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Five days after returning to Grayson, Honor left its surface once more. Her hasty scramble to cope with her responsibilities in such a short period had run her steading staff ragged, and she felt more than a little guilty about that. Especially since all of her Harrington's, from Howard Clinkscales down, had anticipated that she would be on-planet for at least four weeks. Even that would have been on the tight side for her to give proper personal attention to all the problemsand solutionswhich had cropped up during her long absence, and she was unhappily certain that she'd left far too much undone.
But she also knew how capable Clinkscales was. In many ways, he was actually better at running Harrington Steading than she was, and besides, when the Conclave of Steadholders had invested her with her steadholdership, it had specifically recognized her commitment to the Royal Manticoran Navy and accepted that her duty as a naval officer would frequently pull her away from Harrington. Or, to put it another way, she told herself with bleak self-scorn, I've got an outstanding exec and enough wiggle room to run away in the name of "duty" and dump the entire load on him.
She gave herself a mental shake and gazed out the view port, stroking Nimitz with slow, gentle fingers as the sky turned indigo blue and then black beyond the armorplast. The `cat curled in her lap, his soft purr buzzing through his bones and into her own, yet she knew he was much less relaxed than he might appear to other eyes. She felt him in the back of her brain, sharing her emotions and keeping watch upon them . . . and failing to understand.
She closed her eyes and leaned further back, tasting the faint but persistent trace of Nimitz's worry. There was no complaint or scolding in it, only a vague discomfort as, for the first time in his experience, he found himself unable to understand her emotions. There had been many times when he'd found human philosophical concepts odd or even downright perverse, just as there were certain forms of human enjoymentlike swimmingwhose appeal were completely incomprehensible to him. But however hard he might have found it upon occasion to grasp why Honor felt something, never before had he been unable to understand what she felt.
This time he was. Which, she reflected, wasn't surprising, given how little idea she had of what was happening inside her. All she knew with certainty was that she had become increasingly and acutely uncomfortable in Hamish Alexander's presence.
It wasn't because of anything he'd done or said, and she could hardly blame the man for what he might feel in the privacy of his own mind. But even though his actions and behavior were precisely what they ought to have been, the flicker of admiration behind them refused to go out. It never turned into anything stronger than a flickerhe, at least, had himself under control, she thought bitterlybut it was always present, as if a part of him were automatically suppressing it without quite being able to eradicate it. Yet whether he knew it was there or not, she did, and that traitor part of herself which had sensed their inner resonance longed to reach out to what he kept so well concealed even from himself.
For the first time, her link to Nimitz was as much curse as blessing, for try as she might she simply could not pretend she was unaware of White Haven's banked inner glow, and her awareness jabbed at her, unsettling her efforts to maintain a matching self-control. Looking back now, she remembered the first few months after she'd realized how Nimitz was tying her perceptions into the emotions of those about her. She'd tried, at first, to get him not to do that, because it had seemed wrong somehow. Dishonest. As if she were some sort of emotional voyeur, spying on the most intimate aspects of people who didn't even realize they could be spied upon. But Nimitz had never grasped why she felt that way, and she'd gradually come to realize that it was because treecats never perceived anyone any other way. The emotions of others were always there for a `cat; he couldn't not perceive them, and trying not to was like trying to give up breathing.
And so she'd lost her struggle to remain blind, and, in time, she'd even come to forget that she'd ever tried to remain so. She'd become as accustomed as Nimitz himself was to sensing others' emotions, come to rely on it for guidance. It no longer seemed like spying because, as for the `cats, every human she encountered was a blaze of emotions, feelings, attitudes which cried out to her. She could screen them, pay less attention to them, but she couldn't make them go away. One of Old Earth's overcrowded culturesshe couldn't remember which, but it might have been the Japanesehad had a saying about nakedness. Nakednessthey had said, is often seen but seldom looked at, and that was how she'd learned to handle the onslaught of other people's emotions. But not this time. This time whatever had struck that reverberation between her and White Haven had destroyed her ability to "see" his emotions without looking at them. Outwardly, she'd managed to be just as correct as he; inwardly, she felt as if she were walking an emotional tightrope, and her inability to find any rational reason to feel that way only made it even more maddening.
And so she was running away. She knew she was, and she knew it confused Nimitz. Perhaps the `cat's inability to understand her feelings stemmed from the very clarity with which he and his kind perceived emotions. They always knew precisely what their humans felt, but not what those humans thought. From her own experience looking through Nimitz's empathy, she knew emotions were bright, vivid things. They might be complex or confusing, but they were seldom ambiguous, for they were portraits painted in primary colors, and perhaps that was what made treecats such direct, uncomplicated sorts. After all, there was no point in one `cat's trying to dissemble or hide his feelings from another of his own species. It was, she thought, as if in seeing so clearly and deeply into one another they beheld an enormous, textural richness humans could not . . . and as if that very richness washed out the subtler hues and indirect interpretations which were all most humans could rely upon. Perhaps, with no need to analyze what others felt, `cats had never developed the capacity to do so, and so Nimitz lacked the ability to sort out feelings which she could not sort out herself.
It was an intriguing speculation, but it offered no answers. Nor could it turn her retreat into something besides flight or help her to explain her motives to Nimitz, and she felt . . . inadequate. As if her inability to do so meant she were somehow failing in her responsibilities. Yet what she felt even more stronglybeyond that raw edge of guilt at having saddled her subordinates with an unfair share of her own responsibilities, was relief. She needed to put distance between herself and White Haven while she figured out how to cope with her confusion and regained some sort of rational perspective. And perhaps that same separation would give him a chance to get over whatever it was he was feeling for her. Part of her brain prayed he would do just that, yet another part, the part which made this separation so necessaryhoped with equal strength that he wouldn't. But what mattered most was the need for her to get a grip on herself, which she manifestly wasn't going to manage with him as her house guest.
Yet neither could she evict him from Harrington House. Devising a pretext which wouldn't have reeked of discourtesy would have been difficult, though she suspected she could have found one that would have served for public consumption. But what might have satisfied outward appearance wouldn't have deceived White Haven, and she simply couldn't bring herself to offer him what could be construed as an insult. Besides, there was a simpler solution which also happened to be one which had always worked for her in the past. She was scheduled to take command of the Eighteenth Cruiser Squadron, and five of its eight units had already arrived at Yeltsin's Star. Until CruRon 18 passed formally under the command of Eighth Fleet, it remained part of the Grayson Navy's Home Fleet, and if explaining her real reasons for asking High Admiral Matthews to expedite her assumption of her duties had been out of the question, he'd seemed to sense the urgency she couldn't voice. He hadn't argued, at any rate, and his staff had cut the orders recalling her to active duty even more quickly than she'd hoped, which was why she and Nimitz were now bound for GNS Jason Alvarez, her new flagship.
Her nostrils flared as she inhaled deeply, and when she opened her eyes once more, they were calm. She reached out, mentally and emotionally, to her new command, and something deep inside her sighed in relief as she felt responsibility's familiar weight settle upon her shoulders . . . and push her maddening preoccupation with other matters out of the front of her brain. It didn't cause her distractions to magically disappear, but at least it gave her a respite which mightif she was luckylast long enough for those competing elements to subside into their proper places.
A soft, musical chime warned her that the pinnace was beginning its final approach to Alvarez, and she watched out the port as her pilot turned onto a closing spiral designed to give her a direct view of the ship.
Alvarez lay quietly in her parking orbit, her double-ended, hammerhead hull's sleek flanks gleaming with the green and white lights of an "anchored" starship. At just over three hundred and forty thousand tons, she was less than five percent the size of Honor's last command, but HMS Wayfarer had been a converted merchant ship, a huge, slow, unarmored bulk-carrier's hull with weapons crammed in wherever space permitted. Alvarez was a warship, a heavy cruiser, designed to hit and run and equipped with the systems redundancy which Wayfarer had lacked. Despite her smaller size, she could survive and remain in action after suffering far heavier damage, and she was much, much faster and more maneuverable.
She also marked the beginning of a change in the way warships would be built, Honor reflected. Like RMN cruisers, Alvarez carried all her broadside weapons on a single deck, but she showed considerably fewer weapons hatches than her Manticoran contemporaries, and there was a reason for that.
Alvarez was the first Grayson-designed heavy cruiser, and while her electronic warfare suite and defensive systems were roughly equivalent to those of the RMN's Star Knight classupon which her design was basedthe Graysons had had their own ideas about her offensive systems. It had taken a large dose of . . . call it "self-confidence," Honor mused, for a navy with no history of deep-space warfare to depart from the combined conventional wisdom of the rest of the explored galaxy when writing the specifications for its first modern warship, but the GSN had done it. Alvarez carried less than half the energy weapons of a Star Knight, which substantially reduced the number of targets she could engage simultaneously. It also cost her a small but possibly significant percentage of her antimissile capability, since starships often used broadside energy batteries to back up their purpose-built point defense weapons during long-range missile duels. But by accepting that reduction in weapon numbers, the combined Grayson-Manticoran design team had been able to mount twenty percent more missile tubes and fit in graser projectors heavier than most battlecruisers mounted. Conventional wisdom held that an equal tonnage of heavy cruisers could not fight a battlecruiser and win . . . but Honor suspected conventional wisdom was wrong where the Alvarezes were concerned.
Not that Honor intended to match any of her ships against Peep battlecruisers. She'd experienced more than her fair share of unequal fights against superior opponents, and she was more than willing to leave such affairs to others for a while.
Her lips quirked at the thought, and she surveyed the volume of space about Alvarez as the pinnace approached the cruisers midships boat bay. Although their parking orbits were comparatively tight, the units of CruRon 18 were far enough apart to reduce most of the squadrons other ships to tiny gleams of reflected sunlight. But one shipHMS Prince Adrianlay less than thirty kilometers off Alvarez's port quarter. That was only proper, as she belonged to the officer who, as the senior-ranking captain of the squadron, would serve as its second in command, and Honor's smile grew warm with memories.
Adrian was smaller, much older, and less heavily armed than her flagship, but Captain Alistair McKeon had commanded her for almost six T-years now. If there was a more efficient ship in the Fleet, Honor had yet to see it . . . and she knew there was no more reliable COor friendin any fleet.
Prince Adrian vanished beyond the corner of her view port as the pinnace cut its impeller wedge and went to reaction thrusters, and Honor reached up to tug her uniform beret out from under her left epaulet. She smoothed it out, and her smile faded as she twitched its soft fabric into the proper configuration, for it was black. For the first time in twenty-one T-years, she was about to assume a spacegoing command as an RMN officer without the white beret which designated a starship's commander. Indeed, she would never wear the white beret again, and the thought produced a fresh pang. Intellectually, she knew how lucky she'd been to command as many ships as she had, but she also knew she would always long for just one more . . . and that she would never receive it.
But that was the price of seniority, she told herself more briskly, settling the beret on her head. She adjusted it just so as the boat bay tractors reached out to the pinnace, then rose as a gentle vibration and another soft chime announced engagement of the mechanical docking arms. She lifted Nimitz to her shoulder, brushed her fingers over her braided hair and beret once more, and then, without even realizing it, ran those same fingers lightly over the six gold starseach indicating a different hyper-capable commandon the breast of her tunic as she turned to face the hatch.
Captain Thomas Greentree, GSN, commanding officer of GNS Jason Alvarez, did his best to look unconcerned while Lady Harrington swam the tube. He was proud of his ship and his crew, confident they were up to any demand, but he was also acutely aware of just whose flagship Alvarez was about to become. Greentree had his reservations about the Manty newsfaxes, which he considered both intrusive and impertinent (not to mention sensationalist), and their decision to nickname Honor Harrington "the Salamander" because she always seemed to be where the fire was hottest offended him. No decently brought up Grayson would ever have pinned a name like that on a lady, he thought moodily, yet what bothered him most was that it was so apt. Graysons might have been unlikely to think of it, but they certainly used it once someone else thought of it. For that matter, even Greentree sometimes caught himself applying it to hermentally, at leastthough he always jerked himself up short the moment he realized he had.
But the real reason his personneland, he admitted, he himselfused that nickname was less because Lady Harrington was drawn to the fire than that the fire was drawn to her. She was like the bird in the ancient tales from Old Earth, he thought. Like the albatross, a harbinger of storms. That she had proved herself able to deal with those storms time and time again only made her even more impressive, and the Grayson Space Navy knew even better than most how well deserved (and hard earned) her reputation was. Greentree was proud that his ship had been chosen to carry her flag, yet with that honor came the opportunity to fall short of her standards, and he'd expected at least another three weeks to prepare for her arrival. Alvarez had just completed a scheduled major overhaul, and the yard had replaced her original electronic warfare section with all new hardware. The capabilities the new systems promised were exciting, but Greentree and his engineers were still working their way through the inevitable teething problems, and his tactical officers were just beginning the necessary simulator training.
There were similar, if less drastic, upgrades in most of the ship's departments, but Greentree was profoundly grateful that Alvarez's flag bridge, at least, had been left untouched. And while he was being grateful for things, he reminded himself, he should remember to list the fact that Lady Harrington's full staff was on board to greet her. From her reputation, she would be tactful enough to stay off his neck until he got his problems sorted out, and the presence of her staff would allow her to keep herself too busy getting the entire squadron organized to notice any internal chaos aboard her flagship until he could get it squared away.
He certainly hoped she would, at any rate, he thought, and drew a deep breath as the side party snapped to attention and an old-fashioned bugle sounded the opening notes of the Steadholders' March. Lady Harrington caught the green grab bar and swung gracefully from the access tube's zero-gee into Alvarez's onboard gravity, her treecat on her shoulder. She landed just outside the line painted on the deck, and her hand came up to her beret in salute as her trio of armsmen followed her from the tube.
"Permission to come aboard, Captain?"
Thomas Greentree was a Grayson. Despite his best efforts to adjust to new realities, he came from a male-dominated culture in which voices like that clear soprano had no business on the deck of a ship of war. Fortunately, that particular voice was one whose right to be just about anyplace it cared to be no Grayson officer would ever dream of questioning, and he snapped off a parade ground salute of his own.
"Permission granted, My Lady!" he replied, then held out his hand as she stepped across the painted line. "Welcome aboard, My Lady," he said in more normal tones, and hid a tiny flicker of surprise at the strength of her grip.
"Thank you, Captain." Honor surveyed the immaculate boat bay gallery, the side party, and the waiting honor guard and smiled. "I see Alvarez is still the best cruiser in the Fleet," she observed, and felt the pleasure of everyone in earshot at the compliment.
"I think she is, at any rate, My Lady," Greentree said, and if Honor sensed a few reservations behind that statement, she also sensed his determination to erase them as soon as possible. Well, that was fair enough. This ship had a reputation in the Grayson Navy, and Thomas Green-tree was even better aware of that than she was. And unlike the last time Honor had assumed command of a GSN squadron, she'd actually managed to do her homework and scan the personnel packages on her new flagship's senior officers.
Even a casual glance at those records would have made it obvious that the Office of Personnel hadn't picked her flag captain at random. As a lieutenant, Greentree had served as assistant tactical officer aboard High Admiral Matthews' old ship, GNS Covington, the only Grayson cruiser to survive the original Peep attempt to conquer Yeltsin's Star by proxy. After Grayson formally joined the Alliance, he'd been detached to the Star Kingdom and an abbreviated, intensive stint at the RMN's Advanced Tactical Training Course, then sent back to Yeltsin to command one of the first new-build destroyers. His prewar record against the pirates who had once infested the area around Yeltsin was impressive, and he'd further distinguished himself commanding a light cruiser division in Fourth Yeltsin. From his file, he was one of those officers who made a habit of exceeding every responsibility that came his way, and she felt Nimitz's close, evaluating regard join hers as she looked back at him.
The captain was a chunky man. Like most Graysons, he was shorter than shein his case, by at least fifteen centimetersand, although he was actually ten years her junior, he looked much older. His thick brown hair, worn long for a Grayson, was streaked with white under the high-peaked cap of the GSN, and crows-feet framed his level brown eyes, evidence that his planet had gained access to the prolong treatments too late for him to receive them. Yet she detected no resentment for her own physical youth, and he moved with a muscular fitness which spoke of both self-confidence and as much gym time as he could pry loose from other concerns. In some ways, he reminded her of an older (physically, at least) Paul Tankersley, and he radiated that same inner sense of solid reliability.
All in all, she was inclined to approve of Captain Greentree, and that was good. As her flag captain, he would be her tactical deputy. It would be his job, even more than Alistair McKeon's, to transform her plans and intentions into successful action. His record had suggested that he was the right man for the job, but there was always the possibility that the record was wrong. Or, for that matter, that personality clashes no one could predict would doom what ought, on paper, to have been a superior command team. Her last flag captain had almost become a case in point. Not because of any shortcoming on his part, but because Honor herself had found it so difficult to forget the fact that he was an ex-Peep whose ship had killed Raoul Courvosier. Fortunately, the fact that Alfredo Yu was such a fundamentally good man, coupled with the empathic insight Nimitz gave her, had helped her overcome her prejudices, and Yu's performance had been critical to the victorious outcome of the Fourth Battle of Yeltsin.
But aside from an understandable amount of tension at meeting his new commodore, Greentree seemed to have himself and his command well in hand, and now he indicated the wiry, black-haired young man beside him.
"Commander Marchant, My Lady. My exec," the captain said. Marchant was extremely young for his rank, even in the Grayson Navy. Indeed, unlike his captain, he'd been young enough to receive the original, first-generation prolong treatment. His record, too, was exemplary, but the flicker of emotions Honor picked up as she reached out to shake his hand was very different from Greentree's. Behind the level facade of his startlingly green eyes, his feelings were tied into a tight, defensive knot, and she fought not to wince in sympathy.
"Commander," she said, keeping her voice completely normal.
"My Lady." His tone was tense and clippedcertainly not disrespectful, but with a tightness that reflected his inner turmoil.
She understood his discomfort, for she'd read his file, as well as Greentree's, and she knew Solomon Marchant was a distant cousin of the late, unlamented Edmond Marchant. Of course, that was true of a lot of people, given the huge, intricately linked clan structure Graysons harsh conditions had created, and most members of the Marchant Clan were as decent and law-abiding as any. But Edmond Marchant had been the bigoted, reactionary cleric who'd attempted first to discredit and then to assassinate Honor to derail the reforms she and Protector Benjamin had brought to Grayson.
None of it had been Solomon's fault, and she doubted he'd even known Edmond, but it seemed obvious that the commander felt guilty. He was being grossly unfair to himselfand, in a sense, to her, if he expected her to blame him for someone else's bigotryand his pain transmitted itself all too clearly to her. But he didn't know that, and she couldn't refer to it without simply making things worse.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Commander," she said instead. "I was impressed by the reasoning behind your essay on new convoy tactics in the Proceedings. I'd like to discuss it with you in somewhat greater detail."
"Ah, certainly, My Lady." Marchant's eyes flickeredless steady but much more human in that momentand she gave his hand a squeeze. The tight knot at his center was still there, though it seemed to have eased just a bit. Getting it to unknot entirely would undoubtedly take time, but she seemed to have hit the right note for a beginning. "And this officer, I'm certain, needs no introduction, My Lady," Captain Greentree went on, nodding to the dapper RMN commander beside him. Andreas Venizelos was as short as most Graysons, but he wore his exquisitely tailored uniform with panache. He was dark haired, slender, and wiry, with an aquiline nose and a sense of perfect poise and balance any treecat might have envied.
"No, indeed, Captain!" Honor extended her hand to Venizelos with an enormous smile. "It's wonderful to see you again, Andy. I seem to be making a habit out of seeing old friends on my staff whenever I have one!"
"Yes, Ma'am. So I've heard," Venizelos replied with a matching smile Honor was relieved to see. Not every officer would have been thrilled by the notion of giving up command of a light cruiser to accept a staff position. Of course, Venizelos had been scheduled to do just that long before Honor was tapped to command CruRon 18; all she'd done was grab him for her staff.
Only admirals and vice admirals were supposed to be allowed captains as their chiefs of staff, though an occasional rear admiral might get one, if he was a particular favorite of someone at the Admiralty. As a mere commodore, custom said Honor was limited to a commander or lieutenant commander, and she'd put in an immediate request for Venizelos when she'd found out he was available, but the decision to give him some senior staff experience before promoting him to captain junior grade had been made at a much higher level. Honor was certain he knew that. . . and wondered if he realized just what that meant. Experience as the chief of staff for an allied squadron with personnel and ships drawn from three different navies would be invaluable to him later in his career, and unless she missed her guess, BuPers had already earmarked him for an eventual flag of his own, probably sooner than he believed possible.
"Well!" She shook off her thoughts, clasped her hands behind her, and rocked gently on her heels, contemplating her new subordinates for several seconds, then nodded. "I'll look forward to meeting the rest of your senior officers, Captainand the rest of the staff, Andyonce I've had a chance to settle in."
"Of course, My Lady," Greentree replied. "May I escort you to your quarters?"
"Thank you, Captain. I'd appreciate that," Honor said, and gloved hands slapped pulser butts as the Marine honor guard snapped to attention. Greentree and Marchant accompanied her, each a precise, militarily correct half-pace behind, and she glanced back and smothered a chuckle as the rest of her entourage shook itself out into formation. Andrew LaFollet led the procession, following at her shoulder, with Venizelos at his side. MacGuiness came next, keeping an eagle eye on two third-class stewards weighed down with the last of her personal baggage, and James Candless and Robert Whitman, the other two members of her permanent security party, brought up the rear. Accustomed though she was becoming to playing the role of a three-ring circus, it still struck Honor as mildly ridiculous to have so many people trudging around behind her. Unfortunately, no one had offered her much choice in the matter.
She just hoped the lift would be big enough to cram everyone into it.
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