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At All Costs: Chapter Twenty Five

       Last updated: Wednesday, October 26, 2005 23:11 EDT



    "Do you want me to do anything about this . . . person while you're away, My Lady?"

    Miranda LaFollet sat at her desk in her Jason Bay office, and when Honor poked her head in the open doorway, her "maid" held up a 'fax viewer between thumb and forefinger with the expression of someone who'd just found a dead mouse in her soup.

    "And just what did you have it in mind to do about Mr. Hayes?" Honor inquired mildly. "This isn't Grayson, you know, Miranda."

    "Oh, I certainly do, My Lady." Miranda's mouth twisted in distaste, and Farragut, her treecat, made a soft hissing sound from the perch beside her chair. "Freedom of the press is a wonderful thing, My Lady. We have it on Grayson, too, you know. But this Hayes person wouldn't care at all for what his brand of 'journalism' would get him back home."

    "Sounds like a very free press to me," Honor observed." Not that I don't think Mr. Hayes would look ever so much better with a couple of broken legs. Unfortunately, if that were a practical solution to the problem, I'd already have taken care of it myself."

    "There's always Micah," Miranda pointed out. Micah LaFollet, her youngest brother, had just turned twenty-six. Young enough for third-generation prolong and blessed with adequate diet and medical care since childhood, he towered more than fourteen centimeters taller than his eldest brother, Andrew. Despite his formidable height (he was actually five centimeters taller than Honor herself), he looked much younger than his age to Grayson eyes, but he was already in the final stages of armsman training, and he had a pronounced case of hero worship where Honor was concerned.

    "No, there isn't always Micah," Honor scolded. "He's not an armsman yet, and he's overly enthusiastic. Besides, assault with violence is a felony here in the Star Kingdom, and unlike your older brother, he doesn't have any sort of diplomatic immunity."

    "Well, then surely there's something Richard could do about him." Miranda kept her tone light, trying to pretend she was no more than half-serious, but Honor tasted the white-hot rage just below the younger woman's surface.

    "Miranda," she said, stepping fully into the office, "I truly, truly appreciate how angry you. How much you -- and Andrew, and Simon, and Micah, and Spencer, and Mac -- all want to protect me from this. But you can't do it. And while Richard's a very good attorney, Solomon Hayes has spent decades figuring out exactly how close he can sail to outright libel without quite crossing the line into something actionable."

    "But, My Lady," Miranda protested, abandoning her pretense of humor, "word of this is going to get home to Grayson. It's not going to matter much to our steaders, but that midden-toad Mueller and his loathsome bunch are going to try as hard as they can to hurt you with it where the conservatives are concerned."

    "I know," Honor sighed. "But there's not anything I can do about it at this point. I'm getting out of town and away from the newsies myself by going back to the Fleet, but I've sent letters to Benjamin and Austen, warning them about what's coming. That's about all I can do at this point."

    Miranda looked rebellious, and Honor smiled at her.

    "It's not like I've never had anyone taking shots at me in the 'faxes before," she pointed out. "And so far, I've managed to survive, however little I've enjoyed the experience, sometimes. And . . . ."

    She paused for a moment, then shrugged.

    "And," she confessed, "I'm not being quite as blasé about this entire thing as you seem to be assuming. Trust me, Mr. Hayes is going to come to regret this particular . . . endeavor."

    "My Lady?" Miranda perked up noticeably, and there was a slight, edge to her voice. An edge accompanied by the sort of look a Grayson nanny might employ when not one of her charges seemed to know anything about how that dead sandfrog had miraculously materialized in the nursery air purifier.

    "Well," Honor said, "I just happened to run into Stacey Hauptman at lunch yesterday, and somehow or other the conversation turned to journalism. And it seems Stacey has been considering venturing into that area for some time. She told me she thinks she might begin by buying the Landing Tattler -- just to get her toes wet, you know. Sort of explore the possibilities. And I think she might also have said something about making it her business to -- how did she put it? Oh, yes. Making it her business to 'clean up the professionalism of Manticoran journalism generally.'"

    "My Lady," Miranda said in quite a different tone, her gray eyes twinkling suddenly. "Oh, that's evil!" she continued with deep satisfaction.

    "I never suggested that she take any action whatsoever," Honor said virtuously, "and no one could possibly accuse me or any of my retainers of taking any sort of action, either. I will confess, however, that I find the prospect of Stacey Hauptmann taking personal aim at Mr. Hayes . . . profoundly satisfying. It won't do much to undo what he's already done, but I feel fairly confident we won't be hearing from him a third time."

    "And you were just suggesting the Grayson press might incorporate a few journalistic constraints."

    "Even in the Star Kingdom, Miranda, private citizens -- as opposed to governmental agencies or public bodies -- are permitted to make their displeasure known, so long as they violate no laws or civil rights. Which, I assure you, Stacey has no intention of doing. Or, now that I think about it, any need to do."

    "Oh, of course not, My Lady!"



    "I want to know who leaked this, and I want to know yesterday."

    Dr. Franz Illescue's voice was flat, almost calm, with a lack of emphasis and exclamation points which rang alarm bells in every member of the Briarwood Reproduction Center's senior staff.

    "But, Doctor," Julia Isher, Briarwood's business manager, said cautiously, "so far, we don't really have any evidence it was one of our people who was responsible."

    "Don't be stupid, Julia. And let's not pretend I am, either," Illescue said in that same almost-calm tone, and Isher winced.

    Franz Illescue could be an unmitigated pain in the ass, and despite the very nearly half-century he'd spent getting the worst of his natural aristocratic arrogance knocked out of him, there would always be that core of implicit superiority. That unassailable knowledge that he was, by the inevitable process of birth and the natural working of the universe, inherently better than anyone around him. Despite that, however -- or possibly even because of it -- he was normally very careful to observe the rules of courtesy with the "little people" with whom he came into contact. On the rare occasions when he wasn't, it was a very, very bad sign, indeed.

    "One of 'our people,' as you put it, most definitely was responsible," he continued after a heartbeat or two. "Whether someone deliberately sold the information to this . . . this . . . individual Hayes or not, that information had to come from someone inside the Center. Someone with access to our confidential records. Someone who, if he or she didn't deliberately sell the information was still criminally -- and I use the adverb advisedly, in light of our confidentiality agreements with our patients -- negligent. Someone who either gossiped about it where he or she shouldn't have or allowed someone else unauthorized access. In either case, I want his -- or her -- ass. I want it broiled, on a silver platter, with a nice side of fried potatoes, and I intend to see to it that whoever it was never works in this field -- or any other branch of the medical profession -- in the Star Kingdom again."

    More than one of the staffers seated around the huge table blanched visibly. Illescue had still to raise his voice, but the temperature in the conference room seemed to hover within a degree or two of absolute zero Kelvin. Some of those staffers, like Isher herself, had been with Illescue for twenty T-years or more, and they had never seen him this incandescently angry.

    "Doctor," Isher said, after a moment, "I've already initiated a review of everyone who had access to Duchess Harrington's records. I assure you we're doing everything we possibly can to determine how that information got out of our files and into Mr. Hayes' hands. But so far our security people, some of whom are very well versed in forensic cybernetics, are coming up completely blank. I asked Tajman Meyers --" Meyers was the Center's head of security, who was absent from this meeting only because he was out personally heading the investigation "-- if we need to bring in someone else, like the Landing PD. He says our people are probably as good as most of the LCPD's investigators, but he also agrees that if you want to bring in a completely outside team, he'll cooperate fully."

    She met Illescue's hooded, basilisk gaze levelly.

    "The truth of the matter is, though, Sir, that we may never be able to identify the individual responsible. As you say, it could have been a case of idle gossip. Or, of course, although I don't like to think any of our people would violate our trust that way, someone could have deliberately handed the information over. In either case, however, my personal feeling is that it was almost certainly done verbally, with no written or electronic record. Which doesn't leave us very much in the way of clues."

    Illescue looked at her, eyes cold, his normal, reassuring physician's personality noticeably in abeyance. The fact that he knew she was right only made him still angrier.

    "I want a list of every name of every member of our staff who had access to both Duchess Harrington and Countess White Haven's files," he said, after a moment. "Everyone -- physicians, nurses, technicians, clerical staff. As a general rule, I don't much care for witch hunts, but I'm going to make an exception in this case." He looked around the conference room and showed his teeth in an expression no one would ever mistake for a smile. " To be perfectly honest, I'm looking forward to it."




    "Jesus, Julia," Martijn Knippschd muttered softly as he walked down the hall beside her, "I've never seen him that mad!" He shook his head. "I mean, this is terrible, sure. I agree, and not just because of the way it violates Duchess Harrington's confidentiality. It leaves us covered with crap here at the Center, too. But, let's face it -- this really isn't the first time we've had an information leak. And that talk of his about 'witch hunts' --!"

    "It isn't just talk, Marty," Isher said, equally quietly. "He means it. And if he does find out who's responsible . . . ."

    She shrugged, her expression bleak, and Knippschd shook his head.

    "I believe you. I just don't understand why."

    Isher looked at him for a moment, clearly considering whether or not to say something more. Dr. Martijn Knippschd was, in many ways, her equivalent on the medical support side of Briarwood's operations. He wasn't one of the Center's partners, but he was directly responsible for overseeing the labs' physical operation and directing the technicians who worked in them. And unless something very unexpected happened, he would be Briarwood's newest junior partner within the next three T-years.

    "It's . . . personal this time," she said finally. "Dr. Illescue has something of a history with the Harringtons."

    "I had the impression he'd never met the Duchess before she became a patient," Knippschd objected.

    "I didn't say he had a history with her, Marty. He has one with her parents, and it's personal, not professional. I'm not going to go into any details, but suffice it to say that if there are any two physicians in the entire Star Kingdom who he'd crawl across ground glass to avoid giving a reason to fault his professional conduct, it's Alfred and Allison Harrington. Worse, I think he's afraid they may believe he let the information out himself."

    "That's preposterous!" Knippschd was genuinely angry. "He can be a royal pain, but I've never met a physician who takes his professional, ethical responsibilities more seriously than he does!"

    "I agree," Isher said mildly. "And I didn't say I think the Harringtons are going to believe anything of the sort. What I said was that he's afraid they may. And that, Marty, is why I am delighted that I, for one, am not the person who actually did spill the beans to Solomon Hayes."

    The two of them walked along in silence for another few moments, and then Isher chuckled humorlessly.

    "What?" Knippschd asked.

    "I was just thinking. He says he wants whoever it is broiled, right?" Knippschd nodded, and she shrugged. "Well, I wonder if he'd let me at least light the fire for him when the time comes?"



    "We're coming up on her now, Your Grace," the pinnace pilot announced over the intercom. "She's at your ten o'clock, low."

    Honor leaned close enough to the pinnace viewport that the tip of her nose almost touched the armorplast. She was on the starboard side of the small craft, seated just forward of the variable geometry wings, and she peered still further forward as the sleek, white spindle of a starship came into view.

    A missile barge hung close beside it in orbit, which gave her a sense of perspective, something to relate the new ship's size to, and that perspective made her look just a bit odd to experienced eyes. She was obviously a battlecruiser, yet she was larger than any battlecruiser Honor had ever seen. The Agamemnons, like Michelle Henke's Achilles, massed almost 1.75 million tons, but this ship was more than a quarter-million tons heavier still. And where the Agamemnons were a pod-laying design, this one most definitely was not.

    She stepped up the magnification of her artificial eye, zooming in on the hull number just aft of the forward impeller ring. BC-562, it said, and under that, the name: Nike.

    She tasted the name in the depths of her mind, and her feelings were mixed as she gazed at the splendid new ship. This Nike's predecessor had been listed for disposal by the Janacek Admiralty in order to free the name for this new class's lead ship. The sudden eruption of renewed hostilities had saved BC-413 from the breakers, but the name had already been reassigned, so 413 had been renamed Hancock Station. If they'd had to rename her, Honor couldn't really fault the choice, but as that Nike's first captain, she would always think of the older ship as the rightful holder of that name.

    And yet, despite her manifold disagreements with the late Edward Janacek and her bitter opposition to so many of his disastrous policies at Admiralty House, she had to admit that this time he might have gotten it right. Nike was the proudest ship name in the Royal Manticoran Navy. There was always a Nike, and she was always a battlecruiser. And when she was commissioned, she was always the newest, most powerful battlecruiser in the fleet.

    Yet the old Nike -- Hancock Station -- was at best obsolescent, despite the fact that she was barely sixteen T-years old. She'd been worked hard during those sixteen years, but it was the changes in weapons and tactics, especially in missile warfare, not senility, which had relegated her to the second rank of effectiveness. In an age of multi-drive missiles, the traditional battlecruiser's niche had altered dramatically, and BC-413 was simply out of date.

    Battlecruisers were designed to run down and destroy enemy cruisers, or to raid and run. The ideal commerce protectors, and, conversely, the ideal commerce destroyers. Traditionally, especially in Manticoran service, they weren't intended to stand in the wall of battle, because their relatively light armor and "cruiser style" construction could never stand the pounding superdreadnoughts were expected to endure. They were intended to run away from wallers -- to be able to destroy anything lighter than them, and to outrun anything heavier.

    Yet the sheer range of the MDM made staying out of effective range far more difficult than it had ever been before, and the emphasis on long-range missile combat required denser salvos and greater magazine space. For a time, it had seemed the battlecruiser had simply become obsolete, as the battleship had before it, and that it would vanish just as completely from the order of battle of first-class navies. But the type -- or, at least, the role it filled -- was just too valuable to be allowed to disappear, and improvements in compensator efficiency and other aspects of military technology had allowed a transformation.

    The Graysons had led the way toward one possible iteration of the type, with their Courvoisier II-class of pod-layers. The RMN's Agamemnons were the Manticoran version of the same design concept, as the Blücher-class was for the Andermani, and that approach clearly offered significant advantages over the older designs.

    But the BC(P) wasn't really completely satisfactory. Although it could produce a very heavy volume of fire, its endurance at maximum-rate fire was limited, and the type's hollow core design came at a greater cost in structural integrity than the same concept did in a bigger, far more strongly built superdreadnought. So Vice Admiral Toscarelli's BuShips had sought another approach at the same time it was designing the new Edward Saganami-C-class heavy cruisers.

    Nike was the result: a 2.5 million-ton "battlecruiser," almost three times the size of Honor's old ship, but with an acceleration rate thirty percent greater. The old Nike had mounted eighteen lasers, sixteen grasers, fifty-two missile tubes, and thirty-two counter-missile tubes and point defense clusters. The new Nike mounted no lasers, thirty-two grasers -- eight of them as chase weapons, fifty missile tubes (none of them chasers), and thirty counter-missile tubes and laser clusters. The old Nike had carried a ship's company of over two thousand; the new Nike's complement was only seven hundred and fifty. And the new Nike was armed with the Mark 16 dual-drive missile. With the "off-bore" launch capability the RMN had developed, she could bring both broadsides' missile tubes to bear on the same target, giving her fifty birds per salvo, as opposed to the older ship's twenty-two. And whereas the old Nike's maximum powered missile range from rest had been just over six million kilometers, the new Nike's had a maximum powered endurance of over twenty-nine million.

    She couldn't fire the all-up, three-stage MDMs the Courvoisiers and Agamemnons could handle, so her tactical flexibility was marginally less, and her warheads were slightly lighter, but an Agamemnon rolling pods at her maximum rate would shoot herself dry in just over fourteen minutes, whereas Nike carried sufficient ammunition for almost forty minutes, and she carried fifty percent more counter-missiles, as well. For that matter, although the Courvosiers did, in fact, carry the three-stage weapons, the RMN had chosen to load the Agamemnons' pods with Mark 16s. BuWeaps had gone ahead and produced the standard pods, as well, but Admiralty House had decided the salvo density the Mark 16 permitted was more important that the bigger missiles' greater powered envelope.

    Personally, Honor was convinced that this Nike represented the pattern for true battlecruisers of the future, and she deeply regretted the fact that although the Janacek Admiralty had authorized her construction, they had seen her as a single-ship testbed. The Navy desperately needed as many Nikes as it could get, and what it had was exactly one. Which was all it would have for at least another full T-year.

    But at least Honor had the only one of her there was, and -- she smiled at her reflection in the armorplast -- she'd convinced Admiral Cortez to give her to a captain who was almost as competent as he was . . . irritating.

    "Do you want another pass on her, Your Grace?" the pilot inquired, and Honor pressed the intercom key on the arm of her chair.

    "No, thank you, Chief. I've seen enough. Head straight on to the flagship; Captain Cardones is expecting me in time for lunch."

    "Aye, aye, Ma'am."

    The pinnace turned away, and Honor leaned back in her seat as her mind reached out to the future.




    "Dr. Illescue! Dr. Illescue, would you care to comment on the press accounts of Duches Harrington's pregnancy?"

    Franz Illescue walked stolidly across the Briarwood lobby, ignoring the shouted questions.

    "Dr. Illescue, are you prepared to confirm that Earl White Haven is the father of Duchess Harrington's child?"

    "Dr. Illescue! Isn't it true Prince Michael is the child's father?"

    "Are you prepared to categorically deny that the father is Baron Grantville or Benjamin Mayhew?"

    "Dr. Illescue --!"

    The lift doors cut off the hullabaloo, and Illescue keyed his personal com with an almost savage thumb jab.

    "Security, Meyers," a voice responded instantly.

    "Tajman, this is Dr. Illescue." The fury seething in Illescue's normally controlled baritone was almost palpable. "Will you please explain to me what the hell that . . . that three-ring circus in our lobby is about?"

    "I'm sorry, Sir," Meyers said. "I wasn't aware you were coming in through the public entrance, or I would have at least warned your driver. They descended on us right after lunch, and so far, they haven't committed any privacy violations. According to SOP, I can't bar them from the public area of the facility until they do."

    "Well, as it happens, I wrote the damned SOP," Illescue half-snarled, "and as of now, you can bar those jackals from any part of this facility until Hell's a hockey rink! Is that perfectly clear?!"

    "Uh, yes, Sir. I'll get on it right away, Sir."

    "Thank you." Illescue's voice was marginally closer to normal as he broke the circuit and inhaled deeply.

    He leaned back against the wall of the lift car and rubbed his face wearily.

    He and Meyers were no closer to finding the leak than they'd been when they began, and the story was ballooning totally out of control. Not that he'd ever had much hope of controlling it in the first place. The press was working itself up to a feeding frenzy, and the most preposterous speculation imaginable -- as the shouted question in the lobby indicated -- had become rampant. At least he'd spoken to both Doctors Harrington, unpleasant though it had been, and he felt reasonably confident neither of them thought it had been his doing, but that didn't make him feel much better. Even though he was prepared to dislike Duchess Harrington because of her parentage, she was a patient. She had a legal and moral right to privacy, to trust that doctor-patient confidentiality would not be violated, and it had been. It was almost like a form of rape, even if the assault was non-physical, and he would have been coldly, bitterly furious in any patient's case. In this instance, given the prominence of the patient in question and the way that prominence was goading the newsies speculations, his emotions went far beyond fury.

    Franz Illescue was not a man with much use for the custom of dueling, even if it was legal. But in this case, if he could find out who was responsible, he was prepared to make an exception.



    "Welcome back," Michelle Henke said with a smile as Andrew LaFollet peeled off at her day cabin's hatch and Honor and Nimitz stepped through it.

    "Thanks." Honor crossed the cabin and flopped onto Henke's couch far more inelegantly than she would ever have considered if anyone else had been present.

    "I trust Diego did the honors properly?" Henke asked lightly. Captain Diego Mikhailov was Ajax's captain. "I told him you wanted it kept low key."

    "He kept is as low key as my faithful minion outside the hatch there would permit," Honor replied. "I like him," she added.

    "He's a likeable sort. And good at his job. Not to mention smart enough to realize how harried and hunted you must feel right now. He understands exactly why he's not invited to dinner tonight. In fact, he commented to me that you must be delighted to be back aboard ship."

    "As a matter of fact, I've seldom been happier to find myself confined aboard ship in my entire life," Honor admitted as she rested her head on one couch arm, closed her eyes, and stretched out with Nimitz on her chest.

    "That's because the worst that can happen here is that you get blown up," Henke said dryly. She crossed to the wet bar, opened a small refrigerator, and produced a pair of chilled bottles of Old Tilman. Honor chuckled appreciatively, although her amusement was clearly less than complete, and Henke grinned as she opened the beer bottles.

    "I told Clarissa I'd buzz for her if we decided we needed her," she continued, holding out one of the bottles to Honor. "Here." Honor cracked one eye and looked up, and Henke waggled the bottle at her. "You look like you need this."

    "What I need is about fifteen minutes -- no, ten minutes would do nicely, actually -- alone with Mr. Hayes," Honor said balefully. She accepted the bottle and swallowed a mouthful of cold beer. "I'd feel ever so much better afterward."

    "At least until they came to put you in jail."

    "True. The courts are tacky about things like that, aren't they?"

    "Unfortunately." Henke swallowed some of her own beer, leaning back in an armchair facing Honor's couch, and rested one heel on the expensive coffee table on the thick, even more expensive carpet between the two of them.

    Honor smiled at her and looked around curously. It was the first time she'd visited Henke aboard Ajax, and although Henke's day cabin was substantially smaller than her own lordly flag quarters aboard Imperator, it was still large and comfortable indeed by the standards of most battlecruisers. Ajax's total complement was under six hundred, including Marines, and her designers, faced with all that space, had obviously felt someone as lordly as a flag officer deserved the very best. The deep pile carpet was a dark crimson, which Honor knew Henke would never have chosen for herself and undoubtedly intended to change at the earliest possible moment, but the paneled bulkheads, indirect lighting, and holoscupltures gave it an air of almost sinfully welcoming comfort.

    Best of all, it was totally empty except for Henke, Honor, and Nimitz.

    "Feeling better?" Henke asked after a moment.

    "Some." Honor closed her eyes again and rolled the chilled beer bottle across her forehead. "Quite a bit, actually," she went on, after a moment. "The mind-glows out here are a lot easier on Nimitz and me."

    "There must be times when being an empath is a complete and total pain," Henke said.

    "You have no idea," Honor agreed, opening her eyes once more and sitting up a bit. "To be perfectly honest, Mike, that's one reason I was so happy you invited me to dinner tonight. All my staffers are firmly in my corner, but if I'd stayed home aboard the flagship, I'd almost have had to host a formal dinner on my first night back. Eating alone with my oldest friend is an awfully much more attractive proposition. Thanks."

    "Hey, it's what friends are for!" Henke said, more lightly than she felt and trying not to show how touched she was.

    "Well, the company's good," Honor said with a crooked smile. "But I suppose if I'm going to be completely honest, the real attraction is Chief Arbuckle's paprikash."

    "I'll see to it that Clarissa gives Mac the recipe," Henke said dryly.



    "Attention on deck!"

    The Eighth Fleet's flag officers, their senior staffers, and their flag captains rose as Honor, Rafael Cardones, Mercedes Brigham, and Andrea Jaruwalski entered the compartment. Simon Mattingly and Spencer Hawke parked themselves against the bulkhead just outside the compartment, flanking the hatch, and Andrew LaFollet followed the naval officers in. He took his customary, inconspicuous place against the bulkhead behind Honor's chair, and level gray eyes swept the entire briefing room with instinct-level, microscopic attention to detail.

    "Be seated, Ladies and Gentlemen," Honor said, striding to her own place.

    MacGuiness had contrived a proper perch for Nimitz, bracketed to the back of her chair, and the treecat gave a buzzing purr as he arranged himself upon it. Honor smiled as she tasted his approval of the new arrangements, then seated herself and looked out at her command team.

    The senior divisional commanders were present this time, as well, and they were no longer such unknown quantities. There were a few about whom she nursed some minor concerns, but by and large she was supremely confident in the temper of her weapon. Whether it would be enough for the tasks demanded of it was more than she could say, but if it failed, it would not be because of any fault in the quality of the men and women of whom it was composed.

    "As you all know," she said after a moment, "we've actually received a few reinforcements. Not as many as we were slated to -- other commitments, unfortunately, are drawing off units which otherwise would have been earmarked for us. Nonetheless, we have more striking power than we had last time. And," this time, the wolf at her core showed in her smile, "we're still getting the opportunity to show the Havenites our newest and best."

    Several other people smiled, as well, and Honor looked at Michelle Henke.

    "I'm sure you were less than pleased when Captain Shelburne reported Hector's engineering casualty, Admiral Henke. I trust, however, that the replacement I've managed to arrange for you until Hector can get that beta node replaced is satisfactory?"

    "Well, Your Grace," Henke replied judiciously, "I suppose, under the circumstances, I'll just have to make do."

    This time, the people who'd smiled laughed out loud, and Honor shook her head.

    "I'm sure you'll manage somehow, Admiral," she told Henke. Then she looked at the other officers again.

    "In most ways, this meeting is something of a formality," she told them. "You've all done well in training and preparing your commands for Cutworm II. You've all had time to study our objectives. And I'm confident all of us are well aware of the importance of this operation."

    She paused to let that sink in.

    "Cutworm II is both more ambitious and less ambitious than our first attacks were," she continued after a moment. "It's more ambitious primarily in terms of timing and how deep we're penetrating to hit Chantilly and Des Moines. Since all of our task forces will have different transit times, and since I've decided to once more orchestrate our strikes to hit our targets simultaneously, Admiral Truman and Admiral Miklós will depart immediately after this meeting. Admiral McKeon will depart for Fordyce the day after tomorrow, and Admiral Hirotaka and I will depart for Augusta four days after that.

    "Remember, hitting our assigned objectives -- hard -- is critically important, but bringing your ships and your people home is equally so. It seems unlikely the Republic will have been able to adjust its defensive stance significantly in the last three weeks. Nonetheless, it isn't impossible, so be alert. We're more likely to see changes in doctrine and tactical approaches than we are to see significant redeployment of covering forces. Eventually, obviously, we hope that's going to change, but simple message transit times are going to preclude their having done it yet. Hopefully," she smiled again, "our modest efforts over the next two weeks will provide additional encouragement for their efforts.

    "In just a moment, Commodore Jaruwalski will run through the entire ops schedule one last time. Afterward, I want to go over the plan individually with each task force commander. If any questions or suggestions have occurred to any of you since our last meeting, that will be the time to bring them forward."

    She paused a second time, then nodded to Jaruwalski.

    "Andrea," she invited, and sat back in her own chair to listen as the ops officer activated the holo display above the conference table.




    "Your guests are here, Reverend."

    Reverend Jeremiah Sullivan, First Elder of the Church of Humanity Unchained, nodded in response to his secretary's announcement and turned away from the picture window of his large, comfortable office in Mayhew Cathedral.

    "Thank you, Matthew. If you'd be good enough to show them in, please."

    "Of course, Your Grace."

    Brother Matthew bowed slightly, and withdrew. He was back a moment later, accompanied by half a dozen men. Most were of at least middle years. The sole exception was a very young man, indeed, for the office he held. Obviously a prolong recipient, but less than thirty-five T-years old.

    He was also the evident leader of the delegation.

    "Reverend," he murmured, bending to kiss the ring Sullivan held out to him. "Thank you for seeing us."

    "I could hardly say no to a request from such distinguished visitors, Steadholder Mueller," Sullivan said easily. Mueller smiled and stepped aside, and Sullivan extended his ring hand to the next steadholder in line.

    Mueller's smile became just a trifle fixed as he watched. It was certainly correct etiquette for visitors, however exalted their rank, to kiss the Reverend's ring of office. But it was customary in cases like this morning's meeting for the Reverend to settle for receiving the courtesy from the senior member of the delegation.

    All five of Mueller's fellows kissed the ring in turn, and Sullivan waved a graceful hand at the half-circle of chairs arranged before his desk to await them.

    "Please, My Lords. Be seated," he invited, and waited courteously until all of them had settled before seating himself behind the desk once more with an attentive expression on his strong, fierce-nosed face.

    "And now, Lord Mueller, how may Father Church serve the people of Grayson?"

    "Actually, Your Grace, we're not quite sure," Mueller replied with an air of candor. "In fact, we're here more to consult than for anything else."

    "Consult, My Lord?" Sullivan arched one eyebrow, his bald scalp gleaming in the morning sunlight pouring in through the hermetically sealed window behind him. "About what?"

    "About --" Mueller started impatiently, then made himself stop.

    "About the Manticoran news reports concerning Steadholder Harrington, Your Grace," he said after a moment, his tone and expression once more controlled.

    "Ah!" Sullivan nodded. "You're referring to that person Hayes' column about Lady Harrington?"

    "Well, to that, and to all the other commentary and speculation he seems to have generated in the Manticoran press," Mueller agreed, and produced a grimace of distaste.

    "Obviously, I find the original story and its thinly veiled innuendos an unconscionable invasion of the Steadholder's private life. The sort of thing, I'm afraid, one might expect from such a thoroughly . . . secular society. Nonetheless, the story's been printed, and widely commented upon, in the Star Kingdom, and it's already starting to make its way through our own news media here in Yeltsin."

    "So I'd observed," Sullivan agreed almost placidly.

    "I'm sure," Mueller said, his tone more pointed, "you must find that fact as deplorable as I do, Your Grace."

    "I find it inevitable, My Lord," Sullivan said in a tone of mild correction, and shrugged. "Steadholder Harrington is one of our most popular public figures, as all of us are perfectly well aware. This sort of speculation about her is bound to create a great deal of public comment."

    Despite his formidable self-control, Mueller's eyes flickered as Sullivan referred to Harrington's popularity. He really did look a great deal like a much younger edition of his deceased father, Sullivan mused. It was unfortunate the resemblance went so much deeper than the surface.

    "Comment is one thing, Your Grace," Mueller said now, a bit sharply. "The sort of comment we're observing, however, is something else entirely."

    The other members of the Conclave of Steadholders' delegation looked uncomfortable, but none disagreed with their spokesman. In fact, Sullivan saw, most seemed firmly in agreement. Not surprisingly, given that they'd more or less nominated themselves for their present mission.

    "In what specific way, My Lord?" the Reverend inquired, still mildly, after a moment.

    "Your Grace, you're obviously aware Steadholder Harrington's declined to reveal the paternity of her child," Mueller said. "Moreover, as I'm sure you're also aware, the Steadholder isn't married. So, I'm very much afraid, that her son -- the son, I remind you, who ought to replace Lady Harrington's sister in the succession of her Steading -- is illegitimate. Not to put too fine a point upon it, Your Grace, this boy will be not simply a bastard, but a bastard whose father is a total unknown."

    "I might point out," Sullivan replied tranquilly, "that Manticoran practices are somewhat different from our own. Specifically, Manticoran law doesn't recognize the concept of 'bastardy' at all. I believe one of their more respected jurists once said there are no illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents. Personally, I find myself in agreement with him."

    "We're not talking about Manticoran law, Your Grace," Mueller said flatly. "We're talking about Grayson law. About Lady Harrington's responsibility, as a Steadholder, to keep the Conclave of Steadholders informed about the birth of an heir to her Steading. About the fact that she hasn't bothered to marry this boy's father, or even to inform us as to who that father is!" He shook his head. "I believe, however great her services to Grayson, we have legitimate cause to be concerned when she so clearly chooses to flaunt the law of our planet and of Father Church."

    "Excuse me, My Lord, but precisely how has she done that?"

    Mueller stared at the Reverend in consternation for at least three seconds. Then he shook himself.

    "My Lord, as I'm sure you're perfectly well aware, I, as a steadholder, am required by law to inform my fellow steadholders of the prospective birth of any heir to my steading. I'm also required to provide proof that the heir in question is my child and the legitimate inheritor of my title and my responsibilities. Surely you aren't suggesting that simply because Lady Harrington wasn't born on Grayson she's somehow exempt from the obligations binding upon every other steadholder?"

    It was obvious from his manner that Mueller very much hoped Sullivan would make such an argument. As his father before him -- although, so far, at least, without crossing the line into active treason (so far as anyone knows, at any rate, Sullivan told himself tartly) -- Travis Mueller had found his natural home in the ranks of the Opposition. And in the Opposition's eyes, Honor Harrington represented everything they detested about the 'Mayhew Restoration's' 'secularization' of their society. The unassailable position Steadholder Harrington held in the hearts of the majority of Graysons was gall-bitter on their tongues, and Sullivan could almost physically taste the eagerness with which they anticpated this opportunity to discredit her.

    Not that the unfortunately large number of people who'd attempted the same task before them had enjoyed much luck, he reflected.

    "First of all, My Lord," he said after a moment, "I'd recommend you consult a good constitutional scholar, since you appear to be laboring under a misapprehension. Your responsibility as a steadholder is to inform myself, as the steward of Father Church, and the Protector, as Father Church's champion and the guardian of secular matters here on Grayson. It is not to inform the Conclave as a body."

    Mueller's eyes first widened, then narrowed, and he flushed slightly.

    "I'll grant you, My Lord," Sullivan continued imperturbably, "that, traditionally, that's included a notification of the Conclave as a whole. However, the Conclave's responsibility to examine and prove the chain of succession actually begins only after the birth of the heir in question. And, although I realize you weren't aware of it, Lady Harrington informed Protector Benjamin and myself almost two full months ago that she was pregnant. So I assure you all of her constitutional obligations have been faithfully discharged."

    "It hasn't simply been traditional to notify the Conclave, Your Grace," Mueller said sharply. "For generations, it's had the force of law. And that notification is supposed to be given well before the actual birth of the child in question!"

    "Quite a few erroneous practices had the 'force of law' prior to the reestablishment of the correct provisions of our written Constitution, My Lord." For the first time, there was a very definite iciness in Reverend Sullivan's voice. "Those errors are still in the process of correction. They are, however, being corrected."

    Mueller started to reply angrily, then clamped his jaw and visibly made himself reassert control of his temper.

    "Your Grace, I suppose you're technically correct about the letter of the written law," he said, after several moments, speaking very carefully. "Personally, I disagree with your interpretation. You are, however, as you pointed out a short time ago, Father Church's steward. I will, therefore, not contest your interpretation at this time, although I reserve the right to do so without prejudice at another time and in another forum.

    "Nonetheless, the fact remains that Steadholder Harrington isn't married; that our law, unlike that of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, clearly does recognize the concept of bastardy and regards it as a bar to inheritance; and that we don't even know who the father of this child is."

    "No, Lady Harrington isn't married," Sullivan agreed. "And, you're quite correct that Grayson law, as presently written, does recognize bastardy and the disabilities and limitations which normally attach to it. However, it's incorrect to say that we -- in the legal sense of Father Church and the Sword -- don't know who the father of Lady Harrington's son is."

    "You know who the father is?" Mueller demanded.

    "Of course I do, as does the Protector," Sullivan said. For that matter, he thought, everyone on the entire planet knows, whether they're prepared to admit it or not.

    "Even so," Mueller said after a brief pause," the child is clearly still a bastard. As such, he must be unacceptable as the heir to a steading."

    His voice was flat, hard, and Sullivan nodded mentally. Mueller had finally and unambiguously thrown down his gauntlet. Whether or not a majority of the Conclave of Steadholders would agree with him and sustain his position was another matter. It was possible a majority would, but even if -- as Sullivan thought was far more likely -- the majority didn't agree with him, he would gleefully take advantage of the opportunity to do all he could to blacken Honor Harrington's reputation in the eyes of Grayson's more conservative citizens.

    "It occurred to me, when Lady Harrington first informed me she was pregnant," the Reverend said mildly after a long, thoughtful moment, "that a view such as that might present itself. Accordingly, I asked my staff to conduct a brief historical review."

    "Historical?" Mueller repeated, against his will, when Sullivan deliberately paused and waited.

    "Yes, historical."

    The Reverend opened a desk drawer and withdrew a fat, old-fashioned hard-copy folder. He laid it on the blotter, opened it, glanced at the top sheet of paper, and then looked back at Mueller.

    "It would appear that in 3112, nine hundred and ten T-years ago, Steadholder Berilynko had no legitimate male children, only daughters. The Conclave of Steadholders of that time therefore accepted the eldest of his several illegitimate sons as his heir. In 3120, Steadholder Elway had no legitimate male children, only daughters. The Conclave of Steadholders of that time therefore accepted the eldest of his several illegitimate sons as his heir. In 3140, Steadholder Ames had no legitimate male children, only daughters. The Conclave of Steadholders of that time therefore accepted the eldest of his several illegitimate sons as his heir. In 3142, Steadholder Sutherland had no legitimate male children, only daughters. The Conclave of Steadholders of that time therefore accepted the eldest of his several illegitimate sons as his heir. In 3146, Steadholder Kimbrell had no legitimate male children, only daughters. The Conclave of Steadholders of that time therefore accepted the eldest of his reportedly thirty-six illegitimate sons as his heir. In 3160, Steadholder Denevski had no legitimate male children, only daughters. The Conclave of Steadholders of that time therefore accepted the eldest of his illegitimate sons as his heir. In 3163 --"

    The Reverend paused, looked up with a hard little smile, and closed the folder once more.

    "I trust you'll observe, My Lords, that in a period of less than seventy years from the founding of Grayson, when there were less than twenty-five steadings on the entire planet, no less than six steadholderships had passed through illegitimate -- bastard -- children. Passed, mind you, in instances in which there were clearly recognized, legitimate female children. We have nine hundred and forty-two years of history on this planet. Would you care to estimate how many more times over that millennium steadholderships have passed under similar circumstances?" He tapped the thick folder on his desk. "I can almost guarantee you that whatever total you guess will be too low."

    Silence hovered in his office, and his old-fashioned chair creaked as he sat back in it and folded his hands atop the folder.

    "So what we seem to have here, My Lords, is that although the stigma of bastardy legally bars one from the line of succession of a steadholdership, we've ignored that bar scores of times in the past. The most recent instance of which, I might point out, came in Howell Steading less than twenty T-years ago. Of course, in all the prior instances of our having ignored the law, the bastards in question were the children of male steadholders. In fact, in the vast majority of the cases, there was no way for anyone to prove those steadholders were actually even the fathers of the children in question. However, in the case of a female steadholder, when the fact that she's the mother of the child in question can be scientifically demonstrated beyond question or doubt, suddenly bastardy becomes an insurmountable bar which can't possibly be set aside or ignored. I'm curious, My Lords. Why is that?"

    Four of the Reverend's visitors looked away, unable -- or unwilling -- to meet his fiery, challenging eye. Mueller only flushed darker, jaw muscles ridging, as he glared back. And Jasper Taylor, Steadholder Canseco, looked just as stubbornly angry as Mueller.

    "Very well, My Lords," Sullivan said finally, his voice hard-edged with something far more like contempt than these men were accustomed to hearing, "your . . . concerns are noted. I will, however, inform you, that neither Father Church nor the Sword questions the propriety of this child's inheriting Steadholder Harrington's titles and dignities."

    "That, of course, is your privilege and right, Your Grace," Mueller grated. "Nonetheless, as is also well established in both our Faith and our secular law, a man has both the right and the responsibility to contend for what he believes God's Test requires of him, whatever the Sacristy and Sword may say."

    "Indeed he does," Sullivan agreed, "and I would never for a moment consider denying you that right, My Lord. But before you take your stand before God and man, it might, perhaps, be prudent of you to be certain of your ground. Specifically, this child will not be illegitimate."

    "I beg your pardon?" Mueller jerked upright in his chair, and the other steadholders with him looked equally confused.

    "I said, this child won't be illegitimate," Sullivan repeated coldly. "Surely that should satisfy even you, My Lord."

    "You're God's steward on Grayson, Your Grace," Mueller shot back, "but not God Himself. It's been well established, in both Church and civil law, that no Reverend -- not even the entire Sacristy in assembly -- can make falsehood true simply by saying something is so."

    "Indeed I cannot," Sullivan said icily. "Nonetheless, this child will not be illegitimate. You will not be given the opportunity you so obviously desire to use Lady Harrington's child as a weapon against her. Father Church won't permit it. I won't permit it."

    He smiled once again, his eyes frozen agate-hard.

    "I trust that is sufficiently clear, My Lord?"

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