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Chapter 2

Berry was far less pleased with the situation the next day, when she had to return to Mount Royal Palace in order to present herself to the royal clinic.


* * *


Anton had insisted from the beginning, and had finally convinced Elizabeth, that the Queen's original idea of having Berry serve as Ruth's double was unworkable. Or, more precisely, would only work for a short time and would likely result in very negative political repercussions.


"You just can't pull it off, in this day and age," he'd argued. "All someone has to do is get a scrap of DNA from either one of the girls to expose the switch, and sooner or later someone will manage that. With modern technology, you can manage it from traces of sweat left on a doorknob. Yes, sure, Berry was born on Earth so her DNA will be as much of a mélange as any human's in the galaxy. But Ruth's of Grayson-Masadan stock, and that genetic variation has far too many distinct traits not to be spotted easily."


The Queen frowned. "I thought you'd agreed, Captain?"


He shook his head. "You're thinking too directly. You don't need an actual double, Your Majesty. All you need is misdirection. At no point—ever—will you or I or anyone else directly involved in the affair ever come right out and say 'this girl is Ruth Winton and that one is Berry Zilwicki.' All you need to do is announce that Ruth Winton will be accompanying Captain Anton Zilwicki and Professor W.E.B. Du Havel on their voyage to pay the Anti-Slavery League's respects to the family and associates of the martyr Hieronymus Stein. She'll be coming along to pay the personal respects of the House of Winton. That is it. Somewhere along the line—but not in a communiqué from the dynasty—we'll drop a casual mention that Captain Zilwicki's daughter Berry will be coming along also."


He gave the girls each a glance. "We dress Berry up in the fanciest clothing we can find, and have Ruth wear the sloppy teenage stuff Berry usually wears when she's not trying to impress royalty. I'd call it rags except it costs me twice as much to buy the stuff as good clothing would." He ignored his daughter's little choke of protest. "Then, let slip the word before we leave—just in time to let the paparazzi show up. Berry will walk beside me as we pass through the gates into the boarding area, dressed like a princess, with the royal guards acting as if they were protecting her. Ruth will tag along behind, looking nonchalant."


Elizabeth's face cleared. "Ah. I see. We don't tell them—anyone—that Berry is Ruth and vice versa. We just let them jump to that conclusion on their own."


"Exactly. That'll serve the purpose from the security angle. But it also allows you to slide off the hook later when the confusion eventually gets cleared up—which it will, don't doubt it for a moment—and people start throwing around accusations that the Crown of Manticore was engaging in duplicity. You just shrug your shoulders and say it isn't your fault if the newsies couldn't get their story straight."


The Queen shook her head. "I agree with your logic, Captain, but you're missing the real political problem. Charges of being shrewd and cunning and sneaky, the Crown of Manticore can live with. Frankly, I'd bathe in it. The charge that would really hurt is that we were willing to risk the life of a commoner to protect royalty. That's the one thing I can't afford, now of all times. More than ever, these days, the strength of the Crown rests in the allegiance of the commonalty."


Anton bowed his head slightly, acknowledging the truth of her remark.


"I'm curious, Captain," Elizabeth continued. "Yes, your variant will let me slip off the hook when the time comes. But the fact remains that both of us know that we are in fact using a commoner to protect a princess. Doesn't that bother you? I'd think it would, coming from Gryphon. Some of the Manticore Crown Loyalists would undoubtedly do it cheerfully, but you highlanders are a . . . cantankerous lot."


Anton grinned. "Are we not, indeed? The reason it doesn't bother me, Your Majesty, is because my daughter insisted on it." He gave Ruth another glance. The girl had been sired upon her mother by a husband who viewed his wives as chattel. "I said I was a father, not a stinking Masadan patriarch. Be damned to the rest of it."


Ruth's cheeks seemed to glow a bit, although her expression remained still. Anton hadn't made the remark for any ulterior purpose, but he realized in that moment that he'd cemented his position as one of the princess' heroes, and he felt his heart sink slightly. Another man might have taken pleasure at the thought of acquiring favor from royalty. Anton Zilwicki—"Daddy Dour," his daughter Helen sometimes called him—saw only the problems and complications involved.


And to think I used to have such a simple life. An unattached widower and an obscure intelligence officer in the RMN, that's all. Now look at me! My lover's the most notorious political figure in the Star Kingdom, and now I've added royal intrigue to the brew!


* * *


"There's one other thing we could do to enhance the chances of keeping the switch unnoticed for as long as possible," he added. He studied the two girls for a moment. "Assuming that they're willing to do it, of course—and, meaning no offense, Your Majesty, that you're willing to pay for it."


Queen Elizabeth chuckled. "A nanotech transformation? You're certainly free with the royal purse, Captain Zilwicki!"


Anton made no reply beyond a thin smile. That seemed like a better response than: sure, it'll cost a small fortune—but for you, that's pocket change.


Elizabeth studied the two girls herself. She seemed a bit uncertain, although Anton was quite sure the hesitation was not because of the expense involved. Biosculpt would have been cheaper, but biosculpt was—literally—only skin deep, and they needed more than that in this case. Although Berry and Ruth were very similar physical types, aside from Berry's dark brown hair and Ruth's golden blond, they weren't quite the same height. And while neither of them would ever be called stocky, Ruth was noticeably finer-boned than Berry. It wasn't anything which would be hugely apparent to a casual observer, but it would show up instantly if anyone decided to run a side-by-side comparison of their HD images.


Unless, of course, the differences were reversed before the HD cameras ever saw them.


There were drawbacks to that approach, however, and Elizabeth was clearly aware of them. Even leaving aside the fact that doing the procedures in the short time they had available would be uncomfortable at the very least, nanotech body transformations were unsettling in the best of circumstances. Although the changes were easily reversible, it was still disturbing to most people to have their bodies start changing shape on them. All the more so, when the two people involved were very young women, their physical aging furthered retarded by prolong, who were still getting accustomed to the bodies they had.


"It's your decision, Ruth—and yours too, of course, Berry," said the Queen. "I warn you, it won't be any fun."


"Sure we'll do it!" the princess piped up immediately.


* * *


Berry herself, noticing that Ruth Winton's expression didn't look nearly as confident as the words themselves, had hesitated a moment. She really knew very little about nanotech, especially as applied to human physiology. But the look of silent appeal the princess gave her settled the issue.


" 'Course we will," she'd agreed, trying her best for a tone of confidence. And hoping that her own expression wasn't as transparent as Ruth's.


* * *


To Berry's relief, the "clinic" proved to be a fully equipped and up-to-date mini-hospital. Not entirely to her relief, the doctor who appeared upon her arrival to take charge of her proved to be a very friendly but disquietingly youthful person. Judging from appearance, Berry wouldn't have thought the woman was old enough to have graduated from medical school yet.


To her complete chagrin, the doctor lacked the most basic rudiments of a proper bedside manner.


"Is this going to hurt?" she asked nervously, following the doctor down a corridor which seemed excessively sterile and undecorated.


"Probably," Dr. Schwartz replied breezily. She gave Berry a smile that was less sympathetic than Berry thought it could have been. "What do you expect? A full nanotech body transformation in four days!" Schwartz shook her head, as if bemused by the folly of it all. "We're adding almost a full centimeter to your height, you know. And reducing the Princess' the same amount."


The smile was definitely not as sympathetic as it should have been, Berry thought crossly. Especially when she heard the doctor's next words.


"There's bound to be a fair amount of discomfort when we start taking your bones apart and putting them back together again," Schwartz said. "Soft tissue changes aren't that bad, but bone alterations are an entirely different matter. Still, I imagine you'll spend a lot of the time sleeping."


Five seconds later, Dr. Schwartz ushered Berry into a deceptively unremarkable looking private hospital room.


Ruth already occupied one of the room's two beds. She looked a little calmer than Berry felt, but not very much, and Berry felt obscurely comforted as she recognized the other girl's matching nervousness.


"All right, now, Ms. Zilwicki," Dr. Schwartz said briskly. "If you'll just climb into your gown and hop into bed, we can get started with the workup."


"Uh, just how much is this going to hurt?" Berry asked as she began to obey. It was, she admitted to herself, a bit late to be asking that particular question, but Dr. Schwartz didn't seem to mind.


"As I already said," the doctor told her, "there's always a degree of discomfort involved with bone modifications. Of course, I realize that we doctors tend to make patients a bit nervous when we throw around words like 'discomfort,' but you really shouldn't look at it that way. Pain is one of the body's most effective ways to communicate with us."


"If it's all the same to you," Berry said, "I'd just as soon not be communicated with that way anymore than I have to."


"I'll second that," Ruth put in from her bed.


"Well, we'll do what we can to minimize it, of course," Dr. Schwartz assured both of them. "Actually, the procedure itself isn't particularly difficult. The trick in something like this is in properly programming the nannies, and since we had complete access to both of your medical records, that was fairly straightforward this time. I remember once, when we were doing a rush job for the SIS, and we didn't have access to the med file of the fellow we were supposed to be matching our agent to. Now that was a challenge! In this case though—"


She made an airy, dismissive gesture, then frowned at Berry, who obviously wasn't getting out of her own clothes and into the waiting gown rapidly enough to suit her. Berry took the hint, and the doctor nodded in obvious satisfaction as she quickened her pace.


"In this instance, we had all the information we needed, of course," Schwartz continued. "It's the time factor that's the problem. As soon as we've completed the final workups on both of you, we'll fine-tune the nannies' programming and inject them. After that," she said with what Berry privately thought was appalling cheerfulness, "the nannies will start taking you apart and putting you back together again. If we had a couple of weeks to work with, it probably wouldn't feel much worse than, say, a moderately severe case of the flu. In the time frame that we have, I'm afraid it's going to be a bit more taxing than that."


She shrugged.


"As I said, I expect you'll both spend quite a bit of time sleeping over the next few days. A nanny transformation does tend to use up a lot of your energy. We'll provide some meds against the discomfort, but we're going to have to be able to monitor your responses to the modifications, and we can't afford to blur those with anything really potent. That's especially true when we're making the changes so rapidly. So I'm afraid that any time you don't spend sleeping is unlikely to be among your fondest memories."


She smiled again, with that same maddening lack of sympathy, and Berry sighed glumly. This had all seemed so much simpler when she blithely volunteered for it.


She finished buttoning the gown, then paused. It wasn't really hesitation. She told herself that quite firmly. But it was something uncomfortably akin to it, and an amazing number of butterflies seemed to be hovering in the vicinity of her midsection.


"Ah, you're ready, I see! Good!" Dr. Schwartz approved, smiling more cheerfully than ever, and Berry's butterfly population expanded exponentially. "In that case, let's get started, shall we?"


* * *


The next few days were considerably more miserable than the doctor's breezy assurances would have led an unsuspecting soul to believe. But it wasn't really that bad—nowhere near as bad as some of Berry's experiences had been. Besides, that same life experience had made Berry about as suspecting a soul, in a friendly and benign sort of way, as anyone she knew.


Well . . . except Princess Ruth.


Berry got to know the Manticoran royal fairly well during those days, since they'd nothing else to do but talk whenever they weren't sleeping. And while Berry soon came to the conclusion that Ruth was a woman she was going to like—a lot, in fact—she also found the contrast between their two personalities more than a little amusing.


Some of the differences were obvious—Berry tended to be quiet, Ruth exuberant. But an even deeper difference, if not an immediately obvious one, was their different outlook on life. True, Berry's life had left precious little in the way of childlike innocence, but she still tended to take a cheery view of the universe and its inhabitants. Ruth, on the other hand . . .


"Paranoid" was not the right term, Berry finally decided. The connotations of that word involved fear, worry, fretfulness—whereas the princess had about as sanguine a temperament as possible. But if the expression "optimistic paranoiac" hadn't been a ridiculous oxymoron, it would have described Ruth fairly well. She seemed to take it for granted that half the human race was up to no good, even if the knowledge didn't particularly worry her much—because she was just as certain that she'd be able to deal with the sorry blighters if they tried to mess around with her.


"How in the world did the Queen manage to keep a lid on you for twenty-three years?" Berry finally asked.


Ruth grinned. "I was her accomplice. I figured out by the time I was six that I'd be better off staying out of the limelight." She stuck out her tongue. "Not to mention—bleah—that it saved me about a million hours of tedious sitting still and trying to look properly princessy—that means 'about as bright as a donkey'—at official royal events."


"Is that why all the details of your mother's escape were kept out of the public eye for so long?"


"Oh, no." Ruth shook her head firmly. Ruth's gestures were usually done firmly—when they weren't done vehemently. "Don't blame me for that idiocy! If they'd asked my opinion—they didn't, I was only a few years old, but they should have—I would have told them to shout it from the rooftops. As it was, the truth didn't become public knowledge until after Yeltsin's Star had joined the Manticoran Alliance, at which point the Manticoran public reacted by making my mother a national hero. Ha! The same thing would have happened right from the start, even before the treaty was signed! You can be damn sure that releasing the naked, unvarnished truth about the brutality with which Masada treated its women would have made the choice of an alliance with Grayson rather than Masada a no-brainer."


She scowled fiercely. "Which, of course, is exactly why the cretins didn't do it. 'Reasons of state.' Ha! The truth is that until the Foreign Office made up its mind once and for all to pursue the relationship with Grayson, the bureaucrats had to 'keep their options open'—there's another weasel phrase for you—with the benighted barbarians who ran Masada! So of course the entire episode had to be swept under the rug."


Berry chuckled. "My father says that 'reasons of state' has been used to cover more sheer stupidity than any other pious phrase in existence. And whenever Mommy—uh, that's Cathy Montaigne—tries to get him to do something he doesn't want to, he immediately says he wants to keep his options open."


"And what does she say?"


"Oh, she tells him he's being a weasel again. And always tries to get me and—if she's home from the Academy—Helen to agree with her."


Berry added piously: "I always do, of course. Daddy can weasel with the best of 'em. Helen usually tries to claim the Academy Code of Honor prevents her from taking a stance, whereupon Mommy immediately accuses her of being a weasel."


Now, Berry looked positively saintly. "And, of course, I always agree with her again."


Ruth was eyeing her oddly. "Hey, look," Berry said defensively, "the truth's the truth."


She realized, then, that she'd misunderstood the meaning of the Princess' scrutiny.


"We're going to be friends," Ruth said abruptly. "Close friends."


It was said firmly, even vehemently. But Berry didn't miss the depths of loneliness and uncertainty that lurked beneath the words. Ruth, she was now certain, was not a woman who'd known very much in the way of close friendship in her life.


Berry smiled. "Of course we are."


She meant it, too. Berry was good at making friends. Especially close ones.


* * *


"Sir, please tell me you're pulling my leg," Platoon Sergeant Laura Hofschulte, Queen's Own Regiment, begged plaintively.


"I wish I were, Laura," Lieutenant Ahmed Griggs sighed, and leaned back in his chair to run his fingers through his thick, reddish hair. It was his platoon Sergeant Hofschulte managed, and the two of them had served together for almost two T-years. During that time, they'd come to know one another well, and a powerful sense of mutual respect had deepened between them. Which probably helped explain the pained, disbelieving look of—well, betrayal wasn't quite the right word, but it was close— Hofschulte gave him now.


"I'm not sure whose idea it was," Griggs went on after a moment. "My impression from Colonel Reynolds is that it was Her Majesty herself, but it sounds to me more like something the Princess would have come up with."


"Her, or maybe Zilwicki," Hofschulte said darkly. "The man's a professional spook, Sir. God only knows how twisty his mind's gotten over the years!"


"No, I don't think it was him," Griggs disagreed. "As you say, he's a professional spook. And a father. I don't see a man as protective as he's supposed to be exposing his daughter to risk this way. Not if it was his own idea, that is.


"Not that it matters who thought it up," he continued more briskly. "What matters is that it's up to us to make it work."


"Let me get this straight, Sir," Hofschulte said. "We're haring off to Erewhon as the Princess' protective detail, but we're supposed to look like we're protecting Berry Zilwicki, who everyone else is going to think is the Princess?"


"Yep." Griggs smiled crookedly at her expression. "And don't forget how sensitive relations with Erewhon are at the moment. I'm sure they'll cooperate with our needs, but they're so pissed off with the Government at the moment that that cooperation's likely to be pretty grudging. And they aren't going to be impressed by our concerns about our proximity to Haven, either. Not after the way half of their voters figure the Star Kingdom was willing to throw away the entire Alliance for purely domestic political advantages."


Hofschulte nodded, but her expression was a bit uncomfortable. True, the Queen's Own's loyalty was to the Crown and the Constitution, not to the office of the Prime Minister or to the current government of the Star Kingdom. The regiment's personnel were charged with keeping the monarch and the members of her family alive, at any cost, and they were expected to discuss the parameters of their mission with complete frankness and thoroughness. Which included calling a spade a spade when the stupidity of the government of the day's policies threatened to complicate the primary mission. Still . . .


"Do you seriously expect them to drag their feet, Sir?" she asked more seriously, and Griggs shrugged.


"Not really," he said. "What I do expect, though, is that they're not going to go out of their way to extend additional cooperation the way they did when Princess Ruth's father visited Erewhon during the war." He shrugged again. "Hard to blame them, really. Even leaving aside the way we've stomped all over their toes in the last three or four T-years, the Princess is a lot less likely a target than the Duke was, and the threat environment should be a lot less extreme than it was then."


He and Hofschulte looked at one another grimly, remembering the many friends and colleagues who'd died aboard the royal yacht during the attempt to assassinate the Queen on her state visit to Grayson.


"Well, that's true enough, anyway, Sir," Hofschulte agreed after a moment. "On the other hand, the Duke wasn't the Princess, if you'll pardon my saying so. He was a hell of a lot easier to protect than she's likely to be."


"I know," Griggs agreed glumly. Actually, Ruth was normally quite popular with the royal family's protective details. Everyone liked her a great deal, and she was always cheerful and—like most Wintons, whether by birth or adoption—never snotty to the uniformed people responsible for keeping her alive. Unfortunately, the detail also knew all about the princess' ambition to pursue a career in espionage. Anton Zilwicki's presence gave a certain added emphasis to that ambition, and hobnobbing with Anti-Slavery League activists in a situation as politically complex as the Stein funeral was likely to prove was not something any sane bodyguard commander wanted to contemplate. Worse yet—


"How old did you say Ms. Zilwicki is, Sir?" Hofschulte asked, and Griggs chuckled sourly at the proof that her thoughts were paralleling his own.


"Seventeen, actually," he said, and watched the sergeant wince.


"Wonderful . . . Sir," she muttered. "I'd kind of hoped she might, ah, exercise a restraining influence on the Princess," she added rather forlornly.


"It would be nice if someone would," Griggs agreed. Ruth Winton was a perfectly nice young woman, with an exquisite innate sense of courtesy. She had also, by dint of the way the royal family had closed ranks to protect her and her own intense concentration on the subjects of special interest to her, led a very sheltered existence. She was, in many ways, what an earlier age would have called a nerd. A brilliant, talented, well educated, incredibly competent and well-adjusted nerd, but a nerd and—also in many ways—unusually young for her age.


And no one who knew her could possibly doubt even for a moment that she was already busily plotting and scheming to make the most of her escape from Mount Royal Palace to someplace as . . . interesting as Erewhon.


The only real difference between her and the Zilwicki girl is that the extra six T-years have probably only made her even sneakier and more cunning when it comes to evading restrictions, he thought glumly. They certainly haven't done anything to dull her sense of adventure. Damn it.


"Well, at least we'll have Zilwicki along to help ride herd on both of them," he observed in a voice of determined cheer.


"Oh, that makes me feel lots better, Sir," Hofschulte snorted. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't he the guy who went out and hunted up the Audubon Ballroom when he needed a little extracurricular muscle?"


"Well, yes," Griggs admitted.


"Wonderful," Hofschulte repeated, and shook her head. But then, suddenly, she grinned.


"At least it won't be boring, Sir."


"Boredom is certainly one thing we won't have to worry about," Griggs agreed with another chuckle. "Actually, I think we're all going to deserve the Spitting Kitty for this one, Sergeant. Riding herd on the Princess, a seventeen-year-old pretending to be the Princess, an ASL intellectual, and the Star Kingdom's most notorious ex-spook, all in the middle of a three-ring circle like the Stein funeral on a planet like Erewhon?" He shook his head. "Spitting Kitty time for sure."


"I hope not, Sir!" Hofschulte replied with a laugh.


The "Spitting Kitty" was the Queen's Own's nickname for the Adrienne Cross. The medal had been created by Roger II to honor members of the Queen's Own who risked—or lost—their own lives to save the life of a member of the royal family other than the monarch herself. The cross bore the snarling image of a treecat (rumor said that then-Crown Princess Adrienne's own 'cat, Dianchect, had sat as the model), and eleven people had won it in the two hundred and fifty T-years since it was created. Nine of the awards had been posthumous. Of course, the lieutenant reflected, this trip wasn't really going to kill them all. It was just going to make them feel that way.


"Oh, well," he said finally. "I guess it could be worse. We could be taking Princess Joanna along, as well. Think what that would be like."


They looked at one another, each envisioning what the inclusion of the Queen's younger daughter would have done to the already frightening mix, and shuddered in perfect unison.


 


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