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Chapter Six

"That was delicious, Jackson," Honor sighed appreciatively as Jackson McGwire, White Haven's butler, oversaw the removal of the dessert dishes. Or, more precisely, of the dessert dish, singular, since the only one on the table was the one in front of Honor. "Please tell Tabitha that she outdid herself on the chocolate mousse."

"I'll be happy to, Your Grace," McGwire said, with a small half-bow and a twinkle. Honor's genetically modified metabolism's need for calories was phenomenal, and Tabitha Dupuy, White Haven's cook, and her staff had taken it as a personal challenge. So far, they had yet to repeat themselves with a single dessert offering, despite the recent frequency of her visits to the Alexander family's seat, and Honor and her hosts had a small betting pool going on how long they could keep it up.

Honor started to say something else, then paused as Nimitz sat up straighter in his treecat-sized highchair. He and Samantha, his mate, sat between their adopted humans, and now the male 'cat raised both true-hands to the top of his head, palms turned inward, raised first and second fingers on both hands signing the letter "U" and wiggling backward. From there, the right true-hand slid down, the palm facing his body, fingers extended and facing left, and moved from left to right. Then his true-hands crooked in the sign for the letter "C," with the tip of its thumb resting on the upturned first finger of his other true-hand before both true-hands came together in front of him, index fingers extended and held together, and moved across his body, fingers separating and coming back together again as they traveled. And, finally, the second finger of his right true-hand touched his lips before the hand moved down and out a bit, while his thumb rubbed over the same finger.

"Of course, Nimitz," McGwire said with a smile. "I'll inform Ms. Dupuy personally."

"Please do," Honor reinforced, reaching out to rub the treecat's ears affectionately. "While I'm not a connoisseur of rabbit and celery stew, Stinker here certainly is. If he says it's delicious, Tabitha could probably get rich operating a treecat restaurant chain!"

"I'll certainly tell her that, too, Your Grace," McGwire assured her.

"I think that's probably all we'll need, Jackson," Hamish Alexander, Thirteenth Earl of White Haven, said from his place at the head of the table. "If we do discover we need anything—or if Her Grace should discover she has a hollow ankle somewhere that still needs filling—we'll buzz."

"Of course, Milord," McGwire replied with a smile, and followed the footman with the tray of dishes out of the dining room.

The dining room in question was one of the smaller ones White Haven boasted. The formal dining room was big enough for the massive parties a Manticoran aristocrat—even one with as little time for "social fripperies" as Hamish Alexander—was expected to host from time to time. Since he, Emily, and Honor were the only humans at the table, that cavernous chamber had not been called upon. Instead, Emily had directed that supper be served in the far tinier dining room off her personal suite. It was an intimate little room, built into the side of one of White Haven's older wings, with floor-to-ceiling windows which looked out over the landscaped east lawn, lovely under the light of Thorson, Manticore's single moon. The red ember of Phoenix, otherwise known as Manticore-A II, rested on the horizon, just above the tips of the Old Earth spruces fringing the lawn, and the gleaming gems of at least a dozen orbital platforms moved visibly against the stars. Emily and Hamish often dined there, because of its proximity to her rooms, but it was rare for them to invite anyone else to join them.

The door closed behind McGwire and the footman, and silence fell for a moment. Despite everything, Honor still felt a bit awkward, and she tasted a slight, answering spike of awkwardness from Hamish. The earl took a sip from his wine glass, and his wife smiled slightly. Emily was genuinely and affectionately amused, Honor knew, and that was important to her.

"Well," Hamish said after a moment, setting his glass down precisely, "I'd say Samantha was probably as happy to see Nimitz as Emily and I were to see you, Honor."

It was his turn to reach out and caress the ears of the small, dappled treecat sitting beside him. Nimitz's mate pressed back against his fingertips, and the loud buzz of her purr made the use of any signs totally unnecessary. Emily and Honor chuckled, and Nimitz bleeked a laugh of his own before he jumped lightly from his own highchair to join Samantha in hers. The two 'cats draped their prehensile tails about one another, and Nimitz's happy, bone-deep purr mingled with Samantha's.

"I think that's probably a safe statement, dear," Emily observed dryly.

"Actually," Honor said more seriously, "it's really hard on them to be separated." She shook her head. "I've come to suspect that one reason they're the only mated pair that ever both adopted humans is the separation factor. Treecats are literally almost a part of one another, especially mated pairs, and it's almost . . . physically painful for them to be apart from one another as much as these two have been since Samantha adopted Hamish."

"I know," Hamish sighed, looking at Honor, and she tasted the multiple layers of meaning in his tone. "Sometimes I'm afraid she'll come to regret having done it."

"Oh, no," Honor said, returning his gaze. "It's awkward, and neither one of them likes all the consequences, but 'cats don't look back over decisions of the heart, Hamish. As Emily pointed out to both of us once upon a time, they're remarkably sane in that respect."

"As well they should be," Emily pronounced. She looked back and forth between husband and Honor and started to say something, but Honor felt her change direction before she spoke. "On the other hand, it's not as if Samantha hasn't been able to find things to occupy her while the two of you were away, Honor."

"No?" Honor looked at Samantha, who returned her gaze and groomed her whiskers with an undeniable air of smugness.

"Oh, no. She and Dr. Arif formally opened the conference day before yesterday," Emily said.

"They did?" Honor sat a bit straighter, her eyes brightening. "How did it go?" she demanded eagerly.

"Well," Emily said with a fondly amused smile. "Very well, in fact. Of course, it was only the first day, Honor. You do understand that it's going to take a long time for them to make any real progress, don't you?"

"Of course I do." Honor shook her head, lips twitching as she tasted Emily's response to her own eagerness. "But the entire idea is incredibly exciting to a Sphinxian, especially one who's been adopted. After so many centuries when none of the experts could even agree on how intelligent the 'cats really were—or weren't—seeing them sit down with humans to formally discuss ways treecats can integrate themselves into human society as full partners is— Well," she shook her head again, "it's something there aren't really words to describe."

"And it was all your idea, wasn't it, love?" Hamish said to Samantha, reaching out to stroke her silken pelt.

"My impression is that Samantha has a rather forceful will," Emily observed dryly, and Honor laughed.

"From what the other 'cats have had to say since they learned to sign, that's probably as big an understatement as to say the Queen has a rather negative view of the Republic of Haven," she said.

"Which," Hamish said, his tone and his emotions both suddenly darker, "is apt, but not as amusing as it might have been a day or so ago."

"What do you mean?" Honor asked with abrupt anxiety, but Emily interrupted before he could reply.

"Now that is enough, Hamish," she said sternly. Her husband looked at her, and she waggled her right index finger in his direction. "We haven't seen Honor—you haven't seen her—for almost two weeks," she continued. "During that time, you've been wrestling with affairs at the Admiralty, and she's been dealing with the affairs of her Steading. Neither of you, however, is on duty tonight. You will not discuss the military situation, the diplomatic situation, or the domestic political situation—Manticoran or Grayson—tonight. Do I make myself sufficiently clear?"

"Yes," Hamish said after a moment, blue eyes smiling at her. "Yes, you do."

"Good. And don't forget, either of you, that my furry spies," she waved at the treecats, "will report faithfully to me if my instructions are violated."

"Traitors that they are," Hamish muttered with a grin.

"Treason, my dear, is often simply a matter of perspective." Emily told him, and her life-support chair moved silently back from the table on its counter-grav. "And now, why don't the two of you run on? I've had a long day, and you do have a lot of catching up to do. But no shoptalk!"

"No, Ma'am," Honor agreed meekly.

She and Hamish rose, and Hamish opened the door for Emily's chair. He bent and kissed his wife, and she reached up to run her working hand lightly over his dark hair. Then she was gone, and Hamish and Honor looked at one another.

"You know," Honor said very softly, "neither one of us deserves her."

"I don't know anyone who could," Hamish said simply.

He crossed the room to her, and she folded into his arms. Despite her own height, Hamish was slightly taller than she was, and his arms felt incredibly good about her. She leaned into his embrace, savoring the taste of his emotions, his welcome, and his love. The "mind-glow," treecats called it, and as she felt its bright power and savored once again the way the two of them fitted together on so very many levels, she knew exactly where the term had come from.

His mouth met hers, and her own arms went about him. Their lips clung together for what seemed a very long time, and then, reluctantly, she leaned back and looked across at him.

"I've missed you," she said quietly. "But you do realize that this is crazy?"

"Not crazy," he disagreed with a small, crooked smile. "Just . . . politically unwise."

"And arguably in violation of the Articles of War," Honor pointed out.

"Nonsense." He shook his head. "You know Article One-Nineteen only applies to personnel in the same direct chain of command."

"And you're First Lord and I'm a fleet commander designate."

"And the First Lord is a civilian, my dear." Hamish's mouth quirked in combined amusement and very real and bitter disappointment. "If I were First Space Lord, you might have a point. As it is, I couldn't legally give you a direct order even if I wanted to. Besides—"

A crisp, loud bleek interrupted him, and he looked down. Samantha returned his look sternly. Her right true-hand rose, its first two fingers closing onto her thumb in the sign for the letter "N," before both true-hands moved in front of her, right true hand in the palm-out sign for the letter "B" arcing from side to side in front of her to hit the back of her left true-hand, closed in the sign for the letter "S" before opening back into the sign for "N" and sliding down her left true-hand's fingers and palm.

"All right," Hamish said with a laugh. "All right! No more business, I swear."

Samantha sniffed, flirting her tail, and Honor echoed Hamish's laughter.

"Have you ever noticed how thoroughly our lives are managed for us?" she asked. "It was bad enough when it was just Nimitz. Then along came Mac, then Andrew, and Miranda, and Simon and Spencer, and Samantha. And now Emily."

"We're obviously outnumbered and outgunned," Hamish agreed. "In which case, it looks like our only real option is to surrender."

"Well, between them and Emily, Nico, Sandra, and Andrew have all conspired to see to it that no one is going to disturb us," Honor said gently, reaching out to cup the side of his face in her right palm. "And since they've all gone to such pains for us, I suppose we'd best be about it."

* * *

The buzz in her ear woke her.

Forty-five years of naval service had trained her to awaken instantly and fully alert but, this morning, her eyes opened slowly, luxuriously as Nimitz's gentle amusement filtered into her mind over their link. Hamish's body was warm, pressed against her spine, his left arm flung across her. She'd almost forgotten how comforting it could be to wake up that way, and she smiled as she roused further, tasting Hamish's sleeping mind-glow.

He was dreaming, and it was obviously a good dream. Honor had been surprised, although she realized she shouldn't have been, when she discovered she could taste a sleeper's emotions as well as those of someone who was awake. She couldn't actually tell what Hamish was dreaming about, the way a treecat could have done with another 'cat, but the way he stirred slightly, fingers of his left hand tightening, suggested at least the subject.

Nimitz bleeked at her softly and leaned forward to touch her nose with his own. Then he sat up, and his right true-hand formed the sign for the letter "C" and touched his right shoulder, then tapped the back of his left true-hand's wrist with the first finger of his right true-hand.

Honor frowned, then twitched the muscles of her left eye socket in the pattern which brought up the time/date display in her artificial eye's field of view. The numbers obediently appeared, and she sat up abruptly.

"Hmmm? Whazzat?" Hamish mutter-grumbled as she slid out from under his arm and swung her feet onto the floor.

"Wake up!" she said, turning to bend back over him. His eyes opened, and she tweaked the tip of his nose gently. "We're late!" she continued.

"We can't be," Hamish protested, sitting up in bed himself. His eyes lit as he completed the waking up process, and as she tasted his emotions, she was abruptly reminded that she didn't have a stitch on.

"Oh, yes we can be," she told him, and swatted his right hand when he reached for her. "And despite all the lascivious things going through your head right now, we don't have time to do anything about them."

"Nico will get us up in plenty of time," Hamish objected.

"Unless, perhaps, somebody suggested to him that he shouldn't," Honor replied. His eyes widened suddenly, then narrowed, and she nodded. "The same thought had occurred to me," she said.

"She did seem rather insistent on our staying away from shoptalk," Hamish conceded, climbing out of bed on the other side. "On the other hand, she also knows we're both supposed to be seeing Elizabeth this morning."

"Who happens to be her cousin and probably won't have her beheaded if we happen to be late because she didn't happen to wake us up in time," Honor pointed out. "Unfortunately for that polite fiction all our henchmen are working so hard to maintain for us, however, Nimitz says Andrew's sense of duty is about to cause him to knock on your door. At which point it will be rather difficult to pretend I spent the night in the Blue Suite where I was supposed to be!"

"These contortions aren't really necessary, you know," Hamish said reasonably, watching her slip into the kimono which had somehow ended up on the floor. "As you just pointed out, all our people know what's really going on."

"Maybe. No, certainly. But it's going to make Andrew feel awkward the day he finally admits to both of us what he already knows."

"And what about you?" Hamish asked more gently, and she shrugged as she belted her sash.

"I don't really know," she admitted. She smiled. "Mind you, despite a few lingering spasms of guilt, I'm delighted with the way things are working out, so far, at least. And given the fact that I already know that he knows that I know that he knows—well, you get the picture. Given that, I really don't expect it to be particularly uncomfortable when the day finally comes. But I'm not quite sure." Her smile turned wry. "Like I told Emily, there's still a lot of Sphinx and Grayson in me, and the fact that my love-life's been remarkably similar to a nun's since Paul was killed doesn't really help."

"I can see that," he said, and she smiled again, pleased by the fact that neither of them felt awkward using Paul Tankersley's name. "Still," he continued, "you do realize that sooner or later this is going to come out?"

"At the moment," Honor scooped Nimitz up in her arms and held him, since her kimono lacked the specially padded shoulders built into her uniform tunics and Grayson-style civilian dress, "I'd prefer later, if you don't mind. I don't have any idea at all how Grayson is going to react when it finds out. And given what we all went through with the Opposition trying to insist we were already lovers when we weren't, I don't even want to think about what the political press would do if the word that now we are got out."

"Might be the best time," he suggested, climbing out of bed and pulling on his own robe as he escorted her to the bedroom door. "There's so much going on on the war front, and in Silesia and the Talbott Cluster, that it might even pass relatively unnoticed."

"And just what episode in our past suggests to you that anything about a relationship between you and me could 'pass relatively unnoticed'?" she inquired tartly.

"A point," he admitted, and drew her close to kiss her before she opened the door. "I tend to forget sometimes what good copy 'the Salamander' makes."

"That's one way to put it," she said, and poked him in the navel with two fingers, hard enough to make him "oof." Then she slipped through the door, with a cautious glance up and down the hall to assure herself LaFollet wasn't already on his way. "Now get yourself up and dressed," she told him sternly, and scurried down the hall to the discreet cross passage which connected the Blue Suite to the private family section of White Haven.

She let herself into the suite the back way, and Nimitz bleeked with laughter as the terminal on the table beside the bed which hadn't been slept in chimed gently.

"Shut up, Stinker!" she said, dumping him on the bed, and he laughed harder as she accepted the com call voice-only.

"Yes?" she said.

"We're running late, My Lady," Andrew LaFollet's voice said. He was too far away for her to actually taste his emotions, but she didn't need to in order to recognize the relief in his voice. "Ah, this is the third time I've screened you, My Lady," he added.

"Sorry," she replied. "I'll try to make up for the lost time."

"Of course, My Lady," he said, and she threw off her kimono once again and dashed for the shower.

* * *

"You look lovely this morning, Honor," Emily observed as Honor stepped into the sunlit dining room with LaFollet on her heels. She wore uniform today, complete with the Star of Grayson on its crimson ribbon, and "lovely" was not the precise adjective she would have chosen herself. "And so well rested," Emily continued with a certain gently malicious relish.

"Thank you," Honor said as LaFollet pulled her chair out for her and she seated herself. "Perhaps that's because I seem to have missed my wakeup call this morning."

"Goodness," Emily said placidly. "I wonder how that could have happened? Nico is usually so efficient about these things."

"Yes," Honor agreed affably. "For that matter, so is Mac . . . usually."

"Oh, well, don't feel too flustered," Emily told her. "I screened Mount Royal and spoke to Elizabeth. I told her you and Hamish both seemed to be running a bit late this morning, and she asked me to assure you that timing isn't that critical. She just requested we screen her again when you actually leave."

"I see." Honor regarded her across the table for a moment, then shook her head in surrender. "Why am I not surprised that you can snag even the Queen of Manticore in your nets?"

"You make me sound so devious, my dear," Emily reproved her gently.

"No, not devious—just . . . capable."

"I suppose I could accept that as a compliment, so I will," Emily said graciously. "Now eat."

Honor looked up as one of the White Haven servants entered the dining room with a tray of food. It was a fairly typical breakfast for someone with her enhanced metabolism—a thick stack of pancakes, eggs Benedict, tomato juice, croissants, melon, and a steaming carafe of hot chocolate—and her stomach rumbled happily at the sight. But then the tray was set before her, and she felt an abrupt stab of queasiness as the smell of the food hit her.

She grimaced, and Emily cocked an eyebrow at her.

"Are you all right, Honor?" she asked, with none of the teasing edge of banter of their earlier conversation.

"Fine, fine," Honor said, suppressing the flicker of almost-nausea firmly, and reached for her fork. "I'm just not as hungry as usual this morning. Possibly because despite your efforts to rearrange our schedule, I'm still feeling a little flustered at the notion of arriving late for a formal audience with my monarch."

"Only one of your monarchs," Emily pointed out.

"True," Honor conceded, and decided to start with the pancakes, whose aroma seemed more congenial than the scent of the eggs. Her stomach heaved rebelliously at the first bite, but it apparently decided to settle down quickly after she swallowed.

"Sorry I'm late," a deep voice said, and she and Emily looked up as Hamish Alexander stepped into the dining room. "I seem to have missed my wakeup call," he added, then blinked as both women burst into laughter.


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Framed