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"God, I hate funerals. Especially ones for people like Lady Harrington." Cromarty looked up at Lord William Alexander's quiet, bitter observation. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, the number-two man in Cromarty's cabinet, stood holding a plate of hors d'ouerves while he surveyed the flow and eddy of people about them, and the corners of Cromarty's mouth twitched. Now why, he wondered, was food always a part of any wake?

Could it be that the act of eating encourages us to believe life goes on? Is it really that simple?

He brushed the thought aside and glanced around. The protocolists' official choreography for the funeral and its aftermath had run its course. For the first time in what seemed like days, and despite the crowd about them, he and Alexander actually had something approximating privacy. It wouldn't last, of course. Someone would notice the two of them standing against the wall and come sweeping down on them to discuss some absolutely vital bit of politics or governmental business. But for now there were no eavesdropping ears to fear, and the Prime Minister allowed himself a weary sigh.

"I hate them, too," he admitted, equally quietly. "I wonder how the one on Grayson went?"

"Probably a lot like ours... only more so," Alexander replied.

In what was very possibly a first, the Protectorate of Grayson and the Star Kingdom of Manticore had orchestrated simultaneous state funerals for the same person. The concept of simultaneity might strike some as a bit pointless for planets thirty light-years apart, but Queen Elizabeth and Protector Benjamin had been adamant. And the fact that there was no body had actually simplified matters, for there had been no point in arguing over which of Honor Harrington's home worlds she would be buried upon.

"I was surprised the Protector let us borrow the Harrington Sword for our funeral," Cromarty said. "Grateful, of course, but surprised."

"It wasn't really his decision," Alexander pointed out. As Cromarty's political executive officer, he had been responsible for coordinating with Grayson through the Protector's ambassador to Manticore, and he was much more conversant with the details than Cromarty had had time enough to make himself. "The sword belongs to Harrington Steading and Steadholder Harrington, which meant the decision was Lord Clinkscales', not the Protector's. Not that Clinkscales would have argued with Benjaminespecially with her parents signing off on the request. Besides, they would've had to use two swords if they'd kept hers." Cromarty raised an eyebrow, and Alexander shrugged. "She was Benjamin's Champion, as well, Allen. That made their Sword of State 'hers,' as well."

"I hadn't thought of that," Cromarty said, rubbing one eyebrow wearily, and Alexander snorted softly.

"It's not like you haven't had a few other things on your mind."

"True. Too damned true, unfortunately." Cromarty sighed again. "What have you heard from Hamish about his take on the Graysons' mood? I don't mind telling you that their ambassador scared the hell out of me when he delivered their official condolences, and the Protector's personal message to the Queen could've been processed for laser heads. I was distinctly glad that I wasn't a Peep after I viewed it!"

"I'm not surprised a bit." Alexander glanced around again, reassuring himself that no one was in a position to overhear, then looked at Cromarty. "That bastard Boardman played his 'no retaliation' card too damned well for my taste," he growled with profound disgust. "Even the neutrals who are usually most revolted by the Peeps' actions expect us, as the 'good guys,' to refrain from any kind of reprisals. But from what Hamish says, the entire Grayson Space Navy is all set to provide as much grist for the Peep propaganda mill as Ransom and her bunch could possibly hope for."

"Hamish thinks they'd actually abuse prisoners of war?" Cromarty sounded genuinely shocked, despite his own earlier words, for such behavior would be completely at odds with Grayson's normal codes of conduct.

"No, he doesn't expect them to 'abuse' their prisoners," Alexander said grimly. "He's afraid they'll simply refuse to take any after this." Cromarty's eyebrows rose, and Alexander laughed mirthlessly. "Our entire population has come together, at least temporarily, because the Peeps murdered one of our finest naval officers, Allen. But Harrington wasn't just an officer, however outstanding, to the Graysons. She was some kind of living icon for them... and they aren't taking it very calmly."

"But if we get into some sort of vicious circle of reprisal and counter-reprisal, the situation will play right into the Peeps' hands!"

"Of course it will. Hell, Allen, half the newsies in the Solarian League are already mouthpieces for the Peeps! Pierre's official line on domestic policy is much more palatable to the Solly establishment than a monarchy is. Never mind that we've got a participating democracy, as well, and the Peeps don't. Or that the official Peep line bears about as much resemblance to reality as I do to an HD heart-throb! They're a 'republic,' and we're a 'kingdom,' and any good oatmeal-brained Solly ideologue knows 'republics' are good guys and 'kingdoms' are bad guys! Besides, INS and Reuters funnel Peep propaganda straight onto the airwaves completely uncut."

"That's not quite fair" Cromarty began, but Alexander cut him off with a savage snort.

"Bushwah, to use one of Hamish's favorite phrases! They don't even tell their viewers the Peeps are censoring every single report coming out of Haven or any other branch of the 'Office of Public Information,' and you know it as well as I do! But they sure as hell scream about it whenever we do the same thing to purely military reports!"

"Agreed, agreed!" Cromarty waved one hand, urging Alexander to lower his steadily rising volume, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer looked around quickly. His expression was a trifle abashed, but the anger in his blue eyes burned as brightly as ever. And he was right, Cromarty thought. Neither INS nor Reuters ever called the Peeps on their censorship... or, for that matter, on obviously staged "news events." But that was because they'd seen what happened when United Faxes Intragalactic insisted on noting that reports from the People's Republic were routinely censored. Eleven UFI staffers had been arrested for "espionage against the People," deported, and permanently barred from ever again entering Havenite space, and all of their reporters had been expelled from the core worlds of the Republic. Now they had to make do with secondary feeds and independent stringers' reports relayed through their remaining offices in the Havenite hinterland, and everyone knew the real reason for that. But no one had dared report it lest they find themselves equally excluded from one of the galaxy's hottest news zones.

The Star Kingdom had protested the conspiracy of silence, of course. In fact, Cromarty himself had argued vehemently with the Reuters and INS bureau chiefs in the Star Kingdom, but without effect. The bureau heads insisted that there was no need to inform viewers of censorship or staged news. The public was smart enough to recognize a put-up job when it saw one, and standing on principle over the issue would simply get them evicted from the Republic as well. Which, they pointed out somberly, would leave only Public Information's version of events there, with no independent reporting at all to keep its propaganda in check. Personally, Cromarty thought their highly principled argument in favor of "independent reporting," like their supposed faith in the discrimination of their viewers, was no more than a smokescreen for the all important ratings struggle, but what he thought didn't matter. Unless the Star Kingdom and the Manticoran Alliance wanted to try some equally heavy-handed version of "information management"which their own news establishment would never toleratehe had no way to retaliate. And nothing short of some sort of retaliation was going to grow the Solarian League's newsies a backbone.

"At least they're giving the funeral equal coverage," the Duke said after a moment. "That has to count for somethingeven with Sollies!"

"For about three days, maybe," Alexander agreed with another, scarcely less bitter snort. "Then something else will come along to chase it out of their public's infinitesimal attention span, and we'll be right back to the damage those gutless wonders are inflicting on us."

Cromarty felt a genuine flicker of alarm. He'd known the Alexander brothers since childhood, and he'd had more exposure to the famous Alexander temper than he might have wished. Yet this sort of frustrated, barely suppressed fury was most unlike William.

"I think you may be overreacting, Willie," the Duke said after a moment. Alexander eyed him grimly, and he went on, choosing his words with care. "Certainly we have legitimate reason to feel the Solarian news services are letting themselves be used by the Peeps, but I suspect their bureau chiefs are right, at least to an extent. Most Sollies probably do realize the Peeps often lie and take reports from the PRH with a largish grain of salt."

"Not according to the polls," Alexander said flatly. He looked around once more and leaned even closer to Cromarty, dropping his voice. "I got the latest results this morning, Allen. Two more Solarian League member governments have announced their opposition to the embargo and called for a vote to consider its suspension, and according to UFI's latest numbers, we've lost another point and a quarter in the public opinion polls, as well. And the longer the Peeps go on hammering away at their lies and no one calls them on it, the worse it's going to get. Hell, Allen! The truth tends to be awkward, messy, and complicated, but a well-orchestrated lie is almost always more consistentor coherent, at leastand a hell of a lot 'simpler,' and Cordelia Ransom knows it. Her Public Information stooges work from a script that's had all its rough edges filed away so completely it doesn't bear much relationship to reality, but it sure as hell reads well, especially for people who've never found themselves on the Peeps' list of intended victims. And in a crazy sort of way, the fact that we keep winning battles only makes it even more acceptable to the Sollies. It's almost as if every battle we win somehow turns the Peeps more and more into the 'underdogs,' for God's sake!"

"Maybe," Cromarty agreed, then half-raised a hand as Alexander's eyes flashed. "All right, probably! But half the League governments have always been ticked off with us over the embargo, Willie. You know how much they resented the economic arm-twisting I had to do! Do you really think they need Peep propaganda to inspire them to speak up about it?"

"Of course not! But that's not the point, Allen. The point is that the polls indicate that we're drawing more fire from the member governments because we're losing support among the voters and the governments know that. For that matter, we've lost another third of a point right here in the Star Kingdom. Or we had, until the Peeps murdered Harrington."

His face twisted with the last sentence, as if with mingled shame for adding the qualifier and anger that it was true, but he met Cromarty's eyes steadily, and the Prime Minister sighed. He was right, of course. Oh, the slippage was minor so far, but the war had raged for eight T-years. Public support had been high when it began, and it was still holding firm at well about seventy percentso far. Yet even though the Royal Manticoran Navy and its allies had won virtually every important battle, there was no sign of an end in sight, and the Star Kingdom's much lower absolute casualty figures were far higher than the Peeps' relative to its total population, while the strain of the conflict was beginning to slow even an economy as powerful and diversified as Manticore's. There was still optimism and a hard core of determination, but neither optimism nor determination were as powerful as they had been. And that, little though he cared to admit it even to himself, was one reason Cromarty had pressed for a state funeral for Honor Harrington. She'd certainly deserved it, and Queen Elizabeth had been even more adamant than he had, but the temptation to use her death to draw the Manticoran public together behind the war once moreto use a cold-blooded atrocity to make them personally determined to defeat the People's Republichad been irresistible for the man charged with fighting that war.

I guess that's why the tradition of waving the bloody shirt is so durable, he reflected grimly. It works. But he didn't have to like it, and he understood the tangled emotions so poorly hidden behind Alexander's eyes.

"I know," he sighed finally. "And you're right. And there's not a damned thing I can see to do about it except beat the holy living hell out of the bastards once and for all."

"Agreed," Alexander said, then managed a smile of sorts. "And from Hamish's last letter, I'd say he and the Graysons, between them, are just about ready to do exactly that. With bells on."


Chapter One | Echoes Of Honor | * * *



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