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Chapter Four

Lord Prestwick and Lord Clinkscales, Your Grace," the secretary said, and Benjamin Mayhew IX, by God's Grace Planetary Protector of Grayson and Defender of the Faith, tipped back in the comfortable chair behind the utilitarian desk from which he ruled Grayson as his Chancellor stepped through the door the secretary politely held open.

"Good morning, Henry," the Protector said.

"Good morning, Your Grace," Henry Prestwick replied, and moved aside to allow the fierce-faced, white-haired old man who had accompanied him to enter. The second guest carried a slender, silver-headed staff and wore a silver steadholder's key on a chain about his neck, and Benjamin nodded to him in greeting.

"Howard," he said in a much softer voice. "Thank you for coming."

The old man only nodded back almost curtly. From anyone else, that would have been a mortal insult to Benjamin Mayhew's personal and official dignity, but Howard Clinkscales was eighty-four T-years old, and sixty-seven of those years had been spent in the service of Grayson and the Mayhew Dynasty. He had served three generations of Mayhews during that time, and, until his resignation eight and a half T-years before, had personally commanded the Planetary Security Forces which had guarded Benjamin himself from babyhood. And even if he hadn't, Benjamin thought sadly, I'd cut him all the slack there was right now. He looks . . . terrible.

He hid his thoughts behind a calm, welcoming expression and waved a hand for his guests to be seated. Clinkscales glanced at Prestwick for a moment, then took an armchair beside the coffee table while the Chancellor sat on the small couch flanking the Protector's desk.

"Coffee, Howard?" Benjamin offered while the secretary hovered. Clinkscales shook his head, and Benjamin glanced at Prestwick, who shook his head in turn. "Very well. You can go, Jason," he told the secretary. "See to it that we're not disturbed, please."

"Of course, Your Grace." The secretary bobbed brief but respectful bows to each guest, then a deeper one to Benjamin, and exited, closing the old-fashioned manual door of polished wood quietly behind him. The soft click of its latch seemed thunderous in the silent office, and Benjamin pursed his lips as he gazed at Clinkscales.

The old man's unyielding, weathered face had become a fortress against the universe, and loss had carved deep new lines in it, like river water eroding bedrock. There was grief behind the old eyes—an angry, furious grief, its expression chained and restrained by sheer strength of will yet seething with power . . . and pain. Benjamin understood not only the sorrow but the anger and the pain, as well, and he'd wanted to give Clinkscales time to deal with them in his own way. But he could wait no longer.

And even if I could have waited, I don't think he ever will "deal" with them on his own.

"I imagine you know why I asked you here, Howard," he said finally, breaking the silence at last. Clinkscales looked at him for a moment, then shook his head, still without speaking, and Benjamin felt his jaw tighten. Clinkscales had to know at least roughly what the Protector wanted, and the fact that he'd brought along the staff, which symbolized his duty as Regent of Harrington Steading, only confirmed that he'd guessed the reason for his summons. But it was as if by not admitting that consciously, even to himself, he could make that reason go away, cease to exist.

But he can't, Benjamin told himself grimly, and neither can I, and we both have duties. Damn it, I don't want to intrude on his grieving, but I can't let that weigh with me right now.

"I think you do know, Howard," he said after a moment, his voice very level, and dark color flushed Clinkscales' cheeks. "I deeply regret the events and considerations which require me to bring it up, yet I have no choice but to deal with them. And neither do you, My Lord Regent."

"I—" Clinkscales' head jerked at the title, as if recoiling from a blow. He looked at his Protector for a brief eternity, and then the fury waned in his eyes, leaving only the grief. In that instant he looked every day of his age, and his nostrils flared as he drew a deep, painful breath. "Forgive me, Your Grace," he said softly. "Yes. I . . . do know. Your Chancellor—" Clinkscales lips twitched in a brief parody of a smile as he nodded at his old friend and colleague "—has been prodding at me for weeks."

"I know." Benjamin's voice had softened as well, and he met Clinkscales' gaze levelly, hoping that the old man saw the matching pain and loss in his own eyes.

"Yes, well. . . ." Clinkscales looked away again, then straightened his shoulders and heaved himself up out of his chair. He took his staff in both hands, crossed to the desk, held it out before him on open palms, and spoke the formal phrases he had hoped never to have to speak.

"Your Grace," he said in a quiet voice, "my Steadholder has fallen, leaving no heir of her body. As her Steading was given into her hands from yours, so the responsibility to govern it in her absence was given into my hands from hers. But—" he paused, the formal legal phrases faltering, and closed his eyes for a moment before he could go on. "But she will never reclaim her Key from me again," he went on huskily, "and there is none other for whom I may guard it or to whom I may pass it. Therefore I return it to you, from whom it came by God's Grace, to hold in keeping for the Conclave of Steadholders."

He reached out, offering the staff, but Benjamin didn't take it. Instead, he shook his head, and Clinkscales' eyes widened. It was rare on Grayson for a steadholder to perish without leaving any heir, however indirect the line of succession. Indeed, it had only happened three times in the planet's thousand-year history—aside from the massacre of the Fifty-Three which had begun the Civil War . . . and the attainting of the Faithful which had concluded it. But the precedent was there, and Benjamin's refusal of the staff had thrown Harrington Steading's Regent completely off balance.

"Your Grace, I—" he began, then stopped himself and looked questioningly at Prestwick. The Chancellor only looked back, and Clinkscales returned his attention to the Protector.

"Sit back down, Howard," Benjamin said firmly, and waited until the old man had settled back into his chair, then smiled without humor. "I see you don't know exactly why I asked you to come by."

"I thought I did," Clinkscales said cautiously. "I didn't want to admit it, but I thought I knew. But if it wasn't to surrender my staff, then I have to admit I don't have the least damned idea what you're up to, Benjamin!"

Benjamin smiled again, this time with a touch of true amusement. The acerbic edge creeping into Clinkscales voice, like the use of his own given name, sounded much more like the irascible old unofficial uncle he'd known for his entire life.

"Obviously," he said dryly, and glanced at Prestwick. "Henry?" he invited.

"Of course, Your Grace." Prestwick looked at Clinkscales with something suspiciously like a grin and shook his head. "As you can see, Howard, His Grace intends to leave the scut work and the explanations up to me again."

"Explanations?"

"Um. Recapitulation, perhaps." Clinkscales' eyebrows rose, and Prestwick pursed his lips. "Our situation here may be a bit closer to unique than you actually realize, Howard," he said after a moment.

"Unusual, certainly," Clinkscales replied, "but surely not 'unique'! I discussed it at some length with Justice Kleinmeuller." His eyes darkened once more as memories of that discussion with Harrington Steading's senior jurist brought the fresh, bleeding pain back, and he swallowed, then shook his head like an angry old bear. "He explained the Strathson Steading precedent to me quite clearly, Henry. Lady Harrington—" he got the name out in an almost level voice "—left no heirs . . . and that means the Steading escheats to the Sword, just as Strathson did seven hundred years ago."

"Yes, and no," Prestwick said. "You see, she did leave heirs—quite a few of them, actually—if we want to look at it that way."

"Heirs? What heirs?" Clinkscales demanded. "She was an only child!"

"True. But the extended Harrington family is quite extensive . . . on Sphinx. She had dozens of cousins, Howard."

"But they're not Graysons," Clinkscales protested, "and only a Grayson can inherit a steadholder's key!"

"No, they're not Graysons. And that's what makes the situation complicated. Just as you discussed it with Justice Kleinmeuller, His Grace and I have discussed it with the High Court. And according to the Court, you're right: the Constitution clearly requires that the heir to any steading must be a citizen of Grayson. That, however, is largely because the Constitution never contemplated a situation in which a foreign citizen could stand in the line of succession for a steading. Or in which an off-worlder could have been made a steadholder in the first place, for that matter!"

"Lady Harrington was not an 'off-worlder'" Clinkscales said stiffly, eyes flashing with anger. "Whatever she may have been born, she—"

"Calm down, Howard," Benjamin said gently before the old man could work himself up into full-blown wrath. Clinkscales subsided, and Benjamin waved a hand in a brushing gesture. "I understand what you're saying, but she most certainly was an off-worlder when we offered her her steadholdership. Yes, yes. I know the situation was unprecedented—and, if I recall correctly, you were less than enthralled with it at the time, you stiff-necked, reactionary old dinosaur!"

Clinkscales blushed fiery red, and then, to his own immense surprise, he laughed. It wasn't much of a laugh, and it came out rusty and unpracticed sounding, but it was also his first real one in the two and a half months since he'd viewed Honor Harrington's execution, and he shook his head.

"That's true enough, Your Grace," he admitted. "But she became a Grayson citizen when she swore her Steadholder's Oath to you."

"Of course she did. And if I choose to use that as a precedent, then what I ought to do is send for her closest heir—her cousin Devon, isn't it, Henry?—and swear him in as her successor. After all, if we could make her a Grayson, we can make him one, as well."

"No!" Clinkscales jerked upright in his chair as the instant, instinctive protest burst from him, and Benjamin cocked his head at him, expression quizzical. The Regent flushed again, but he met his Protector's gaze steadily. He said nothing else for several seconds while he organized his thoughts, getting past instinct to reason. Then he spoke very carefully.

"Lady Harrington was one of ours, Your Grace, even before she swore her oath to you. She made herself ours when she foiled the Maccabean plot and then stopped that butcher Simmonds from bombarding Grayson. But this cousin—" He shook his head. "He may be a good and worthy man. Indeed, as Lady Harrington's cousin, that's precisely what I would expect him to be. But he's also a foreigner, and whatever his worth in other ways, he hasn't earned her Steading."

"'Earned,' Howard?" Benjamin flicked a hand. "Isn't that a rather high bar for him to have to clear? After all, how many steadholders' heirs 'earn' their Keys instead of simply inheriting them?"

"I didn't mean it that way," Clinkscales replied. He frowned in thought for another moment, then sighed. "What I meant, Your Grace, was that our people—our world—still have a great many stiff-necked, reactionary old dinosaurs. A lot of them sit in the Conclave of Steadholders, which would be bad enough if you laid this before them, but a lot more are common citizens. Many of them were uncomfortable with Lady Harrington as a steadholder, you know that at least as well as I do. But even the uncomfortable ones were forced to admit she'd earned her position . . . and their trust. My God, Benjamin—you gave her the swords to the Star of Grayson yourself!"

"I know that, Howard," Benjamin said patiently.

"Well how in the Tester's name is this—Devon, did you say?" Benjamin nodded, and the old man shrugged irritably. "All right, how is this Devon going to earn that same degree of trust? He'll certainly be seen as an off-worlder, and the people who felt 'uncomfortable' with Lady Harrington will feel one hell of a lot worse than that with him! And as for the real reactionaries, the ones who still hated and resented her for being an off-worlder—!"

Clinkscales threw up his hands, and Benjamin nodded gravely. He let no sign of it show, but he was privately delighted by the strength of the Regent's reaction. It was the strongest sign of life he'd shown in weeks, and it was obvious his brain was still working. He was following straight down the same chain of logic Benjamin and Prestwick had pursued, and the Protector gestured for him to continue.

"It would have been different if she'd had a son of her own," Clinkscales went on. "Even if he'd been born off world, he still would have been her son. It would have been better if he'd been born here on Grayson, of course, but the bloodline and order of succession would have been clear and unambiguous. But this—! I can't even begin to guess where this can of worms would take us if you laid it before the other Keys. And 'Mayhew Restoration' or not, you do realize you'd have no option but to lay it before the other steadholders, don't you?"

"Certainly, but—"

"But nothing, Benjamin," Clinkscales growled. "If you think you could get the hidebound faction in the Conclave to sign off on this, then all that fancy off-world schooling is getting in the way of your instincts again! By your own admission, you'd have to set a new—another new—constitutional precedent just to make it work! And whatever Mueller and his crew may have said to her face, they never really forgave her for being a foreigner, and a woman, and the spear point for your reforms. They'd never swallow another foreigner—and one who doesn't have the Star of Grayson!"

"If you'll let me finish a sentence, Howard," Benjamin said even more patiently, eyes glinting as the old, irascible Clinkscales reemerged completely once more, "I was trying to address that very point."

"You were?" Clinkscales regarded him narrowly, then sat back in his chair.

"Thank you. And, yes, you're absolutely right about how the other Keys would react to any decision of mine to pass the Harrington Key to an 'off-worlder.' And I don't know enough about this Devon Harrington to begin to predict what sort of steadholder he'd make, either. I understand he's a history professor, so he might do better than anyone would expect. But it might also mean that, as an academic, he's totally unprepared for the command responsibilities a steadholdership entails."

"Well, Lady Harrington was certainly prepared for that part of it," Prestwick murmured, and Benjamin snorted.

"That she was, Henry. That she most certainly was, Comforter keep her." He paused for a moment, eyes warm with memory now, and not dark with grief, then shook himself. "But getting back to Professor Harrington, there's the question of whether or not it ever even crossed his mind that he might inherit from her. Do we have a right to turn his entire life topsy-turvy? Even if we asked him to, would he accept the Key in the first place?"

"But if we don't offer it to him, we may open still another Pandora's Box," Prestwick said quietly. Clinkscales looked at him, and the Chancellor shrugged. "Under our treaty with Manticore, the Protectorship and the Star Kingdom are mutually pledged to recognize the binding nature of one another's contracts and domestic law—including things like marriage and inheritance laws. And under Manticoran law, Devon Harrington is Lady Harrington's heir. He's the one who will inherit her Manticoran title as Earl Harrington."

"And?" Clinkscales prompted when Prestwick paused.

"And if he does want the Harrington Key and we don't offer it to him, he might sue to force us to surrender it to him."

"Sue the Protector and the Conclave?" Clinkscales stared at him in disbelief, and the Chancellor shrugged.

"Why not? He could make an excellent case before our own High Court . . . and an even better one before the Queen's Bench. It would be interesting to see which venue he chose and how the case was argued, I suppose. But then, I imagine watching a bomb count down to detonation beside you is probably 'interesting' while the adventure lasts, too."

"But . . . but you're the Protector!" Clinkscales protested, turning back to his liege, and Benjamin shrugged.

"Certainly I am. But I'm also the man trying to reform the planet, remember? And if I'm going to insist that my steadholders give up their autonomy and abide by the Constitution, then I have to abide by it, as well. And the constitutional precedent on this point is unfortunately clear. I can be sued—not in my own person, but as Protector and head of state—to compel me to comply with existing law. And under the Constitution, treaties with foreign powers have the force of law." He shrugged again. "I don't really think a suit would succeed before our own High Court, given our existing inheritance laws, but it could drag on for years, and the effect on the reforms and possibly even on the war effort could be most unfortunate. Or he could sue in a Manticoran court, in which case he might well win and leave our government at odds with the Star Kingdom's while both of us are fighting for our lives against the Peeps. Not good, Howard. Not good at all."

"I agree," Clinkscales said, but his eyes were narrow again. He put the heel of his staff between his feet and grasped its shaft in both hands, leaning forward in his chair, while he regarded his Protector with suspicion. "I agree," he repeated, "but I also know you pretty well, Your Grace, and I feel something nasty coming. You've thought this through already, and you'd decided what you wanted to do before you ever summoned me, hadn't you?"

"Well . . . yes, actually," Benjamin admitted.

"Then spit it out, Your Grace," the old man commanded grimly.

"It's not complicated, Howard," Benjamin assured him.

"Will you please stop trying to 'prepare' me and get on with it?" Clinkscales growled, and added, "Your Grace," as an afterthought.

"All right. The solution is to transfer the Harrington Key to the Grayson who has the best claim on it . . . and the most experience in carrying it, at least by proxy," Benjamin said simply.

Clinkscales stared at him in utter silence for fifteen seconds, and then jerked to his feet.

"No! I was her Regent, Benjamin—only her Regent! I would never— It would— Damn it, she trusted me! I could never . . . never usurp her Key! That would—"

"Sit down, Howard!" Command cracked in Benjamin's voice for the first time, and the three words cut Clinkscales off in mid protest. He closed his mouth, still staring at the Protector, then sank back into his chair once more, and a fragile silence hovered.

"That's better," Benjamin said after a moment, so calmly it was almost shocking. "I understand your hesitation, Howard. Indeed, I expected it—which is the very reason I was trying to 'prepare' you, as you put it. But you wouldn't be 'usurping' anything. Tester, Howard! How many other men on Grayson have given the Sword half—even a tenth!—of the service you have? You're the best possible choice from almost every perspective. You've earned any honor I could bestow upon you in your own right, and you were Lady Harrington's Regent and the de facto Steadholder whenever her naval duty took her off-planet. She trusted you, and you know exactly what her plans and hopes were—who else can say that? And she loved you, Howard." Benjamin's voice softened, and a suspicious brightness glistened in Clinkscales' eye before the old man looked away. "I can't think of another man on Grayson whom she would rather have succeed her and look after her people for her."

"I—" Clinkscales began, only to stop and draw another deep breath. He kept his face turned away for several seconds, then made his eyes come back to meet his Protector's.

"You may be right," he said very quietly. "About how she felt, I mean. And I would gladly have 'looked after her people for her' to my dying day, Benjamin. But please don't ask this of me. Please."

"But, Howard—" Prestwick began persuasively, only to stop as Clinkscales raised a hand, silencing him with a gesture, and met Benjamin's gaze with infinite dignity.

"You are my Protector, Benjamin. I honor and respect you, and I will obey you in all lawful things, as is my duty. But please don't ask this of me. You said she loved me, and I hope she did, because the Intercessor knows I loved her, too. She was like a daughter to me, and I could never take her place, carry her Key, any more than a father can inherit from his son. Don't ask me to do that. It would be . . . wrong."

Silence hovered once more, and then Benjamin cleared his throat.

"Would you consider staying on as Regent, at least?"

"I would—so long as I was sure you weren't trying to ease me into something else," Clinkscales said, and Benjamin looked at Prestwick.

"Henry? Would that work?"

"In the short term, Your Grace?" The Chancellor pursed his lips once more. "Probably, yes. But in the long term?" He shook his head and held out both hands, palms uppermost, as he turned to Clinkscales. "If you don't formally accept the Key, then all we've done is defer the crisis, Howard. That by itself would probably be worthwhile, of course. If we could hold it off for another ten years or so, perhaps some of the tension would ease. We might not even have Haven and the war to worry about any longer. But until we have a legal, known, and accepted successor to the Harrington Key, this entire uncertainty will simply be hovering over our heads, waiting. And, forgive me, Howard, but you're not a young man, and ten years—"

He shrugged, and Clinkscales frowned unhappily.

"I know," he said. "I'm in decent shape for my age, but even with Manty medical support here on the planet now, I—"

He stopped, eyes abruptly wide, and Benjamin and Prestwick looked at one another. Prestwick started to speak again, but the Protector raised a hand, stopping him from interrupting whatever thought had suddenly struck Clinkscales, and then settled back in his own chair with an expression of intense curiosity. More than two full minutes passed, and then Clinkscales began to smile. He shook himself and made a small, apologetic gesture towards Benjamin.

"Forgive me, Your Grace," he said, "but I've just had an idea."

"So we noticed," Benjamin said so dryly the old man chuckled. "And just what idea would that have been?"

"Well, Your Grace, we do have another solution to our problem. One that would accord perfectly with out own law—and, I believe, with Manticore's—and keep the Key out of my hands, praise God fasting!"

"Indeed?" Protector and Chancellor exchanged glances, and then Benjamin quirked a polite eyebrow at Clinkscales. "And just what is this marvelous solution which has so far evaded myself, Henry, the High Court, and Reverend Sullivan?"

"Lady Harrington's mother is here on Grayson," Clinkscales replied.

"I'm aware of that, Howard," Benjamin said patiently, frowning at the apparent non sequitur. "I spoke to her day before yesterday about Lady Harrington's clinic and her genome project."

"Did you, Your Grace?" Clinkscales smiled. "She didn't mention it to me. But she did mention that she and Lady Harrington's father have decided to remain here on Grayson for at least the next several years. She said—" the old man's smile faded a bit around the edges "—that they'd decided that the best memorial they could give the Steadholder would be to bring Harrington Steading's medical standards up to the Star Kingdom's, so they'd like to move their practices here. And, of course, she herself is deeply committed to the genome project."

"I wasn't aware of their plans," Benjamin said after a moment, "but I don't really see that it changes anything, Howard. Surely you're not suggesting that we offer the Key to one of Lady Harrington's parents? They're not Grayson citizens, either, and the law is quite clear on the fact that parents can 'inherit' titles only when they revert to the parent through whom they passed in the first place, and that clearly isn't the case here. If you're about to insist that the Key pass through inheritance, then it has to go 'downstream' from the generation of its creation—which means a child, a sibling, or a cousin—and that brings us right back to Devon Harrington and our original mess!"

"Not necessarily, Your Grace." Clinkscales sounded almost smug, and Benjamin blinked.

"I beg your pardon?"

"You've given a great deal of thought to your reforms, Benjamin, but I think you've overlooked a glaringly obvious consequence of all the changes the Alliance has produced," Clinkscales told him. "Not surprisingly, probably. I'd certainly overlooked it—I suppose because I grew up on a planet without prolong and I'd finally gotten it through my head that the Steadholder was in her fifties. Which, of course, means that her parents have to be somewhere around my age."

"Prolong?" Benjamin suddenly sat up straight behind his desk, and Clinkscales nodded.

"Exactly. Her Key could pass to a sibling if she had one, but she doesn't. At the moment."

"Sweet Tester!" Prestwick murmured in something very like awe. "I never even considered that!"

"Nor I," Benjamin admitted, eyes narrow as he pondered furiously.

Howard's right, he thought. That possibility never even crossed my mind, and it should have. So what if Doctor Harrington—both Doctors Harrington—are in their eighties? Physically, Honor's mother is only in her early thirties. And even if they were too old to have children "naturally," we've got all of the Star Kingdom's medical science to draw on! We could have a child tubed, assuming the Harringtons were willing. And if the child were born here on Grayson, then he'd have Grayson citizenship whatever his parents' nationality may have been.

"It really would tie things up rather neatly, wouldn't it?" he said finally, his voice thoughtful.

"For that matter, there's another possibility entirely," Prestwick pointed out. Both of the others looked at him, and he shrugged. "I'm quite certain Lady Harrington's mother has samples of the Steadholder's genetic material, which means it would almost certainly be possible to produce a child of Lady Harrington's even at this date. Or even a direct clone, for that matter!"

"I think we'd better not start getting into those orbits," Benjamin cautioned. "Certainly not without consulting Reverend Sullivan and the Sacristy first, at any rate!" He shuddered at the mere thought of how the more conservative of his subjects might react to the Chancellor's musings. "Besides, a clone would probably only make matters worse. If I remember correctly—and I'm not certain I do, without looking it up—the Star Kingdom's legal code adheres to the Beowulf Life Sciences Code, just as the Solarian League's does."

"Which means?" Clinkscales asked, clearly intrigued by the notion.

"Which means, first of all, that it's completely illegal to use a dead individual's genetic material unless that individual's will or other legal declaration specifically authorized the use. And secondly, it means that a clone is a child of its donor parent or parents, with all the legal protections of any other sentient being, but it is not the same person, and posthumous cloning cannot be used to circumvent the normal laws of inheritance."

"You mean that if Lady Harrington had had herself cloned before her death, then her clone would legally have been her child and could have inherited her title, but that if we have her cloned now, the child couldn't inherit?" Prestwick said, and Benjamin nodded.

"That's exactly what I mean, although it's also possible—and legal—for someone to stipulate in his will that he be cloned following his death and that his posthumous clone inherit. But no one can make that decision for him, which would be essentially what we would be doing if we decided to clone Lady Harrington at this point to solve our difficulties. And if you think about it, there's some sound reasoning behind the prohibition. For example, suppose some unscrupulous relative managed to arrange the death of someone like Klaus Hauptman or Lady Harrington without getting caught. And then that same relative had his victim cloned and himself appointed as the clone child's guardian, thus controlling the Hauptman Cartel—or Harrington Steading—until the clone attained his majority and inherited? And that doesn't even consider the sticky question of when a will would properly be probated! I mean, if a second party could legally produce a posthumous duplicate of the person who wrote the will, would that duplicate's existence supersede the will? Would the clone be entitled to sue those to whom 'his' estate had already legally been distributed—in exact accordance with his 'own' legally written and witnessed directions—for recovery of assets? The ramifications could go on and on forever."

"I see." Prestwick rubbed the end of his nose, then nodded. "All right, I do see that. And it probably wouldn't be a bad idea for us to quietly insert that Beowulf code into our own law, Your Grace, since we now have access to medical science which would make something like that possible. But how would that effect a child born to the Steadholder's parents after her death?"

"It wouldn't," Clinkscales said positively. "The precedents are clear on that point, Henry, and they go back almost to the Founding. It's unusual, of course, and I suppose that to be absolutely legal, the Key should pass to Devon Harrington until such time as Lady Harrington's parents produce a child, but then the Steading would revert to her sibling. In fact, I think there was actually an example of that from your own family history, Your Grace. Remember Thomas the Second?"

"Tester!" Benjamin smacked himself on the forehead. "How did I forget that one?"

"Because it happened five centuries ago, I imagine," Clinkscales told him dryly.

"And because Thomas isn't exactly someone we Mayhews like to remember," Benjamin agreed.

"Every family has its black sheep, Your Grace," Prestwick said.

"I suppose so," Benjamin said. "But not every family has someone who probably had his own brother assassinated to inherit the Protectorship!"

"That was never proven, Your Grace," Clinkscales pointed out.

"Right. Sure!" Benjamin snorted.

"It wasn't," Clinkscales said more firmly. "But the point is that Thomas was actually named Protector . . . until his nephew was born."

"Yeah," Benjamin said. "And if he'd known one of his brother's wives was pregnant and Dietmar Yanakov hadn't smuggled her out of the Palace, his nephew never would have been born, either!"

"That's as may be, Your Grace," Prestwick said austerely. "But what matters is that it created a firm precedent in our own law for what Howard is suggesting."

"I should certainly hope that a six-year dynastic war could at least establish a 'firm' precedent!" Benjamin observed.

"Your Grace, it may amuse you to dwell on the misdeeds of one of your ancestors, but it really doesn't amuse us," Prestwick told him.

"All right. All right, I'll be good," Benjamin promised, then sat for a moment, drumming on his desk while he thought. "Of course," he went on after a moment, "Thomas' sister-in-law was already pregnant when her husband died, but didn't the same thing happen with the original Garth Steading?"

"Not precisely, although that was the original precedent I was thinking of," Clinkscales agreed. "My history's a little rusty, and I can't remember the first Steadholder Garth's given name—John, wasn't it, Henry?" Prestwick flipped a hand to indicate his ignorance, and Clinkscales shrugged. "At any rate, the steading had just been created and he'd been confirmed as its first steadholder when he died. He was an only son, with no sons of his own, and the Garth Key couldn't 'revert' to his parents, so no one had any idea what to do, and they spent the better part of two years wrangling about it. But then the Church and the Conclave discovered that his father's youngest wife was pregnant and agreed that the Key could pass to her child if it was male. Which it was." He shrugged again, holding out both hands palm up.

"Um." Benjamin rubbed his chin. "I remember the details now, and I can see some problems with it now that I look back at it. That predated the Constitution by over two hundred years, and it was pretty obviously an act of political expediency to avoid a war of succession. Still, I imagine we could make the precedent stand up if we asserted it with a straight face. And if we get Reverend Sullivan to sign off on it. But this all assumes Lady Harrington's parents would be willing to cooperate with our plans. Would they?"

"I believe so," Clinkscales said with an edge of caution. "There's no physical reason why they couldn't, and Dr. Harrington—the Steadholder's mother, I mean—has discussed the possibility with my wives in a theoretical sense, at least. And if it would be inconvenient for them to do it, ah, the natural way, they could always tube a child. That wouldn't be a clone of Lady Harrington, so I don't see where it would be a problem."

"We'd still be on slippery ground if either of them were dead," Benjamin said thoughtfully, "but let's not go there. They're both alive, both physically able to conceive and bear children, and both on Grayson." He thought a moment longer, then nodded decisively. "I think this could be an excellent idea, Howard. If they agree, the child would be a Grayson citizen from birth because he was born here. Would you stay on as Regent in that case?"

"You mean as a caretaker until the child's birth if they agree?"

"Well, yes. And also as Regent for the child after he was born, as well."

"Assuming I last that long, yes, I suppose," Clinkscales said after a few seconds of consideration. "I doubt I'd make it to the child's majority even with Manty medical support, though."

He said it calmly, with the serenity of a man who'd lived a life fuller than the vast majority of other people's. Benjamin looked at him and wondered if he would feel as calm as Clinkscales when it was his turn. Or would the fact that people no more than five or six years younger than he could expect to live two or three centuries longer make him bitter and envious? He hoped it wouldn't, but—

He shook the thought off and nodded.

"All right, gentlemen, I think we have a plan here. There's just one little point about it which still bothers me."

"There is, Your Grace?" Prestwick furrowed his brow. "I confess that I don't see one. It seems to me that Howard has solved most of our problems quite neatly."

"Oh, he has!" Benjamin agreed. "But in the process, he's created a fresh one."

"Indeed, Your Grace?"

"Oh, yes indeed!" Both of Benjamin's advisors looked at him blankly, and he grinned wickedly. "Well, I'm not going to be the one to discuss the birds and the bees with Lady Harrington's mother, gentlemen!"


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Framed