"You want me to what? "
Allison Harrington shoved herself back in her chair, astonished almondine eyes wide, and Howard Clinkscales blushed as he had not in years. It was the first time since the INS broadcast of the execution that something had driven the quiet, lingering edge of sorrow fully out of Dr. Harrington's eyes, but he would have felt much better about that if he'd been even a little bit less embarrassed. This wasn't the sort of thing a properly raised Grayson male discussed with someone else's wife, and he'd done his best to evade the responsibility. But Benjamin had insisted that he'd thought it up, so it was up to him to enlist the Harringtons' cooperation.
"I realize it must sound impertinent of me to even bring the matter up, My Lady," he said now, his voice gruff, "but it seems the only way to avoid a probable political crisis. And it would be a way to keep the Key in her direct line."
"But—" Allison stopped herself and drew a stylus from her pocket. She shoved it into her mouth, nibbling on it with small, white teeth in a bad habit that went clear back to her hospital residency days on Beowulf, and made herself consider the—request? offer? plea?—as calmly as possible.
It was amazing, she decided, how complex her own reaction was. She and Alfred were finally managing to come to grips with their daughter's death—she better than he, she suspected, but still to come to grips with it. It hurt, and one of her own regrets had been that the two of them had deferred having a second child for so long. Perhaps that had been her fault, she mused. She was the one from cosmopolitan (read: crowded, stratified, smug, and obsessed with stability, she thought dryly) old Beowulf, where conspicuous contributions to population growth were more than simply frowned upon. Sphinx, on the other hand, was still a relatively new planet, with a total population of under two billion. Multichild families were the rule there, not the exception, and there was certainly no stigma attached to them.
And I always meant to have more children of my own, now didn't I? Of course I did! That was one of the things that attracted me to Sphinx in the first place, when Alfred proposed. It was just... There were so many other things I needed to do, and it wasn't like there was any rush. My "biological clock" won't run down for another century or more yet!
But if they'd gone ahead, had those other children sooner, perhaps the savage blow of losing Honor wouldn't have—
She cut that thought off... again. What might have happened couldn't change what had happened, and even if it could have, producing more children simply as some sort of emotional insurance policy—a way to protect themselves from emotional trauma if one of their brood should die—would have been contemptible. And wouldn't have worked anyway.
Yet now that Clinkscales had brought the idea up—and explained his reasons for it—she felt... uncomfortable. Part of it was probably that bone-deep, instinctive reaction of hers which made her dig in her heels whenever anyone tried to tell her she "had" to do something. She'd made a habit of setting herself harder, more challenging goals than anyone else would have dreamed of demanding of her, but let someone—anyone—tell her that she "had" to do something, that something was "expected of her," or her "duty," and her back went up in instant defiance. She felt quite certain that most of it stemmed from her childhood sense that Beowulf's entire population had been out to pressure her into conforming to its expectations. Which was silly, of course. She'd realized that decades ago and worked on overcoming the spinal-reflex reaction ever since, yet it was still there, and she felt it stirring now.
But stronger than that, there was the vague feeling that if she and Alfred decided to have another child now, specifically to inherit Honor's steading, it would somehow be a betrayal of the daughter they'd lost. It would be as if... as if she'd been nothing more than a glob of plastic, squeezed out by a robotic assembly line, which could be replaced by any other glob from the same line. It was a ridiculous and illogical way to feel, but that didn't make the emotion any less powerful.
And then there's my own attitude towards inherited titles, isn't there? she asked herself after a moment, and snorted wryly while she nibbled harder on the stylus.
Most off-worlders, impressed with Beowulf's reputation for idiosyncratic personal life styles and sexual inventiveness, never realized how conformist the planet truly was. Allison had frequently wondered if that was because the "norm" to which its citizens conformed was such a liberalized template, but the pressure not to offend the system or offend the preconceptions upon which the template rested was only too evident to a native Beowulfan. A person could be anything she wanted... so long as what she wanted to be came off the menu of choices approved by the planet's social—and economic—consensus, and everyone was so damned smug about how superior their "open-mindedness" was to all those other, backward planets.
Yet for all its emphasis on stability and orderliness, Beowulf had no such thing as an hereditary monarchy or aristocracy. It was a sort of representative, elective oligarchy, governed by a Board of Directors whose members were internally elected, in turn, from the memberships of an entire series of lower-level, popularly elected boards which represented professions, not geographical districts, and it had worked—more or less, and despite occasional glitches—for almost two thousand years.
Coming from that background, she'd always been mildly amused by the aristocratic Manticoran tradition. It hadn't impinged directly upon her or her yeoman husband and his family, and she'd been willing to admit that it did a better job than most of governing. Indeed, she'd heaved a huge sigh of mental relief when she realized that, aristocratic or not, the Star Kingdom's society was willing to leave people alone. She'd delighted in scandalizing her more staid Sphinxian neighbors for almost seventy years, but very few of them had ever realized that it was because she could. That however much some citizens of her adopted star nation might disapprove of her, that mind-numbing, deadly reasonable, and eternally patient Beowulfan pressure to conform to someone else's ideal and "be happy" simply did not exist there. Yet grateful as she was for that, and deeply as she had come to love her new homeland, the notion of inheriting a position of power and authority, however hedged about by the limitations of the Star Kingdom's Constitution, had always struck her as absurd.
Maybe it's the geneticist in me. After all, I know how much accident goes into anyone's genetic makeup!
But that absurd notion had become something much less amusing the day Honor became Steadholder Harrington. The notion that her Honor had somehow transmuted into a great feudal lady had taken some getting used to. In fact, she never had gotten used to it—not really—before Honor's murder. But she'd seen the changes in her daughter, recognized the way that something deep inside her answered to the challenge of her new duties. And one thing Honor would never knowingly have done was leave her Harringtons—or her adoptive planet—with a political crisis like the one Clinkscales had just described.
"I don't know," she said finally. "I mean, this isn't the sort of thing Alfred and I ever had to think about before, Lord Clinkscales." She lowered the stylus and glanced at it, smiling crookedly as she saw the deep tooth marks she'd imprinted in the plastic, then looked back up at Harrington Steading's Regent. "It wouldn't be easy to stand the thought that we were somehow trying to... replace her," she said much more softly, and Clinkscales nodded.
"I know that, My Lady. But you wouldn't be doing that. No one could do that. Think of it instead as helping her see to it that the chain of command for her steading remains intact."
"Um." She realized she was nibbling on the stylus again and lowered it once more. "But that brings up two more points, My Lord," she said. "The first is whether or not it would be fair to my nephew Devon. Not that he ever expected to inherit anything like this, but he's already been informed by the College of Heraldry that he'll inherit her Manticoran 'dignities,' although he won't be officially confirmed as Earl Harrington for several months yet. But if Alfred and I agree to your request, I imagine that title, too, would legally pass to our new child... which would mean taking it away from him in the name of someone who hasn't even been conceived yet."
She shook her head and made a face, then sighed.
"I'll be honest, My Lord. I wish to God that Alfred and I didn't have to worry about any of this. That we could be confident that any children we might have would be born because we wanted them for themselves, not because there was a slot somewhere they 'had' to fill! And, frankly, a part of me resents the fact that such an intensely personal decision on our part should be of any concern at all to anyone else... or have such repercussions for so many other people!"
She brooded down at her blotter for several seconds, then shook herself with another, deeper sigh.
"But however much I may resent that, and however it may affect Devon, there's another, even more important point I think Alfred and I will have to consider."
"And that point is, My Lady?" Clinkscales asked gently when she paused once more.
"Whether or not it would be fair to the child," she said very quietly. "What right do my husband and I have to bring a human being into the universe not for who and what she might become but because a government, or a ruler—or us, God help us!—decided what she would have no choice but to become, even before she was conceived. My daughter chose to accept the office of Steadholder; do Alfred and I have a right to unilaterally impose that same choice on someone we haven't even met yet? And how will that someone react when she realizes that we did... and why? Will she decide we did it only for political reasons, and not because we wanted or loved her in her own right?"
Clinkscales sat without speaking for several seconds, then leaned back in his chair and exhaled softly.
"I hadn't considered it from that perspective, My Lady," he admitted. "I don't think most Graysons would. Our clan and family structures have been so tightly organized for survival purposes since the early days of the settlement that we'd probably feel at loose ends without that external factor helping us to define who and what we are. But for all that, I've seen the consequences of breeding for an heir solely out of a sense of duty or ambition. Remember the disparity in our male/female birth rates and the fact that up until nine years ago, only males could inherit. So, yes, I've seen the way that knowing his parents conceived him only because the steading or the clan required an heir can sour and scar a man.
"But that doesn't happen often," he went on earnestly. "Children are the most precious gifts the Comforter ever gave us, My Lady. If anyone knows that, it's Graysons. And children who are genuinely loved and cherished, even as the products of pure marriages of state, don't grow up thinking they were born only out of the political needs of their parents."
"Yes, but—" Allison began, but Clinkscales stopped her with a gentle shake of his head.
"My Lady, I knew your daughter," he said quietly. "And anyone who had the privilege of knowing her as well as I did also knew there was never an instant in her life in which she wasn't absolutely secure in her love for you and her father and in your love for her. That gives me a very good opinion of you—and of your ability to raise another child with the same love and sense of self. Don't let your own grief or doubt push you into doubting yourself on that deep a level."
Allison blinked stinging eyes and felt her mouth tremble for just a moment. My God, she thought in deep amazement. I thought he was some kind of museum-exhibit fossil when we first met—some sort of throwback to a time when men walked around on their knuckles in a testosterone haze... when they weren't beating their chests and yodeling in triumph. But now—!
She felt a distant burn of shame for her own past readiness to dismiss him, but it was lost behind a far deeper sense of wonder at the insight and gentleness he'd just displayed. And of how bare it laid the foolishness of her own fears. She still had her doubts about whether or not she and Alfred should produce an heir to the Harrington Key on demand, as it were, but not about whether or not they could raise another child with the same love and welcome they'd shown Honor.
Of course, there is that other little matter. Clinkscales doesn't know what I've turned up in the genome project... and I still haven't decided whether or not to go public with it. I wonder how he and Protector Benjamin will feel about "breeding" a Harrington heir if the Harrington name turns into "Mud" when— if—I break the news!
She pushed that thought aside, shook herself, and stood behind her desk. Clinkscales rose as well, and she smiled at him.
"I'll think about it, My Lord," she told him. "Alfred and I will have to discuss it, of course, and it may take us some time to decide. But we will think about it, I promise."
She held out her hand, and Clinkscales bent over it to kiss it in the traditional Grayson fashion.
"Thank you, My Lady," he said quietly. "That's all we could ask of you and your husband. May the Tester help you reach your decision."