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Honor Among Thieves -- Epilogue (3)
            And God said unto them, Go, and they went.The line had occurred to many Grayson commentators, and it wasn’t blasphemy, just wondering wisdom. Benjamin had watched the process that subsequently played out with rapt enjoyment, shared with Elizabeth, Eloise, Gustav, and others in admiring exchanges. The ships that took former parliamentarians home all had aboard at least one polite but utterly intransigent Alliance officer, at Captain (SG) or above, who gave regular reminders of the relevant deadline for despatching a delegation and — always publicly — explained what would be required of it. One might have expected screaming, squabbling chaos — and there had been a certain amount of that at first, among politicians, anyway — but the Beowulfans had been out and about in very large numbers, with others they trusted, and the continuing streams of news from Torch, Toussaint, and the wilder parts of the Verge, where fleeing OFS and Frontier Fleet units were still being pursued, had been another persistent stimulus.
            There had been some real horror stories among the streams, too — isolated smaller Manpower or OFS operations that had inevitably had lower priorities, and as news of what was happening had hit them had torn apart into desperate slave uprisings with huge fatality rates or escalating abuse from terrified owner-operators. But even with those appalling cases another strand of Honor’s strategy emerged, for news heading in for Terra came to other polities first, and depending on sector those intransigent Alliance officers immediately suggested — in a tone very like Elizabeth requesting and requiring — that medical and other relief be despatched at once. This was League-sponsored mayhem coming home to roost, and every former League member had an obligation to help as best they could. Between natural compassion at suffering, shame at what had been revealed about the late League, and an eye to the trivial costs and likely benefits of doing as the Alliance suggested, it had worked marvellously, hugely increasing the general flows of assistance outward from Core worlds to Shell and Verge, and giving particular Core worlds strong interests in specific sets of League victims.
            At the same time, for every horror story there were 50 more positive ones as treaties between liberated ‘protectorates’ and the major Alliance polities were concluded in outline. Benjamin had despatched a score of Steadholders and more of their close kin, including wives and daughters, to be gracious and sign things, and had been perfectly delighted, at the request of the Conclave of Steadholders, to make all such limited grants of plenipotentiary power extensions of the grant to Honor, rather than direct, so every Grayson signature was technically in Honor’s name, under his authority. Nor had the ships she had concentrated on Terra stayed idly in orbit, but spent the 60 days assiduously visiting Core worlds with reach.
            There was no point attempting to conceal the true facts of pod-layers, MDMs, CLACs, fission-plant LACs, and FTL capacity, and as well as stark reminders of the sheer depth of military superiority the Alliance enjoyed, by way of sticks, governmental and system defence people could have sight and smell of dangled carrots. The new LACs could be invaluable to small federations, providing improved local security at far lower costs, CLACs offered a means of projecting limited power within regional volumes ditto, and the contingents of breezy, devil-may-care LAC crews among the hundreds of thousands of Alliance personnel given limited local leave did no harm. He and Rachel had been in stitches at the record of a private warning Honor had delivered to all her ships before any had left Terra, promising most faithfully that anyone under her command who (a) embarrassed her and/or (b) put a spoke in a diplomatic wheel, would be left praying for a lifelong place on Hades ; and even Wesley, who’d brought it to share, was heard to chuckle. Nor was the threat an idle flight of fancy, for the growing problem everywhere of nausea with mass executions had been solved by Eloise, who had said that any and all persons properly convicted of participation in enslavement would be hosted at cost on the revamped prison planet. There would be frequently changed Manticoran, Grayson, Andermani, Erewhonese, and other observers to make sure there were no abuses ; but it had to be admitted that Hades’s conditions did make it eminently suitable for keeping large numbers of profoundly malign people in safe and punitive inactivity.
            Senior Manpower and Jessyk people were already there, as well as a growing number of OFS and Frontier Fleet muckety-mucks who turned the stomach but weren’t quite bad enough to pitch wholesale into trials that almost invariably produced capital sentences. And it had been an answer the Ballroom would accept, as well as the most liberal among the freed, not least because, even before Honor herself had endorsed Eloise’s offer, her personal connection with Hades had given it her implicit imprimatur. When Eloise had privily proposed it among senior Alliance heads of state Benjamin’s one hesitation had been what Honor’s own feelings would be, and her long, ruminative answer to his formal question had been troubled but in the end as ruthlessly pragmatic as ever.
            “You know, Benjamin, it doesn’t really seem wrong. Only harsh and distasteful, besides something closer to just than not unjust. And Stinker thinks it’s hysterical, as well as something there isn’t a two-leg word for that involves the sharpness of claws and teeth and the joy of laughter. I’m guessing at what Chien-Lu calls schadenfreude with an extra dose of whatever passes as Treecats’ sense of irony. And God knows I’m sick to death of executions, so discomfort for adequately fed and exercised life seems a decent bargain when something permanent continues to be needed.”
            Nimitz had independently, following Honor, expressed approval of the scheme. What exactly the ’cats felt about it had become a hot topic in many fora, not least because any who were asked said that Laughs Brightly had earned his name and had many new meanings for laughter besides, including this one, which every Person was still thinking about. Punishing people in ways other than a cuff to an over-rambunctious kitten or defensively necessitated death was a new issue for the People, and what did the questioner think of c-u-s-t-o-d-i-a-l s-e-n-t-e-n-c-e-s? Alliance newsies had gained some experience with ’cats, not that it did them much good, but most Solly reporters had been left as high and dry as landed fish. Some really interesting interspecies conversations had ensued, and while there had been a small if vocal set of protests in many polities, the vast majority of humankind seemed content with the idea of those who had enslaved spending their lives with heat rash and a tedious diet somewhere a very long way away.
            In any case, the net result had been 851 punctual five-person delegations, an efficiency in itself a huge step away from the shadow of the League, and Honor’s private communications had dwindled as she threw herself into an enormous repeat of what she’d trialled at the Bay House. It had taken 20 months rather than three, and he with everyone else had been fascinated to see her work it all. He’d signed, with the unanimous consent of both Conclaves, a second exemption allowing the HSG to be further expanded with unarmed personnel, and she had hundreds of, overwhelmingly, youngsters from her Steading, smartly uniformed, extremely polite as well as intelligently courteous, and liable in answering any question to ride an airbus through the questioner’s assumptions. Every one of them sincerely believed Her Grace was beloved of the Tester, demanding as He did that everything be Tested, His own word not excluded, and once Tested acted on with consistent honour. Very little in any Solarian’s experience had prepared them for the practicalities of such a faith as Father Church’s, and the HSG were not alone.
            He and other Alliance heads of state had nobly resisted temptation, but all sorts of people from every Alliance polity had been drawn to the riveting spectacle, some able to command Honor’s personal attention — Klaus and Stacy Hauptman, Hamish Alexander, an increasingly frail Howard Clinkscales, Cathy Montaigne and Anton Zilwicki, Queen Berry, Du Havel with a formal question that could perfectly well have been sent by courier and, when he returned to Toussaint, Jeremy X with another. He stayed more than a month, and the legion of roughly polite if flat-voiced dancers he’d brought with him had given some splendid impetus to several strands of the talks. They also interacted with a delegation of treecats from Sphinx, who signed questions and answers with slow, careful dignity, and brought to proceedings an unflagging insistence on a comprehensive answer that precluded two legs doing things that might kill planets by accident. Besides their intrinsic fascination, and vital nose for lies, Benjamin and Elizabeth had both strongly suspected them of what she called emotional management, and the length of time everything had taken was more down to the sheer volume of work involved than any real intransigence.
            Honor’s starting-point was that the League had inevitably become the deadly failure it had been because it had been too large. Haven too had until now been more damaged than nurtured by its size, and there were excellent reasons the Andermani (with Grand Alliance help) were actually annexing very little of Silesia, while breaking up the rest into polities that could function. Federations of up to ten Core worlds were therefore invited, which divided the unwieldy mob of 4,255 delegates into manageable streams, and what really took time was for them to make their various decisions about workable federal governance and who got what bits of it — matters to which Honor was indifferent. But she insisted on immediate individual signatures to the Cherwell Convention, a no-brainer that produced an early mark of unity in a mass ceremony, while Alliance ships around the Core prodded governments into setting about any necessary housecleaning.
            She also dealt superbly with the issue of reparations, not to the Alliance but to Shell and Verge planets that had been victimised by the OFS. The polities of the Alliance were doing all they could, in honour and common sense, for besides the crying needs of many liberated planets most were potentially very wealthy markets. The OFS had, after all, seized them for a reason, and as protectorate tithes vanished and wormhole transit fees reverted to their proper owners almost all had the wherewithal to pay for at least some of the help they genuinely needed to get back on their feet. During the period of wormhole network closure to Solarian vessels, Manticoran, Grayson, Havenite, and Andermani merchant lines had leaped for the new markets, bringing an enormous and very welcome economic stimulus on top of the peace dividend in greatly reduced naval construction. But there were far greater needs across Shell and Verge than the Alliance could possibly meet in a timely fashion, and Honor had combined the break-up and distribution of Solarian transstellars that had been active parasites, giving small emergent federations their own merchant lines, with a programme assigning to each group of former League members a swathe of OFS victims to receive generous favoured nation trading status and direct governmental and economic assistance with rebuilding and restructuring.
            Building on the aid for the real disaster spots, the process set up what were in effect reparations payments that also wove a new galactic mesh of political, cultural, and trade links. Introverted Core worlds were forced to look out, and more isolated Verge and Shell worlds given a specific conduit into what remained the densest volume of human settlement. He had spent a fascinating evening with Elizabeth (on a second and much happier state visit to Grayson) analysing schematics of the patterns Honor was creating, and seeing the interlocking structures that would bind the new mosaic of small star federations in ways calculated to promote individual development and differentiation. Core polities and Verge or Shell systems were not linked on an astrographical basis that might have encouraged political re-expansion, but according to particular needs and capacities. And even while the talking went on, ex-SLN personnel not being absorbed into small system defence forces were shifting into devolved merchant marines, as SLN dockyard and building capacity was transferring to civilian use, to serve the new trade routes.
            It had Beowulfan fingerprints all over it, but over and above the mix of reparations and trade there was defence. Honor was very clear that the Grand Alliance was a tool needed for this job, not a permanent political institution, however certain specific responsibilities would be shared between its various navies, and that meant treaties of mutual defence had to be with the major constituent members. Nor was it necessary for every new polity to have a treaty with every Alliance member, and Manticore, Grayson, Haven, Erewhon, and the Andermani each found themselves with a carefully distributed scatter of new treaty partners — ensuring that any misbehaviour by any of them would bring in at least two Alliance partners to squash it. There were also responsibilities for the lesser members of the Alliance, contenting Alizon, Zanzibar, Candor, Minette and others.
            Honor had kept him and other heads of state informed by the simple expedient of regularly sending records of the briefing sessions she held with her team of executive deputies in the huge Flag Conference facilities on GSNS Benjamin the Great, chosen as her flagship for that very reason. The many admirals who’d been assigned to Grand Fleet, from every Alliance nation, had been welded into a superbly efficient command team, and though many were still in the Verge and Shell Honor’s first team were using their staffs to push everything along as fast as may be under her leadership. Ops briefings were held daily, and a review board once a week, where discussion was lively and opinions of some of the pricklier and less realistic delegates scathing — but decisions about particular logjams were made promptly, often with considerable foresight, and once made acted on. Whatever else they might be these men and women were admirals — the kind who fought battles, not paper pushers — and used to wartime workloads and efficient despatch ; they also had a very high degree of camaraderie, knowing they had together done a mighty historic deed. And as Elizabeth had agreed, there was even with these powerful people what Lucien Cortez at BuPers and Wesley had identified years ago, the Harrington effect that made subordinates — and every one of them took Honor’s ultimate military command entirely seriously — not only want to do their best, but deliver it in abundance.
            And so it was all marshalled and chivied, pushed and pulled and manoeuvred into place. There was no singular grand ceremony — as Honor had tartly observed, the monumental was precisely not the point — but last autumn completed polity arrangements and treaties had begun to be signed, delegations leaving to submit them to referenda, and by the time the first votes of hugely relieved approval began rolling in the last few problem children had been threatened with economic spankings and, however grudgingly, accepted arrangements they still didn’t like but agreed were workable — as their subsequent public approvals showed. And the circus was finally over.
            The military trials of the League’s mandarins, Mesa’s placemen, and transstellars’ boards were also wrapped up, with most despatched to Hades, and the resurgent Terran government, long suffocated by the vast federal parasite it had hosted, had taken over basic civil functions. But for all sorts of reasons, symbolic as well as practical, it did not want the cluster of Old Chicago towers that had hosted the bloated League and SLN buraucracies, and Honor’s final act had been to remove them. Demolishing countergrav towers was notoriously hard, but with the sort of energy equipment navies had (and a large exclusion zone) it was perfectly possible to cut them through at the base ; and while they were immensely heavy, the whole point of countergrav was that neither mass nor weight intrinsically mattered. The transatmospheric lifter-tug built for the job at the Blackbird Yards — at, he discovered with a mix of amusement and exasperation, Honor’s personal expense — had looked very strange, a ship version of Anton Zilwicki, but it had worked well enough.
            The spectacular show took several days, punctuated by the biggest firework displays anyone had ever seen as plascrete grudgingly yielded to lasers, and the truly peculiar sight of towers being drawn like rotten stumps out of the cityscape and rising offplanet to be assembled in high orbit. The Terrans, sensibly enough, threw a blowout party for the duration, and though there was a lot of optimistic excitement about the future there was also real regret at seeing Honor go, which considering the circumstances of her arrival said a great deal. And then she was gone, the flagship SDs of her most senior admirals tractoring the buildings onto courses for Sol and without waiting to see them immolated vanishing over the hyperwall for Beowulf.
            By the time the Beowulfan party had spilled through the Junction to Manticore, some smart artist-entrepreneur had combined an image of those buildings as they had begun to melt with the fiery salamander of the Protector’s Own, doing the melting, and sent it to Stacey Hauptman and the ASL — so it was everywhere, a perfect icon of the incredible that had to be believed. Even the crustiest, sourest Gryphon peer could find no possible quarrel with comprehensively defeating and dismembering the Solarian League ; and as those among the wealthy and powerful who had been less than sincere in condemning slavery were mostly dead, despatched to Hades, or in prison elsewhere, there was also a universal, bone-deep (if stunned) satisfaction at its mass eradication. Cathy Montaigne had for months had an enormous display outside the Honor House showing the daily precipitous fall in the ASL’s estimate of those still in slavery, with tallies of the freed, and the sense of more than one impossible achievement was strong, with a concomitant national pride that had been building over three years but had as yet found only limited expression.
            With the Manticoran economy booming in overdrive, the previous year’s general election had been almost as peculiar as the last one, and Willie had increased his majority to a point he not only found embarrassing but thought unhealthy. Prodded by Elizabeth he had responded by drawing a much wider range of people (and a permanent treecat observer) into his new cabinet, a process echoed in the diplomatic appointments of hundreds of new ambassadors, most needing to establish their embassies. More or less everyone had been tracking news from Verge and Shell polities where Manticore had been the primary aiding power, as well as news from Old Chicago, and citizens’ groups of many kinds had become involved, some on the government’s dollar but many voluntarily, contributing resources. Elizabeth had seen it long before Willie — the Harrington effect at work across a whole, usually fractious polity, because they were in awe of her, in love with her, ferociously proud of her, and wanted to live up to her example.
            But it also gave them a collective headache, because at some point she was going to come home, and they would need to say something. It was far and away the biggest political problem Willie had faced, and there was enough time for a number of people to be heard, including a ruminative Elizabeth who had pointed out that (a) even she had run out of toybox items and (b) she wasn’t going to risk another scold like the one she’d received for mousetrapping Honor into becoming a Grand Duchess. As Honor’s refusal of the PMV after Hades and resistance to being rewarded were common knowledge, Her Majesty’s further point that something imaginative and sincere rather than grand was needed was a cue for a lot of extremely interesting discussion ; and though Benjamin didn’t know how much of it Honor herself was aware of, she had shortly thereafter dropped a large rock by letting it be known that whatever else anyone might be contemplating she would herself, on the day of her return, be attending a Mass of thanksgiving and then, with CNOs Caparelli, Matthews, and Theisman, with small RMN, GSN, and RN delegations, plus representatives of other old Alliance navies, dedicating the joint memorial to their dead.
            It hadn’t of course stopped the population from turning out and celebrating, but it had absorbed thanking Honor into thanking God, and induced a certain solemnity. The two tributes Willie and Elizabeth had between them agreed were a new and unique award, a Kingdom’s Thanks rather than a Monarch’s, with a spectacular quintuple gold chevron and double crown, that Honor accepted with only a mild look of resignation ; and — a mayoral suggestion seized on, when a very interesting bit of news had broken — the renaming of Landing Square as Treecat Square, with an oversize and very good statue not only of Nimitz, but of Sam, with their new litter. The bronze treekittens were a generic ball of sleeping paws and tails, but the adults were genuine portraits, sitting on either side of their young and echoing their appearance on Honor’s shoulders. It made Honor laugh and moved her, though she said it would do Nimitz’s ego no good at all, while Nimitz and Sam were very smug, bleeking and signing with all the other ’cats who had inserted themselves into events ; and as the kittens could hardly be excluded the whole thing became a disorderly interlude between the solemnities of St Michael’s Cathedral and the Memorial Gardens. And that had been perfect, for they stood at the junction of past and future, old grief and new hope.
            The design eventually chosen for the Memorial combined the ’cats’ preferences for sinuous waveforms and geometry. An undulating semi-circular wall bore the names of ships, navy by navy but without distinction beyond their prefixes, curving around a large part of the extensive garden ; at its centre it squared up to display simple words, that we might live, that yet had a twist, for one could say that even StateSec personnel had died that others might live, though not in the obvious way. And around the garden were terminals where every ship could be called up, with names of its crew. Families across the Alliance were still supplying images of their dead as they would like them remembered and the database was updated constantly. But for all the stone, it was the garden’s verdure that dominated. Treecats liked trees, and their garden was a place of play and relaxation however it might be hosting a two-leg memory singing, so while they had been respectfully silent and still while the solemn navy delegations and heads of state heard Wesley, Thomas Caparelli, and Theisman, as the senior CNOs, formally dedicate the memorial to all the dead, and offer Honor brief but blazingly sincere thanks for its conception and commission, solemnity had not lasted. The undulating wall made far too good a perch from which to examine the oddity of two legs to be ignored, and quite a few ’cats seemed more than a little dazed with the emotions that must be battering them.
            Before the HD coverage ended Honor had spoken once, standing before the centre of the memorial but addressing the camera more conversationally than oratorically.
            “If I have learned anything as a commander it is that no resource should be wasted, and your attention in this moment is a potent resource — so I will say two things. The first is to thank you all for your trust while it was still not possible to reveal the depth of our military advantage. I have sought always to requite it. The second is more complicated.” She had gestured. “This used to be the North Hollow’s garden, of course, and you won’t be surprised that to me that name represents the very worst of which human beings are capable. God knows the data we recovered on Mesa shows our wars really were planned and prodded into starting by others, but that does not absolve us of our own share of the responsibility. And we remain as frail as God made us, however purged for the moment ; yet now, for a while, it is we with our close allies who are dominant, and to whom others look not only for help but as a model. We may rightly be proud, and rightly enjoy it. But do you realise just how easy and insidious a process it would be for us to become as bloated and complacent as the League was? As smug, and callous, and carelessly extreme? I do, and while I am frankly delighted to be surrendering the powers and authorities delegated to enable me to do what I have done, I remain a member of the House of Lords, as of the Chamber of Steadholders, and will as an independent here and Protector’s Champion there be keeping a very watchful eye. So if you really want to thank me, then in years and centuries to come, make your decisions that matter consciously considering how not to be like North Hollow or the League. This place will remind you of exactly why it matters, even though the slave and Solarian dead aren’t here, nor Silesians and Andermani. And its name is Sorrow Singer.”
            Honor had never had a formal party affiliation, despite becoming a major opposition spokesman on naval affairs, but reasserting an independence from government, however closely aligned, was a necessary move Benjamin wholly approved. She was now and for ever far too great a figure to serve in any government directly, and a role as her nations’ conscience as safe a containment for her as could be managed ; he also privately thought the care steadholdership had taught her with its personal autocracy had been the Tester’s hand preparing her to be a safe custodian of the astonishing power and potential power she now commanded across thousands of star systems. And he knew her regret for the Solarian dead was real, the burden of Rajani’s destroyed SDs, sacrificed as the least cost in a manner calculated to save millions of other lives, one she felt daily and was haunted by. What she needed was a few long months on Sphinx, gliding and sailing and doing ordinary things, but that still had to wait on required visits to Grayson, Erewhon, New Berlin, and eventually Nouveau Paris. In the meantime Elizabeth, who knew it too, had unilaterally kept the evening meal to family and the major heads of state whom Honor liked, with those she wanted to invite, and dialled down the formality as far could be managed.
            It had still been a large gathering, but like that memorable night at the Bay House one where much was set aside. Then the purpose had been decision ; now it was celebration, but of safe return more than achievement, and with personal rather than political talk. There were children as well as ’cats, Crown Princess Rivka’s new daughter as well as Faith and James, grown out of all recognition since Honor had last seen them and far less interested in their big sister’s achievements than in Nimitz’s and Samantha’s ’kittens. Outside, of course, the entire city had been one giant street party, with sporadic outbursts of singing and cheering among the crowds around Mount Royal, loud with Honor’s name. When one had died away she’d caught his eye and come over.
            “How bad it is going to be on Grayson, Benjamin?”
            “Severe, I’m afraid, though not as bad as it might be.”
            “Handing over treaties and returning your plenipotentiary powers will be solemn but cheerful, followed by a service of thanksgiving Reverend Sullivan’s agreed to keep as short as he can, which won’t be very. But everyone understands you wanting to get back to your own steading for a while before you have to slog off for Erewhon, so you’ll be able to get away after that and see people you actually want to see.”
            It had been enough to forestall further questions, though she’d given him a fish-eye as she’d sensed his emotions, but as he stood in the summer sun, seeing the distant glint of the descending shuttle and thinking how few even of the visitors now bothered with breath masks, he wasn’t at all sure quite what was going to happen. Of all the Alliance nations that found themselves bestriding the galaxy, Grayson had come farthest and fastest, from neobarb desperation to unprecedented power, security, and influence in only 20 years ; and that journey was overwhelmingly the work of Honor Harrington. From the moment they’d seen the bridge record from HMS Fearless, most Graysons had known her, as he had himself, to be a daughter of God like none they’d ever met. After Burdette, Hades, her second North Hollow, High Ridge with his entire, godless crew, Mesa, and the Solarian League, he doubted if there were a dozen adults of any stripe who didn’t believe she was the chosen instrument of the Tester’s grace — and one other thing she’d done had seared it home, for among the clauses in those many, many treaties she would shortly be delivering for ratification was one that in insisting on mutual religious tolerance gave all faiths a quasi-constitutional right to organise on Grayson, recognising a growing reality among its increasingly diverse population, and reciprocally gave Father Church guaranteed access to an unconverted population in the trillions. Moreover, a defining annex specifically listed the Masadan Faithful among a small number of religious groups explicitly denied recognition and freedom of worship, on the grounds that their doctrines amounted to enslavement. And when that had got out, something had happened deep in the Grayson soul.
            They had all had enough time to learn to live with the fact that despite everything Honor was still not a communicant of Father Church, though the Champion of its Protector and when on-planet a regular attendant in the Strangers’ Aisle. And even the stickiest traditionalists had admitted long ago that she really was a good and godly woman, not least — though it stuck in Benjamin’s craw — because she so obviously still mourned Paul Tankersley that the fact they hadn’t been married really did seem unimportant, even to the stern, who whatever their faults understood and respected both love and atonement. They had even, mostly, managed to accept that she more than rivalled Isaiah McKenzie, though the Tester’s purpose in raising such an utterly formidable warrior elsewhere and bringing her to Grayson as its saviour twice-over was even more than usually inscrutable. But the radical effects of the gravfilters, combined with Allison Harrington’s genetic work, had daily and intimate implications for all, magnifying everything. And then there was Masada.
            More than a decade of occupation had achieved little beyond a nominally ‘moderate’ government that took responsibility only for basic civil services, and still needed a very substantial occupying force to keep the lid on ; and besides the continuing danger of any male Faithful who managed to get off-planet — terribly demonstrated in the StateSec sponsored assassinations — the issue of basic human rights was a constant thorn. The schismatics remained utterly opposed not only to Prolong but to almost all modern medicine, which was their privilege, but also denied it to their wives and children, which wasn’t, any more than their adamant refusals to countenance the notion that a woman had any rights at all ; but doing anything about it had proven impossible, until with the Havenite War over Honor had despite everything somehow found time to turn her industrial muscle to the problem.
            Sky Domes had paid for two things – cheap, small, and simple coms distributed free by the tens of millions, and a quartet of satellites that gave planetary coverage to a dozen channels, including Grayson, Manticoran, Havenite, and Solarian newscasts, a first-rate children’s science primer, a couple of more adult stations explaining what medicine could now do — including Prolong and preventing the frequent miscarriages of male foetuses with which Masadans as much as Graysons were burdened — and a theology channel on which members of the Sacristy patiently and carefully explained the history of the Church of Humanity Unchained and its schismatics, including the sacred texts the Faithful repudiated. The Masadans had been livid, foaming their displeasure, but though several hundred women and children had been killed by husbands (subsequently executed) who caught them watching the coms, there was nothing they could do to stem the flood of information or its radically transformative effects.
            And then a further channel had been added, for Honor had persuaded the ASL, Ballroom, and Allied governments that all women on Masada, and minor children, counted as enslaved, entitled on liberation to the same support as any of the newly freed — Prolong where still possible, necessary medical and psychotherapeutic treatment, housing and social support — until they could find their own feet. It also meant that nothing done to an owner-abuser was regarded as criminal. Moreover, given the particular issue they had faced, a second domed city was under construction in Harrington Steading where local authorities and services would be exclusively female — and an address by Honor, first privately to the Keys and then Grayson-wide, had appealed for competent women to augment Harrington Steading’s own resources in staffing the new city of St Barbara, should the number of Masadan women seeking asylum reach the numbers she hoped for. The smarter among the Keys had seen just how dangerous a precedent Honor was establishing, but the move was unanswerable, and Benjamin, Kat, and Elaine had laughed themselves silly as the request had been unanimously approved and the public response had gone from positive to wildly enthusiastic.
            And the Masadan women with their minor children had come, by the Tester, a trickle becoming a flow and then a flood. A fair few left male corpses behind them, and battalions of additional ground troops had been needed, but a great swathe of the capital had been cleared of men and served as a reception and holding area, while Harrington and Hauptman Lines merchies shuttled women and children to Grayson, Manticore, and beyond as fast as they could turn around. Some refugees were very happy to leave all theocracy behind, but many were not apostate, just sick of the Faithful’s vile ways, and thought an all-female dome on Grayson with a Father Church that honoured women a wonderful proposition. And as the numbers grew into the millions and tens of millions, even the dimmest members of the Keys realised that the huge boost to Grayson’s female population, just as Allison Harrington’s genetic fix for the lethal embryonic mutation was equalising male and female birth-rates, was going to cushion the change they most feared and preserve a traditional family structure for at least another generation. It was a severe (and to Benjamin purely beautiful) irony of Honor’s crafting that gaining that benefit for their own steadings meant establishing female domes that gave public authority and political experience to women, but needs must. Only four steadings had yet to start such domes, and besides the direct practical effects, the HD coverage of traumatised and incredulous but triumphant women, and above all slowly relaxing children learning to smile and play without fear, had been a planetary balm. Between that and the stream of triumphant galactic news Grayson’s feelgood factor was through the roof, to a degree that actually had people worrying about it.
            There had also been the grim yet deeply satisfying spectacle of the Faithful realising that their schism was doomed to dwindle away as the demographics of their population skewed more and more wildly to the  adult male. It would take a while yet — there had been more than two billion women on Masada, and some were too cowed or indoctrinated to flee, even now — but the percentage of women of childbearing age was already at a level seen only on the road to extinction, and their own denial of Prolong and medical interventions meant both that they had no way round it and that their death rates were far higher and average life-span far lower than either needed to be. The Tester made very sure your sins came home to roost, and His justice was rightly severe.
            And then Honor had put yet another nail in the Faithful’s coffin by making each and every male who maintained the doctrine of female enslavement persona non grata in most of the galaxy, and simultaneously won a reciprocal formal acceptance of Father Church. The only possible valid comparison was St Austin himself, and no-one Benjamin had heard — not even the stiffest conservative patriarch — was prepared to deny that Her Grace at least might be a living saint of Father Church : which was not anything anyone had any experience of at all, unless, of course, they had been acquiring it without realising these last 20 years.
            Feeling the spiritual crisis swell, Benjamin had asserted Protector’s Authority to command a special meeting of Sword and Council, both Conclaves, Sacristy, the full clergy and congregations of every steading cathedral, all linked by HD, to hear First Elder Sullivan, who had a marvellous, pragmatic view with a paralysing sting in its tail. He had no doubt whatever that Her Grace was a beloved instrument of the Tester and so a most paradoxical saint of Father Church — but the paradox must command attention. How could one not of Father Church be its second saint? And why would the Tester so bless them when those privileged to know Her Grace personally could have not the slightest doubt that any attempt by Father Church to acknowledge her as such would cause her the greatest distress? Every communicant’s conscience was their own, but under his leadership no formal discussion of canonisation would ever be held, for amid it all one thing was entirely and abidingly clear to him. As an instrument of the Tester, Her Grace was herself, in her nature, a great Test, for Grayson, for every Grayson, and for Father Church. To understand this new and wonderful and terrible Test, they must live with her, speaking to her as its embodiment, as a teacher and example, and besides the gross insult to her feelings, which he took to be a warning, formalised veneration could only inhibit that understanding. The Book was never closed, and none could doubt that a further portion of the New Way had been opened to Father Church, and to them all. And of course a very special respect for Her Grace was proper and necessary. But formal liturgical thanks to her would be restricted to the existing annual service in memory of the Martyr Julius Hanks, who had died that she might live and could again in his own great grace stand between her and those devout communicants who would, convinced of their own righteousness, do her harm.
            There had been a great deal of soul-searching, and some of the sermons Testing the First Elder’s advice had been as tangled as he had been clear, but the ruling had been very widely accepted with a curious sort of relief. Quite how not acknowledging a living saint walking among them was easier and better than doing so remained a mystery, but there had been a synergy with the parallel problem of Grayson’s increasing number of respectful non-communicants that had begun suggesting interesting answers. The freed in Harrington Steading, including those now admitting to Ballroom membership, had been especially vocal, as for them a saint was one who Did Right, and the proper response was helping them, not getting mystical. It was a view resident ’cats had emphatically endorsed, amid disclaimers of understanding this religion business at all and an intransigent insistence that they did understand Dances on Clouds, who while extremely painstaking was not one to fuss. Besides, didn’t the two legs think she’d done more than enough for them already?
            All in all, Benjamin was reasonably sure no-one would do anything quite so crass as prostrating themselves, but beyond that he wouldn’t have bet a single Austin on almost anything except gross emotional overload. As the shuttle came in, the ranks of the Conclaves and Sacristy assembled in welcome were quivering, and he had a distinct sense that the sanest Graysons present were his assorted children, Rachel in her new GSN uniform to the fore with an arm around Honor, both at least as impatient to see the mentor and godmother they loved and had missed terribly as overawed by what she had done. Rachel had found her Saganami curriculum dominated by a rapidly shifting understanding of galactic events, with what sounded like a weekly dose of near-chaos when new data were discussed, but Hipper — a very active participant — had kept her and others firmly grounded. Of course Her Grace was amazing. She also flipped a mean frisbee and wasn’t called Dances on Clouds for nothing.
            Benjamin was inordinately proud of his eldest daughter, who had used her natal rank exactly once in four not-so-easy years — to wangle an invitation to learn to hang-glide out of the SFS, and spend her second summer vacation taking it up, Hipper in harness and her Armsmen having little choice but to nominate two among their number to learn as well, while others hovered about in aircars looking dyspeptic. She’d had the terrifying sense to take along a single embedded reporter as well, from the Church Times, while effortlessly recruiting the SFS and much of Yawata Crossing to stymying all others, and the helmet-cam images as she’d meticulously obeyed instructions and achieved a swoop to skim a cloud-top and be hurled aloft on its updraught, laughing her glee as Hipper bleeked his own, had struck Grayson hard. There had also been the images of Abigail Hearns, blooded on her Middie cruise to Verdant Vista, promoted to Lieutenant (JG) on deployment to Silesia, giving exemplary service as an ATO, and appointed as one of Honor’s many Flag Lieutenants in advance of the Mesan strike. It was nurture, not nature, as the equal employments of Harrington Steading and Sky Domes had long declared, and the swelling ranks of female officials and workers in the new domes underlined, and Grayson’s most hardened patriarchs had shivered where they stood.
            The shuttle touched down, settling as the engine whine faded, and the hatch hissed open. Benjamin had anticipated that Honor would let the guardian treecats (with wriggling ’kittens) disembark first, Grayson protocol notwithstanding, but not that when she did appear she would have both Nimitz and Sam on her shoulders, and a sleepy, cranky Faith in her arms. Nor the squad of Flag Lieutenants led by Abigail but representing every major Alliance navy who bore the trays arrayed with thousands of data wallets, and enumerated their contents to him, on Honor’s behalf, with rapid military clarity. But however fortuitous it might be, he understood exactly what Honor was doing when she interrupted her soothing of Faith, handed off with a look to Abigail, to kneel and surrender back to him the scroll he’d given her long ago in the hope that she could save the GSN from combat with the Andermani, rise again, and roll her neck and shoulders in obvious relief.
            Cast thy bread upon the waters : for thou shalt find it after many days.
            So he had, and so he had, by the bakery, and he rejoiced with his people as Honor, careless of protocol, congratulated Rachel warmly and knelt again with simple happiness to embrace her impatient goddaughter, who squeaked as a cold treecat nose was touched to her own.
* * * * *

Very much later he found himself with Kat and Elaine, Rachel, Honor, her parents, Wesley, Reverend Sullivan, and an assortment of ’cats, the humans savouring glasses of an ancient vintage and the ’cats a liquidised celery beverage MacGuinness had concocted that had much the same effect. Honor was stretched out in a comfy chair, sleeping ’kittens draped about her, and replied to his soft query without opening her eyes.
            “Erewhon, New Berlin, Nouveau Paris, where they are duplicating Sorrow Singer in Napoleon Park, and then at least three years without anyone asking me anything, Benjamin. I’ll be on Sphinx for a while, and not only because the ’kittens need to get to know the picketwood. Daddy’s going to try the new therapy for Nimitz, and he’s waited more than long enough.” There were bleeks of agreement, including Nimitz’s own. “But after the Steading the most pressing backlogs are San Martin and the duchy on Gryphon. Hector Sanchez and Richard Maxwell have done wonders, but they can’t make formal policy so I have months of rubber-stamping to do.”
            “Honor, you have never rubber-stamped anything in your life.”
            She still didn’t open her eyes.
            “I know. So I have to read all the stuff they’ve worked out properly. I have kept up, sort of, but only skimming, and there’s a full quarter’s reading waiting in each duchy HQ. And the city my poor Sky Domes techs have been bullied into building on San Martin as a demonstration of lower-altitude viability. Which reminds me” — almond eyes snapped open, though she didn’t move — “of two things. One is that San Martino mountaintop machismo doesn’t take especially well to dome discipline, I gather, so I need a bevy of sturdy Grayson housewives to rap their knuckles until they acquire some common sense. Are there any still available?”
            Kat and Elaine, both listening, laughed, assuring Honor recruits were still coming forward in droves, but gave her speculative looks her mother echoed ; and it was Allison who responded.
            “What’s the second thing, dear?”
            Honor’s eyes glinted. “Personal. Do you remember Tom saying that learning to ’glide was top of his personal peace dividend?”
            “Vaguely. The night President Ramirez turned up and you took that picture of the poor condor owl?”
            “That’s the one. Well, he was serious, and intends to resign as CNO of the RN. He hasn’t had any leave in decades, so while Eloise and others will scream he doesn’t think they’ll actually stop him. Javier Giscard apparently wants to retire as well, because having been Acting CNO all this time he says it isn’t a job he wants at all, and he thinks Eloise needs more domestic support, so Tom’s scheming to get Lester installed with Shannon as his deputy.” Honor had a gently amused look Benjamin hadn’t seen on her face since news of Paul Tankersley’s murder had arrived. “It’ll be interesting to see. Anyway, Tom asked me if I’d teach him to ’glide, on Sphinx, and I said I could think of nothing I’d like more.”
            Her eyes had a challenging warmth that stirred Benjamin’s soul, and both Allison’s and Alfred Harrington’s eyes were daring him to object to anything he might surmise. He had wondered a bit, too, seeing on Beowulf and Manticore the easy affection between Honor and Theisman, and the back of his brain considered briefly what Father Church would make of its probable living saint marrying an avowed atheist, and then, sweet Tester, what any children of those two might be like. Haven would have some adjusting to do as well, which should prove entertaining. But mostly he found himself filling with joy as he realised the warmth in Honor’s eyes was a hope of personal happiness, as well as a knowledge of peace to enjoy it in. The Tester Tested hardest those He loved best, and Honor’s many Tests had been brutally hard, but He also rewarded them, and if He had managed to give her something beyond the power of the most grateful ruler or generous people Benjamin would offer sincere thanks.
            He listened to Rachel telling Honor enthusiastically about her own experiences of learning to ’glide on Sphinx, with interruptions from Hipper and interested questions from Nimitz, and thought life very good.

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I made a cover for your fic.

 photo Honor Among Thieves - art by genkkis_zpsewsjcs8e.jpg

I used the original art by genkkis for Honor among Enemies.

Do you like it? I can still tinker if you'd prefer a different author name...

Re: I made you a cover

Wow! Thank you -- I do like it, and I'm very touched by your kindness and effort. The name is fine.

I'm not sure of protocols in re: the use of genkkis's original art, but is it possible to post it at AO3? Works there can be linked as inspired by other works, and as I have far more readers these days on A03 than LJ it would be more widely seen there than here.

Many thanks again -- a stunning surprise in my inbox that has quite made my day.

posted it on AO3 Link

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