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Chapter Sixty-Nine

It was very quiet in the nursery.

Her parents were downstairs, undoubtedly playing hearts with Hamish and Emily while they waited for her, and she didn't have much time. They were all due at Mount Royal Palace for a formal state dinner which was going to keep them out to all hours, and she'd come up to the nursery in uniform to save time changing later. In a lot of ways, she supposed, she really didn't have the time for this at all, but that was just too bad. The rest of the Star Kingdom—and the galaxy at large, for that matter—could just wait.

Lindsey Phillips had helped her get Raoul and Katherine changed and ready for bed while Emily supervised. Now she sat in her favorite chair—Raoul in her lap, Katherine asleep in the bassinet beside her—and adjusted the reading lamp, then looked at her sister and brother, curled like treecats on floor cushions in front of her.

"Are you ready?" she asked, and they nodded. "Where were we?"

"The pyre," Faith said, with a seven-year-old's assured, intimate familiarity with the story.

"Of course we were." She shook her head as she opened the book and began turning pages. "It's been so long, I'd forgotten where we'd gotten to."

Raoul began to fuss, with the quiet, stubborn, eyes-squeezed shut intensity of a four-month-old. She reached out to his mind-glow, touching it gently, and smiled. He wasn't really unhappy, just . . . bored with a world which wasn't focused exclusively on him. "Bored" wasn't really exactly the right word, she thought, but a baby's emotions, though clear and strong, were still in a formative stage, and it was difficult—even for her—to parse them exactly.

She felt Nimitz, stretched out across the chair back, reaching for the baby with her. There was something just a little odd about Raoul's mind-glow. Most of the time, Honor was convinced it was her imagination, just a difference in the way babies' emotions worked. Other times, she was far less certain of that, and this was one of those times.

Nimitz touched the baby's mind-glow, and Raoul stopped fussing instantly. His eyes opened, and that sense of boredom vanished. Honor turned her head, looking at Nimitz, and the treecat's grass-green eyes gleamed at her from the semi-darkness beyond the reading lamp's cone. She felt him radiating gentle reassurance, and Raoul gurgled happily.

Honor smiled at her younger siblings, then laid the book down long enough to maneuver Raoul into a seated position, supported against her shoulder, and looked at Nimitz.

"Did you do that with me, too, Stinker?" she asked him quietly. "I know we started later, but did you?"

Nimitz gazed back at her, and she felt the thoughtfulness behind those green eyes. Then, unmistakably, he nodded.

"Oh, my," Honor murmured, then looked down into Raoul's wide-open eyes. The baby was intent, focused . . . listening, and she shook her head. "Sweet pea," she told him tenderly, "fasten your seat belt. It's going to be an interesting ride."

Nimitz bleeked in cheerful agreement, and she felt long, agile fingers tug at something on the back of her neck. Then Nimitz lifted the Star of Grayson over her head on its crimson ribbon and dangled it above Raoul.

The baby's attention sharpened. He couldn't tell exactly what the star was at this point, but the bright sparkles of light dancing on its golden-starburst beauty drew his eyes like a magnet, and he reached up with one tiny, delicate hand while Nimitz crooned to him.

Honor watched for a moment, trying to imagine how the more stodgy of Grayson's steadholders would have reacted to the thought of an "animal" using their planet's highest, most solemn award for valor as a toy to distract a baby. No doubt the heart attacks would have come fast and thick, and she smiled slightly at the thought.

Then she looked back at Faith and James, and her smile turned a bit apologetic.

"Sorry. But now that Nimitz is keeping Raoul occupied, we can be about it."

She opened the book again, found her place, and began to read.

"'Behold, my boy.' The Phoenix opened the boxes and spread the cinnamon sticks on the nest. Then it took the cans and sprinkled the cinnamon powder over the top and sides of the heap, until the whole nest was a brick-dust red.

"'There we are, my boy,' said the Phoenix sadly. 'The traditional cinnamon pyre of the Phoenix, celebrated in song and story.'

"And with the third mention of the word 'pyre,' David's legs went weak and something seemed to catch in his throat. He remembered now where he had heard that word before. It was in his book of explorers, and it meant—it meant—

"'Phoenix,' he choked, "wh-wh-who is the pyre for?'

"'For myself,' said the Phoenix.


Raoul gurgled happily, reaching for the shiny star, and Honor tasted Faith and James' rapt attention as they concentrated on the story. She'd always found it hard to read this final chapter without letting her voice fog up and waver just a bit around the edges.

That was harder than usual tonight.

She kept on reading the well-worn, beloved words, but under them were other thoughts, far removed from the peaceful quiet of this comforting, enfolding nursery.

Three weeks. Just three weeks since the carnage and destruction, the death. The Star Kingdom was still coming to grips with what had happened. No doubt, the Republic of Haven would soon be doing the same, when the word reached Nouveau Paris in another two weeks or so.

One hundred and thirty-nine Manticoran, Grayson, and Andermani superdreadnoughts and seven CLACs destroyed outright, and another seven superdreadnoughts and two CLACs so badly damaged they would never fight again. Twenty-seven battlecruisers, gone. Thirty-six heavy cruisers and two thousand eight hundred and six LACs, destroyed. The official death toll for the Alliance was 596,245, with another 3,512 wounded survivors. But for the Republic, it was even worse: two hundred and fifty-one superdreadnoughts destroyed, along with nine CLACs, sixty-four battlecruisers, fifty-four heavy cruisers, and 4,612 LACs, and sixty-eight superdreadnoughts, seven CLACs, and over three thousand LACs captured. The Star Kingdom was still trying to compute the true, shattering depth of Lester Tourville's casualties, but the numbers they'd already come up with stood at almost 1.7 million dead, 6,602 wounded, and 379,732 prisoners. The number of dead was almost certain to climb, according to Patricia Givens. It might even top two million before it was all done.

No one in history had ever seen a battle like it, and it ought to have been decisive. The walls of battle of both the Alliance and the Republic had been gutted. Yet despite Haven's horrific losses, the loss ratio was actually in the Republic's favor in hulls, and hugely so in terms of loss of life. Had it not been for the existence of Apollo—deployed so far only aboard Honor's ships—at this moment, no power in the universe could have prevented the Republic of Haven's remaining SD(P)s from rolling right over the Manticoran home system. Yet Apollo did exist, and what Honor had done to Genevieve Chin's fleet would serve as lethal notice to Thomas Theisman that he could not possibly take Manticore while Eighth Fleet survived.

Yet that also meant Eighth Fleet couldn't possibly uncover Manticore. And so, Eighth Fleet had been formally redesignated (for now, at least) as the Star Kingdom's Home Fleet, and Honor Alexander-Harrington, as its commander, found herself Fleet Admiral Alexander-Harrington, despite her relative lack of seniority. It was only an acting rank, of course; it went with Home Fleet, and as soon as they could find someone else to give the job to, she would revert to her permanent, four-star Manticoran rank. But they wouldn't be finding anyone else until they also managed to find another fleet with Apollo. And until they did that, she—like her ships—was as anchored to the capital system as if each of them had been welded to Hephaestus or Vulcan.

And Honor had emerged from the holocaust as the only surviving Allied fleet commander engaged. She was being given credit for the victory, lauded as "the greatest naval commander of her age" by the newsfaxes. A Manticoran public shocked to its very marrow by the audacity of the Havenite attack and its horrific casualties, terrified by how close Lester Tourville had come to success, had fastened on her as its heroine and savior.

Not Sebastian D'Orville, who'd given his life knowing he and all his people were going to die. If D'Orville hadn't decisively blunted the initial attack, it would have devastated everything in the Manticore System, no matter what Theodosia Kuzak or Honor had done, and he and his fleet had died where they stood to do it.

Not Theodosia Kuzak, whose Third Fleet had sailed straight into the jaws of death. Who'd done everything right, yet tripped the guillotine which would have destroyed Eighth Fleet, just as surely as it had destroyed the Third, if Honor had been in her place.

And not Alistair McKeon, who had died like so many thousands of others, doing what he always did—his duty. Protecting the star nation he loved, serving the Queen he honored. Obeying the orders of the admiral who'd sent him unknowingly to his death . . . and who'd never even had the chance to say goodbye.

The praise, the adulation, were as bitter on her tongue as the ashes of the Phoenix's pyre, and she felt the darkness outside this quiet nursery. The darkness of the future, with all its uncertainties, all its risks in the wake of such a savage display of combat power and such cruel losses to both combatants. The darkness of the new and terrible blood debt the Star Kingdom and the Republic had laid up between them. The hatred and the fear which had to come from such a cataclysmic encounter, with all its dark implications for where the war between them might go.

And the darkness of the past. The darkness of memory, of grief. Of remembering those who were gone, who she would never see again.

Her voice had continued, her eyes moving down the printed page out of reflex, guided by memory, but now she heard her own words once again.

"David noticed then that he was holding something in his hand, something soft and heavy. As he lifted it to look more closely, it flashed in the sunlight. It was the feather the Phoenix had given him, the tail feather. Tail feather? . . . But the Phoenix's tail had been a sapphire blue. The feather in his hand was of the purest, palest gold.

"There was a slight stir behind him. In spite of himself, he glanced at the remains of the pyre. His mouth dropped open. In the middle of the white ashes and glowing coals there was movement. Something within was struggling up toward the top. The noises grew stronger and more definite. Charred sticks were being snapped, ashes kicked aside, embers pushed out of the way. Now, like a plant thrusting its way out of the soil, there appeared something pale and glittering, which nodded in the breeze. Little tongues of flame, it seemed, licking out into the air . . . No, not flames! A crest of golden feathers! . . . A heave from below lifted the ashes in the center of the pile, a fine cloud of flakes swirled up into the breeze, there was a flash of sunlight glinting on brilliant plumage. And from the ruins of the pyre stepped forth a magnificent bird."

The ancient story's imagery touched her. It always had, but this time, it was different.

"It was the Phoenix," she heard herself read, "it must be the Phoenix! But it was a new and different Phoenix. It was young and wild, with a fierce amber eye; its crest was tall and proud, its body the slim, muscular body of a hunter, its wings narrow and long and pointed like a falcon's, the great beak and talons razor-sharp and curving. And all of it, from crest to talons, was a burnished gold that reflected the sun in a thousand dazzling lights.

"The bird stretched its wings, shook the ash from its tail, and began to preen itself. Every movement was like the flash of a silent explosion.

"'Phoenix,' David whispered. 'Phoenix.'"

Honor saw Alistair in the Phoenix, heard herself in the ancient David. Heard the yearning, the hunger, the need for the rebirth of all she'd lost, all that had been taken from the universe.

"The bird started, turned toward him, looked at him for an instant with wild, fearless eyes, then continued its preening. Suddenly it stopped and cocked its head as if listening to something. Then David heard it too: a shout down the mountainside, louder and clearer now, excited and jubilant. He shivered and looked down. The Scientist was tearing up the goat trail as fast as his long legs would carry him—and he was waving a rifle.

"'Phoenix!' David cried. 'Fly! Fly, Phoenix!'

"The bird looked at the Scientist, then at David, its glance curious but without understanding. Paralyzed with fear, David remained on his knees as the Scientist reached an open place and threw the gun up to his shoulder. The bullet went whining by with an ugly hornet-noise, and the report of the gun echoed along the scarp.

"'Fly, Phoenix!' David sobbed. A second bullet snarled at the bird, and spattered out little chips of rock from the inner wall of the ledge.

"'Oh, fly, fly!' David jumped up and flung himself between the bird and the Scientist. 'It's me!' he cried. 'It's David!' The bird gazed at him closely, and a light flickered in its eye as though the name had reached out and almost, but not quite, touched an ancient memory. Hesitantly it stretched forth one wing, and with the tip of it lightly brushed David's forehead, leaving there a mark which burned coolly.

"'Get away from that bird, you little idiot!' the Scientist shrieked. 'GET AWAY!'

"David ignored him. 'Fly, Phoenix!' he cried, and he pushed the bird toward the edge."

No, she thought. She wasn't David, and Alistair wasn't simply the Phoenix. Alistair was David and the Phoenix, just as the Phoenix was all he had thrown himself in front of, like a shield, protecting it with his life, guarding it with his death.

And, like the Phoenix, he was forever gone beyond her touch again. She read the final paragraph through a blur of tears.

"Understanding dawned in the amber eyes at last. The bird, with one clear, defiant cry, leaped to an out-jutting boulder. The golden wings spread, the golden neck curved back, the golden talons pushed against the rock. The bird launched itself into the air and soared out over the valley, sparkling, flashing, shimmering; a flame, large as a sunburst, a meteor, a diamond, a star, diminishing at last to a speck of gold dust, which glimmered twice in the distance before it was gone altogether."

Fly, Alistair, Honor Alexander-Harrington thought. Wherever you are, wherever God takes you, fly high. I'll guard the Phoenix for you, I promise. Goodbye. I love you. 


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