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Chapter Thirteen

"Very well, Your Grace," the efficient young staffer at the other end of the com link said, scanning the e-form on her own display. "We can schedule the procedure for Wednesday afternoon, if that's convenient."


"Wednesday would be fine," Honor replied. "In fact, given my schedule, I really need to take care of it as soon as possible."


"I understand." The other woman paused with a slight frown. "I notice you've listed your mother as our alternate contact." Her voice ended on a slightly rising note, and Honor very carefully didn't grimace.


"That's correct," she said, her own voice completely level. Yet something about her tone made the staffer look up. If she'd felt any temptation to fish for additional information, it evaporated quickly as she met Honor's gaze.


"In that case, Your Grace, I'll put you down for . . . fourteen-thirty."


"Thank you. I'll be there."


* * *

"I don't think I've ever seen the Steadholder quite like this," Spencer Hawke said quietly.


He and Simon Mattingly stood against one wall of the palatial gymnasium under Honor's Jason Bay mansion, watching her work out.


Her normal routine had been somewhat altered. As usual, she'd spent an hour working out with the Harrington Sword. Grand Master Thomas Dunlevy had come out of retirement last year to help program her training remote, and the ringing clash of the remote's blunt-edged training blade against the razor-sharp Harrington Sword had sent its harsh music through the gym. But the Steadholder had donned much heavier practice armor than usual, and she'd had Mattingly step down the remote's reaction speed. It was also a Monday, and usually on Mondays she put on her coup de vitesse training gi and pads and worked out full-contact against the training remote or Colonel LaFollet. But today, instead, she'd contented herself with the stretching exercises and training katas. And as if that weren't enough, she'd sent LaFollet himself away without her. Neither she nor the colonel had discussed exactly what it was he was doing today, but Mattingly and Hawke both knew it had something to do with the rather peculiar travel agenda Lady Harrington had laid out for LaFollet the evening before.


All of that was odd enough, yet it wasn't what had prompted Hawke's remark. There was a . . . distracted edge to her. She lacked that complete and total focus on whatever the task in hand happened to be which was usually so much a part of her. And she seemed both excited and apprehensive, which was very much not like her.


Mattingly glanced at the younger armsman. Hawke had not yet been briefed on the details of the aforementioned peculiar travel agenda. For that matter, Mattingly hadn't been fully briefed on it, himself, but he believed in being prepared. So he'd done a little research of his own on this "Briarwood Center" the Steadholder was intent upon visiting so privately.


"I've seen her in moods like this one," he said after a moment. "Not often, but once or twice. Thank God it's not as bad as the one she was in before they sent us to Marsh!"


"Amen," Hawke said with soft fervency, and remembered anger flickered in the backs of his usually mild eyes. Mattingly wasn't surprised to see it, but he was glad. He'd chosen that particular example deliberately, given what Hawke was going to inevitably figure out for himself tomorrow.


"She's got a lot on her mind," he continued quietly, watching the Steadholder flow gracefully through her katas. She was almost ten T-years older than he was, but she looked half his age. He'd become as accustomed to that as anyone could, who'd grown to adulthood on a planet without prolong, but he was finding it increasingly difficult to match her flexibility and speed.


No, he corrected himself. Not "match them"; I never did manage that. But it's getting harder just to stay in shouting distance.


"I know she does," Hawke replied to his last remark, and cocked his head. "But this isn't just about her navy job."


"No, it isn't," Mattingly agreed. "There are some . . . personal issues involved, as well."


Hawke's eyes turned instantly opaque, and his expression blanked. It was a professional armsman's reaction which Mattingly found a bit amusing, under the circumstances. He couldn't really fault the younger man for probing for information—armsmen all too often found that their primaries had neglected to mention some vitally important bit of information because it hadn't seemed important to them. Or because they didn't want to share it. Or even sometimes, as happened much too frequently for Mattingly's peace of mind in the Steadholder's case, because they'd simply decided to subordinate security requirements to . . . other considerations.


But it was a mark of Hawke's relative youthfulness that he should go into immediate "the-Steadholder's-private-life-is-none-of-my-business" mode the instant he began to suspect where his probing might lead him.


"She's not going to tell you about them, you know," Mattingly said conversationally, his tone almost teasing, as the Steadholder finished her katas.


He watched her alertly, even here, wondering if she was going to head straight for the showers, but instead, she crossed to the indoor shooting range at the far end of the gymnasium. He'd already checked the range before the Steadholder ever entered the gym, and there were no other entrances to it, so he didn't try to intercept her at the range door. Instead, he jerked his head at Hawke, and the two of them walked over to flank the door, watching through the soundproof armorplast with one eye while they kept most of their attention focused on the only access routes.


"There's no reason she ought to tell me about them," Hawke said, just a bit stiffly. "She's my Steadholder. If she wants me to know something, she'll tell me."


"Oh, nonsense!" Mattingly snorted. He felt a small flicker of surprise when the Steadholder didn't put on her ear protectors, but his incipient twinge of concern vanished when he realized she didn't have her .45 at the shooting line. Unlike that thunderous, anachronistic, propellant-spewing monster, pulsers were relatively quiet.


Satisfied that his charge wasn't going to hammer her unprotected eardrums with gunfire, he looked back at Hawke. Who was regarding him with a moderately outraged expression.


"Spencer," he said, "Colonel LaFollet didn't handpick you for the Steadholder's personal detail because you're an idiot. You know—or you damned well ought to know, by now—that no primary ever tells his armsmen everything they need to know. And, frankly, the Steadholder's worse than most in that regard. She's better than she was, but, Tester—the things she used to do without even mentioning them to us ahead of time!"


He shook his head.


"The thing you have to understand, Spencer, is that there's the Job, and then there's everything else. The Job is to see to it that that lady in there stays alive, period. No ifs, no ands, and no buts. We do whatever it takes—whatever it takes—to see to it that she does. And it's our privilege to do that, because there are steadholders, and there are steadholders, and I tell you frankly that one like her comes along maybe once or twice in a generation. If we're lucky. And, yes, although I'm not going to tell her, I'd do the Job anyway, because I love her.


"But every so often, and more often in her case than in most, the Job and who the person we're protecting is run into one another head on. The Steadholder takes risks. Some of them are manageable, or at least reasonably so, like her hang-gliding and her sailboats. But she's also a naval officer, and a steadholder in the old sense—the kind who used to lead his personal troops from the front rank—so there are always going to be risks we can't protect her from, however hard we try. And as you may recall, those same risks have killed quite a few of her armsmen along the way.


"And there's another factor involved, where she's concerned. She wasn't born a steadholder. In a lot of ways, I think that's the secret of her strength as a steadholder; she doesn't think like someone who knew from the time he learned to walk that he was going to be one. That's probably a very good thing, over all, but it also means she didn't grow up with the mindset. It simply doesn't occur to her—or, sometimes it does occur to her and she simply chooses to ignore the fact—that she has to keep us informed if we're going to do the Job. And since she doesn't, every one of us—like every armsman who ever was—spends an awful lot of time trying to figure out what it is she isn't telling us about this time."


He grimaced wryly.


"And, of course, we spend most of the rest of our time keeping our big mouths shut about the things we have figured out. Especially the ones she didn't tell us about. You know, the things she knows that we know that she knows that we know but none of us ever discuss with her."


"Oh." Hawke frowned. "So you're saying I'm supposed to pry into her personal life?"


"We are her personal life," Mattingly said flatly. "We're as much her family as her mother and father, as Faith and James. Except that we're the expendable part of her family . . . and everyone knows and accepts that. Except her."


His own frown mingled affection, respect, and exasperation as he looked through the armorplast at his Steadholder. Hawke looked as well, and Mattingly felt the younger man twitch in something very like shock as the Steadholder calmly removed the very tip of her left index finger.


"Haven't seen this one before?" Mattingly asked.


"I've seen it before," Hawke replied. "Just not very often. And it . . . bothers me. You know, I keep forgetting her arm's artificial."


"Yeah, and her father's a seriously paranoid individual, Tester bless him!" Mattingly said. "Although," they watched with half their attention as the Steadholder flexed her left hand and the truncated index finger locked into a rigidly extended position, "that particular hideout weapon of hers is something of a case in point for what I was saying earlier. She didn't even tell me or the Colonel about it until after we were sent to Marsh."


"I know." Hawke chuckled. "I was there when we all found out, remember?"


On the other side of the armorplast, the Steadholder pointed her finger down-range, and a hyper-velocity pulser dart shrieked dead center through the ten-ring of a combat target. She hadn't even raised her hand, and as they watched, she actually turned her head away, not even looking at the targets as they popped out of their holographic concealment . . . and the pulser darts continue to rip their chests apart.


"How does she do that?" Hawke demanded. "Look at that! She's got her eyes closed!"


"Yes, she does," Mattingly agreed with a smile. "The Colonel finally broke down and asked her. It's fairly simple, really. There's a concealed camera in the cuticle of the finger, and when she activates the pulser, the camera feed links directly to her artificial eye. It projects a window with a crosshair, and since the camera is exactly aligned with the bore of the pulser, the dart will automatically hit anything she sees in the window." He shook his head, still smiling. "She's always been a really good 'point-and-shoot' shooter, but it got even worse when her father had her arm designed."


"You can say that again," Hawke said with feeling.


"And a damned good thing, too." Mattingly turned away from the armorplast. "They say the Tester is especially demanding when He Tests those He loves best. Which tells me that He loves the Steadholder a lot."


Hawke nodded, turning away from the armorplast himself and frowning as he considered everything Mattingly had said to him. After several moments, he looked back across at the older armsman.


"So what is it she's not telling us?"


"Excuse me?" Mattingly frowned at him.


"So what is it she's not telling us?" Hawke repeated. "You said it's an armsman's responsibility to know all those things his primary doesn't tell him about. So tell me."


"Tell you something the Steadholder hasn't told you?" Mattingly's frown became a wicked grin. "I'd never dream of doing such a thing!"


"But you just said—"


"I said it's an armsman's responsibility to find out about the things he needs to know. At the moment, the Colonel and I—older and wiser, not to say sneakier, heads that we are—have already found out. Now, young Spencer, as part of your own ongoing education and training, it's your job to figure it out for yourself. And, I might add, without stepping on your sword in front of the Steadholder by admitting that you have."


"That's dumb!" Hawke protested.


"No, Spencer, it isn't," Mattingly said, much more seriously. "Finding out for yourself is something you're going to have to do. And for quite a long time. Unlike the Colonel or me, you've got prolong. You're going to be with the Steadholder probably for decades, and you need to figure out the sorts of things she isn't going to tell you. And just as importantly, you need to learn how to leave her her privacy even as you invade it."


Hawke looked at him, and Mattingly smiled with more than a trace of sadness.


"She has no privacy, Spencer. Not anymore. And like I just said, she didn't grow up a steadholder. Someone who's born to the job never really has privacy in the first place. He doesn't miss what he never had, or not as much, at any rate. But she did have it, and she gave it away when she accepted her steadholdership. I don't think she's ever admitted to anyone just how much that cost her. So if we can play the game, let her cling to at least the illusion that she still has some privacy, then that's part of what it means to be an armsman. And however silly, however 'dumb,' that might sometimes seem, it isn't. Not at all. In fact, playing that game with her has been one of the greatest privileges of my service as her personal armsman."


* * *

"Were you able to catch up with Duchess Harrington, Adam?"


"Yes, Sir. Sort of."


Admiral Sir Thomas Caparelli looked up from the report in front of him and quirked an eyebrow at the tallish, fair-haired senior-grade captain.


"Would you care to explain that somewhat cryptic utterance?" he inquired of his chief of staff.


"I spoke to Her Grace, Sir," Captain Dryslar replied. "Unfortunately, I didn't catch up with her until just after eleven. She had a working lunch scheduled with some of Admiral Hemphill's people, and immediately after that she has a doctor's appointment. She said she could reschedule the doctor's appointment if it was an emergency, but that she'd really prefer not to."


"Doctor?" Caparelli's eyes narrowed, and he sat up straighter. "Is there a health problem I ought to know about?"


"Not so far as I'm aware, Sir," Dryslar said carefully.


"Meaning? Don't make me pull it out of you one syllable at a time, Adam!"


"Sorry, Sir. I did ask Her Grace where her appointment was, in case we needed to reach her. She said it was at Briarwood Center."


Caparelli had opened his mouth. Now it closed again, and both eyebrows rose in obvious startlement.


"Briarwood?" he repeated after a moment.


"Yes, Sir."


"I see. Well, in that case, we can certainly reschedule my meeting with her. Please screen her back and see if she'll be available tomorrow. No, wait. Make it Friday."


"Yes, Sir."


Dryslar left the office, closing the door behind him, and Caparelli sat for several seconds, gazing at nothing in particular while he contemplated the potential complications of Admiral Harrington's afternoon appointment. He considered screening her himself, personally, but only very briefly. If there was anything she wanted to discuss with him, she had his com combination, and there were certain things of which the First Space Lord did not want to take official cognizance unless he had to.


* * *

"My Lady, I really don't think the Queen—or Protector Benjamin—is going to be very happy about this."


Colonel Andrew LaFollet's voice was in diffident mode, but there was something undeniably mulish about his gray eyes, and Honor turned to look at him sternly.


"Her Majesty—and the Protector—aren't going to hear about it from me, Andrew. Did you have some other possible informant—excuse me, reporter—in mind to carry them the news?"


"My Lady, sooner or later, they're going to find out," LaFollet replied, standing his ground. "I'm your armsman. I understand the need for confidentiality, and you know perfectly well what that means, just as you know all the rest of the detail will keep their mouths shut. But they're not exactly without sources of their own, and when they find out about this little escapade, they are not going to be amused. For that matter," he added, his face even more expressionless, "I rather doubt the Earl or Lady White Haven would be very pleased about it if they knew just how uncovered you are right now."


Honor had already opened her mouth, but she swallowed what she'd been about to say and looked at him narrowly. It was the first time LaFollet had come that close to openly acknowledging her relationship with Hamish. And, whether she wanted to admit it or not herself, her personal armsman had a point.


She glanced out the one-way window of the air limo. Over the years, she'd become accustomed to the routine security arrangements which attached to her persona as steadholder and duchess. She still didn't like them, and she never would, yet after so long she felt undeniably . . . naked when she looked out and saw the empty chunks of air where the sting ships ought to be. And ridiculous as it often still seemed to her, she'd learned the hard way that figures as public as she'd become attracted the lunatic fringe. Not to mention the fact that over the years she'd acquired quite a few enemies who would have been less than brokenhearted should something permanent happen to her. Which was one reason LaFollet and Simon Mattingly were the only two survivors of her original personal armsmen. And which was also why "not amused" was an awfully pale description of Benjamin Mayhew's probable reaction to what she was doing this afternoon. Elizabeth might cut her a little more slack, but even she would have a few choice things to say when she found out Honor had ditched all of her standard security arrangements except for the close-in cover of her personal three-man detachment.


Unfortunately, she didn't have much of a choice, and she was grateful to Lieutenant Commander Hennessy, Admiral Hemphill's chief of staff and representative at the meeting she'd just left, for covering for her. Hennessy hadn't asked LaFollet why it would be necessary for Duchess Harrington's official limousine—and sting ship escort—to return to the Bay House without her. He'd simply run interference for her, as she'd requested, which had allowed her, LaFollet, Mattingly, and Hawke to get to the parking garage and this waiting, anonymous limousine unobserved.


"I know all of you will keep your mouths closed, Andrew," she said after a moment, and her tone was an apology. "I guess I'm just a little more worried about this than I'm willing to admit." Nimitz crooned to her, and she stroked his spine. "It's . . . complicated."


"My Lady," LaFollet said gently, "'complicated' isn't exactly the word I'd choose. It's a bit too . . . mild. And I'm not trying to complicate things any more badly than they already are. But I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't point out that, however valid your reasons, gadding about Landing with only the three of us isn't exactly the safest thing you could be doing."


"No, it isn't. On the other hand, I've got quite a bit of faith in your ability to look after me if anything goes wrong. And I'm not exactly helpless myself, you know. All of which is beside the point. Arriving at Briarwood in an official car, complete with escort and the whole brass band, wouldn't exactly contribute to the low profile I'm trying to maintain."


"No, My Lady." LaFollet didn't—quite—sigh, but Honor tasted his resignation. "Only, if you insist on doing it this way," he went on, "you're going to follow my orders while we're out here on our own. Agreed, My Lady?"


She looked at him for a few seconds, and he gazed back levelly, gray eyes unflinching while she tasted the adamantine determination behind them.


"All right, Andrew," she surrendered. "You're in charge . . . this time."


To his credit, LaFollet didn't even say "good."


* * *

The limo pulled directly into the Briarwood Center's hundred and third-floor parking garage. Simon Mattingly settled it into the designated stall, and Spencer Hawk climbed out of the front seat and rapidly—but thoroughly—swept the area. It was deserted, as Honor had anticipated at this time of day, and LaFollet allowed her to get out of the vehicle herself.


Her armsmen fell into formation about her and she settled Nimitz on her shoulder as they crossed the garage for the quick lift shaft trip to the Center. It wasn't easy for a uniformed admiral of the Royal Manticoran Navy, escorted by three uniformed bodyguards, to pass unnoticed anywhere, but confidentiality was often something Briarwood had to take into consideration. The Center was accustomed to providing for it without drawing attention to the fact, and the lift deposited Honor and her party, exactly at the appointed time, outside a discreetly private waiting room.


The woman at the arrivals desk looked up with a pleasant smile as the door closed behind them.


"Good afternoon, Your Grace."


"Good afternoon," Honor replied with a smile of her own. One, she discovered, which covered a higher degree of nervousness than she'd expected. Routine medical procedure or not, there was an undeniable flutter of anxiety in the pit of her stomach. Or, she thought, perhaps someplace a bit lower.


"If you'd care to have a seat, Dr. Illescue will be with you in just a few moments."


"Thank you."


Honor settled into one of the comfortable chairs, and her dark eyes gleamed with amusement as she and Nimitz tasted the outwardly unflappable receptionist's emotions as her three armsmen positioned themselves with silent, well-practiced efficiency to cover the waiting room.


She'd been waiting for less than five minutes when Dr. Franz Illescue walked in.


"Your Grace," he said, greeting her with a slight bow.


"Doctor."


Illescue was on the short side, dark haired, and slightly built, with a closely trimmed beard. He exuded the comforting professionalism of an excellent "bedside manner," she thought, with the critical appreciation of the child of two physicians, but carefully hidden curiosity bubbled behind his brown eyes. And there were other emotions along with the curiosity, including a thread of something almost like . . . hostility. She wondered where that came from, since she'd never met the man before in her life, but he seemed to have it well under control. Which didn't really surprise her. Franz Illescue was Briarwood's senior physician, and he hadn't drawn her appointment by random chance.


"If you'll come with me, Your Grace," he invited now, then frowned as her armsmen fell into their normal triangular pattern about her. That thread of almost-hostility strengthened abruptly, and his eyes narrowed.


"Is there a problem, Doctor?" she asked mildly.


"If you'll forgive my saying so, Your Grace," he replied, "we're not really comfortable with guns here in Briarwood."


"I can appreciate that," she said. "Unfortunately, I'm not entirely free to make my own decisions where security matters are concerned."


Illescue looked at her, and she frowned herself, mildly, as she tasted more than a little skepticism. She couldn't fault his unhappiness at having his medical facility invaded by armed, obviously protective bodyguards, but she didn't care at all for the undertone of something very like contempt she tasted along with the skepticism. Not contempt for her armsmen, but for the insecurity—or egotism—behind her obvious need for such an ostentatious display of her own self-importance.


"I hope it won't disrupt your normal routine, Doctor," she allowed the very slightest hint of frost into her voice, "but I genuinely have no choice under Grayson law. I believe you were informed of my security requirements when I scheduled the appointment. If it's a problem, we can always leave."


"No, of course it isn't, Your Grace," he said quickly, despite a flicker of intense annoyance. "Will you require one of them in the treatment room?"


"I believe we can dispense with that particular requirement, as long as we're allowed to post them outside the room," Honor said gravely, unable to completely suppress her inner amusement as his carefully hidden annoyance flared still higher briefly.


"I don't believe that will be a problem," he told her, and she followed him from the waiting room.


* * *

"Are you all right, My Lady?"


Honor grimaced, torn between amusement and affectionate annoyance at LaFollet's tone. She'd often thought Grayson attitudes towards sex and procreation were oddly skewed. On the one hand, no properly brought up Grayson male would even have contemplated discussing such a subject with a woman to whom he was not married. On the other hand, given the Grayson population's thousand-year struggle to survive, not even the most properly reared male could grow up on the planet without becoming fully informed on all the "female" details which went with it.


"It's an outpatient procedure, Andrew," she said, after a moment, shifting on the limousine's luxurious seat. "That doesn't necessarily mean there's no discomfort, even with quick-heal."


"No, My Lady. Of course not," he said just a bit hastily. She looked at him levelly, and after a moment, he grinned wryly.


"Sorry, My Lady. I don't mean to hover. It's just, well . . ."


He shrugged and flipped both hands, palms uppermost.


"I know, Andrew." She smiled at him, and Nimitz bleeked in amusement from her lap. "And I really am just fine."


He nodded, and she looked back out the window. Nimitz rose in her lap, careful about where he let his weight fall, and leaned against her, pressing his muzzle very gently against her cheek. His buzzing purr vibrated into her comfortingly, and she let his love and support flow through her. At the moment, she needed them badly.


The realization surprised her, yet it was true. Her mind kept returning to that tiny embryo, floating now in the replication tube. Such a minute bit of tissue . . . and yet, how enormous that unborn child loomed in her own heart. She felt hollow, as if she had been emptied of something unutterably precious. Intellectually, she knew her child was far safer where she—or he—was, yet her emotions were something else. A part of her felt as if she'd abandoned her baby, left it in a coldly sterile, antiseptic storage box, like some bit of inconvenient luggage.


She hugged Nimitz gently, wishing with all her heart that Hamish could have accompanied her to Briarwood. He'd wanted to. In fact, he'd tried to insist on coming, until she'd pointed out that his presence would tend to somewhat undermine her insistence on asserting her privacy right to not disclose the father's identity. Bad enough if someone had spotted her and her detail at the Star Kingdom's premier fertility and reproductive center without seeing her there in company with the First Lord of Admiralty. And yet, at this moment, she longed to feel his arms about her.


Well, she'd feel them this evening, she told herself. And, at least as importantly, she would feel Emily's support. Perhaps she'd been an adoptive Grayson too long, she thought, her lips twitching in a smile of mingled tenderness and amusement. She wondered how many other Manticorans would have found the thought of spending an intimate evening in the company of the wife of the father of her unborn child comforting, yet that was the only word she could think of to describe it.


And she didn't really care how bizarre it might once have seemed to her pre-Grayson self.


 


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