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"I don't know, Alley."

Alfred Harrington towered over his tiny wife. He was a good four centimeters taller than his daughter had been, and he had the solid muscle and bone of someone born and bred to a gravity ten percent heavier than Beowulf's. Yet despite his impressive physical presence, he'd seemed much the more fragile of the two over the months since Honor's capture, and her death had hit him with crushing force. He was coming back from it at last, and the nights when Allison awoke to his fierce embrace and the hot saltiness of his tears had grown blessedly less frequent, but progress had been agonizingly slow. Now he sank down on the couch beside her in their palatial suite in Harrington House and tucked his right arm around her.

"I told Clinkscales we'd have to think about it," she told him, turning her face up to be kissed and then snuggling down against him.

Bigger may not always be better, but there's definitely something to be said for it when it comes to handing out cuddling, she thought smugly, pressing her cheek luxuriously into his chest, and then smiled as two of the treecatsNelson and Samanthaflowed up onto the couch to join them. Samantha had brought along Jason, still the most fearless explorer of her children, and the 'kitten came bumbling up to leap upon Allison's free hand and wrestle it into submission. Samantha sat upright on her four rearmost limbs to watch him, tail wrapped around her hand-feet and true-feet while she groomed her whiskers with one true-hand, but Nelson sprawled out across Alfred's lap in companionable, boneless luxury.

"Um." Alfred leaned back, unfocused eyes on Jason while he pursed his lips in thought and rubbed Nelson's ears. The older 'cat gave a deep, buzzing purr and oozed out even flatter in a shameless display of sensuality, but after several seconds, Alfred shook his head.

"You know, this is going to crop up whenever we have more children, Alley." She looked up at him, and he shrugged. "They're still going to be Honor's brothers or sisters," he managed to say his dead daughter's name with only the smallest catch in his voice this time, "and that means the whole inheritance thing is going to pop out of the woodwork sooner or later, whatever we want."

"I know." She sighed. Jason had completely enveloped her hand now, wrapping himself around it in a fluffy ball while he fastened all six limbsand a prehensile tailabout her wrist and forearm, and his own buzz of delight rose as she rolled him over on his back. "I hadn't thought about it before... well, you know." Alfred nodded, and she sighed again. "Dynastic inheritance isn't something a good Beowulf girl needs to concern herself about," she said plaintively.

"For better or for worse, I believe you said," he told her, brushing the end of her nose with the tip of his left forefinger while one of the deep chuckles which had become all too rare in the last few months rumbled in his chest.

"And I meant itthen!" she told him pertly. "Besides, you promised the same thing."

"So I did." He returned his left hand to Nelson and ran it slowly down the 'cat's spine, and it was his turn to sigh. "Well," he said very quietly, "I suppose life really does go on, except in bad books and worse holodrama. And we'd always planned on more children. So I guess the real question isn't whether we let 'dynastic' considerations push us into anything but whether or not we let them stampede us out of doing what we'd intended to do before they came along."

"True."

His right hand rose to stroke her sleek black hair, and she made a soft sound of pleasure and gave a wiggle at least as feline as any treecat could have managed, and he chuckled again. But then her smile faded.

"Of course, my genome results only make this even more complicated, you know."

"I don't see why," he disagreed. "You didn't have anything to do with it. All you've done is spot it."

"Some cultures have a nasty habit of shooting the messenger when the news is bad, my love. And lest you forget, Grayson tends to be a rather religious planet. And given the Church of Humanity's original take on science in general, I'm more than a little afraid that the locals aren't going to react to the information quite as calmly as you and I did!"

"Well, it's not as if it would be the first time someone named Harrington set them on their ears," he pointed out in return. "They ought to be getting used to it by now. And if they haven't yet, then they'd damn well better get around to it quick if they plan on dumping any steadholders' keys on more of our children."

"Goodness, how fierce!" Allison murmured, and giggled as he bared his teeth at her. It felt incredibly good to have him joking with her once more, and her eyes softened as she gazed up at him and saw the man she'd loved for over sixty T-years emerging once more from the stony despair of his grief. She thought about saying something to welcome him back, but it was too soon, and so she only tucked her cheek back against his deep chest with a little sigh of bittersweet joy and concentrated on wrestling with Jason.

"You know," Alfred said after a moment, "what you really ought to do is talk to someone you can trust to be discreet but who can also give you an authoritative read on how the Graysons are likely to react to your findings."

"I thought of that for myself," she told him a bit tartly, "but who did you have in mind? Lord Clinkscales has enough on his mind already, and Miranda" She shook her head. "Miranda was too close to Honor, and she's grown too close to us. She wouldn't do it on purpose, but she'd filter her response through her feelings for me. Assuming, of course, that she didn't turn out to have a major negative religious reaction to it herself!"

"You don't really think that's going to happen, though," Alfred said confidently.

"No, I don't," Allison admitted. "On the other hand, I've been wrong before, on very rare occasions in my life, and I'd just as soon not find out if this is one of them."

"I can see that." Alfred rubbed Nelson, and then chuckled as Samantha decided the men had been getting too much of the attention. She stood and stalked over to wedge herself down between the two Harringtons, flowing into the space between them like modeling clay and patting Allison's thigh imperiously with one true-hand until the hand Jason hadn't captured came around to pet her.

But then Alfred's chuckle oozed off into a thoughtful silence, and Allison looked up at him with a raised eyebrow.

"You know," he said slowly, "I think I've just had an idea."

"What kind?" she demanded.

"Well, your main concern is over the religious dimension, right? About how the more conservative elements of the Church are likely to react?" She nodded, and he shrugged. "In that case, why not go to the very top? From something Mac said this morning, I understand Reverend Sullivan is going to be here in Harrington in a couple of weeks."

"Rev?" Allison frowned, furrowing her brow as she thought. "I'd considered that myself earlier, very briefly," she admitted after a moment. "But I chickened out. From all I've seen of him, he's a lot... fiercer than Reverend Hanks was. What if that means he's narrower minded or more authoritarian? What if he tries to force me to suppress my findings?"

"What if you're borrowing trouble?" Alfred countered. "I agree he's not very much like Honor described Reverend Hanks to usor, at least, his public persona isn't. But from what I've seen of the Graysons, I don't think their Sacristy would have been likely to select an idiot or a zealot as Reverend. For that matter, didn't Honor tell us Hanks himself had more or less handpicked Sullivan as Second Elder and groomed him as his successor?"

Allison nodded, and he twitched his left shoulder in another shrug.

"In that case, I'd say you've got at least a better than even chance he'll react reasonably. And even if he doesn't, that's a bridge you're going to have to cross eventually anyway. I mean, you wouldn't really let him stop you from publishing in the unlikely event that he did try to suppress your findings, would you?" She shook her head. "Well, there it is, then. You might as well find out now as later, and going to him first will give you a better chance of enlisting his active support if it's looking iffy. And however individual Graysons may react, there's certainly no one on this entire planet who could give you a better read on the Church's probable official reaction!"

"That's true enough, anyway," Allison agreed. She thought about it for several seconds, then nodded against his chest. "I think you're probably right," she said, "You always did have a better sense than me of how to work a hierarchy."

"All those misspent years of Navy service surviving BuMed's oversight, lovey," he informed her with a smile. "You either learn to work the system, or you wind up a patient instead of a doctor."

"Yeah? I just figured it was that authoritarian, aristocratic, feudalistic throwback of a society you grew up in."

"As opposed to that libertine, lascivious, overstratified and conformist collection of sensualists you grew up with?" he inquired sweetly.

"Of course," she agreed cheerfully, then made a little moue of regret and sat up straight as a discreet chime sounded. "Dinner is served." She sighed. "Am I mussed?"

"Not very," he told her after a brief, critical examination.

"Damn," she said. "Now Miranda and Mac are going to know we hadn't even gotten to the good part before they interrupted us. You're simply going to have to do better than this, Alfred! I do have a reputation to maintain, you know."

Her husband was still chuckling when they walked into the dining room two minutes later.


Chapter Five | Echoes Of Honor | Chapter Six



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