Five Scenes in the Life of Elizabeth III
1. News from Yeltsin's Star (1)
May 1903 PD
"The Prime Minister has commed to ask if he might see you presently, Ma'am. He's en route and wishes to brief you."
"Does he? Did he say about what?"
"No, Ma'am. Only that he had some interesting news."
Queen Elizabeth III of the Star Kingdom of Manticore frowned with foreboding and absently reached up to stroke the head of her treecat Ariel, perched on her chair back. When the Duke of Cromarty said something was interesting it usually spelled trouble of one kind or another, and late nights, and probably hair-tearing as well. Last time, if she remembered correctly, it had been the remarkable behaviour of one Commander Honor Harrington as the very junior Acting SO at Basilisk Station, and a political opportunity Cromarty had seen in her gutsy actions finally to get the Kingdom's administration of Basilisk and its wormhole terminus on a proper footing. Come to think of it, the time before that it had also been Commander Harrington's behaviour the Prime Minister had found interesting, when on a routine anti-piracy deployment to Silesia she unilaterally struck a deal with local members of the entirely proscribed Audubon Ballroom to raid a Manpower slave depot at Casimir, freeing nearly a thousand people and starting an interstellar diplomatic row that rumbled for weeks in cabinet-level notes before Cromarty managed to settle things down. Elizabeth had been mildly surprised Harrington's career had survived, and suspected Cromarty — or someone else who loathed the slave trade — of having pulled strings pretty hard; but then a lot of people (not least the Beowulfans) had been as delighted with the outcome of Harrington's raid as the Silesians were apoplectic at its means, while Cathy Montaigne had given a blisteringly memorable speech in Harrington's defence. Elizabeth had made her own contribution, come to that, by rather pointedly failing to be anything like as outraged about the Ballroom's involvement as most people thought she should be. And now, Elizabeth knew, Captain Harrington was in Yeltsin with the remnants of the diplomatic mission to Grayson, facing Masadans who had been given a Havenite battlecruiser; if she was still alive. Perhaps Cromarty had received despatches from the relieving force that had been sent a fortnight back under Admiral White Haven, when Commander Truman's battered HMS Apollo had staggered in-system with news of the Battle of Yeltsin and the death in action of the mission's leader, Admiral Courvosier. Ariel butted her hand gently as her thoughts darkened, and she stroked him again before straightening in her chair.
"I'm nearly done with these files, Jenny, and there's nothing else today, is there?" Lady Chawleigh, as Her Majesty's PA and Social Secretary, would know if anything had been slipped into her schedule while she'd been ploughing through her latest economics briefs.
"No, Ma'am. You're clear until the opening of the Landing Gardening Society Show tomorrow at 0900."
"Then show His Grace straight in when he gets here, will you? Thank you, Jenny."
Elizabeth was genuinely fond of Allen Summervale, and had watched with growing concern as the responsibilities of the premiership and the strain of long-feared war with Haven grizzled him with premature age despite his first-generation Prolong. Now she saw him seated opposite her in her private study in King Michael's Tower and considered his abstracted look.
"So what is it, Allen? Do you have news of Captain Harrington?"
Cromarty's eyebrows lifted. "I do, Ma'am, as it happens. There have been developments at Yeltsin's Star."
"Ha. I had a bet with myself. Do you know, the last two times you've said you had something 'interesting' to tell me it's been news of Harrington?"
Cromarty smiled. "Really? Mmm. Basilisk, of course. Oh, and Casimir, I suppose."
"Right on both counts. In any case, I'm glad to know the Captain is still alive. What's she been up to now?"
"She is alive, Ma'am, but only just. And a lot of Manticoran personnel aren't, I'm afraid."
Elizabeth's face, as animated in private as it was regal in public, stilled with her sorrow. "Tell me."
"It's a long story, Ma'am, and what has really happened on Grayson is going to take some serious analysis. There are also several immediate complications, which is where most of the interesting bits are, so if you'll forgive me I think I'd better lay it out chronologically."
"Thank you. You'll remember, Ma'am, Commander Truman's report indicated that Captain Harrington proposed to do her best to defend the system if the Masadans attacked with this battlecruiser they were given by Haven? It turns out things were slightly more complicated. I'm reading between the lines of several reports here, which do not, um, altogether agree, but it seems that when Captain Harrington got back to Grayson three things happened.
"The first was that Mr Houseman, that Liberal economist New Kiev pestered us into putting on Admiral Courvosier's mission staff, attended a meeting between Harrington, Ambassador Langtry, and a GSN liaison, a Commander Brentworth. When Houseman realised that Harrington intended to take on a battlecruiser with her heavy cruiser he decided Admiral Courvosier's death made him the ranking officer and ordered her to evacuate all Manticorans immediately, including himself, and leave Grayson to its fate."
Elizabeth came bolt upright, eyes burning, while Ariel bristled and hissed behind her, echoing her rage. "He did what? In front of a Grayson officer?""
"Quite so, Ma'am, but you need not fear for Your honour. Only Your diplomats' health. Harrington slapped Houseman down. Literally. Actually, according to Langtry, she slapped him across the room and went after him so fast Langtry was genuinely afraid for a moment she'd kill the gutless fool. But she contented herself with naming him a mewling, honourless coward and leaving him sobbing on the floor while she returned to considering the best defence of the Yeltsin system."
"Good God." Elizabeth rarely blasphemed, even in her famous rages, and it was a sure sign of surprise that she did so now. Grateful for Cromarty's keen sense of how her mind worked, she sat back to consider for a moment, knowing he would give her time and be untroubled by silence. Ariel flowed down into her lap, radiating comfort and support as her emotions whirled. And from her own point-of-view, without doubt, the most important thing was that, thanks to Harrington, she had not been traduced as a poltroon and backstabber to a people she hoped to make her Kingdom's allies against Haven. But there would be hell to pay when New Kiev's Liberals and the rest of the Houseman clan found out what had happened to their yellow scion. "All right. Just between you and me, Allen, thank God for an officer with some guts and sense, even if she did lose her temper. There'll have to be a formal letter of reprimand, or the Foreign Office will start having treekittens; but no more." She thought briefly of what Harrington had done at Basilisk. "And if anyone protests Houseman's rights too loudly you can let them know I'll be happy to discuss those, with his shortcomings, very frankly."
Cromarty nodded, acknowledging the directive. "I agree, and I'll tell Jim Webster so. But that was only the beginning. You'll recall also, Ma'am, that the Graysons are, um, somewhat antique in their social constructions of gender? Well, it seems their High Admiral Garret wasn't going to trust a female officer to defend his world, so when he grasped that Harrington really was staying to fight he assumed his rank put him in charge and issued some, ah, suboptimal orders concerning the deployment of her ships. He didn't know about our FTL capacity, of course, nor does he have any experience with modern warships in general, and so completely misunderstood what was and wasn't possible."
Elizabeth stared at him, trying (not for the first time) to process what kind of a world Grayson really was, and wondering how their isolated, patriarchal bigotry would affect an alliance with a kingdom ruled by a queen.
"Why do I feel that that probably didn't sit too well with Captain Harrington? What did she do?"
Cromarty grinned. "She informed their hitherto ruling Council that unless she could meet with Protector Benjamin to organise the defence of the planet properly she'd have no choice but to withdraw her ship." Still grinning, he nodded at Elizabeth's startled look. "Yes, Ma'am. She blackmailed them with a heavy cruiser to the head. And duly received an invitation from the Protector to dine with him and his wives, while the Council dithered. Also reading between the lines, Ma'am, it's pretty clear Protector Benjamin has responded to this whole crisis very strongly, and in the process reasserted the power of the Protectorship over the Council, which may be very good news for us in the longer term." Cromarty's good humour faded. "But when Harrington went to dinner, something quite else happened. Commander Truman's report did mention an attack on the Protector, but I hadn't really understood the circumstances. Admiral White Haven's report is rather clearer, and includes some imagery from the Protector's Palace security system." He proffered Elizabeth a data chip. "You should see it, Ma'am."
Elizabeth took it and turned to slip it into her secure comconsole. An oddly grainy image appeared in the viewer, of Harrington seated at a well-laden dinner table with a man she recognised as Protector Benjamin IX and two women in elaborate Grayson dresses who must be his wives. Harrington's treecat Nimitz was seated in a high chair beside the captain, and from his soft bleek she thought Ariel approved. Security personnel in maroon-and-grey uniforms were dotted around the walls, and a further group who had just entered were approaching the table when she and Ariel were jerked upright by Nimitz's snarling war-cry and all hell broke loose. The treecat catapulted from his chair onto the head of an approaching security man, true hands raking at eyes and hand-feet at neck in desperate haste, then leaped towards another as Harrington exploded from her own chair to smash down one guard, and a second. A metal platter hurtled across the room to split the skull of another maroon-clad figure and the ugly whine–thunk of sonic disrupters blatted on the soundtrack amid cries. The ginger-haired man who must have been Benjamin's personal bodyguard was down but the Protector had thrust his wives under the table and was crawling to reach a fallen disrupter. And across the room Harrington and Nimitz were leaving a trail of dead and blinded men, spinning like dervishes and striking with unbelievable speed and, despite the confusion of uniforms, complete certainty. So too, Elizabeth saw, was the one remaining security man who'd been there throughout, braced against the wall picking off combatants with an old-fashioned and loud chemical-propellant gun, but she saw him fall even as his own shot took down the last intruder and Benjamin rose with the disrupter in hand, running forward as Harrington and Nimitz vanished through the doorway. The image cut to the corridor, with yet more security men bunching around Harrington and seeming to explode bonelessly away from her whirling, lethal hands and feet. But no-one could fight such odds for very long and Elizabeth felt Nimitz's awful wail as Harrington went down at last, and a shaking security man pointed a disrupter straight at her, then found herself slamming a fist onto her desk in time with Ariel's ringing bleek as Benjamin appeared in the doorway and shot the man down before he could fire. The recording ended, as abruptly as the violence it showed had begun, and a shaking Elizabeth slowly expelled a breath she had not known she was holding.
"Explain, please, Allen."
"It appears that Protector Benjamin's cousin, one Jared Mayhew, was a long-standing Masadan sympathiser, and organised an assassination attempt using people dressed as Palace Security, to whom he supplied all necessary passwords and security codes. It also appears — and you would know better than I, Ma'am — that this disguise did not for one second fool Harrington's treecat, and she became aware as soon as the 'cat of, well, 'fell and evil intent' is what Hamish Alexander called it in his despatch. So they acted, as you saw." Cromarty hesitated, uncharacteristically. "Does that, ah, make sense to you, Ma'am?"
Elizabeth turned to look at Ariel, feeling anew their absolute love and the frustration of not truly being able to communicate, but also an appalled wonder at the deadly reaction Nimitz had shown.
"I don't know, Allen. I'm sure Ariel would have known, and I suppose he would react the same way … but whether I'd have grasped it that fast …. For damn sure I couldn't have reacted as Captain Harrington did." The second expletive in so short a time was testimony to the effects of the Grayson imagery; not only the sight of a score of human deaths and mutilations in as many seconds, but the knowledge of what the slaughter of his personal guards must have meant to Benjamin; of what it would mean to her. And the nature of that slaughter. "Have you ever seen a treecat in a killing rage before, Allen?"
"No, Ma'am, I have not."
"Nor I. Oh, I knew intellectually what a 'cat can do, and I've seen the Carson images, of course, but nothing like that."
More than a T-century before, a newly immigrated family's outing to the Copperwalls had ended disastrously in an encounter with a peak-bear that had gravely injured the father when his panicked shots missed, and would have killed him and doubtless his wife and children had it not been for the abrupt appearance of a treecat. The 'cat's rippling snarl had brought the bear to an anxious halt, massive head snapping around, and when the 'cat was joined by four equally vocal companions it had turned tail — a moment recorded, despite everything, by one of the shaking children. The proof that even one of Sphinx's apex predators fled massed 'cats confirmed anecdotal evidence that had accumulated over the years, but no-one had ever seen anything resembling what Nimitz had done on Grayson, and a part of Elizabeth shuddered as she began to think through what those terrifying images might mean. Ariel bleeked worry on her lap as he felt the darkness of her thoughts, and her hands stroked him in mutual reassurance.
"Can we suppress this record, Allen?"
"No, Ma'am, I'm afraid not. As soon as the Graysons realised what had happened — within minutes of Harrington's injury, in fact — they slapped the whole thing onto their planetary comnet by way of proving Benjamin was still alive and that Harrington had been his defender, not an assailant."
Elizabeth nodded, the political calculus that must have underlain that decision unfolding in her mind. But as she processed what she'd seen the thought occurred that Honor Harrington and Nimitz must have a closer bond than any she'd ever heard of, and that wasn't something Elizabeth — or, she'd bet, Harrington — wanted to become a focus of newsy gossip amid the fuss there was bound to be when people saw a 'cat killing and maiming humans. "So we can't stop it here."
"Alright. But no-one from government will discuss Nimitz's role in events. No-one at all, Allen. Not one word. All treecat matters will be referred without comment to the Sphinx Forestry Service and I'll make sure myself that they say the right things, not that they'll need telling. Our line is that Captain Harrington saw the sonic disrupters and reacted to a perceived threat, period. And … do I remember rightly that she was on the Academy coup de vitesse team? That was certainly the style she used."
Cromarty raised his eyebrows. "I believe you do, Ma'am. And that will make a good official line to stonewall the newsies, who are going to go into shivering fits of ecstasy. But what matters is the effect that experience had on Protector Benjamin, and subsequently on most of Grayson, so far as I can tell."
"On Manticore I'd call it stunned hero-worship. On Grayson Hamish Alexander says the only fitting word is 'revelation'; and yes, as in." Elizabeth blinked. "You know about their doctrine of the Test? Well, Harrington simultaneously passed her own Test with flying colours and became Grayson's Test, in all Christian political seriousness — and that was before prisoners taken in breaking the coup attempt revealed the Masadans' secret base in the outer system. You'll recall that Harrington and some Grayson forces promptly went and punched it out. And Ma'am, they also recovered some surviving Manticoran personnel from Courvosier's ships who'd been captured at what we must now call First Yeltsin. I say surviving because a significant number of our PoWs were murdered by the Masadans. Female PoWs, especially, who seem to have been raped to death. Most of those responsible were killed when the base was taken, but some were captured and have been remitted to Grayson custody for trial on capital charges." Elizabeth's face was stony and Cromarty hurried on. "Harrington also took out a destroyer the Havenites had given the Masadans, and I note, Ma'am, that her captain, a Thomas Theisman, has agreed to give evidence against the Masadans. I understand it goes against the grain, Ma'am. but he seems to be an honourable man, and from what Hamish Alexander says there's very little doubt that those who tortured and killed Your personnel will after due process face a Grayson hangman. The entire planet is apparently possessed of a seething rage in which the gross maltreatment of Manticoran women fighting on their behalf and the actions of and injury to Captain Harrington are having, um, mutually reinforcing effects."
Elizabeth's face was still stony, though Ariel's bare-fanged hiss was eloquent on her behalf. "Good. So they should be. What were Captain Harrington's injuries, exactly?"
"She lost her left eye, Ma'am, and the disrupter blast has smashed up that side of her face. She'll need a lot of surgery, and unfortunately she doesn't regenerate, but she was up and about again within hours."
Elizabeth winced internally, but even to Cromarty it didn't show. "As she would be. Continue, please."
Cromarty nodded. "A few days after the Masadan base was captured the battlecruiser showed up. By this point Captain Harrington was openly in charge of defending the planet, and she took her ships out against it. Fortunately, a very inexperienced Masadan was in command, and he mishandled things badly, allowing Harrington to stall him for hours while inflicting far more damage than she took. But it was still a heavy cruiser and a damaged destroyer against a battlecruiser. Troubadour was lost in action, Ma'am, with more than half her crew, and Fearless took terrible damage, with more than 900 fatalities."
He hadn't thought Elizabeth's face could get still stonier, but it did, and once more he found himself hurrying on.
"Then Admiral White Haven arrived but was too far away to engage the Masadan ship directly. He signalled Fearless to break off action, but after a while realised Captain Harrington couldn't hear him and had committed herself to engaging at energy range." Again Cromarty hesitated. "Admiral White Haven's despatch included some bridge tape from Fearless I believe you should see, Ma'am. It's on the same chip."
Wordlessly Elizabeth turned to hit the 'play' key again, and the bridge of HMS Fearless popped brightly onto her display. Though never trained as an officer, like her cousin Mike Henke, who had been Harrington's roommate at the Academy and was still a close friend, twenty years on the throne and hundreds of military inspections had taught her to read tac displays, and her lips tightened as she saw both the sullen red glare of warning lights and damage icons and the ruin of Harrington's face, her lost eye covered by a black patch. But she also heard, to her complete surprise, the strains of Hammerwell's Salute to Spring pouring from the ship's internal com, and there was a strange calmness visible in the faces of Harrington and her bridge crew.
Cromarty spoke softly. "Their gravitics, com, and half their sensors were out, so the only data they had was local — their own position and the Masadan's." He pointed to Fearless's plot where two small icons were on converging courses. "Harrington had them play the whole of Hammerwell's Seventh as they went in."
There was wonder and pain in Elizabeth's heart. "They were on a death ride."
"Yes. The Graysons requested this recording from White Haven, and it has also been seen by most of the planet. That serene determination from an injured woman — from that injured woman, with those injuries, suffered as they were — and from all the men and women in her crew, has gone straight to the Grayson soul, according to White Haven, who says he uses that word advisedly. His task force was a hundred million klicks away, hopelessly out of effective range, but as the Masadans didn't seem to be able to see him either he assumed their gravitics were also out, and sent several salvoes in on ballistic courses in the hope that it might at least distract them and give Harrington some kind of chance. Which it did."
On the display the music had ended and activity on Fearless's bridge abruptly increased as she entered missile range of the Masadan ship. Without gravitics, Elizabeth realised, there was no effective way to use counter-missiles, so Harrington was taking most of the fire on her ship's impenetrable belly wedge while the defence crews did all they could using point-defence laser clusters to pick off missiles with better shots at sidewalls, throat, and kilt. They were getting many of them but not all, and too often the bridge juddered as bomb-pumped lasers gouged at Fearless and more red icons flared on displays. Damage reports flowed to Harrington, who acknowledged them calmly, though her good eye closed from time to time in obvious pain. The tac display showed the range had fallen to only a few hundred thousand kilometres and the ships' courses would intersect in less than four minutes when one of the officers at weapons' control shouted, astonishment in his voice.
"Roll port! All batteries, engage!" Harrington's response was instantaneous as she came bolt upright in her chair. Fearless shuddered as more missiles sent lasers stabbing into her, but then her weapons came to bear, firing-lights blazed on the tac boards, and the Masadan ship abruptly vanished from the plot; a second later the one surviving external visual feed whited out with the glare of a failing fusion-bottle. For a moment there was complete silence before Harrington spoke, slurring in her voice from her facial damage suddenly audible. "Well, people, that was unexpected." The imagery ended.
Emotions churning within her — pride and sorrow, rage, awe and humility — the Queen turned back to Cromarty. "Tell me, Allen, how do I reward courage and loyalty like that?"
"I don't know, Elizabeth." Cromarty shook his head slowly. "I really don't. But the Graysons are clear the reward for a job well done is a harder job, and the reward for saving a planet's ruler and his planet is … well, it's the reason I'm here." He sat upright, speaking more formally. "Your Majesty, Protector Benjamin has made three requests of You concerning Captain Harrington. First, he accepts without reservation our proposal of alliance, and asks that Captain Harrington sign the treaty in Your name."
Elizabeth's eyes widened and she nodded. "Of course. That's fitting, and very good news. I'll sign the authorisation as soon as you can get it to me."
"Thank you, Ma'am. Second, he asks Your leave for Captain Harrington to accept an award called the Star of Grayson." Cromarty settled back a bit. "It's their equivalent of our PMV, only more so, in that only 22 have ever been awarded, and the last of those was more than three T-centuries ago. Most were won during the crises of the Founding and their horrendous civil war of the 1350s, including the only double award, to a Steadholder Isaiah Mackenzie, who was Benjamin the Great's formal Champion. There's actually a constitutional provision that makes any Steadholder who has won the Star the reigning Protector's Champion — and that isn't as irrelevant as it ought to be, because Benjamin's third request is that You permit Captain Harrington to accept the rank, honours, and duties of a Grayson Steadholder."
" He asks what? Is he serious?"
"White Haven says so. And Benjamin has sent you a personal message."
Cromarty produced another chip, and Elizabeth turned back to her comconsole with a slightly dazed expression. If she remembered rightly there were only about 80 Steadholders, and they were not placeholders or figureheads but ruling, hereditary autocrats who counted as heads of state. Had any Manticoran monarch ever had an officer — a mere Captain at that — who was also an allied head of state? She doubted it, and what the House of Lords would have to say … was a lot of fun to anticipate, actually.
She looked back at Cromarty with a sudden grin. "It would rather offset that letter of reprimand, you know. I'm tempted to agree just to see some of my more conservative Lords receive the news." The grin faded. "But let's hear Protector Benjamin first." She hit 'play' again and Benjamin appeared, looking rather less wild-eyed than she had last seen him but with new lines of care and sorrow etching his pleasant features, and tiredness bagging his eyes.
"Your Majesty. I understand you will have been briefed on what has happened here, on the astonishing heroism of Captain Harrington and her people, and on the price they paid in saving us." He rubbed his eyes. "The Tester was with her and with us, that day. And we know it. You will also know about my requests, and that's what this is about — the formal paperwork will follow, but this is a personal message, and a plea. You probably think I've gone mad, or at best that my gratitude to Captain Harrington for the lives of my family and myself has gone to my head. And I also understand, in some measure, the domestic political difficulties making Captain Harrington a Steadholder is likely to cause you and your Lords of Admiralty. But I tell you straight out, Your Majesty, Protector to Queen, Grayson needs Steadholder Harrington. And I will do everything in my power to ensure that we get her."
A spark of humour lit his face. "Actually, even assuming Your permission, that will probably mean blackmailing her to accept the award. It'll be payback for her blackmailing a dinner out of me. Not that I'm repining, Tester knows." The humour faded. "But it's more than that. I don't know how much of our neobarbarian history you've been briefed on, Your Majesty, but when Admiral White Haven leaves tomorrow for Endicott to sort out the Masadans once and for all, he's going to end a civil war that's been going on for nearly six T-centuries. And while it is his — Your — forces that will do the job, it is Captain Harrington who has made it possible for them to do so. Who saved us after we had spurned and injured her. Who serenely faced certain death on our behalf, bound only by her own honour, and her belief in Yours; not by oath or treaty or even friendship. Father Church teaches that the Tester tests hardest those whom He loves best, and we know, every one of us, in our hearts and souls, that in Captain Harrington we behold a daughter of God such as no living Grayson has ever seen. And so we ask, I ask, that You share her with us."
He shrugged. "The bottom line, Your Majesty, is that I don't have the slightest idea how You will react to events here, nor do I know how anything will work out. But I swear to You, by my oath as Protector, that with Steadholder Harrington Grayson can become a better friend and ally for Your Star Kingdom than would be possible without her. And if we ever doubted what Havenite ambitions mean for our fate, we doubt no longer. Count it a price of alliance, if You will, or a joy of friendship. But grant us this, please, by Your grace and the Tester's."
The display blanked and Elizabeth looked at her Prime Minister with a wild surmise. "Well … coo. Steadholder Harrington, eh? We'll have to ennoble her as well, I suppose. Whatever will she do next?"
2. News from Hancock Station
March 1905 PD
Queen Elizabeth had always met her senior cabinet members weekly but, with escalating clashes along the Alliance's frontiers with Havenite space, daily meetings were becoming the norm. And now the clashes had turned into battles, at Hancock Station, where Admiral Parks had defeated two full-blown attacks, making multiple captures, and seized the Havenite base at Seaford Nine; and at Grayson, again, where Admiral White Haven had won the Third Battle of Yeltsin, drawing the Havenite CNO Admiral Parnell into a strategic trap and handing him a heavy defeat. It was a brave and good start but neither Elizabeth nor any of the men and women seated around the conference table had any doubt that their star nation had entered into a war that would last for years, perhaps decades, and only end when one of the belligerents was not simply defeated but economically and politically destroyed.
She reached behind her with one strong, slim hand to scratch Ariel's head as the 'cat shifted on the back of her chair. "So is that it for today, Allen?"
Cromarty shook his head. "Not quite, Your Majesty. There are two further matters arising. First, Admiral White Haven proposes to give the 11 serviceable Havenite superdreadnoughts he captured to the GSN. Do you have any reservations about that?"
"Not in the least. It's an excellent move, and Hamish knows as well as anyone how important it is for us to build up the GSN as rapidly as possible." Elizabeth grinned. "Though he is doing his officers and crews out of a perfectly astonishing amount of prize money."
"Indeed. Even paying only three percent of hull value the award would cost us about 11 billion, Manticoran. As it is, the superdreadnoughts captured at Hancock will cost us about three. I can see Willie going pale from here merely at the thought."
Across the table William Alexander, White Haven's younger brother and Cromarty's Chancellor of the Exchequer, smiled politely back. "Don't get me started on prize awards today, Allen — though if the war goes on as we fear we will have to address that question, however unpopular it'll make us with the Navy."
"And with service families, Willie." Elizabeth's voice held a note of caution and Alexander nodded. "You leave well alone until and unless you think we have to change it. King Michael instituted that system for very good reasons that still apply. More than ever, in fact." Her fingers drummed briefly on the table top. "What's the other thing, Allen?"
"Something rather less pleasant, I'm afraid. Jim Webster has now received fuller reports from Yancie Parks about events at Hancock Station. The gross situation doesn't change, and it's plain the Havenites took two real beatings as well as losing Seaford Nine, but praise and blame are going to need some reapportioning."
"First, it's clear Parks got it badly wrong. Admiral Sarnow was alone and understrength at Hancock when the first Havenite force showed up because Parks had left him there that way, against Sarnow's strong advice. And against Captain Harrington's, I might add — a point not lost on the Graysons. But as you know, Ma'am, she and Sarnow managed to pull the fat out of the fire by defeating Admiral Chin's force in detail, while Admiral Danislav arrived to scare off Admiral Rollins's fleet just in time. And during that action, Ma'am, which given Admiral Coatsworth's arrival and action a week later is now First Hancock, something else happened which is going to have a lot of fallout."
"Oh? What sort of something."
"Another Houseman, of sorts, I'm afraid." Elizabeth sucked in breath and Ariel hissed behind her, echoing the rage she could still feel at the economist's cowardice before allies in Yeltsin. "Do you recall Captain Lord Pavel Young, North Hollow's son, who abandoned then Commander Harrington as acting SO on Basilisk? Well, he's been on Silesian patrol ever since for his sins, but with the war starting he got called back in and wound up at Hancock. His heavy cruiser, Warlock, was in Sarnow's Task Force, and during the final stages when they were under heavy fire, seeking to entrap Chin for Danislav, he … deserted his post, taking Warlock with him." Cromarty shook his head as Elizabeth glared in horrified disbelief and Ariel hissed again. "There are bridge recordings you should see, Ma'am; Jim's sending them over. But the long and short of it is that after the battle Parks convened a Board of Enquiry, and on its recommendation is sending Captain Lord Young home under close arrest on charges of disobedience under Articles 23 and 26, and further charges of cowardice and treason under Articles 14, 15, and 19."
The room was silent, though Ariel's tail-tip was now twitching steadily.
"The JAG has seen the bridge recordings and says there's no doubt whatever the Board of Enquiry acted correctly. The charges of cowardice and treason are of course capital, and as Sarnow was so seriously injured that he is still sedated, the chief witness for the prosecution will of necessity be Captain Harrington." Several people visibly winced. "Exactly so. When North Hollow discovers that his eldest son is very probably going to be shot by a firing squad he will stop at nothing to save him. Captain Harrington will be salt in the wound. And I think we can all imagine what that is going to mean politically while we are trying to get the Lords to vote out a formal declaration of war."
"Yes." Elizabeth's face was grave; then her fist abruptly banged hard on the table and Ariel leaped from her chairback, hissing and scoring the expensive wood with scalpel claws. "Damn and blast the North Hollows, father and son alike."
Everyone recoiled from her rage, even Cromarty; he didn't believe he'd ever heard the Queen speak like that in Cabinet, but she was, thank God, visibly reigning her anger in and pulling Ariel back onto her lap. After several fulminating minutes while she stroked the 'cat she sighed.
"I'm sorry, people. And about the table. But when I think of the kind of contempt North Hollow has for those who actually do our fighting for us … Still, interfering's not our business in this one, Allen. Let the wheels of military justice roll. Natal rank and privilege cannot excuse cowardice, be the political fallout what it may. We owe it to the people Young's cowardice will have needlessly killed to do what justice we can. And we all owe Captain Harrington for Basilisk and for Second Yeltsin, as well as First Hancock, so she'll have whatever discreet support we can provide. I'll see her personally with Francine Morncreek when she gets back."
She smiled at her Prime Minister, though there was no humour in her voice.
"More interesting times, eh, Allen? It does seem the good Captain has the knack of generating them."
3. News from Landing
June 1906 PD
"It's nearly time, Ma'am."
"Thank you, Jenny. Do you want to watch?"
"If you don't mind, Ma'am."
"Not at all. Have a pew."
Elizabeth was not in the habit of watching duels any more than Manticoran HD was in the habit of broadcasting them, but on this particular morning very few people, in Landing at least, were going to be doing anything else. The court martial of Captain Lord Pavel Young had not gone as it ought, for despite clear evidence of his cowardice and desertion under fire the political polarisation the case had created — had been wilfully spun to create, if truth were told — had affected the judging panel as much as everyone else, and they had been hung on the capital charges. With someone switching votes they had convicted Young, by a bare majority, on all the non-capital charges, and on that basis had cashiered him — at which news his father, attending the court martial, had dropped dead of a stroke: in Elizabeth's opinion good riddance to bad rubbish, and just about the only worthwhile thing to come out of the whole stinking mess.
So the new eleventh Earl of North Hollow had got away with his gutless life, while Captain Lady Honor Harrington, Steadholder and Countess Harrington, who had been scrutinised, championed, mauled, and pawed at by the newsies in a truly disgusting display, carried on overseeing repairs to the battle damage her ship had suffered at First Hancock and visiting the families of her dead. After a while she had gone to Grayson for her formal investment as a Steadholder, but while she was away her lover, Paul Tankersley, a distant cousin of Mike Henke's on her mother's side, was killed in a duel by one Denver Summervale, a former marine officer cashiered for fraud who was himself a distant cousin of the Duke of Cromarty. Elizabeth didn't much care to remember how Harrington had looked when she returned from Grayson accompanied by her new Armsmen — a bleached automaton whose empty gaze through whoever was in front of her had frozen even newsies into silence. And less than ten days after her return Harrington had faced Summervale on the Landing City Duelling Grounds herself.
Denver Summervale was a crack shot and professional duellist who had killed a score of men as well as two women, and there were very few people who had expected Harrington to survive, though many had hoped against hope she might. And as it turned out hopes and fears were alike misplaced, for Harrington, still utterly expressionless, had fired from the hip and marched four bullets up Summervale's torso before putting a fifth between his eyes. After which, ignoring the corpse lying ten metres away, she had summoned stunned newsies from their vulture-perches around the field and in less than 50 words stated her satisfaction at Summervale's death and the irretrievability of her own loss before formally accusing North Hollow of paying Summervale to murder both Tankersley and herself.
Which, Elizabeth was coldly sure, he had, as she was equally sure Harrington had proof of some kind that would not be legally admissible unless North Hollow sued her for slander; which he notably didn't. The Lords and the political landscape in general had been convulsed, and just as with the court martial the simple, central fact of a criminal vendetta waged exclusively by North Hollow had been overwhelmed by spin and counterspin. It had come down to a bizarre game of cat-and-mouse, with a gibbering North Hollow physically avoiding Harrington so she could not issue her challenge, Harrington trying to catch him somewhere in the open, and the Lords of Admiralty moving heaven and earth to get the repairs to Harrington's ship finished so she could be posted out-system and the threat of having a serving naval officer gun down a peer of the realm obviated, or at least kicked into limbo. There had also been an attempted assassination of Harrington by five hired gunmen in Reggiano's restaurant, that had ended surprisingly satisfactorily, despite injuries to several members of Harrington's party, when her Grayson Armsmen killed four of the five without hitting a single bystander. Elizabeth's personal bodyguard, Colonel Ellen Shemais, had been eloquent in her professional praise. Neither police nor public doubted that North Hollow had commissioned the attempt, but hard evidence was lacking. And eventually even that didn't matter, for Harrington had used her unscheduled maiden speech as a Countess, her Manticoran title bestowed to match her Steadholdership, to catch North Hollow in the heart of Parliament itself and make good her promise to challenge him.
And so things had dragged to this bitter June morning, when Elizabeth fully expected to see North Hollow die and knew that killing him would end Harrington's naval career anyway — a necessary sacrifice by her Lords of the Admiralty to the false gods of political expedience, to which, absurdly, neither North Hollow's rank cowardice, corruption, and criminality nor Harrington's evident innocence and loyalty made the slightest difference. Pavel Young might soon be gone, but his title and wealth would pass to his equally poisonous younger brother Stefan, and the Conservative Association's hostility to Harrington — an article of faith with its arrogantly traditionalist leader Baron High Ridge that had started with Casimir, flared with Basilisk, and become set in stone with her assault on Houseman — would be undiminished. To High Ridge and his cronies it simply didn't matter what North Hollow had or hadn't done to Harrington; he was entitled, and she a yeoman's daughter of no account.
By the time Elizabeth had seated herself next to Lady Chawleigh and focused on the HD image from the Duelling Grounds the principals were already being handed their weapons and told to load by the Landing PD lieutenant acting as Master of the Field. North Hollow looked dreadful, a horridly pasty yellow-white blotched with evident terror, and Harrington's face was as coldly expressionless as it had been when she killed Summervale. They turned to walk to their marks, Harrington firmly, North Hollow with a stumbling shuffle, and Elizabeth began to brace herself for what was soon to come when North Hollow stopped after only three paces, turned, and raised his gun to point it at Harrington's back. Lady Chawleigh's gasp beside her and Elizabeth's own cry were drowned out as a stentorian voice on the HD shouted "Down!" and North Hollow's gun roared once, twice — but Harrington had reacted instantly to the shout, diving right, and the bullets meant for her spine had only hit her shoulder. The Master of the Field was drawing his pulser, shock and rage plain on his face, but Harrington despite her bloody shoulder and limp arm had rolled and risen to her knees, her other arm flashing up, and before the Master could take aim three shots so close their sounds merged had passed though North Hollow's lying heart. The pulser darts that followed as the Master pulled his own trigger only flensed the corpse.
"My God." Elizabeth's mahogany face couldn't really go white, but the colour had drained from it all the same, as it had from Jenny Chawleigh's. They watched in silence as Harrington was borne away by her Armsmen to the waiting air-ambulance, North Hollow's corpse was contemptuously turned over to his brother, now the twelfth Earl, and the crimson-faced Master announced that North Hollow would be recorded not as the loser of the duel but as having been shot down for gross cowardice and attempted murder on the Field of Honour. Which was only right, Elizabeth thought, but was not going to help politically, at all. Lady Chawleigh rose, sighing, and went to make them both fresh coffee, but Elizabeth muted the sound and sat for a while, not really seeing the HD images as the newsies began to gabble their rehashings and vicarious excitement, but turning in her brain the permutations that might follow from this astonishing finale to the saga. Even High Ridge, surely, would find it hard to defend a man who had before an audience of millions done his poor best to shoot his lawful opponent in the back.
"Speak of the devil …"
The horse face of Michael Janvier, ninth Baron High Ridge, outside what was clearly his town house in the exclusive north-central quarter of Landing, filled the HD while respectful newsies from his tame media pack gathered round him, and despite her distaste Elizabeth demuted the sound as he began to speak.
"… cannot answer for what the hopelessly inept Master of the Field had to say, but what I saw was a peer of the realm shot down in cold blood, by three bullets, when the Dreyfuss Protocol under which he had reluctantly accepted an absurd and murderous challenge from a deranged and delusional officer clearly specifies that only one may be fired at a time. The so-called Master can rant as he will, but anyone with a gram of sense or decency knows Harrington should hang for what she's done today. That she won't is only another sign of how lax we have become under this expansionist government. And now I have the obsequies of a Peer of the Realm to attend. Good day."
Lady Chawleigh, returning with the coffee tray, was surprised and alarmed to find the Queen standing bolt upright with a red face, clenched fists, and a wild look in her eye. Momently she gave thanks that Ariel was away on one of his rare visits to his Sphinxian homeworld and relatives.
"Can you believe the unmitigated gall of that loathsome shit? I wish to God she could kill him too!"
4. News from Yeltsin's Star (2)
August 1907 PD
"The Prime Minister has commed to ask if he might see you presently, Ma'am. He's en route and wishes to brief you." Lady Chawleigh paused briefly. "He says it's interesting news from Grayson, Ma'am."
"Yes, Ma'am. And I have to say he looked a little odd, as if he's still taking something in."
"Well at least he didn't say it's bad news. Show His Grace straight in when he gets here, will you please, Jenny?"
"Of course, Ma'am."
While she waited for Cromarty Elizabeth continued to scroll through briefing papers, but her mind wasn't on them, and eventually she sat back, allowing Ariel onto her lap so she could bury hands in his silky fur. The recent news from Grayson, where Steadholder Harrington had accepted a commission as a full admiral in the GSN and was by all accounts helping her adopted planet and navy to develop at an astonishing rate, had been disturbing — a horrific account of the collapse of one of the environmental domes Harrington's new company was building, killing more than thirty children and fifty adults. The founding of Grayson Sky Domes had delighted Elizabeth because it was a pure fruit of the prize money Harrington had won at Hancock, and evidence of just how potent the prize system could be was useful ammunition in her fight to defend it against Willie Alexander's financial horror at its workings; but reports had mentioned a groundswell of bitter condemnation of Harrington as evidence seemed to indicate faulty materials and careless construction were to blame — a bitterness all the worse for previous hero-worship. That Harrington would be mercenary in such a matter was to Elizabeth fundamentally incredible, but as she knew all too well, what was true and what newsies said or the public decided to be true were not necessarily the same at all. There had also been the bizarre Peep raids of conquest on Candor and Minette, astrographically close to Yeltsin but puzzling, low-value targets that induced real doubt about Peep strategy in that sector, and would have to be retaken anyway, at distracting cost. GSN forces were already in hyperspace.
Still, if Cromarty's further news was 'interesting' it suggested there might have been improvements, presumably in Steadholder Harrington's situation. And Elizabeth dearly hoped so: Harrington might still be a mere half-pay Captain in Manticoran law, and formally excluded from the Lords, but she remained a politically very hot button for all sides: to the Queen's Navy a hero-victim of painful proportions and to Graysons — unless this ghastly accident really had tarnished her — something far more. According to one of Elizabeth's briefs she had even become an icon of sorts for the Peeps, whose post-revolutionary wartime press ought to have hated an enemy as successful in beating them as Harrington, and did, but equally found itself mesmerised by the tale of a yeoman officer persecuted by a corrupt aristocrat, and excluded from her earned dignities for having the guts to avenge her lover's commissioned murder. Truth to tell, she was often in the Queen's mind too, the kernel of a nagging, unanswerable shame — an officer of astonishing skill and courage who had defended her Queen's honor as well as Protector Benjamin's life with bare hands; who had thrashed every Peep commander who'd come up against her, often at long odds; who bore as many stripes indicating wounds in action and awards of the Monarch's Thanks as anyone in the service, not to mention the Manticore Cross, Saganami Cross, and CGM with cluster: but whom her nation's élite had cursed, persecuted, sought to murder, and eventually driven into exile. Ariel bleeked a worried scold as Elizabeth's thoughts turned into the dully familiar track of impotent rage.
"I know, I know. Spilt milk and all that. But you'd think that Tester of theirs might cut her a break, eh?"
Once Cromarty had been shown in and taken a seat, Elizabeth quirked a worried eyebrow. "Can I stand more interesting news from Grayson, Allen?"
"Oh I believe so, Ma'am. Some is rather distressing, I'm afraid, and distinctly embarrassing for Manticore as well as, um, heartstopping, I think, is the word. But the problem has been definitively resolved, and for good."
Embarrassing was a curious choice of word, as was heartstopping, and Elizabeth braced herself, hands cupping Ariel on her lap. "Tell me."
"It transpires, Ma'am, that the collapse of the Mueller Middle School Dome was not an accident at all. It was sabotage, by people whose sole intention was to discredit Steadholder Harrington and by inference the Mayhew Restoration, and so protect Grayson's patriarchy and proper intolerance of heathens."
"Just so, Ma'am. Grayson has its own North Hollows, it turns out. One William Fitzclarence, Steadholder Burdette, appears to have been the prime mover. Sky Domes passed technical evidence they found to Protector Benjamin last week, and he began a confidential investigation that confirmed sabotage; but under their constitution he had to inform the Conclave of Steadholders before going further, so he summoned an extraordinary session. And when Steadholder Harrington came down from her fleet command to attend that session, Burdette sought to pre-empt matters by trying to assassinate her."
"Again? My God. What happened?"
"Two men disguised as Harrington Steading Guards got into the grounds of her spaceport, and fired a missile at her pinnace. Her pilot somehow managed to get the craft almost on the ground before it was clipped by the impeller wedge, and it was, thankfully, an armoured navy pinnace; but the hydrogen tanks jettisoned and blew, and there were scores of fatalities on the ground. The Steadholder, remarkably, survived with only minor injuries, as did Reverend Hanks, who had been visiting her command, but the crew and many of her party were killed. There was then a follow-up attack on the ground, in which Nimitz killed one of the assassins but the other accidentally killed Reverend Hanks." Elizabeth's face could have been carved from stone, but Ariel hissed approval at the mention of Nimitz's role. "That assassin was taken alive, so traumatised by realising whom he had killed he made full confession. And the extraordinary session became something else altogether."
Cromarty proffered a chip and as Ariel eased from her lap Elizabeth leaned forward to take it.
"It's quite long, Your Majesty, and it's a laser-head, I'm afraid. And as it went out live on Grayson it's already in the newsies' hands here. By tomorrow I imagine they'll have worked up the courage to broadcast it, and you need to see it and have a chance to digest what happened before the story breaks."
Elizabeth turned to her comconsole and slipped the disk into the read-slot. The display lit with a now familiar scene, the Grayson Conclave of Steadholders in its semi-circular chamber, small by Manticoran standards but even in these expansionist days with far fewer nobles to seat. The Protector's daïs was untenanted, the assembled steadholders silent, uneasily shifting in their seats. Then the doors rumbled open, and against all usual protocol Protector Benjamin strode in alone, unannounced and unpreceded, took his elevated throne at the centre of the horseshoe of seats, and began to speak. Never losing control but with rising passion, he laid out the tale Cromarty had summarised and indicted Grayson's shame. When he explained the absence of the Reverend Julius Hanks, who as First Elder of Father Church should have been present at such a session, there was a dreadful silence for at least ten seconds, then the strangest sound Elizabeth had ever heard from human beings, a low, grating moan that stood hair on end. As it diminished Benjamin stood, and began to flay the Conclave with its own horrified shame and anger; moved and caught up as she was, a part of Elizabeth's brain also deeply appreciated the autocratic performance, and she almost clapped when he ended with the revelation of how exactly Hanks had died, literally throwing himself between Steadholder Harrington and the pulser darts meant to kill her, and right on cue the doors rumbled open again to admit the Steadholder herself.
But Harrington looked terrible, in every sense, and Elizabeth's breath caught. The Steadholder's forehead was cut, her living cheek savagely bruised, and the ribbon of her Star of Grayson stained with blood; Nimitz rode her shoulder, fur singed and scorched — but he stood tall, as she walked proudly, and as she strode directly to a place before Benjamin, ignoring her fellow Steadholders, Elizabeth suddenly realised what this ritual truly was, and why Cromarty had said this news was embarrassing to Manticore.
Harrington's soprano voice was cold and clear. "Your Grace, I come before you for justice. By my oath to you, I call upon yours to me. As I swore to protect and guard my people, so I now require your aid to that end, for he who has killed and maimed my steaders carries the key of a steadholder, and I may not touch him while he shelters behind its protection."
"By my oath to you, I honor your demand for justice, my Lady. If any man in this Chamber has offended against you or yours, name him, and if you bear proof of his crimes, then steadholder or no, he shall answer for them as the laws of God and man decree."*
This was what the oaths of feudal monarchy should mean, and what should have happened in Manticore when one of her aristocrats contracted the murder of one of her sworn subjects and commissioned officers. But it hadn't, and if everything happened again today it still wouldn't. As she heard Harrington name Burdette her enemy and depose proof Elizabeth felt her own shame, and a glance at Cromarty told her he felt it also, and had named his own embarrassment as much as hers, and her Kingdom's. Ariel was too engrossed in the unfolding images to chide her bleak thoughts as he usually would, but the 'cat's sudden tension snapped her mind back to the display.
Burdette was on his feet, proclaiming defiance and his religious fanaticism, then crying challenge to the Protector's decree and demanding his Champion uphold it. With growing horror Elizabeth realised he meant it literally, and Benjamin's Champion was Honor Harrington, who could not possibly be in a fit state to take on anyone in personal combat. But she clearly thought otherwise, because as Benjamin began to speak she raised a hand, stopping him in midsentence.
"Your Grace, I have only one question. Do you wish this man crippled, or dead?"*
Benjamin twitched and the assembled steadholders gasped their surprise.
"My Lady, I do not wish him to leave this Chamber alive."*
"As You will it, Your Grace." She moved to her own, Champion's desk beside Benjamin's, setting Nimitz down and taking up the Grayson sword of state from its brackets. Then she stepped down to the floor of the Chamber and faced Burdette. "My Lord, send for your sword — and may God preserve the righteous."*
Elizabeth sucked in air, feeing her heart begin to hammer. "Dear God, Allen — is she really going to fight him with that thing?"
Cromarty nodded. "Oh yes. It takes about twenty minutes for his sword to be fetched and she never moves except to take off her shoes and go to a position directly before Benjamin's throne."
"I'm not waiting that long." Elizabeth reached a hand to jump the recording until Burdette could be seen limbering-up and taking in hand a sword like the one Harrington held, a long, slightly curved, and wickedly sheened blade unlike anything Elizabeth had ever seen on Manticore. Traitor and Champion moved to stand opposite one another, within slashing reach, Burdette holding his sword high in a classic attack stance, Harrington hers in a low, cross-guard stance, and then they both seemed to freeze. The screen split briefly to show both faces, and Elizabeth felt a stab of wonder as she saw Harrington full on — for her eyes, though as calm as they had been on the Duelling Grounds of Landing, were not empty in the same way, but serene, as they had been when she took HMS Fearless on its death ride. She looked, and was, noble, by purpose and not by birth. How it could be so Elizabeth only half-understood, but Harrington radiated both an utter serenity and a dreadful menace, and one answer pulsed in Elizabeth's mind.
"God is with her, you know, Allen."
"Yes, I think so too. It's very soon, now."
It didn't seem soon as endless seconds dragged by but just as Elizabeth thought she might scream with the tension Harrington's arm blurred into motion, the state sword slicing upwards across Burdette's torso in a killing diagonal and snapping back to decapitate him. The head leaped and fell, rolling across the floor to pitch up against the Champion's desk; the torso stood for a few seconds, spouting from its stump, before crumpling into a messily leaking heap. Whether anyone had shouted, whether she had herself shouted, or Cromarty, Elizabeth didn't know; the silence seemed unbreakable while Honor Harrington stood, sword still held high then slowly lowered to rest; and unbreakable in a different way when Nimitz, peering approvingly over the edge of the desk at Burdette's head, suddenly leaped down, fastidiously picked the head up in his true hands, and set it squarely on the daïs at Benjamin's feet with a ringing bleek of approval. Then he loped to Harrington, who put her sword down on her desk and gathered him up, returning him to his rightful place on her shoulder.
"God's will, and yours, is done, Your Grace. Your decree is upheld and my appeal to You justly answered." Her gaze swept the assembled steadholders for the first time. "Does any other challenge the Protector's justice?
Benjamin stood, whitefaced Steadholders rising with him, and they bowed to her as one.
"None does, my Champion. The Tester be praised."
The display blanked.
"Too bloody right." Beside Elizabeth Ariel hissed agreement, but otherwise silence lingered. Cromarty said nothing.
At last Elizabeth pulled a thought together, even though most of her brain was still jittering with what she had seen. "You're perfectly right about the embarrassment, Allen." A defensive whimsy overlaid the strain in her voice. "But on the bright side, even our boneheaded Burdettes might finally grasp the notion that it's a very bad idea indeed for aristocrats anywhere to try to kill Honor Harrington. Counting your black-sheep cousin she's three for three, you know, and nothing up to and including missiles appears to be able to stop her."
"Four for four if you count Jared Mayhew, Elizabeth. And far more than that if you count the false guards he used. Or those thugs at Reggiano's, I suppose, though that was her Armsmen."
"Yes. At least she does it to the Peeps, as well."
"Ah, indeed. And that's the other thing, Ma'am, because less than eight hours after Burdette's, um, demise, a large Peep task force came over the Yeltsin hyperwall." Elizabeth stiffened, but Cromarty was clearly unalarmed. "Which explains Minette and Candor, of course, their purpose being solely to drag forces away from Grayson; which, as you know, they did, thanks to the foresight of High Admiral Matthews. It's galling, but they seem to have read us far too well, and we're going to have to think about that hard, soon. Still, when the Peeps were half-way in, and thought they had good sensor readings of what the GSN had left in-system, their task force split up, some heading out again for Endicott and most coming on for the Grayson orbital factories and yards. The Peep admiral must have been congratulating himself heartily, and not wrongly, except that the CO of Home Fleet was Steadholder Harrington, and along the rest of their way in he managed to run his battleships and cruisers into energy range of Harrington's five superdreadnoughts."
"Yes. The forces actually interpenetrated, which hasn't happened on this scale for several T-centuries at least. How she did it I don't begin to understand, though I imagine Jim Webster or Hamish Alexander can explain it to us. But however she did it, it created hell in space. She lost one superdreadnought and a dozen lighter units completely, with about twenty thousand personnel, all told, which I'm afraid is bound to include a fair number of our loaners to the GSN; she also destroyed 23 Peep battleships, eight heavy cruisers, and almost all their light stuff — well over a hundred million tons of warshipping. The Graysons' best guess at the moment for the Peeps' personnel loss is something close to two hundred thousand." Elizabeth stared. "And their other force fled, without going anywhere near Endicott. The Graysons have named it Fourth Yeltsin, Ma'am, a famous victory; and it hasn't escaped their notice that Steadholder Harrington has once again saved their planet from devastation."
"So she has." Despite the fierce elation that filled her with any news of Peep defeats and losses Elizabeth was too numb still, too locked down against the image of Burdette's spouting neck, to do more than contemplate this new statistic about Honor Harrington. Few ever saved a world at all; to save the same world twice was … absurd, really. Or a miracle. "What have they given her this time?"
"There isn't very much more they can give her, I don't think, Ma'am. Protector Benjamin's toy box is rather smaller than yours, and I imagine the Steadholders are still feeling rather chastened, for all their relief. So they seem to have contented themselves with some fulsome speeches and awarding her another Star of Grayson, which makes her the second person in history to receive its cluster." Suddenly Cromarty grinned. "Though I understand there's also been a huge and politic rush led by Mueller himself to place new orders with Sky Domes, so she'll get a deal of money too, for whatever that's worth; and I do note her corporation will soon have a value that will put it well into the top layer of our Fortune 500. Harrington's probably already the richest individual, certainly the richest woman, in Grayson's history, and she's beginning to understand how to use that kind of money. But you know, for us, Ma'am, the real point may actually be the embarrassment we both feel, because a lot of other people are going to feel it also. We deserve to feel it, frankly, and they'll know that too. For the first time I believe Harrington could come back here; even be seated again in the Lords. It'll take time, but I have real hope."
Elizabeth nodded, her eyes lighting up. "Yes. And we need her, Allen. Not as badly, perhaps, as the Graysons once did, but badly enough. We need her pointed at the Peeps, so she can do to them exactly what she did to North Hollow and Burdette. But we also need her for our souls." She waved her hand towards the display. "I know we can't go back to anything quite as feudal as that, and I can't say I regret it. That decapitation is going to feature in my dreams for some time to come, I'm sure. But we need an equivalent, Allen, or sure as God made us men and women we're going to find our honour soiled and our fate in jeopardy. Present company excepted, there are times I think my Lords are little better than thieves in ermine; and it's painfully obvious ideals of duty and sacrifice mean nothing whatever to most of them. What we can do I have no idea, but we both need to think hard about that, too." She smiled, rather grimly. "And if we can between us get Harrington back, at least she might give us some tips!"
5. News from Trevor's Star
December 1913 PD
Elizabeth found it hard to sleep these days, and God knew there was precious little comfort in any news of the war, for all that Caparelli was promising the new construction would be available soon. Since the Peeps' ugly, triumphant announcement 22 months earlier of Commodore Harrington's execution on trumped-up charges going back to her tenure as acting SO at Basilisk, the Alliance's luck had seemed to run out. Advances had stalled and attrition risen, and then back in May the Peeps had launched their Operation Icarus, retaking Seaford Nine and trashing the orbital industries of Zanzibar, Alizon, and worst of all Basilisk; against which their solitary defeat at Third Hancock was, if a great deal better than nothing, cold comfort all the same. Justin and her children worried about her, but she wasn't prepared to use chemicals to sleep so there wasn't much to be done, and it wasn't as if there wasn't always work she should be doing. So despite the hour she was propped up in bed, reading classified ONI reports with Ariel, Justin, and his 'cat Monroe sleeping beside her, when her personal com chimed softly. Consort and 'cats all stirred, opening sleepy eyes, as she leaned to hit the accept.
For anyone except Cromarty to com her in the small hours was unheard of, but the face that appeared on her display was that of Admiral Sir Thomas Caparelli, jacketless and looking not only as if he'd been quite recently awoken himself but … dazed. Her heart sank, but Caparelli's eyes weren't haunted as they had been when news of the disaster at Basilisk had arrived, so perhaps it wasn't anything too bad.
"Sir Thomas, what is it?"
"Your Majesty, I'm sorry to disturb you at this hour, but some quite astonishing news has come in, from Admiral White Haven at Trevor's Star. He's sent it under the highest security classification, meaning no transmission whatever, so if I may I'll come straight to Mount Royal."
"Very well, Admiral."
"Thank you, Ma'am. Oh, and forgive me, but I believe Prince Justin should attend. It's … a very emotional matter, Ma'am. And I assure you a good one."
Elizabeth stared, as did Justin, who propped himself up on one elbow. "I'm game."
"Alright, Admiral. We'll see you in King Michael's Tower as soon as may be."
By the time Caparelli arrived and was shown in he was as neatly uniformed as ever, but still had a slightly wild air. Elizabeth and Justin received him in her private rooms in the Tower, Ariel and Monroe looking interestedly on.
"Your Majesty, Prince Justin. Truth to tell, I barely comprehend this news myself, for all I've had an hour or so to begin digesting it, so it seems best simply to play you Admiral White Haven's despatch." He proffered a chip. "I believe you'll wish to be sitting down, Ma'am."
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. "Really? Perhaps you'll do the honours then. It's a secure unit." She gestured towards the comconsole against one wall, moving with Justin to the sofa where Ariel and Monroe immediately climbed into their laps as Caparelli went across to slip the chip into the read-slot. "Have a pew yourself, Admiral."
"Thank you, Ma'am. This is just as I received it."
The display lit with Admiral White Haven's face, grinning almost dementedly, and Elizabeth blinked in surprise. She'd never seen Hamish Alexander looking so … stunned, actually, beneath the elation sparking from him.
"Tom. I'm not going to apologise for telling them to wake you because you're going to want to take this one straight to Her Majesty. I have the most incredible news for you, and it's good, it's all amazingly good. The Peeps' biggest black eye in history and pure bloody tonic for us." He actually laughed as he swore, which Elizabeth didn't believe she'd ever seen anyone do in an official despatch. "I'm sorry to be so irregular, but the whole thing's irregular, in every way." He took a deep breath, visibly pulling himself together. "Thing is, Tom, about 18 hours ago we detected a little group of hyperfootprints just outside the perimeter, 12 of 'em to be precise, which CIC identified as Peeps — five Mars-class battlecruisers, four heavy cruisers, a light cruiser, and two Roughneck-class assault transports. All of which just sat there, dropped their wedges and sidewalls, and sent us this message."
The screen image changed and Elizabeth sat bolt upright, Ariel bleeking in surprise on her lap as her emotions churned. It could not be — this woman was dead, lost beyond hope, and for her to turn up alive at Trevor's Star with a force of Peep warships and transports was simply ludicrous. Justin too was gaping disbelief while Monroe bleeked, and Elizabeth saw with a stab of pity that the woman on screen was missing an arm, her voice was again slurred by facial injury, and the treecat on the desk before her also injured and unable to sit properly.
"Trevor System Command, this is Admiral Honor Harrington. I'm sure no-one in the Alliance expected to see me again, but I assure you that the rumours of my recent death have been exaggerated. I am accompanied by approximately one hundred and six thousand liberated inmates of the prison planet Hades, and I expect the arrival of another quarter-million or so within the next eleven days — our transports have military hyper-generators and we made a faster passage than they will. I regret any confusion or alarm we may have caused by turning up in Peep ships, but they were the only ones we could … appropriate for the voyage. We will remain where we are, with our drives, sidewalls, weapons, and active sensors down until you've had a chance to check us out and establish our bona fides, but I'd appreciate it if you could expedite. We were forced to pack these ships to the deckheads to get all our people aboard, and our life support could be in better shape. We … we're home, System Command. It took us a while, but we're home."*
Harrington's image vanished and White Haven's returned, his grin almost splitting his face.
"So what d'you think about that, Tom? Honor Harrington is back from the dead! And as you heard, she's not alone either, not by a long shot. The repercussions are going to rock everywhere from Nouveau Paris to Old Chicago." He sobered with evident difficulty. "I barely have a handle on them, and God knows we're going to be analysing this for years, but I'll try to lay it out cleanly. And knowing Her Majesty, let me deal with first things first.
"As you saw, Harrington's lost her left arm, and her prosthetic eye and facial nerves are shot again." His voice darkened. "Which has to have been deliberate abuse by the Peeps. Otherwise she seems to be physically OK, though what her mental state really is I'd hate to guess. Nimitz is also injured, but it's apparently nothing proper surgery can't fix. And the rest of her escapees from Hades are also more or less OK, though a great deal of medical and psychiatric care is going to be needed, and the San Martinos need welfare backup pronto, especially with another quarter-million escapees on the way."
He paused, looking as bemused as Elizabeth felt.
"Did I really just say that? Oh well, it's all absurd, really. What happened, so far as I can grasp, is that when Harrington and the crew of Prince Adrian were captured in Adler, she and her officers were taken from military into StateSec custody, then handed over to Cordelia Ransom herself aboard a StateSec battlecruiser called the Tepes. Ransom took them to Hades personally, promising executions all round, and it's at that stage the StateSec abuse happened, both to Harrington and Nimitz. She's not saying much about it — partly, I think, because of how Grayson will react — but it was clearly bad, and their situation was hopeless. Or rather not, because one of her people, a CPO Harkness, took it on himself to pretend to defect, spinning poor-man sob stories the Peeps swallowed, and became a sort of trusty — a freedom he used to lay hands on a minicomp and hack their systems wide open."
This time White Haven's grin was feral.
"In consequence, when Tepes arrived at Hades announcing a jolly hang-fest for the morrow they found that almost everything electronic except their isolated battlenet suddenly crashed, and four of their boat bays blew up while the fifth was secured against them. Harkness managed to break out everyone except Harrington, who was being held separately, and they sent a party to get her. Oh, and I think it was at this point they picked up a Peep who was also due for the chop — one Commander Warner Caslet, who was Theisman's Ops officer at Barnett, served as Harrington's XO on the journey back here, and is requesting political asylum." He shook his head as if to clear it. "He was the one who greeted me when I went aboard Harrington's ship, and you could have knocked me down with a feather when I found myself met by a Peep! Anyway, they managed to free Harrington, though it cost a lot of lives, and only with her arm chewed up by a tribarrel. And then — you'll like this bit, Tom — they took three of the four assault pinnaces from the boat bay they controlled, loaded themselves into two, sent the third off on auto as a decoy, and when it was taken out by Hades Ground Control with orbital mines caused the fourth to bring up its impeller wedge, while it was still in Tepes's boat bay." His smile was grim. "Yes, you did hear me right. Tepes just … came apart. And that's how Ransom actually died, with about 2,000 of her StateSec friends, which served them right and will to say the least make interesting viewing for the Peeps who have been told other tales — and yes, we have Ground Control's recordings of the event. In any case, Harrington used the sensor window created by the combined EMP from the mines and the destruction of Tepes to get down to the surface of Hades undetected, took stock, and started tapping the Peep comnet to see what was what."
He paused again, frowning. "This is where strands start multiplying, I'm afraid. I'll do my best, but to make sense of this for you I'm going to have to fill in some bits, and it's not going to be quick." Another flashing grin crossed his face. "You might want a refill of coffee now. Or better, to break out the champagne."
Elizabeth (who found she could not stop smiling as the news began to sink in, and was clutching Justin's hand) cocked an enquiring eyebrow at Caparelli. "The night staff have laid on coffee, Sir Thomas, but I believe you'll find some champagne in the fridge through there."
He rose, grinning, and went to fetch it while White Haven continued.
"We've never known where the Cerberus system was, of course, any more than most Peeps do, but it turns out it's about 100 LY to galnorth of Haven — and the planet's called Hades because it's hellish hot, close to a G3 primary, and a death-trap. Atmosphere and water are OK, but the biota is screwy and completely inedible. The Peeps have been using it as a prison planet since their conquests started in the 1840s, so there are — were — hundreds of thousands of inmates; and the reason the set-up worked is because no-one had to be guarded at all. In fact, the prisoners were spread out in unguarded penny packets over most of the continental masses — but they were locked out of the only place on the whole planet that can supply edible food, a big terraformed island smack in the middle of the largest ocean. Any resistance from anyone in a camp, and everyone went hungry for a month. Or two." He grimaced in distaste, patrician features twisting. "They seem to have been perfectly prepared to let hundreds starve to death if that's what it took. Bastards. Short of that, they also had a special camp for real hardcases, right on the equator with night-lows well above forty degrees C — and that meant the kind of people Harrington needed were all conveniently in one place."
White Haven grinned again, almost as ferally as before, as Elizabeth and Justin accepted brimming champagne flutes from Caparelli. He'd also bought celery for Ariel and Monroe, who bleeked enthusiastic thanks in chorus and began to crunch blissfully with eyes and ears still fixed on White Haven.
"So she went and said hello. The senior PoW turned out to be Commodore Ramirez, the San Martino CNO the Peeps said they'd killed in action, so he's back from the dead too, and once the San Martinos realise that politics here are going to get very interesting, I fancy. Anyway, Harrington had several hundred suits of battle-armour in her assault pinnaces, so they trained up a couple of companies, waited for the next food shuttle to arrive, took its place for the return leg, and blew hell out of the Peep HQ while capturing Ground Control intact. And, of course, the entire Peep database, which is where things really start to get interesting. Harrington had the time and personnel to vacuum it completely, Tom, and she's brought the whole lot back for ONI to play with, which they'll be doing for years. But I'll give you the headlines and highlights.
"First up, besides a hundred and some thousand Peep politicals who were afraid to go anywhere, poor sods, she's brought everyone out with her, which means about 386,000 people all told — 30-odd thousand Peep politicals who do want asylum, 140-odd thousand Alliance personnel, including 78,000 Manticorans, and just over 200,000 prisoners from pre-war Peep conquests. That's a miracle for a lot of Alliance service families right there, and the biggest prison-break in history by an order of magnitude, as well as a huge boost for BuPers."
Abruptly White Haven scowled ferociously. "There is one fly in the ointment. There's no good place for this, and it's nothing to the big picture, but among those Manticorans was Harold Styles, that idiot who got his whole squadron captured with cold impellers at Yalta, back in '05. Fortunately Harrington had the foresight to assume her Grayson persona as a full Admiral, or he'd have been the ranking officer, and none of this would have happened. As it was, he apparently didn't really believe she was an admiral at all, nor that the GSN had any Alliance standing, and even though she tried to manage him he wouldn't play. So eventually she put him under close arrest and filed charges of insubordination, cowardice, and incitement to mutiny the JAG will have to deal with. I've seen the critical recording, and it's clear-cut, but forcing his resignation might be enough. Anyway, that's your problem."
He paused briefly to check scribbled notes and scowled again. "The next thing nearly gave me a heart attack when I first heard it, but actually it's another triumphant Harrington special. The Peep garrison was about 1,500 strong, of whom about a third were killed in the assault and its immediate aftermath. Most of the rest were captured, and those who escaped into the farmlands almost all turned up messily dead at the hands of former prisoners. Thing is, to head off disciplinary problems with the ex-PoWs, a lot of whom had had a very bad time of it, Harrington empanelled courts martial and tried the worst of the StateSec sadists. And Tom, she did it under the Peep Uniform Code of Conduct, which supposedly bound every one of the StateSec goons. She had hard evidence from the Peeps' own records as well as prisoner testimony, she had a Peep Vice Admiral from among their politicals sitting voluntarily on the panel, and she recorded everything in proper form. They passed 58 capital sentences for multiple torture-murders and rapes, all of which were carried out with due process, and more than a hundred long custodial sentences on people they've bought out with them. There were also more than 40 acquittals for lack of evidence, and anyone not convicted was left unharmed on Hades, so despite the irregularities there's nothing for her, or us, or anyone except StateSec to be ashamed of."
The grim smile returned.
"And then we have our star exhibit, Tom, who is going to stir things up very nicely. Faking people's deaths seems to be something of a Peep hobby, and not just where PoWs are concerned. Those undead people were stashed on Hades, and now they're here — including, wait for it, Admiral Amos Parnell, who does not want political asylum despite having been officially executed by his own side for alleged treason. Instead he politely asks for transport to the Solarian League, where he proposes to seek to clear his name and that of the navy he commanded by proving the Harris assassination was organised by Pierre, Saint-Just, and Ransom. And his evidence includes crystal-clear official recordings of the former commandant of Hades proudly proclaiming exactly that while torturing Parnell with a hammer and murdering his XO."
"My God! Parnell!" Elizabeth could barely process what she was hearing. She had always suspected something of that kind underlay the coup that within months of the war starting had transformed the People's Republic of Haven into a Dolist rather than a Legislaturist regime — a distinction without much difference, so far as Elizabeth was concerned — but allegations without proof were worthless currency. With undisputable hard evidence and Parnell risen from the dead to confront his accusers, however, anything was possible; and still White Haven continued.
"So that's the scope of the thing, Tom, leaving the rest of the how. Harrington seized the StateSec HQ late last year, but for months only a dispatch boat came by, which was sent on its way, apparently all unsuspecting, but must have tripped an alarm somewhere. Then in July a Mars-class cruiser came calling with prisoners from Zanzibar and Alizon, and they welcomed her in among the orbital mines and captured her intact — which meant that while they now had a means of escape for a few thousand, Harrington also learned about Operation Icarus and the scale of losses we'd suffered. And decided calling for help wasn't on, which was the point at which Styles got himself arrested." He frowned slightly. "Actually, I'm not at all sure of her thinking there, Tom — the Graysons would have moved heaven and earth to get her out if they'd had the slightest hint she was alive. It's almost as if she felt embarrassed to escape herself while leaving anyone behind. But it doesn't matter, because in October a nice little convoy turned up, comprising the warships she came back in with another light cruiser and five Longstop-class troop transports, and though they had to destroy one cruiser, which also took out a destroyer, they captured the rest, dumped their crews on Hades, and by way of a joke commissioned them into the, ah, Elysian Space Navy. The odd cruiser is escorting the Longstops back here, and that's the extra quarter-million people we're now expecting in the next ten days."
White Haven suddenly laughed.
"Actually that ESN thing is going to need some legal finessing on Grayson, I fancy, but that's a minor footnote. What isn't is that only a fortnight or so later a Peep task force turned up, armed for peak-bear, with 16 battlecruisers and heavy cruisers, and the two Roughneck-class transports — against which Harrington had five battlecruisers, four heavy cruisers, and one light cruiser, with untrained skeleton crews. And you know, Tom, in the whole crazy story I don't think there's anything I find harder to believe than what happened next — in fact, if I hadn't seen sensor recordings I don't think I'd believe it at all. She had just one advantage, which was that she knew all Peep ships had to jump in at a predetermined point well above the ecliptic — some sort of lunatic security measure, apparently — so she'd pre-positioned her mobile units just in case. And then she came in at them out of the sun, ballistic. I swear to God — a rocket burn and a ballistic course with wedges and sidewalls down, tracking the Peeps only on passives right up until the time she entered energy range and in less than two minutes blew every last one of those Peep ships except the transports into orbital debris. There were fewer than 500 survivors." He shook his head in wonder. "After that it was plain sailing! Offload the surprised StateSec troops from the transports, load up the remaining 106,000 people who wanted out plus the convicted Peep prisoners, make sure they'd vacuumed every last computer, detonate or demolish everything in orbit, demolish the HQ buildings, including Ground Control, head out for Trevor's Star, and Bob's your uncle."
The grin was demented, again.
"So, in a nutshell, Admiral Caparelli, I'm reporting to you, let me see, the return from the dead of Commodore, or Admiral, or quite possibly War Goddess Harrington, of Commodore Jesus Ramirez, and of Admiral Amos Parnell; the escape of nearly 400,000 PoWs from Hades, a third of whom are Alliance personnel; the location and effective destruction of that hellhole; our possession of its entire database, including pretty much absolute proof that the current Peep leadership assassinated their predecessors; and … five victorious engagements resulting in the destruction or capture of, um, one prison planet, 28 warships and four transports, and a Peep butcher's bill that has to be well in six figures. They thought they'd play games with Honor Harrington, and she by God took out everything they had in sight before coming home to us."
Elizabeth saw tears in White Haven's eyes but wasn't surprised as there were tears in her own. He drew a deep breath and a different kind of grin came onto his face.
"Which doesn't, of course, even begin to consider the domestic fallout, for Manticore, surely, but above all for Grayson. And the Sollies, by God! I'm sending Harrington and her close staff from the survivors of Prince Adrian direct to Yeltsin aboard, ha, GSNS Honor Harrington — her parents are there, anyway, and Nimitz's Samantha, and I think you'll agree the Graysons have first dibs. It'll be some party — but of course there's real complications as well where her hereditary titles and fortune are concerned. For us, too, not to mention the question of what we're going to do formally to welcome her back, and how exactly we can reward her for what's she's achieved, militarily and politically. But that's your problem, I'm delighted to say, and Her Majesty's, of course. Oh, and while I imagine the Queen may want to take care of it herself, could you make sure someone tells Mike Henke as soon as possible? And perhaps Mark Sarnow. I'd be grateful. White Haven, clear."
Some time later a slightly drunk Elizabeth was sitting with Justin, Monroe, and Ariel on her private terrace, still sipping champagne and watching the sun rise over Jason Bay. On her other side sat an emotional Mike Henke, who had been only an hour or so away with Home Fleet and found herself rudely summoned to see White Haven's despatch; one good crying jag later, in which Elizabeth had shamelessly joined, she was doing her best to catch up on champagne with Ariel curled happily in her lap, purring and doing whatever it was treecats did with the excessive emotions of those they cared about.
"A dollar for your thoughts, Mike."
"I'd give them for free if I knew what they were, Beth. A joy I'm only just beginning to admit, for sure, but … Honor looked dreadful as well as amazingly alive. She was hellish thin, besides the arm and having her eye and face smashed again. And poor Nimitz." Ariel bleeked comfort and Mike's hands moved blindly in his fur. "I just can't imagine it, Beth. I've seen combat, and I've seen Honor survive stuff you'd swear would kill anyone. You've seen those recordings from Grayson, both when she saved Benjamin and when her pinnace was shot down. I've seen her survive mentally, too, when I don't think I could have done. But losing Paul almost killed her inside, and when I saw her not long before she was captured at Adler I remember thinking she wasn't really all the way back, even then — mind and body, yes, but heart and soul? I thought she was still bleeding, emotionally, and what state she must be in now … well, God may know but I don't. And I'm frightened to try to imagine it."
Elizabeth squeezed Mike's shoulder. "Yes, I know what you mean. I send people out to die in my name, and sometimes I see the sensor recordings of them doing it. But I've never seen anything like Honor Harrington on Fearless, at Second Yeltsin. Nor at First Hancock. She's like Edward Saganami was, on that recording they show every year at the Academy."
"Mmm. Yes. But she's more than that, actually, Beth. If she'd been in Saganami's command chair she'd have won, somehow. Even at Adler she saved the whole convoy, against atrocious odds; sacrificing herself, just like Second Yeltsin, but ending as a PoW — a victory in almost every way that mattered. And they couldn't hold her! Couldn't kill her, couldn't hold her, couldn't stop her smashing them wide open from the inside." Henke drank from her glass. "God knows I love her, Beth, and have done ever since Nimitz and I persuaded her to buzz old Hartley's boat at the Academy Regatta back in '79. But I don't think I know who she is any more, and I don't have the slightest idea what she could or will go on to do."
"Just so." Elizabeth smiled crookedly. "Perhaps I should try pointing her at Manpower. Or the thrice-damned Sollies." Then she sobered, frowning as she remembered what else she'd once said to Cromarty about Honor Harrington. "Or at us."
*David Weber, Flag in Exile, ch. 29.
*David Weber, Flag in Exile, ch. 29.
*David Weber, Flag in Exile, ch. 29.
*David Weber, Flag in Exile, ch. 29.
*David Weber, Echoes of Honor, epilogue.