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Chapter Twenty-Nine

"Signal from Salamis, Citizen Admiral," Citizen Lieutenant Frasier announced. "You and Citizen Commissioner Honeker are to report aboard her in twenty-five minutes. Citizen Admiral Giscard requests that you bring your chief of staff and operations officer, as well."

"Thank you, Harrison." Citizen Vice Admiral Lester Tourville glanced at Everard Honeker, then reached inside his tunic to pull a cigar from his breast pocket. The wrapper crackled as he stripped it away, and he looked back at Frasier. "Pass the word to Citizen Captain Hewitt that Citizen Commissioner Honeker and I will be leaving the ship, please. Then inform my coxswain that I'll need my pinnace."

"Aye, Citizen Admiral." Frasier began speaking into his hush mike, and Tourville moved his eyes to the chief of the watch.

"Citizen Chief Hunley, please be good enough to pass the word for Citizen Captain Bogdanovich and Citizen Commander Foraker to join Citizen Commissioner Honeker and myself in Boat Bay Two at their earliest possible convenience."

"Aye, Citizen Admiral."

Tourville nodded dismissal to the petty officer, then took a moment to insert the cigar into his mouth, light it, and be certain it was drawing properly. He removed it to blow a perfect smoke ring at a ventilator air return, gave his fierce mustache a rub, and glanced back at Honeker.

"Are you ready, Citizen Commissioner?" he asked politely.

"I suppose so," Honeker replied, and the two of them walked towards PNS Count Tilly's, bridge lift side by side, trailing a banner of fragrant smoke.

Tourville allowed Honeker to precede him into the lift, then punched the destination code and stood back against one bulkhead, drumming thoughtfully on his thigh with the fingers of his right hand.

"I really wish you'd waited to light that thing until I was somewhere else," Honeker remarked after a moment, and Tourville grinned. The people's commissioner had been on his case about the cigars from the moment he first came aboard Tourville's last flagship. It had become something of a joke between them, a sort of game they played, but only when no one was watching. It would hardly have done to let the rest of the galaxy suspect that an admiral and a commissioner had actually become friends of a sort, after all. And especially not at any point in the last nine T-months or so.

"I thought I'd just enjoy it on the way to the pinnace," Tourville told him cheerfully. In fact, he suspected Honeker had realized he rather regretted adopting the damned things as a part of his image. Modern medicine might have virtually stamped out the various ills to which tobacco had once contributed, but it hadn't made nicotine any less addictive, and the ash flecks on his uniform were more than mildly annoying.

"I'm sure," Honeker snorted, and Tourville's grin softened with an edge of genuine affection he would have been very careful not to let anyone else see. Particularly not now. People who'd survived the head-on collision of two air cars didn't light matches to discover whether or not their hydrogen tanks were leaking.

He snorted to himself at the thought. Actually, checking for hydrogen leaks with a match would probably have been considerably safer than what he'd actually done, and he still couldn't quite believe he'd tried itmuch less survived the attempt! Defying a member of the Committee of Public Safety for any reason was unlikely to leave a man breathing. Unless, of course, the Committee member in question suffered a fatal accident before she could arrange for him to do the same.

Despite himself, Tourville felt tiny pinpricks of sweat along his hairline as he remembered the way Cordelia Ransom had provoked him. The crazy bitch had actually wanted him to challenge her authority. He hadn't realized, then, just how much she hated and feared the Navy, but he'd come to realize that she'd wanted him to do somethinganythingshe could use as a reason to have him eliminated. It wasn't so much because of who he was as because of what he was... and because his effort to treat his enemies as human beings rather than vermin to be exterminated had convinced her he could not be trusted.

Well, she'd succeeded in provoking him, but he was still around... and she wasn't. Her death hadn't been his doing, but he'd declined to shed any crocodile tears during his interminable "interviews" with StateSec. That would have been as stupid as it would have been insincere, and it would also have been dangerous. So far as he could tell, she'd never passed her specific plans for him on to anyone else, but people like Oscar Saint-Just had to have realized she hadn't ordered him to accompany her ship to Hades and then back to Haven just so she could give him a big, sloppy kiss. And since they had to know that, they would have recognized the falsity of any regret on his part. Worse, they might have wondered if he were displaying regret in an effort to keep them from wondering if perhaps he'd had a little something to do with her demise.

Fortunately, there was plenty of evidence to support his innocence. In fact, he had insistedwith Honeker's strong supporton having a senior member of Hades' SS garrison return to Haven with him as a witness. Citizen Warden Tresca hadn't been happy about that, but he'd known better than to argue, particularly when he himself had downplayed Tourville's initial warnings that something must have gone very wrong aboard PNS Tepes. Tresca was going to be in sufficient hot water of his own; SS brigadier or not, he didn't need to borrow trouble by refusing the orders of a senior people's commissioner or looking like he was trying to obstruct the investigation.

And so Tourville and Honeker had arrived at Haven with Citizen Major Garfield in tow. Garfield had brought along Camp Charon's scanner data on the entire episode, as well as a recording of the com traffic between Count Tilly and Charon that clearly demonstrated Tourville had been the first to sound the alarm and had done everything in his power to prevent the tragedy. In fact, Tourville and his people had come out looking considerably better than State Security had, and Everard Honeker's reports to Oscar Saint-Just had stressed their exemplary attention to duty.

I wonder if that was part of the reason they held us incommunicado for so long? Tourville mused now. StateSec belongs to Saint-Just, after all, and it was his personal fiefdom we made look like asshole idiots. He snorted. Great, Lester! Now you've come up with another reason for the head of State Security, personally, to loathe your ass. Good going.

Of course, Saint-Just didn't know the full story. Not even Honeker did, for only Tourville and Shannon Foraker had seen the recon drone data Tourville had erased. Camp Charon's sensors had been blinded by EMP at the time, which meant no one else could know what had happened, and Tourville had no intention of ever admitting what he'd seen. But that was one reason he'd insisted so adamantly on bringing along a StateSec witness to explain exactly what had happened... and why he'd started sweating bullets after the first five or six months of Count Tilly's confinement to her parking orbit.

Sooner or later they're going to realize Lady Harringtonor some of her people, at leastgot out alive. That could have been decidedly dicey if it happened while they still had us all under ship arrest... and safely incommunicado. But now, it's going to be StateSec's problem when it dawns on them, not mine. And my people and I aren't going to be anywhere they can quietly disappear us, either, he thought with a certain complacency. In fact, he was rather looking forward to watching the SS punish one of its own for such gross negligence, although if the truth were known, he'd really rather that they never caught up with the Manties at all.

And if they do, they'll almost have to kill all of them this time, he thought much less cheerfully. After officially "executing" Lady Harrington just to avoid admitting what really happened, there's no way they'd let any witnesses that inconvenient live.

He regretted that, but he'd done all he could for them. His conscience was as clear as anyone's could be in today's PRH, and he tucked those thoughts and memories away in a safe place while he considered his present situation.

He supposed some people would consider his promotion to vice admiral a fitting reward for winning the PRH's most crushing victory of the war. Personally, Tourville suspected it was more of a bribe a tacit payoff for having kept him on ice for so longand he would much rather have remained a rear admiral. Vice admirals were too senior, too likely to catch the blame if things went wrong for the forces under their command, and for the last eight or nine years, officers who caught that sort of blame had also tended to catch firing squads. That was why he'd devoted so much effort to avoiding promotion, but it had caught up with him at last, and there was nothing he could do about it.

Still, he reflected as the lift reached the boat bay and its doors slid silently open, with Esther McQueen as Secretary of War, the Committee's promise to halt the practice of shooting losing admirals might actually be worth believing. That was the good news. The bad news was that it was Esther McQueen who had chosen Tourville for his current assignment and personally bitched loudly enough at Oscar Saint-Just to get Tourville and Count Tilly sprung for the operation. So if she turned out to be up to something ambitious, the fact that he hardly even knew the woman would mean absolutely nothing to StateSec. Whether he liked it or not, he had just been publicly identified as a member of "her" faction... which might just turn his release from ship arrest into a case of out of the frying pan.

Another set of lift doors opened, revealing his broad-shouldered chief of staff and his ops officer. Citizen Captain Bogdanovich nodded to Tourville and Honeker with something very like a normal smile, but Shannon Foraker's long, narrow face wore no expression whatsoever. Under normal circumstances, Foraker was rather attractive, in an understated sort of way, but now her features were an icily controlled mask, and Tourville felt a fresh stab of worry. Something inside Foraker had changed after Honor Harrington's capture, and especially during their long confinement, and he was no longer certain what was going on inside her head. She was the only other person who knew any of the Manties had escaped Tepes' destruction, and he was confident she would do nothing to jeopardize that secret, but her entire personality seemed to have shifted. She was no longer the cheerful, quintessential techno-nerd, all but oblivious to the interpersonal relationships about her or the political tides sweeping through the Navy. Now she watched everything that happened around her, choosing her words as carefully as she had ever laid out an operations plan and never, ever forgetting the proper modes of address.

For anyone who knew Foraker, that last was far worse than merely ominous. It meant the first-class brain which had made her so dangerous to the Manties was now considering other threats and options... other enemies.

It was unlikely a mere citizen commander could pose much threat to the Committee of Public Safety, but Shannon Foraker was no ordinary citizen commander. If she decided to do something about the way Cordelia Ransom and StateSec had treated Honor Harrington, the consequences were almost certain to be drastic. It was unlikely she herself would survive, but it was equally unlikely she would go down without inflicting some extreme damage of her own. Intellectually speaking, Lester Tourville no longer had any problem with any damage anyone managed to inflict on StateSec and the Committee. In fact, the more damage someone could do, the better. What he would object to would be the loss of Shannon Foraker, who was worth any hundred Committee members he could think of right off hand. And, of course, to the probability that other people in her vicinitylike one Lester Tourville, for examplewould go down with her.

All things considered, he mused as he tossed his cigar down a waste disposal slot and led the way towards the pinnace personnel tube, this assignment looks like being a lot more... interesting than I'd really prefer. Ah, well. It beats the alternative, I suppose.

Chapter Twenty-Eight | Echoes Of Honor | * * *