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Honor nodded to her Marine sentry and stepped through her cabin hatch without a word. Her face showed no emotion at all, but Nimitz was tense on her shoulder, and MacGuiness' welcoming smile congealed into nonexpression the moment he saw her.

"Good evening, Ma'am," he said.

She turned her head at the sound of his voice, and her eyes flickered, as if only now noting his presence. He watched her lips tighten for just an instant, but then she drew a deep breath and smiled at him. To someone who didn't know her, that smile might have looked almost natural.

"Good evening, Mac." She crossed to her desk and dropped her beret on it, then ran her hands through her hair, looking away from him for a moment, before she moved Nimitz from her shoulder to his padded perch, sat in her chair, and swiveled back to face the steward.

"I've got to finish my report on the maneuvers," she said. "Screen my calls while I deal with it, will you? Put anything from Commander Henke, Admiral Sarnow or his staff, or any of the other skippers through, but ask anyone else if the Exec can handle it."

"Of course, Ma'am." MacGuiness hid his concern at the unusual order, and she smiled again, gratefully, at his neutral tone.

"Thank you." She booted her terminal, and he cleared his throat.

"Would you like a cup of cocoa, Ma'am?"

"No, thank you," she said without raising her eyes from the screen. MacGuiness looked at the crown of her head, then exchanged silent glances with Nimitz. The 'cat's body language radiated his own tension, but he flicked his ears and turned his head, pointing his muzzle at the hatch to the captain's pantry, and the steward relaxed slightly. He nodded back and withdrew like a puff of breeze.

Honor continued to stare at the characters on her screen until she heard the hatch close behind him, then shut her eyes and covered them with her hands. She hadn't missed the silent exchange between MacGuiness and Nimitz. A part of her hunkered petulantly down deep inside, resenting it, but most of her was intensely grateful.

She lowered her hands and tipped her chair back with a sigh. Nimitz crooned to her from his perch, and she looked up at him with a weary, bittersweet smile.

"I know," she said quietly.

He hopped down onto her desk and sat upright, holding her dark eyes with his grass-green gaze, and she reached out to caress his soft cream and gray fur. Her fingers were light, barely brushing him, but he didn't push her for more energetic petting, and she felt his concern reaching out to her.

For as long as Nimitz had been with her, Honor had always known he did something to help her through spasms of anger or depression, yet she'd never been able to figure out what it was. As far as she knew, no one who'd been adopted by a 'cat had ever been able to do so, but the strange intensification of their link since Grayson was at work now. She felt his touch, like a loving mental hand reaching deep inside her to soothe the raw edges of her emotions. He wasn't taking them away. Perhaps that was beyond his ability—or perhaps he knew how she would have resented it. Perhaps it was even simpler than that, something which would have been against his own principles. She didn't know, but she closed her eyes once more, hands gentle on his fur while his equally gentle caress comforted her inner hurt.

It was bitterly unfair. She'd been so happy, despite the tension of the Havenite crisis, and now this. It was as if Young had known how well things were going and deliberately gotten himself sent here just to ruin them. She wanted to scream and break things, to storm and rage at a universe that let things like this happen.

But the universe wasn't really unfair, she thought, and her mouth quirked. It just didn't give much of a damn one way or the other.

A strong, delicate true-hand touched her right cheek like a feather, and her eyes reopened. Nimitz crooned to her again, and her smile turned real. She drew him into her arms, hugging him to her breasts, feeling his relief as her inner pain ebbed.

"Thanks," she said softly, burying her face in his furry warmth. He bleeked gently to her, and she gave him another, tighter hug, then lifted him back to his perch. "Okay, Stinker. I'm on top of it, now." He flipped his tail in agreement, and her smile became a grin. "And the truth is, I do have to finish that report before I can run off to supper. So you just sit up there and keep an eye on me, right?"

He nodded and arranged himself comfortably, watching over her while she began scrolling through the paragraphs she'd already written.

Minutes passed, then a half hour, and there was no sound except the hum of Honor's terminal and the soft brush of fingers on a keyboard. She was so deep into her work she hardly noticed the soft com chime.

It sounded again, and she made a face and opened a window to accept the call at her workstation. The lines of her report vanished, and MacGuiness' face replaced them.

"Sorry to disturb you, Ma'am," he said formally, "but the Admiral is screening."

"Thank you, Mac." Honor straightened and brushed her fingers through her hair once more. It might be a good idea to let it grow long enough to braid, she thought absently, and keyed an "ACCEPT" code.

"Good evening, Honor." Admiral Sarnow's tenor was a bit deeper than usual, and she suppressed an ironic smile. She'd wondered if he'd heard the stories about her and Young.

"Good evening, Sir. What can I do for you?"

"I've been working my way through the dispatches Warlock delivered." He watched her face as he named Young's ship, but her eyes didn't even flicker, and he gave a sort of subliminal nod, more felt than seen, at the confirmation that she'd already known.

"There are several items we're going to have to cover in our squadron conference," he went on in a neutral tone, "but before that, I need to welcome Captain Young to the task group."

Honor nodded. The thought of inviting Young aboard her ship sickened her, but she'd known it was coming. Mark Sarnow would never pull a Sir Yancey Parks and freeze any captain out. Not until that captain had given him some specific reason to do so.

"I understand, Sir," she said after a moment. "Has Warlock rendezvoused with the base yet?"

"Yes, she has."

"Then I'll see to the invitation, Sir," she said flatly.

Sarnow started to open his mouth, then closed it. She saw the temptation to send the request through his own communication channels in his eyes and willed him not to make the offer.

"Thank you, Honor. I appreciate it," he said after a moment.

"No problem, Sir," she lied, and the words of her report returned as she cut the link.

She gazed at the report sightlessly for some seconds, then sighed. She'd finished it anyway, she told herself, and saved it to memory. She spent a few minutes routing copies to Sarnow and Ernestine Corell, knowing as she did that she was simply delaying the inevitable, then keyed a com combination. An instant later, the screen lit with Mike Henke's face.

"Bridge, Exec speaking," the commander began, then smiled. "Hello, Skipper. What can I do for you?"

"Please have George contact the repair base, Mike. Ask them to relay a message to the heavy cruiser Warlock." Honor saw Henke's eyes widen and continued in the same, flat voice. "She's just arrived as part of our reinforcements. Please extend my and Admiral Sarnow's compliments to her captain—" the courteous formula was bitter on her tongue "—and invite him to repair on board immediately to confer with the Admiral."

"Yes, Ma'am," Henke said quietly.

"After George passes the message, inform the Bosun we're going to need a side party. And as soon as you hear back from Warlock, let me know when we can expect him aboard."

"Yes, Ma'am. Would you like me to greet him, Ma'am?"

"That won't be necessary, Mike. Just let me know when he's getting here."

"Of course, Ma'am. I'll get right on it."

"Thank you," Honor said, and cut the circuit.

* * *

Captain Lord Pavel Young stood stiff and silent in the repair base personnel capsule, watching the position display flicker as the capsule hurtled through the tube. He wore his best mess dress uniform, complete with the ornate golden sash and anachronistic dress sword, and his reflection looked back at him from the polished capsule wall.

He studied himself silently, eyes bitter despite his gorgeous appearance. Skillful (and expensive) tailoring deemphasized the steady thickening of his middle without quite becoming nonregulation, just as his neatly trimmed beard disguised his double chin. His appearance was satisfyingly perfect, but it took every gram of over-stressed self-control not to snarl at his reflected image.

The gall of the bitch. The sheer gall of her! Her "compliments," indeed! Yes, and oh-so-incidentally linked with Admiral Sarnow's!

This time he did snarl, but he rammed his self-control back into place and banished the expression even while his nerves tingled and spasmed with hatred. Honor Harrington. Lady Harrington. The commonborn slut who'd ruined his career—and now the task group flag captain.

His teeth ground together as he remembered. He hadn't thought much of her the first time he saw her at Saganami Island. She'd been a full form behind him, which should have put her beneath his notice even if she'd been more than some dirt-grubber from Sphinx. And she'd been plain-faced and unsophisticated with her almost shaven hair and beak of a nose, as well. Hardly worth a second look, and certainly not up to his usual standards. But there'd been something about the way she moved, something in the grace of her carriage, which had piqued his interest.

He'd watched her after that. She'd been the pet of the Academy, of course, her and her damned treecat. Oh, she'd pretended she didn't know how the instructors made her their favorite or how everyone fawned over her filthy little beast, but he'd seen it. Even Chief MacDougal, that lout of a phys ed instructor, had doted on her, and Mr. Midshipman Lord Young's interest had grown until he finally made it known.

And the baseborn bitch had turned him down. She'd snubbed him—snubbed him!—in front of his friends. She'd tried to make it seem she didn't know what she was doing, but she had, and when he'd started to put her in her place with a few well-chosen words, that bastard MacDougal had appeared out of nowhere and put him on report for "harassing" her!

No one had turned him down, not since his father's yacht pilot when he was sixteen T-years old, and he'd fixed her ass the next time he caught her alone. Yes, and his father had seen to it she kept her mouth shut about it, too. It should have been the same with Harrington, but it hadn't. Oh, no, not with Harrington.

A low, harsh, hating sound quivered deep in his throat as he remembered his humiliation. He'd planned it so carefully. He'd spent days timing her schedule, until he learned about those private late-night exercise sessions of hers. She liked to turn the grav plates up, and she could have the gym to herself that late, and he'd smiled as he realized he could catch her alone in the showers. He'd even taken the precaution of slipping cotanine into the celery one of her friends kept feeding to her damned treecat. He hadn't got enough into it to kill the little monster, damn it, but it had made him so sleepy she'd left him in her dorm room.

It had been perfect. He'd caught her actually in the shower, naked, and seen the shock and shame in her eyes. He'd savored her panic as he stalked her through the spray, watching her back away while her hands tried ridiculously to cover herself, already tasting his revenge . . . but then something changed. The panic in her eyes had turned into something else when he reached for her to throw her up against the shower wall, and her slippery-wet skin had twisted out of his grasp.

He'd been surprised by her strength as she broke his grip. That was his first thought. And then he'd whooped in anguish as the heel of her right hand slammed into his belly. He'd doubled up, retching with hurt, and her knee had driven up into his crotch like a battering ram.

He'd screamed. Sweat beaded his forehead as he remembered the shame of that moment, the searing agony in his groin and, behind it, the sick, terrible humiliation of defeat. But just stopping him hadn't been enough for the bitch. Her savage, unfair blow had surprised and paralyzed him, and she'd followed through with brutal efficiency.

An elbow had smashed his lips to paste. The edge of a chopping hand had broken his nose. Another crushing blow snapped his collarbone, and her knee ripped up again—this time into his face—as he went down. She'd snapped off two incisors at the gum-line, broken six of his ribs, and left him sobbing in bloody-mouthed agony and terror under the pounding shower as she snatched up her clothing and fled.

God only knew how he'd gotten to the infirmary. He couldn't even remember staggering out of the gym or how he'd run into Reardon and Cavendish, but they'd put some sort of story together. Not enough for anyone to believe, but enough, coupled with his name, to deflect official retribution. Or most of it, anyway. That sanctimonious prig Hartley had still dragged him into his office and made him apologize—apologize!—to the bitch in front of him and the Adjutant.

They'd had to settle for reprimanding him for the "harassment" episode. Young didn't doubt the slut had spilled her guts, but no one had dared do anything about it. Not with no more than her word against that of the Earl of North Hollow's son. But he'd still had to "apologize" to her. And infinitely worse, he'd been afraid of her. He'd tasted his own terror that she might hurt him again, and he'd hated her for that even more than for the beating itself.

He bared his teeth viciously at his reflection. He'd done his best to get her after that, used all his family's influence to destroy her career the way she deserved. But the bitch always had too many friends, like that asshole Courvosier. Of course, Young had always understood that relationship. He'd never been able to prove it, despite the time and money he'd invested in the effort, but he'd known she was spreading for Courvosier. It was the only explanation for the way the old bastard had watched over her career, and—his smile turned ugly with triumph—at least Courvosier had finally gotten his. Too bad the Masadans hadn't gotten their hands on Harrington, too!

He shook himself free of that sweet daydream and back to the drear reality of his repeated failures to deal with her once and for all. He and his father had managed to throw out enough roadblocks to slow her promotions, but the slut had a way of being there whenever the shit hit the fan, and somehow she always got the credit. Like the power room disaster when she'd been tac office on Manticore. She'd gotten the CGM and Monarch's Thanks for pulling three worthless ratings out of that one, then gotten herself mentioned in dispatches for rescuing assholes too stupid to get out of the way when the Attica Avalanche hit Gryphon in 275. Every goddamned time he turned around, there was Harrington, with everyone telling him how wonderful she was.

He'd thought he finally had her in Basilisk, but then she stumbled over the Peep attempt to seize the system. Blind fucking luck again, but did it matter? Hell, no! She got all the kudos, and he got officially censured for "failing to properly assess the threat to his assigned station"! And while she went off to fresh glory in Yeltsin, those motherless bastards at the Admiralty had shuffled him off into oblivion escorting convoys to the Silesian Confederacy, running routine grav wave surveys to update BuAstro's charts—every scut job they could think of. In fact, he'd been due to take still another convoy to Silesia when the growing crisis forced the Admiralty to pull Warlock at the last minute to reinforce Hancock.

And now this. She was flag captain. He was going to have to take the conniving bitch's orders, and he couldn't even use his superior birth to put her in her place. She actually took social precedence, as well! He might be heir to one of the Kingdom's oldest earldoms, but she was a "countess" in her own right. The newest parvenu in the peerage, perhaps, but a countess.

The flicker of the location display slowed as the tube capsule neared its destination, and he managed—somehow—to get the snarl off his face. Four years. Four long, endless T-years he'd endured his shame, the humiliating smirks of his inferiors as he toiled under the Admiralty's displeasure over Basilisk. He owed the bitch for that, too, and someday, somehow, he'd see to it that she paid in full. But for now, he had to endure one more humiliation and pretend nothing had ever happened between them.

The doors slid open, and he drew a deep breath as he stepped out into the spacedock gallery. Fresh, bitter hatred glittered briefly in his eyes as he saw the magnificent ship floating in the dock. HMS Nike, pride of the Fleet. She should have been his, not Harrington's, but the bitch had taken that away from him, as well.

He settled his sword on his hip and walked stiffly towards the Marine sentries at Nike's boarding tube.

* * *

Honor stood with the side party in the entry port, waiting while Young swam the tube, and her palms were damp. Sick loathing boiled in her belly, and she wanted to dry her hands. But she didn't. She simply stood there, face calm, shoulder feeling unnaturally light and oddly vulnerable without Nimitz's warm weight. She hadn't even considered bringing the 'cat to this meeting.

Young appeared around the final bend, sliding through the tube's zero-gee, and her mouth tightened almost imperceptibly as she saw his mess uniform. Just like him to overdress, she thought scornfully. He always had to impress lesser beings with his family's power and wealth.

He reached the scarlet warning line and grasped the grab bar to swing across the interface into Nike's internal gravity, and the scabbard of his sword caught between his legs. He stumbled awkwardly, almost falling, even as the bosun's pipe's shrilled and the wooden-faced side party snapped to attention, and Honor's eyes glowed with brief, vicious pleasure as his face went scarlet in humiliation. But he got himself back on balance, and she'd banished satisfaction from her expression, if not her emotions, by the time he'd settled the sword properly back into place.

He saluted her, his face still red, and she didn't need Nimitz to feel his hatred. He might be senior to her, but he was visiting her ship, and she knew exactly how bitter that had to taste to him as she returned the salute.

"Permission to come aboard, Captain?" The tenor voice, so like and yet so unlike Admiral Sarnow's, was utterly without inflection.

"Permission granted, Captain," she replied with equal formality, and he stepped through the entry port hatch. "If you'll come with me, Captain, the Admiral is waiting for you in his briefing room."

Young nodded a curt acknowledgment and followed her into the lift. He stood on the opposite side of the car, back to the wall, while she punched their destination into the panel, and silence hung between them like poison.

He watched her, savoring his hate like some rare vintage, its bitter bouquet touched with a sweet, hot promise that his day would come. She seemed unaware of his gaze, standing completely at ease with her hands clasped behind her while she watched the location display and ignored him, and his hand tightened on the hilt of his sword like a claw.

The plain-faced slut he remembered from Saganami Island had vanished, and he realized he hated the tall, beautiful woman who'd replaced her even more than he'd hated that self-conscious girl. The understated elegance of artfully applied cosmetics emphasized her beauty, and even through his hatred and the residual fear of finding himself within her physical reach, he felt the tug of desire. The hunger to have her and reduce her to one more notch on his bedpost to put her in her place forever.

The lift stopped, the door opened, and her graceful wave gestured him out. He accompanied her down the passage to the flag briefing room, and Admiral Sarnow looked up as they stepped into the compartment.

"Captain Young, Sir," Harrington said quietly, and he came to attention.

Sarnow looked at him for a long, silent moment, then rose from his chair. Young met his gaze expressionlessly, but something about the admiral's green eyes warned him that this was yet another of the flag officers who sided with the bitch. Was she putting out for him on the side, too?

"Captain." Sarnow nodded, and Young's jaw clenched behind the cover of his beard at the omission of his peerage title.

"Admiral," he replied in an equally toneless voice.

"I imagine you've got a lot to tell me about the situation as seen from Manticore," Sarnow went on, "and I'm eager to hear it. Be seated, please."

Young slid into the chair, adjusting his sword carefully. It was awkward, but it also gave him a flicker of superiority as he compared his own sartorial splendor to the plain undress uniform the admiral wore. Sarnow glanced at him, then looked back at Harrington.

"I understand you have a previous engagement aboard the base, Dame Honor." Young's jaw clenched tighter as he used her title. "Captain Young and I will undoubtedly be tied up here for some time, so I won't keep you. Don't forget the com conference." Something like a small smile touched his lips. "It won't be necessary for you to return aboard if that will be inconvenient. Feel free to use a com aboard the base, if you like."

"Thank you, Sir." Harrington braced to attention, then glanced at Young. "Good evening, Captain," she said emotionlessly, and vanished.

"And now, Captain Young—" Sarnow sat back down and leaned back in his chair "—to business. You brought me a dispatch from Admiral Caparelli, and he says you and he discussed the situation at some length before he sent you out. So suppose you start by letting me hear exactly what His Lordship had to say."

"Of course, Admiral." Young leaned back and crossed his legs. "First of all . . ."


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