The sentries at Harrington House’s East Portico snapped to attention with even greater than usual precision as the luxury ground car purred through the dome’s main vehicle entrance. A small pennon—a triangle of maroon and gold bearing the opened Bible and crossed swords that were the Protector’s emblem, starched-stiff in the wind of its passage—flew from a fender-mounted staff, and two-man grav sleds hovered watchfully above it. Further up, out of sight from the ground, sleek transatmospheric craft kept equally attentive watch, and teams of crack marksmen—some in Mayhew maroon-and-gold, and some in Harrington Steading’s green-on-green—stood unobtrusively on vantage points on Harrington House’s roof and dome catwalks while sophisticated electronic devices scanned the grounds ceaselessly.
It all seemed just a trifle much to Allison Harrington. She knew about the security features built into Harrington House, and she’d gotten used to the notion that Harrington Steading’s armsmen insisted on watching over her and her husband, although she was devoutly thankful that they were less intrusive about it than they had been about guarding poor Honor. More to the point, she supposed, she’d anticipated some of this in advance, given the nature of the occasion. Even if she hadn’t, Miranda LaFollet’s expression when she suggested it would have offered ample warning. Miranda continued to function as Harrington Steading chief of staff, so it was she who had been responsible for issuing the actual invitation, and she’d shown more than a little trepidation at the prospect. Allison had been confident that the invitees would accept, and she’d been right. But if she’d realized a simple supper invitation was going to put the equivalent of what seemed like a full Marine brigade on alert, she probably wouldn’t have had the nerve to issue it in the first place.
Not "nerve," she corrected herself. Gall.
The thought helped, and she smiled more naturally as she and Alfred stepped out under the portico with Howard Clinkscales to greet their guests. Miranda and Farragut flanked them on Allison’s right, and James MacGuiness, in the civilian clothing he’d worn since returning to Grayson, followed on Alfred’s left. At Benjamin IX’s personal request, the RMN had granted the steward indefinite leave in order for him to serve as Harrington House’s majordomo, and his eyes swept back and forth almost as attentively as the watching armsmen’s, searching for any imperfection.
They found none. The green-uniformed men on either side of the doorway stood rigidly to attention, gazes fixed straight ahead, as the ground car slid to a halt. The counter-grav ground effect died, and gravel crunched as the car settled. Then the front passenger door opened, and an athletic major in maroon and gold, with the braided aigulette of Palace Security hanging from his right shoulder, climbed out it.
The Mayhew armsman stood scanning his surroundings while he listened to reports over his earbug. Grav sleds swept through the portal and grounded, and a dozen more men in the same colors joined the major to form an alert, open ring about the car. Then he nodded, and a sergeant opened a rear door and snapped to the salute as Benjamin IX stepped out of it past him.
The Protector waved as Allison, Alfred, and Clinkscales came down the steps to greet him, then turned and handed Katherine Mayhew, his senior wife, from the car. Allison and Katherine had met briefly on several occasions during the days before Honor’s funeral, but the demands of protocol and solemnity had kept them from truly getting to know one another. Nonetheless, Allison had sensed a kindred spirit in Katherine, even through the unrelenting formality of those dreary days, and this was one case in which it probably helped that she hadn’t been born to an aristocratic tradition. She understood how such traditions worked, and she’d come to respect them—mostly—but they weren’t really a part of her cultural baggage. That left her less impressed with Katherine Mayhew’s rank than she might have been, and she looked forward to becoming better acquainted with the other woman despite her exalted position, for she suspected they were too much alike not to become friends. They were also very much of a size—which was to say "tiny"—and the First Lady of Grayson held out her hand with a smile as Allison swept down on her.
"Good afternoon, Madam Mayhew," Allison said formally, and Katherine shook her head.
"I would really prefer ‘Katherine,’ or even ‘Cat,’ " she said. "‘Madam Mayhew’ sounds much too formal coming from a Harrington."
"I see... Katherine," Allison murmured, and Katherine squeezed her hand and turned to greet Alfred as Benjamin assisted his second wife, Elaine, from the car. Elaine was the shy one, Allison remembered, although the Protector’s junior wife seemed to have gained considerably in composure compared to the almost timid person Honor had described from their first meeting, and Allison greeted her warmly.
"Thank you for inviting us," Elaine replied, smiling as she watched Alfred bend over Katherine’s hand as gallantly as any Grayson might have. "It’s not often we get out for anything except formal occasions."
"This isn’t formal? " Allison demanded, flicking her free hand at all the punctilious military courtesy and firepower conspicuously displayed about them.
"Oh, goodness no!" Elaine laughed. "With the entire family—except for Michael, of course—all out in the open in one place? This is the lightest security I’ve seen in, oh, ages! "
Allison was certain for a moment that her leg was being pulled, but then she looked back at the major and realized Elaine was dead serious. The major was too well trained to be obvious, but he was clearly unhappy about his charges’ potential exposure, and Allison hid a wince of sympathy as he almost visibly swallowed a need to urge the Protector and his wives to get themselves inside Harrington House and under cover. Unfortunately for the major, Benjamin was in no hurry, and Allison chuckled as a torrent of Mayhew offspring poured out of the car on Elaine’s heels.
Actually, there were only four of them; they merely seemed like a torrent, and individual armsmen peeled off to attach themselves to each child with the ease of long practice. It seemed dreadfully unfair for children that young to already be burdened with their own permanent, personal bodyguards, but Allison supposed they’d better start getting used to the fanatical way Graysons guarded their steadholders and protectors early. And truth to tell, their armsmen’s presence certainly didn’t seem to have stunted the Mayhew brood’s boisterous development.
The sturdy eleven-year-old in the lead favored Katherine strongly, although she was already as tall as her mother and promised to go right on growing. Rachel Mayhew had been the terror of the palace nursery in her day, and she seemed to be fighting a stubborn rearguard action against the encroachments of civilization. From a few amused comments Clinkscales had let drop, Allison suspected Honor had been a major influence on the taste Rachel had developed for "unladylike" athletics. She was already training as a pilot, as well, and carried a very respectable grade-point average, but her tastes ran to the engineering and hard science courses which had been traditionally male on Grayson. Even worse, in conservative eyes, perhaps, she already held a brown belt in coup de vitesse.
The old-fashioned term "tomboy" came to mind every time Allison laid eyes on the girl—who was more likely to be cheerfully engaged in taking an air car’s grav generators apart to see how they worked than in learning to dance, giggle over the opposite sex, or any of the other things she "ought" to be doing. At the moment, one of her hair ribbons had come untied, and she’d managed to get a smear of dirt on her cheek. Which, Allison reflected, must have taken some doing, since the ground car had brought her and her family straight here from the shuttle pad. Funny. I thought Honor was the only child who could teleport dirt into otherwise sterile environments!
Jeanette and Theresa—ten and nine and the biological daughters of Elaine and Katherine, respectively—followed just a bit more sedately. Jeanette had the same dark eyes as Rachel, but her hair was a bright chestnut, whereas Theresa’s resemblance to their oldest sister was almost eerie. Except that Theresa was neat as a new pin and obviously hadn’t made the acquaintance of Rachel’s secret dirt patch.
And finally, Benjamin reached back into the car and lifted out his youngest daughter. The baby of the family—for the moment; that status tended to be transitory in families the size people were raising on Grayson these days—she was only four years old and clearly another of Elaine’s. She was tall for her age, with hair much the same auburn as Miranda LaFollet’s, and huge sea-gray eyes, and a promise of elegant beauty already showed through her immature child’s bone structure. She buried her face shyly against her father when she saw all the strangers, but then she straightened up and demanded to be put down. Benjamin complied, and she reached out and grabbed one of Katherine’s hands tightly while she stared curiously at Allison.
"Our youngest," Katherine said quietly, touching the child’s curly mop of hair with her free hand. "Your daughter’s goddaughter."
Allison had known who the little girl was, but her eyes misted for just a moment anyway. She stooped gracefully, making herself the same height as the child, cleared her throat, and held out her own hand.
"My name is Allison," she said. "What’s your name?"
The girl looked gravely at the offered hand for several seconds, then back at Allison’s face.
"Honor," she said after a moment. Her Grayson accent softened the name, but she spoke clearly and distinctly. "Honor Mayhew."
"Honor," Allison repeated, keeping the pain from her own voice, and smiled. "That’s a very good name for someone, don’t you think?" Honor nodded wordlessly. Then she reached out and laid her hand in the one Allison still held extended. She looked up at Katherine and Elaine as if for approval, and Katherine smiled at her. She smiled back, then looked up at Allison.
"I’m four," she announced.
"Four years old?" Allison asked.
"Uh-huh. And number four, too," Honor told her with a grin.
"I see." Allison nodded in grave approval and stood back fully erect, still holding Honor’s hand. Each of the adult Mayhews had corralled one of the older girls, and Allison dimpled as the major sighed in profound relief when MacGuiness, with the able assistance of Miranda and Farragut, began chivvying people up the steps.