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High Admiral Wesley Matthews gazed out from the palatial shuttle pad lounge and puffed his cheeks. His hair, dark brown back in the simpler days when he'd been a mere commodore in what had been no more than a system-defense fleet, was now so heavily shot with silver it seemed to gleam as the dawn light of Yeltsin's Star spilled down over Austin City. There were more lines in his intelligent, mobile face than there had been, too, but there was also a solid satisfaction in his hazel eyes. Usually, at least. And with reason, for he had overseen the transformation of the Grayson Space Navy which had been all but destroyed in the Masadan War as it rose phoenixlike from the ashes to become, by almost any standard, the third most powerful fleet in a hundred-light-year radius of his world. To be sure, that fleet was also locked in battle with the largest fleet within that same radius, but it had puissant allies, and, by and large, High Admiral Matthews had much of which to be proud.
None of which helped damp the exasperated, affectionate, respectful irritation he felt at this particular moment. He glowered for just a moment, with infinite deference, at the back of the short, wiry man standing with him in the lounge, then returned his attention to the scene beyond the window.
Austin City was the oldest city on Grayson. While many of its public buildings had been placed under protective domes, the city as a whole had not, and it was winter in Grayson's northern hemisphere. Fresh, heavy snow had fallen overnight, and banks of it lay more than man-high where the landing field's plows had deposited it. Matthews had never been particularly fond of snow, but he was prepared to make exceptions at times. Like this year. The four-thousand-year-old Christian calendar which Grayson stubbornly clung to for official dating was in unusual agreement with the actual planetary seasons, and that had given him extra enjoyment as he listened to his favorite carols. It wasn't often that a Grayson had a chance to see for himself what the ancient songs' enthusiasm for "white Christmases" was all about.
But Christmas had been two days before. Matthews' mind was back on military matters once more, and he grimaced as he glanced at the dozen or so armsmen in Mayhew maroon and gold standing about the foot of the lounge lift. Their breath plumed in the icy air, and beyond them, several dozen Marines had been scattered, apparently randomly, around the approaches. That randomness, Matthews knew, was deceptive. Those Marines had been very carefully deployed, with plenty of support a com call away, and they were heavily armed, alert, and watchful.
And unless he missed his guess, every one of them was as irritated as he was with the latest antic of their Protector.
One of these days, Benjamin is simply going to have to grow up. I know he enjoys slipping the leash whenever he can, and Tester knows I can't blame him for that, but he has no business standing around in a spaceport lounge with no more security than this! And speaking of standing around, it would be nice if he'd bothered to give me some reason to be standing around with him. It's always flattering to be invited along, of course, but I do have several hundred other things I could be doing. Not to mention the fact that the crack of dawn is not my favorite time to get up and haul on a dress uniform just because my Protector's decided to play hooky from the Palace for the day.
Benjamin Mayhew turned his head and smiled up at the taller high admiral. It was a charming smile, from a charismatic man, and Matthews felt himself smiling back almost against his will, for the Protector had that bad-little-boy-escaped-from-the-tutor look he'd come to know entirely too well in the last decade. It made Benjamin look much younger than his forty T-years (to Grayson eyes, at least; to eyes from a planet where prolong had been available from birth, he would have been taken for a man of at least fifty or sixty), even if it didn't do a great deal to soften his senior naval officer's mood.
"I suppose I really ought to apologize, Wesley," the Protector said after a moment, but then his smile turned into a broad grin. "I'm not going to, though."
"Somehow that doesn't surprise me, Your Grace," Matthews infused his reply with all the disapprobation he was prepared to allow himself with the ruler of his planet.
"Ah, but that's because you know me so well! If you didn't know me, if you'd been taken in by all the nice things the PR flacks say about me for public consumption, then I'm sure it would surprise you, wouldn't it?"
Matthews gave him a fulminating look but, aware of the two Marines standing vigilantly just inside the lounge entry, declined to answer in front of military personnel. Although, if the only other ears had belonged to the square-shouldered, weathered-looking armsman standing behind the Protector, watching Benjamin's back with much the same irritated affection as Matthews, it would have been a different matter.
Major Rice had been the Protector's personal armsman for over ten years, since his predecessor's death during the Maccabean coup attempt, and he had not been selected for his position for his social skills. Indeed, his social skills were a bit rudimentary. But back before joining Palace Security, Sergeant-Major Robert Rice, known to his fellows as "Sparky" for some reason Matthews had yet to ferret out, had been the senior noncom of the Orbit Dogs. Officially known as the 5019th Special Battalion, the Orbit Dogs were the elite battalion (except that the outsized "special" battalion was bigger than a normal regiment) of the Grayson Space Marines. After the Protector's hairbreadth escape from assassination, Palace Security had decided he needed an especially nasty guard dog, and "Sparky" Rice had been their choice. It was not, Matthews suspected, a post the slightly graying, red-haired veteran had accepted without some severe qualms. On the other hand, his long, distinguished, and risky military career had probably stood him in good stead by helping develop the sort of patience required to ride herd on a charge as . . . incorrigible as Benjamin IX. What mattered at the moment, however, was that the Protector had no secrets from the head of his personal security detachment, and that Rice had seen him in this sort of mood too often to have taken anything Matthews might have said wrongly.
The high admiral realized the Protector was still grinning at him expectantly and shook himself.
"I assure you, Your Grace," he said, taking a mild revenge by resorting to tones of exquisite, courteous respect, "that no service you might request of me could be anything other than an honor and a pleasure to perform."
"That's given me my own back!" Benjamin observed with admiration. "You've really gotten very good at that, Wesley."
"Thank you, Your Grace," Matthews replied, hazel eyes twinkling at last. A soft warning tone sounded and he glanced up at the data display on the lounge wall. A Navy shuttle was ten minutes out, and his eyebrows rose. Obviously, they were here to meet the shuttle, but why? And how did it come about that the Protector clearly knew more than the uniformed commander of the Grayson Navy did about whoor whatwas aboard one of its shuttles? And what the hell was Benjamin grinning about that way?
An almost unbearable curiosity nearly forced the question from him, but he bit his tongue firmly. He would not give his maddening ruler the satisfaction of asking, he told himself doggedly, and returned his gaze to the landing apron of the pad.
Benjamin watched him for a moment longer, then smothered a laugh and joined him in gazing out through the crystoplast.
Several more minutes passed in silence, and then a white contrail drew a pencil-thin line across the rich blue morning sky behind the gleaming bead of a shuttle. The bead grew quickly into a swept-winged arrowhead, and Matthews watched with professional approval as the pilot turned onto his final approach and swooped down to a perfect landing. The landing legs deployed, flexed, and settled. Then the hatch opened and the stairs extended themselves, and Matthews forced himself not to bounce on his toes in irritation. He really did have far too many things to do, and as soon as this foolishnesswhatever it waswas out of the way, perhaps he could get back to them and
He froze, hazel eyes flaring wide as they locked on the tall, slim figure in a blue-on-blue uniform identical to his own, and his mental grousing slithered to an incoherent halt. He could not possibly be seeing what he thought he was, a small, still voice told him logically. Only one woman had ever been authorized to wear the uniform of a Grayson admiral. Just as only one woman in the Grayson navy had ever carried a six-legged, cream-and-gray treecat everywhere she went. Which meant his eyes must be lying to him, because that woman was dead. Had been dead for over two T-years. And yet
"I told you I wouldn't apologize," Benjamin IX told his senior military officer, and this time there was no amusement at all in his soft voice. Matthews looked at him, his eyes stunned, and Benjamin smiled gently. "It may be a little late," he said, "but better late than never. Merry Christmas, Wesley."
Matthews turned back to the lounge windows, still grappling with the impossibility of it all. One or two of the Marines and armsmen on the pad apron had made the same connection he had. Astonishment and disbelief were enough to yank even them out of their focused professionalism, and he saw them gaping at the tall woman with the short, curly hair. He knew he was doing exactly the same, but he couldn't help it, and he felt disbelief giving way to an exultant inner shout that threatened to rattle the bones of his soul like castanets.
"I know how much she meant to you and the rest of the Navy," Benjamin went on quietly beside him, "and I simply couldn't take this moment away from you."
"B-but how? I mean, we all knew . . . and the newsies all said"
"I don't know, Wesley. Not yet. I received the original dispatch from Trevor's Star over two weeks ago, and an encrypted message direct from her shortly after the Harrington came out of hyper and headed in-system, but they were both maddeningly brief. They didn't give many details, aside from the most important one: the fact that she was alive. I suppose she and Judah really ought to have gone through your channels instead of directly to me, but she was acting in her capacity as steadholder, not admiral, and she was right about the need to consider the political repercussions of her return before anything else. But do the details really matter?"
The Protector of Grayson's voice was very soft, and his eyes gleamed as he watched the tall, one-armed woman make her way towards the lounge lift, followed now by a major in Harrington green, another half dozen or so officers, and one burly senior chief missile tech in Manticoran uniform.
"Does anything really matter . . . besides the fact that she's come home again after all?"
"No, Your Grace," Matthews said equally softly, and drew a deep, shuddering breathhis first, it seemed, in the last standard hour or sothen shook his head. "No," he repeated. "I don't suppose anything else does matter, does it?"
Honor Harrington stepped out of the lift and started to come to attention, but Benjamin Mayhew reached her in a single stride. His arms went about her in a bear-hug embrace far too powerful for his wiry frame to have produced, and her working eye went wide. It was unheard of for a Grayson man to so much as touch an unmarried Grayson woman, far less to throw his arms around her and try to crush her rib cage! For that matter, no properly reared Grayson male would embrace even one of his own wives so fiercely in public. But then the surprise flowed out of her eye, and her remaining arm went around the Protector, returning his hug, as his emotions swept through her. She shouldn't have done it, even if Benjamin was the one who'd initiated the contact, but she couldn't help it, for in that moment, he wasn't the Protector from whose hands she had received her steadholdership ten T-years before. He was the friend who'd seen her die and now saw her returned to life, and just at the moment, he didn't give very much of a damn what the ironbound strictures of Grayson protocol had to say about the proper behavior of a Protector.
The moment was as brief as it was intense, and then he drew a deep breath, stood back, and held her at arms' length, hands on her shoulders, while he looked intently up into her face. His eyes weren't completely dry, but that was all right. Hers weren't either, and she tasted the cold anger flickering deep within his joy at seeing her again.
"The eye's gone again, too, isn't it?" he said after a moment, and she nodded, the live side of her mouth twisting in a wry smile. "That, and the nerve repairs've been shot to hell again . . . And the arm," he said flatly. "Anything else?"
She gazed back at him, all too well aware of just how much a lie his apparent calm was. She'd been afraid of how he might react to her injuries, and especially to how she'd received them. She'd had a sufficient foretaste from Judah Yanakov and Thomas Greentree . . . not to mention every other Grayson officer who'd heard the story.
She'd always known she enjoyed a unique status in her adopted Navy's eyes. That probably would have been enough to wake the bleak, harsh hatred she'd tasted in them as she tried to brush over her imprisonment and starvation and StateSec's degrading efforts to break her. But they were also Grayson men, and despite any changes Benjamin Mayhew might have wrought, Grayson men were programmed on a genetic level to protect women. She suspected that the reports of her death had been enough to push quite a few of them to a point only a step short of berserk rage. Indeed, she knew it had, for she'd felt the echoes of fury still reverberating within Judah Yanakov . . . and Greentree had told her about his order to the Grayson forces at the Battle of the Basilisk Terminus. Yet in some illogical way, the discovery of how she'd actually been treated was even more infuriating to them, now that they knew she was alive, than even the HD imagery of her supposed death had been when they'd believed she was dead.
Men, she thought with exasperated affection. Especially Grayson men! Not that Hamish was a bit better. They really aren't that far from the bearskins and mastodon days, any of them, are they?
But however that might be, she must be very careful about exactly how she related her experiences to this man. Benjamin Mayhew was the Planetary Protector of Grayson and the liege lord of Steadholder Harrington, with all the complex, mutually interlocking obligations that implied, including the responsibility to avenge injuries done to his vassal. Worse, he was a Grayson male, however enlightened he might be by his home world's standards. Worse yet, he was her friend . . . and he'd never forgotten that he owed his family's lives to her and to Nimitz. And worst of all, the fact that he was the Protector of Grayson meant he was in a position to give terrifying expression to the rage the man within him felt at this moment.
"That's about the entire list for me," she said, after only the briefest pause, and her soprano was calm, almost detached. "Nimitz needs a bit of repair work, too." She reached up to rub the 'cat's ears as he stood in the carrier. "He had a little collision with a pulse rifle butt. Nothing that can't be fixed for either of us, Benjamin."
"Fixed!" he half-snarled, and she felt his fresh spike of anger. Well, she'd expected that. He knew she was one of the minority for whom regeneration simply did not work.
"Fixed," she repeated firmly, and violated a thousand years of protocol by giving the Protector of Grayson a gentle, affectionate shake. "Not with all original parts, perhaps, but the Star Kingdom makes excellent replacements. You know that."
He glared at her, almost angry at her for trying to brush her mutilation aside. Both of them were perfectly well aware that not even Manticoran medicine could provide true replacements. Oh, modern prostheses could fool other people into never realizing they were artificial, and many of them, like the cybernetic eye the Peeps had burned out aboard Tepes, offered some advantages over the natural parts for which they substituted. But the interface between nerve and machine remained. There was always some loss of function, however good the replacement, and whatever enhancements a replacement might add in partial compensation, it never duplicated the feel, the sensitivitythe alivenessof the original.
But then his face relaxed, and he reached up to pat the hand on his shoulder and managed a nod, as if he recognized what she was trying to do. Perhaps he did recognize it. Honor couldn't parse his emotions finely enough to be sure, but he was certainly intelligent enough to understand how dangerous his anger could be and to grasp her efforts to turn that anger before it launched him on a charge to seek vengeance.
Speaking of which . . .
"Actually," she said in a lighter tone, "I'm much luckier than the people who arranged for me to need those replacements in the first place, you know."
"You are?" Mayhew asked suspiciously, and she nodded, then flicked her head at the burly senior chief who'd finally arrived in the lounge, trailing along behind the commissioned officers from the shuttle.
"Senior Chief Harkness here sort of saw to it that everyone who had anything to do with what happened to me, including Cordelia Ransom, came to a very bad end," she told the Protector.
"He did?" Mayhew regarded Harkness approvingly. "Good for you, Senior Chief! How bad an end was it?"
Harkness flushed and started to mumble something, then slid to a halt and stared imploringly at Honor. She gazed back with a demure smile, right cheek dimpling, as she let him stew for a moment, then took mercy on him.
"About as bad as they come, actually," she said. Mayhew looked back at her, and she shrugged. "He arranged for a pinnace to bring up its impeller wedge inside a battlecruiser's boat bay," she told him much more soberly.
"Sweet Tester!" Matthews murmured, and her smile went crooked and cold.
"If there were any pieces left at all, they were very, very small ones, Benjamin," she said softly, and his nostrils flared as he inhaled in intense satisfaction.
"Good for you, Senior Chief," he repeated, and Honor felt a tingle of relief as he stepped back from the precipice of his rage. He could do that, now that he knew those actually responsible for what had happened to her were safely dead. It wouldn't make him one bit less implacable where those people's superiors were concerned, but his need to strike out at someoneanyonehad been muted into something he could control.
He gazed at Harkness for a few more moments, then gave himself a little shake and turned back to Honor.
"As you see," he said in a more normal tone of voice, "I took your advice and restricted the news to a minimum. Even Wesley didn't know who he was waiting for." He smiled a devilish smile far more like his own. "I thought he'd enjoy the surprise."
"No you didn't," Matthews replied, deciding that just this once lèse-majesté was fully justifiable, Marine sentries or not. "You decided that you'd enjoy watching me be surprised . . . just like any other adolescent with a secret!"
"Careful there, High Admiral!" Benjamin warned. "Officers who tell the truth aboutI mean, insult their Protectors have been known to come to gory ends."
"No doubt they have," Matthews retorted, eyes twinkling as he held out his hand to Honor, "but at least they perished knowing they'd struck a blow for freedom of thought and expression. Didn't they, Lady Harrington?"
"Don't get me involved in this, Sir! We steadholders have a legal obligation to support the dignity of the Protector. Besides, I'm 'That Foreign Woman,' remember? Having me on your side would only make things worse in the eyes of the unthinking reactionaries who'd undoubtedly carry out his orders to scrag you without turning a hair."
"Perhaps in the past, My Lady," Matthews said. "But not in the future, I think. Or not the immediate future, at any rate. I realize we're talking about Grayson reactionaries, but not even they are going to be immune to having you come back from the dead. For a while, at least."
"Hah! I give it three weeks. A month tops," Mayhew snorted. "Fortunately, there are less of them than there used to be, but the ones we still have seem to feel some sort of moral imperative to become even more obstructionist as their numbers dwindle. And they're concentrating on our interstellar relations now, not the domestic side, anyway. Not that they aren't planning on back-dooring their way back to the domestic front as soon as they can! It's too bad these aren't the bad old days right after the Constitution was ratified. There are quite a few of my Keys I'd like to introduce to some of the more . . . creative chastisements Benjamin the Great reserved for irritating steadholders. Especially the ones like"
He broke off with a grimace and waved one hand dismissively.
"Let's not get me started on that. One thing of which we can be unfortunately certain, Honor, is that there'll be plenty of opportunities for me to make you dismally well aware of just how the conservatives have managed to irritate me in your absence."
"I'm sure," she agreed. "But that brings another point to mind. Certain admirals, including a Manticoran one and your own despicable cousin, have flatly refused to tell me just what the lot of you did with my steading! I'm pretty sure Judah ordered no one else to tell me anything, either, and he doesn't fool me for a minute with that 'military personnel shouldn't dabble in matters of state' nonsense! He's grinning too much."
"He is?" Mayhew raised both eyebrows, then shook his head. "Shocking," he sighed. "Simply shocking! I see I'll have to speak to him quite firmly." Honor glared at him, and he smiled back. "Still, the ins and outs of two-plus years of history aren't something to try to explain in a spaceport lounge, either. Especially not when we have a few other things to take care of before Katherine and Elaine descend upon you and begin planning the planet-wide gala to welcome you home."
He chuckled at Honor's groan, then nodded to Rice. The major touched his wrist com and murmured something into it, and the Protector took Honor's elbow and began escorting her towards the lounge exit while Rice and Andrew LaFollet trailed quietly along behind them.
"As I said, Honor, I've restricted the information about your arrival to a very small group, for the moment, at least, but there were a few people here on Grayson who I thought really ought to know immediately."
"Oh?" Honor eyed him warily.
"Yes, and Ah, here they are now!" he observed as the exit doors slid silently open, and Honor stopped dead.
Seven people appeared in the opening: five with four limbs, and two with six, and all of them seemed to shimmer as her vision hazed with sudden tears. Allison Chou Harrington stood beside her husband, small and elegant and beautiful as ever, and tears gleamed in almond eyes that matched Honor's own as she stared at her daughter. Alfred Harrington towered over her, his face working with emotions so deep and so strong they were almost more than Honor could bear to taste. Howard Clinkscales stood to Allison's left, his fierce, craggy face tight with emotion of his own while he leaned on the silver-headed staff that was the badge of office of Harrington Steading's Regent. Miranda LaFollet stood to his left, cradling the treecat named Farragut in her arms, smiling with her heart naked in her eyes as she saw her Steadholder and her brother at last. And to Alfred's right stood a man with thinning sandy hair and gray eyes, staring at her as if he dared not believe his own eyes. She felt James MacGuiness' towering joyjoy that was only now beginning to overcome his dread that somehow the impossible news of her return was all a mistakeand wrapped about that joy was the dizzying spiral of welcome and jubilation welling up from the slim, dappled shape riding on his shoulder as the treecat named Samantha saw her mate.
It was all too much. Honor had no defense against the emotions pouring into her from those people who meant so much to her, and she felt her own face begin to crumple at last. Not with sorrow, but with a joy too intense to endure.
He did it on purpose, she thought, somewhere down deep under the whirlwind of her own emotions. Benjamin knows about my link with Nimitz, and he deliberately saw to it that I could meet them with no one else present. No one to see me lose it completely.
And then there was no more room for thought. Not coherent ones, anyway. She was fifty-four T-years old, and that didn't matter at all as she stepped away from Benjamin Mayhew, holding out her arm to her mother through her blinding haze of tears.
"Momma?" she half-whispered, her soprano hoarse, and she tasted salt on her lips as her parents came towards her. "Daddy? I"
Her voice broke completely, and that didn't matter, either. Nothing in the universe mattered as her father reached her and the arms which had always been there for her went about her. She felt the crushing strength of Sphinx in them, yet they closed around her with infinite gentleness, and her visored cap tumbled to the floor as her father pressed his face into her hair. Then her mother was there, as well, hugging her and burrowing her way into the embrace Alfred had widened to enfold them both, and for just a moment, Honor Harrington could stop being a steadholder and a naval officer. She could be simply their daughter, restored to them by some miracle they did not yet understand, and she clung to them even more tightly than they clung to her.
She never knew how long they stood there. Some things are too intense, too important, to slice up into seconds and minutes, and this was one of them. It was a time that lasted as long as it had to last, but finally she felt her tears ease and she drew a deep, deep breath and pushed back in her father's arms to stare mistily up at his face.
"I'm home," she said simply, and he nodded.
"I know you are, baby." His deep voice was frayed and unsteady, but his eyes glowed. "I know you are."
"We both know," Allison said, and Honor gave a watery giggle as her mother produced a tiny handkerchief and, in the manner of mothers since time immemorial, began briskly wiping her daughter's face. She was barely two-thirds Honor's height, and Honor was fairly sure they must look thoroughly ridiculous, but that was fine with her, and she looked across her mother's head at Clinkscales.
"Howard," she said softly. He bowed deeply, but she saw his tears and tasted his joy, and she held out her hand quickly. He blinked as he took it, his grip still strong and firm despite his age, and then he drew a huge, gusty breath and shook himself.
"Welcome home, My Lady," he said simply. "Your steading and your people have missed you."
"I got back as soon as I could," she replied, making her tone as light as she could. "Unfortunately, our travel plans hit a couple of glitches. Nothing Chief Harkness and Carson couldn't straighten out for us, though."
Ensign Clinkscales stepped up beside her as she spoke his name, and the Regent smiled as he enfolded his towering nephew in a huge hug. Howard Clinkscales had been a powerfully built man in his prime, for a Grayson, but he'd never matched Carson's centimeters, and he was eighty-seven pre-prolong T-years old. The two of them looked as mismatched in height as Honor knew she and Allison had, and she chuckled as she put her arm affectionately back about her mother.
Then she paused. She hadn't noticed in the intensity of their initial embrace, but each of her parents wore a carrier much like the one in which she herself carried Nimitz, and her eyebrow quirked. Now why?
Then her father half-turned to make room for MacGuiness and Miranda, and Honor's eye went even wider than it had gone when the door opened. The carrier on his back wasn't like hers after all, for it wasn't for a 'cat. It was
"Don't stare, dear," her mother said firmly, and reached up to grasp her chin, turning her head to wipe the left side of her face. Honor obeyed the grip meekly, so surprised she was unable to do anything else, and her mother shook her head. "Really, Honor," she went on, "you'd think you'd never seen a baby before, and I happen to know you have!"
"But . . . but . . ." Honor turned her head once more, staring into the dark eyes that gazed drowsily back at her, and then gulped and turned back to her mother, using her height to lean forward over her and look into the carrier on Allison's back. She was sure the eyes in that small face were equally dark, but they weren't drowsy. They were closed, and the tiny face wore the disapproving, sleepy frown only babies can produce.
"Really, Honor!" her mother said again. "Your father and I are prolong recipients, you know."
"Of course I do, but"
"You seem to have grown entirely too fond of that word, dear," Allison scolded, giving Honor's face one last pat before she stepped back to examine her handiwork. Then she nodded in satisfaction and tucked the damp square of fabric back into whatever hiding place it had emerged from in the first place.
"It's all your fault, actually," she told Honor then. "You hadn't gotten around to producing an heir, so when they tried to make poor Lord Clinkscales Steadholder Harrington, he had to think of something in self-defense." She shook her head, and Clinkscales looked at her for a moment, then gave Honor a half-sheepish grin.
"You mean?" Honor shook herself and drew a deep, deep breath. She also made a mental resolution to personally hunt Hamish Alexander down and murder him with her bare hands. Or hand, singular, she thought as she recalled his devilish amusement and vague talk about "other arrangements" on Grayson. Given the nature of the offense, waiting until she could be fitted with a replacement for her missing arm was out of the question. If she left this afternoon aboard a courier boat and went by way of the Junction, she could stop by the Harrington to wring Judah Yanakov's neck and still be back at Trevor's Star in just four days, and then . . .
She exhaled very slowly, then looked back down at her mother.
"So I'm not an only child anymore?"
"Goodness, you figured it out after all," Allison murmured with a devilish smile. Then she reached up and slipped the carrier straps from her shoulders. She cradled the sleeping infant, carrier and all, in her arms, and when she looked back up at Honor the deviltry had disappeared into a warm tenderness.
"This is Faith Katherine Honor Stephanie Miranda Harrington," she said gently, and giggled at Honor's expression. "I know the name is longer than she is just now, poor darling, but that's your fault, too, you know. At the momentwhich is to say until you get busy in the grandchild departmentthis long-named little bundle is your heir, Lady Harrington. As a matter of fact, right this second she's actually the legal 'Steadholder Harrington,' at least until the Keys get around to discovering that you're back. Which means we were lucky to hold her to just five given names, all things considered. I expect the assumption, up until a few hours ago, was that she would become Honor the Second when she chose her reign name. Fortunately" Her lips quivered for an instant, and she paused to clear her throat. "Fortunately," she repeated more firmly, "she won't have to make that decision quite as soon as we'd feared she might after all."
"And this," Alfred said, having slipped out of his own carrier's straps, "is her slightly younger twin brother, James Andrew Benjamin Harrington. He got off with two less names, you'll note, thus duly exercising his prerogative as a natural-born male citizen of the last true patriarchy in this neck of the galaxy. Although we did, I hope you will also note, manage to butter up the local potentate by hanging his name on the poor kid."
"So I see." Honor laughed, reaching out to stroke the baby boy's satiny cheek. She shot a sideways glance at Benjamin Mayhew and noted his happy, almost possessive smile. Obviously her parents and the Mayhews had grown even closer to one another than she'd dared hope they might, and she returned her attention to her mother.
"They're beautiful, Mother," she said softly. "You and Daddy do do good work, even if I say so myself."
"You think so?" Her mother cocked her head judiciously. "For myself, I could wish we'd figured out a way to skip straight from the delivery to the first day of school." She shook her head with a pensive air that fooled no one in the lounge. "I'd forgotten how much sheer work a baby is," she sighed.
"Oh, of course, My Lady!" Miranda LaFollet laughed. Honor turned to her maid and found Miranda in the circle of her brother's arm . . . which would have represented a shocking dereliction of duty on the major's part under normal circumstances. Which these weren't. Miranda saw Honor's questioning expression and laughed again. "It's so much 'work' she insisted on carrying them to term the natural way, despite the fact that her prolong added two and a half months to the process, My Lady," she informed Honor. "And so much work that she flatly refuses to let us provide full-time nannies for them! In fact, it's all we can do to pry her loose from themto pry either of your parents loose, actuallylong enough for them to go to the clinic! I don't think even people from our steading were quite ready for the sight of two of the best doctors on the planet making their rounds with babies on their backs, but"
She shrugged, and Honor chuckled.
"Well, Mother is from Beowulf, Miranda. They're all a little crazy there, or so I've heard. And they go absolutely gooey over babies. Not," she added reflectively, gazing at the tiny shapes of her brother and sister, "that I can fault them, now that I think of it. These two have to be the most beautiful pair of babies in the explored universe, after all."
"Do you really think so?" her mother asked.
"I really think so," Honor assured her softly. "Of course, I may be just a tiny bit prejudiced, but I really think so."
"Good," Allison Harrington said, "because unless my nose is mistaken, Faith Katherine Honor Stephanie Miranda here has just demonstrated the efficiency with which her well-designed internal systems operate. And just to show you how delighted I am by your opinion of her beauty, I'm going to let you change her, dear!"
"I'd love to, Mother. Unfortunately, at the moment I only have one hand, and since that's obviously a job which requires two . . ." She shrugged, and her mother shook her head.
"Some people will do anything to avoid a little work," she said, much more lightly than she felt as her eyes flicked to the stump of Honor's left arm, and Honor smiled.
"Oh, I didn't have to do this just to get out of work," she assured Allison, smile broadening as James MacGuiness approached with Samantha. "Mac spoils me shamelessly. I'm sure he'd have been delighted to do my share of the diaper-changing even without this. Wouldn't you, Mac?"
"I'm afraid that's one thing that isn't covered in my job description, Milady," the steward said. His voice was almost normal, but his eyes were misty and his smile seemed to tremble just a bit.
"Really?" Honor's smile softened and warmed, and she reached out to put her arm around him. He let himself lean against her for just a moment as she hugged him hard, then held him back out at arm's length to look deep into his eyes. "Well, in that case, I guess you'll just have to settle for being 'Uncle Mac' . . . because we all know uncles and aunts are responsible for spoiling kids rotten, not doing anything constructive."
"What an interesting notion," Alfred Harrington observed. "And the job of big sisters is?"
"Depends on how much 'bigger' they are, doesn't it?" Honor replied cheerfully. "In this case, I thin"
She broke off suddenly, so abruptly her mother looked up from Faith in quick alarm. Honor's smile had vanished as if it had never existed, and her head snapped to her left, her single working eye locking on the 'cat on MacGuiness' shoulder.
Samantha had reared up, her ears flat to her skull, her eyes fixed on her mate. Allison whipped her head around to follow that intense stare, and her own eyes widened as she saw Nimitz recoiling as if he'd been struck. For just an instant, she had the insane thought that he'd somehow infuriated Samantha, but only for an instant. Just long enough for her to recognize something she had never, ever expected to see in Nimitz.
Terror. A fear and a panic that drove the whimper of a frightened kitten from him.
MacGuiness and Andrew LaFollet had looked up when Honor broke off, and both of them went white as they saw Nimitz. Unlike Allison, they had seen him that way beforeoncein the admiral's quarters of GNS Terrible, when the terrible nightmares lashing his person's sleeping mind with the Furies' own whips had reduced the empathic 'cat to shivering, shuddering helplessness. Now they saw the equal of that terror ripping through him, and as one man, they stepped towards him, reaching out to their friend.
But even before they moved, Honor Harrington had hit the quick release of the carrier straps where they crossed on her chest. She caught the straps as they opened, and, in a single, supple movement which ought to have looked awkward and clumsy for a one-armed woman, stripped the carrier from her back and brought it around in front of her. She went to her knees, hugging Nimitz, carrier and all, to her breasts, pressing her cheek against his head, and her eyes were closed as she threw every scrap of energy she had into the horror raging in her link to him.
I should have felt it sooner, some fragment of calm told her. I should have realized the instant we saw Sam . . . but he didn't realize it. My God, how could we have missed it?
She held the 'cat with the full power of her arm and her heart, and for just an instant, as the terrible storm front of his emotions spun its tornado strength through them both, he struggled madly to escape her. Whether to run and hide in his panic or in a desperate effort to reach Samantha physically Honor could not have said, probably because he couldn't have. But then the terrible panic flash eased into something less explosive . . . and far, far bleaker. He went limp with a shudder, pressing his face against her, and a soft, low-pitched keen flowed out of him.
Honor's heart clenched at the desolate sound, and she kissed him between the ears while she held him close.
The pulser butt, she thought. That damned pulser butt on Enki! My God, what did it do to him?
She didn't know the answer to that question, but she knew the blow which had shattered his mid-pelvis had to be the cause of the dark and terrible loneliness of a full half of Nimitz's mind. Nothing else could have caused it, and the shock and terror it produced were infinitely worse than they might have been because neither he nor Honor had even realized that silence was there.
She crooned to him, holding him tightly, eyes closed, and she felt Samantha standing high on her true-feet beside her. Nimitz's mate had exploded off of MacGuiness' shoulder, racing to Nimitz, and her true-hands and feet-hands caressed his silken fur. Honor felt her matching panic, felt her reaching out to Nimitz with every sense she had, trying desperately to hear some response from him, pleading for the reassurance her mate could no longer give her.
Honor tasted both 'cats' emotions, and her tears dripped onto Nimitz's pelt. But at least the initial panic was passing, and she drew a deep, shuddering breath of relief as they realized, and Honor with them, that they could still feel one another's emotions . . . and Samantha realized Nimitz could still hear her thoughts.
The exact way in which the telempathic treecats communicated with one another had always been a matter of debate among humans. Some had argued that the 'cats were true telepaths; others that they didn't actually "communicate" in the human sense at all, that they were simply units in a free-flow linkage of pure emotions so deep it effectively substituted for communication.
Since her own link to Nimitz had changed and deepened, Honor had realized that, in many ways, both arguments were correct. She'd never been able to tap directly into Nimitz's "conversations" with other 'cats, but she had been able to sense the very fringes of a deep, intricate meld of interflowing thoughts and emotions when he "spoke" to another of his kind. Since he and Samantha had become mates, Honor had been able to "hear" and study their interwoven communication far more closely and discovered Nimitz and Samantha truly were so tightly connected that, in many ways, they were almost one individual, so much a part of one another that they often had no need to exchange deliberately formulated thoughts. But from observing them together and also with others of their kind, she'd also come to the conclusion that 'cats in general definitely did exchange the sort of complex, reasoned concepts which could only be described as "communication." Yet what she'd never been certain of until this dreadful moment was that they did it over more than one channel. They truly were both empaths and telepaths. She knew that now, for Samantha could still "hear" and taste Nimitz's emotions . . . but that was all she could hear. The rich, full-textured weaving which had bound them together had been battered and mauled, robbed of half its richness and blighted with unnatural silence, and she felt herself weeping for her beloved friends while they grappled with their sudden recognition of loss.
How could we not have noticed it on Hell? All that time, and we never even guessed
But then she drew a deep breath of understanding. Of course. Her link with Nimitz operated through the 'cat's empathic sense. They'd never used the telepathic "channel" to communicate, and so Nimitz had never even suspected that it had been taken from him. Not until the moment he'd reached out to his mate . . . and she hadn't heard him at all.
"Honor?" It was her mother's soft voice, and she looked up to see Allison kneeling beside her, her face anxious, her eyes dark with worry. "What is it, Honor?"
"It's" Honor inhaled sharply. "In the Barnett System, when Ransom announced her plans to send me to Hell, she ordered her goons to kill Nimitz, and" She shook her head and closed her eyes again. "We didn't have anything left to lose, Mother, so"
"So they attacked the StateSec guards," Andrew LaFollet said softly, and Honor realized her armsman, too, was kneeling beside her. He was to her left, on her blind side, and she turned towards him. "That must have been it, My Lady," he said when his Steadholder looked at him. "When that bastard with the pulse rifle clubbed him."
"Yes." Honor nodded, not really surprised Andrew had realized what must have happened. But she could taste the confusion of the others, even through the emotional tempest still rolling through the two treecats. She loosened her grip on Nimitz, setting the carrier on the floor, and watched as he climbed out of it. He and Samantha sat face-to-face, and he pressed his cheek into the side of her neck while her buzzing purr threatened to vibrate the bones right out of her, and her prehensile tail wrapped itself about him and her true-hands and hand-feet caressed him. Even now he sat awkwardly hunched, twisted by his poorly healed bones, and she looked back up to meet her mother's worried eyes.
"No one's ever known if the 'cats were truly telepaths . . . until now," she told Allison softly. "But they are. And when that SS thug clubbed him, he must have . . . have broken whatever it is that makes them telepaths, because Sam can't hear him, Mother. She can't hear him at all."
"She can't?" Honor looked up. Her father stood beside her, cradling one of the babies in either arm, and frowned as she nodded at him. "From the way he's sitting, the pulser must have caught himwhat? Almost exactly on the mid-pelvis?"
"A little behind it and from the right we think, My Lord," LaFollet said. "Most of the ribs went on that side, too. Fritz Montoya could probably give you a better answer, but it looked to me like it came down at about a seventy-degree angle. Maybe a little shallower than that, but certainly not by very much."
The armsman's eyes were intent, as if he recognized something behind the question from his Steadholder's father, and Alfred nodded slowly.
"That would make sense," he murmured, staring for a moment at something none of the others could see while he thought hard. Then he gave his head a little shake and looked back down at his elder daughter.
"We've wondered for centuries why the 'cats' spinal cords have those clusters of nervous tissue at each pelvis," he told her. "Some have theorized that they might be something like secondary brains. They're certainly large enough, with sufficiently complex structures, and the theory was that they might help explain how something with such a relatively low body mass could have developed sentience in the first place. Others have derided the entire idea, while a third group has argued that even though they may be secondary brains, the physical similaritiesand differencesbetween them indicate that they must do something else, as well. Their structures have been thoroughly analyzed and mapped, but we've never been able to link them to any discernible function. But, then, no one ever had a 'cat expert quite like you available for consultation, Honor. Now I think we know what at least one of those super-ganglia do."
"You mean you think the mid-limb site was his . . . well, his telepathic transmitter?"
"I'd certainly say that's what it looks like. I noticed that you said Sam can't hear him, not that he can't hear her. Is that correct?"
"Yes. I think so, anyway," Honor said after a moment. "It's hard to be sure just yet. When he realized she couldn't hear him, he just"
"Reacted very much the way I would have in his place," her father interrupted. "And not surprisingly. I've always wondered what would happen to a telempath who suddenly, for the first time in his life, found himself isolated and alone, locked up in his own little world. We still don't begin to know all we ought to about the 'cats, but one thing we do know is that they all seem to share that constant awareness, that linkage, with every other 'cat and most humans, at least to some extent, around them. It's always there, from the day they're born, and they must take it as much for granted as they do oxygen. But now"
Alfred shuddered and shook his head, and Honor nodded mutely, astounded by how accurately her father had described an interweaving of minds and hearts he had never been able to taste himself.
"If I'm right about how he was injured, this can't be the first time something like this has happened to a 'cat, either. God knows they get banged up enough in the bush that at least some of them must have sustained similar injuries and lived. So they have to know it can happen to any of them, and it must be one of their most deep-seated fears. When Nimitz realized it had happened to him . . ."
He shook his head again and sighed, his eyes dark with sympathy as they rested on the two 'cats and he listened to Samantha's soft, loving croon.
"Is there anything we can do?" Honor asked, and there was an odd edge to her voice, one LaFollet didn't understand for several seconds. But then he remembered. Alfred Harrington was one of the Star Kingdom of Manticore's four or five finest neurosurgeons. This wasn't just a daughter asking her father for reassurance; it was a woman asking the man who'd rebuilt the nerves in her own face, and who'd personally implanted her own cybernetic eye, if he had one more miracle in his doctor's bag for her.
"I don't know, honey. Not yet," he told her honestly. "I've paid more attention to the journal articles on 'cats than most other neurosurgeons, I imagine, because of how much a part of all our lives Nimitz is, but my specialty is humans. Native Sphinxian life forms have always been more of a veterinary specialization, and there are a lot of differences between their neural structures and ours. I'm positive that fixing the bone and joint damage won't be a problem, but I don't have any idea where we might be on the matter of neural repairs." The live side of Honor's face tightened, and he shook his head quickly. "That doesn't mean anything, Honor! I'm not just trying to be a doctor throwing out an anchor to windward; I truly don't know, but I certainly intend to find out. And I'll promise youand Nimitz and Samanthathis much right now. If it can be fixed, then I will damned well find the way to do it!"
Honor stared up at him for two more heartbeats, and then she felt her taut shoulders relax just a bit, and the worry in her face eased ever so slightly. She trusted both her parents' judgments in their medical fields. She'd seen and heard about what they'd accomplished far too often not to have learned to trust them. If her father said he thought there might be a way to correct the crippling damage Nimitz had received, then he truly believed there might be one, for one thing he did not do was tell comforting lies.
And one other thing he did not do, she thought. Never in her entire life had he made her a promise he'd failed to keep . . . and she knew he would keep this one, as well.
"Thank you, Daddy," she whispered, and felt her mother's arms go around her once again.
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