The Earl of White Haven stood in the boat bay gallery and stared through the armorplast at the brilliantly lit, crystalline vacuum of the bay. It was odd, he thought. He was ninety-two T-years old, and he’d spent far more time in space than on a planet over the last seventy of those years, yet his perceptions of what was "normal" were still inextricably bound up in the impressions of his planetbound youth. The cliche "air as clear as crystal" had meaning only until someone had seen the reality of vacuum’s needle-sharp clarity, but that reality remained forever unnatural, with a surrealism no one could avoid feeling, yet which defied precise definition.
He snorted to himself at the direction of his thoughts while he listened with a minuscule fraction of his attention to the earbug in his left ear that brought him the chatter between the boat bay control officer and the pinnace maneuvering towards rendezvous with his flagship. His mind had always tended to drift through contemplative deeps whenever it had nothing specific with which to occupy itself, but it had been doing it even more frequently than usual of late.
He turned his head to watch the Marine honor guard moving into position. Those Marines comported themselves with all the precision he could have desired, but they wore the brown and green uniforms of Grayson, not the black and green of Manticore, for the superdreadnought Benjamin the Great —known informally (and out of her captain’s hearing) to her crew as "Benjy"—was a Grayson ship. Barely a T-year old, she was quite possibly the most powerful warship in existence. She certainly had been when she’d been completed, but warship standards were changing with bewildering speed. After the better part of seven centuries of gradual, incremental—one might even say glacial—evolution, the entire concept of just what made an effective ship of war had been cast back into the melting pot, and no one seemed entirely certain what would emerge from the crucible in time. All they knew was that the comfortable assurance of known weapons and known tactics and known strategies were about to be replaced by something new and different which might all too easily invalidate all their hard won skill and competence.
And no one outside the Alliance even seems to suspect the way things are changing... yet, he thought moodily, turning back to the still, sterile perfection of the boat bay.
A part of him wished the Alliance hadn’t thought of it either, although it would never do to admit that. Actually, he’d come close to admitting it once, he reminded himself—at least by implication. But Lady Harrington had ripped a strip off his hide for it, and he’d deserved it.
As always, something twisted deep inside him, like a physical pain, at the fleeting thought of Honor Harrington, and he cursed his traitor memory. It had always been excellent. Now it insisted on replaying every time he and she had ever met—every time he’d counseled her, or chewed her out (though there’d been few of those), or watched her drag what was left of herself home after one of those stupid, gutsy, glorious goddamned attempts to get herself killed in the name of duty, and she’d never been stupid, so why the hell had she insisted on doing that when she must have known that if she kept going back to the well over and over, sooner or later even the Peeps would get lucky, and—
He jerked his mind out of the well-worn rut, but not before the dull burn of raw anger had boiled up inside him once again. It was stupid—he knew it was—yet he was furious with her for dying, and some deeply irrational part of him blamed her for it... and refused to forgive her even now, over eight T-months later.
He sighed and closed his blue eyes as the pain and anger washed back through him yet again, and another part of him sneered contemptuously at his own emotions. Of course he blamed her for it. If he didn’t, he’d have to blame himself, and he couldn’t have that, now could he?
He opened his eyes once more, and his jaw clenched as he made himself face it. He’d known Honor Harrington for nine and a half years, from the day he’d first met her right here in this very system... and watched her take a heavy cruiser on a death-ride straight into the broadside of a battlecruiser to defend someone else’s planet. For all that time, he’d known she was probably the most outstanding junior officer he had ever met, bar none, yet that was all she’d been to him. Or so he’d thought until that night she stood in the library of Harrington House and jerked him up so short his ears had rung. She’d actually had the gall to tell him his rejection of the Weapons Development Board’s new proposals was just as knee-jerk and automatic as the autoresponse pattern in favor of any new proposal which he’d always loathed in the jeune ecole. And she’d been right. That was what had hit him so hard. She’d had the nerve to call him on it, and she’d been right.
And in the stunned, half-furious moment in which he’d realized that, he’d also looked at her and seen someone else. Someone very different from the outstanding junior officer whose career he had shepherded because it was the responsibility of senior officers to develop the next generation of their replacements. Much as he’d respected her, deeply and genuinely as he’d admired her accomplishments, she’d always been just that: his junior officer. Someone to be nurtured and instructed and groomed and developed for higher command. Possibly even someone who would surpass all his own achievements... someday.
But that evening in the library, he’d suddenly realized "someday" had come. She’d still technically been his junior—in Manticoran service, at least; her rank in the Grayson Navy had been another matter entirely—but that comfortable sense that there would always be more for him to teach her, more for her to learn from him, had been demolished and he’d seen her as his equal.
And that had killed her.
His jaw muscles ridged and the ice-blue eyes reflected in the clear armorplast burned as he made himself face the truth at last. It was hardly the time or place for it, but he seemed to have made a habit out of picking the wrong times and places to realize things about Honor Harrington, hadn’t he? And conveniently timed or not, it was true; it had killed her.
He still didn’t know what he’d done, how he’d given himself away, but she’d always had that uncanny ability to see inside people’s heads. He must have done something to give her a peek inside his at the moment all the comfortable professional roles and masks and modes of relationship came unglued for him. It shouldn’t have happened. They were both Queen’s officers. That should have been all they were to one another, however his perception of her abilities and talents and readiness for high command had changed. But his own awareness had ambushed him, and in that moment of recognition, he’d recognized something else, as well, and seen her not simply as an officer, and his equal, but as a dangerously attractive woman.
And she’d seen it, or guessed it, or felt it somehow. And because she had, she’d gone back on active duty early, which was why her squadron had been sent to Adler, which was how the Peeps had captured her... and the only way they could have killed her.
A fresh spasm of white-hot fury went through his misery, and his cursed memory replayed that scene, as well. The falling body, the jerking rope, the creak and sway—
He thrust the image away, but he couldn’t push away the self-knowledge he had finally accepted as he stood there in the boat bay gallery, waiting. His awareness of it might have come suddenly, but it shouldn’t have. He should have known the way his feelings for her had grown and changed and developed. But it had all taken place so gradually, so far beneath the surface of his thoughts, that he hadn’t even guessed it was happening. Or perhaps, if he were totally honest, he’d guessed it all along and suppressed the knowledge as his duty required. But he knew now, and she was dead, and there was no point in lying to himself about it any longer.
Is it something about me? Something I do? he wondered. Or is it just the universe’s sick joke that makes it the kiss of death for me to love someone? Emily, Honor—
He snorted bitterly, knowing the thought for self-pity yet unable to reject it just this once. And if he was being maudlin, what the hell business was it of anyone but himself? Damn it, he was entitled to a little maudlinism!
Amber light strings began to blink above the waiting docking buffers, a sure sign the pinnace was on final with the pilot looking for that visual cue, but White Haven didn’t even notice. Or perhaps he did, for the blinking lights took him back to that hideous day fifty years before when the supersonic med flight with its strident, eye-shattering emergency lights had delivered his wife’s broken and mangled body to the Landing General trauma center. He’d been there to greet the flight, summoned from his office at Admiralty House, but he hadn’t been there to prevent the air car accident, now had he? Of course not. He’d had his "duty" and his "responsibilities," and they were both prolong recipients, so they’d had centuries yet to make up for all the time those inescapable concepts had stolen from them.
But he’d been there to see her carried in—to recognize the damage and cringe in horror, for unlike himself, Emily was one of the minority of humanity for whom the regeneration therapies simply did not work. Like Honor, a corner of his brain thought now. Just like Honor—another point in common. And because they didn’t work for her, he’d been terrified.
She’d lived. None of the doctors had really expected her to, even with all of modern medicine’s miracles, but they hadn’t known her like White Haven knew her. Didn’t have the least concept of the dauntless willpower and courage deep within her. But they did know their profession, and they’d been right about one thing. She might have fooled them by living, and again by doing it with her mind unimpaired, yet they’d told him she would never leave her life-support chair again, and for fifty years, she hadn’t.
It had almost destroyed him when he realized at last that the doctors were right. He’d fought the idea, rejected it and beaten himself bloody on its jagged, unforgiving harshness. He’d denied it, telling himself that if he only kept looking, if he threw all of his family’s wealth into the search, scoured all the universities and teaching hospitals on Old Earth, or Beowulf, or Hamilton, then surely somewhere he would find the answer. And he’d tried. Dear God how he had tried. But he’d failed, for there was no answer; only the life-support chair which had become the lifetime prison for the beautiful, vibrant woman he loved with all his heart and soul. The actress and writer and holo-vid producer, the political analyst and historian whose mind had survived the ruin of her body unscathed. Who understood everything which had happened to her and continued the fight with all the unyielding courage he loved and admired so much, refusing to surrender to the freak cataclysm which had exploded into her life.
The horsewoman and tennis player and grav skier from whose brain stem an artificial shunt ran to her life-support chair’s control systems and who, below the neck, aside from that, now had seventy-five percent use of one hand. Period. Total. All there was and all there ever would be again, for as long as she lived.
He’d come apart. He didn’t know how Emily had survived his collapse, his guilt, his sense of failure. No one could change what had happened to her or make things "right," but it was his job to make things right! It was always anyone’s job to make things "right" for the people he or she loved, and he’d failed, and he’d hated himself for it with a bitter virulence whose memory shocked him even now.
But he’d put himself back together again. It hadn’t been easy, and he’d needed help, but he’d done it. Of course, it was an accomplishment which had come with a layer of guilt all its own, for he’d turned to Theodosia Kuzak for the help he’d needed. Theodosia had been "safe," for she’d known him literally since boyhood. She was his friend and trusted confidante, and so—briefly—she had become his lover, as well.
He wasn’t proud of that, but he’d run out of strength. An Alexander of White Haven understood about duty and responsibility. An Alexander was supposed to be strong, and so was a Queen’s officer, and a husband, and he’d tried to be strong for so long, but he just couldn’t anymore. And Theodosia had known that. She’d known he had turned to her because he’d had to, and because he could trust her... but not because he loved her. Never because of that. And because she was his friend, she’d helped him find the broken bits and pieces of the man he’d always thought he was and glue them back together into something which almost matched his concept of himself. And when she’d reassembled him, she’d shooed him gently away in a gift he knew he could never hope to repay and gone back to being just his friend.
He’d survived, thanks to Theodosia, and he’d discovered something along the way—or perhaps rediscovered it. The reason for his anguish, the intolerable burden which had broken him at last, was the simplest thing in the world: he loved his wife. He always had, and he always would. Nothing could change that, but that was what had made his agony bite so deep, the reason he couldn’t forgive himself for not somehow making things "all right" again... and the reason he’d had to turn to someone else to rebuild himself when the collapse came. It had been cowardly of him, in many ways, but he simply could not have made himself dump his weakness, his collapse on her shoulders while she coped with everything God had already done to her. And so he’d run away to Theodosia until Theodosia could heal him and send him back to Emily once more.
She’d known. He hadn’t told her, but he’d never had to, and she’d welcomed him with that smile which could still light up a room... still melt his heart within his chest. They’d never discussed it directly, for there’d never been a need to. The information, the knowledge, had been exchanged on some profound inner level, for just as she’d known he had run away, she’d known why... and the reason he had come back.
And he’d never run away from her again. There had been a handful of other women over the last forty-odd years. He and Emily were both from aristocratic families and Manticore, the most cosmopolitan of the Star Kingdom’s planets, with mores and concepts quite different from those of frontier Gryphon or straitlaced Sphinx. The Star Kingdom had its licensed professional courtesans, but ninety percent of them were to be found on the capital planet, and White Haven had availed himself of their services upon occasion. Emily knew that, just as she knew that all of them had been women he liked and respected but did not love. Not as he loved her. After all these years, it was she with whom he still shared everything except the physical intimacy which they had lost forever. His brief affairs hurt her, he knew—not because she felt betrayed, but because it reminded her of what had been taken from them—and because of that, he was always discreet. He would never let them become public knowledge, never allow even the hint of a possible scandal to expose her to potential humiliation. But he never tried to hide the truth from her, for he owed her honesty, and "crippled" or not, she remained one of the strongest people he had ever known... and the only woman he loved or had ever loved.
Until now. Until Honor Harrington. Until in some inexplicable fashion, without his ever realizing it, professional respect and admiration had changed somehow, crept inside his guard and ambushed him. However he’d given himself away, revealed at least a little of what he felt, he would never, ever have done anything more than that. But he couldn’t lie to himself now that she was dead, and what he’d felt for her had been nothing at all like his friendship for Theodosia or the discreet professionals with whom he’d dealt over the years.
No, it had been far worse than that. It had been as deep and intense—and as sudden—as what he’d first felt for Emily all those decades ago. And so, in a macabre sort of way which no one else in the entire universe would ever realize, he’d betrayed both of the women he’d loved. Whatever he’d felt for Honor hadn’t changed the way he felt about Emily; it had been separate from Emily, or perhaps in addition to his love for his wife. Yet letting himself feel it had still been a betrayal that, in many ways, was far, far darker than his affair with Theodosia had ever been. And by letting some hint of his feelings slip, he had driven Honor off to die.
He’d never meant to do either of those things, and even now, he hadn’t committed a single intentional act to betray either of them. Indeed, the rest of the universe probably wouldn’t even consider that he had, for nothing had ever happened between him and Honor, after all. But he knew, and it wounded him deep inside, where his concept of himself lived, in a way his affair with Theodosia never had, for this time he had no excuse. No fresh and bleeding wound which demanded healing. There was only the bewildering knowledge that somehow, without ever meaning to, he had found himself desperately in love with two totally different yet equally magnificent women... and that one of them was forever an invalid and the other was dead.
And God how it hurt.
The sleek shape of a pinnace appeared suddenly beyond the armorplast, drifting through the silent vacuum towards the buffers, and he sucked in a deep breath and shook himself. He reached up and removed the earbug, dropping it into a pocket, and straightened his tunic as Benjamin the Great’s bugler took his place and the honor guard snapped to attention.
The pinnace settled delicately into the buffers, the umbilicals swung up and locked, and the personnel tube ran out to the hatch, and Hamish Alexander, Thirteenth Earl of White Haven, grinned crookedly as he watched the Navy side party muster under the eyes of a harassed, semi-frantic Grayson lieutenant. It wasn’t every day that the First Space Lord of the Royal Manticoran Navy and the Chancellor of Her Majesty’s Exchequer paid a visit on a neighboring star system in the middle of a shooting war, and Benjamin the Great's crew was determined to get it right.
And so was White Haven. He had that much left, at least, he told himself. The job. His duty. Who he was and what he owed. In that much, he was like Emily and Honor. Neither of them had ever been able to turn their backs on duty, either, had they? So he could at least try to prove himself worthy of the two extraordinary women who meant so much to him, and he gave himself a sharp mental shake.
You do have a habit of experiencing these moments of personal self-revelation at... inopportune moments, don’t you, Hamish? his brain told him mockingly, and the corners of his mouth turned up in a wry, humorless smile.
Many, many years ago, as a fourth-term midshipman, a senior tactical instructor had taken a very young Hamish Alexander aside after a simulator exercise had come unglued. It hadn’t been Hamish’s fault, not really, but he’d been the Blue Team commander, and he’d felt as if it had been, so Lieutenant Raoul Courvosier had sat him down in his office and looked him straight in the eye.
"There are two things no commander—and no human being—can ever control, Mr. Alexander," Courvosier had said. "You cannot control the decisions of others, and you cannot control the actions of God. An intelligent officer will try to anticipate both of those things and allow for them, but a wise officer will not blame himself when God comes along and screws up a perfectly good plan with no warning at all." The lieutenant had leaned back in his own chair and smiled at him. "Get used to it, Mr. Alexander, because if one thing is certain in life, it’s that God has a very peculiar sense of humor... and an even more peculiar sense of timing."
Raoul, you always did have a way with words, didn’t you? Hamish Alexander thought fondly, and stepped forward to greet Sir Thomas Caparelli and his brother as the golden notes of the bugle welcomed them aboard.