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Chapter Forty-One

"Well, Honor. I believe you and Hamish have something you want to tell me about, don't you?"

Honor turned quickly, putting her back to the archaic, battlemented parapet of King Michael's Tower. She cursed herself silently for the suddenness of her movement, and hoped she didn't look too much like a Sphinx chipmunk suddenly confronted by treecat.

Sunlight poured down over the tower's flat roof, less warm than the sun had been for her last visit to Mount Royal Palace four months earlier, but still hot. The rooftop garden's flowers and shrubs were in full leaf, and the fringe of the sun awning over the garden chairs popped gently in the breeze. The sky was a deep, cloudless blue, and some of Mount Royal's flock of Old Earth ravens rode the wind in circles high overhead.

Queen Elizabeth and Crown Prince Justin sat in two of the garden chairs, their treecats stretched out comfortably on the old-fashioned wicker table between them. Hamish sat to one side, with Emily's life-support chair beside him, and Samantha and Nimitz lay sprawled together in a patch of shade on Emily's other side.

It was a charmingly tranquil domestic scene, Honor thought. Unfortunately, she tasted the gently malicious amusement behind the Queen's innocent brown eyes.

"What makes you think that, Elizabeth?" she asked, sparring for time and tasting Hamish's sudden consternation. She did not, she noticed, sense any such emotion from Emily.

"Honor," the Queen said patiently, "I'm the Queen, remember? I have thousands and thousands of spies whose sole job is to make sure I know things. More to the point, I've known Hamish and Emily since I was born, and you for—what? Fifteen T-years, now? You may not be aware of how your body language has changed around them, but I certainly am. So, which of you miscreants wants to confess that you and Hamish are in violation of the Articles of War?"

Honor felt Hamish's flicker of dismay, but there was too much devilish delight in Elizabeth's mind-glow for Honor to share it.

"As a matter of fact," she replied after a moment, "according to my attorney, Richard Maxwell, there's every reason to believe that since the First Lord is a civilian and I'm not, any relationship between us wouldn't be in violation of the Articles. Assuming, of course," she added with a smile, "that there was any such relationship."

"Oh, certainly assuming any such thing," Elizabeth agreed affably. "Ah, and would it happen there is such a relationship?"

"Actually, Beth," Emily said tranquilly, "there is. We're married."

"You shock me." Elizabeth chuckled and leaned back in her chair, fanning herself with one hand. "Oh, how my trust in all three of you has been betrayed! Woe and lamentations. And so forth."

"Very funny," Emily said politely.

"You don't seem surprised that I'm not surprised," Elizabeth pointed out.

"Unlike my lamentably overly trusting spouses, I felt more than a slight twinge of suspicion when you invited the three of us for a private audience. They, needless to say, walked in all innocent and unwary." Emily shook her head sadly. "Well, Honor may not have. She's really much more clever about these things than Hamish, but I'm fairly confident you managed to at least partially blindside her, as well."

"I certainly tried." Elizabeth looked at Honor, her eyes glinting in the awning's shade. "It's not always the easiest thing to do," she added.

"It's been happening to me with depressing regularity for the past several months, actually," Honor told her. "First the minor matter of that unexpected pregnancy. Then Solomon Hayes' helpful announcement of it. Then there was the little ambush Reverend Sullivan, Archbishop Telmachi, my mother, and my husband and wife—only they weren't my husband and wife at that point, you understand—set up. Did you know I was proposed to and married in less than two hours? The Reverend came all the way from Grayson to make an honest woman out of me. And then," despite herself, her mood darkened, "there've been a few other, less pleasant surprises since."

She felt a quick, sharp echo of her own darkness from Elizabeth as her words brought back the pain of losing Michelle Henke. Then Nimitz gave her a firm, scolding bleek, and she shook her head quickly.

"Sorry about that." She smiled almost naturally. "I don't mean to be the ghost at the banquet."

"Apology accepted," Elizabeth told her. She drew a breath, then shook herself and smiled back, banishing her own sense of loss and reaching back out for her previous mood.

"However," she continued, "the real devious reason I invited you three here and strong-armed your confession out of you, is that I'm wondering just how long you intend to wait before you publicly . . . regularize your situation?"

"We were waiting until Richard was able to confirm Hamish's interpretation of the legal complications," Honor said.

"And," Hamish admitted, "keeping quiet about it has sort of gotten to be a habit. I think we're all just a little bit nervous—no, a lot nervous—over how the public will react to this. Especially after High Ridge's smear campaign."

"Knowing you all, I assume there was no truth to Hayes' allegations at the time?"

"No, there wasn't," Hamish said firmly, then glanced at Emily and Honor. "Not," he added with scrupulous honesty, "that there wasn't considerable temptation, whether Honor and I had admitted it to ourselves or not."

"I thought as much." Elizabeth regarded them thoughtfully, then shrugged. "I'm sure a lot of people who don't know you will assume otherwise. Unfortunately, nothing you can do is going to change that, and waiting until after your son is born will only make it worse. You do realize that, don't you?"

"We do—even Hamish," Emily said, smiling demurely at her husband.

"Under some circumstances," Elizabeth continued just a bit more seriously, "this could have been a significant political liability. Not only is Hamish First Lord, but Willie is Prime Minister. Which, by the way, is the first time in the Star Kingdom's history two sibs have simultaneously held such important positions in a government. The idea that all of us were lying, whether we were or not, is going to present itself, and the Opposition would just love to pounce on it. At the moment, however, there is no effective Opposition. The only person who could put one together, really, is Cathy Montaigne, and given her own . . . irregular personal life—not to mention her basic personality—she'll be standing on top of the Parliament building toasting the brides and groom and leading choruses of obscene drinking songs in their honor.

"What I'm trying to say is that, politically speaking, there's no time like the present. I think you should go ahead and make your marriage public. Besides, I've consulted the Queen's Bench. They agree with Hamish's interpretation. And they also agree I have the authority as Queen to set aside Article One-Nineteen. For that matter, they tell me Admiral Caparelli could make the same decision 'for the good of the service' on the basis that the Crown can't afford to lose either of you at this particular time. So it's time to come out of the closet, you three."

"That's . . . a scary thought," Honor admitted softly, her smile just a bit tremulous. "One I'm really looking forward to, you understand, but still scary after so long. And I have to go back to Trevor's Star the day after tomorrow. I'll feel awfully guilty if we're all wrong and this blows up in everyone else's face while I'm off with the fleet and out of range!"

"If we wait until you can hang around to absorb your share of any slings and arrows, we'll never get it announced," Emily pointed out. "Eighth Fleet is eating up every minute of your time." She pouted. "It was bad enough when the Navy was only seducing one of my spouses away from me!"

"Hey, if you can't take a joke, you shouldn't follow the Fleet, girlie," Hamish said with a wicked grin, and Emily gurgled a laugh.

"I bet you say that to all your dirt-side dollies, spacer!" she growled.

"If we can return this conversation to a somewhat less salacious basis," Elizabeth said severely, eyes twinkling, "I have a suggestion."

"Which is?" Honor asked, ignoring Hamish and Emily as Emily reached out and smacked him on the head with her working arm.

"Which is that we can probably defuse at least some of any adverse public reaction if we make the announcement the right way."

"Which is?" Honor repeated.

"You three were already invited to tonight's state dinner," Elizabeth said. "It was going to be one of those boring but necessary evenings, full of ambassadors and toasts and looking confident for the newsies and HD cameras. And I'll be honest with you, looking confident is more necessary than usual at the moment."

Her expression darkened once more, and Ariel's ears flattened in reaction to her mood shift.

"What happened to you at Solon, Honor, and what the Peeps did to us at Zanzibar, have had a measurable impact on public morale. Events in Talbott aren't helping, either. At the moment, Admiral Sarnow seems to be getting on top of the situation in Silesia, but that butcher Nordbrandt is killing hundreds of people in Split. And what happened when the Peeps tried to assassinate you also has to be factored into the mix."

"My read is that the assassination attempt mainly pissed people off," Hamish said.

"It certainly did," Elizabeth agreed. "And if you think people were 'pissed off' here in the Star Kingdom, you don't even want to know how Grayson reacted! It was bad enough when they thought the Peeps had executed you, Honor—this is even worse, in a way. At the same time, though, all kinds of rumors are flying. In fairness to Lieutenant Meares and his family, I authorized the release of the information that he was acting under some form of compulsion. But the fact that we can't suggest how the compulsion was exerted is contributing to a climate of suspicion. Or fear, perhaps. After all, if the Peeps got to him, who else can they get to?

"At any rate, anything that pushes morale upward is very much worthwhile, and I think having your marriage announced here at Mount Royal, by me, with all the appropriate hoopla, ought to have a sort of festive effect. You three are probably among the dozen or so most popular public figures in the Star Kingdom right now, and that's going to more than compensate for anyone who might suspect Hamish and Honor were . . . dallying with one another before you actually were."

"Politics," Honor sighed, then laughed a trifle sadly.

"What?" Hamish asked.

"I was just recalling a discussion with Admiral Courvoisier before we deployed to Grayson for the first time," Honor said, shaking her head.

"Politics are always important at our level of responsibility, Honor," Elizabeth told her. "That doesn't necessarily make this a sordid decision."

"I wasn't trying to suggest it does. It's just that it gets so fatiguing sometimes."

"That it does. On the other hand, sometimes I get to combine things I genuinely want to do with political considerations. Of course, it works the other way around, too, sometimes. More often, I usually think. In this case, though, I have a belated wedding gift for the three of you."

Honor regarded the Queen warily. At the moment Elizabeth's idea of what she was "due"—especially after Solon—would leave an unpleasant taste in her mouth.

Elizabeth looked back at her as if the Queen were the empath, then reached under her chair and pulled out a small, flat case.

"Nothing excessive," she reassured her vassal with a slight smile. "I just asked Broughton and Stemwinder to make these up for me."

She handed the case to Emily, and Honor walked over so that Emily's life-support chair was between her and Hamish. Emily looked up at both of them, then looked back down and ran her finger across the raised, intertwined "B" and "S" crest of the firm which had been jewelers to the House of Winton for over three T-centuries.

She opened it, and Honor drew a deep breath as she saw the three rings nestled into the velvet interior. They were Grayson-style wedding bands, larger and heavier than the Manticoran norm, and exquisitely wrought, if not quite in the pure Grayson style. On Grayson, men's wedding rings were traditionally of yellow gold and women's of silver, but all three of these bands were made up of three interwoven strands, one each of yellow gold, white gold, and silver. They carried the Harrington Steading key on one side and the rampant White Haven stag on the other, and the flat-topped bezels bore the traditional circle of diamonds, each centered by a different semiprecious stone.

"I checked," Elizabeth said. "Honor, you were born in October, old-style. Hamish, you were born in March, and Emily was born in August. That makes your birthstones opal, jade, and sardonyx. So I had these made for you. They aren't quite Grayson, and they aren't quite Manticoran, just as the three of you no longer belong to just one of us."

"They're beautiful, Elizabeth." Emily looked up with bright eyes. "Thank you."

"As gifts go, they're small enough for people who mean as much to me as you do," Elizabeth said simply. "And these are from us—from Elizabeth and Justin, not the Crown."

Honor reached into the case and removed the opal-crested ring. She held it, glittering in the sun, gazing down at it for a few seconds. Then she tried it on the third finger of her left hand.

It was a bit large, and she felt a flicker of surprise. Elizabeth had obviously taken pains to get this gift right, and it should have been easy for her to get Honor's ring size, given that Honor's father had the exact dimensions of her prosthetic hand. But then she felt Elizabeth's eyes on her and sensed the Queen's waiting watchfulness. She thought about it for a moment, then removed the ring from her left hand and tried it on her right.

It fit perfectly, and she held it up, looking past it at Elizabeth.

"If you want it resized, it won't be a problem, Honor," Elizabeth told her. "But I think I know you pretty well by now, and it occurred to me that you might want to wear it on your flesh-and-blood hand."

"I think you're right," Honor said slowly, lowering her hand and looking down at it. She'd never been one to wear much jewelry, but that ring looked perfect, and she smiled. Then she took it back off and handed it to Emily.

"Please, Emily," she said, holding out her hand as well. "On Grayson, the senior wife gives the wedding band to her junior. I know that, as Elizabeth says, we're not really Manticoran or Grayson anymore, but it would mean a lot to me."

"Of course," Emily said gently, then looked up at her husband. "Hamish, would you help me?"

Hamish smiled at both of them, then reached down, gently holding Honor's wrist as Emily slid the ring back onto her finger. Emily gazed at it, then looked back up.

"It looks good there, doesn't it?" She moved her gaze to Elizabeth. "And I think I'll have mine resized for my right hand, too."

"No need," Elizabeth told her. "It already is."

"Such a clever person you are," Emily told her distant cousin, and Elizabeth chuckled.

"I have it on the best of authority that all queens named 'Elizabeth' are clever."

"Ha! Probably that sycophantic Crown Prince you're married to currying favor with you!" Emily retorted.

"Thereby proving," the maligned Crown Prince in question said equably, "how clever he is."


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