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Chapter Three

Catherine Montaigne looked down at the very large suitcase on the bed. The look was not an affectionate one.

"Do you realize, Anton, what an archaeological relic this is? We're coming close on two thousand years since the human race left our planet of origin—and we still have to pack our own bags."

Anton Zilwicki pursed his lips. "This is one of those damned-if-I-do, damned-if-I-don't, and damned-if-I-try-to-keep-my-mouth-shut situations."

She frowned. "What is that supposed to mean?"

He pointed with a thick, stubby finger to the door which led to the personal services bay of the bedroom. "There is a household robot in there with a perfectly functional travel program. I haven't personally packed a bag myself in . . . oh, years. Can't remember how many, any longer."

She rolled her eyes. "Well, sure. You're a man. Three outfits to your name, leaving aside socks and underwear—identical socks and underwear—and the sartorial imagination of a pot roast. Meat, potatoes, carrots, what more do you need?"

"Like I said, damned any way I turn." He glanced at the door, as if seeking an escape route. "The last time I looked, our daughters Helen and Berry were both women. So is Princess Ruth. And not one of the three has personally packed a suitcase in years, either."

"Well, of course not. Helen's in the military, so willy-nilly she's been tainted by male attitudes. Berry grew up without a pot to piss in, and she still accumulates personal belongings as if she had the budget of a rat in the Terran warrens. And Ruth is just plain unnatural. The only member of the royal family in . . . oh, hell, ever, who wants to be a spy."

She straightened up and squared her shoulders. "I, on the other hand, retain normal female customs and views. So I know perfectly good and well that no fucking robot is going to pack my suitcase properly. Being fair to the critters, I'm still making up my mind what to put in the suitcase until it's closed."

"You're also one of the richest females in the Star Kingdom, Cathy. Hell, the Star Empire—for that matter, the whole damn galaxy, since the wealth of the Manticoran upper crust matches that of almost anybody in the Solarian League, damn their black and wicked aristocratic hearts. So why don't you have one of your servants pack your suitcase?"

Montaigne looked uncomfortable. "Doesn't seem right," she said. "Some things a person has to do for herself. Use the toilet, clean your teeth, pack your own suitcase. It'd be grotesque to have a servant do that sort of thing."

She stared at the suitcase for a few seconds, and then sighed. "Besides, packing my own suitcase lets me stall. I'm going to miss you, Anton. A lot."

"I'll miss you too, love."

"When will I see you again?" She turned her head to look at him. "Best estimate. You can spare me the lecture about the temporal uncertainties of intelligence work."

"Honestly, it is hard to know. But . . . I figure a number of months at a minimum, Cathy, and it could easily stretch to a year or longer."

"Yeah, that's about what I figured. Dammit, if I could . . ."

"Don't be silly. The Liberals' political situation on Manticore is far too critical for you to leave the Star Kingdom again once you get back home. As it is, you probably stretched it by staying here on Torch for so many weeks after Berry's coronation."

"I don't regret it, though. Not for one moment."

"Neither do I—and, for sure, Berry appreciated it. But while I figure you can afford one extended vacation"—he smiled as crookedly as she had earlier—"given that the occasion was the coronation of your daughter—you can't really do it again. Not until the political mess gets straightened out."

"It'd be better to say, 'political opportunity.' The repercussions of that quick trip you took back home a few weeks ago will have had time to percolate, by now."

Between the time Anton had returned to Erewhon from Smoking Frog with the critical information he'd found concerning Georgia Young and the time he'd had to help with the liberation of Torch, he'd been able—just barely—to return to Manticore and, with Cathy, confront Young and force her into exile. They'd also forced her to destroy the notorious North Hollow files that had played such a poisonous role in the politics of the Star Kingdom, before she fled.

"So they will," he said. "So they will."

* * *

When Cathy was finally done packing the huge suitcase, Anton began to summon the household robot. But Cathy shook her head.

"Not a chance, buddy. I'm not about to risk my valuable possessions being hauled around by a mindless machine when I've got a personal weightlifter at my service." She gazed approvingly upon Anton's dwarf-king figure. He was a number of centimeters shorter than she was, and seemed to be at least a meter wider.

Cathy had once heard someone at a party remark that Anton's shoulders could double in a pinch as a parking lot for ground vehicles. Everyone present had disputed the statement, pointing out that it was absurd. But not before they'd spent several seconds studying the shoulders in question.

He picked up the suitcase by the handle on the end and lifted it onto his shoulder. The motion was as smooth and easy as if he'd been handling a broom instead of a valise that weighed well over fifty kilos.

Cathy slid her arm around his waist on the side opposite the suitcase. "Now let's be off—before our blessed daughter decides to launch yet another innovation in Torch royal custom. An eight-hour-long goodbye party for the royal mother, that'll leave me stuffed like a goose and wobbly with liquor."

On their way out the door, her expression became pensive. "I hadn't thought about it before now. According to Torch protocol, am I a dowager queen or something like that?"

"I doubt it, sweetheart. There's practically nothing yet in the way of royal protocol on Torch—and, given Berry, that's not likely to change much as long as she's still sitting on the throne."

"Oh, that's such a relief. The moment I spoke the word 'dowager,' I felt like I'd gained thirty kilos."

* * *

In the event, the "official royal leave-taking" was as informal as Cathy could have asked for. There were only a handful of people present in Berry's audience chamber to see her off. Berry herself, Princess Ruth, Web Du Havel, Jeremy X and Thandi Palane. Web and Jeremy were old friends, and while Ruth wasn't—prior to this trip to Torch, Cathy had only exchanged a few words with her at royal functions on Manticore—she felt quite familiar because of Cathy's long-standing ties to the Winton dynasty. Those ties had become politically strained over the years, but they were still personally relaxed.

Thandi Palane was the one true stranger to her in the group. Cathy had never met her prior to this trip. She knew a great deal about the Mfecane worlds which had produced Palane, because of their relationship to genetic slavery. Manpower used a lot of Mfecane genetic stock to produce their heavy labor lines. But she also knew perfectly well that she had no real knowledge of what it must have been like to grow up on Ndebele.

She'd gotten to know the big woman to a degree, in the course of her stay on Torch following Berry's coronation. She still couldn't consider her a "friend," though, in any real sense of the term. Palane had been friendly, to be sure, but there had remained a certain tight reserve in all her dealings with Catherine Montaigne.

That hadn't upset Cathy. First, because she recognized the phenomenon. She'd encountered it many times with genetic slaves recently escaped or freed from Manpower's clutches. No matter how well recommended Cathy was by other ex-slaves, and no matter what her political reputation was, there was simply no way that someone who'd recently come from the depths of genetic slavery was going to feel at ease in the presence of a wealthy noblewoman. And while Thandi Palane hadn't come from genetic slavery, being born and raised on Ndebele as what amounted to nothing more than a peon was close enough to produce the same reserve.

But none of that mattered, anyway. The other reason Cathy had a very favorable attitude toward Palane, however the woman acted toward her, was that she figured Thandi Palane was the single person in the universe most likely to keep Berry Zilwicki alive and reasonably intact in the years to come. The woman was the head of Torch's fledgling military, she was closely tied to Berry, and . . .

Utterly ferocious, when she needed to be.

Cathy looked around the room. Berry's "audience chamber" was actually just a hastily remodeled office in the big building that Manpower had once used for its headquarters on Torch—"Verdant Vista," as it had then been known—and which the rebels had taken over and turned into a combination "royal palace" and government center.

"Where's Lars?" she asked.

Berry grinned. "He's taking his leave from his new girlfriend. Don't ask me which one. If he survives adolescence—and he's only got a few more months to go—he's got a surefire career ahead of him as a juggler."

Cathy chuckled, a bit ruefully. Once he got past puberty, Berry's younger brother Lars had turned into something of a lothario. The secret of his attraction for young women remained mysterious to Cathy. Lars was a pleasant looking boy, but he wasn't really what you'd call "handsome." And while he certainly wasn't bashful, neither was he particularly aggressive in the way he approached and dealt with teenage girls. In fact, he was considered by most people, including Cathy herself, as "a very nice boy."

Yet, whatever the reason, he seemed to be a magnet for teenage girls—and more than a few women several years older than he was. Within a week after arriving on Torch with Cathy, he'd manage to acquire two girlfriends his own age and had even drawn the half-serious attentions of a woman who was at least thirty years old.

"Let's hope we manage to get out of here without a scandal," Cathy half-muttered.

Jeremy X grinned. Impishly, as he usually did. "Don't be silly. All the females involved are genetic ex-slaves. So are what pass for their parents—none, in the case of two of them—and every one of their friends. 'Scandal' is simply not an issue, here. What you should be worried about is whether Lars can get off the planet without getting various body parts removed."

He'd barely gotten out the last words before the lad in question manifested himself in the chamber. Nobody actually saw him come in.

"Hi, Mom. Dad. Berry. Everybody." He gave them all some quick nods. Then, looking a bit worried, said: "How soon are we leaving? I vote for right away. No offense, Sis—I mean, Your Majesty. I just don't see any point in dragging this out."

His stepmother gave him a stern look. "What is the problem, Lars?"

He fidgeted for a few seconds. "Well. Susanna. She's really pissed. She said she had half a mind to—" He fidgeted some more, glancing back at the entrance to the chamber. "It was kinda gross."

Cathy rolled her eyes. "Oh, wonderful."

Web Du Havel laughed softly. "The truth is, Cathy, I've never been one for drawn-out leave-takings myself."

"Me, neither," said Jeremy.

So, she hugged both of them quickly. Then, shook Thandi Palane's hand. Then, gave Ruth another quick hug, and then gave Berry a very long one.

"Take care, sweetheart," she whispered into her step-daughter's ear.

"You too, Mom."

* * *

At Cathy's insistence, Anton toted the monster of a suitcase all the way into the shuttle waiting to take her to her orbiting yacht.

There followed a very long hug, even longer than the one she'd given Berry, accompanied by the sort of intellectually meaningless but emotionally critical words by which a husband and wife—which they were, in reality if not in name—part company for what they both know is going to be a very long separation.

* * *

By the time Anton emerged from the shuttle, Susanna had arrived. She'd brought a bag of rocks with her.

Anton glanced back at Cathy's shuttle. Compared to any true starship, it was tiny, little bigger than a pre-space jumbo airliner, as most surface-to-orbit craft tended to be. It was a bit larger than many such, admittedly. It had to be to provide to the palatial—one might almost have said "sinfully luxurious"—accomodations one rightfully expected from a permanently assigned auxilliary of the yacht personally registered to one of the wealthiest women in the explored galaxy. Cathy had always referred to it as her "auxilliary bacchanalia pad," and Anton felt more than a bit wistful as he recalled some of the bacchanalia in question.

Despite its small size compared to a starship, however, it was still quite large (indeed, "huge" might not have been too emphatic an adjective) compared to any mere human. Even one so swelled and exalted by righteous adolescent fury as Susanna.

"His mother's stinking rich, you know, and that shuttle was built by the Hauptman Cartel's Palladium Yard," Anton said to the blonde teenager. She was quite attractive in a stocky and athletic way. "They build a lot of the Navy's assault shuttles and ground attack craft. Really knows how to armor a ship, does the Palladium Yard, and I doubt they spared any expense on her shuttle. As a matter of fact, I know they didn't, since I personally wrote up the design stats for it. The point being, I don't think those rocks are even going to dent the hull."

"Sure, I know that." Susanna dug into the bag. "It's the principle of the thing."

As Anton predicted, the hull wasn't so much as dented. Still, she managed to hit it twice. The girl had one hell of an arm.


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