When Richard steps out of the transport tube, flanked by Catesby and Ratcliff, the sight is enough to send the checkpoint guard on the deck of Echo Station diving for his comm link.
Catesby knows why. They surrendered their weapons at the docking point, like every other visitor to Outpost Echo, and none of them are physically imposing. Cat and Rat are both small and lean, a matched set even in the eyes of strangers who don't know their story. Richard, as always, looks as though it takes all of his effort merely to hold that twisted body upright. Yet there is a whisper of military discipline in their formation. Matching black gloves and sleek tunics suggest a uniform, without reflecting the colors of any extant galactic power. This is not an accident.
It has been a decade since he led a squadron, but the appearance of Richard Gloucester-York in a Woodville stronghold, escorted by what just may be a private army, is clearly a problem above this young guard's pay grade.
A dry laugh rattles in Richard's throat. "Don't call the dogs yet, young man. As they used to say in the old Earth films. . ." He spreads his hands in a welcoming gesture. "'I come in peace.'"
Ratcliff throws Cat a look, and Cat nods. They've been watching some of those films, at Richard's gentle insistence – another of the gaps in their educations that he has arbitrarily taken it on himself to remedy-- and so they know that the words, "We come in peace," almost always precede a violent confrontation.
The guard probably doesn't know anything about old Earth films, but he notices that Cat and Rat do nothing to replicate Richard's show of conciliation. Once again he presses a button on the comm link.
"Here," Richard reached out a hand. "I'll make the call myself. I promise, Lady Buckingham will be overjoyed to hear from me."
Henrietta Stafford, Lady Buckingham, is, in Catesby's experience, the rarest of phenomena: a middle aged woman who allows her years to show. On the moons where Cat lived until Richard found her, any young thing who outlived her beauty was shipped offworld. Old men might appear as clients or brokers; women never. Then Cat had come to the central worlds, where wealthy men and women alike injected and implanted and replenished their age away. If she hadn't been watching those Earth films, Cat might not have recognized the station chief's iron grey hair and lined face as anything but a deformity.
Buckingham has the wealth to fix her stout, aging body if she desires; she has the wealth to solve any problem susceptible to wealth. It must be perverse vanity, then, a declaration to the Woodville and Neville age-mates who look half her age, that she doesn't deal in their currency of beauty. No wonder she and Richard are allies.
As Buckingham rises to greet the visitors, her eyes move carefully over Richard's two escorts. "The Cat and the Rat, I presume."
A rumble rises in Ratcliff's throat, and Cat puts a cautioning hand on his shoulder.
"Lady Catesby," Richard corrects in his impossibly mild, honeyed voice. "And Lord Ratcliff."
"Of course. Forgive an old woman's memory," Buckingham says, with a far too innocent smile. Her memory is in fact the most famous thing about her. She carries the knowledge of four generations of Buckinghams, the result of a mimetic transfer procedure that is now illegal on all civilized worlds, due to its tendency to drive recipients mad. The current Buckingham, however, is disconcertingly sane, so methodical and observant that even Richard rarely bothers lying to her. When he does, doesn't much expect to be believed.
She has probably guessed, already, that the respectable-sounding "Catesby" and "Ratcliff" are Ricardian retrofits, whimsically styled to half-mask the bestial monikers that came first. Cat wouldn't mind if it was only her. The slit pupils, amber irises, and growth of striped black and yellow hair down the side of her face are desirable modifications, highly prized on the moon where Richard found her and Rat, where they had numbers instead of names, where nothing was illegal.
Rat's nickname is a cruel one, though, even if Cat can sometimes understand how it came about – the long nose and wispy beard, the eyes slightly too small for his face. His genetic baseline, like Cat's closely-related one, is valued because it takes mods well. Unlike Cat, however, Rat's base is completely unmodified. He is the least-prized model, his production and that of a hundred identical boys paid for by a corporation that didn't care they would grow into homely adults, as long as they were pretty children. Occasionally, a stranger's eyes will stop on Rat, recognizing the grownup version of an offworld brothel boy. Less often, they will brush by one of his doppelgangers, laboring at some menial work. Cat will covertly slip some money to the laborer, if she has a chance, but Rat and the other boy will pass by as though they don't see each other.
It means something, to Catesby and Ratcliff, that Richard has given them real names.
Buckingham is observant and worldly enough to look at Cat and Rat and know where they come from. She almost certainly draws the wrong conclusions about that origin. ("It isn't the way you think!" Catesby sometimes wants to shout at too-knowing strangers. Richard has never touched either one of them. Ratcliff has never touched her for that matter -- they only bunk together because he has bad dreams, because she doesn't trust what he might do if left on his own.)
"In any case," Buckingham says, "your aides de camp make a lovely couple."
"Brother and sister," Richard says, which is more or less true from a genetic perspective. In fact, he had once suggested to Catesby that the two should marry, for the ease of settling property on them. Cat had answered that, honestly, if she were to adopt Ratcliff, it would better reflect their relationship. Even though Richard laughed, Catesby thought that he knew she wasn't joking, and he never made the suggestion again.
"As you say," Buckingham sits back at her desk, bored with pleasantries. "Speaking of family matters. I hope you know that Woodville won't let the princes go easily."
"Edward is dead. The princes are a York enterprise. I am what all that remains of York. Edward's widow simply has nothing to do with the matter, unless she can argue she birthed them herself. And, unless I'm quite mistaken, body births went out of fashion in my family. I can't recall why, although there may have been certain incident involving -- my mother?" It hardly seems possible, but Richard slumps and leans in such a way as to emphasize his deformity even further.
If Buckingham's ostentatious aging is a sign of her own vanity, misshapen Richard stands as a monument to the hubris of his parents. They produced two perfect children – brilliant Edward, handsome Clarence – and expected a third to be as simple. What they got was Richard, his body broken, his genetic makeup stubbornly resistant to all mods. Later, as a university student, Edward wrote a prize-winning paper, using his brother as a case-study in the limitations of what medicine could do for the body. Although Edward had resisted such conclusions himself, it had been cited by a Woodville on the floor of Parliament, in support of the bill outlawing body birth on the inner worlds. Resources were finite, population was already tightly controlled. When genetics could so easily be predetermined, there was no justification for allowing chance into the equation.
According to Richard, a tearful, drunk Edward had apologized profusely to his youngest brother on the day the law was passed. The next day, a smiling, sober Edward became engaged to Woodville's sister. From that point on, Edward's scientific research had tended in a different direction.
"Woodville is not claiming that she carried the princes in her womb," Buckingham admits. "Not in a literal sense. But she does claim a role in Edward's work. I haven't yet sorted out whether there's anything to it, or whether she's just doing what she can to hold on to the boys."
"The boys?" Richard's eyebrows rise. "I thought we had agreed that the princes are synthetic specimens. Surely, the woman hasn't brought you around to her way of seeing them. I'd thought you had enough vision to see past a reproductive paradigm that's so tiresomely terrestrial."
"Maternal instincts," Ratcliff grunts. He tries to cast a look of harsh comradeship at Richard. They are together, his hooked grin wants to say -- the men in the room, safe from the atavistic logic of motherhood.
For his troubles, Rat gets an elbow in the rib from Catesby, and not so much as a glance from Richard or Buckingham. He tries a wounded look out on Cat, unable to understand why this jibe was off-limits. He doesn't understand that by reducing Buckingham to "woman," he's reduced Cat, too. Not that she feels a sense of sisterhood or any of that rot. If Rat had a reason to rip Buckingham's throat out (and by "had a reason" Catesby means, "Richard said so") she would stand by impassively. She would help if she needed to. It wouldn't be the first time.
Buckingham crosses hefty arms over her chest. "I don't give a Centaurian farthing for your evolving paradigms. I call them boys because they look like boys. They eat, they sleep, they learn, they grow. So your brother mixed them up in a lab. I don't see how that makes them any different from your bestiary over there."
Ratcliff growls under his breath, and Cat puts a soothing hand on his shoulder. But for a rare moment, she is upset with him. When someone calls you an animal, you should respond by proving you aren't. Maybe it's something that Richard can explain; maybe he has a book or a film that will help with this lesson.
"To be clear," Buckingham adds. "Just because I believe the princes live and breathe – that doesn't mean I won't help you kill them."
"Kill them? I don't want to kill them," Richard says, and at first Catesby thinks he is merely pretending to be scandalized, before proposing a plan of his own that amounts to the same thing. She's heard it often enough before. But it isn't that, after all. "You said it yourself," Richard continues. "Edward's synthetics live and they grow, but -- they don't die."
Buckingham shrugs. "So they're like those parrots or tortoises that have a longer lifespan than humans. The owners keep dying and the thing still needs to eat. If you ask me, that's what airlocks are for."
"No no no no no." Richard shakes his head. "I can't believe that you of all people don't see it. What they did to you thirty years ago, the mimetic nonsense. . .the world is past that, now. The technologies for consciousness transfer are ready. It's just the recipients who keep going mad."
Buckingham's eyes widen, as she grasps the import of Richard's words at last. "You really don't want to kill the princes."
"Of course we won't kill them. Silly old Edward had the secret of immortality, and he didn't even know it. I'm not going to leave that in the hands of a Woodville, but I'm certainly not going to throw it away. Buckingham, you and I aren't going to kill the princes. We're going to become them."
Ratcliff stared at Catesby again, his eyes begging for confirmation of what he had just heard. This time, Cat took his hand and squeezed it. She could already see it – Richard, victorious. Richard, immortal. The Cat and the Rat might be nothing more than his creatures, but they were going to help him win.