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At All Costs: Chapter One

       Last updated: Monday, May 30, 2005 09:57 EDT



    The nursery was extraordinarily full.

    Two of the three older girls -- Rachel and Jeanette -- were downstairs, hovering on the brink of adulthood, and Theresa was at boarding school on Manticore, but the remaining five Mayhew children, their nannies, and their personal armsmen made a respectable mob. Then there was Faith Katherine Honor Stephanie Miranda Harrington, Miss Harrington, heir to Harrington Steading, and her younger twin brother, James Andrew Benjamin, and their personal armsmen. And lest that not be enough bodies to crowd even a nursery this large, there was her own modest person -- Admiral Lady Dame Honor Harrington, Steadholder and Duchess Harrington, and her personal armsman. Not to mention one obviously amused treecat.

    Given the presence of seven children, the oldest barely twelve, four nannies, nine armsmen (Honor herself had gotten off with only Andrew LaFollet, but Faith was accompanied by two of her three personal armsmen), and one Steadholder, the decibel level was actually remarkably low, she reflected. Of course, all things were relative.

    "Now, that is enough!" Gena Smith, the senior member of Protector Palace's child-care staff, said firmly in the no-nonsense voice which had thwarted -- more or less -- the determination of the elder Mayhew daughters to grow up as cheerful barbarians. "What is Lady Harrington going to think of you?"

    "It's too late to try to fool her about that now, Gigi," Honor Mayhew, one of Honor's godchildren, said cheerfully. "She's known all of us since we were born!"

    "But you can at least pretend you've been exposed to the rudiments of proper behavior," Gena said firmly, although the glare she bestowed upon her unrepentant charge was somewhat undermined by the twinkle which went with it. At twelve, the girl had her own bedroom, but she'd offered to spend the night with the littles under the circumstances, which was typical of her.

    "Oh, she knows that," the younger Honor said soothingly now. "I'm sure she knows we're not your fault."

    "Which is probably the best I can hope for," Gena sighed.

    "I'm not exactly unaware of the… challenge you face with this lot," Honor assured her. "These two, particularly," she added, giving her much younger twin siblings a very old-fashioned look. They only grinned back at her, at least as unrepentant as young Honor. "On the other hand," she continued, "I think between us we have them outnumbered. And they actually seem a bit less rowdy tonight."

    "Well, of course --" Gena began, then stopped and shook her head. A flash of irritation showed briefly in the backs of her gray-blue eyes. "What I meant, My Lady, is that they're usually on their better behavior -- they don't actually have a best behavior, you understand -- when you're here."

    Honor nodded in response to both the interrupted comment, and the one Gena had actually made. Her eyes met the younger woman's -- at forty-eight T-years, Gena Smith was well into middle age for a pre-prolong Grayson woman, but that still made her over twelve T-years younger than Honor -- for just a moment, and then the two of them returned their attention to the pajama-clad children.

    Despite Gena's and Honor's comments, the three assistant nannies had sorted out their charges with the efficiency of long practice. Faith and James were out from under the eye of their own regular nanny, but they were remarkably obedient to the Palace's substitutes. No doubt because they were only too well aware that their armsmen would be reporting back to "Aunt Miranda," Honor thought dryly. Teeth had already been brushed, faces had already been washed, and all seven of them had been tucked into their beds while she and Gena were talking. Somehow they made it all seem much easier than Honor's own childhood memories of the handful she'd been.

    "All right," she said to the room at large. "Who votes for what?"

    "The Phoenix!" six-year-old Faith said immediately. "The Phoenix!"

    "Yeah! I mean, yes, please!" seven-year-old Alexandra Mayhew seconded.

    "But you've already heard that one," Honor pointed out. "Some of you," she glanced at her namesake, "more often than others."

    The twelve-year-old Honor smiled. She really was an extraordinarily beautiful child, and for that matter, it probably wasn't fair to be thinking of her as a "child" these days, really, Honor reminded herself.

    "I don't mind, Aunt Honor," she said. "You know you got me stuck on it early. Besides, Lawrence and Arabella haven't heard it yet."

    She nodded at her two youngest siblings. At four and three, respectively, their graduation to the "big kids" section of the nursery was still relatively recent.

    "I'd like to hear it again, too, Aunt Honor. Please," Bernard Raoul said quietly. He was a serious little boy, not surprisingly, perhaps, since he was also Heir Apparent to the Protectorship of the entire planet of Grayson, but his smile, when it appeared, could have lit up an auditorium. Now she saw just a flash of it as she looked down at him.

    "Well, the vote seems fairly solid," she said after a moment. "Mistress Smith?"

    "I suppose they've behaved themselves fairly well, all things considered. This time, at least," Gena said as she bestowed an ominous glower upon her charges, most of whom giggled.

    "In that case," Honor said, and crossed to the old-fashioned bookcase between the two window seats on the nursery's eastern wall. Nimitz shifted his weight for balance on her shoulder as she leaned forward slightly, running a fingertip across the spines of the archaic books to the one she wanted, and took it from the shelf. That book was at least twice her own age, a gift from her to the Mayhew children, as the copy of it on her own shelf at home had been a gift from her Uncle Jacques when she was a child. Of course, the story itself was far older even than that. She had two electronic copies of it as well -- including one with the original Raysor illustrations -- but there was something especially right about having it in printed form, and somehow it just kept turning up periodically in the small, specialty press houses that catered to people like her uncle and his SCA friends.

    She crossed to the reclining armchair, as old-fashioned and anachronistic as the printed book in her hands itself, and Nimitz leapt lightly from her shoulder to the top of the padded chair back. He sank his claws into the upholstery, arranging himself comfortably, as Honor settled into the chair which had sat in the Mayhew nursery -- reupholstered and even rebuilt at need -- for almost seven hundred T-years.

    The attentive eyes of the children watched her while she adjusted the chair to exactly the right angle, and she and the 'cat savored the bright, clean emotions washing out from them. No wonder treecats had always loved children, she thought. There was something so… marvelously whole about them. When they welcomed, they welcomed with all their hearts, and they loved as they trusted, without stint or limit. That was always a gift to be treasured.

    Especially now.

    She looked up as the veritable horde of armsmen withdrew. Colonel LaFollet, as the senior armsman present, watched with a faint twinkle of his own as the heavily armed, lethally trained bodyguards more or less tiptoed out of the nursery. He watched the nannies follow them, then held the door courteously for Gena and bowed her through it before he came briefly to attention, nodded to Honor, and stepped through it himself. She knew he would be standing outside it when she left, however long she stayed. It was his job, even here, at the very heart of Protector's Palace, where it seemed unlikely any desperate assassins lurked.

    The door closed behind him, and she looked around at her audience in the big, suddenly much calmer and quieter room.

    "Lawrence, Arabella," she said to the youngest Mayhews, "you haven't heard this book before, but I think you're old enough to enjoy it. It's a very special book. It was written long, long ago, before anyone had ever left Old Earth itself."

    Lawrence's eyes widened just a bit. He was a precocious child, and he loved tales about the history of humankind's ancient homeworld.

    "It's called David and the Phoenix," she went on, "and it's always been one of my very favorite stories. And my mother loved it when she was a little girl, too. You'll have to listen carefully. It's in Standard English, but some of the words have changed since it was written. If you hear one you don't understand, stop and ask me what it means. All right?"

    Both toddlers nodded solemnly, and she nodded back. Then she opened the cover.



    The smell of ancient ink and paper, so utterly out of place in the modern world, rose from the pages like some secret incense. She inhaled, drawing it deeply into her nostrils, remembering and treasuring memories of rainy Sphinx afternoons, cold Sphinx evenings, and the sense of utter security and peacefulness that was the monopoly of childhood.

    "David and the Phoenix, by Edward Ormondroyd," she read. "Chapter One, In Which David Goes Mountain Climbing and a Mysterious Voice Is Overheard."

    She glanced up, and her chocolate-dark, almond-shaped eyes smiled as the children settled more comfortably into their beds, watching her raptly.

    "All the way there David had saved this moment for himself," she began, "struggling not to peek until the proper time came. When the car finally stopped, the rest of them got out stiffly and went into the new house. But David walked slowly into the back yard with his eyes fixed on the ground. For a whole minute he stood there, not daring to look up. Then he took a deep breath, clenched his hands tightly, and lifted his head.

    "There it was! -- as Dad had described it, but infinitely more grand. It swept upward from the valley floor, beautifully shaped and soaring, so tall that its misty blue peak could surely talk face-to-face with the stars. To David, who had never seen a mountain before, the sight was almost too much to bear. He felt so tight and shivery inside that he didn't know whether he wanted to laugh, or cry, or both. And the really wonderful thing about the Mountain was the way it looked at him. He was certain that it was smiling at him, like an old friend who had been waiting for years to see him again. And when he closed his eyes, he seemed to hear a voice which whispered, 'Come along, then, and climb.'"

    She glanced up again, feeling the children folding themselves more closely about her as the ancient words rolled over them. She felt Nimitz, as well, sharing her own memories of her mother's voice reading the same story to her and memories of other mountains, even grander than the ancient David's, and rambles through them -- memories he'd been there for -- and savoring the new ones.

    "It would be so easy to go!" she continued. "The back yard was hedged in (with part of the hedge growing right across the toes of the Mountain), but . . . "



    "I imagine it's too much to hope they were all asleep?"

    "You imagine correctly," Honor said dryly, stepping through the massive, inlaid doors of polished oak into the palatial chamber which the Palace guides modestly referred to as "the Library." "Not that you really expected them to be, now did you?"

    "Of course not, but we neo-barbarian planetary despots get used to demanding the impossible. And when we don't get it, we behead the unfortunate soul who disappointed us."

    Benjamin IX, Planetary Protector of Grayson, grinned at her, standing with his back to the log fire crackling on the hearth behind him, and she shook her head.

    "I knew that eventually all this absolute power would go to your head," she told him in a display of lesse majeste which would have horrified a third of the planet's steadholders and infuriated another third.

    "Oh, between us, Elaine and I keep him trimmed down to size, Honor," Katherine Mayhew, Benjamin's senior wife said.

    "Well, us and the kids," Elaine Mayhew, Benjamin's junior wife corrected. "I understand," she continued with a cheerful smile, "that young children help keep parents younger."

    "That which does not kill us makes us younger?" Benjamin misquoted.

    "Something like that," Elaine replied. At thirty-seven T-years, she was almost twelve years younger than her husband and almost six years younger than her senior wife. Of course, she was almost a quarter T-century younger than Honor . . . who was one of the youngest looking people in the room. Only the third and most junior of her personal armsmen, Spencer Hawke, and the towering young lieutenant commander in Grayson Navy uniform, looked younger than she did. Prolong did that for a person.

    Her mouth tightened as the thought reminded her why they were all here, and Nimitz pressed his cheek against the side of her face with a soft, comforting croon. Benjamin's eyes narrowed, and she tasted his spike of recognition. Well, he'd always been an extraordinarily sharp fellow, and spending eight T-years as the father of a daughter who'd been adopted by a treecat had undoubtedly sensitized him.

    She gave him another smile, then crossed to the young man in the naval uniform. He was a veritable giant for a Grayson -- indeed, he was actually taller than Honor was -- and although she was in civilian attire, he came to attention and bowed respectfully. She ignored the bow and enfolded him in a firm embrace. He stiffened for an instant -- in surprise, not resistance -- and then hugged her back, a bit awkwardly.

    "Is there any new word, Carson?" she asked quietly, stepping back a half-pace and letting her hands slide down to rest on his forearms.

    "No, My Lady," he said sadly. "Your Lady Mother is at the hospital right now." He smiled faintly. "I told her it wasn't necessary. It's not as if this falls into her area of specialization, and we all know there's really nothing to be done now except to wait. But she insisted."

    "Howard's her friend, too," Honor said. She glanced at Andrew LaFollet. "Is Daddy with her, Andrew?"

    "Yes, My Lady. Since Faith and James are safely tucked away here in the nursery, I sent Jeremiah to keep an eye on them." Honor cocked her head, and he shrugged slightly. "He wanted to go, My Lady."

    "I see." She looked back at Carson Clinkscales and gave his forearms another little squeeze, then released them. "She knows there's nothing she can really do, Carson," she said. "But she'd never forgive herself if she weren't there for your aunts. By rights, I ought to be there, too."

    "Honor," Benjamin said gently, "Howard is ninety-two years old, and he's touched a lot of lives in that much time -- including mine. If everyone who 'ought to be there' really were there, there'd be no room for the patients. And he's been in the coma for almost three days now. If you were there, and if he knew you were there, he'd read you the riot act for neglecting everything else you ought to be doing."

    "I know," she sighed. "I know. It's just --"

    She stopped and shook her head with a slight grimace, and he nodded understandingly. But he didn't really understand, not completely, she thought. Despite the changes which had come to Grayson, his own thought processes and attitudes had been evolved in a pre-prolong society. To him, Howard Clinkscales was old; for Honor, Howard should have been less than middle-aged. Her own mother, who looked considerably younger than Katherine Mayhew, or even Elaine, and who'd carried Faith and James to term naturally, was twelve T-years years older than Howard. And if he was the first of her Grayson friends she was losing to old age so preposterously young, he wouldn't be the last. Gregory Paxton's health was failing steadily, as well. And even Benjamin and his wives showed the signs of premature aging she'd come to dread.

    Her mind flashed back to the nursery and the book she'd been reading, with its tale of the immortal, ever-renewed Phoenix, and the memory was more bittersweet than usual as she saw the silver lightly threading the Protector's still-thick, dark hair.



    "Your offspring and my beloved siblings did quite well, actually," she said, deliberately seeking a change of subject. "I'm always a bit surprised by how they settle down for reading. Especially with all the other more interactive avenues of amusement they have."

    "It's not the same, Aunt Honor," one of the two young women sitting at the big refectory-style table to one side of the cavernous fireplace said. Honor looked at her, and the dark-haired young woman, who looked remarkably like a taller, more muscular version of Katherine Mayhew, reached up to rub the ears of the treecat stretched across the back of her chair.

    "What do you mean, not the same, Rachel?" Honor asked.

    "Listening to you read," Benjamin's oldest daughter replied. "I guess it's mostly because you're involved -- we don't get to see enough of you here on Grayson -- and you're, well, sort of larger than life for all the kids." No one else would have noticed the way the young woman colored very slightly, but Honor hid a smile as she tasted Rachel's own spike of adolescent admiration and embarrassment. "I know when Jeanette and I--" she nodded sideways at the slightly younger woman sitting beside her "--were younger, we always looked forward to seeing you. And Nimitz, of course."

    The treecat on Honor's shoulder elevated his nose and flirted his tail in satisfaction at Rachel's acknowledgment of his own importance in the social hierarchy, and several people chuckled. Rachel's companion, Hipper, only heaved a sigh of longsuffering patience and closed his eyes wearily.

    "She may be right, Honor," Elaine said. "Young Honor certainly volunteered suspiciously quickly to 'help keep an eye on the littles' this evening."

    "Besides, Aunt Honor," Jeanette said in a softer voice (she was considerably shyer than her older sister), "you really do read awfully well." Honor raised an eyebrow, and Jeanette blushed far more obviously than Rachel had. But she also continued with stubborn diffidence. "I know I always really enjoyed listening to you. The characters all even sounded different from each other. Besides, there's more challenge in a book. No body just gives you the way the people and places look; you have to imagine them for yourselves, and you make that fun."

    "Well, I'm glad you think so," Honor said after a moment, and Katherine snorted.

    "She's not the only one who thinks so," she said, when Honor looked at her. "Most of the nannies have told me what a wonderful mother you'd make, if you weren't so busy off blowing up starships and planets and things."

    "Me?" Honor blinked at her in surprise, and Katherine shook her head.

    "You, Lady Harrington. In fact," she went on a bit more intently, "there's been some, um, discussion of your responsibility in that direction. Faith is a perfectly satisfactory heir for the moment, you understand, but no one in the Conclave of Steadholders really expects her to remain your heir."

    "Cat," Benjamin said in an ever so slightly quelling tone.

    "Oh, hush, Ben!" his wife replied tartly. "Everyone's been pussyfooting around the issue for a long time now, and you know it. Politically, it would be far better in almost every respect for Honor to produce an heir of her own."

    "That's not going to be happening any time soon," Honor said firmly. "Not with everything I already have on my plate at the moment!"

    "Time's slipping away, Honor," Katherine said with stubborn persistence. "And you're going back out into another war. Tester knows we'll all be praying for you to come back safely, but --"

    She shrugged, and Honor was forced to concede her point. Still. . . .

    "As you say, Faith is a perfectly acceptable heir," she said. "And while I suppose I ought to be thinking in dynastic terms, it doesn't really come naturally to me."

    "I hate to say it, Honor, but Cat may have a point from another perspective, as well," Benjamin said slowly. "Oh, there's no legal reason you need to produce an heir of your own body right this minute. Especially with, as you say, Faith acknowledged as your heir by everyone. But you're a prolong recipient. You say you're not used to thinking in dynastic terms, but what happens if you wait another twenty or thirty years and then have a child? Under Grayson law, that child would automatically supplant Faith, whatever special provisions the Conclave may have made in her favor when everyone thought you were dead. So there's Faith . . . who's spent thirty or forty years thinking of herself as the Harrington Heir Apparent and suddenly finds her nose put out of joint by a brand new infant nephew or niece."

    Honor looked at him, and he sighed.

    "I know Faith is a wonderful child and she loves you dearly, Honor. But this is Grayson. We've seen a thousand years of those dynastic politics you don't think in terms of, and there have been some really ugly incidents. And the ugliest ones of all have usually happened because the people they happened to were so sure they couldn't arise in their families. Besides, even if no overt problem crops up, would it really be fair to Faith to yank the succession out from under her like that? Unless you produce a child fairly soon, she's got to grow up thinking of herself as Miss Harrington, with all the trappings and importance of the job. You didn't do that, but she's in a totally different position, and it's going to be fairly central to her self-image, you know."

    "Maybe so, but --"

    "No buts, Honor. Not on this one," Benjamin said gently. "It will be. It has to be. I know it was a lot harder for Michael than he ever let on, and he never wanted the Protector's job in the first place. But he was in exactly the same position Faith is, and when Bernard Raoul came along and pushed him out of the succession, he was almost . . . lost for a while. He needed to redefine who he was and what he was doing with his life when he was suddenly no longer Lord Mayhew." The Protector shook his head. "I was discussing this with Howard just last month, and he said --"

    It was Benjamin's turn to break off suddenly as Honor's face tightened in remembered pain.

    "I'm sorry," he said after a moment, even more gently. "And I don't mean to be exerting any unfair pressure. But he was concerned about it. He loves Faith almost as much as he loves you, and he was worried about how she'd react. And," he smiled crookedly, "I think he was sort of hoping he'd have a chance to see your child."

    "Benjamin, I--" Honor blinked rapidly, and Nimitz crooned soothingly in her ear.

    "Don't," Benjamin said, and shook his head. "We don't need to be discussing this right now, and you don't need me reminding you that we're losing him. I wouldn't have brought it up at all, but I think maybe Cat was right to at least put the thought before you. Now we've done that, and you can think about it later. And as far as Howard himself is concerned, of course he loves you. He told me once that he thought of you very much as his own daughter."

    "I'm going to miss him so much," she said sadly.

    "Of course you are. So am I, you know," Benjamin reminded her with a bittersweet smile. "I've known him literally all my life. He's been an extra uncle, one I've loved almost as much as he sometimes exasperated me."

    "And one whose death is going to make a hole in the Conclave," Katherine observed sadly.

    "I've discussed my choice for his successor with the Standing Committee and the Chair of the Administration Committee," Honor said. She inhaled deeply, deliberately and gratefully turning to the change in subject. "I think it should go as smoothly as anything could, under the circumstances."

    "And you're not supposed to discuss it with me, My Lady Steadholder," Benjamin pointed out.

    "And I'm not supposed to discuss it with you," Honor conceded. "Which is, if you don't mind my saying so, one of the stupider of Grayson's innumerable traditions."

    "I suppose when you spend as long assembling them as we have, one or two suboptimal selections may make it through the filtering process." Benjamin shrugged. "Overall, they work pretty well for us, though. And the fact that you're not allowed to discuss it with me doesn't mean my various spies and agents don't know exactly who you're planning to nominate. Or that I don't heartily approve of your selection, for that matter."

    "Well, since we've gotten all of that out of the way without ever transgressing, perhaps we could discuss some of the things we are allowed to talk to Honor about," Katherine suggested.

    "Such as?" Her husband raised his eyebrows at her, and she gave him an exasperated look.

    "Such as what the Admiralty is going to have her doing, for starters," she said.

    "Oh. That."



    Benjamin glanced at his elder daughters. Jeanette favored Elaine at least as strongly as Rachel favored Katherine, with her biological mother's fair coloring and blue eyes. At the moment, both young women seemed torn between attempting to appear invisible or mature and insightful, whichever was more likely to let them go on sitting exactly where they were.

    "Sword rules apply, girls," he said. Both of them nodded solemnly, and he turned back to Honor. "What are they going to have you doing?"

    "I can't really tell you for certain yet," Honor replied, watching the young women from the corner of one eye. Rachel had reached up to caress Hipper's ears again, and her expression was intent. Understandably, since she would be entering the Royal Manticoran Navy's Saganami Island academy in less than a month. Honor had delivered the traditional "Last View" address to the senior class two weeks before; the other forms' abbreviated wartime summer leaves would be up in ten days, and Rachel would be returning to Manticore aboard the Paul Tankersley to report to the newest class of snotties. Jeanette looked curious and sober, but she'd never been the navy-mad tomboy Rachel had.

    "I'm not trying to be mysterious," Honor continued. "Things have been so crazy ever since I got back from Sidemore that it seems the Admiralty's strategic thinking changes on an almost daily basis. The numbers ONI is coming up with keep getting worse, not better, and they keep whittling away at what was supposed to be Eighth Fleet's order of battle." She shrugged with an alum-tart smile. "I suppose it's almost a tradition now that building up anything called 'Eighth Fleet' won't go smoothly."

    "And you say we have some stupid traditions," Benjamin snorted.

    "Well, it's not as if anyone wants it to be that way, Benjamin. But after the hammering we took in the opening phase, nobody's about to uncover Manticore, Grayson, or Trevor's Star. So anything Eighth Fleet gets is going to be what's left over after our minimum security requirements for those systems have been met. Which isn't going to be a lot. Not right at first, anyway. And to be totally fair, Eighth Fleet doesn't really exist yet. I'm Commanding Officer (Designate), Eighth Fleet. My staff and fleet HQ haven't even been formally activated yet."

    "I know. And, to be honest, I was actually a bit surprised they made the announcement that Eighth Fleet would be reactivated as publicly as they did. Relieved, but surprised." Benjamin waved her into an armchair beside the hearth and seated himself facing her. His wives went over and sat beside their daughters, and Carson Clinkscales walked across to stand beside Honor's chair.

    "I'm pleased at the evidence that the Admiralty is thinking in offensive terms," the Protector continued. "After the pounding Theisman gave us, it must have been dreadfully tempting to revert to a totally defensive stance."

    "I'm sure it would have been for a lot of people," Honor said. "Not for Thomas Caparelli and Hamish Alexander, though." She shook her head again. "The difference between them and the Janacek Admiralty is like the difference between day and night."

    "Which, if you'll forgive me, My Lady," Lieutenant Commander Clinkscales said, "may be because they can find their posteriors without approach radar."

    "I think you could safely describe them as possessing that degree of native ability, Carson," she observed, and he blushed slightly.

    "Sorry, My Lady," he said after a moment. "What I meant was that it was because Janacek and Chakrabarti couldn't find their backsides."

    "Actually, that's a bit unfair to Chakrabarti, I think," Honor said. "But Janacek -- and those idiots Jurgensen and Draskovic!" Her mouth tightened, and she shook her head. "In their cases, you certainly have a point. But my point was that Sir Thomas -- and Earl White Haven -- have been in this position before. They're not about to panic, and they know we're going to have to take the fight to the other side as soon and as hard as we can. We can't afford to leave the initiative completely in Thomas Theisman's hands. If we do that, he'll hand us our head within the next six months. At the outside, a T-year."

    "Is it really that bad, My Lady?" Clinkscales asked quietly.

    "Almost certainly," she replied, her soprano voice quiet against the background crackle of the flaming logs. "It's starting to look very much as if Admiral Givens' initial estimates may actually have been low."

    "Low?" Benjamin frowned at her.

    "I know. I think everyone -- myself included -- felt she was being too pessimistic in her original assumptions. It just didn't seem possible that the Republic could really have built a fleet the size of the one she was projecting. But that was because we all insisted on thinking in terms of ships built since Theisman overthrew Saint-Just."

    "Well, of course we did. They couldn't possibly have had the technology to build the new types any sooner than that. Certainly not before Hamish hit them with Buttercup."

    Honor's expression didn't flicker as Benjamin used the current First Lord of Admiralty's given name, but she was careful not to use it herself.

    "No, they couldn't have," she agreed. "And that's the reason Earl White Haven, for one, was convinced Admiral Givens' estimates were too high. Unfortunately, he's had to change his mind in the last couple of weeks. I don't have the details yet, but according to his last letter, she's dug up some data that went back to before Jurgensen took over from her at ONI. Some anomalies her own analysts had turned up and been unable to explain at the time. Apparently, they suggest that the Peeps might have been stockpiling components even before Saint-Just was killed."

    "Stockpiling? For that long?" Benjamin looked skeptical, and she shrugged.

    "I haven't seen the data or the analysis myself, Benjamin. And I may have it wrong. But that was my impression from the Earl's letter when I viewed it last night. I'm sure he'll have more to say to me about it when I get back to Manticore."

    "I'm sure he will," Benjamin said slowly, frowning in manifest thought.

    "And if Admiral Givens is right, My Lady?" Clinckscales asked quietly.

    "If Admiral Given is right, then we're looking at a serious numerical disadvantage," Honor said soberly. "And one which is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. The question, of course," she smiled without a trace of humor, "is whether or not the numbers are bad enough to offset our quality. And at the moment, considering the command team they've managed to put together, that's a very pointed question, indeed.

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