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"Thank you, Mac. That was delicious—as always," Honor said as the steward poured the wine. Commander Henke made a replete sound of agreement from the other side of the table, and MacGuiness shrugged with a smile.

"Will you be needing anything else, Ma'am?"

"No, we're fine." He started to gather up the dessert dishes, but she waved a hand. "Leave them for now, Mac. I'll buzz you."

"Of course, Ma'am." MacGuiness gave a small half-bow and vanished, and Honor leaned back with a sigh.

"If he stuffs you like this every night, you're going to start looking like one of those old pre-space blimps," Henke warned her, and she chuckled.

"Nimitz, maybe." Honor smiled fondly at the treecat. He lay belly-down, stretched full length along the perch above her desk with all six limbs dangling, and his soft, buzzing snores were those of a well-stuffed 'cat at peace with the universe.

"But me get fat?" she went on with a headshake. "Not with Paul throwing me around the salle! Or with the Admiral running me ragged, for that matter."

"Amen to that," Henke agreed fervently. Water flowed downhill, and with Honor so immersed in squadron activities, an ever mounting flood of paperwork had inundated the exec. She started to say something else, then paused with a frown and leaned back in her own chair while she toyed with the stem of her wineglass.

"Still, we're making progress," Honor pointed out, "and the yard will have Nike back up in another week or so. I think things are actually going to get a bit easier once we can form the entire squadron in space with proper division organizations and buckle down to blow the last of the rust off."

"Um." Henke nodded absently, still looking down into her wine, then raised her head and cocked an eyebrow. "And Admiral Parks?"

"What about him?" Honor's tone was guarded, and Henke snorted.

"I happen to know you're the only flag captain in this task force who's never been invited to a conference aboard Gryphon. Why don't I think that's a simple oversight?"

"There hasn't been any real reason for him to call me on board," Honor said uncomfortably, and Henke's snort was even louder.

"It's odd enough when an admiral doesn't even invite a newly arrived battlecruiser captain aboard for a courtesy call, Honor. When that captain is also the flag captain of his primary screening formation and she isn't invited to a single flagship conference, it goes beyond odd."

"Perhaps." Honor sipped her wine, then sighed and set the glass aside. "No, not 'perhaps,' " she admitted. "I thought at first I was in the doghouse over Fusion Three, but that stopped making sense weeks ago."

"Exactly. I don't know what his problem is, but it's obvious there is one. And our people are beginning to notice. They're not happy that their captain seems to be being snubbed by their admiral."

"It doesn't reflect on them!" Honor said sharply.

"It's not the reflection on them they're worried about," Henke replied quietly, and Honor shifted uncomfortably.

"Well, there's not much I can do about it. He outranks me by a few light-months, if you recall."

"Have you spoken to Admiral Sarnow about it?"

"No—and I'm not going to, either! If Admiral Parks has some sort of problem with me, it's my problem, not the Admiral's."

Henke nodded. Not in agreement, but because she'd already known what Honor would say.

"In that case, what's on the schedule for tomorrow?" she asked.

"More sims," Honor replied, accepting the change of subject with a small, grateful smile. "A convoy exercise. First we get to defend it against 'raiders operating in unknown strength,' then we get to turn around and attack it—against a dreadnought division escort."

"Ouch! I hope this 'convoy's' going to be carrying something to make our lumps worthwhile."

"Ours not to reason why," Honor said solemnly, and Henke chuckled.

"Well, if we're going to be invited to make the supreme sacrifice for Queen and Kingdom tomorrow, I'd better emulate Nimitz and get some sleep." She started to rise, but Honor's raised hand stopped her. "Something else?" she asked in surprise.

"As a matter of fact . . ." Honor began, but then her voice trailed off. She lowered her eyes to the linen tablecloth and fidgeted with a fork, and Henke leaned back in her chair in sudden speculation as her commanding officer's face turned bright, hot pink.

"You remember when I needed advice back at Saganami Island?" Honor said after a moment.

"What sort of advice? Multi-dee math?"

"No." Honor's blush darkened. "Personal advice."

Henke managed to keep her eyes from widening and nodded with only a brief hesitation, and Honor shrugged.

"Well, I need some more of it. There are some . . . things I never learned, and now I wish I had."

"What sorts of things?" Henke asked cautiously.

"All sorts!" Honor surprised her yet again with a breathless little laugh and dropped the fork to fling up her hands. Her face was still flushed, but it was as if the laugh had demolished some internal barrier, and she smiled. "As a matter of fact, I need some help with makeup, Mike."

"Makeup?" The word started to come out sharp with astonishment, but Henke choked the incredulity out of her voice just in time. And she was thankful she had when she saw the sparkle in Honor's dark eyes.

"I could have asked my mom about it anytime, and she would've been delighted to teach me. Maybe that was part of the problem. She would have decided the 'ice maiden' had finally melted, and God only knows where that would've ended!" Honor laughed again. "Did I ever tell you what she wanted to give me as a graduation present?"

"No, I don't think you did," Henke said, and deep inside she felt a sense of wonder. For all their closeness, there'd always been a guarded core to Honor Harrington—one Henke suspected only Nimitz had ever managed to breach—and this bright-eyed, almost breathless Honor was a stranger to her.

"She wanted to buy me an evening with one of the best male 'escorts' in Landing." Honor shook her head and chuckled at Henke's expression. "Can't you just see it? A great big, towering gawk of an ensign with fuzz for hair out on the town with some glamorous hunk! Lord, I would have died! And just imagine what the neighbors would've thought if they'd ever found out!"

Henke began to chuckle herself as she pictured it, for Sphinx was far and away the most straight-laced of the Kingdom's planets. Professional, licensed courtesans were a fact of life on Manticore. It might not be considered quite the thing to seek their services, but everyone knew "someone else" who had. They weren't particularly unusual on Gryphon, either, but they were very rare birds indeed on Sphinx. Yet she could easily believe Allison Harrington would have done just that. Honor's mother was an immigrant from the Sigma Draconis System's Beowulf, and the sexual mores which prevailed there would have curled a native born Manticoran's hair, much less a Sphinxian's!

The women faced one another across the table, and their chuckles turned into full-throated laughter as each saw the almost fiendish delight in the other's face. But then Honor's laughter slowly ebbed, and she leaned back once more with a sigh.

"Sometimes I wish I'd let her go ahead and do it," she said wistfully. "I could have trusted her to pick the best for me, and maybe then—"

She broke off and waved her hand, and Henke nodded. She'd known Honor for almost thirty T-years, and in all that time, there had never been a man in her life. Never even a hint of one, which seemed even odder somehow in light of her easy relationships and often close friendships with male officers.

And yet, perhaps it wasn't so strange. Honor didn't seem to have any problem regarding herself as "one of the guys," but it was painfully obvious she still thought of herself as the "towering gawk" and "hatchet-faced horse" of her girlhood. She was wrong, of course, but Henke understood how little right or wrong mattered in terms of self-image. Then there'd been Pavel Young, the only man on Saganami Island ever to express an interest in Ms. Midshipman Harrington—and the man who'd tried to rape her when she wasn't interested in return. Honor had kept that whole episode locked inside, but Lord only knew how it had affected a girl who already thought she was ugly.

Yet Henke suspected there was another reason, as well—one Honor herself wasn't aware of—and that reason was Nimitz. Mike Henke remembered the desperately lonely girl who'd been assigned as her dorm mate at Saganami Island, but that loneliness had extended only to other people. Whatever else happened to her, Honor had always had the assurance—not just the belief, but the proof—that one creature in the universe loved her . . . and that creature was an empath. Henke had known several people who'd been adopted by treecats, and every one of them seemed to demand more from personal relationships. They demanded trust. Absolute, total trust, and very few human beings were prepared to extend that to anyone. Henke had always known that. It was one reason she was so immensely flattered to possess Honor's friendship, but she sensed, if only dimly, how that need for trust could cripple anything more than friendship, for a treecat's companion knew when another's trust—and trustworthiness—were less than absolute. In a sense, the price they paid for their bonds with their 'cats was a certain coolness, a distance, from other humans. Especially lovers, with their bottomless capacity to hurt them.

Some of them dealt with it through casual affairs, surface flings intentionally kept too superficial to ever get past their guards, but Honor couldn't do that. More importantly, she wouldn't do it. Despite her mother, there was too much Sphinxian in her . . . and too much stubborn integrity.

"Well, the past is past." Honor sighed, breaking the train of the commander's thoughts. "I can't get it back or do it over again, but I'm afraid it's left me without some of the skills other people take for granted." She touched her face—the left side of her face, Henke noted—and smiled wryly. "Like makeup."

"You don't really need it, you know," Henke said gently, and it was true. She'd never seen Honor wear even lip gloss, but that didn't detract from her clean cut, knife-edged attractiveness.

"Lady," Honor disagreed with half-embarrassed, half-laughing vehemence, "this face needs all the help it can get!"

"You're wrong, but I won't argue with you about it." Henke cocked her head, then smiled slightly. "May I take it you want me to help you repair the, um, deficiencies in your education?" Honor nodded, and Henke's eyes gleamed with fond mockery. "Or should I say, the deficiencies in your arsenal?" she teased, and chuckled as Honor blushed afresh.

"Whatever," she said with all the dignity she could muster.

"Well . . ." Henke pursed her lips thoughtfully, then shrugged. "Our coloring is just a bit different, you know."

"Does that matter?"

"Oh, Lord!" Henke moaned, rolling her eyes heavenward at the simple innocence—and abysmal ignorance—that question betrayed. Honor looked surprised, and Henke shook her head.

"Trust me, it matters. On the other hand, Mother always insisted that all her daughters be well instructed in the fundamental hunting skills. I think I can probably do a little something with you, but I'll have to make a raid on the ship's store, first. Nothing I use would work on you, that's for sure." She frowned and ran through a mental checklist of all she'd need, for one thing was certain; there were no cosmetics in Honor's medicine cabinet.

"How soon do you want to achieve the desired result?" she asked.

"Within the next week or so?" Honor suggested almost hesitantly, and Henke, to her credit, managed not to smile.

"I think we can manage that. Tell you what, this is Thursday—how about I drop by before supper next Wednesday and educate you in Drop Dead Gorgeous 101 then?"

"Wednesday?" Honor's blush was back. She looked away, studying the Queen's painting on the bulkhead, and Henke fought an urge to laugh, for Honor had dined regularly with Paul Tankersley on Wednesday nights for over six weeks now. "Wednesday would be good," she agreed after a moment, and Henke nodded.

"Done. In the meantime, however—" she rose "—I really do need to get some sack time for tomorrow. Meet to discuss the sim at zero-six-thirty?"

"That sounds about right." Honor sounded relieved by the return to a professional topic, but she dragged her eyes back from Queen Elizabeth's portrait and smiled. "And . . .  thanks, Mike. Thanks a lot."

"Hey! What are friends for?" Henke laughed, then straightened her shoulders and clicked to a sort of abbreviated attention. "And on that note, good night, Ma'am."

"Good night, Mike," Honor said, and her smile followed the commander out the hatch.

* * *

" . . . and I believe that covers just about everything, ladies and gentlemen," Sir Yancey Parks said. "Thank you, and good night."

His assembled squadron commanders stood at his dismissal and departed with courteous nods. All but one of them, and Parks' eyebrows rose as Rear Admiral Mark Sarnow retained his seat.

"Is something on your mind, Admiral?" he asked.

"Yes, Sir, I'm afraid something is," Sarnow said quietly. "I wonder if I might speak with you a moment." His eyes flicked to Commodore Capra and Captain Hurston, then back to Parks. "In private, Sir."

Parks inhaled sharply and felt the matching surprise in Capra and Hurston. Sarnow's tone was diffident and respectful yet firm, and his green eyes were very level. Capra started to say something, but the admiral raised a hand and stopped him.

"Vincent? Mark? If you'd excuse us for a moment? I'll join you in my chart room to finish reexamining those deployment changes when Admiral Sarnow and I are finished."

"Of course, Sir." Capra rose, gathering up the ops officer with his eyes, and the two of them left. The hatch sighed shut behind them, and Parks tilted his chair back and raised one hand, palm uppermost, at Sarnow.

"What was it you wished to speak to me about, Admiral?"

"Captain Harrington, Sir," Sarnow replied, and Parks' eyes narrowed.

"What about Captain Harrington? Is there a problem?"

"Not with her, Sir. I'm delighted with her performance. In fact, that's the reason I asked to speak to you."


"Yes, Sir." Sarnow met his CO's gaze with an edge of challenge. "May I ask, Sir, why Captain Harrington is the only flag captain never to be invited to a conference aboard Gryphon?"

Parks leaned further back, his face expressionless, and his fingers drummed on the arm of his chair.

"Captain Harrington," he said after a moment, "has been fully occupied getting her ship back on-line and learning her responsibilities as a flag captain, Admiral. I saw no reason to take her away from those more pressing duties to attend routine conferences."

"With all due respect, Sir Yancey, I don't believe that's true," Sarnow said, and Parks flushed.

"Are you calling me a liar, Admiral Sarnow?" he asked very softly. The younger man shook his head, but his eyes never flinched.

"No, Sir. Perhaps I should have said I don't believe her pressing schedule is the sole reason you've excluded her from your confidence."

Air hissed between Parks' teeth as he inhaled, and his eyes were as icy as his voice.

"Even assuming that statement to be true, I fail to see precisely how my relationship with Captain Harrington concerns you, Admiral."

"She's my flag captain, Sir, and a damned fine one," Sarnow replied in those same, level tones. "In the past eleven weeks, she has not only mastered her squadron duties to my complete—my total—satisfaction, but done so while simultaneously overseeing major repairs to her own command. She's demonstrated an almost uncanny knack for tactical evolutions, earned the respect of all of my other captains, and taken a considerable portion of Captain Corell's headaches onto her own shoulders. More than that, she's an outstanding officer with a record and depth of experience any captain could be proud of and very few can match, but her pointed exclusion from task force conferences can only be taken as an indication that you lack confidence in her."

"I have never said or even hinted that I lack confidence in Captain Harrington," Parks said frigidly.

"Perhaps you've never said so, Sir, but you have certainly, whether intentionally or unintentionally, indicated that you do." 

Parks' chair snapped upright, and his face tightened. He was clearly furious, yet there was something more than simple fury in his eyes as he leaned toward Sarnow.

"Let me make one thing plain, Admiral. I will not tolerate insubordination. Is that clear?"

"It isn't my intention to be insubordinate, Sir Yancey." Sarnow's normally melodious tenor was flat, almost painfully neutral but unflinching. "As the commander of a battlecruiser squadron attached to your command, however, it is my duty to support my officers. And if I feel one of them is being treated unfairly or unjustly, it's my responsibility to seek an explanation of his or her treatment."

"I see." Parks pushed himself back in his chair and took a firm grip on his seething temper. "In that case, Admiral, I'll be perfectly frank. I wasn't pleased when Captain Harrington was assigned to this task force. I have a less than lively faith in her judgment, you see."

"No, Sir, again with all due respect, I don't see how you could form an opinion of her judgment without ever even meeting her."

Parks right hand clenched on the conference table, and his eyes were dangerous.

"Her record clearly demonstrates that she's both hotheaded and impulsive," he said coldly. "She personally antagonized Klaus Hauptman, and I need hardly tell you how powerful the Hauptman Cartel is. Or how rocky Hauptman's relationship with the Fleet has been for years. Given the tension with the PRH, setting him at loggerheads—further at loggerheads, I should say—with Her Majesty's Navy was a stupid thing for any officer to do. Then there was her insubordination to Admiral Hemphill when she addressed the Weapons Development Board after Basilisk. What she said needed saying, granted, but it should have been said in private and with at least a modicum of proper military respect. Certainly she showed gross misjudgment by using a vital service board to publicly embarrass a flag officer in the Queen's service!

"Not content with that, she assaulted a diplomatic envoy of Her Majesty's Government in Yeltsin, and then issued an ultimatum to a friendly head of state. And while no charges were ever filed, it is a matter of common knowledge that she had to be physically restrained from murdering POWs in her custody after the Battle of Blackbird! However splendid her combat record, that behavior indicates a clear pattern of instability. The woman is a loose warhead, Admiral, and I don't want her under my command!"

Parks made his hands unclench and leaned back, breathing heavily, but Sarnow refused to retreat a centimeter.

"I disagree, Sir," he said softly. "Klaus Hauptman went to Basilisk to browbeat her into abandoning her duty as a Queen's officer. She refused, and her subsequent actions—for which she received this Kingdom's second-highest award for valor—are the only reason Basilisk does not now belong to the People's Republic. As for her appearance before the WDB, she addressed herself solely to the issues the Board had invited her there to discuss, and did so in a rational, respectful fashion. If the conclusions of the Board embarrassed its chairwoman, that certainly wasn't her fault.

"In Yeltsin," Sarnow went on in a voice whose calm fooled neither man, "she found herself, as Her Majesty's senior officer, in a near hopeless position. No one could have realistically blamed her for obeying Mr. Houseman's illegal order to abandon Grayson to the Masadans—and Haven. Instead, she chose to fight, despite the odds. I don't condone her physical attack on him, but I certainly understand it. And as for the 'prisoners of war' she allegedly attempted to murder, may I remind you that the POW in question was the senior officer of Blackbird Base, who had not simply permitted but ordered the murder and mass rape of Manticoran prisoners. Under the circumstances, I would have shot the bastard—unlike Captain Harrington, who allowed her allies to talk her out of it so that he could be legally tried and sentenced to death. Moreover, the judgment of Her Majesty's Government on her actions in Yeltsin is plain. May I remind you that Captain Harrington was not only knighted and admitted to the peerage as Countess Harrington but is the only non-Grayson ever to be awarded the Star of Grayson for heroism?"

"Countess!" Parks snorted. "That was no more than a political gesture to please the Graysons by acknowledging all the awards they piled on her!"

"With respect, Sir, it was much more than a 'political gesture,' though I don't deny it pleased the Graysons. Of course, if she'd been given the precedence actually due a steadholder under Grayson Law—or, for that matter, commensurate with the size of her estates on Grayson or their probable eventual income—she wouldn't have been made a countess. She'd be Duchess Harrington."

Parks glared at him but bit his lip in silence, for Sarnow was right and he knew it. The younger admiral waited a moment, then continued.

"Finally, Sir, there is no record, anywhere, of her ever acting with less than total professionalism and courtesy to any individual who had not offered nearly intolerable provocation to her. Nor is there any record of her ever having done one millimeter less than her duty.

"As for your judgment that you don't want her under your command, I can only say that I am delighted to have her under mine. And if she remains as my flag captain, then both her position and her record require that she be accorded the respect they deserve."

Silence stretched out between them, and Parks felt his anger like slow, churning lava as he recognized the ultimatum in Sarnow's eyes. The only way to get rid of Harrington was to get rid of Sarnow, and he couldn't. He'd known that from the start, given the Admiralty's decision to assign both of them here—and, for that matter, to give Harrington Nike. Worse, Sarnow was just likely to lodge an official protest if he tried to sack Harrington, and except for her obvious inability or unwillingness to restrain her temper, he had no overt justification for doing so—especially with Sarnow so obviously poised to write an outstanding fitness report on her for any board of inquiry.

He wanted to snarl at the rear admiral, to relieve him for his insubordination and send both of them packing, but he couldn't. And deep inside he knew part of it was his own temper, his own anger and frustration. Not just at having to put up with Harrington, but for having put himself in a position which allowed this arrogant sprig to lecture him on military propriety . . . and be right, damn him!

"All right, Admiral Sarnow," he asked after endless minutes of fulminating silence, "just what is it you want me to do?"

"All I ask, Sir, is that you accord Captain Harrington the same respect and opportunity for input into task force operations that you accord every other flag captain under your command."

"I see." Parks made his muscles unclench and regarded the rear admiral with a cold lack of liking, then inhaled. "Very well, Admiral. I'll give Captain Harrington the opportunity to prove me wrong about her. And for both your sakes, I hope she does."


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