Mission Of Honor – Snippet 26

Chapter Seven

“So, would you prefer we address you as ‘Admiral Alexander-Harrington,’ ‘Admiral Harrington,’ ‘Duchess Harrington,’ or ‘Steadholder Harrington’?” Pritchart asked with a slight smile as she, Honor, Nimitz, and a passel of bodyguards — most of whom seemed to be watching each other with unbounded distrust — rode the lift car from the landing pad down towards the president’s official office. There’d been too little room, even in a car that size, for any of the other Havenite officials to accompany them, since neither Honor’s armsmen nor Sheila Thiessen’s Presidential Security agents had been remotely willing to give up their places to mere cabinet secretaries.

“It does get a bit complicated at times to be so many different people at once,” Honor acknowledged Pritchart’s question with an answering smile which was a bit more crooked than the president’s. And not just because of the artificial nerves at the corner of her mouth. “Which would you be most comfortable with, Madam President?”

“Well, I have to admit we in the Republic have developed a certain aversion to aristocracies, whether they’re acknowledged, like the one in your own Star Kingdom, or simply de facto, like the Legislaturalists here at home. So there’d be at least some . . . mixed emotions, let’s say, in using one of your titles of nobility. At the same time, however, we’re well aware of your record, for a lot of reasons.”

For a moment, Pritchart’s topaz-colored eyes — which, Honor had discovered, were much more spectacular and expressive in person than they’d appeared in any of the imagery she’d seen — darkened and her mouth tightened. Honor tasted the bleak stab of grief and regret behind that darkness, and her own mouth tightened ever so slightly. When she’d discussed the Republic’s leadership with Lester Tourville, he’d confirmed that Eighth Fleet had killed Javier Giscard, Pritchart’s longtime lover, at the Battle of Lovat.

That, in effect, Honor Alexander-Harrington had killed him.

Her eyes met the president’s, and she didn’t need her empathic sense to realize both of them saw the knowledge in the other’s gaze. Yet there were other things wrapped up in that knowledge, as well. Yes, she’d killed Javier Giscard, and she regretted that, but he’d been only one of thousands of Havenites who’d died in combat against Honor or ships under her command over the past two decades, and there’d been nothing personal in his death. That was a distinction both she and Pritchart understood, because both of them — unlike the vast majority of Honor’s fellow naval officers — had taken lives with their own hands. Had killed enemies at close range, when they’d been able to see those enemies eyes and when it most definitely was personal. Both of them understood that difference, and the silence hovering between them carried that mutual awareness with it, as well as the undertow of pain and loss no understanding could ever dispel.

Then Pritchart cleared her throat.

“As I say, we’re aware of your record. Given the fact that you come from good yeoman stock and earned all of those decadent titles the hard way, we’re prepared to use them as a gesture of respect.”

“I see.”

Honor gazed at the platinum-haired woman. Pritchart was an even more impressive presence face-to-face than she’d anticipated, even after Michelle Henke’s reports of her own conversations with the president. The woman carried herself with the assurance of someone who knew exactly who she was, and her emotions — what the treecats called her “mind glow” — were those of someone who’d learned that lesson the hard way, paid an enormous price for what her beliefs demanded. Yet despite the humor in her voice, it was clear she truly did cherish some apprehension about her question, and Honor wondered why.

She used Mike’s title as Countess Gold Peak . . . but only after she’d decided to send Mike home as her envoy. Did she do that as a courtesy, or to specifically emphasize Mike’s proximity to the throne? An emphasis she wanted enough to use a title she personally despised?

Or is the problem someone else in her Cabinet whose reaction she’s concerned about? Or could it be she’s already looking forward to the press releases? To how they’re going to address me for public consumption?

“Under the circumstances,” Honor said after a moment, “if you’d be more comfortable with plain old ‘Admiral Alexander-Harrington,’ I’m sure I could put up with that.”

“Thank you.” Pritchart gave her another smile, this one somewhat broader. “To be perfectly honest, I suspect some of my more aggressively egalitarian Cabinet members might be genuinely uncomfortable using one of your other titles.”

She’s fishing with that one, Honor decided. Most people wouldn’t have suspected anything of the sort, given Pritchart’s obvious assurance, but Honor had certain unfair advantages. She wants an indication of whether I want to speak to her in private or whether whatever Beth sent me to say is intended for her entire Cabinet.

“If it would make them feel uncomfortable, then of course we can dispense with it,” she assured the president, and suppressed an urge to chuckle as she tasted Pritchart’s carefully concealed spike of frustration when her probe was effortlessly — and apparently unknowingly — deflected.

“That’s very gracious — and understanding — of you,” the Havenite head of state said out loud as the lift slid to a halt and the doors opened. She waved one hand in graceful invitation, and she and Honor started down a tastefully furnished hallway, trailed by two satellite-like clumps of bodyguards. Honor could feel the president turning something over in her mind as they walked. Pritchart didn’t seem the sort to dither over decisions, and before they’d gone more than a few meters, she glanced at the tall, black-haired woman who was obviously the senior member of her own security team.

“Sheila, please inform the Secretary of State and the other members of the Cabinet that I believe it will be best if Admiral Alexander-Harrington and I take the opportunity for a little private conversation before we invite anyone else in.” Her nostrils flared, and Honor tasted the amusement threaded through her undeniable anxiety and the fragile undertone of hope. “Given the Admiral’s dramatic midnight arrival, I’m sure whatever she has to say will be important enough for all of us to discuss eventually, but tell them I want to get my own toes wet first.”

“Of course, Madam President,” the bodyguard said, and began speaking very quietly into her personal com.

“I trust that arrangement will be satisfactory to you, Admiral?” Pritchart continued, glancing up at Honor.

“Certainly,” Honor replied with imperturbable courtesy, but the twinkle of amusement in her own eyes obviously gave her away, and the president snorted again — more loudly — and shook her head.

Whatever she’d been about to say (assuming she’d intended to say anything) stayed unspoken, however, as they reached the end of the hall and a powered door slid open. Pritchart gave another of those graceful waves, and Honor stepped obediently through the door first.

The office was smaller than she’d anticipated. Despite its obviously expensive and luxurious furnishings, despite the old-fashioned paintings on the walls and the freestanding sculpture in one corner, it had an undeniably intimate air. And it was obviously a working office, not just someplace to receive and impress foreign envoys, as the well-used workstation at the antique wooden desk made evident.

Given its limited size, it would have been uncomfortably crowded if Pritchart had invited her entire cabinet in. In fact, Honor doubted she could have squeezed that many people into the available space, although the president’s decision against inviting even her secretary of state had come as something of a surprise.

“Please, have a seat, Admiral,” Pritchart invited, indicating the comfortable armchairs arranged around a largish coffee-table before a huge crystoplast window — one entire wall of the office, actually — that gave a magnificent view of downtown Nouveau Paris.