"One thing that did was make it very plain that we've been lax in our security arrangements. They clearly had hellishly good intelligence for most of their ops, and they had to have gotten it someway. `Neutral shipping' in the Junction probably explains a good bit of it, at least in the case of Basilisk and Trevor's Star. Plain old visual examination can tell them a lot about what they see, and the Government has decided that we simply can't restrict Junction traffic patterns much further. That's the real reason we're cutting down on military Junction transits as much as we can, especially transits by new construction we don't want the Peeps to know about."
   He shrugged, in acceptance of orders from his civilian superiors, if not in actual agreement with them.
   "Anyway, I'm confident we can at least keep the news from breaking until after Grayson's had an opportunity to decide how to handle it domestically. As for sending you the long way around, that's a consequence of the ship we're using, since it's part of that new construction we're keeping people from seeing. But that was Governor Kershaw's call, and while I'm sure you would have preferred a shorter voyage, it's certainly appropriate to send you home on the senior Grayson ship present. And even if it weren't, I'm not foolish enough to argue with a bunch of Graysons about it!"
   He grinned at her expression, then sobered.
   "In addition, your transit time will give Her Majesty and the Protector both some time to consider how they want to handle the official announcement before you actually arrive. And they're going to want to give it some very careful thought, I'm sure." He shook his head. "I can't even begin to imagine how it will all play out on the diplomatic front. You do appreciate what a monumental black eye you've just given the Peeps in general and State Security and Public Information in particular, don't you?"
   "I have wiled away the occasional hour on the way here thinking about that," Honor admitted, and it was White Haven's turn to smile at the wicked gleam in her eye. "In fact, honesty compels me to admit that I've actually spent a bit of time here and there gloating over it," she went on. "Especially the bit about my execution." The amusement in her eye vanished, replaced by a hard, dangerous light which would have made White Haven acutely uneasy if it had been directed at him. "I've seen the imagery myself now, you know. It was in Farnese's memory." She shivered involuntarily at the memory of her own brutal "execution," but the light in her eye never faded. "I think I know exactly how my parents must have reacted to that. And Mac and Miranda." Her jaw tightened for a moment. "Whoever put that particular bit of sick, sadistic footage together has a lot to answer for, and knowing how hard Pierre and Saint-Just will shortly be looking for a scapegoat has afforded me considerable consolation over the past few weeks."
   "I'm sure it has," White Haven agreed. "And judging from even the brief report you've had time to give us so far, I imagine the consequences will actually go a lot further than that in the end. You do realize that you've just executed — you should pardon the expression — the largest mass prison break in the history of mankind, don't you? You got out — what? Four hundred thousand people?"
   "Something close to that, once Cynthia Gonsalves gets here," Honor said, and he nodded at the correction. Captain Cynthia Gonsalves, late of the Alto Verdan Navy, had left the Cerberus System well before Honor, but her transports were far slower than the warships and assault ships Honor had managed to secure. Which meant it would be weeks yet before the first wave of escapees actually arrived.
   "Well, that has to be the largest number of POWs ever to escape in a single operation," White Haven pointed out, "and the sheer scale of the thing is almost unimportant beside where you managed to escape from. State Security will never recover from the blow to its reputation, and that doesn't even consider what's going to happen when people like Amos Parnell start talking to the newsies about who actually carried out the Harris Assassination—!"
   The earl shrugged, and Honor nodded. No doubt Public Information would do its best to discredit anything the ex-Chief of Naval Operations of the People's Navy might say, but not even Public Information was going to able to shrug this one off, especially in the face of the files Honor's people had lifted from Camp Charon's own security records. She suspected that PubIn was going to have just a bit of a problem convincing people that the commandant of StateSec's most important prison hadn't known what he was talking about when he taunted Legislaturalist prisoners with the truth behind the Harris Assassination's civilian massacre. And once it truly registered that the Committee of Public Safety, organized to prevent the overthrow of the state by the "traitorous" naval officers responsible for the coup attempt, was headed by the man who had in fact masterminded the entire operation, the effect on interstellar diplomacy was likely to be profound.
   "As a matter of fact," White Haven went on much more quietly, breaking into her train of thought, "as delighted as I am to see you back on both a personal and a professional basis," she felt his emotions shy away from the word "personal," but the intensity of his train of thought helped pull him past it, "the effect on the Alliance's morale will probably be even more important, in the short term, at least. Frankly, Milady, we need some good news rather badly. Esther McQueen's managed to throw us firmly back onto the defensive for the first time since Third Yeltsin, and that's shaken the Alliance's morale seriously, especially among its civilians. Which means all the Allied governments are going to be absolutely delighted to see you."
   Honor shuddered. She knew he was right, yet she hated even to think about the media circus the news was bound to spawn. All she wanted to do whenever she contemplated it was to run far, far away and hide, but she couldn't. She had responsibilities she couldn't evade — even, she thought smolderingly, if he won't tell me just what sort of "arrangements" they made on Grayson! And even if she hadn't had those responsibilities, she could see the propaganda value too clearly. She detested the idea of being turned into some kind of larger-than-life icon. She'd already had more than her fair taste of that, had to put up with more media intrusiveness than any individual should have to tolerate, and this was going to be infinitely worse.
   But none of that mattered, except, perhaps, on a personal basis.
   "I understand, My Lord," she said. "I hate it, and I'd do anything I could to avoid the media frenzy, but I understand."
   "I know you do, Milady," he said. Very few people, perhaps, would have believed she truly loathed the very thought of the adulation soon to be channeled her way, but Hamish Alexander was one of those few, and she smiled gratefully at him.
   He began to say something else, then stopped as a soft chime sounded. He leaned forward to look across her and out the view port beside her, and nodded in satisfaction.
   "And here's your transport to Grayson, Milady," he announced. Honor glanced at him for a moment, then turned to look out the port herself, and Nimitz pushed up to stand in her lap. He pressed his nose to the armorplast, then twitched his whiskers as he, too, saw the white mountain of battle steel drifting in the void, bejeweled with the green and white lights of an "anchored" starship.
   The superdreadnought was one of the largest ships Honor had ever seen. Possibly the largest warship, she reflected, her experienced eye estimating its tonnage from the relative size of the huge ship's weapons hatches and impeller nodes, although she supposed she might have seen larger merchant vessels. That was her first thought, but then she noted the odd, distinctive profile of the after hammerhead, and her eye narrowed in sudden recognition.
   "That's a Medusa!" she said sharply.
   "In a manner of speaking," White Haven agreed. "Actually, though, the Graysons built her, not us. It seems they got hold of the plans for the new class about the same time BuShips did back home... and they had a bit less deadwood and conservative stick-in-the-mud opposition to deal with."
   He added the last phrase in a dust-dry voice, and Honor turned back to the port to hide her expression as her mouth quirked uncontrollably. She remembered that shattering night in her library only too well for personal reasons, but she also recalled that one Hamish Alexander had been one of the conservative sticks-in-the-mud who'd opposed the initial concept of the hollow-cored, pod-armed missile SDs. She, on the other hand, had written the final recommendations which had led to the Medusa design's actual formulation as her last duty as a member of the Weapons Development Board.
   "And have they been tested in action, My Lord?" she inquired after a moment, as soon as she felt she could keep her voice level.
   "On a limited scale," he said very seriously, "and they performed exactly as you predicted they would, Milady. We don't have enough of them yet, but they're absolutely devastating when used properly. And so—" he glanced over his shoulder at the other, lower-ranking officers behind them, none of whom had been cleared for information they had no pressing need to know "—have certain other elements of the new fleet mix you described to me that night."
   "Indeed?" Honor turned to look at him, and he nodded.
   "Indeed. We haven't used any of them, including the new SDs, en masse yet. We're still ramping up our numbers in the new classes and weapons, because we'd like to commit them in really useful numbers rather than penny-packets that will give the enemy time to adjust and work out countermeasures. At the moment, we hope and believe that the Peep analysts haven't been able to put together a clear picture of their capabilities from the limited use we've been forced to make of them so far. That's one reason we're not sending any of the new types through the Junction except in emergencies; we don't want anyone who might whisper in StateSec's ear getting a good look at them. But within a few more months, Citizen Secretary McQueen and the Committee of Public Safety ought to be getting a very unpleasant surprise."
   She nodded in understanding without taking her attention off the ship waiting for her. There were a few differences between the completed ship and the design studies she'd seen, but not very many, and she felt a curious, semiparental surge of pride as she saw the reality of the concept she and her colleagues on the WDB had debated so hotly.
   "Just one more thing," White Haven said very quietly, pitching his voice too low even for Robards and LaFollet to have heard, and she glanced at him. "This ship, and the others like her in Grayson service, were all built in the Blackbird Yard you arranged the basic funding for, Milady. So, in a very real sense, you're a keel plate owner of all of them. That's one reason we felt she'd be the perfect ship to take you home again."
   Honor met his eyes, then nodded.
   "Thank you for telling me, My Lord," she said, equally quietly.
   Even as she spoke, the pinnace gave the tiny quiver trained reflexes recognized as the lock-on of docking tractors. The ship was no longer a ship beyond the port; it was simply a vast, endless expanse of alloy and weapons, completely filling the view port and waiting in all its megaton majesty to receive her as the minnow of their pinnace drifted into the brilliantly lit belly of the white whale.
   The tractors adjusted the pinnace with finicky precision before settling it into its docking cradle, and Honor felt her breathing quicken and blinked on tears as she gazed in through the armorplast wall of the boat bay gallery. The massed ranks of Grayson blue, leavened here and there with the black-on-gold of RMN personnel on detachment to their ally's navy, woke a sudden, almost unbearable stab of homesickness, and even from here she could feel the fierce, exultant beat of their emotions.
   It was odd, she reflected. She truly had become a woman of two worlds. Child of the cold, mountainous majesty of the Star Kingdom's Sphinx, yes, always that. But she was also a woman of Grayson, and something of that sometimes backward and maddening world, with its almost frightening dynamism and fierce, direct loyalties and animosities, had infused itself into her, as well. She understood its people now, as she never had when first she met them, and perhaps that had been inevitable. However different they might have been on the surface, in one respect they had always been alike, she and the people of Grayson.
   Responsibility. Neither she nor they had ever been able to run fast enough to escape it. In an odd way, even those who'd hated her most for the changes she'd brought their world had understood her almost perfectly, just as she'd come to understand them. And so, as she felt those exultant waves of emotion rolling over her from the bay gallery, she understood the people behind them, and the understanding welcomed her home.
   "After you, Milady," White Haven said, standing and gesturing at the hatch as the green light blinked above it. She glanced at him, and he smiled. "In this navy, you're senior to me, Lady Harrington. And even if you weren't, I would never be stupid enough to come between you and a shipload of Graysons at a moment like this!"
   She blushed darkly, but then she had to laugh, and she rose with an answering smile.
   He helped her get Nimitz's carrier back into place on her back, then let her precede him down the docking tube, and she felt the beat of the superdreadnought crew's excitement, almost as if waves of over-pressure were pulsing down the tube to meet her. It was as overwhelming, in a very different way, as the emotional storm aboard Farnese had been, making it difficult to think. But swimming a tube, even with only one arm, was something she could have done in her sleep, and she fell back on the almost instinctive skills of a forty-plus-year naval career. Yet as she approached the grab bar at the end of the tube, she felt something else, even through the pulse beat of welcome from the waiting Graysons. It was a small thing, yet it glittered with its own brilliant delight and anticipation, and it came from behind her.
   She wanted to look over her shoulder at White Haven, just to see if his expression matched the ripple of someone else's laughter echoing in the back of her mind. And, she admitted, for any clue as to what he was so amused over. But there was no time, and she gripped the bar and swung out into the rich, golden notes of the Steadholder's March.
   She'd braced herself as best she could, but nothing could really have prepared her. The music, the storm of uniforms, lit by the lightning flashes of gold braid and rank insignia, the presented arms of the Marine honor guard, the whirlwind of emotion and welcome — and, yes, vengefulness as they saw her missing arm and paralyzed face — all of it crashed over her. And with it came something else: a roar of cheering not even Grayson naval discipline could have hoped to stifle. She felt Nimitz quivering in his carrier, shared his almost dazed response to the sensations flooding through him like some polychromatic roll of thunder that went on and on and on, and it was all she could do to carry through the instinct-level protocol for boarding a ship.
   She turned to salute the Grayson planetary flag on the boat bay's forward bulkhead, then turned back to salute the ship's captain, and felt her heart leap as she recognized Captain Thomas Greentree. The chunky, brown-haired Grayson's face looked as if his smile were about to split it in two, and beyond him, she recognized another familiar face. Admiral Judah Yanakov's smile was, if possible, even broader than Greentree's, and somehow its welcome went perfectly with the hard, dangerous light in his eyes as he saw the stump of her arm. She knew him too well to doubt what that light portended, and she made a mental note to talk to him — at length — as soon as possible. But now was not the time, and she looked behind him, letting her gaze sweep the gallery as she waited for the cheers to fade.
   It was a spacious gallery, even for a superdreadnought, and—
   Her thoughts chopped off as she saw the ship's crest on the bulkhead behind the honor guard. The basis of the crest was glaringly obvious. She'd seen the same set of arms every time she looked at her own steadholder's key... and if there'd been any question at all of where it had come from, the ship's name blazoned above it would have dispelled it immediately.
   She stared at the crest, unable to look away even though she knew her reaction was fully validating the torrent of amusement she felt flooding from the Earl of White Haven. And it was probably as well for the earl's continued existence that she couldn't turn away, she realized later, for if she'd been able to, and if he'd been smirking even a tenth as broadly as she suspected he had, and if he'd been in arm's reach...
   But she had no time to think about such things just then, for the tumult about her was dying, and Thomas Greentree decided to ignore the strict demands of naval protocol just this once. His hand came down from its salute even before hers did, and it reached out, catching hers in a crushing clasp of welcome before she could say a word.
   "Welcome home, My Lady!" he said, and if his voice was husky with emotion, it also echoed in the sudden quiet. "Welcome home. And welcome aboard the Honor Harrington!"


   High Admiral Wesley Matthews gazed out from the palatial shuttle pad lounge and puffed his cheeks. His hair, dark brown back in the simpler days when he'd been a mere commodore in what had been no more than a system-defense fleet, was now so heavily shot with silver it seemed to gleam as the dawn light of Yeltsin's Star spilled down over Austin City. There were more lines in his intelligent, mobile face than there had been, too, but there was also a solid satisfaction in his hazel eyes. Usually, at least. And with reason, for he had overseen the transformation of the Grayson Space Navy which had been all but destroyed in the Masadan War as it rose phoenixlike from the ashes to become, by almost any standard, the third most powerful fleet in a hundred-light-year radius of his world. To be sure, that fleet was also locked in battle with the largest fleet within that same radius, but it had puissant allies, and, by and large, High Admiral Matthews had much of which to be proud.
   None of which helped damp the exasperated, affectionate, respectful irritation he felt at this particular moment. He glowered for just a moment, with infinite deference, at the back of the short, wiry man standing with him in the lounge, then returned his attention to the scene beyond the window.
   Austin City was the oldest city on Grayson. While many of its public buildings had been placed under protective domes, the city as a whole had not, and it was winter in Grayson's northern hemisphere. Fresh, heavy snow had fallen overnight, and banks of it lay more than man-high where the landing field's plows had deposited it. Matthews had never been particularly fond of snow, but he was prepared to make exceptions at times. Like this year. The four-thousand-year-old Christian calendar which Grayson stubbornly clung to for official dating was in unusual agreement with the actual planetary seasons, and that had given him extra enjoyment as he listened to his favorite carols. It wasn't often that a Grayson had a chance to see for himself what the ancient songs' enthusiasm for "white Christmases" was all about.
   But Christmas had been two days before. Matthews' mind was back on military matters once more, and he grimaced as he glanced at the dozen or so armsmen in Mayhew maroon and gold standing about the foot of the lounge lift. Their breath plumed in the icy air, and beyond them, several dozen Marines had been scattered, apparently randomly, around the approaches. That randomness, Matthews knew, was deceptive. Those Marines had been very carefully deployed, with plenty of support a com call away, and they were heavily armed, alert, and watchful.
   And unless he missed his guess, every one of them was as irritated as he was with the latest antic of their Protector.
   One of these days, Benjamin is simply going to have to grow up.I know he enjoys slipping the leash whenever he can, and Tester knows I can't blame him for that, but he has no business standing around in a spaceport lounge with no more security than this! And speaking of standing around, it would be nice if he'd bothered to give me some reason to be standing around with him. It's always flattering to be invited along, of course, but I do have several hundred other things I could be doing. Not to mention the fact that the crack of dawn is not my favorite time to get up and haul on a dress uniform just because my Protector's decided to play hooky from the Palace for the day.
   Benjamin Mayhew turned his head and smiled up at the taller high admiral. It was a charming smile, from a charismatic man, and Matthews felt himself smiling back almost against his will, for the Protector had that bad-little-boy-escaped-from-the-tutor look he'd come to know entirely too well in the last decade. It made Benjamin look much younger than his forty T-years (to Grayson eyes, at least; to eyes from a planet where prolong had been available from birth, he would have been taken for a man of at least fifty or sixty), even if it didn't do a great deal to soften his senior naval officer's mood.
   "I suppose I really ought to apologize, Wesley," the Protector said after a moment, but then his smile turned into a broad grin. "I'm not going to, though."
   "Somehow that doesn't surprise me, Your Grace," Matthews infused his reply with all the disapprobation he was prepared to allow himself with the ruler of his planet.
   "Ah, but that's because you know me so well! If you didn't know me, if you'd been taken in by all the nice things the PR flacks say about me for public consumption, then I'm sure it would surprise you, wouldn't it?"
   Matthews gave him a fulminating look but, aware of the two Marines standing vigilantly just inside the lounge entry, declined to answer in front of military personnel. Although, if the only other ears had belonged to the square-shouldered, weathered-looking armsman standing behind the Protector, watching Benjamin's back with much the same irritated affection as Matthews, it would have been a different matter.
   Major Rice had been the Protector's personal armsman for over ten years, since his predecessor's death during the Maccabean coup attempt, and he had not been selected for his position for his social skills. Indeed, his social skills were a bit rudimentary. But back before joining Palace Security, Sergeant-Major Robert Rice, known to his fellows as "Sparky" for some reason Matthews had yet to ferret out, had been the senior noncom of the Orbit Dogs. Officially known as the 5019th Special Battalion, the Orbit Dogs were the elite battalion (except that the outsized "special" battalion was bigger than a normal regiment) of the Grayson Space Marines. After the Protector's hairbreadth escape from assassination, Palace Security had decided he needed an especially nasty guard dog, and "Sparky" Rice had been their choice. It was not, Matthews suspected, a post the slightly graying, red-haired veteran had accepted without some severe qualms. On the other hand, his long, distinguished, and risky military career had probably stood him in good stead by helping develop the sort of patience required to ride herd on a charge as... incorrigible as Benjamin IX. What mattered at the moment, however, was that the Protector had no secrets from the head of his personal security detachment, and that Rice had seen him in this sort of mood too often to have taken anything Matthews might have said wrongly.
   The high admiral realized the Protector was still grinning at him expectantly and shook himself.
   "I assure you, Your Grace," he said, taking a mild revenge by resorting to tones of exquisite, courteous respect, "that no service you might request of me could be anything other than an honor and a pleasure to perform."
   "That's given me my own back!" Benjamin observed with admiration. "You've really gotten very good at that, Wesley."
   "Thank you, Your Grace," Matthews replied, hazel eyes twinkling at last. A soft warning tone sounded and he glanced up at the data display on the lounge wall. A Navy shuttle was ten minutes out, and his eyebrows rose. Obviously, they were here to meet the shuttle, but why? And how did it come about that the Protector clearly knew more than the uniformed commander of the Grayson Navy did about who — or what — was aboard one of its shuttles? And what the hell was Benjamin grinning about that way?
   An almost unbearable curiosity nearly forced the question from him, but he bit his tongue firmly. He would not give his maddening ruler the satisfaction of asking, he told himself doggedly, and returned his gaze to the landing apron of the pad.
   Benjamin watched him for a moment longer, then smothered a laugh and joined him in gazing out through the crystoplast.
   Several more minutes passed in silence, and then a white contrail drew a pencil-thin line across the rich blue morning sky behind the gleaming bead of a shuttle. The bead grew quickly into a swept-winged arrowhead, and Matthews watched with professional approval as the pilot turned onto his final approach and swooped down to a perfect landing. The landing legs deployed, flexed, and settled. Then the hatch opened and the stairs extended themselves, and Matthews forced himself not to bounce on his toes in irritation. He really did have far too many things to do, and as soon as this foolishness — whatever it was — was out of the way, perhaps he could get back to them and—
   He froze, hazel eyes flaring wide as they locked on the tall, slim figure in a blue-on-blue uniform identical to his own, and his mental grousing slithered to an incoherent halt. He could not possibly be seeing what he thought he was, a small, still voice told him logically. Only one woman had ever been authorized to wear the uniform of a Grayson admiral. Just as only one woman in the Grayson navy had ever carried a six-legged, cream-and-gray treecat everywhere she went. Which meant his eyes must be lying to him, because that woman was dead. Had been dead for over two T-years. And yet—
   "I told you I wouldn't apologize," Benjamin IX told his senior military officer, and this time there was no amusement at all in his soft voice. Matthews looked at him, his eyes stunned, and Benjamin smiled gently. "It may be a little late," he said, "but better late than never. Merry Christmas, Wesley."
   Matthews turned back to the lounge windows, still grappling with the impossibility of it all. One or two of the Marines and armsmen on the pad apron had made the same connection he had. Astonishment and disbelief were enough to yank even them out of their focused professionalism, and he saw them gaping at the tall woman with the short, curly hair. He knew he was doing exactly the same, but he couldn't help it, and he felt disbelief giving way to an exultant inner shout that threatened to rattle the bones of his soul like castanets.
   "I know how much she meant to you and the rest of the Navy," Benjamin went on quietly beside him, "and I simply couldn't take this moment away from you."
   "B-but how—? I mean, we all knew... and the newsies all said—"
   "I don't know, Wesley. Not yet. I received the original dispatch from Trevor's Star over two weeks ago, and an encrypted message direct from her shortly after the Harrington came out of hyper and headed in-system, but they were both maddeningly brief. They didn't give many details, aside from the most important one: the fact that she was alive. I suppose she and Judah really ought to have gone through your channels instead of directly to me, but she was acting in her capacity as steadholder, not admiral, and she was right about the need to consider the political repercussions of her return before anything else. But do the details really matter?"
   The Protector of Grayson's voice was very soft, and his eyes gleamed as he watched the tall, one-armed woman make her way towards the lounge lift, followed now by a major in Harrington green, another half dozen or so officers, and one burly senior chief missile tech in Manticoran uniform.
   "Does anything really matter... besides the fact that she's come home again after all?"
   "No, Your Grace," Matthews said equally softly, and drew a deep, shuddering breath — his first, it seemed, in the last standard hour or so — then shook his head. "No," he repeated. "I don't suppose anything else does matter, does it?"
* * *
   Honor Harrington stepped out of the lift and started to come to attention, but Benjamin Mayhew reached her in a single stride. His arms went about her in a bear-hug embrace far too powerful for his wiry frame to have produced, and her working eye went wide. It was unheard of for a Grayson man to so much as touch an unmarried Grayson woman, far less to throw his arms around her and try to crush her rib cage! For that matter, no properly reared Grayson male would embrace even one of his own wives so fiercely in public. But then the surprise flowed out of her eye, and her remaining arm went around the Protector, returning his hug, as his emotions swept through her. She shouldn't have done it, even if Benjamin was the one who'd initiated the contact, but she couldn't help it, for in that moment, he wasn't the Protector from whose hands she had received her steadholdership ten T-years before. He was the friend who'd seen her die and now saw her returned to life, and just at the moment, he didn't give very much of a damn what the ironbound strictures of Grayson protocol had to say about the proper behavior of a Protector.
   The moment was as brief as it was intense, and then he drew a deep breath, stood back, and held her at arms' length, hands on her shoulders, while he looked intently up into her face. His eyes weren't completely dry, but that was all right. Hers weren't either, and she tasted the cold anger flickering deep within his joy at seeing her again.
   "The eye's gone again, too, isn't it?" he said after a moment, and she nodded, the live side of her mouth twisting in a wry smile. "That, and the nerve repairs've been shot to hell again... And the arm," he said flatly. "Anything else?"
   She gazed back at him, all too well aware of just how much a lie his apparent calm was. She'd been afraid of how he might react to her injuries, and especially to how she'd received them. She'd had a sufficient foretaste from Judah Yanakov and Thomas Greentree... not to mention every other Grayson officer who'd heard the story.
   She'd always known she enjoyed a unique status in her adopted Navy's eyes. That probably would have been enough to wake the bleak, harsh hatred she'd tasted in them as she tried to brush over her imprisonment and starvation and StateSec's degrading efforts to break her. But they were also Grayson men, and despite any changes Benjamin Mayhew might have wrought, Grayson men were programmed on a genetic level to protect women. She suspected that the reports of her death had been enough to push quite a few of them to a point only a step short of berserk rage. Indeed, she knew it had, for she'd felt the echoes of fury still reverberating within Judah Yanakov... and Greentree had told her about his order to the Grayson forces at the Battle of the Basilisk Terminus. Yet in some illogical way, the discovery of how she'd actually been treated was even more infuriating to them, now that they knew she was alive, than even the HD imagery of her supposed death had been when they'd believed she was dead.
   Men, she thought with exasperated affection. Especially Grayson men! Not that Hamish was a bit better. They really aren't that far from the bearskins and mastodon days, any of them, are they?
   But however that might be, she must be very careful about exactly how she related her experiences to this man. Benjamin Mayhew was the Planetary Protector of Grayson and the liege lord of Steadholder Harrington, with all the complex, mutually interlocking obligations that implied, including the responsibility to avenge injuries done to his vassal. Worse, he was a Grayson male, however enlightened he might be by his home world's standards. Worse yet, he was her friend... and he'd never forgotten that he owed his family's lives to her and to Nimitz. And worst of all, the fact that he was the Protector of Grayson meant he was in a position to give terrifying expression to the rage the man within him felt at this moment.
   "That's about the entire list for me," she said, after only the briefest pause, and her soprano was calm, almost detached. "Nimitz needs a bit of repair work, too." She reached up to rub the 'cat's ears as he stood in the carrier. "He had a little collision with a pulse rifle butt. Nothing that can't be fixed for either of us, Benjamin."
   "Fixed!" he half-snarled, and she felt his fresh spike of anger. Well, she'd expected that. He knew she was one of the minority for whom regeneration simply did not work.
   "Fixed," she repeated firmly, and violated a thousand years of protocol by giving the Protector of Grayson a gentle, affectionate shake. "Not with all original parts, perhaps, but the Star Kingdom makes excellent replacements. You know that."
   He glared at her, almost angry at her for trying to brush her mutilation aside. Both of them were perfectly well aware that not even Manticoran medicine could provide true replacements. Oh, modern prostheses could fool other people into never realizing they were artificial, and many of them, like the cybernetic eye the Peeps had burned out aboard Tepes, offered some advantages over the natural parts for which they substituted. But the interface between nerve and machine remained. There was always some loss of function, however good the replacement, and whatever enhancements a replacement might add in partial compensation, it never duplicated the feel, the sensitivity — the aliveness —of the original.
   But then his face relaxed, and he reached up to pat the hand on his shoulder and managed a nod, as if he recognized what she was trying to do. Perhaps he did recognize it. Honor couldn't parse his emotions finely enough to be sure, but he was certainly intelligent enough to understand how dangerous his anger could be and to grasp her efforts to turn that anger before it launched him on a charge to seek vengeance.
   Speaking of which...
   "Actually," she said in a lighter tone, "I'm much luckier than the people who arranged for me to need those replacements in the first place, you know."
   "You are?" Mayhew asked suspiciously, and she nodded, then flicked her head at the burly senior chief who'd finally arrived in the lounge, trailing along behind the commissioned officers from the shuttle.
   "Senior Chief Harkness here sort of saw to it that everyone who had anything to do with what happened to me, including Cordelia Ransom, came to a very bad end," she told the Protector.
   "He did?" Mayhew regarded Harkness approvingly. "Good for you, Senior Chief! How bad an end was it?"
   Harkness flushed and started to mumble something, then slid to a halt and stared imploringly at Honor. She gazed back with a demure smile, right cheek dimpling, as she let him stew for a moment, then took mercy on him.
   "About as bad as they come, actually," she said. Mayhew looked back at her, and she shrugged. "He arranged for a pinnace to bring up its impeller wedge inside a battlecruiser's boat bay," she told him much more soberly.
   "Sweet Tester!" Matthews murmured, and her smile went crooked and cold.
   "If there were any pieces left at all, they were very, very small ones, Benjamin," she said softly, and his nostrils flared as he inhaled in intense satisfaction.
   "Good for you, Senior Chief," he repeated, and Honor felt a tingle of relief as he stepped back from the precipice of his rage. He could do that, now that he knew those actually responsible for what had happened to her were safely dead. It wouldn't make him one bit less implacable where those people's superiors were concerned, but his need to strike out at someone — anyone — had been muted into something he could control.
   He gazed at Harkness for a few more moments, then gave himself a little shake and turned back to Honor.
   "As you see," he said in a more normal tone of voice, "I took your advice and restricted the news to a minimum. Even Wesley didn't know who he was waiting for." He smiled a devilish smile far more like his own. "I thought he'd enjoy the surprise."
   "No you didn't," Matthews replied, deciding that just this once lése-majesté was fully justifiable, Marine sentries or not. "You decided that you'd enjoy watching me be surprised... just like any other adolescent with a secret!"
   "Careful there, High Admiral!" Benjamin warned. "Officers who tell the truth about — I mean, insult their Protectors have been known to come to gory ends."
   "No doubt they have," Matthews retorted, eyes twinkling as he held out his hand to Honor, "but at least they perished knowing they'd struck a blow for freedom of thought and expression. Didn't they, Lady Harrington?"
   "Don't get me involved in this, Sir! We steadholders have a legal obligation to support the dignity of the Protector. Besides, I'm `That Foreign Woman,' remember? Having me on your side would only make things worse in the eyes of the unthinking reactionaries who'd undoubtedly carry out his orders to scrag you without turning a hair."
   "Perhaps in the past, My Lady," Matthews said. "But not in the future, I think. Or not the immediate future, at any rate. I realize we're talking about Grayson reactionaries, but not even they are going to be immune to having you come back from the dead. For a while, at least."
   "Hah! I give it three weeks. A month tops," Mayhew snorted. "Fortunately, there are less of them than there used to be, but the ones we still have seem to feel some sort of moral imperative to become even more obstructionist as their numbers dwindle. And they're concentrating on our interstellar relations now, not the domestic side, anyway. Not that they aren't planning on back-dooring their way back to the domestic front as soon as they can! It's too bad these aren't the bad old days right after the Constitution was ratified. There are quite a few of my Keys I'd like to introduce to some of the more... creative chastisements Benjamin the Great reserved for irritating steadholders. Especially the ones like—"
   He broke off with a grimace and waved one hand dismissively.
   "Let's not get me started on that. One thing of which we can be unfortunately certain, Honor, is that there'll be plenty of opportunities for me to make you dismally well aware of just how the conservatives have managed to irritate me in your absence."
   "I'm sure," she agreed. "But that brings another point to mind. Certain admirals, including a Manticoran one and your own despicable cousin, have flatly refused to tell me just what the lot of you did with my steading! I'm pretty sure Judah ordered no one else to tell me anything, either, and he doesn't fool me for a minute with that `military personnel shouldn't dabble in matters of state' nonsense! He's grinning too much."
   "He is?" Mayhew raised both eyebrows, then shook his head. "Shocking," he sighed. "Simply shocking! I see I'll have to speak to him quite firmly." Honor glared at him, and he smiled back. "Still, the ins and outs of two-plus years of history aren't something to try to explain in a spaceport lounge, either. Especially not when we have a few other things to take care of before Katherine and Elaine descend upon you and begin planning the planet-wide gala to welcome you home."
   He chuckled at Honor's groan, then nodded to Rice. The major touched his wrist com and murmured something into it, and the Protector took Honor's elbow and began escorting her towards the lounge exit while Rice and Andrew LaFollet trailed quietly along behind them.
   "As I said, Honor, I've restricted the information about your arrival to a very small group, for the moment, at least, but there were a few people here on Grayson who I thought really ought to know immediately."
   "Oh?" Honor eyed him warily.
   "Yes, and— Ah, here they are now!" he observed as the exit doors slid silently open, and Honor stopped dead.
   Seven people appeared in the opening: five with four limbs, and two with six, and all of them seemed to shimmer as her vision hazed with sudden tears. Allison Chou Harrington stood beside her husband, small and elegant and beautiful as ever, and tears gleamed in almond eyes that matched Honor's own as she stared at her daughter. Alfred Harrington towered over her, his face working with emotions so deep and so strong they were almost more than Honor could bear to taste. Howard Clinkscales stood to Allison's left, his fierce, craggy face tight with emotion of his own while he leaned on the silver-headed staff that was the badge of office of Harrington Steading's Regent. Miranda LaFollet stood to his left, cradling the treecat named Farragut in her arms, smiling with her heart naked in her eyes as she saw her Steadholder and her brother at last. And to Alfred's right stood a man with thinning sandy hair and gray eyes, staring at her as if he dared not believe his own eyes. She felt James MacGuiness' towering joy — joy that was only now beginning to overcome his dread that somehow the impossible news of her return was all a mistake — and wrapped about that joy was the dizzying spiral of welcome and jubilation welling up from the slim, dappled shape riding on his shoulder as the treecat named Samantha saw her mate.
   It was all too much. Honor had no defense against the emotions pouring into her from those people who meant so much to her, and she felt her own face begin to crumple at last. Not with sorrow, but with a joy too intense to endure.
   He did it on purpose, she thought, somewhere down deep under the whirlwind of her own emotions. Benjamin knows about my link with Nimitz, and he deliberately saw to it that I could meet them with no one else present. No one to see me lose it completely.
   And then there was no more room for thought. Not coherent ones, anyway. She was fifty-four T-years old, and that didn't matter at all as she stepped away from Benjamin Mayhew, holding out her arm to her mother through her blinding haze of tears.
   "Momma?" she half-whispered, her soprano hoarse, and she tasted salt on her lips as her parents came towards her. "Daddy? I—"
   Her voice broke completely, and that didn't matter, either. Nothing in the universe mattered as her father reached her and the arms which had always been there for her went about her. She felt the crushing strength of Sphinx in them, yet they closed around her with infinite gentleness, and her visored cap tumbled to the floor as her father pressed his face into her hair. Then her mother was there, as well, hugging her and burrowing her way into the embrace Alfred had widened to enfold them both, and for just a moment, Honor Harrington could stop being a steadholder and a naval officer. She could be simply their daughter, restored to them by some miracle they did not yet understand, and she clung to them even more tightly than they clung to her.
   She never knew how long they stood there. Some things are too intense, too important, to slice up into seconds and minutes, and this was one of them. It was a time that lasted as long as it had to last, but finally she felt her tears ease and she drew a deep, deep breath and pushed back in her father's arms to stare mistily up at his face.
   "I'm home," she said simply, and he nodded.
   "I know you are, baby." His deep voice was frayed and unsteady, but his eyes glowed. "I know you are."
   "We both know," Allison said, and Honor gave a watery giggle as her mother produced a tiny handkerchief and, in the manner of mothers since time immemorial, began briskly wiping her daughter's face. She was barely two-thirds Honor's height, and Honor was fairly sure they must look thoroughly ridiculous, but that was fine with her, and she looked across her mother's head at Clinkscales.