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The Service of the Sword
By David Weber
Baen BooksCopyright © 2004 David Weber
All right reserved.
Judith had been very young when the raiders took the ship, young, but not too young to remember. There had been explosions, the shrill scream of tearing metal, the insidious tugging of air leaking out from a ruptured compartment before someone slapped on a patch.
The battle had been muffled, somehow less than real, made distant by the swaddling vac suit two sizes too big, but the best they'd had intact. It had been muffled, less than real, but that didn't save the child.
Reality came through later, came through with a vengeance.
Despite everything he'd been through, all the time and energy he'd put into his training, into getting marks that wouldn't shame his family, when it came time for his middy cruise, someone had gotten cold feet. Michael Winton first heard the rumor that they were going to put him on a system defense ship near Gryphon from his roommate, Todd Liatt.
Todd was one of those people who always heard things before anyone else. Michael had teased Todd, that he, not Michael, was the one who should be specializing in communications.
"You wouldn't even need a com set, Toad-breath. Information seeps directly into your nervous system. Think of the savings in time and resources that would be."
Todd had laughed, even played along with the joke, but there'd really never been a question where he would concentrate. Tactics was the best specialization for those who hoped for a ship of their own someday, and Todd wanted command.
"Hey," Todd said, mock serious, "I've got four older sisters and three older brothers. I've taken other people's orders all my life. It's time I get a turn, right?"
But they'd both known Todd's desire was motivated by an overwhelming sense of responsibility, a desire to make things right. Michael was certain that the white beret would fit Todd as naturally as his skin.
And himself? Michael didn't want command. He hadn't even wanted a career in the Navy, not at first, but now he was as devoted to the service as Todd was. He just knew he didn't want to command a vessel. Michael would never say so to Todd, but he knew too much about the cost of command to long for it.
Communications appealed to Michael: the rapid flow of information, the need to weigh and measure, to sort and balance, were all as familiar to him as breathing. He'd been playing some version of that game all his life.
He was good at it too. His memory was excellent. Pressure didn't fluster him. It seemed to focus him, to make things clearer, contrast more acute. He felt sure that no one who'd gone through a training sim with him had any doubt that he'd earned his standing on graduation.
Michael was proud of that class standing. It's very hard to be judged on your own merits when you're so highly born that people are automatically going to figure you were being carried. That's what made Todd's news almost more than he could take.
"You heard what?" Michael said to Todd, his voice taut with anger.
"I heard," Todd replied stiffly, unintimidated, "that you are going to be assigned to the Saint Elmo for her Gryphon deployment. Apparently, your singular ability to process information came to the attention of BuWeapons. They're working on some top secret sensor technology and they want the best people they can get for the trial runs."
Michael's response was long, eloquent, and suggested that he'd hung around with Marines at some time in his life. That was true. His sister was married to a former Marine, but Justin Zyrr had never used language like that in Michael's hearing.
Todd listened, his expression mingling shock and grudging admiration.
"Two years," he said. "Two years I share a room with you, and never do I learn that you can swear like that."
Michael didn't answer. He was too busy grabbing various items of clothing, obviously preparatory to storming out of the room.
"Hey, Michael, where're you going?"
"To talk to someone about my posting."
"You can't! It isn't official yet."
"If I wait until it's official," Michael said, his voice tight, "then it's going to be too late. Insubordination at least. Now I might be able to do something."
Todd was too smart to fight a losing engagement.
"Who're you going to talk to? Commander Shrake?"
"No. I'm going to screen Beth. If this is her idea, I need to know why. If it isn't her idea, I need to know so someone can't try to convince me that it is. When I know that, then I'll try Shrake."
"Forewarned is forearmed," Todd agreed.
Michael nodded. One thing his com training had taught him. Find a secure line if you want to discuss a sensitive matter.
He guessed it was pretty sensitive when you were going to place a person to person call to the Queen.
The ship that had captured theirs had been from Masada. Judith had been too young to understand the difference between pirates and privateers. When she was old enough to know, she was also old enough to know that when it came to Masadans preying on Graysons the distinctions were so much fertilizer.
Her father had been killed helping to defend the ship. Her mother had died trying to defend her child. Judith only wished she could have died with them.
At twelve standards Judith was married to a man over four times her age. Ephraim Templeton had captained the Masadan privateer that had taken the Grayson vessel, and he claimed the girl child as part of his prize. If this was somewhat irregular, there was no one left alive to protest when Judith was not repatriated to her own people.
Even disregarding the difference in their ages-Ephraim had seen five and half decades by standard reckoning-Judith and Ephraim were not at all alike. Where Ephraim was heavily built, Judith possessed a light, gazelle's build. Her hair was dark brown, sun-kissed with reddish gold highlights. His was fair, silver mixed in increasing proportion to the blond. The eyes Judith learned to carry downcast lest Ephraim beat her for impudence were hazel, brown ringing vibrant green. Ephraim's eyes were pale blue and as cold as ice.
At thirteen Judith had her first miscarriage. When she had her second miscarriage six months later, the doctor suggested that her husband stop trying to impregnate her for a few years lest her reproductive equipment suffer permanent damage. Ephraim did as the doctor suggested, though that didn't mean he stopped exercising his conjugal privileges.
At sixteen Judith was pregnant again. When tests showed that the unborn child was a girl, her husband ordered an abortion, saying he didn't want to waste the useless bitch he'd been feeding all these years to no purpose, and what was more purposeless than breeding a girl child?
If before Judith had hated and feared Ephraim, now that emotion transformed into loathing so deep she thought it a wonder that her gaze did not sear Ephraim to ash where he stood. Her sweat should have been acid on his skin, her breath poison. That was how deeply she hated him.
Some women would have committed suicide. Some might have resorted to murder-which in Masadan society was the same as suicide, though a bit more satisfactory in that the murderer achieved something in return for her death. But Judith did neither.
She had a secret, a secret she held onto even as she bit her lip to keep from crying out when her husband used her again and yet again. She held onto it even when she saw the grudging pity in the eyes of her co-wives. She held onto it as she had from the moment she watched her mother bleed her life out onto the deck plates, remembering that brave woman's final warning.
"Never let them know that you can read."
It hadn't been Elizabeth's idea to have him posted to a lumbering superdreadnought that would never even leave the Star Kingdom's home binary system. Michael's relief when he learned this was boundless. Even before their father's death, Beth had encouraged Michael to find his own place, to push his limits. Distracted as she had been by the heavy responsibilities she assumed after their father's tragic death, Beth had made time for Michael, listening to the problems he couldn't seem to discuss with their mother, the dowager Queen Angelique.
To have found that Beth had suddenly changed would have been a new orphaning, worse in many ways, for on some level Michael expected it-indeed, knew he should strive for it, since it was his place to support his Queen, not hers to support him.
Now that he knew that he would not be undermining his Queen's policy, Michael made an appointment to see the Fourth Form dean. That he could almost certainly have demanded an appointment with the commandant of the Academy and been granted it occurred to him, but the option was as quickly rejected. The Navy could be-and was-officially unyielding where matters of birth and privilege were concerned. That didn't mean strings weren't quietly pulled in the background, but anyone who too blatantly abused his position could expect to pay a price throughout the entire course of his career. Besides, it would have been self-defeating. The appointment would have been granted to the Crown Prince, not to Midshipman Michael Winton, and being seen as Crown Prince Michael rather than Midshipman Winton was precisely what Michael was trying to avoid.
However, if his appointment with the dean came rather more promptly than even a fourth form midshipman who stood in the top quarter of his class could usually hope for, Michael wasn't fool enough to refuse it. He arrived promptly, sharp in his undress uniform, every button, sash, and bit of trim in as perfect order as he and Todd could make them.
Michael saluted crisply when admitted to his superior officer's presence. Indeed, though there had been those who had expected the Crown Prince to indicate in fashions subtle or less so that in the past these same officers had bent knee before him, Michael had never given them reason. He knew, as those who were not close to the Crown never could, how human monarchs were, how an accident could make an eighteen year-old queen ... could make a thirteen year-old crown prince.
Michael wondered how many of those officers who expected him to slight them realized how greatly he stood in awe of them. They had earned their ranks, earned their awards and honors. The long list of titles Michael heard recited on formal occasions had nothing to do with him, everything to do with his father.
He thought that Commander Brenda Shrake, Lady Weatherfell, might actually realize how he felt, for there was a warmth in her pale green eyes that spoke of understanding that in no way could be confused with indulgence or laxity. The dean's title identified her to Michael as the holder of a prosperous grant on Sphinx, but long ago Lady Weatherfell had decided that her calling was in the Navy.
Even the battle that had left traces of scaring on rather stark features, that had bent and twisted two fingers of her right hand, had not made her renounce her decision. Instead Commander Shrake had moved with all the wisdom of her long years shipboard to the academy, where, in addition to her administrative duties, she taught some of the toughest courses in fusion engineering.
Commander Shrake was a leader within an academy responsible for turning out competent naval officers on what anyone with any sense must realize was the eve of war. There was no room for indulgence in her job, but there was room for compassion.
"You wished to see me, Mr. Winton?"
Michael nodded stiffly.
"Yes, Ma'am. It's about a rumor."
Suddenly Michael felt the speeches he had been rehearsing since Todd's revelation the day before dry up and flake away. After a panicked moment, he forced himself to begin afresh and was pleased to find words came smoothly.
"Yes, Ma'am. A rumor about Fourth Form postings."
Commander Shrake smiled. "Yes, those rumors would be starting about now. They always do, no matter how carefully we keep the information to ourselves."
She didn't ask how Michael had heard and for that Michael was grateful. Getting Todd into trouble was not on his agenda, but neither was lying to the Fourth Form dean.
"And whose posting is it you wish to speak about?" Commander Shrake continued.
"My own, Ma'am."
"Commander Shrake, I have heard that I am to be posted to the SD Saint Elmo."
The dean didn't even make a show of consulting her computer. Michael respected her for it. Doubtless the matter had been discussed, maybe even debated. Someone at Mount Royal Palace might even have leaked back news of Michael's call to Beth last night.
"That matches my own information," Commander Shrake replied. "Is that what you wished to know?"
"Yes, Ma'am, and no, Ma'am. I did wish to have the rumor confirmed, Ma'am, but I," Michael took a deep breath and let the rest of his words hurry out on its eddy, "also wished to request another posting, Ma'am. One that isn't so close to home."
"You have a desire to see more of the universe, Mr. Winton?" asked the dean with a dangerous twinkle in her eyes.
"Yes, Ma'am," Michael replied, "but that isn't my reason for requesting a change of posting."
"And that reason is?"
"I want ..."
Michael hesitated. He'd been over this so many times he'd lost count, and he still couldn't find a way to state his case without sounding pompous.
"Ma'am, I want to be a naval officer, and I can't do that if people start protecting me."
Twin silver arches of raised eyebrows made Michael flush.
"It is not the Navy's habit to protect her officers, Mr. Winton," Commander Shrake said coolly, and the scarred hand she rested on the desk in front of her was mute testimony to her words. "Rather it is those officers' job to protect the rest of the kingdom."
"Yes, Ma'am," Michael said, pressing on through he felt he'd doomed his case. "That's why keeping me back here isn't right. The Queen's brother ..."
The damned words fell from his lips like bricks.
"The Queen's brother might have right to protection, but when I entered the academy I gave that up. It shouldn't start again now that I'm about to leave."
Commander Shrake steepled her fingers thoughtfully.
"And that's what you think this posting is, Mr. Winton?"
"And if I told you that Admiral Hemphill herself had heard of your qualifications and requested you?"
"I would be pleased, Ma'am, but that wouldn't stop others from thinking that I was being protected."
"And it matters to you what others think?"
"I'd like to say that it didn't, Ma'am," Michael said earnestly, "but I'd be lying. I could live with it if it was only me. I've done that before, but I don't like what it might make others think about the Navy."
Excerpted from The Service of the Sword by David Weber Copyright © 2004 by David Weber. Excerpted by permission.
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