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Chapter Twenty-One

"And that's the lead ship of our new SD class," High Admiral Wesley Matthews told his guests, waving with pardonable pride at the immense, virtually completed hull drifting beyond the armorplast view port. "We've got nine more just like her building as follow-ons," he added, and William Alexander and Sir Thomas Caparelli nodded with deeply impressed expressions.

And well they should be impressed, White Haven thought, standing behind his brother and listening to Matthews' description of the enormous activity going on here in Yeltsin's Star's Blackbird Yard.

Of course, they haven't seen the specs for the class yet, so they don't really know how impressed they ought to be, he reminded himself wryly. I wonder how Caparelli will react when he does find out?

The thought came and went, flickering through his brain almost like an automatic reflex without ever diverting his attention from the scene beyond the view port. He'd been here often over the last several months, yet the sights and energy of the place never failed to fascinate him, for Blackbird Yard was totally unlike the Star Kingdom's huge space stations.

For all the relative primitivism of its technology, Grayson had maintained a large-scale space presence for more than half a millennium. Not that it had been anything to boast about in the beginning. They'd had the capability—barely—to exile the losing side of their Civil War to the neighboring system of Endicott, but that was a hop of less than four light-years. Even to accomplish that much had required them to reinvent a cruder form of the Pineau cryogenic process and virtually beggar the war torn planet just to get less than ten thousand "colonists" across the interstellar divide. The strain of it had been almost intolerable for the Civil War's survivors, and it had probably set Grayson's efforts to exploit its own star system back by at least fifty years. Yet it had also been the only way to get the defeated Faithful (and their "doomsday bomb") off the planet, and so Benjamin IV and his government had somehow made it all work.

But that had been six hundred years ago. Since then, and despite ups and downs—and one eighty-year period when the Conclave of Steadholders had been forced to fight bitterly against three Protectors in a row who, with a dogmatism truly worthy of their Neo-Luddite ancestors, had preferred to concentrate on "practical" planet-side solutions to problems and turn their backs on the limitless possibilities of space—the Graysons' off-planet presence had grown prodigiously. By the time their world joined the Manticoran Alliance, the Grayson deep-space infrastructure, while almost all sublight and vastly more primitive than the Star Kingdom's, had actually been almost the size of Manticore-A's, with a far larger work force (almost inevitably, given their manpower-intensive technology base), and they had their own notions about how things should be done.

"Excuse me, High Admiral," Caparelli asked in a suddenly very intense tone, "but is that—?" He was leaning forward, his nose almost pressed against the armorplast, as he pointed at the all but finished hull, and Matthews nodded.

"She's our equivalent of your Medusa-class," he confirmed with the broad smile of a proud father.

"But how the devil did you get the design into production this quickly?" Caparelli demanded.

"Well, some of our Office of Shipbuilding people were in the Star Kingdom working on the new compensator and LAC projects when the Medusa was first contemplated," Matthews said. "Your BuShips involved a couple of them—including Protector Benjamin's brother, Lord Mayhew—in the planning process when they started roughing out the power-to-mass numbers for her impellers and compensator, and they just sort of stayed involved. So we had the plans by the same time your people did, and, well—" He shrugged.

"But we only finalized the design thirteen T-months ago!" Caparelli protested.

"Yes, Sir. And we laid this ship down a year ago. She should commission in another two months, and the other nine should all be completed within two or three months of her."

Caparelli started to say something more, then closed his mouth with a click and gave White Haven a fulminating glance. The Earl only smiled back blandly. He'd passed on the information when it came to his attention the better part of nine T-months ago, but it had been evident from several things Caparelli had said that no one had routed a copy of White Haven's report to him. Well, that was hardly the Earl's fault. Besides, the shock of discovering just how far advanced the Grayson Navy really was ought to be good for the First Space Lord, he thought, and returned to his consideration of the differences between Grayson and Manticoran approaches to shipbuilding

The biggest one, he thought as their pinnace drifted closer to the ship Matthews was still describing, was that Grayson yards were far more decentralized. The Star Kingdom preferred putting its building capacity into nodal concentrations with enormous, centralized, and highly sophisticated support structures, but the Graysons preferred to disperse them. No doubt that owed something to the crudity of their pre-Alliance tech base, he mused. Given how incredibly manpower-intensive Grayson shipbuilding had been (by Manticoran standards, at least), it had actually made sense to spread projects out (as long as one didn't get carried away about it) so that one's work force didn't crowd itself. And one thing any star system had plenty of was room in which to spread things out.

But even though the Graysons now had access to modern technology, they showed no particular intention to copy the Manticoran model, and as White Haven could certainly attest from personal experience—not to mention discussions with his brother, who ran the Star Kingdom's Exchequer—there were definite arguments in favor of their approach. For one thing, it was a hell of a lot cheaper, both financially and in terms of start-up time.

The Graysons hadn't bothered with formal slips, space docks, or any of dozens of other things Manticoran shipbuilders took for granted. They just floated the building materials out to the appropriate spot, which in this case was in easy commuting range of one of their huge asteroid mining central processing nodes. Then they built the minimal amount of scaffolding, to hold things together and give their workers something to anchor themselves to, and simply started putting the parts together. It was almost like something from back in the earliest days of the Diaspora, when the colony ships were built in Old Earth or Mars orbit, but it certainly worked.

There were drawbacks, of course. The Graysons had saved an enormous amount on front-end investment, but their efficiency on a man-hour basis was only about eighty percent that of the Star Kingdom's. That might not seem like a very big margin, but considering the billions upon billions of dollars of military construction involved, even small relative amounts added up into enormous totals. And their dispersed capacity was also far more vulnerable to the possibility of a quick Peep pounce on the system. The massive space stations of the Royal Manticoran Navy were at the heart of the Manticore Binary System's fortifications and orbital defenses, with enormous amounts of firepower and—especially—anti-missile capability to protect them. The Blackbird Yard depended entirely upon the protection of the star system's mobile forces, and the incomplete hulls would be hideously vulnerable to anyone who got into range to launch a missile spread in their direction. On the other hand, the Graysons and their allies had thus far successfully kept any Peeps from getting close enough to damage their yards, and the people of Yeltsin's Star were willing to throw an incredible number of workers at the project, which more than compensated for their lower per-man-hour productivity.

"That's an awfully impressive sight, High Admiral," Caparelli said. "And I don't mean just that you've gotten the new design into actual series production while we were still arguing about whether or not to build the thing at all! I'm talking about the sheer activity level out there." He gestured at the view port. "I don't believe I've ever seen that many people working on a single ship at once."

"We almost have to do it that way, Sir Thomas," Matthews replied. "We don't have all the mechanical support you have back in the Star Kingdom, but we do have lots of trained deep space construction crews. In fact, the old-fashioned nature of our pre-Alliance industry actually gives us more trained personnel than we might have had otherwise."

"Oh?" Caparelli turned to raise an eyebrow at me. "Lucien Cortez said something like that to me last week, while I was getting ready to come out here, but I didn't have time to ask him what he meant," the First Space Lord admitted.

"It's simple enough, really," Matthews told him. "Even before the Alliance, we had an enormous commitment to our orbital farms, asteroid extraction industries, and the military presence we needed against those fanatics on Masada. It may not have been all that impressive on the Manticoran scale, but it was certainly more extensive than you'd find in most star systems out this way. But the important point was that we'd put that all together with an industrial base which was maybe twenty percent as efficient as yours. Which meant we needed four or five times the manpower to accomplish the same amount of work. But now we're almost up to Manticoran standards, and it's actually easier to train—or retrain—people to use your hardware than it was to teach them to use ours in the first place. So we took all those people who used to do things the old-fashioned way, trained them to do them the new way, gave them the tools they needed to do it with, and then got out of their way." The High Admiral shrugged. "They took it from there."

"Somehow I don't think it was quite that simple, High Admiral," William Alexander said. "I've certainly had enough experience of the sort of financial strain this level of activity—" he waved a hand at the armorplast "—would entail back home. You've got—what? Three hundred billion Manticoran dollars worth of warships?—building out there, Sir, and this is only one of your yards." He shook his head. "I would dearly love to know how you manage that."

"Actually, we've got closer to seven hundred billion dollars worth of tonnage under construction," Matthews said with quiet pride, "and that doesn't even count our ongoing investment in upgrading our orbital forts and expanding our yard facilities and other infrastructure. By the time you put it all together, we probably have something well over a couple of trillion of your dollars worth of construction underway right now, and the new budget just authorized expenditures which should increase that by about fifty percent in the next three T-years."

"My God," Caparelli said quietly. He turned to stare back out the view port for several seconds, then shook his head in turn. "I'm even more impressed than I was a few moments ago, High Admiral. You're talking a good chunk of the Royal Navy's construction budget there."

"I know," Matthews agreed, "and I'm certainly not going to tell you that it's easy, but we do have some offsetting advantages. For one thing, your civilian standard of living and the economic and industrial commitment required to sustain it are much higher than ours." He waved a hand with a crooked smile. "I'm not saying your people are 'softer,' or that ours wouldn't love to have the same standard of living yours do. But the fact is that we never had it before, and we don't have it now. We're working on bringing ours up, but our people understand about making sacrifices to defend themselves—we had enough practice against Masada—and we've deliberately chosen to expand our military capacity at several times the rate at which we've expanded our civilian capacity. Even at the rate of civilian expansion we've allowed, our people's standard of living has gone up by something on the order of thirty percent—that's a planet-wide average—in just the last six years, so we're not hearing a lot of complaints.

"In the meantime," he flashed a smile at Caparelli, "we're actually showing a profit selling warships and components to the Star Kingdom!"

"You are?" Caparelli blinked, then looked sharply at Alexander, who shrugged.

"I haven't looked at the figures lately, Sir Thomas. I do know that whether Grayson is showing a profit or not, we're saving something like fifteen percent on the hardware we buy from them."

"I'm sure you are, Lord Alexander," Matthews said. "But when you crank our lower wages into the equation, our production costs are also much lower than yours. In fact, one of the reasons Lady Harrington was able to interest your Hauptman Cartel in investing in Blackbird was to get us more deeply involved in civilian construction, as well." He nodded at the view port again. "You can't see it from here, but over on the other side of the yard, we're building half a dozen Argonaut-class freighters for Hauptman. We happen to be building them at cost—as the down payment on a process which will end up allowing Grayson and Sky Domes to buy out Hauptman's share of the yard—but if it works out half as well as we expect it to, we should see orders start to come in from the other cartels over the next T-year or two."

"You're building all this and civilian ships too?" Caparelli demanded.

"Why not?" Matthews shrugged. "We're close to the limit of what the government can afford on our current warship programs, but thanks to Hauptman's initial investment—and Lady Harrington's, of course—our total building capacity is considerably higher than that. So we divert some of our labor force to civilian construction and build the ships for about sixty percent of what it would cost to build them in the Star Kingdom—assuming that any of your major builders could find the free yard capacity for them—and then Hauptman gets brand new freighters from us for eighty percent of what they would have paid a Manticoran builder. The cartel's actual out-of-pocket cost is only forty percent—the other forty percent goes towards retiring their investment in the yard—but that's enough to cover Blackbird's actual expenses, since the Sword has exempted the transaction from taxes in order to accelerate the buy-out. Meanwhile, the workers' wages go into the system economy, and everyone's happy."

"Except, perhaps, the Manticoran builders who aren't building the ships," Alexander observed in slightly frosty tones.

"My Lord, if you could find the free civilian building slips back home, then you might have a point," Matthews said without apology.

"He's got you there, Willie," White Haven observed with a smile. "Besides, isn't it still Her Majesty's Government's policy to help 'grow' Grayson industrial capacity?"

"Yes. Yes, it is," Alexander said after a moment. "If I sounded as if I meant otherwise, I apologize, High Admiral. You simply surprised me."

"We know how much we owe the Star Kingdom, Lord Alexander," Matthews said seriously, "and we have no desire whatsoever to gouge you or suck your financial blood. But our economic starting point was so far behind yours that it provides us with opportunities we'd be fools not to exploit. And for the foreseeable future, it works in both of our favors. The volume of our interstellar trade has risen by several thousand percent in less than a decade, which has produced a boom economy for us despite the cost of the war effort. At the same time, and even allowing for all the loans and trade incentives your government extended to us at the time of the Alliance, you're actually saving money by buying ships and components from us. And speaking strictly for the Grayson Navy," the high admiral's grin bared even white teeth, "I'd like to think that our increased presence adds a little something to the military security of both our nations."

"I'd say there's not much doubt of that, at any rate," White Haven observed, and both Alexander and Caparelli nodded in grave agreement.

And, the Earl thought, it doesn't even mention things—like the new inertial compensators and the fission piles for the new LACs—which we would never have had without the Graysons. Or the way their habit of charging ahead with things like their own Medusas keep pushing us a little harder than we'd push ourselves. No, he folded his hands behind him and gazed at the enormous superdreadnought, now less than ten kilometers away, it doesn't matter how much we've invested in Yeltsin's Star. Whatever the final total, we've already gotten one hell of a lot more than our money's worth back on it!


William Alexander had seen entirely too many formal dinners in his life. Unlike his older brother, he actually enjoyed social events, but formal dinners like this one were too much a part of his everyday political life even for him. Most of the time they were just business, about as exciting and enjoyable as a sprained ankle.

But this one was different. It was the first Grayson state dinner he had ever attended, and he was one of the honored guests rather than one of the anxious hosts. That would have been an enormous relief all by itself, but the Graysons' welcome was also genuine and heartfelt. And the dinner gave him a chance to sit here and think about all he'd seen and discovered over the last two days. There was more than enough new information to make his head spin, but he was devoutly grateful that he'd come, and not just to serve as the Prime Minister's personal spokesman when it came to explaining the delay in building up Eighth Fleet. No, he'd learned things from this trip that he could never have learned sitting home on Manticore, and that would have been ample justification for the journey all by itself.

It was odd, he reflected, how many of the Star Kingdom's leaders—himself included, at times—tended to think of Grayson as an immature society still suffering from the barbarism of youth. His tour of the Blackbird Yard had begun undermining that perception in his own mind, but that had been only the start. The whirlwind tour of half a dozen Grayson ships High Admiral Matthews had arranged for Caparelli and himself, the tour of the brand new schools upon which Katherine Mayhew had conducted him, and his intensive conferences with Lord Prestwick and the rest of the Protector's Council had hammered home the fact that whatever else these people were, they were neither crude nor unsophisticated. And here in the planetary capital of Austin, with its ancient stonework and narrow streets, the illusion of a "young" society was particularly hard to sustain.

Unlike many colony worlds, the Star Kingdom had never experienced a neo-barbarian period. Its colonists had picked up exactly where they'd left off, as members of a technic society. Indeed, thanks to the farsighted investments of Roger Winton and the original leaders of the Manticoran expedition who'd set up the Manticore Colony Trust back on Old Earth, they'd actually found instructors waiting for them to bring them up to speed on all the advances humanity had made during the six hundred years of their cryogenic voyage. Not even the Plague of 1454 had seriously shaken their grip on technology—or their fundamental confidence that they were in control of their own destinies.

But Grayson had experienced neo-barbarianism. It had been smashed back to its bedrock and begun all over again, and that experience had left its people a legacy of awareness. Unlike their Manticoran allies, the Graysons' ancestors had been forced to confront and resolve the fundamental clash between what they had thought was true and what actually was true, and in the process they had developed a mindset in which the question genuinely was the answer. And that, Alexander told himself, was scarcely the mark of "youthful barbarism." The Grayson answers to the questions of how to build a society had been different from those of the Star Kingdom, yet unlike Manticorans, the Graysons, by and large, were willing to go on asking and examining, and Alexander found that a humbling thought. Manticorans seldom really questioned where they were going as a culture, or why. They might argue about their course—as, for example, in the endless, bitter ideological disputes between his own Centrists and Countess New Kiev's Liberals—but that was because both sides were already confident they knew the answers . . . and each was convinced the other didn't. There was a certain smugness (and shallowness) about that narrowly focused certainty and dismissal of any opposing viewpoint, and for all the caricatures some Manticorans drew of Graysons, few of Benjamin Mayhew's subjects could ever be called "smug."

That was even more surprising to Alexander when he reflected that the human civilization on this planet was twice as old as that of the Star Kingdom, and that age showed in the sense of antiquity which clung to the older portions of Benjamin's capital. The narrow streets of the Old Quarter, built to accommodate animal-drawn carts and wagons, and the half-ruinous walls of fortifications built to resist black powder and battering rams still stood in mute testimony to the battle this planet had fought to claw its way back from the brink of extinction to where it now stood, and it had waged that epic struggle all alone. No one had even known its people were here to help—assuming anyone could have been bothered to help them anyway. No doubt that was largely what produced that impression of towering conservatism on casual observers who only skimmed the surface. This planet had found its own answers, developed its own highly distinctive identity without interacting with the interstellar template of the rest of humanity . . . and in a way that no one from the Star Kingdom would ever understand without coming here and seeing it, it was Grayson which was the elder partner in the Alliance.

He sat back in his chair and sipped iced tea while he looked around the huge formal setting of the Old Palace's Great Hall. Iced tea was uncommon in the Star Kingdom, where the beverage was usually served hot, but it was a Grayson staple, and he found the flavor added by the sugar and twist of lemon intriguing. It had serious potential as a summer drink back home, he decided, and made a mental note to introduce it at his next political dinner.

But the note was an absent one, and he felt the antiquity of Grayson yet again as he let his eyes wander up the banners hanging from the ceiling. The Great Hall lay at the very heart of the Old Palace, a sprawling stone structure dating from just after the Civil War, built for a warrior king named Benjamin IV. The Civil War had been fought with the weapons of an industrial age, however crude and primitive the tanks and napalm and first-generation nukes of the time might seem by modern standards, but the Old Palace had followed the architectural traditions of an earlier age. In no small part, Alexander suspected, that had stemmed from Benjamin the Great's determination to drive home the lesson that the Sword now ruled—and no longer as first among equals. Like his new Constitution, his palace had been intended to make the Sword's primacy crystal clear, and so he had built a huge, brooding pile of stone whose grim face reflected the iron power of his rule and whose sheer size overwhelmed anything a "mere" steadholder might call home.

He'd overdone it just a bit, Alexander mused. In fairness, expecting a man who had already demonstrated his genius as a warrior, a strategist, a politician, a theologian, and a law-giver to also be a genius in matters architectural would probably have been a bit much, but this hulking stone maze must have been an eye-catching archaism even when it was brand new. And that had been six hundred years ago.

Is it possible Benjamin and Gustav Anderman were both just a little confused about which age they really lived in? he wondered. After all, Anderman thought he was what's-his-name—Frederick the Great, reincarnated—didn't he? I wonder who Benjamin thought he was?

But whoever or whenever Benjamin had thought he was, or the fact that his palace had been modernized several times in the last six centuries—and despite the fact that the Mayhew family had moved delightedly to the much younger Protector's Palace next door sixty years ago—the Old Palace was still older than the entire Star Kingdom of Manticore . . . and its harsh fortress skeleton still showed unyieldingly. The banquet hall's roof towered three stories above the marble-flagged floor, with square-cut rafters a meter on a side and blackened with time. Some of the banners which hung from those rafters were all but impossible to identify, their bright embroidery smoothed away and obliterated by time, but he knew the one which hung directly over Benjamin IX's high seat. Its device was hard to make out, yet it hardly mattered. Benjamin the Great had personally ordered the standard of the vanished Steading of Bancroft hung over his chair here in the Great Hall, and there the trophy had stayed for six hundred T-years.

Yet for all its age, the Great Hall was also strangely modern, with state-of-the-art lighting, central heat (and air conditioning), and air filtration systems which would have done any space habitat proud. And the people sitting at the tables presented an equally odd mixture of the ancient and the modern. The women looked right at home in the Great Hall—like something out of a historical documentary in their elaborately embroidered, tabard-like vests, floor-length gowns, and elaborately coiffured hair—and the men in formal Grayson attire looked almost equally archaic. Alexander had no idea why any society would preserve the "neckties" the men wore (he understood they had gone out of fashion several times over the planet's history; what he didn't understand was why in Heaven's name they'd ever come back into fashion again), but it certainly made the Manticorans and other off-worlders scattered through the crowd stand out. Yet here and there among the Graysons were islands which appeared less anachronistic to his Manticoran eyes. Many of the women, including both of the Protector's wives, wore far simpler gowns which Alexander's well-trained fashion sense realized were modeled on those Honor Harrington had introduced. And some of the men had abandoned Grayson attire for more modern garb, as well.

But what really caught the eye was the sheer number of men who wore military uniform of one sort or another . . . and how much smaller the percentage of women in uniform was. Environmental factors had frozen Grayson's population for centuries, but it had been increasing steadily for the last fifty or sixty T-years, and the curve of population growth had shot up sharply in the last decade. By now, the planet's total population was somewhere in the very near vicinity of three billion, which came close to matching that of all three of the Star Kingdom's planets. But given the peculiarities of Grayson birthrates, only about seven hundred and fifty million of those people were male. Which, coupled with the social mores which had banned women from military service ever since the planet's initial colonization, gave Grayson a military manpower pool barely a quarter as big as the Star Kingdom's. Actually, given the impact of prolong on Manticoran society and the higher resulting percentage of its total population which were adults, the differential was almost certainly even higher than that. But it still meant that a far, far higher percentage of Grayson's men were members of the ever-expanding Grayson military.

And at the moment, every one of them seemed to be sitting in the Great Hall for dinner.

It gave Grayson rather a different perspective on the Havenite Wars, Alexander reflected. High Admiral Matthews had touched on it several times during his guided tour of Blackbird, yet it was something else Alexander hadn't adequately considered before this trip. He should have, for Hamish had certainly alluded to it frequently enough, but it was another of those things someone had to see and feel for himself before his mind made the leap to understanding.

The Star Kingdom had spent a half century prior to the outbreak of hostilities building up its navy and alliances against the day of reckoning which had to come. Manticore had approached the battle against the PRH with a long-term wariness, a sense of the inevitable (though some Manticorans—and Alexander could name a few from certain prominent political circles—had done their level best to hide from the truth), which was actually almost a disadvantage, in an odd sort of way, once the shooting started. It was as if certain chunks of the Manticoran public felt that all the time and effort and money they had invested in getting ready for the war should somehow have gone into a metaphysical savings account as a sort of down payment which would somehow excuse them from making still more investment in actually fighting the war now that it had begun. They weren't tired, precisely. Not "war weary"—not really, and not yet—but they seemed . . . disappointed. They'd spent all that time getting ready to resist the sort of lightning campaign Haven had used to smash all of its previous opponents, and they'd expected the same sort of quick decision, one way or the other, as in all those earlier campaigns.

But it hadn't worked that way. Alexander and Allen Summervale had known it wouldn't be a short, quick war—not if they were lucky enough to survive at all—as had their monarch and the military, and they'd done their best to prepare the public for the reality of an extended struggle. Yet they'd failed. Or perhaps it was more accurate to say that they hadn't succeeded completely. There were people out there who understood, after all, and Alexander suspected the numbers were growing. But that sense that the war should have been over by now, especially with the Royal Navy and its allies smashing Peep fleet after Peep fleet, worried him. It was an unformed groundswell at this point, but William Alexander had been in politics for sixty T-years, and he had developed the discerning eye of a skilled navigator. There was a potential storm out there on the horizon, and he wondered just how well the ship he'd spent six decades helping to build would weather it if—or when—it broke.

But Graysons saw things differently. They'd come to the Havenite wars late . . . yet they'd spent the last six centuries preparing for—and fighting—another war. Looking back, one might call the crushing defeat Honor Harrington and Alexander's older brother had handed the Masadan descendants of the Faithful the true first shot of the current war. But for Grayson, it had been only a transition, a turn from confronting one enemy to confronting another. They knew all about long wars, and they were no more concerned by the potential length of this one than they had been over the interminable duration of the last. It would take however long it took . . . and Grayson was grimly determined to be there until the very end.

And that determination was producing some changes in Grayson society which would have been flatly denounced even as little as five years earlier. There were still no Grayson women in uniform, but the military women "on loan" to the GSN from the RMN and serving in other navies were steadily grinding away that particular prohibition. And Grayson women were beginning to enter the civilian labor force in unprecedented numbers. Alexander and Admiral Caparelli had been astonished to discover that over fifteen percent of Blackbird's clerical and junior management staff were women, only a handful of them from out-system. Even more startling, there had been a few women—just a tiny percentage so far, but growing—on the engineering staff, as well. Some of them were actually on the construction gangs! Alexander had no idea who the "Rosie the Riveter" his historian older brother had referred to might have been, but he'd been stunned to see Grayson women being allowed into such all-male roles.

Yet the fact was that Grayson had no choice. If it was going to man its military—and "man" was precisely the right term, William thought with a wry, hidden grin—then it had to free up the required manpower somehow. And the only way to do that was to begin making rational use of the enormous potential its women represented. Before the Alliance, that would have been unthinkable; now it was only very difficult, and mere difficulty had never stopped a Grayson yet.

The manpower shortage also explained why Grayson had leapt joyfully at the potential for increased automation aboard warships which the RMN's own Bureau of Ships had found it so monumentally difficult to force through its own ranks. (I suppose we're just as "traditional" as the Graysons, Alexander reflected. Our traditions are simply . . . different. They're certainly not any less bullheaded—or stupid.) The Royal Navy was still building experimental prototypes to test the new concept, but the GSN had already incorporated it into all their new construction . . . including the new ten-ship superdreadnought class under construction at Blackbird. High Admiral Matthews had been so busy rhapsodizing about how that would reduce the strain where his manning requirements were concerned that he'd completely missed the glance Alexander and Caparelli had exchanged.

Not enough that they're going to have our new ship of the wall concept in commission at least a full T-year before we do, they had to go ahead and build the new automation into them, too! God, that's embarrassing. Still, he felt his lips quirk, maybe if Sir Thomas and I go home and emphasize how "primitive, backward" Grayson is racing ahead of us, we'll be able to get some of our sticks-in-the-mud to get up off their collective asses and authorize us to build a few of them, too.

Unless, of course, they decide that it only makes sense to let the Graysons test the concept in action before we ante up the cash for such "radical, untried, and ill-considered" innovations!

He snorted and reminded himself that he was only the Star Kingdom's accountant, not a lord of admiralty. He was a civilian, and as such, he should be concentrating on other matters and leaving military concerns up to Hamish and Sir Thomas.

He took another sip of tea and let his eyes travel around the Great Hall again. As a male visitor unaccompanied by any wife, he had been seated at an exclusively male-occupied table just below the Protector's raised dais. The elderly general (actually, he was probably younger than Alexander was, but without the benefits of prolong) seated beside him was more interested in his dinner than in making conversation with foreigners, and Alexander was just as happy. They'd exchanged the proper small talk before the meal began, and then the two of them had ignored one another—in a companionable sort of way—while they addressed the truly delicious dinner. Alexander made a mental note to see if he couldn't extort the Protector's chef's recipe book out of Benjamin at their last formal meeting tomorrow. He was used to the way his older brother twitted him on his "epicureanism," and he couldn't really complain. Hamish was right, after all . . . but just because he was an uncultured barbarian who considered anything more complex than a rare steak and a baked potato decadent was no reason for William to reject the finer things in life.

He chuckled to himself and glanced at his brother. White Haven was seated with High Admiral Matthews at the Protector's own table—a mark of the high esteem in which the conqueror of Masada was held here in Grayson. At the moment, his head was turned as he addressed a remark to the exquisitely beautiful woman seated with her towering husband between himself and Katherine Mayhew. Alexander had been introduced to both Doctors Harrington the day before, and he'd been astonished to realize that someone Lady Harrington's size could have had so tiny a mother. And, he admitted, as he chatted with her and discovered the razor-sharp wit of the woman behind that beautiful face, he'd found himself extremely envious of Dr. Alfred Harrington's good fortune.

The general beside him said something, drawing his attention back to his tablemate. But before he could ask the Grayson to repeat his question, the crystal clear sound of a fork or a spoon striking a wineglass cut through the background hum of voices. Alexander's head turned, along with everyone else's, and all other conversation faded as the diners realized Benjamin Mayhew had risen to his feet. He smiled at them, waiting until he was certain he had their full intention, and then cleared his throat.

"My Lords and Ladies, Ladies and Gentlemen," he said then, in the easy tones of a trained speaker, "you were all promised that this would be a 'nonworking state dinner'—meaning that you'd all be spared the tedium of speeches—" that earned him a rumble of laughter, and his smile grew broader "—and I promise not to inflict anything of the sort upon you. I do, however, have two announcements which I believe should be made at this time."

He paused, and his smile faded into a sober, serious expression.

"First," he said, "High Admiral Matthews has informed me that the Office of Shipbuilding has elected to name the newest superdreadnought of the Grayson Navy the GNS Honor Harrington, and that Lady Harrington's mother," he bowed slightly in Allison Harrington's direction, "has agreed to christen her in our service."

He paused, as a spatter of applause interrupted. It grew louder, and Alexander turned his head to see several men in GSN uniform come to their feet. Other male Graysons joined them, and then women began to stand, as well, and the spatter of applause became a torrent that echoed and resounded from the Great Hall's cavernous spaces. The thunder beat in on William Alexander, and he felt himself coming to his own feet, joining the ovation. Yet even as he clapped, he felt something else under the approval. A hungry something, with bare fangs, that sent a chill through him as he realized how accurately Hamish had read these people's reaction to Honor Harrington's murder.

Benjamin waited until the applause slowly faded and the audience had resumed their seats, and then he smiled again. Despite the harsh wave of emotion which had just swept the hall, there was something almost impish about that smile, and he shook his head.

"You should have waited," he told his audience. "Now you're going to have to do it all over again, because my second announcement is that yesterday morning, Lady Allison Harrington informed my senior wife that she and her husband are expecting." That simple sentence spawned a sudden silence in which a falling pin would have sounded like an anvil, and he nodded much more seriously. "Tomorrow, I will formally inform the Conclave of Steadholders that an heir of Lady Harrington's blood will inherit her Key and the care of the people of her steading," he said quietly.

The previous applause, Alexander discovered, had only seemed thunderous. The ovation which arose this time truly was. It battered him like fists, surging like an exultant sea, and he saw Allison Harrington flush, whether with excitement or embarrassment he couldn't tell, as she stood at the Protector's urging.

It took a seeming eternity for the applause to fade, and as it did, Alexander saw someone else stand at the Protector's table. The wiry, auburn-haired man looked remarkably young to be wearing the uniform of a GSN admiral, and his gray eyes flashed as he faced his ruler.

"Your Grace!" he cried, and Benjamin turned to look at him.

"Yes, Admiral Yanakov?" the Protector seemed surprised at hearing the admiral address him.

"With your permission, Your Grace, I would like to propose a toast," Admiral Yanakov said. Benjamin considered him for just a moment, and then nodded.

"Of course, Admiral."

"Thank you, Your Grace." Yanakov reached down and picked up his wineglass, holding it before him while the light pooled and glowed in its tawny heart.

"Your Grace, My Lords and Ladies, Ladies and Gentlemen all," he announced in a ringing voice, "I give you Steadholder Harrington . . . and damnation to the Peeps!"

The roar which answered should, by rights, have brought the Great Hall crashing down in ruins.


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