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Chapter Eighteen

At least the chair was comfortable.


That was more important than one might think, for Honor had spent at least eight hours a day in it for the last month, and the fatigue was building up. Grayson's twenty-six-plus-standard hour day was a bit long, even for her. The Sphinx day she'd been born to might be barely an hour shorter, but she'd spent the last three decades using Navy clocks matched to the twenty-three-hour day of the Star Kingdom's capital world. Not that she could honestly blame her present weariness on the length of the day.


She looked to her left, narrowing her eyes against the brilliant morning sun spilling in through the windows as the door closed behind her latest visitor. Her steadholder's mansion was overly luxurious for her tastes, especially in a new steading with a strained budget, but her own quarters occupied only a tiny portion of Harrington House's total space. The rest was given up to bureaucratic offices, electronic and hardcopy files, communications centers, and all the other paraphernalia of government.


James MacGuiness, on the other hand, clearly regarded the magnificence as no more than her due, and, unlike her, he seemed delighted with the pomp and circumstance which had come her way. The Grayson servants accepted him as their mistress's official majordomo, and he'd shown an unanticipated talent for managing a staff which seemed entirely too large to Honor. He'd also seen to it Nimitz had a proper perch in her office, arranged to catch the maximum amount of sunlight. At the moment, the 'cat was sprawled comfortably along that perch, all six limbs dangling in utter contentment while he basked in the golden warmth.


She gazed at him in frank envy, then tipped her huge, thronelike armchair back, resting one foot on the hassock hidden under her enormous desk, and pinched the bridge of her nose. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, and a soft chuckle from her right made her turn her head in the other direction.


Howard Clinkscales sat behind a smaller desk with an even larger data terminal. His desk was turned at right angles to hers so that they both faced the center of the vast, paneled room, and she hadn't been too sure about the arrangement in the beginning. She wasn't used to having her exec in the same office with her, but it worked far better than she'd feared, and his presence had been invaluable. He knew every detail of her steading, and, like any skilled exec, he was always ready with the facts his CO required.


"Tired so soon, My Lady?" he asked now, shaking his head in half-mocking reproval. "It's barely ten o'clock!"


"At least I don't yawn in front of them," she said with a grin.


"True, My Lady. At least, you haven't done so yet."


Honor stuck out her tongue, and Clinkscales laughed. She wouldn't have bet a Manticoran cent on the chance of her regent's actually becoming a friend. Mutual respect, yes; she would have expected that, and been content with it, as well. But their intense cooperation over the past weeks had produced something much closer and warmer.


If it surprised her, it must have been even more surprising for him. He'd resigned command of the entire Planetary Security Force to assume the regency of Harrington Steading, which he might easily have seen as a demotion. Nor should his opposition to at least half Protector Benjamin's social initiatives have made him any happier to work with—and for—the woman who'd provoked those changes. On top of which, he didn't really seem to have changed his own attitudes towards women in general by one iota.


None of which seemed to have any bearing where Honor was concerned. He never forgot she was a woman, and he treated her with all the exaggerated courtesy the Grayson code demanded, but he gave her the deference due any steadholder, as well. At first, she'd thought there might be a bit of irony in that, but she'd been wrong. So far as she could tell, he accepted her right to her position without even hidden reservations. More than that, he seemed to approve of her performance, and he'd even loosened up with her in private. He was unfailingly courteous, yes, but he'd come to treat her with a comfortable give and take that seemed decidedly odd in a man of such traditional leanings.


She checked her desk chrono. They had a few minutes before her next appointment, and she turned her chair to face him fully.


"Howard, would you mind if I asked you something a bit personal?"


"Personal, My Lady?" Clinkscales tugged at an earlobe. "Certainly you can ask. Of course," he smiled wryly, "if it's too personal, I can always choose not to answer."


"I suppose you can, at that," Honor agreed. She paused a moment, trying to think of a tactful way to phrase it, then decided there was no point. Clinkscales was as blunt and direct as she was, which probably meant it would be best simply to plunge right in and ask.


"I was just wondering how we work so well together," she said. His eyebrows rose, and she shrugged. "You know as well as I do how heavily I depend on your advice. I think I'm learning, but all of this is totally new to me. Without your guidance, I'd probably make a complete hash out of it; as it is, I think things are going quite well. I appreciate your help tremendously, but I also know you're going a lot further than the letter of your regent's oath requires, and sometimes that seems a little odd to me. I know you don't really approve of a lot of what's happening on Grayson, and I'm—well, I suppose Protector Benjamin was right when he called me a symbol of those changes. You could have made things a lot harder on me by just doing the job you promised to do and letting me learn things the hard way, and no one could have faulted you for it. I can't help wondering why you haven't."


"Because you're my Steadholder, My Lady," Clinkscales said.


"Is that the only reason?"


"It's enough of one." Clinkscales pursed his lips, fingers toying with the smaller, silver steadholder's key he wore around his neck, then gave his head a little toss. "In all honesty, however, the way you've tackled your responsibilities has something to do with it, as well. You could have settled for a figurehead role, My Lady; instead, you're working ten and twelve-hour days learning to be a real steadholder. I respect that."


"Even in a woman?" Honor asked softly.


He met her eyes and raised one hand in a small warding gesture.


"I shudder to think what you might do if I were to say 'especially in a woman,' My Lady." His tone was so droll Honor chuckled, and he smiled briefly, then sobered.


"On the other hand, My Lady, I understand what you're really asking." He tipped his own chair back with a sigh, resting his elbows on its arms and folding his hands across his middle. "I've never hidden my convictions from the Protector or from you, Lady Harrington," he said slowly. "I think the Protector is pushing his changes too rapidly, and they make me . . . uncomfortable. Our traditions have served us well, over the centuries. They may not be perfect, but at least we survived following them, and that's quite an accomplishment on a world like this. More than that, I believe most of our people—including our women—were content with the old ways. I certainly was. Of course, I'm also a man, which may affect my perceptions a bit."


Honor's right eyebrow curved at the admission, and he chuckled sourly.


"I'm not blind to the privileged position I held, My Lady, but I don't think that necessarily invalidates my judgment, nor do I see any reason why every world in the galaxy has to ape social patterns which may or may not suit it. And, to be perfectly frank, I don't think Grayson women are ready for the demands the Protector is placing upon them. Leaving aside the question of innate capability—which, I'm surprised to say, is easier to do since I began working with you than I once expected it to be—they don't have the training for it. I suspect many of them will be desperately unhappy trying to adjust to the changes. I shudder whenever I think about the consequences for our traditional family life, and it's not easy for the Church to make the transition, either. Besides, deep down inside I can't put aside an entire lifetime of thinking one way and start thinking another way just because someone tells me to."


Honor nodded slowly. The first time she'd met Howard Clinkscales, she'd thought he was a dinosaur, and perhaps he was. But there was nothing apologetic or even particularly defensive in his tone or manner. He didn't like the changes about him, yet he hadn't responded to them as the unthinking reactionary she'd once thought him, either.


"But whether or not I agree with everything Protector Benjamin does, he is my Protector," Clinkscales went on, "and a majority of the steadholders support him, as well." He shrugged. "Perhaps my doubts will prove unfounded if the new system works. Perhaps they'll even make it work better, by making me a little more aware of the sensibilities we're treading upon—cushioning the blows, as it were. Either way, I have a responsibility to do the best I can. If I can preserve worthwhile parts of our tradition along the way, I will, but I take my oath to Protector Benjamin—and to you, My Lady—seriously."


He fell silent for a moment, but Honor felt something more waiting to be said and let the stillness rest unbroken until he said it. Several seconds passed, and then he cleared his throat.


"In the meantime, My Lady, I may as well add that you aren't a Grayson by birth. By adoption, yes. You're one of our own now; even many of those who most resent the changes around them think of you that way. But you weren't born one. You don't act like a Grayson woman, and the Protector was right in more ways than one when he called you a symbol. You're proof that women can be—and, on other worlds, are—fully as capable as men. There was a time when I was ready to hate you for what's happened to Grayson, but that would be like hating water for being wet. You are what you are, My Lady. Someday—perhaps far sooner than an old reactionary like me believes possible—Grayson may produce women like you. In the meantime, I've never met a man with a stronger sense of duty, nor have I met one more capable or hardworking. Which means no old-fashioned chauvinist like me can let you prove that you're more capable or hardworking than I am. Besides," he shrugged again, and this time his smile was completely natural, if just a bit sheepish, "I like you, My Lady."


Honor's eyes softened. He sounded as if the admission had surprised even him, and she shook her head.


"I only wish I didn't feel like a fish out of water so much of the time. I have to keep reminding myself I'm not in the Star Kingdom anymore. Grayson etiquette baffles me. I don't think I'll ever really get used to the idea of being a steadholder, and figuring out how to avoid stepping on people's sensibilities while I do it is even harder."


She was as surprised to hear herself admit that as Clinkscales might have been to admit his liking to her, but he only smiled again.


"You seem to be doing well enough to me, My Lady. You have the habit of command, but I've never seen you act without thinking or give a capricious order to anyone."


"Oh, that." Honor waved a hand, mildly embarrassed and highly pleased by his comment. "I just fall back on my Navy experience. I like to think I'm a pretty fair starship commander, and I guess it shows." Clinkscales nodded, and she shrugged. "But that's the easy part. Learning to be a Grayson is hard, Howard. There's more to it than just putting on a dress—" she indicated the gown she wore "—and making the right command decisions."


Clinkscales cocked his head and regarded her thoughtfully.


"May I give you a word of advice, My Lady?" Honor nodded, and he tugged at his ear once more. "Then I'd advise you not to try. Just be yourself. No one could fault the job you're doing, and trying to make yourself over into a 'proper' Grayson while we're all busy trying to redefine 'proper' anyway would be pointless. Besides, your holders like you just the way you are."


Both of Honor's eyebrows flew up in surprise, and he laughed.


"Before you took your seat in the Conclave, some of your people were worried about what would happen with 'that foreign woman' holding steading over them. Now that they're getting to know you, they're rather proud of your, um, eccentricities. This steading's been attracting people who were more eager than most for change from the beginning, My Lady; now a lot of them seem to hope some of your attitudes will rub off on them."


"Are you serious?" Honor demanded.


"Quite. In fact—"


Honor's chrono beeped, announcing the imminent arrival of her next caller, and Clinkscales cut himself off. He glanced down at his own data screen, then shook his head wryly.


"This should be interesting, My Lady. Your next appointment is with the engineer I mentioned to you."


Honor nodded and straightened her own chair as the quiet knock on the door came—exactly on schedule.


"Enter," she called, and an armsmen in the green-on-green colors she'd chosen for her steading opened the door to admit the engineer in question.


He was a young man, and there was something vaguely untidy about him. Not slovenly, and no one could have been more painfully clean, but he seemed uncomfortable in his formal clothing. He would, she thought, have looked far more natural in coveralls, festooned with micro-comps and the other tools of his trade, and his nervousness was palpable as he hesitated in the doorway.


"Come in, Mr. Gerrick." She put as much reassurance into her voice as she could and stood behind her desk, extending a hand in welcome. Protocol called for her to remain seated throughout, as befitted her high office, but she couldn't—not when the youthful engineer looked so unsure of himself.


Gerrick blushed scarlet and scurried across the office, covered with all too obvious confusion, and it occurred to her that he'd probably boned up on the way things ought to go. Well, it was too late for that, and she smiled and left her hand out as he came to a halt before her desk.


He paused a moment, then reached out hesitantly, as if unsure whether to shake her hand or kiss it. She solved his quandary by grasping his firmly, and some of his uncertainty seemed to flow away. He smiled back—shyly—and returned her grip with something like assurance.


"Sit down, Mr. Gerrick." She pointed at the chair before her desk, and he obeyed the gesture quickly, clutching his briefcase in his lap with a residue of his original nervousness. "Lord Clinkscales tells me you're one of my senior engineers," she went on, "and that you have some special project you wish to discuss with me?"


Gerrick blushed again, as if he felt calling him a senior engineer might be a veiled irony, given his obvious youth, but she only waited, hands folded on her blotter. Her attentive expression must have reassured him, because he drew a deep breath and nodded.


"Yes, My Lady, I do." He spoke quickly, but his voice was deeper than his undeniable scrawniness might have suggested.


"Then, tell me about it," Honor invited, leaning back in her chair, and he cleared his throat.


"Well, My Lady, I've been studying applications of the new materials the Alliance has made available to us here." He ended on a slight upward note, as if asking a question, and she nodded in understanding. "Some of them are quite remarkable," Gerrick went on with greater confidence. "In fact, I've been particularly impressed by the possibilities of the new crystoplast."


He paused, and Honor rubbed the tip of her nose. Crystoplast wasn't really all that new, though it might be to a Grayson engineer. The armorplast routinely used in spacecraft was far more advanced; in fact, it had relegated the cheaper crystoplast almost exclusively to civilian industry, where design tolerances could be traded off against cost savings, and it took her a moment to fix the differences between the two of them in her mind.


"All right, Mr. Gerrick," she said. "I'm with you. May I assume this project of yours employs crystoplast?"


"Yes, My Lady." Gerrick leaned forward, the last of his nervousness fading as eagerness took over. "We've never had anything with that much tensile strength—not on Grayson. It offers a whole new range of possibilities for enviro engineering. Why, we could dome whole towns and cities with it!"


Honor nodded in sudden understanding. Grayson's heavy metal concentrations made simple atmospheric dust an all too real danger. Provision for internal over-pressure and filtration systems were as routine in Grayson building codes as roofs were on other planets, and public structures—like Protector's Palace, or her own steadholder's mansion—were built under climate-controlled domes as a matter of course.


She rubbed her nose again, then glanced at Clinkscales. The regent was watching Gerrick with a slight smile, one that mingled approval with a hint of waiting for the other shoe to drop, and she turned back to the engineer.


"I imagine you're right, Mr. Gerrick. And, under the circumstances, I suppose Harrington Steading would be a good place to start doing it. We could incorporate city domes from the ground up, as it were, couldn't we?"


"Yes, My Lady. But that's not all we could do. We could build entire farms under crystoplast!"


"Farms?" Honor asked in some surprise, and Gerrick nodded firmly.


"Yes, My Lady. Farms. I've got the cost projections here—" he started digging into his briefcase, his face alight with eagerness "—and once we take long-term operational expenses into consideration, production costs would be much lower than in the orbital habitats. We could cut transportation costs, too, and—"


"Just a moment, Adam," Clinkscales interrupted with surprising gentleness. Gerrick looked quickly at the regent, and Clinkscales gave a slight headshake as he turned to Honor.


"I've seen Adam's—Mr. Gerrick's—figures, My Lady, and he's quite right. His domes would provide a marked decrease over the orbital farms in cost-per-yield. Unfortunately, our farmers are a bit . . . traditional, shall we say?" His eyes twinkled at his own choice of words, and Honor hid a smile. "So far, Adam hasn't been able to interest anyone with the capital for it in funding his project."


"Ah." Honor leaned further back in understanding, and Gerrick watched her anxiously. "Just what sort of costs are we looking at here?"


"I've designed and costed a six-thousand-hectare demonstration project, My Lady." Gerrick swallowed, as if expecting her to protest the size, and went on quickly. "Anything much smaller than that would be too little to prove the concept to the agri-corporations, and—"


"I understand," Honor said gently. "Just give me the figure."


"Ten million austins, My Lady," the engineer said in a small voice.


Honor nodded. Given the current exchange rate, Gerrick was talking about a seven-and-a-half-million-Manticoran-dollar price tag. That was a bit steeper than she'd thought, but—


"I realize that's high, My Lady," Gerrick said, "but part of it's the original soil decontamination cost, and we'd have to work out a lot of hardware for the pilot project, too. Not just the air cleaners, but water distillation, irrigation systems, contamination monitors. . . . That drives costs up, but once we get all of it down the first time and start mass production, the amortization over follow-on projects would—"


He reined himself in, gripping his briefcase painfully tight, as Honor raised a gentle hand and glanced at Clinkscales.


"Howard? Can we afford it?"


"No, My Lady." There was genuine regret in the regent's voice, and he smiled compassionately at Gerrick as the engineer sagged. "I wish we could. I believe other steadings would buy into the idea if we demonstrated its practicality, and The Tester knows we could use an export industry. If we made the initial investment to produce the crystoplast and support machinery—not just for farms, but for the city domes Adam's suggested—we'd be in a position to dominate the field, at least initially. That would mean jobs and the revenues to go with them, not to mention a head start on domes of our own. Unfortunately, we're too deeply committed to other projects. It's going to be at least another year—probably two—before we could fund Adam's."


Gerrick sagged further. He made a valiant effort to hide his disappointment, and Honor shook her head.


"If we wait that long, one of the other steadings is likely to get in first, traditional opposition or not," she pointed out. "If that happens, we'll be in the position of buying the technology from someone else."


"Agreed, My Lady. That's why I wish we could afford to do it now, but I simply don't see a way we can."


"What about the Privy Purse?" Honor asked. Gerrick brightened at the sign of her interest, but Clinkscales shook his head again.


"We're already heavily committed there, My Lady, and even if you withdraw no personal income from it, it would only increase our funding resources by two or three million a year."


"Could we underwrite loans for it?"


"We're close to our credit limits already, My Lady. A private commercial investment would work, but until we pay down some of our start-up costs, our public borrowing capacity is limited. Much as I would like to see Adam's project tried, I can't advocate further public sector borrowing. We have to maintain some reserve against emergencies."


"I see." Honor drew invisible circles on her blotter with her forefinger, feeling Gerrick's eyes on her while she frowned in thought. Clinkscales was right about their fiscal position. Grayson was a poor planet, and the costs of establishing a new steading were enormous. If she'd known about Gerrick's idea, she would cheerfully have waived the construction of Harrington House, despite Clinkscales' argument that it had been an unavoidable necessity, if only as the steading's administrative center. As it was, Harrington Steading was in the black, barely, for the first time in the two local years since its founding, and that wasn't going to last.


She looked back up, then shook her head.


"Forget about the Privy Purse, then," she said. "And while I'm thinking about it, Howard, make a note that I want all of my income reinvested. I don't need the money, and the steading does."


"Yes, My Lady." Clinkscales sounded both surprised and gratified, and Honor cocked her head at Gerrick.


"As for you, Mr. Gerrick, how would you like a partnership with an off-worlder?"


"An off-worlder, My Lady?" Gerrick looked puzzled. "What off-worlder?"


"Me," Honor said simply, and laughed at his dumbfounded expression.


"It happens, Mr. Gerrick, that I'm a modestly wealthy woman back in the Star Kingdom. If you want to build your demonstration project, I'll bankroll it."


"You will?!" Gerrick stared at her in disbelief, and she nodded.


"I certainly will. Howard," she looked back at Clinkscales once more, "Mr. Gerrick is about to submit a letter of resignation to the steading. At the same time you accept it—with regrets, of course—I want you to draw up a permit for a privately held corporation called, um, Grayson Sky Domes, Ltd. Mr. Gerrick will go on salary as chief engineer and development officer, with a suitable salary and a thirty percent interest. I'll be chairman of the board, and you'll be our CEO, with another twenty percent interest. My agent on Manticore will be our chief financial officer, and I'll have him cut a check immediately for a few million austins for start-up costs."


"Are—are you serious, My Lady?" Gerrick blurted.


"I am, indeed." She rose again, extending her hand once more. "Welcome to the private sector, Mr. Gerrick. Now go out there and make it work."


* * *


Yeltsin's Star had long since set, but Honor and Clinkscales had hardly noticed as they worked through their demanding schedule. Nimitz was on the corner of Honor's blotter now, amusing himself by dismantling an old-style stapler, when she finally pushed back her chair with a sigh.


"I know we're not done yet, Howard, but I've got to take a break. Will you and your wives join Nimitz and me for supper?"


"Is it that—?" Clinkscales checked his desk chrono and shook himself. "I see it is that late, My Lady. And, yes, we'd be honored to join you. Assuming," he regarded her suspiciously, "that your steward promises not to serve fried squash again." He shuddered in memory, for Manticoran squash was subtly different from the vegetable of the same name on Grayson, and he'd suffered a violent allergic reaction when MacGuiness introduced him to it.


"No squash," Honor promised with a smile. "I don't know what's on the menu, but Mac and I took that off it for the rest of our stay here. In fact, he's been taking lessons in local cuisine, and—"


A buzz from her com console interrupted her, and she grimaced.


"I may have invited you too soon," she muttered, and pressed the acceptance key.


"Yes?"


"I'm sorry to disturb you, Ma'am," a Manticoran voice said.


"I was about to com you, Mac. What is it?"


"We've just received word from Air Traffic, Ma'am. There's an inbound pinnace, ETA twelve minutes." Honor's eyebrows rose. The arrival of a pinnace, especially this late in the evening, was unusual to say the least. And why was MacGuiness informing her of its arrival instead of her Grayson security chief?


"A pinnace? Not an aircar?"


"No, Ma'am. A pinnace . . . from HMS Agni. I understand Captain Henke is aboard in person," MacGuiness added.


Honor stiffened. Agni here? The Manticoran element might explain why Mac was making the call instead of Colonel Hill, but why hadn't Mike written to warn her she was headed for Yeltsin's Star? For that matter, why come down in a pinnace instead of screening her from orbit? If Agni was in small craft range of Grayson, she could have sent a message on ahead hours ago.


"Did Captain Henke say anything about why she's here?"


"No, Ma'am. All I have is an official request for immediate access to you. Your security force passed it to me for clearance."


"Clear it at once," Honor said. "I'll be in my office."


"Yes, Ma'am." MacGuiness cut the circuit, and Honor sat back in her chair with a pensive frown.


* * *


Someone rapped once, lightly, on the office door, then opened it without awaiting permission. It was Michelle Henke, with James MacGuiness at her heels instead of the regular Grayson armsman.


"Mike!" Honor cried in delight, and started around her desk, both hands extended. She expected Henke to grin at the absurd sight of Honor Harrington in a Grayson gown, but she didn't. She only stared at her, her face that of a woman who'd just taken a pulser dart, and Honor came to a stop, hands falling to her sides, and braced her shoulders in sudden, formless dread.


"Honor." Her name came out in a tight, painful parody of Henke's normal tone, and Honor reached for her link to Nimitz. Reached for it and gasped at the anguish writhing behind Henke's tormented face. Her emotions were too intense, too painful, for Honor to sort out, but they hit Nimitz like a club. The dismantled stapler thudded to the floor as he rose up, ears flattened against his skull, and hissed in sibilant challenge, and Honor reached out again in quick compassion, stunned by the ferocity of her friend's pain.


"What is it, Mike?" She forced her voice to remain level and gentle. "Why didn't you screen me?"


"Because—" Henke drew a deep breath. "Because I had to tell you in person." Each word seemed to cost her physical agony, and she ignored Honor's hands to grip her shoulders.


"Tell me what?" Honor wasn't frightened yet. There hadn't been time, and she was too concerned for her friend.


"Honor, it's—" Henke drew another breath, then pulled her close, hugging her fiercely. "Paul was challenged to a duel," she whispered into Honor's shoulder. "He— Oh, God, Honor! He's dead!"


 


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