She did wear the blood-red ribbon of the Star of Grayson, just as she wore the golden Manticoran Cross, the Order of Gallantry, and half a dozen other medals. She felt a bit like a jewelers' advertisement, but she was in mess dress, and actual medals—including foreign awards—and not simply ribbons were required in mess dress. But the Key wasn't a decoration. It marked her status as Steadholder Harrington, a head of government and arguably an actual head of state, and RMN dress regulations made no provision for the regalia of foreign rulers.


Honor knew she could have insisted upon wearing the Key, yet she had no intention of doing so, for she found herself very much in two minds over the reason she could have. To her immense embarrassment, Protector Benjamin had insisted upon an amplification of the Queen's Bench writ which had recognized that Captain Harrington and Steadholder Lady Harrington were two distinct people who happened to live in the same body. He'd been unwilling to settle for a mere extension of the original writ authorizing the presence of Honor's armsmen and granting them diplomatic immunity. Instead, he'd insisted on—demanded, really—a formal, permanent recognition of Honor's split legal personality. Captain Harrington would, of course, be subject to all the rules and regulations of the Articles of War, but Steadholder Harrington was a visiting head of government who, like her bodyguards, enjoyed diplomatic immunity. Honor had wanted to let that writ, and all its potential complications, quietly lapse, but Benjamin had been adamant. He'd flatly refused to release her from her duties in Harrington unless the writ was both continued and extended in scope, and that was the way it was.


Officially, his insistence stemmed from the Grayson requirement that any steadholder must be accompanied by his (or, in Honor's case, her) armsmen. Since the Articles of War forbade armed foreign nationals in a Queen's ship, satisfying Grayson law had required a modification of Manticoran law to permit Andrew LaFollet and his subordinates to retain their weapons. That was the official reason; in fact, most of Benjamin's stubborn intransigence had come from his determination to rub the House of Lords' collective nose in Honor's status. For all the diplomats involved in negotiating the conditions Benjamin had specified, she thought, it was hardly a diplomatic move. Whether the Star Kingdom's peerage chose to admit it or not, a steadholder wielded a direct, personal authority the most autocratic Manticoran noble had never dreamed of possessing. Within her steading, Honor's word, quite literally, was law, so long as none of her decrees violated the planetary constitution. More than that, she held the power of High, Middle, and Low Justice—a power she'd executed a T-year before as Protector Benjamin's champion when she killed the treasonous Steadholder Burdette in single combat.


No doubt her enemies privately wrote that all off as the barbaric posturing of a backward planet, but Benjamin's stubbornness had seen to it that they couldn't do so publicly. They might have expelled Countess Harrington from the House of Lords, but they would have no choice but to treat Steadholder Harrington with dignity and respect. And, to top it off, her steadholdership gave her precedence over every one of the nobles who'd voted to boot her out. Of the House of Lords' entire membership, only the Grand Duke of Manticore, Grand Duchess of Sphinx, and Grand Duke of Gryphon outranked Steadholder Harrington, and they'd all supported her.


Honor shuddered every time she thought of how the rest of the peerage was going to react to that. Benjamin's insistence had all the subtlety of a kick in the belly, yet she'd been powerless to talk him out of it. Benjamin IX was a well-educated, cosmopolitan, and sophisticated man, but he was also a stubborn one who remained coldly furious at how the Opposition had treated her. And, as a sovereign ally of the Star Kingdom, he had the clout to do something about it.


Yet the change in uniform and her concern over the Opposition's potential reactions were only a part of Honor's own ambiguous feelings. HMSS Vulcan orbited Sphinx, Manticore-A IV, the world of her birth, and she was eager to see her parents once more and smell the air of the planet which would always be her true home. But the starscape against which that world floated seemed somehow distant, like something out of a history tape. Too much had happened to her in Yeltsin, and she'd changed in too many ways. In some obscure fashion she couldn't quite define, she'd become almost a stranger here, someone whose existence was poised between two wildly different "home worlds," and she felt a bittersweet pang as she realized she truly had.


She drew a deep breath and stood. Her mess dress uniform seemed horridly pretentious to her, but she'd been given no choice about that either. She was only a captain here to assume a rather modest command, but the protocolists had decreed that until she formally resumed active duty with the RMN, Admiral Georgides, Vulcan's commander, must receive her as Steadholder Harrington, and that meant a full state dinner. She made a mental note to wring Benjamin IX's neck the next time she saw him, then sighed in resignation and turned to face MacGuiness.


Her steward was back in RMN uniform as well, and looked insufferably pleased about it. He'd never said so, but she knew how bitter he'd been over what the Navy had done to her, and, unlike her, he looked forward to the state dinner as a moment of vindication. She considered speaking sternly to him about it, but not for long. MacGuiness was more than old enough to be her father, and there were times he chose to regard her with fond indulgence rather than the instant obedience her rank should have imposed. No doubt he'd listen with perfect attentiveness and respect to anything she had to say . . . and then go right on gloating.


He met her eyes blandly, and she raised her arms to let him buckle her sword belt. Mess dress required the archaic sidearm, which she'd always thought rather ridiculous, but this was one point on which she found herself in agreement with MacGuiness and the Protector. Instead of the light, useless dress sword most Manticoran officers wore, the blade MacGuiness had just belted about her waist was lethally functional. Up until fourteen months ago, it had been the Burdette Sword; now the eight-hundred-year-old weapon was the Harrington Sword, and she settled it on her left hip as MacGuiness stood back.


She turned to the mirror and placed a black beret carefully on her head. The white beret which denoted a starship's commander was still packed away, waiting until she officially assumed command of her new ship, and she brushed the four gold stars on the left breast of her uniform. Each of them represented command of a hyper-capable vessel of the Queen's Navy, and despite all her ambiguity, she felt bone-deep satisfaction at the thought that she would shortly add a fifth.


She examined herself in the mirror, more carefully than she had in weeks, and the person she saw was almost familiar. The strong, triangular face was the same, as was the firm mouth, high cheekbones, and determined chin, but the braided hair was far longer than it had been the last time Captain Harrington had looked out of a mirror at her, and the eyes. . . The huge, almond eyes were different, too. Darker and deeper, with just a hint of sadness behind their determination.


She would do, she decided, and nodded to MacGuiness.


"I imagine I'll be returning aboard Nathan for tonight, at least, Mac. If there are any changes, I'll let you know."


"Yes, Ma'am."


She turned to glance at Andrew LaFollet, immaculate in his green-on-green Harrington uniform. "Are Jamie and Eddy ready?" she asked.


"Yes, My Lady. They're waiting in the boat bay."


"I trust you had that little discussion with them?"


"Yes, My Lady. I promise we won't embarrass you."


Honor regarded him sternly for a moment, and he returned her gaze with level gray eyes. She didn't need her link to Nimitz to tell her LaFollet actually believed that. He was perfectly sincere in his promise of good behavior, but she also knew her armsmen were just as pleased—and disinclined to put up with any foolishness—as MacGuiness. Wonderful, she thought dryly. My entire staff is ready to start its own private war if anyone even looks like he's offering me lèse-majesté! I hope this "state dinner" is less memorable than it has the potential to be.


Well, there was nothing more she could do to see that it wasn't, she told herself, and reached out to Nimitz. The cat leapt into her arms and swarmed up onto her shoulder, radiating his own pleasure at her rehabilitation, and she sighed once more.


"All right, Andrew. In that case, let's be about it," she said.


 


So far, Honor thought as Admiral Georgides' steward refilled her wineglass, things had gone much better than she'd feared. The diplomatic corps was present in strength, determined to prove it could take even a bizarre situation like this in stride, yet for all their determination, the diplomats still seemed just a bit off balance. They were like dancers who weren't quite certain of the steps, as if her uniform's visual proof that she was Captain Harrington interfered with their mental image of her as Steadholder Harrington.


Admiral Georgides, on the other hand, seemed perfectly comfortable. Honor had never met the admiral before—the last time she'd been aboard Vulcan Admiral Thayer had held the command—but Georgides was a fellow Sphinxian. He was also one of the rare serving officers who, like Honor, had been adopted by a treecat.


As a rule, 'cats adopted humans who were already nearly or fully adult. Child adoptions, like Honor's (or, for that matter, Queen Elizabeth's), were extremely rare. No one was quite certain why, though the leading theory held that a 'cat needed an unusually powerful personality and empathic ability to handle a link with a child. All 'cats loved the uncomplicated emotions of children, yet that very lack of complication—of a personality still in the process of formation—seemed to make it hard for them to anchor themselves in a child's emotions. And, as Honor could personally attest, the hormonal and emotional stress a human experienced on her way through puberty and adolescence could have tried a saint's patience, far less that of an empath permanently linked to her!


Because they'd followed the more normal pattern, Aristophones Georgides and his companion Odysseus hadn't gone through Saganami Island together, for Georgides had been a senior-grade lieutenant before Odysseus turned up in his life. That had been over fifty T-years ago, however, and Odysseus was several Sphinx years older than Nimitz. He and his person were a comfortable and (though Honor wouldn't have cared to admit it) a comforting presence as she and Georgides sat at the head of the table together.


"Thank you," she said as the steward finished pouring. The man nodded and withdrew, and she sipped appreciatively. Grayson wines always seemed a bit too sweet for her taste, and she rolled the rich, strong Gryphon burgundy over her tongue with pleasure.


"That's a very nice vintage, Sir," she said, and Georgides chuckled.


"My father is a traditionalist, Milady," he replied. "He's also a romantic, and he insists the only proper drink for a Greek is retsina. Now, I respect my father. I admire his accomplishments, and he's always seemed reasonably sane, but how anyone could willingly drink retsina is something I've never understood. I keep a few bottles in my cellar for him, but I like to think my own palate's become a bit more civilized over the years."


"If this is from your cellar, it certainly has," Honor said with a smile. "You ought to get together with my father sometime. I like a good wine myself, but Daddy's quite a wine snob."


"Please, Milady, not 'wine snob'! We prefer to consider ourselves connoisseurs."


"I know you do," Honor said dryly, and he laughed.


She turned her head and glanced at the two highchairs at the table. She sat at Georgides' right as his guest of honor, and, normally, Nimitz would have been placed at her own right. Tonight the seating had been arranged to put the two 'cats side by side to the admiral's left, and Nimitz faced her across the table. Both he and Odysseus had displayed impeccable manners throughout the meal, but now they sat back comfortably, each of them chewing on a celery stalk, and she was faintly aware of a complex interplay between them. It surprised her, somehow. Not because she felt it, but because it went so deep she could sense it only imperfectly.


This was the first time she and Nimitz had met another 'cat in over three T-years, and she knew her own sensitivity to their link had grown steadily over that period. She'd never explicitly mentioned its existence to anyone, though she suspected MacGuiness, her mother, Mike Henke, and Andrew LaFollet, at least, had all guessed it was there, and she wasn't really certain why she hadn't. She could think of several reasons why she ought to conceal it, starting with the uneasiness her ability to read emotions might evoke in other people if they knew of it. But those reasons, however rational, had occurred to her only after the fact. She'd never made a conscious decision to conceal it; she just had, then decided later why she should have.


Yet so far as she knew, no other human had shared the same ability, and she suddenly wondered if what she was feeling now might be confirmation of some of the wilder theories about the 'cats. Although their empathic ability had been accepted as a given for centuries, no one had ever been able to explain how it worked or how that same sense might interface with another treecat rather than a human. The 'cats obviously shared a much more complex linkage among themselves, but the conventional wisdom held that it was only an intensification of what they shared with humans. Yet that theory had always seemed suspect to Honor. Very little was known, even now, about treecat clans' social organization "in the wild," and few non-Sphinxians even realized that the 'cats were tool users, but Honor knew. She had also, as a child, accompanied Nimitz back to his home clan. Not even her parents knew about that—they'd have had three kinds of fits at the thought of an eleven-year-old Honor traipsing off into the wilds of the Copper Wall Mountains accompanied only by a treecat!—but she'd always been glad she'd made the trip, and it had given her a far better insight into 'cat society. She probably, she mused, actually knew more about the 'cats than ninety-nine percent of her fellow Sphinixians, much less off-worlders, and she'd always wondered how creatures with only the most limited spoken language, even among themselves, had built a society as complex as the one Nimitz had introduced her to.


Unless, of course, the wilder theories were right and they didn't need a spoken language because they were telepaths.


The thought was disturbing, despite all her years with Nimitz. In spite of millennia of effort, no one had ever managed to demonstrate reliable telepathy among humans—or, for that matter, any of the few dozen non-human sentients humanity had encountered. Personally, Honor had always assumed simple physics would preclude anything of the sort, but what if the 'cats were telepaths? What if their "empathic sense" was no more than an echo, the resonance of a single, small facet of their intra-species abilities with humanity?


She frowned, rubbing a finger up and down the stem of her wineglass as she considered the implications. What sort of range would they have, she wondered. How sensitive to one another were they? How deeply did their personalities, their thoughts, interlink? And if they were telepaths, then how could someone like Nimitz endure spending years on end separate from others of his kind? She knew Nimitz loved her with a fierce, protective devotion, just as she loved him, yet could being with her truly be worth losing the deep, complex communion he was sharing with Odysseus at this very moment?


Nimitz looked up, meeting her gaze across the table, and his grass-green eyes were soft. He stared at her, and she felt the reassurance, the love, flowing from him, as if he sensed her sudden fear that their bond had somehow robbed him of something precious. Odysseus paused in chewing his own celery and gazed speculatively at Nimitz for a moment, then turned his own eyes to Honor, and she sensed a sort of interested surprise from the older 'cat through her link to Nimitz. He cocked his head, gazing at her intently, and another strand of emotion joined Nimitz's reassurance. It "tasted" quite different, burnished with tart amusement and friendly welcome, and she blinked as she realized the two 'cats were deliberately relaying it to her. It was the first time anyone had knowingly used her link with Nimitz to communicate with her, and she felt deeply touched by it.


She wasn't certain how long it lasted—certainly no more than three or four seconds—but then Nimitz and Odysseus flipped their ears in obvious amusement and turned to look at one another like old friends sharing some secret joke, and she blinked again.


"I wonder what all that was about?" Georgides murmured, and Honor glanced at the admiral to find him gazing intently at the 'cats. He studied them a moment longer, then shrugged and smiled at Honor. "Every time I think I've finally gotten the little devil completely figured out, he goes and does something to prove I haven't," he observed wryly.


"A trait they all share, I think," she agreed feelingly.


"Indeed. Tell me, Milady, is there any truth to the story that the very first human ever adopted was one of your ancestors?"


"Well," Honor glanced around to reassure herself that only LaFollet, in his proper position behind her chair, was close enough to overhear, for this was something one shared only with trusted friends or someone else who'd been adopted, "according to my family's traditions there is, anyway. Good thing, too. If the family stories are right, it was the only thing that saved her life. It may be selfish of me, but I'm just as glad she survived."


"I'm glad she did, too," Georgides said quietly, reaching out to run his fingers gently down Odysseus' spine. The 'cat pressed back against the caress, green eyes gleaming at his person, and the admiral smiled. "The reason I asked, Milady, was because if the legend is true, I wanted to express my thanks."


"On behalf of my family, you're welcome," she replied with a grin.


"And while we're on the subject of thanking people," Georgides went on a bit more solemnly, "I'd also like to thank you for accepting this assignment. I know what you sacrificed in Yeltsin to do it, and your willingness to give all that up only confirms all the good things I've heard about you." Honor blushed, but the admiral ignored it and went on quietly. "If there's anything Vulcan can do to get your command ready—anything at all—please let me know."


"Thank you, Sir. I will," she assured him equally quietly, and reached for her wine once more.


 


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