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Steadholder’s Palace

City of Harrington

Harrington Steading

Planet Grayson

Yeltsin System

November 5 1905 PD

[November 5, 4009 CE]

it was coming along nicely, Howard Clinkscales thought, gazing through the crystoplast wall at the landscaped grounds. The gardens wouldn’t quite be finished by the time she arrived, but all of the plantings and water features would be in, at least. And—he raised his eyes—the dome was complete. She’d be able to walk the grounds of her own palace without a breath mask. And it was a considerably larger dome than it might have been in years gone by, thanks to the crystoplast.

The planet Grayson hadn’t had crystoplast all that long. It was yet another of the bewildering stream of new technologies pouring into the Yeltsin System from the Star Kingdom of Manticore.

That stream was more bewildering for some than for others, he acknowledged with a snort of dry amusement. People like Adam Gerrick, the steading’s youthful chief engineer, were utterly delighted by it. For them, that stream was an unending toy chest of new opportunities and new possibilities. Of course, not everyone was an engineer, and among the ones who weren’t, too many of the true dinosaurs—like himself, upon all too numerous occasions, Clinkscales acknowledged—were more than simply bewildered by it. They were confused, bereft of the certainties they’d counted upon all their lives, and all too many of them bitterly resented that jarring rearrangement of the Way Things Ought to Be. But Clinkscales had come to realize that the only choices for even the most deeply conservative were to adapt or go the way of every other dinosaur. Well, to adapt but also to do their best to minimize the potential religious and social catastrophes lurking behind that tidal wave of technology, which was a nontrivial challenge, to say the least.

Scylla and Charybdis, he thought, and chuckled harshly. I wonder if Benjamin would believe that particular ancient, pagan example would occur to an old fossil like me? Although, actually, he might. He always was an overly clever young jackanapes!

That might not, he conceded, be the most respectful possible way to think about the Protector of Grayson, but he’d known Benjamin Mayhew literally since the day of his birth. He’d never really approved of Benjamin’s father’s decision to send his son and heir off to decadent Old Terra for his college education, and the boy who’d departed had come home as a young man with dangerously “progressive” ideas. Not that there’d ever been much chance he’d have the opportunity to put them into practice, given the figurehead status to which the Protectorship had been reduced.

Until the Yeltsin System and its fratricidal sister Endicott had been drawn into the vortex of the confrontation between the People’s Republic of Haven and the Manticoran Alliance. The rest of the galaxy had ignored Yeltsin for over nine centuries. For seven of those centuries, as far as anyone in Yeltsin knew, no one had even remembered the system had been colonized in the first place. And even after the planet Grayson had been rediscovered by the occasional—very occasional—tramp freighter, there’d been no conceivable reason for anyone other than those same occasional tramp freighters to visit. And, to be honest, Howard Clinkscales had neither blamed the galaxy at large for that nor truly regretted it.

Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending upon one’s perspective—Yeltsin was ideally located as a forward base for the alliance the Star Kingdom of Manticore had built against the People’s Republic of Haven. Manticore had needed that base; Haven had been determined to deny the Star Kingdom that base; and that had placed Clinkscales’ homeworld squarely in the sights of two competing and deplorably secular interstellar powers. Which was ultimately what had brought him to this office, gazing out through that crystoplast wall, thinking deep and profound thoughts.

He snorted in self-amusement.

I’ve always known the Tester has a sense of humor, he thought. He wouldn’t put up with human beings, if He didn’t! But this is a particularly pointed joke, even for Him!

If there had been a single man on the planet of Grayson who’d been more conflicted than he about involving his home star system in a great power rivalry that he’d been almost certain had to turn into a shooting war eventually, Clinkscales had never met him. Of course, there had been Jared Mayhew . . . who’d never had the least doubt where Grayson’s and his own best interests lay.

The old man’s eyes darkened with remembered betrayal, grief, and more than a trace of guilt. He’d loved Jared Mayhew. Like Jared’s younger cousin, Benjamin, he’d watched Jared grow from boyhood into a man who stood strong in his faith, strong for the people of Grayson. A man who shared Clinkscales’ own deep religious roots and determination to protect Grayson’s people from the corruption of a Godless galaxy’s licentiousness.

And a man who’d betrayed every oath he’d ever sworn under the eyes of God and Man. Who’d planned and organized the murder of his own cousin and his cousin’s entire family in the service of the religious fanatics of Endicott. A man who’d used his friendship with Howard Clinkscales, the commanding general of Planetary Security, to further his traitorous plans. Oh, he’d known better than to give Clinkscales any inkling of what he had in mind. They’d known each other far too long for that. Clinkscales might have agreed with his fears, shared his desperation, yet that could never have induced him to violate his own oaths. But the fact that Jared knew that hadn’t prevented him from using their friendship to access information he needed, not to mention using his contacts in the Navy and his own position as Yeltsin’s Minister of Industry, to prepare for the Faithful’s conquest—reconquest, in Jared’s eyes—of Grayson. He’d known exactly how to avoid Security’s procedures and protocols and the Navy’s patrol patterns, and he’d actually used his control of the system’s deep space industry, especially its asteroid-mining infrastructure, as cover to help Masada secretly build an advanced, fully equipped military base on Blackbird, one of the gas giant Uriel’s moons.

And Howard Clinkscales, the man who’d been charged to protect both his planet and his Protector’s family, had let him do it.

He was scarcely the only person Jared had deceived. Jared had never attempted to conceal his own religious conservatism, but no one—including his cousin, Benjamin—had ever suspected that his conservatism was actually fanaticism.

And I should have. Tester! I would have . . . if I hadn’t been so cursed close to my own brand of his madness.

In his fairer moments, Clinkscales knew he was being unfair to himself when he thought that, but that made his blindness no less culpable. Nor did it change the fact, that the only reason Jared had failed in the end was—

“Excuse me, My Lord.”

Clinkscales turned from the windows and raised an eyebrow at the young man standing in his open office doorway.

“Yes, Arthur?”

“Major LaFollet is here, My Lord,” Arthur Freyd replied.

“Ah! And early, I see.” Clinkscales smiled and walked across to his desk. “Send him in, please.”

“Of course, My Lord.”

The secretary, although his title really should have been executive officer, Clinkscales often thought, bowed slightly and disappeared. He was back a moment later with a man in the green-on-green uniform of the Harrington Steadholder’s Guard.

Andrew LaFollet was tall for a Grayson, very close to Clinkscales’ own hundred and eighty centimeters, with dark auburn hair and remarkably steady gray eyes. He was also dauntingly fit, with a solid, well-muscled physique and a perpetually centered balance. He owed the polished edges of that physique to the fact that he’d moved his always arduous exercise regimen into a gym with gravity plates set at 1.35 standard gravities, thirty-eight percent higher than Grayson’s, more than two years ago. The balance and those steady eyes had come naturally, and Clinkscales felt a fresh sense of satisfaction as he surveyed him.

“My Lord.” LaFollet braced to attention. With his peaked cap clasped under his left arm, he couldn’t properly salute.

“Major.” Clinkscales nodded and pointed at the chair in front of his desk. “Have a seat.”

“Thank you, My Lord,” LaFollet replied. But he also waited until Clinkscales had taken his own seat before he actually sat.

“Will there be anything else, My Lord?” Freyd asked.

“No, I think we’re good for now. But I expect you and I will have a few more logistic details to hammer out when the major and I are done.”

“Of course, My Lord.”

Freyd bowed rather more deeply than before and quietly closed the door behind him.

Clinkscales tipped back in his chair, regarding LaFollet thoughtfully while he wondered if the major had a clue as to why he’d been summoned. It was impossible to tell from LaFollet’s politely attentive expression as he sat neatly, his cap in his lap. On the one hand, no one outside this office was supposed to know. On the other hand, there was more than one reason he’d snatched LaFollet away from Palace Security to serve as the Harrington Guard’s second-ranking officer.

“I wonder if you have any idea why I sent for you this morning?” he asked.

“Not officially, no, My Lord.”

“An interesting adverb, ‘officially,’” Clinkscales observed. “Should I assume from its use that you’re sufficiently tapped in to have a pretty fair unofficial notion of why you’re here?”

“I believe I may,” LaFollet acknowledged with a slight smile. “And, if you’ll permit me to say so, My Lord, this is a visit that’s been long overdue.”

In the wrong tone, that might have been construed as a criticism, Clinkscales reflected. And he supposed that it was a criticism, really. But not of the visitor in question.

“You’re right,” he said with a nod of agreement. “But we’re about to fix that, finally.” His tone was deeply satisfied, yet then he sighed. “On the other hand, I don’t think she really understands everything that’s about to change for her. Tester knows I’ve told her often enough, but—” He shook his head. “She’s an incredibly smart woman, Major, but she absolutely refuses to think of herself as extraordinary in any way.”

“Even incredibly smart people can have blind spots, My Lord.”

“I know. But it’s possible— No, it’s not ‘possible’; it’s probable that this is going to make things a little . . . difficult for you.” Clinkscales snorted. “After all, no reason you should be any different from the rest of us!”

LaFollet’s smile broadened. He’d served in Palace Security for just over five years, and as Planetary Security’s commanding officer, Clinkscales had been Palace Security’s CO, as well. More to the point, the LaFollet clan had a long tradition of military service and Captain Kerwin LaFollet had been Brigadier Clinkscales’ senior aide. They remained close, and Lieutenant General Clinkscales had stood sponsor to both of Kerwin’s older sons when they applied for admission to the Grayson’s Army’s Isaiah McKenzie Academy. The major and Harrington Steading’s lord regent had known one another for a very long time. Long enough that some might have wondered if his selection for his present duties had been influenced by that relationship.

No one who knew either of them would have entertained that suspicion.

But that relationship was also the reason LaFollet knew how incredibly difficult Clinkscales must have found it when so many things he’d held to be fundamental truths turned out to be less immutable than he’d always believed. Unlike others, Clinkscales had never believed that if Yeltsin just ignored Manticore and Haven they’d go away, leave Grayson in peace. And he’d always recognized that of the two, Manticore was far less likely to eventually simply ingest Yeltsin. But that had made him no happier about the corrupting foreign influence which must inevitably accompany any alliance with such a secular society. And every deeply conservative bone in his body had been offended when the commanding officer of the Manticoran diplomatic delegation’s military escort turned out to be a woman.

Grayson women had always been better treated than their unfortunate sisters among Masada’s fanatical Faithful. In many ways, they’d enjoyed highly privileged and protected positions. But that protection and those privileges had come at the expense of their rights. They’d been denied the vote, property ownership (except under very special circumstances), jury duty, and—especially!—military duty. Every right-thinking Grayson male had known women were too precious, too delicate, and too weak to bear the rigors of military discipline or be exposed to the dangers of military service.

Until they met Honor Harrington, at any rate.

The really remarkable thing about Clinkscales, LaFollet thought fondly, was that his stubborn, invincible, bone-deep integrity had refused to let him remain in that right-thinking majority. And that same integrity was the true reason Protector Benjamin had nominated Howard Clinkscales as the regent of Harrington Steading when it was created after Lady Harrington’s desperate defense of Grayson. Benjamin had known Clinkscales would discharge his responsibilities as regent with that same unyielding integrity, even though he must inevitably find himself officiating over—encouraging—many of the very changes he once would have fought to the death to prevent. LaFollet had understood that part of Benjamin’s thinking from the beginning. What he’d been slower to recognize was that the Protector had also known that the rest of Grayson knew about that integrity and the sincerity with which Clinkscales had always held his beliefs. So if he could adjust to—could embrace—the changes which must inevitably transform Grayson, then perhaps they could, as well.

And there were times, LaFollet knew, when Clinkscales had found his new responsibilities just as uncomfortable as he must have known he would when he accepted them.

“We have her arrival date now,” the Regent continued. “She’ll be here on the twenty-fifth. The Protector plans to give her a few days to get her feet under her here in Harrington, but he’ll be sending out the writs of summons for her confirmation in a week or so, after he and Reverend Hanks have had time to confer. At the moment, it looks like either the twenty-ninth or the thirtieth. And once that happens, she’s going to find out we really meant some of the things I’ve been telling her about. Including you.”

“It’s not like I haven’t known this was coming, My Lord.”

“No, but you’re about to become the first man in Grayson history who’s ever been responsible for a female steadholder’s personal security, and she’s foreign-born, on top of everything else. That’s bound to create more than enough . . . delicate moments for you, let’s say. And the fact that so far as I can tell she still hasn’t fully digested what the letter of the law means for her won’t make it one bit easier.”

LaFollet nodded. Clinkscales regarded him steadily for several seconds, then let his chair come fully upright and folded his hands on the desktop in front of him.

“All right. I’ve notified Colonel Hill that you’ll be officially transferring from the Steading Guard to the Steadholder’s Guard as soon as the Conclave witnesses her oath. I’ll leave it to you to notify the rest of your detail. And remind them that she’ll be leaving Grayson again in no more than a month or two.”

LaFollet opened his mouth, but Clinkscales raised a hand before he could speak.

“I know every one of them knew that would happen when they volunteered, Andrew. But there’s a difference between knowing that’s waiting somewhere up ahead and realizing it’s right around the corner. There’s no shame in someone’s changing his mind before he’s sworn his oath to her. Especially since some of them—like you—have waited over three years for this. A lot of things can change in that much time, including obligations to wives and children. All of them deserve the opportunity to tell us if any of those things have changed for them.”

“I’ll tell them that, of course, My Lord,” LaFollet said after a moment. “I’ve kept tabs on what’s happened in their lives, though. And we’ve been training as a detail for almost two years now. You’re right that they deserve the opportunity, but I can tell you now that none of them are about to change their minds.”

“I’m sure you’re right.” Clinkscales smiled a bit crookedly. “That doesn’t change our obligation to give them the opportunity. And”—his smile disappeared—“there has been one change that might have affected some of their thinking.”

“Captain Tankersley, you mean, My Lord?”

That steady LaFollet gaze never wavered, Clinkscales noted. Not that he’d expected it to. The major’s devotion to Lady Harrington went to the bone, even if she didn’t know it yet, and the Regent’s observation wasn’t a surprise to him. The communication between Harrington Steading and Manticore flowed both ways, and Lady Harrington had been scrupulous about staying on top of all of her official correspondence, yet Clinkscales had realized very early on that his Steadholder saw no reason to keep him informed of every little change in her life. Not that an unmarried woman’s taking a lover would be regarded as a “little change” by far too many Graysons, he reflected dryly. But because he’d realized the potential consequences of being blindsided by something like that, he’d taken steps to create secondary channels through the Grayson Embassy in Landing that assured that he—and, through him, Major LaFollet—stayed up to date on those minor details she might not have seen any reason to mention. And in this case . . . 

“That’s exactly what I mean,” he acknowledged. “In all honesty, I wasn’t delighted when I first heard about the Captain. But one of the things this job has done is to bring me face-to-face with a lot of things that wouldn’t have delighted me once upon a time. And the truth is that you and I both know how many steadholders have violated the Sixth Commandment over the years. Tester! I don’t think I could begin to count how many times a steading’s passed to an illegitimate heir! There may even have been an excuse for that, back in the old days, given the need to secure the succession, but I haven’t noticed the practice slowing down among the current crop.”

LaFollet was scarcely surprised by Clinkscales’ disgusted tone. Infidelity to an oath of any sort was anathema to the Lord Regent, and adultery, the violation of his wedding vows to his wives, would have been unthinkable.

“I expect some of the boys will be unhappy when I brief them on the Steadholder and Captain Tankersley,” the major said after a moment. “I haven’t done that yet, of course, since there was no immediate prospect of giving our formal oaths. But I don’t expect it to cause any of them to change their minds.”

“No?” Clinkscales tipped his head. “Why not?” LaFollet’s eyebrows lowered ever so slightly, and the Regent shook his head quickly. “I don’t doubt you, Andrew, but I’m genuinely curious about your logic. Frankly, I’m wondering if the reason you don’t expect them to change their minds is the same reason I’ve decided I’m nowhere near as uncomfortable about it as I thought I’d be.”

LaFollet looked down at the cap in his lap for a moment, then back up at Clinkscales.

“My Lord, you know there’s not a single man in the detail who didn’t have his own deeply personal reasons for volunteering. I know you do, because you helped me screen them. And we didn’t accept anyone we thought was so conservative that he’d be unable to adjust to the differences between Grayson and Manticore. This is one of those differences. And, with all due respect, your reference to the Sixth Commandment doesn’t really apply here, does it? Neither the Steadholder nor Captain Tankersley are married, far less married to someone else, so there’s no question about anyone’s committing adultery. Even under our own laws, neither the Sword nor Father Church has the right to dictate to the consciences of two unmarried, consenting adults. Society may frown upon it, and the law is pretty strict—and explicit—about a father’s obligations to his child, whether or not he’s married to that child’s mother. But there’s no legal or religious bar to the Steadholder’s taking an unmarried lover if that’s what she chooses to do.”

“I agree entirely, and that’s the same conclusion I worked my own way to,” Clinkscales said. “Somewhat to my shame, it took me longer to get there than it ought to have, however. You’re absolutely right about both secular law and Father Church’s teachings on this matter, but I’m afraid you put your finger on the heart of the matter when you mentioned society. And custom. The notion of unmarried lovers isn’t one our culture as a whole is comfortable with.”

“If you’ll allow me to say so, My Lord, that’s because the self-appointed keepers of public morality always think they know better than the Tester or Father Church when it comes to how everyone else ought to behave,” LaFollet said tartly, and Clinkscales snorted in harsh amusement.

“The fact that you see that is one of the many reasons I wanted you to command her detail, Andrew. And if you’re confident the other men will react the same way when you brief them in, then I’m satisfied.”

LaFollet nodded, and Clinkscales turned to his chair to look back out into that landscaped garden.

“The fact that you and I—and the detail—feel that way doesn’t mean everyone else will, though. We both know how people like Burdette and Mackenzie feel about Manticore’s ‘corrupting influence,’ and I’m very much afraid the true bigots among them will decide her relationship with Captain Tankersley only confirms their worst fears. Worse, they’ll see it as a weapon they can use against her. Given Lady Harrington’s stature after the way she defended our entire planet, I expect them to be . . . circumspect, at least initially, about any public criticism or condemnation. But you and I both know it’s going to come eventually. And it’s going to be ugly when it does.”

He turned his head to look at LaFollet once more.

“The truth is, it’s easier to protect someone against bullets and bombs than against bigotry, Andrew. I’ve seen enough evidence of that in my own soul. I’m very much afraid the Steadholder doesn’t truly understand yet how some of the genuine scum among the reactionaries will inveigh against her as soon as this becomes public knowledge. I don’t expect much of that here, in Harrington, because every single Harrington is a voluntary immigrant. But it will happen.”

“We’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it, My Lord.”

Andrew LaFollet’s tone was calm, almost reflective, and Clinkscales looked back out the windowed wall to hide a thin smile as he reflected upon how unwise anyone would be to do anything of the sort in the major’s vicinity. He might not be able to do anything about it legally, given Grayson’s traditions of freedom of speech, but LaFollet was a resourceful man. There was no doubt in the Regent’s mind that he’d find a way to make his displeasure evident.

Which suited Howard Clinkscales just fine.

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