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Chapter Seven

The sentries at Harrington House's East Portico snapped to attention with even greater than usual precision as the luxury ground car purred through the dome's main vehicle entrance. A small pennon—a triangle of maroon and gold bearing the opened Bible and crossed swords that were the Protector's emblem, starched-stiff in the wind of its passage—flew from a fender-mounted staff, and two-man grav sleds hovered watchfully above it. Further up, out of sight from the ground, sleek transatmospheric craft kept equally attentive watch, and teams of crack marksmen—some in Mayhew maroon-and-gold, and some in Harrington Steading's green-on-green—stood unobtrusively on vantage points on Harrington House's roof and dome catwalks while sophisticated electronic devices scanned the grounds ceaselessly.

It all seemed just a trifle much to Allison Harrington. She knew about the security features built into Harrington House, and she'd gotten used to the notion that Harrington Steading's armsmen insisted on watching over her and her husband, although she was devoutly thankful that they were less intrusive about it than they had been about guarding poor Honor. More to the point, she supposed, she'd anticipated some of this in advance, given the nature of the occasion. Even if she hadn't, Miranda LaFollet's expression when she suggested it would have offered ample warning. Miranda continued to function as Harrington Steading chief of staff, so it was she who had been responsible for issuing the actual invitation, and she'd shown more than a little trepidation at the prospect. Allison had been confident that the invitees would accept, and she'd been right. But if she'd realized a simple supper invitation was going to put the equivalent of what seemed like a full Marine brigade on alert, she probably wouldn't have had the nerve to issue it in the first place.

Not "nerve," she corrected herself. Gall.

The thought helped, and she smiled more naturally as she and Alfred stepped out under the portico with Howard Clinkscales to greet their guests. Miranda and Farragut flanked them on Allison's right, and James MacGuiness, in the civilian clothing he'd worn since returning to Grayson, followed on Alfred's left. At Benjamin IX's personal request, the RMN had granted the steward indefinite leave in order for him to serve as Harrington House's majordomo, and his eyes swept back and forth almost as attentively as the watching armsmen's, searching for any imperfection.

They found none. The green-uniformed men on either side of the doorway stood rigidly to attention, gazes fixed straight ahead, as the ground car slid to a halt. The counter-grav ground effect died, and gravel crunched as the car settled. Then the front passenger door opened, and an athletic major in maroon and gold, with the braided aigulette of Palace Security hanging from his right shoulder, climbed out it.

The Mayhew armsman stood scanning his surroundings while he listened to reports over his earbug. Grav sleds swept through the portal and grounded, and a dozen more men in the same colors joined the major to form an alert, open ring about the car. Then he nodded, and a sergeant opened a rear door and snapped to the salute as Benjamin IX stepped out of it past him.

The Protector waved as Allison, Alfred, and Clinkscales came down the steps to greet him, then turned and handed Katherine Mayhew, his senior wife, from the car. Allison and Katherine had met briefly on several occasions during the days before Honor's funeral, but the demands of protocol and solemnity had kept them from truly getting to know one another. Nonetheless, Allison had sensed a kindred spirit in Katherine, even through the unrelenting formality of those dreary days, and this was one case in which it probably helped that she hadn't been born to an aristocratic tradition. She understood how such traditions worked, and she'd come to respect them—mostly—but they weren't really a part of her cultural baggage. That left her less impressed with Katherine Mayhew's rank than she might have been, and she looked forward to becoming better acquainted with the other woman despite her exalted position, for she suspected they were too much alike not to become friends. They were also very much of a size—which was to say "tiny"—and the First Lady of Grayson held out her hand with a smile as Allison swept down on her.

"Good afternoon, Madam Mayhew," Allison said formally, and Katherine shook her head.

"I would really prefer 'Katherine,' or even 'Cat,' " she said. " 'Madam Mayhew' sounds much too formal coming from a Harrington."

"I see . . . Katherine," Allison murmured, and Katherine squeezed her hand and turned to greet Alfred as Benjamin assisted his second wife, Elaine, from the car. Elaine was the shy one, Allison remembered, although the Protector's junior wife seemed to have gained considerably in composure compared to the almost timid person Honor had described from their first meeting, and Allison greeted her warmly.

"Thank you for inviting us," Elaine replied, smiling as she watched Alfred bend over Katherine's hand as gallantly as any Grayson might have. "It's not often we get out for anything except formal occasions."

"This isn't formal?" Allison demanded, flicking her free hand at all the punctilious military courtesy and firepower conspicuously displayed about them.

"Oh, goodness no!" Elaine laughed. "With the entire family—except for Michael, of course—all out in the open in one place? This is the lightest security I've seen in, oh, ages!"

Allison was certain for a moment that her leg was being pulled, but then she looked back at the major and realized Elaine was dead serious. The major was too well trained to be obvious, but he was clearly unhappy about his charges' potential exposure, and Allison hid a wince of sympathy as he almost visibly swallowed a need to urge the Protector and his wives to get themselves inside Harrington House and under cover. Unfortunately for the major, Benjamin was in no hurry, and Allison chuckled as a torrent of Mayhew offspring poured out of the car on Elaine's heels.

Actually, there were only four of them; they merely seemed like a torrent, and individual armsmen peeled off to attach themselves to each child with the ease of long practice. It seemed dreadfully unfair for children that young to already be burdened with their own permanent, personal bodyguards, but Allison supposed they'd better start getting used to the fanatical way Graysons guarded their steadholders and protectors early. And truth to tell, their armsmen's presence certainly didn't seem to have stunted the Mayhew brood's boisterous development.

The sturdy eleven-year-old in the lead favored Katherine strongly, although she was already as tall as her mother and promised to go right on growing. Rachel Mayhew had been the terror of the palace nursery in her day, and she seemed to be fighting a stubborn rearguard action against the encroachments of civilization. From a few amused comments Clinkscales had let drop, Allison suspected Honor had been a major influence on the taste Rachel had developed for "unladylike" athletics. She was already training as a pilot, as well, and carried a very respectable grade-point average, but her tastes ran to the engineering and hard science courses which had been traditionally male on Grayson. Even worse, in conservative eyes, perhaps, she already held a brown belt in coup de vitesse.

The old-fashioned term "tomboy" came to mind every time Allison laid eyes on the girl—who was more likely to be cheerfully engaged in taking an air car's grav generators apart to see how they worked than in learning to dance, giggle over the opposite sex, or any of the other things she "ought" to be doing. At the moment, one of her hair ribbons had come untied, and she'd managed to get a smear of dirt on her cheek. Which, Allison reflected, must have taken some doing, since the ground car had brought her and her family straight here from the shuttle pad. Funny. I thought Honor was the only child who could teleport dirt into otherwise sterile environments!

Jeanette and Theresa—ten and nine and the biological daughters of Elaine and Katherine, respectively—followed just a bit more sedately. Jeanette had the same dark eyes as Rachel, but her hair was a bright chestnut, whereas Theresa's resemblance to their oldest sister was almost eerie. Except that Theresa was neat as a new pin and obviously hadn't made the acquaintance of Rachel's secret dirt patch.

And finally, Benjamin reached back into the car and lifted out his youngest daughter. The baby of the family—for the moment; that status tended to be transitory in families the size people were raising on Grayson these days—she was only four years old and clearly another of Elaine's. She was tall for her age, with hair much the same auburn as Miranda LaFollet's, and huge sea-gray eyes, and a promise of elegant beauty already showed through her immature child's bone structure. She buried her face shyly against her father when she saw all the strangers, but then she straightened up and demanded to be put down. Benjamin complied, and she reached out and grabbed one of Katherine's hands tightly while she stared curiously at Allison.

"Our youngest," Katherine said quietly, touching the child's curly mop of hair with her free hand. "Your daughter's goddaughter."

Allison had known who the little girl was, but her eyes misted for just a moment anyway. She stooped gracefully, making herself the same height as the child, cleared her throat, and held out her own hand.

"My name is Allison," she said. "What's your name?"

The girl looked gravely at the offered hand for several seconds, then back at Allison's face.

"Honor," she said after a moment. Her Grayson accent softened the name, but she spoke clearly and distinctly. "Honor Mayhew."

"Honor," Allison repeated, keeping the pain from her own voice, and smiled. "That's a very good name for someone, don't you think?" Honor nodded wordlessly. Then she reached out and laid her hand in the one Allison still held extended. She looked up at Katherine and Elaine as if for approval, and Katherine smiled at her. She smiled back, then looked up at Allison.

"I'm four," she announced.

"Four years old?" Allison asked.

"Uh-huh. And number four, too," Honor told her with a grin.

"I see." Allison nodded in grave approval and stood back fully erect, still holding Honor's hand. Each of the adult Mayhews had corralled one of the older girls, and Allison dimpled as the major sighed in profound relief when MacGuiness, with the able assistance of Miranda and Farragut, began chivvying people up the steps.


"—so we were delighted by the invitation," Benjamin said, leaning back in the comfortable armchair in the Harrington House library while he nursed a glass of Alfred Harrington's prized Delacourt. Allison had decided to use the library instead of one of the grander, more formal sitting rooms the architects had provided. Aside from the huge Harrington seal inlaid into the polished hardwood floor, the library managed not to shout that it was part of a consciously designed "great house," and the titles on its shelves and the relatively simple but comfortable furnishings and efficient data retrieval systems made her think of Honor. Given her determination to keep the night informal, Clinkscales had withdrawn with a gracious smile to join his wives while the Harringtons entertained their guests. Now she and Alfred and the adult Mayhews sat in a comfortably arranged conversational group near the main data terminal, and Benjamin waved his wineglass gently.

"I won't say we never get out—there's always some damned state occasion or another—but just to visit someone?" He shook his head.

"Actually," Katherine said with a wicked smile, "we're all rather hoping some of the other Keys decide to follow your example, Allison. Tester knows half the wives out there are hovering on the brink of death from pure envy over your 'social coup' right now!" Allison's eyebrows rose, and Katherine chuckled warmly. "Of course they are! You're the first hostess outside the immediate Mayhew Clan or one of its core septs who's had the sheer nerve to simply invite the Protector and his family over for a friendly family dinner in over two hundred T-years!"

"You're joking . . . aren't you?"

"Oh, no she isn't," Benjamin said. "She checked the records. What was the last time, Cat?"

"Bernard VII and his wives were invited to a surprise birthday party by John Mackenzie XI on June 10, 3807—um, 1704 p.d.," Katherine replied promptly. "And the experience clearly made a profound impression on Bernard, because I found the actual menu, including the ice cream flavors, in his personal diary."

"Two hundred and eight years?" Allison shook her head, unable to believe it. "That long without an invitation for anything but a state occasion?"

"I wouldn't imagine many people just screen Queen Elizabeth and ask her if she'd like to drop by for a beer, Alley," Alfred observed dryly.

"No, but she has to get invitations at least a bit more frequently than once every two centuries!" Allison protested.

"Perhaps so," Benjamin agreed. "But here on Grayson, any informal or personal invitations traditionally go from the Protector to the steadholders, not the other way around."

"Oh, dear. Have we violated protocol that grossly?" Allison sighed.

"You certainly have," Benjamin replied. "And a darned good thing, too." Allison still looked a little concerned, but Elaine nodded in vigorous agreement with her husband even as she removed an old-fashioned printed book from Honor's clutches before it could suffer serious damage.

"Benjamin warned Katherine and me both about protocol before he proposed," Elaine said over her shoulder, leading an indignant Honor firmly back towards where the older Mayhew girls were engaged in a board game with Miranda LaFollet. Rachel had expressed some rather pointed reservations about her younger siblings' level of skill, but she had a basically sunny disposition, and she'd let herself be talked into playing. By now, she'd forgotten to maintain her air of exaggerated patience and entered as fully into the play as Jeanette or Theresa while Farragut watched over them all from the back of Miranda's chair.

The game was one Allison had never heard of before coming to Grayson, but like their peculiar sport of "baseball," it seemed ingrained into Graysons at an almost genetic level. At the moment, Miranda had just thrown the dice and finished moving her token—a scuffed and worn-out-looking antique shoe of cast silver—around the perimeter of the polished, inlaid wood board to a square labeled "Ventnor Avenue," and Theresa squealed in triumph.

"I've got a hotel! I've got a hotel!" she announced. "Pay me, 'Randa!"

"I can see taxes are going up if you ever become Minister of Finance," Miranda muttered, making all three sisters laugh, and began counting gaily-colored plaspaper strips of play money. Elaine parked Honor on a stool beside her, and Miranda looked up and then smiled at Honor. "I think I'm in trouble here," she confided. "Want to help me and Farragut count all the money I owe your sister?"

Honor nodded vigorously, indignation suddenly forgotten, as Farragut flowed down to sit beside her stool and lean against her, and Elaine returned to join Katherine on the couch facing Allison across a coffee table of beaten copper.

"He warned us about all the protocol," she went on, recapturing the thread of her earlier conversation, "but I don't think either of us really believed him. I know I didn't, anyway! Did you, Cat?"

"Oh, intellectually, maybe," Katherine said. "But emotionally?" She shook her head and leaned back, putting an arm around her sister wife's shoulders, and Elaine leaned comfortably against her. "We both grew up on Grayson, of course, but I don't think anyone who hasn't experienced it from the inside can really understand just how . . . entrenched the protocol at Protector's Palace really is. Not deep down inside."

"We've had a thousand years to make it ironclad," Benjamin said with a shrug. "It's like an unwritten constitution no one would dream of violating . . . except, thank God, for foreigners who don't know any better. That's one reason Honor was such a breath of fresh-filtered air." He smiled a crooked smile of warm memory. "She started out standing protocol on its head during the Masadan War, and she never really stopped. I think she was trying to learn to 'be good' about it, but she never quite got the knack, thank the Tester."

Allison nodded, squeezing Alfred's hand at the mention of her daughter's name, then deliberately changed the subject.

"Given what you've just said, I really hate to mention anything which could be remotely construed as business, Your Grace, but did you have a chance to read the report I sent you?"

"Please, Allison, in private at least," Benjamin protested. Allison glanced at the two armsmen standing just inside the library doors and the second pair hovering watchfully if unobtrusively over the Protector's daughters and their game, then shrugged. "Privacy" was obviously a relative concept.

"Very well. But did you get a chance to read it, Benjamin?"

"I did," he said, his tone suddenly graver. "More to the point, I had Cat read it. She has a better biosciences background than I ever managed to acquire."

"That's because I wasn't a stodgy old history and government science major," Katherine told him, and her eyes twinkled at Allison. "And I wanted to thank you for being the one who turned up the truth, Allison. It's exactly the sort of multifunction kick in the seat of the pants I've come to expect from Harringtons!"

"Excuse me?" Allison looked puzzled, and Katherine grinned.

"I imagine you've heard at least a few people muttering about how 'proper' Grayson women don't work?"

"Well, yes. I have," Allison admitted.

"Well, that's one of the stupider social fables around," Katherine said roundly. "Traditionally, women haven't been paid for working, but believe me, running a Grayson home requires more than someone to bear and raise children. Of course, most of us were never allowed the formal training men got—Benjamin was dreadfully unconventional in that regard—but you try tearing down an air filtration plant, or monitoring the metals levels in the vegetables you're planning on cooking for supper, or managing the reclamation plant, or setting the toxicity alarms in the nursery, or any one of a thousand and one other 'household' chores without at least a practical education in biology, chemistry, hydraulics—!" She snorted with magnificent panache.

"Elaine and I have the degrees that go with what we know; most Grayson women don't have that certification, but that doesn't mean they're ignorant. And, of course, Elaine and I are from the very tip-top of the upper class. We really don't have to work if we don't want to, and most women can at least turn to their families or clans for a household niche to fill even if they never manage to catch a husband, but there have always been some women who've had no option but to support themselves in the workplace. Most people try to pretend they don't exist, but they do, and that's one reason all three of us—" she waved her hand at her husband and sister wife "—were so delighted to see women like Honor and yourself. Anyone with a halfway functioning brain knows women can, and have, and do 'work' just as hard as any man on this planet, but you and Honor rub their noses in it. You're even more visible than Elaine and I, in some ways, and you and other Manticoran women are one of the big reasons other Grayson women are stepping into the work force at last. In fact, I understand Honor insisted that the Blackbird Yard actively recruit local women, and I hope to goodness other employers have the sense to do the same!"

"I see," Allison said. And, intellectually, she did. Emotionally, the sort of society which could draw such artificial distinctions to start with was too alien for her to truly empathize with. She considered it for several more seconds, then shrugged.

"I see," she repeated, "but I can't really claim any special credit, you know. All I'm doing is going right on as I always have."

"I know," Katherine said. "That's why you're such an effective example. Anyone who sees you knows you're more interested in getting the work done than in 'making a point' . . . which, of course, only makes the point more emphatically." She smiled gently. "It was exactly the same thing that made Honor so effective, too."

Allison blinked on unexpected tears and felt Alfred's arm slip around her and tighten. Silence lingered for a moment, and then Katherine went on.

"But as Benjamin says, I did read the report. The appendices were a bit too abstruse for me, but you did an excellent job of explaining the major points in the text, I think." She shook her head with a look of ineffable sadness that sprang from a very different source, and Allison reminded herself that between them, Katherine and Elaine Mayhew had already lost five sons to spontaneous early-term abortion.

"To think that we did it to our birthrate ourselves." Katherine sighed, and it was Allison's turn to shake her head.

"Not intentionally or knowingly," she pointed out. "And if whoever it was hadn't done it, there wouldn't be any Graysons today. It was a brilliant approach to a deadly problem, especially given the limitations under which it was implemented."

"Oh, I know that," Katherine said, "and I certainly wasn't complaining."

And that, Allison realized with some surprise, was actually true. She very much doubted that it would have been for her in her guest's place.

"It's just that—" Katherine shrugged. "It comes as a bit of a surprise after all these centuries, I suppose. I mean, in a way it's so . . . prosaic. Especially for something which has had such a profound effect on our society and family structure."

"Um." Allison cocked her head for a moment, then waved a hand in a tiny throwing away gesture. "From what I've seen of your world, you seem to have adjusted remarkably sanely on a family level."

"Do you really think so?" Katherine asked, cocking her head to one side. There was a tiny edge to her voice, and Allison raised an eyebrow.

"Yes, I do," she said calmly. "Why?"

"Because not every off-worlder does," Katherine said. She glanced at her husband and her sister wife for a moment, then back at Allison, almost challengingly. "Some seem to find some of our lifestyle 'adjustments' . . . morally offensive."

"If they do, that's their problem, not yours," Allison replied with a shrug. Inwardly, she wondered which off-worlder had been stupid enough to step on Katherine Mayhew's toes . . . and to hope it hadn't been a Manticoran. She didn't think it would have been. For the most part, the Star Kingdom refused to tolerate intolerance, although it was less self-congratulatory about it than Beowulf, but she could call to mind one or two Sphinxians who might have been prudish enough to offend. Given the enormous disparity between male and female births, Grayson attitudes towards homosexuality and bisexuality were inevitable, and Sphinx was by far the most straitlaced of the Star Kingdom's planets. For a horrible moment, Allison wondered if somehow Honor could have—? But no. Her daughter might have been more sexually repressed than Allison would have preferred, but she'd never been a prude or a bigot. And even if she had been, Katherine Mayhew certainly wasn't the kind of person to bring it up to hurt Allison now that Honor was gone.

"Of course, I'm from Beowulf, and we all know what Beowulfans are like," she went on calmly, and almost despite herself, Katherine chuckled. "On the other hand, genetic surgeons see even more different sorts of familial arrangements in the course of our practices than most family practitioners do; it goes with the sort of diagnostic research we have to do. I've been doing rounds at Macomb General here in Harrington, too, which gives me a pretty good opportunity to compare Manticoran and Grayson norms, and I stand by what I said. Your children are among the most secure and loved ones I've ever seen, and that's comparing them to Beowulf and the Star Kingdom both. That's what matters most, I think, and your traditional family structure—especially in light of your environment—represents an incredibly sane response to your skewed birthrates." Katherine gazed at her for a moment, then nodded, and Allison grinned suddenly. "Now, your social responses, as I believe you yourself were just pointing out, might leave just a tad to be desired from the viewpoint of a forward, stubborn, uppity wench like myself!"

"You're not the only one of those in this room, believe me!" Benjamin laughed. "And I'm doing the best I can to change the rules, Allison. I figure that if Cat and Elaine and I can kick the door open and keep it that way, those budding real estate tycoons over there—" he twitched his head in the direction of the game board as it became Jeanette's turn to cackle in triumph "—are going to make even more changes. For a bunch as conservative as we are, that's blinding speed."

"So I've seen."

Allison leaned back beside Alfred and looked up at him with a gracefully quirked eyebrow. He looked back down, and then shrugged.

"You're the one doing all the social engineering tonight, love," he told her. "You decide."

"Decide what?" Katherine asked.

"Whether or not to taint the first hooky-playing Mayhew family outing in two centuries with a little business after all, I suspect," Benjamin said lazily.

"Something like that," Allison admitted. "I'd planned on discussing a couple of possible approaches to corrective genetic therapies with you, but that can certainly wait for another time. Besides," she grinned, "now I know which Mayhew I should discuss them with, don't I, Katherine?"

"Science with me and finance with Elaine," Katherine agreed comfortably. "Unimportant things like wars, diplomacy, and constitutional crises you can take up with Benjamin." Her right hand made an airy gesture.

"Oh, thank you. Thank you all so much!" Benjamin said, and shook a mock-threatening fist at his smiling wives.

"Well, leaving genomes and such aside, there are still a couple of things Alfred and I did want to announce tonight," Allison said in a more serious tone, and looked over at the card table in the corner. "Miranda?" she asked.

"Of course, My Lady." Miranda raised her wrist com to her lips—a maneuver made a bit more complicated than usual by the need to reach around Honor, who was now parked firmly in her lap with Farragut clutched in her arms and an enormous smile on her face—and spoke into it quietly. The adult Mayhews looked at one another curiously, but no one said anything for several seconds. Then someone knocked lightly on the door.

One of the Mayhew armsmen opened it, and James MacGuiness stepped into the library.

"You needed something, Milady?" he asked Allison.

"Not something, Mac—someone," Allison replied gently. "Please, sit down." She patted the chair beside the couch she and Alfred shared.

MacGuiness hesitated, his natural deference warring with her invitation. Then he drew a deep breath, shrugged almost microscopically, and obeyed her. She smiled and squeezed his shoulder gently, then looked back at the Mayhews.

"One of the things Alfred and I wanted to tell you is that Willard Neufsteiler will be arriving from the Star Kingdom aboard the Tankersley next week. When he does, he'll be bringing Honor's will." A chill breeze seemed to blow through the comfortably furnished library, but Allison ignored it. "Because almost half of her financial and business activities were still based in the Star Kingdom, the will has already been probated under Manticoran law, although I understand the portions which affect Grayson will have to be formally probated here, in turn. All the legal details, investment cross links, and tax options make my head hurt—give me a good, simple chromosome to map any day!—but Willard has sent along a précis, and Alfred and I wanted to share the rough outlines with you tonight, if no one objects."

Benjamin shook his head silently, and Allison looked at MacGuiness. The steward's face was stiff, and pain flashed in his eyes, as if he'd realized why she wanted him here and wanted nothing to do with yet another formal proof of his captain's death. But then he, too, shook his head, and Allison smiled at him.

"Thank you," she said softly. She took a moment to collect her thoughts, then cleared her throat.

"First of all, I was quite astounded to discover just how large an estate Honor left. Excluding her feudal holdings here on Grayson as Steadholder Harrington, but including the value of her private interest in Sky Domes and your new Blackbird Shipyard, her net financial worth at the time of her death was just under seventeen-point-four billion Manticoran dollars." Despite himself, Benjamin pursed his lips and whistled silently, and Allison nodded.

"Alfred and I had no idea the estate had grown to anything that size," she went on matter-of-factly, with only the pressure of her grip on her husband's hand to show how dearly bought her outer calm was. "For that matter, I'm not at all certain she realized it, especially since over a quarter of the entire total was generated out of the Blackbird Yard in the last three years. But Willard had things superbly organized for her, as usual, and he seems to have managed to execute her wishes completely.

"The biggest part of what she wanted done was her instruction to merge all of her personal holdings and funds in the Star Kingdom—exclusive of a few special bequests—and fold them over into Grayson Sky Domes. Lord Clinkscales will continue as CEO, and Sky Domes will be held in trust for the next Steadholder Harrington with the proviso that all future financial operations will be based here, on Grayson, and that a majority of the members of the Sky Domes board of directors must be citizens of Harrington Steading. Our understanding is that Willard will be relocating to Grayson to serve full-time as Sky Domes' chief financial officer and manager."

"That was very generous of her," Benjamin said quietly. "That much capital investment in Harrington and Grayson—and in our tax base—will have a major impact."

"Which was what she wanted," Alfred agreed. "There are, however, those special bequests Alley mentioned. Aside from a very generous one to us, she's also establishing a trust fund of sixty-five million dollars for the treecats here on Grayson, adding another hundred million to the endowment for the clinic, and donating fifty million to the Sword Museum of Art in Austin City. In addition, she's going to establish a trust fund for the families of her personal armsmen in the amount of another hundred million and—" he looked at MacGuiness "—she's bequeathed forty million dollars to you, Mac."

MacGuiness stiffened, going white with shock, and Allison gripped his shoulder again.

"There are just two stipulations, Mac," she said quietly. "One is that you retire from the Navy. I think she felt she'd dragged you through enough battles with her, and she wanted to know you were safe. And the second is that you look after Samantha and the children for her and Nimitz."

"Of . . . Of course, Milady," the steward husked. "She didn't have to—" His voice broke, and Allison smiled mistily at him.

"Of course she didn't 'have to,' Mac. She wanted to. Just as she wanted to leave Miranda twenty million." Miranda inhaled sharply, but Allison went on calmly. "There are some other minor stipulations, but those are the important ones. Willard will bring all the official documentation with him, of course."

"She was a remarkable woman," Benjamin said softly.

"Yes, she was," Allison agreed. Silence lingered for several seconds, and then she drew a deep breath and rose.

"And now, since this was a 'supper' invitation, I imagine we should get on to the supper in question! Are we ready, Mac?"

"I believe so, Ma'am." MacGuiness shook himself and rose. "I'll just go check to be certain."

He opened the library doors, then paused and stepped back with a wry grin as a quartet of treecats came through it. Jason and his sister Andromeda led the way, but Hipper and Artemis trailed along behind, keeping a watchful eye on them. The 'kittens scurried forward, with an apparently suicidal disregard for the possibility of being trodden on, but Allison wasn't particularly worried. She had been initially, but treekittens had incredibly fast reaction speeds, and somehow they always managed to be somewhere the foot wasn't at the moment it came down.

Now she watched them stop and sit bolt upright as they caught the emotions of the Protector's daughters. The 'kittens' ears pricked sharply, their green eyes intent, for it was the first time they'd tasted the emotions of human children, and their tails twitched. Artemis plunked down and watched them with a maternal air, and Allison's earlier comments to Katherine flickered back through her brain. There were a great many similarities between treecat and Grayson notions of child rearing, she reflected. And a good thing, too. The Peeps hadn't said a word about it, but every member of Honor's extended family—human and 'cat alike—knew Nimitz had not survived her. More often than not, 'cats suicided when their adopted humans died, yet that was almost beside the point here. For the Peeps to hang Honor, they had to have killed Nimitz first; it was the only way they could have—

Allison's thoughts broke off abruptly as something jabbed at the corner of her attention and pulled her up out of the bitter memories. She blinked, attention refocusing on the library as she tried to figure out what her subconscious had noticed, and then her eyes widened. Artemis was watching the 'kittens as the Mayhew children swarmed forward—suitably cautious after a sharp word from Elaine but still bubbling with delight—to greet the 'kittens. That was hardly surprising, for Honor had told Allison how the children had loved Nimitz, and these were 'kittens. Brand new, cuddly, wonderful 'kittens!

But if Artemis was watching with amused affection, Hipper wasn't. He was crouched on all six limbs, leaning forward almost like a human sprinter poised in the blocks before a race, with his tail straight out behind him. Only the very tip of that tail twitched in quick, tiny arcs; aside from that, he was motionless, and he wasn't even glancing at the 'kittens. His grass-green eyes were locked on the Mayhews.

No, Allison thought with sudden understanding. Not on the Mayhews; on a Mayhew.

The realization flicked through her in an instant and she began to open her mouth, but not quickly enough. Hipper suddenly shook himself and leapt forward in a cream-and-gray blur, streaking across the library towards the children.

Rachel Mayhew's personal armsman saw him coming and reacted with the spinal-reflex quickness of his training. Intellectually, he knew no treecat would ever threaten a child, yet his reflexes were another matter, and his hand flashed out to sweep the girl aside and place himself between her and the potential threat.

But he didn't quite manage it, for even as Hipper had started forward, Rachel's head had snapped around as if someone had shouted her name. Her brown eyes settled on Hipper with unerring accuracy, and as her armsman reached for her, she dodged his arm with astonishing agility. She crouched, opening her arms with a blinding smile of welcome, and Hipper catapulted from the floor into her embrace.

She was only eleven years old, and at 10.3 standard kilos, Hipper was one of the largest treecats Allison had ever met. Which, coupled with Grayson's 1.17 g gravity and the conservation of momentum, had predictable results.

Rachel went back on her bottom with a thump as the 'cat landed in her arms, and Allison's hand flashed out. She caught Rachel's armsman's wrist out of sheer reflex, without even thinking about it, and only later realized that she'd stopped his hand on its way to the pulser at his hip. But it didn't really matter. Even as she gripped it, she felt his muscles relax in sudden, explosive relief as everyone in the library heard Hipper's high, buzzing purr of delight and watched the 'cat rubbing his cheek ecstatically against Rachel's.

Rachel's sisters stared at her, stunned, and the adults were little better. Only Miranda moved. She scooped up Farragut and came over to kneel beside Rachel, but the girl never even noticed. At that moment, Hipper was her entire universe, just as she was his.

"Oh . . . my," Katherine murmured finally. She shook herself and looked at Allison.

"This is what I think it is, isn't it?" she asked very quietly, and Allison sighed.

"It is. And you have my genuine sympathy."

"Sympathy?" Katherine's brow furrowed. "Surely you don't mean he might hurt her or—?"

"Oh, no! Nothing like that!" Allison reassured her quickly. "But, well, it's very unusual, shall we say, for a 'cat to adopt a child. Not unheard of, of course. The very first adoption on Sphinx was of a child about Rachel's age . . . or Honor's. And it's a very good thing, in most ways, but there are some . . . adjustments."

"What sort?" Elaine asked, moving to stand behind her sister wife, and Allison smiled crookedly.

"For one thing, he's going to be even worse than a Grayson's personal armsman. You're never going to be able to separate them, not even for baths or doctor's visits, and you can forget about leaving him home on state occasions! And she's not going to want to put him down, either."

"Well, I don't see any reason to try to convince her to tonight," Katherine said after a glance at Elaine.

"I didn't mean she won't want to put him down tonight," Allison told her wryly. "I meant she's not going to want to put him down ever. Physical contact is very important to both sides of an adoption bond, particularly one where the human half is this young, and especially during the initial several months. I thought Nimitz had been grafted onto Honor for the first T-year or so!"

"Oh, my," Katherine sighed on a very different note.

"And another thing, you'll have to warn the adults who're likely to enter her orbit to keep an eye on their own emotions." Elaine looked at her sharply, and Allison shrugged. "For the most part, a 'cat makes a wonderful babysitter. No abusive personality is going to be able to fool him, and your family knows better than most how effective a protector a treecat can be." Both Mayhews nodded at that, and Allison shrugged again. "Unfortunately, 'cats are also very sensitive to emotions directed at their persons . . . or that they think might end up directed at their persons. Which means that he's going to be very tense around people who are angry in Rachel's presence, whether it's at her or something with no connection to her at all. And finally, you're going to have some very interesting experiences when she enters puberty."

Katherine's eyes widened, and Allison chuckled.

"No, no. As far as I've ever been able to determine, 'cats have no interest at all in their people's, um, amatory adventures. But they're empaths. When all those hormonal mood swings start hitting her, both of them are going to be irritable as hell. The only good thing about it is that by our best estimate Hipper is about fifty T-years old. That means he's about the age Nimitz was when he adopted Honor. It also means he's got a lot more maturity than Rachel does, and if he's anything like Nimitz was, he won't put up with his person's whining at all. Not a minor consideration with a teenager, I think."

"Oh, dear." It was Elaine this time, yet there was a bubble of laughter under her sigh, and she shook her head. Then she sobered. "Actually, that may be the least of our worries, Cat," she said quietly. "What about the other girls?"

"Jealousy?" Allison asked, equally quietly, her eyes back on Rachel and Hipper. Rachel's sisters were coming forward now, going to their knees around her while Jason and Andromeda looked on with bright, interested eyes. Alfred and Benjamin stood to one side, talking softly, and she smiled, then looked back at the Mayhew wives.

"Honor was an only child, so my experiences were undoubtedly different from what yours are going to be, but I don't think that will be a problem," she assured them.

"Why not?" Katherine asked.

"Because Hipper is a 'cat," Allison explained. "He's an empath. He'll be able to feel their emotions as well as Rachel's, and that's one of the very best things about childhood adoptions. They may be rare, but they're very good for the child, because their 'cat teaches them to be sensitive to the feelings of others. You'll want to keep an eye on her for a few weeks or so, of course. Even the best kids can get smug and start thinking of themselves as better than anyone else when something this special happens, and the bond is going to take a couple of months to start settling. She could really put the other girls' backs up in that interval, with all kinds of long-term consequences. But unless something like that happens—and I don't think it will—Hipper is going to spend an awful lot of time playing with the others, too." She shook her head with a grin. "For that matter, he's going to think he's in 'cat heaven when he realizes he has four of them to spoil him rotten!"


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