David Weber
Ashes Of Victory


   Admiral Lady Dame Honor Harrington stood in the gallery of ENS Farnese's boat bay and tried not to reel as the silent emotional hurricane thundered about her.
   She gazed through the armorplast of the gallery bulkhead into the brilliantly lit, perfect clarity of the bay itself, and tried to use its sterile serenity as a sort of mental shield against the tempest. It didn't help a great deal, but at least she didn't have to face it alone, and she felt the living side of her mouth quirk in a wry smile as the six-limbed treecat in the carrier on her back shifted uneasily, ears half-flattened as the same vortex battered at him. Like the rest of his empathic species, he remained far more sensitive to others' emotions than she, and he seemed torn between a frantic need to escape the sheer intensity of the moment and a sort of euphoric high driven by an excess of everyone else's endorphins.
   At least the two of them had had plenty of practice, she reminded herself. The stunned moment when her people realized their scratch-built, jury-rigged, half-derisively self proclaimed "Elysian Space Navy" had destroyed an entire Peep task force and captured the shipping to take every prisoner who wanted to leave the prison planet of Hades to safety lay over three standard weeks behind them. She'd thought, then, that nothing could ever equal the explosion of triumph which had swept her ex-Peep flagship at that instant, but in its own way, the emotional storm seething about her now was even stronger. It had had longer to build on the voyage from the prison the entire People's Republic of Haven had regarded as the most escape-proof facility in human history to freedom, and anticipation had fanned its strength. For some of the escapees, like Captain Harriet Benson, the CO of ENS Kutuzov, over sixty T-years had passed since they'd breathed the air of a free planet. Those people could never return to the lives they'd left behind, but their need to begin building new ones blazed within them. Nor were they alone in their impatience. Even those who'd spent the least time in the custody of the Office of State Security longed to see loved ones once more, and unlike the escapees who'd spent decades on the planet inmates called "Hell," they could pick up the threads of the lives they'd feared they would never see again.
   Yet that hunger to begin anew was tempered by a matching emotion which might almost have been called regret. An awareness that somehow they had become part of a tale which would be told and retold, and, undoubtedly, grow still greater in the tellings... and that all tales end.
   They knew the impossible odds they had surmounted to reach this moment, in this boat bay gallery, in this star system. And because they did, they also knew that all the embellishments with which the tale would be improved upon over the years — by themselves, as likely as not — would be unnecessary, peripheral and unimportant to the reality.
   And that was what they regretted: the fact that when they left Farnese, they would also leave behind the companions with whom they had built that tale's reality. The unvoiced awareness that it was not given to human beings to touch such moments, save fleetingly. The memory of who they'd been and what they'd done would be with them always, yet it would be only memory, never again reality. And as the heart-stopping fear and terror faded, the reality would become even more precious and unattainable to them.
   That was what truly gave the emotions whirling about her their strength... and focused that strength upon her, for she was their leader, and that made her the symbol of their joy and bittersweet regret alike.
   It was also horribly embarrassing, and the fact that none of them knew she could sense their emotions only made it worse. It was as if she stood outside their windows, listening to whispered conversations they'd never meant to share with her, and the fact that she had no choice — that she could no longer not sense the feelings of those about her — only made her feel perversely guilty when she did.
   Yet what bothered her most was that she could never return what they had given her. They thought she was the one who'd achieved so much, but they were wrong. They were the ones who'd done it by doing all and more than all she'd asked of them. They'd come from the military forces of dozens of star nations, emerging from what the Peeps had contemptuously believed was the dustbin of history to hand their tormentors what might well prove the worst defeat in the history of the People's Republic. Not in tonnage destroyed, or star systems conquered, but in something far more precious because it was intangible, for they had delivered a potential deathblow to the terror of omnipotence which was so much a part of State Security's repressive arsenal.
   And they'd done it for her. She'd tried to express even a fraction of the gratitude she felt, but she knew she'd failed. They lacked the sense she'd developed, the ability to feel the reality behind the clumsy interface of human language, and all her efforts had made not a dent in the storm of devotion pouring back at her.
   If only—
   A clear, musical chime — not loud, but penetrating — broke into her thoughts and she drew a deep breath as the first pinnace began its final approach. There were other small craft behind it, including dozens of pinnaces from the three squadrons of the wall which had come to meet Farnese and more than a dozen heavy-lift personnel shuttles from the planet San Martin. They queued up behind the lead pinnace, waiting their turns, and she tried not to let her relief show as she thought about them. She and Warner Caslet, Farnese's exec, had packed the battlecruiser, like all the other ships of the ESN, to the deckheads to get all of the escapees aboard. The massive redundancy designed into warship life-support systems had let them carry the overload (barely), but it had done nothing about the physical crowding, and the systems themselves were in serious need of maintenance after so long under such heavy demand. The personnel shuttles outside the boat bay were but the first wave of craft which would transport her people from the packed-sardine environment of their battlecruiser to the mountainous surface of San Martin. The planet's heavy gravity scarcely qualified it as a vacation resort, but at least it had plenty of room. And after twenty-four T-days crammed into Farnese's overcrowded berthing spaces, a little thing like weighing twice one's proper weight would be a minor price for the glorious luxury of room in which to stretch without putting a thumb into someone else's eye.
   But even as she felt her crew eagerly anticipating the end of its confinement, her own attention was locked upon the lead pinnace, for she knew whose it was. Over two T-years had passed since she'd last faced the officer to whom it belonged, and she'd thought she'd put her treacherously ambiguous feelings about that officer aside. Now she knew she'd been wrong, for her own emotions were even more confused and turbulent than those of the people about her as she waited to greet him once again.
* * *
   Admiral of the Green Hamish Alexander, Earl of White Haven and Commanding Officer, Eighth Fleet, forced his face to remain immobile as GNS Benjamin the Great's pinnace approached rendezvous with the battlecruiser his flagship had come to meet. ENS Farneseand just what the hell is an "ENS?" he wondered. That's something else I should have asked her — was a Warlord—class unit. The big ship floated against the needle-sharp stars, well out from San Martin, where no unauthorized eye might see her and note her Peep origin. The time to acknowledge her presence would come, but not yet, he thought, gazing through the view port at the ship logic said could not be there. No, not yet.
   Farnese retained the lean, arrogant grace of her battlecruiser breed, despite the fact that she was even larger than the Royal Manticoran Navy's Reliant —class. Small compared to his superdreadnought flagship, of course, but still a big, powerful unit. He'd heard about the Warlords, read the ONI analyses and appreciations of the class, even seen them destroyed in combat with units under his own command. But this was the first time he'd ever come close enough to see one with the unaided human eye. To be honest, it was closer than he'd ever anticipated he might come, except perhaps in that unimaginable time somewhere in the distant reaches of a future in which peace had come once more to this section of the galaxy.
   Which isn't going to happen any time soon, he reminded himself grimly from behind the fortress of his face. And if I'd ever had any happy illusions in that respect, just looking at Farnese would disabuse me of them in a hurry.
   His jaw set as his pilot, obedient to his earlier orders, swept down the big ship's starboard side and he studied her damage. Her heavy, multilayered armor was actually buckled. The boundary layers of antikinetic armor seemed to have slagged and run; the inner, ablative layers sandwiched between them were bubbled and charred looking; and the sensors and antimissile laser clusters which once had guarded Farnese's flank were gutted. White Haven would have been surprised if half her starboard weapons remained functional, and her starboard sidewall generators couldn't possibly have generated any realistic defense against hostile fire.
   Just like her, he thought moodily, almost angrily. Why in Christ's name can the woman never bring a ship back intact? What the hell is it that makes her—
   He chopped the thought off again, and this time he felt his mouth twist in sardonic amusement. His was not, he reflected, the proper mood for an officer of his seniority at a moment like this. Up until — he glanced at his chrono — seven hours and twenty-three minutes earlier, he, like all the rest of the Manticoran Alliance, had known Honor Harrington was dead. Like everyone else, he'd seen the grisly HD of her execution, and even now he shuddered as he recalled the ghastly moment when the gallows trapdoor sprang and her body—
   He shied away from that image and closed his eyes, nostrils flaring while he concentrated on another image, this one on his own com less than eight hours earlier. A strong, gracefully carved, half-paralyzed face, framed in a short mop of half-tamed curls. A face he had never imagined he would see again.
   He blinked and inhaled deeply once again. A billion questions teemed in his brain, put there by the raw impossibility of Honor Harrington's survival, and he knew he was not alone in that. When word of this broke, every newsie in Alliance space — and half of those in Solly space, no doubt, he thought — would descend upon whatever hiding places Honor or any of the people with her might have found. They would ask, plead, bully, bribe, probably even threaten in their efforts to winnow out every detail of their quarry's incredible story. But even though those same questions burned in his own mind, they were secondary, almost immaterial, compared to the simple fact of her survival.
   And not, he admitted, simply because she was one of the most outstanding naval officers of her generation and a priceless military asset which had been returned to the Alliance literally from beyond the grave.
   His pinnace arced down under the turn of Farnese's flank to approach the boat bay, and as he felt the gentle shudder when the tractors captured the tiny craft, Hamish Alexander took himself firmly in hand. He'd screwed up somehow once before, let slip some hint of his sudden awareness that the woman who'd been his protégée for over a decade had become something far more to him than a brilliant junior officer and an asset of the Royal Manticoran Navy. He still had no idea how he'd given himself away, but he knew he had. He'd felt the awkwardness between them and known she'd returned to active duty early in an effort to escape that awkwardness. And for two years, he'd lived with the knowledge that her early return to duty was what had sent her into the Peep ambush in which she had been captured... and sentenced to death.
   It had burned like acid, that knowledge, and he'd watched the Peep broadcast of her execution as an act of self-punishing penance. In an odd way, her death had freed him to face his feelings for her... which only made things immeasurably worse now that he knew she wasn't dead, of course. He had no business loving someone little more than half his age, who'd never shown the least romantic interest in him. Especially not while he was married to another woman whom he still loved deeply and passionately, despite the injuries which had confined her to a life-support chair for almost fifty T-years. No honorable man would have let that happen, yet he had, and he'd been too self-honest to deny it once his face had been rubbed sufficiently in it.
   Or I like to think I'm too "self-honest" to lie to myself, he thought mordantly as the tractors urged the pinnace from the outer darkness into the illuminated boat bay. Of course, I had to wait until she was safely dead before I got around to that sudden burst of honesty. But I did get there in the end... damn it.
   The pinnace rolled on thrusters and gyros, settling towards the docking buffers, and he made himself a silent promise. Whatever he might feel, Honor Harrington was a woman of honor. He might not be able to help his own emotions, but he could damned well see to it that she never knew about them, and he would. That much he could still do.
   The pinnace touched down, the docking arms and umbilical locked, and Hamish Alexander pushed himself up out of his comfortable seat. He looked at his reflection in the view port's armorplast and studied his expression as he smiled. Amazing how natural that smile looked, he thought, and nodded to his reflection, then squared his shoulders and turned towards the hatch.
* * *
   A green light glowed above the docking tube, indicating a good seal and pressure, and Honor tucked her hand behind her as the gallery-side hatch slid back. It was amazing how awkward it was to decide what to do with a single hand when it had no mate to meet it halfway, but she brushed that thought aside and nodded to Major Chezno. The senior officer of Farnese's Marine detachment nodded back, then turned on his heel to face the honor guard drawn up behind the side party.
   "Honor guard, attennnnnn-hut!" he barked, and hands slapped the butts of ex-Peep pulse rifles as the ex-prisoners snapped to parade-ground attention. Honor watched them with a proprietary air and wasn't even tempted to smile. No doubt some people would have found it absurd for men and women packed into their ship like emergency rations in a tin to waste time polishing and perfecting their ceremonial drill, especially when they all knew they would be broken up again once they reached their destination. But it hadn't been absurd to Farnese's ship's company... or to Honor Harrington.
   I suppose it's our way of declaring who and what we are. We're not simply escaped prisoners, huddled together like sheep while we run from the wolves. We are the "wolves" of this piece, and we, by God, want the universe to know it! She snorted in amusement, not at her Marines and their drill, but at herself, and shook her head. I think I may be just a wee bit guilty of hubris where these people are concerned.
   The Navy side party snapped to attention as the first passenger floated down the tube, and Honor drew another deep breath and braced herself. The Royal Manticoran Navy's tradition was that the senior passenger was last to board and first to exit a small craft, and she knew who she would see well before the tall, broad-shouldered man in the impeccable black-and-gold of an RMN admiral caught the grab bar and swung himself from the tube's weightlessness into the gallery's one standard gravity.
   Bosun's pipes twittered — the old-fashioned, lung-powered kind, out of deference to the traditionalists among the Elysian Space Navy's personnel — and the admiral came to attention and saluted Farnese's executive officer, standing at the head of the side party. Despite sixty years of naval service, the admiral was unable to conceal his surprise, and Honor could hardly blame him. Indeed, she felt an urchinlike grin threatening the disciplined facade of her own expression at the sight. She'd deliberately failed to mention her exec's identity during the com exchanges which had established her ships' bona fides for the Trevor's Star defensive forces. The Earl of White Haven deserved some surprises, after all, and the last thing he could possibly have expected to see aboard this ship was a side party headed by a man in the dress uniform of the People's Navy.
* * *
   Hamish Alexander made his expression blank once more as the side party's senior officer returned his salute. A Peep? Here? He knew he'd given away his astonishment, but he doubted anyone could have faulted him for it. Not under the circumstances.
   His eyes swept the rainbow confusion of the ranks beyond the Peep as the bosun's pipes continued to squeal, and another surprise flickered through him. That visual cacophony had never been designed for color coordination, and for just an instant, the assault on his optic nerve kept him from understanding what he was seeing. But realization dawned almost instantly, and he felt himself mentally nodding in approval. Whatever else Hades might have lacked, it had obviously possessed fabric extruders, and someone had made good use of them. The people in that bay gallery wore the uniforms of the militaries in which they had served before the Peeps dumped them in the PRH's "inescapable" prison, and if the confusion of colors and braid and headgear was more visually chaotic than the neatly ordered military mind might have preferred, so what? Many of the navies and planetary combat forces those uniforms belonged to hadn't existed in well over half a T-century. They had gone down to bitter defeat — often clawing and defiant to the end, but still defeat — before the juggernaut of the People's Republic, and again, so what? The people wearing them had won the right to resurrect them, and Hamish Alexander rather suspected that it would be... unwise for anyone to question their tailoring.
   The pipes died at last, and he lowered his hand from the band of his beret.
   "Permission to come aboard, Sir?" he asked formally, and the Peep nodded.
   "Permission granted, Admiral White Haven," he replied, and stepped back with a courteous welcoming gesture.
   "Thank you, Commander." White Haven's tone was equally courteous, and no one could have been blamed for failing to realize it was an absent courtesy. But then, no one else could have guessed at the emotions raging behind his calm, ice-blue eyes as he glanced past the Peep to the tall, one-armed woman waiting just beyond the side party.
   They clung to her, those eyes, but again, no one could reasonably have faulted that. No doubt people had stared at Lazarus, too.
   She looks like hell... and she looks wonderful, he thought, taking in the blue-on-blue Grayson admiral's uniform she wore instead of her Manticoran rank. He was glad to see it for at least one intensely personal reason. In the Grayson Space Navy, her rank actually exceeded his own, for she was the second ranking officer of that explosively growing service, and that was good. It meant that at least he would not have to address her from the towering seniority of a full admiral to a mere commodore. And the uniform looked good on her, too, he thought, giving her unknown tailor high marks.
   But good as she looked, he could not pull his eyes away from the missing left arm, or the paralyzed left side of her face. Her artificial eye clearly wasn't tracking as it was supposed to, either, and he felt a fresh, lavalike burn of fury. The Peeps might not actually have executed her, but it seemed they'd come close to killing her.
   She has got to stop doing this kind of thing, he thought, and his mental voice was almost conversational. There are limits in all things... including how many times she can dance on the edge of a razor and survive.
   Not that she would pay him any attention if he said as much. Not any more than he would have paid if their roles had been reversed. Yet even as he admitted that, he knew it wasn't the same. He'd commanded squadrons, task forces, and fleets in action, in an almost unbroken series of victories. He'd seen ships blown apart, felt his own flagship shudder and buck as fire blasted through its defenses. At least twice, he'd come within meters of death. Yet in all that time, he'd never once been wounded in action, and not once had he ever actually faced an enemy. Not hand-to-hand. His battles had been fought across light-seconds, with grasers and lasers and nuclear warheads, and for all that he knew his personnel respected and trusted him, they did not idolize him.
   Not the way Honor Harrington's people idolized her. For once, the newsies had gotten something exactly right when they dubbed her "the Salamander" from her habit of always being where the fire was hottest. She'd fought White Haven's sort of battle all too often for someone of her comparative youth, and she had the touch, the personal magic, that made her crews walk unflinchingly into the furnace beside her. But unlike the earl, she had also faced people trying to kill her from so close she could see their eyes, smell their sweat, and God only knew what she'd been doing when she lost her arm. No doubt he'd find out soon enough, and, equally no doubt, it would be one more thing for him to worry that she might be crazy enough to repeat in the future. Which was irrational of him. It wasn't as if she actually went out looking for ways to get herself killed, no matter how it sometimes seemed to those watching her. It was just—
   He realized he'd been motionless just a moment too long. He could feel the curiosity behind the countless eyes watching him, wondering what he was thinking, and he forced a smile. The one thing he couldn't have any of them do was to actually figure out what had been going through his mind, and he held out his hand to her.
   "Welcome home, Lady Harrington," he said, and felt her long, slender fingers tighten about his with the careful strength of a native heavy-worlder.
* * *
   "Welcome home, Lady Harrington."
   She heard the words, but they seemed tiny and far away, at the other end of a shaky com link, as she gripped his extended hand. His deep, resonant voice was just the way she'd remembered it — remembered, in fact, with rather more fidelity than she might have desired — yet it was also completely new, as if she'd never heard it before. And that was because she was hearing him on so many levels. Her sensitivity to others' emotions had increased yet again. She'd suspected that it had; now she knew it. Either that, or there was something special about her sensitivity to his emotions, and that was an even more disturbing possibility. But whatever the cause, she heard not simply his words, or even the messages communicated by the smile in the blue eyes. No, she heard all the things he didn't say. All the things he fought so hard, and with such formidable self-control, against allowing himself even to hint that he might want to say.
   All the things he might as well have shouted at the top of his lungs yet didn't even guess he was giving away.
   For a fleeting moment of pure self-indulgence she let the emotions hidden behind his face sweep her up in a dizzying whirl. She couldn't help it as his joyous surprise at her survival swept over her. His soaring welcome came on its heels... and his desire to sweep her into his arms. Not a trace of those things showed on his face, or in his manner, but he couldn't possibly hide them from her, and the sheer lightning-strike intensity of the moment burned through her like an explosion.
   And on its heels came the knowledge that none of the things he longed to do could ever happen.
   It was even worse than she'd feared. The thought rolled through her, more dismal still for the moment of joy she had allowed herself to feel. She'd known he'd stuck in her mind and heart. Now she knew that she had stuck in his, as well, and that he would never, ever admit it to her.
   Everything in the universe demanded its own price... and the greater a gift, the higher the price it carried. Deep inside, in the secret places where logic seldom treads, Honor Harrington had always believed that, and she'd realized over the last two years that this was the price she must pay for her bond with Nimitz. No other 'cat-human bonding had ever been so close, ever spilled across to the actual communication of emotions, and the depth of her fusion with her beloved companion was worth any price.
   Even this one, she told herself. Even the knowledge that Hamish Alexander loved her and of what might have been had the universe been a different place. Yet just as he would never tell her, she would never tell him... and was she blessed or cursed by the fact that, unlike him, she would always know what he had never said?
   "Thank you, My Lord," Lady Dame Honor Harrington said, and her soprano was cool and clear as spring water, shadowed only by the slight slurring imposed by the crippled side of her lips. "It's good to be home."


   White Haven's pinnace, unlike the ones which had followed it into the boat bay, was almost empty when it left. He and Honor, as befitted their seniority, sat in the two seats closest to the hatch, but those seats were a virtual island, surrounded by emptiness as their juniors gave them space. Andrew LaFollet, Honor's personal armsman, sat directly behind them, and Lieutenant Robards, White Haven's flag lieutenant, sat two rows back from there, with Warner Caslet, Carson Clinkscales, Solomon Marchant, Jasper Mayhew, Scotty Tremaine, and Senior Chief Horace Harkness scattered out behind him. Alistair McKeon should have been there, but he had remained behind with Jesus Ramirez, Honor's second-in-command, to help organize the transfer of her Elysians to the planetary surface.
   She really ought to have stayed aboard Farnese and organized that transfer herself, but White Haven had been politely insistent about the need to get her and her story on their joint way to higher authority. So Alistair had remained behind, along with the other survivors who'd been with her since their capture in Adler, and she glanced over her shoulder one more time at the handful of people who would accompany her on the next stage of her journey, then returned her attention to the man seated beside her.
   It was easier than it had been. One thing about moments of tempestuous emotion, she'd discovered: they simply could not be sustained. Indeed, the stronger they were, the faster it seemed people had to step back to gather their inner breath if they intended to cope with their lives. Which, fortunately, both she and White Haven did. The murmuring undercurrent remained, flowing between them even if she was the only one who could sense it, but it was bearable. Something she could deal with, if not ignore.
   Sure it is. I'll just keep telling myself that.
   "I'm sure it will be months before we get all the details straight, Milady," the earl said, and Honor hid a wry mental grimace at his formality. He clearly had no intention of calling her by her given name... which was probably wise of him. "Lord knows we've only scratched the surface so far! Still, there are a few things I simply have to ask you about right now."
   "Such as, My Lord?"
   "Well, for one thing, just what the devil does `ENS' stand for?"
   "I beg your pardon?" Honor cocked her head at him.
   "I can understand why they're not `HMS,' given that you've been acting in your Grayson persona, not your Manticoran one," White Haven said, gesturing at the blue uniform she wore. "But that being the case, I would have expected your units to be designated as Grayson ships. Obviously they aren't, and I haven't been able to come up with any other organization, except perhaps the Erewhon Navy, to fit your terminology."
   "Oh." Honor gave him one of her crooked smiles and shrugged. "That was Commodore Ramirez's idea."
   "The big San Martino?" White Haven asked, frowning as he tried to be sure he'd fitted the right name to the right face on a com screen.
   "That's him," Honor agreed. "He was the senior officer in Camp Inferno — we never would have been able to pull it off without his support — and he thought that given the fact that we were escaping from a planet officially called Hades, we ought to call ourselves the Elysian Space Navy. So we did."
   "I see." White Haven rubbed his chin, then grinned at her. "You do realize you've managed to open yet another can of legal worms, don't you?"
   "I beg your pardon?" Honor repeated in a rather different tone, and he laughed at her obvious puzzlement.
   "Well, you were acting as a Grayson, My Lady... and you're a steadholder. If I remember correctly, the Grayson Constitution has a very interesting provision about armed forces commanded by its steadholders."
   "It—" Honor broke off and stared at him, her single natural eye very wide, and she heard the sudden hiss of an indrawn breath from the armsman behind her.
   "No doubt you're better informed than I am," White Haven said into her sudden silence, "but it was my understanding that steadholders were specifically limited to no more than fifty personal armed retainers, like the Major here." He nodded courteously over his shoulder at LaFollet.
   "That's correct, My Lord," Honor agreed after a moment. She'd been Steadholder Harrington for so long that it no longer seemed unnatural to have somehow become a great feudal magnate, yet she hadn't even thought about the possible constitutional implications of her actions on Hell.
   She should have, for this was one point on which the Constitution was totally unforgiving. Every armsman in the service of Harrington Steading answered to Honor in one way or another, but most did so only indirectly, through the administrative machinery of her steading's police forces. Only fifty were her personal liege men, sworn to her service, and not the steading's. Any order she gave those fifty men had the force of law, so long as it did not violate the Constitution, and the fact that she'd given it shielded them from any consequences for having obeyed even if it did. She could be held responsible for it; they could not, but those fifty were the only personal force Steadholder Harrington was permitted.
   Steadholders might command other military forces from within the chain of command of the Grayson Army or Navy, but to satisfy the Constitution, the command of those forces must be lodged in the established Grayson military with the specific approval of the planet's ruler. And Protector Benjamin IX had not said a word about anything called "the Elysian Space Navy."
   She looked over her shoulder at LaFollet, and her armsman gazed back. His face was calm enough, but his gray eyes looked a bit anxious, and she raised an eyebrow.
   "Just how badly have I stepped on my sword, Andrew?" she asked him, and despite himself, he smiled, for "sword" had a very specific connotation on Grayson. But then he sobered.
   "I don't really know, My Lady. I suppose I ought to've said something about it, but it never occurred to me at the time. The Constitution is pretty blunt, though, and I think at least one steadholder was actually executed for violating the ban. That was three hundred years ago or so, but—"
   He shrugged, and Honor chuckled.
   "Not a good precedent, however long ago it was," she murmured, and turned back to White Haven. "I guess I should have gone ahead and called them units in the Grayson Navy after all, My Lord."
   "That or the RMN," he said judiciously. "You hold legal rank in both, so the chain of command would have covered you in either, I imagine. But it might be just a little awkward the way things actually worked out. Nathan and I—" he flicked a small nod at the imperturbable young lieutenant behind them "—discussed this on our way to Farnese. He actually went so far as to consult Benjamin the Great's library. I don't believe there's been a precedent since the one Major LaFollet just referred to, but the fact that a steadholder not only held command in but actually created a military force not authorized by the Protector could be a real problem. Not with Benjamin, of course." A casual shooing gesture of his right hand banished that possibility to well-deserved limbo. "But there are still those on Grayson who feel more than a little... uncomfortable with his reforms and see you as the emblem of them. I have no doubt that some members of that faction would love to find a way to embarrass you — and him — by seizing on any weapon, even one as specious as that sort of pettifogging legalism. I'm sure Benjamin's advisers will see the problem as soon as I did, but I thought it might be as well to point it out to you now so you could be thinking about it."
   "Oh, thank you, My Lord," Honor said, and both of them chuckled. It was a brief moment, but it felt good. At least we can still act naturally around one another. And who knows? If we act that way long enough, maybe it will actually become natural again. That would be nice. I think.
   She brushed the thought aside and leaned back, crossing her legs and ignoring Nimitz's mock-indignant protest as her lap shifted under him.
   "I trust you haven't had any more interesting thoughts, My Lord?" she said politely to White Haven, and the earl smiled.
   "No, I haven't," he assured her, then rather spoiled the reassurance by adding, "On the other hand, you have been gone for over two T-years, Milady, and everyone thought you were dead. There are bound to be quite a few complications waiting for you to straighten out, don't you think?"
   "Indeed I do." She sighed, and ran the fingers of her hand through her short-cropped hair. She missed the longer, more luxuriant length she'd managed to produce before her capture, but the Peeps had shaved it all away in the brig of PNS Tepes, and the loss of her arm had made it impractical to grow it all the way back out.
   "I'm sure there are, as well, Milady." White Haven said, and shrugged as she glanced at him again. "I have no real idea what they might be. Well, there are one or two things I can think of, but I feel it would be more advisable to let Protector Benjamin discuss them with you."
   His face was admirably calm, but Honor felt a sudden prickle of suspicion. He did know something, she thought, but whatever it was, he didn't expect it to have serious or unpleasant repercussions. There wasn't enough worry in his feelings for that. But there was a hefty dose of wicked amusement, a sense of anticipation that fell short (barely) of gloating but was definitely of the naughty little boy "I've got a seeeeecret!" sort.
   She eyed him with scant favor, and he smiled beatifically. Like their shared laughter of a few moments before, the amusement flickering in his depths was a vast relief compared to the emotions he had no intention of ever expressing to her, and she was glad. That did not, however, make her feel a bit better when it came to worrying over just what sort of land mines could afford him so much anticipatory delight.
   "There've been a few problems back home in the Star Kingdom that I do know about, however," he went on after a moment. "For one thing, your title was passed on to your cousin Devon when you were officially declared dead."
   "Devon?" Honor rubbed the tip of her nose, then shrugged. "I never really wanted to be a countess anyway," she said. "Her Majesty insisted on it — I certainly didn't!—so I really can't complain if someone else has the title now. And I suppose Devon is my legal heir, though I hadn't thought much about it." She grinned crookedly. "I suppose I should have considered it long ago, but I'm still not really used to thinking in dynastic terms. Of course," she chuckled wickedly, "neither was Devon! Do you happen to know how he took his sudden elevation?"
   "Grumpily, I understand." White Haven shook his head. "Said it was all a bunch of tomfoolery that would only get in the way of his research on his current monograph."
   "That's Devon," Honor agreed with something very like a giggle. "He's probably the best historian I know, but getting his nose out of the past has always been all but impossible!"
   "So I was told. On the other hand, Her Majesty insisted someone had to carry on the Harrington title. She was quite firm about it, according to my brother." White Haven paused, and Honor nodded her understanding. William Alexander was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the second ranking member of the Cromarty Government. If anyone was likely to be privy to Queen Elizabeth's thinking, he was. "She personally discussed it with your cousin... at some length, I understand," the earl added.
   "Oh, dear!" Honor shook her head, her good eye brimming with delight. She'd had her own experience of Elizabeth III in insistent mode, and the thought of dear, stuffy, bookish Devon in the same position filled her with unholy glee.
   "Well, she also got around to actually providing some lands to go with the title, as well," White Haven told her. "So at least the new Earl Harrington found himself with the income to support his new dignities."
   "She did?" Honor demanded, and he nodded. "What sort of lands?"
   "Quite a nice chunk of the Crown Reserve in the Unicorn Belt, I believe," he said, and Honor blinked.
   The term "lands" was used in the Star Kingdom as a generic label for any income-producing holding associated with a patent of nobility. It was a sloppy term, but, then, both the original colonial charter and the Constitution tended to be a bit sloppy in places, as well. The same term had been used from the very earliest days of the Manticore colony to refer to any income source, whether it was actual lands, mineral or development rights, fishery rights, a chunk of the broadcast spectrum for HD, or any other of a whole host of grants, which had been shared out among the original colonists in proportion to their financial contributions to the colonizing expedition. Probably as much as a third of the Star Kingdom's current hereditary peerage held no actual land on any planetary surface as a direct consequence of its ennoblement. Well, no, that wasn't quite true. Virtually all the hereditary members of the Lords had at least acquired properly titled seats somewhere to support their aristocratic dignity, but the real income which had permitted them to do so often came from very different sources.
   Still, it was highly unusual these days for the Crown to dip into the Crown Reserve to create those income sources, if for no other reason than that the Reserve had dwindled over the years since the Star Kingdom's founding. The usual procedure was for the Crown to request the Commons to approve the creation of the required "lands" as a charge on the public purse, not to split them off from the bundle of lands which still belonged personally to Elizabeth III, which was what the Crown Reserve really was. And that was especially true for a hereditary title like her own, since unlike the grants for life titles, its holdings would remain permanently associated with it. So if the Queen had irrevocably alienated part of the fabulously wealthy Unicorn asteroid belt from the Crown in Devon's favor, she'd clearly been serious about her desire for the Harrington title to be properly maintained.
   A sudden thought struck her, and she stiffened in her chair.
   "Excuse me, My Lord, but you said Devon inherited my Manticoran title?" The earl nodded. "Do you happen to know what Grayson did about my steadholdership? Did they pass it on to Devon, as well?"
   "I believe there was some discussion of that," White Haven said after a moment, and Honor's eye narrowed as the sense of amusement she'd already tasted peaked momentarily. "In the end, however, they made other arrangements."
   "Such as?"
   "I really don't think it would be proper for me to go into that, Milady," he told her, with a commendably straight face. "It's a rather complicated situation, and your sudden return from the dead is only going to make it even more complicated. And since it's a purely domestic Grayson problem, I'm not entitled to any say in its resolution. In fact, it would probably be inappropriate even for me to express an opinion about it."
   "I see." Honor regarded him very levelly for a moment, then smiled thinly. "I see, indeed, My Lord, and perhaps someday the opportunity will arise for me to repay your admirable self-restraint in kind."
   "We can always hope, Milady," he agreed. "On the other hand, I doubt very much that I'll ever make a dramatic return from the dead following my very public execution."
   "If I'd guessed that whatever it is you're so darkly hinting at was waiting for me, I certainly would have thought twice about the idea," Honor said tartly, and he chuckled. But then his face and his emotions sobered.
   "In all honesty, Milady, and all jesting aside, Grayson was thrown into far more disorder by the report of your death than the Star Kingdom was. We have scores of earls and countesses in the Star Kingdom; there are less than ninety steadholders on Grayson. There were all sorts of repercussions there, and that's why I agreed with Admiral Kuzak and Governor Kershaw that you ought to return to Grayson first."
   Honor nodded yet again. Although White Haven's Eighth Fleet was based on Trevor's Star while it prepared for operations elsewhere, Theodosia Kuzak was the system's military CO. She was junior to White Haven, but her Third Fleet was still tasked as the system's primary defensive unit.
   Governor Winston Kershaw was her civilian counterpart: the Manticoran Alliance's official administrator and head of the commission overseeing the organization of San Martin's post-liberation planetary government. He was also a younger brother of Jonathan Kershaw, Steadholder Denby, and one of Benjamin IX's stronger supporters, and he'd been quite... firm about how best to handle the political aspects of Honor's return. In particular, he'd been adamant in insisting that word of her return must remain completely confidential until she'd had a chance to meet personally with Benjamin.
   "I still don't know if I completely agree with the Governor," she said after a moment, but White Haven shook his head.
   "I think he's absolutely correct," he disagreed. "The political and diplomatic consequences of your escape are going to be enormous, and Grayson deserves to know the full details first. We'll send a courier boat ahead to both Yeltsin and Manticore, but the dispatches will be classified at the highest level available to us. Not even the courier boats' crews will know what they say, and we're clamping a security blackout on the story here. I can't guarantee it, but I doubt very much that Her Majesty will allow a hint of the information to leak into the system data nets until the Protector's government has had an opportunity to debrief you in person and decide how to deal with it."
   "Are you certain about that, My Lord?" Honor asked him. "I don't question the basic logic, but why not send me in a courier boat rather than a dispatch? And why the long way around instead of by way of Manticore? It's going to take over three weeks for me to get to Grayson without using the Junction. That seems like an awful long time to try to keep the arrival of so many people on San Martin a secret!"
   "As far as keeping secrets is concerned, there's no real problem. Oh, I doubt the secret will keep very long in local space. The story's just too good. It's bound to get out, sooner probably rather than later, but we control both termini of the Junction. That means nobody outside this system will hear a thing about it until we let the word out through Manticore or somebody carries the news elsewhere through a regular hyper trip. Which means no one on the outside is going to hear a thing about it for at least several weeks, and probably a lot longer than that, given the traffic control we've clamped down locally. Especially since McQueen sprang her damned offensives."
   He frowned.