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THE DESERT AND THE BLADE

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER ONE:

 

Golden Gate/Glorannon
(formerly San Francisco Bay)
Crown Province of Westria
(Formerly California)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
July/Fumizuki/Cerweth 14th
Change Year 46/Fifth Age 46/Shōhei 1/2044 A.D.

 

Crown Princess Órlaith Arminger Mackenzie put her right hand to a stay and shaded her eyes with her left, looking landward as the fog-shrouded Golden Gate loomed before the Tarshish Queen’s bow. Behind her the booms of the big merchant schooner’s three gaff mainsails swung out to starboard, with a thump and twang she could feel as a shiver through her feet as well as her fingers when the travelers reached the end of their play and the foot of the forestaysail swept by overhead. They were beating back and forth until the fogbank lifted enough for the tricky passage into the Bay.

Her father had died there beyond the bridge, on the northern shore of the great inland water, at the hands of men who’d come this very path not three months gone.

Don’t remember his death every moment, she told herself.

Which was wise, but hard, hard to do. Grandmother Juniper had once said to her that if wisdom was easy any fool would be able to do it. Then she’d thumped down the beater on her big loom with fingers age-gnarled but still deft and Órlaith had pinched out the lamp-wicks and both of them laughed. They’d been laughing still as they went down the stairs to sit by the hearth in the hall below, to watch winter cider simmering on the hob and listen to Aunt Fiorbhinn patiently leading her latest apprentice through a piece on the harp and breathe in the strong fir-sap scent of the Yule Tree.

It wasn’t as funny now, though she probably understood it a lot better than she had at seventeen. Perhaps when she too was past seventy she’d be able to laugh at the thought again.

Though I’m not likely to see threescore and ten either. The ending completes our lives, it doesn’t undo them, whenever it comes. Da died as he lived, as a warrior and a father and a King. As an enemy of the enemies of human kind.

He’d died because he put himself between her and a blade, a sneak attack by a prisoner with a pair of holdout throwing knives. After the battle was supposedly over, no time for anything but pure action without thought of consequence... She didn’t feel guilty about it, or doubt for an instant that he’d have done exactly the same thing with a week to ponder it. Rudi Mackenzie would have been the first to say that it was the way of nature for a parent to fall defending his child—and then he’d have laughed and advised her to leave guilt to the Christians.

No, what she felt was loss, sorrow sharp as steel biting her flesh. Not just at his death, the ache that would have followed whenever he went to the Guardians of the Western Gate, but at the time and manner of it. A gripping bitterness that she’d never see him as an old man sitting in the sun and watching children play with a mug near his elbow and a cat curled in his lap and a smile on his face. That he would never spin tales of his wars and his wanderings and the wonders he’d seen and done with her children around him before the hearth with their faces rapt, or have them there to close his eyes and keen him to the pyre. Tired and ready for his rest, this life drained to the dregs and welcoming the shadow of the raven wings like cooling shade.

And she felt rage at those who had denied him that. Rage enough to boil the blood, rage that came back to choke her when she was halfway through a swallow of food or admiring a spray of flowers against a whitewashed wall or letting her eyelids drift downward after a hard day’s ride.

Revenge you will take, but don’t brood on it; that’s a sharp knife you have to grasp by the blade, the tales are full of it warping even heroes. Da walked to the Dark Mother smiling, with open eyes, meeting the King’s fate unflinching. Your fate too, one day. For the lord and the land and the folk are one, and we of the Royal kin are the sacrifice that gives itself, dying that our people may live. Even when you were a little lass, he never hid from you that death comes for us all._Think of his life instead.

She remembered when her first dog Maccon had been very old and the great shaggy beast had taken his last sickness, growing gaunt and thin and trembling, groaning sometimes in his basket at the foot of her bed. Until the healers shook their heads at her demands, Princess or no, and told her that things could only grow worse, and that quickly. Soon the pain would be more than the drugs could keep at bay.

Hold his head in your lap, so he can’t see the knife, Rudi Mackenzie had said gently. Maccon cannot know the why of things, but he knows the what well enough.

The shade of the tree fell across them both and the bees hummed in the blossoms, that week after Beltaine and the season of beginnings. This cherry tree had been the spot she and her dog had liked best to halt when they rambled through the woods about Dun Juniper in the summer season. She would lie and doze and dream with her head on his flank as she watched the west wind move across the valley below, cloud shadow across the rippling fields of gold like a tale told from far away. Until Maccon absently reached around and began to groom her head and she laughed and a single summer stretched out forever alike for both of them...

Da had carried him there for this in his arms, at her asking, and a shovel he’d matter-of-factly had her bring leaned against the gnarled bark; she’d been still young enough that it was fitting for him to help.

Maccon had whimpered and feebly licked her as she stroked his ears and ruff, seeking to comfort the grief that he sensed in her even then, heedless of its cause. Da had smiled sadly at the sight, and said:

Of all the Kindreds, only we of the human-kind see time as a thing apart from us. And in it see always our own mortality, walking a step towards us with every dawn. That is our special burden, to live with the shadow of the Crow Goddess’ wings always before our eyes. Maccon is spared that. Just a little sting, and he will sleep without fear or hurt.

Will we meet again, Da? she’d asked, as she obeyed through her tears.

She took the dirk in her right hand while she cradled the big dog’s gruesome greying muzzle against her with her left. Her father’s voice had been warmly kind, but implacable:

Of course, pulse of my heart: we pass through the Western Gate, and rest in the Land of Summer once again with those dear to us, before the forgetting and the return. But dying still hurts, and grief is hard for those left behind. Maccon doesn’t know that an ending and a parting comes now. Just that you who are his friend and his lord are with him, as you have been since the both of you were pups. Let that be his last memory here. He will roam those blessed hills where no sorrow comes in gladness, and greet you once more.
Why does he have to die?
she’d said, choking back a shout that might have frightened the ailing beast. Why does anyone have to die?

That we don’t know, darling girl, any more than Maccon knows why you cannot heal his hurt. As the Lord and the Lady are to us, so are you to him, and we can no more know the mind of the Goddess in its fullness than he can yours. But we do know that the Powers mean us to know of joy and loyalty and love: and the dog-kind they gave into our hands to show us how to take and give those precious things without stinting, in wholeness of heart.

She blinked at the light on the waves, in two times at once. “And how to bear grief, Da,” she whispered. “That too.”

A gentle kiss on the forehead, and: Now a swift end to pain is the last gift you can give Maccon for his long loving service, mo chroí, until we all meet again. Place the point so. Now, call upon the Mother and bid him farewell.

“Bear it, and do what must be done.”

His big battered long-fingered hand had closed around hers on the bone hilt of the razor-edged knife with a terrifying restrained strength, and then—

The ship heeled until the deck slanted like a shallow roof, and she blinked, feeling him gone once more. Water purled and chuckled in twin curves, throwing rooster-tails of spray as the bowsprit dipped and rose, the sharp prow digging rhythmically into the blue swell and leaving a taste of salt on her lips as the cool droplets struck, like the taste of tears. It was only a few hours past the early summer dawn, and the light on the water was bright as they turned towards the rising sun, shining over and through the fogbanks ahead. Strands of her long yellow hair wavered across her face, blown forward by the steady breeze from the northeast and following the white curve of the sails like golden serpents.

From the quarterdeck the captain spoke crisply:

“Mr. Mate, stand by to strike sail, topsails only, on the fore, on the main.”

“Aye aye, Cap’n.”

“Then make it so, Mr. Mate.”

The first mate’s voice boomed out through a speaking-trumpet in a volley of musically accented nauticalese ending with:

Lay aloft and furl!”

The ratlines thrummed as sailors ran up them to the spars of the square topsails on the fore and main and out along the manropes, fisting the canvas up and tying it off with the gaskets sewn into the sails as the deck crew hauled on the buntlines to help them. For the work ahead, precision was more important than speed. The shanty rang out as the teams on the ropes gripped and bent and threw their weight back in rhythmic unison:

 

O wake her, O shake her,
O shake that girl
With—her—blue—pants—on!
O Johnny come to Hilo;
Poor—old—man!

 

The slant of the deck eased slightly as pressure came off the top of the masts, and the wind seemed to pick up as the ship slowed. That cool moving air smelled only of a third of a planet of clean ocean behind them, crisp enough even in high summer and even this far south to make the padded arming doublet of fleece-stuffed canvas she wore under the back-and-breast welcome, but somehow she thought she could detect the brackish scent of the Bay ahead and the huge tidal flats and wetlands about it. Off to the south the ruined towers of lost San Francisco reared on their hills, rust-red and stained-concrete brown above the mass of honeysuckle and scrub and renascent forest between and around them, or the stark white where the sand-dunes had emerged once more from under the works and plantings of human-kind.

Her liege knight Heuradys d’Ath came up behind her, walking so lightly that the sound of her rubber-tread boots on the deck was lost in the rattle and snap, creak and thutter and groan of a ship under sail, a symphony of wood and cordage and canvas dancing with the vast forces of the winds and the Mother Ocean.

No cheap commonplace hobnails for milady d’Ath! Órlaith thought. A relief for the bosun. She grinds her teeth every time some man-at-arms puts gouges in her deck planking.

“That hair looks untidy in this breeze, Orrey,” the knight said, the staccato accents of the north in her voice.

Órlaith smiled affectionately. She knew Heuradys had given her a space to be alone, which was a difficult thing to find on a crowded ship where even the leaders were bunking four to a cabin, and would be even harder after today when they picked up the rest of their party who’d come overland to join them here. Then with beautiful timing she’d come up to the bow to keep her liege from turning her alone time into another inward replay of her father’s death. The enemy ships had come along this very path, chasing Reiko’s party on the end of a pursuit that had begun in the Sea of Japan, to meet what had been a routine, enjoyable progress by the High King and his heir through the new settlements on this southern frontier.

Her tone was deliberately light when she replied in the soft Mackenzie lilt; if a close friend was going to take the trouble to cheer you up, you should at least try to help.

“Oh, sure and I was just giving Johnnie a nice romantic image, the princess with her golden hair floatin’ about her face as she stands in the bow, brooding deep and melancholy.”

“Yet stern and noble as well. So put a foot up on the rail too, for Apollon’s sake! Head up... left hand on the hilt of the Sword... do it right! Your little brother needs you to fulfill his artistic destiny, woman!”

Órlaith did as she bid for a moment, chuckling. “I think he’s already working on a chanson about this whole thing—the Song of Órlaith, maybe? Though really it should be The Song of Reiko, since it’s her ancestral sword we’re after seeking, the wonder and amazement of the world. Fair breaking out all over, it is!”

She laid her palm on the moon-crystal hilt of the Sword of the Lady where it rode in the buckled blade-sling of her arming belt.

“Though I haven’t heard if they’ve found Excalibur off in Greater Britain,” she added sardonically. “Or if they have, the King-Emperor in Winchester is keeping it secret the now.”

Heuradys grinned. “Arthur chucked his sacred snickersnee back to the watery tart when he went to snooze in Avalon against the hour of Britain’s need...”

“And he didn’t wake up at the Change? Deep sleeper,” Órlaith said.

“Well, maybe it disabled his alarm clock’s bell. Or maybe he was the one inspiring Mad King Charles?” Heuradys said.

“They could have done much worse. Most did, in that part of the world.”

“And we can let the Japanese equivalent of the troubadours take care of Reiko’s epic.”

Biwa hōshi would be the closest they have, which is not very close to either troubadours or bards to our way of thinking. Hōshi being sort of a... hmmm, wandering priest-performer? And they do their epics in prose, though they recite them to music, so, their poetry mostly being short and... punchy,” Órlaith said absently.

Biwa?”

“Biwa... is something like a lute.”

“Johnnie will do yours in classic chantaire style, don’t worry. But is a line in one of his poems worth the tangles and snarls?”

“Poetry lasts longer than bad hair days, that it does.”

That brought a snort and a roll of the eyes. Órlaith knew her friend liked her younger brother a good deal—John and she had been lovers once, briefly—but they were too much alike to be entirely compatible. They’d both had a Protectorate noble’s training, martial and otherwise, in which music was just as essential a social skill as heraldry and falconry. But while Heuradys sang very well and was outright beautiful with a lute, Prince John had perfect pitch, played half a dozen instruments with casual skill and was genuinely talented at composition as well. Which the princess suspected made her knight slightly jealous.

On the other hand, she’s better with the sword, so it balances; that’s where Johnnie’s just very good.

“I admit Johnnie will probably do a good job,” Heuradys said grudgingly. “Flowing golden locks and all. He may even find a way to make Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi scan in English.”

“My golden locks are indeed golden... just a very slight tinge of copper... and they do flow, when loose,” she said aloud. “And get in my eyes and mouth and even up my nose sometimes, Brigit the Bright witness.”

“It looks like it’s dry by now. Want me to braid it?” Heuradys asked.

That was like putting on plate armor, you really couldn’t do it well by yourself.

“Thanks, Herry. Clubbed fighting braid... do it Dúnedain-style, why don’t you? Then I’ll do yours in the same. That’s... tactful since we’re landing in County Ithilien and meeting my Ranger cousins.”

“You mean the Dúnedain will be flattered that you agree they’re the only people who know how to do things with style.”

“It’s powerfully set on style and grace the Rangers are, for all that they’re bonny fighters and fine wilderness scouts.”

“You’re being diplomatic again, Orrey.”

“It’s a habit, so.”

“Thank the Grey-Eyed I wasn’t born to be a politician,” the noblewoman said cheerfully.

They were both tall long-limbed young women with the cat-grace that came of training to the war-arts and the dancing floor from childhood. And considerably heavier than their lean athletic builds suggested at first glance, simply because their bone and muscle were so dense. Heuradys was two years older and an inch shorter than her liege’s five-eleven, with amber eyes and dark-auburn hair and comely regular features a little blunter than the chiseled looks the Crown Princess had inherited from Rudi Mackenzie and by repute from his father. Herry’s sire, Rigobert de Stafford, Count of Campscapell and Baron Forest Grove, was a big blue-eyed ruggedly handsome man who’d been blond before he went gray; Delia de Stafford was still a dark-haired beauty in her fifties. Heuradys and the other three children they’d had via a pre-Change kitchen appliance had all inherited their looks in varying degree.

Her liege knight went on: “I can piss people off if I want to, and the only worry I have is that they’ll try to kill me. Which is fair enough when you think about it. Sit.”

Órlaith sank back against the slanted steel shield of the bowchaser catapult, more leaning than sitting, as the sailors tied off aloft and slid down the shrouds to the deck behind them with soft barefoot thumps. Heuradys stood behind her, partially blocking the breeze, and began to do her hair in what the ancient world would have called a four-strand Dutch braid, her fingers very deft with the complex weave. Playing stringed instruments kept your hands and fingers nimble and supple and precise.

“You’re well-mannered enough, I’d have thought,” Órlaith said. “More courtly than I, at seventh and last. I’ve a hot temper betimes, I know, but you smiled and bowed just before you belted Sir Ymbolet across the chops with your gauntlet that time.”

The suppleness and delicacy of touch was fortunate for her hair, because year after year of constant sparring in armor with longsword and kite-shield also made you very strong; and it made your hands strong in a way that surprised even peasants or sailors and shocked most others. It was why both of them had forearms that flowed smoothly into their hands without more than a slight dimpling at the wrist. Knights had a reputation for carelessness with fragile objects, but part of that was that many of them just broke things without meaning to.

“I didn’t kill him, either,” Heuradys replied.

“That too. And you sent him flowers in the infirmary. It was remarked on as an example of courtesie throughout the Association, so.”

The comb Heuradys used and her sword-callused fingers tugged at knots occasionally nevertheless, but Órlaith ignored the slight stabs of pain. The wind and the long rolling pitch of the deck made that inevitable anyway. As her hand rested on the crystal pommel of the Sword of the Lady at her side she felt an indefinable tension. As if a voice were speaking urgently, but far away and blurred and vanishing when she turned her mind inward on it like the memory of a dream after waking.

The knight went on: “Courteous and courtly? Well, of course! But that’s my general shining wonderfulness and near-goddesslike perfection, not politics.”

She touched a forefinger to the back of Órlaith’s skull: “Tilt your head forward.”

I haven’t been to the Kingmaking at Lost Lake yet, the princess thought as she did; that probably wouldn’t happen until she came of Crown age, in five years. I can bear Da’s sword, but I don’t get the full effect until then, the link to all the land of Montival.

Since she had nothing serious to say beyond I’m nervous but can’t say why or I just miss Da something fierce she spoke lightly instead:

“Herry, your father’s Count of Campscapell, your birth mother’s a Countess and Châtelaine of Ath and your second mother’s a former Grand Constable, she’s Baroness of Ath in her own right, and she’s been High Marshal of Montival since you were ten, to boot. If that isn’t being born to politics, I’d be curious what is!”

Heuradys mumbled a little around the horn-and-silver comb she was holding in her teeth as she spoke and made the final tucks:

“But I’m not the heir to anything the way you are, thank the Olympians each and every one. And the Fates.”

“You’ve manors of your own you’ll inherit out east.”

Heuradys finished with the braid, and doubled it twice to club it tight at the nape of Órlaith’s neck where it would be out of the way under the flare of a helm and nearly un-grabable even without.

“Doesn’t count compared to being a baron... or even more, to a Count,” she said. “Diomede and Lioncel have to wear those hats, and very welcome my beloved brothers are to it. Here I am, off on an adventure with my liege-lady while they’re under the Argus eyes of our parents, sitting in the Court Baron listening to endless variations on who stole who’s pig, and trying to find the money to fix bridges and smiling and nodding while red-faced country knights punish the punchbowl at after-tournament buffets and detail every point of every ancestor of their favorite destrier since the Change. Poor babies.”

“That doesn’t sound so very bad,” Órlaith laughed. “And they’re staid settled married men in their thirties the now, with offspring so numerous...”

“... that they swarm like vermin upon the earth,” said Heuradys.

Who in fact delighted in being an aunt and was hero-worshipped in turn when she swept in bearing presents and glamor and stories from Court. She went on:

Bor-ing! And I don’t have to consider the political impact of how I do my hair, either.”

That bit a little too close to the bone. Órlaith had absorbed the skills and necessities of kingcraft from her parents through her pores all her twenty-one years as well as from formal instruction, and had seen how it consumed their lives. Sometimes when you stepped back a little it was daunting to think of living that way until you died in harness... though of course most people did take up their parents’ trade, willy-nilly.

And I’m slightly guilty at how much of a relief it is to run off like this. Ah, well, guilt... the Catholic half of the family can carry the burden for all of us.

“Adventure? Isn’t that someone else, neck deep in the shit with no shovel, and that far away from me?” she replied, and felt the new braid to make sure it was firm. “Your turn.”

Heuradys handed her the comb and they traded positions. The knight’s thick locks fell well past her armored shoulders, and were naturally wavy-to-curly as opposed to her liege’s dense straight mane. They’d been rinsing in salt water on shipboard, too, which made it harder to bring them to order. She started with the ends, teasing them out a handful at a time.

“People are always saying that to sound cynical and worldly-wise, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have adventures—witness us!” Heuradys said.

“Well, yes,” Órlaith admitted.

This was, without dispute, an adventure of the most adventurous sort. It was an actual capital-Q Quest, like something out of what the Dúnedain called their Histories, or the ancient chansons. Or what her father had done. Slightly defensive, she went on:

“But we’re not doing it just to be doing it, it isn’t hunting tigers... and even that needs to be done, they being given to snacking on livestock and the farmers too.”

I remember that first time I was allowed on a tiger hunt...

“You’ve got a point... ouch!” Heuradys yelped.

She smiled and made her hands fall back into their rhythm. That first hunt had been when she was eighteen. Reeds moving against the wind, mud clutching at the soles of her boots, hand clenching on the riser of the bow hard enough to hurt. Her father loose-taut-alert like a cat himself, with the sun glittering on the broad base-winged blade of his great hunting-spear and Mother raising her crossbow in a smooth economical motion. The huntsman’s horn, the hysterical baying of the hounds and a moaning grunting snarl loud enough to make your guts shiver...

“You do so tug,” she said aloud. “I just don’t moan about it. And you’ve got wiry hair, so hush a bit and keep still.”

“It’s not wiry, it’s... it’s pre-Raphaelite.”

“A pre-Raphaelite painting it is!” Órlaith agreed teasingly. “Couldn’t have found a better word myself!”

Heuradys didn’t move her head, but she did roll her eyes around suspiciously.

That school of painters had always been very influential in the north-realm, once folk had time again for art. The Crown Princess’ maternal grandmother Sandra had added dozens more of them to her collection not long before she died, part of a gift from the Bossman of Iowa on his accession. Though one of those paintings had been put on the gift list immediately, after a muttered oh, my and a pained expression on Sandra’s part...

“La Bella Mano, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to be specific about it, so,” Órlaith added, after just the right pause.

Which had enough accuracy, mostly in the shade of the hair, to strike home. La Bella Mano wasn’t Rosetti’s best work; more of a self-caricature, in fact.

“Now that’s just cruel,” Heuradys said with a chuckle. “I so do not have a neck like a camel and a little tiny head on the end of it.”

Órlaith and her knight-to-be had been doing each other’s hair on journeys since they were little girls, and the princess found the small shared ritual rather soothing.

They were both in half-armor for the landing, back-and-breast of overlapping riveted lames and vambraces on their forearms, partly as precaution, partly ceremony, and partly just because you had to wear armor frequently to keep accustomed to the weight and constriction. If you didn’t exhaustion could cripple you too soon when you really, really needed to be at your best. Órlaith’s suit of plate was in the standard form for a knight or man-at-arms, but made of the rare, costly and hard-to-work titanium alloy rather than common steel, lighter and stronger and immune to rust. She’d given Heuradys another as a Yule-present last year; it was literally a princessly gift, since only a monarch or their close kin could afford it. Even Órlaith herself hadn’t had one until she was sure she’d gotten her full growth, and her brother Prince John was a year or two away from being fitted.

Normally Órlaith preferred the kilt and plaid of her father’s people, the Clan Mackenzie, for everyday wear, though she was in breeks today.

Forbye, besides being Mackenzie fashion long hair is just prettier, which is why Herry wears it so too, the dear girl being more than a bit of a fop, and I say it who loves her like a sister. Somehow the foppery isn’t nearly as irritating with her as it is with Johnnie, who I love because he is my brother but who is annoying and endearing in equal parts.

Her fingers moved automatically as she thought. You could always say long hair made extra padding inside a helmet, to those who had no aesthetic sense; and in the Protectorate it was most definitely a woman’s style, which slightly lessened her offensiveness to the unfortunately still fairly common fanatical variety of Catholic up there in the north-realm.

Twist, over under, tuck, plait... She stopped the train of political calculation and faction-balancing with an effort of will, a little appalled once she stopped to think about it:

Sure and Herry’s right; I do always have to think about the politics, even of my hairstyles and what clothes I wear!

And to think that there were people who truly, seriously believed that being a monarch or a high noble meant a life spent doing just as you pleased...

“Done,” she said, tucking the last strand away, doubling the braid twice and tying it with a thong in a neat bow knot. She returned the comb: “Let’s get back to the quarterdeck.”

“This thing isn’t steered from the same end as a horse,” the knight agreed.

They turned and walked down the length of the schooner towards the stern, ducking occasional parties of sailors moving around doing sailorish things. The two young women exchanged a glance as they saw the crew begin to strip the protective tarpaulins from the catapults that crouched eight to a side and knock the locking-pins out of the ports in the four-foot bulwark through which they shot.

Órlaith’s highly-unofficial expedition had hired the ship from Feldman and Sons—paying in promises, implicit promises as much of future Royal obligations as of money—but the merchant had made plain right at the beginning that she didn’t command his ship or people. She could tell Captain Feldman the destination, but he would give the orders that took them there.

Sailors unfolded and extended the pump levers behind the machines and worked them up and down to a brisk shanty; this one had a chorus about screwing cotton every day in a moveable bay, which probably wasn’t as bizarre as it seemed at first hearing.

“Those always sound better in a dockside tavern,” she said.

Heuradys nodded with a very slight wince; she had a much better ear than her liege, or was considerably more finicky, or both.

“That’s because in a sailor’s tavern they’re usually just drunk when they sing, not grunting like pigs at the end of every line.”

Beneath the voices ran the bang-crink-bang-crink-bang-crink sound of the hydraulic bottle jacks bending the throwing arms that jutted out to either side of each machine back against springs that had been part of the suspensions of mining trucks before the Change. Then the very final-sounding chink-chack of the locking mechanisms engaging. Chests were thrown open to reveal eight-pound cast roundshot, sinister-looking tubular canister rounds bristling with finger-length darts of forged steel or half-inch shot for close work, glass napalm shells and four-foot finned javelins with points like chisels or cutting sickles or the menacing containers for thermite incendiary warheads. The crew-captains worked the elevating and traversing screws to check that the motion was smooth.

There was no fuss or angry shouting and few first-voyage chawbacons being shoved and cursed into unfamiliar tasks; they might not have the snap of a naval crew but they were at least as quick and skilled and showing no more nerves. Feldman & Sons went on long risky voyages to dangerous places, but they also paid first-rate wages and had a profit-sharing arrangement and the big crew meant the watch below could get a solid night’s sleep instead of doing four hours on and four off every day.

The merchantman’s First Mate caught their glance; this was supposed to be a peaceful meeting halfway along their journey to the mega-necropolis of Los Angeles, picking up a few more friends to accompany them from the southernmost outposts of living Montival. His grin was white against his thin dark-brown face as he opened the arms-locker and the bosun and her mates began handing out cutlasses and boarding-axes, crossbows and knock-down pikes to be racked where they could be seized instantly. Sailors were shrugging into jerkins of thick but supple oil-tanned walrus hide and fastening their quick-release clips when they had a moment to spare. Plain bowl helmets and light bucklers hung by rings next to the weapons.

“Cap’n Feldman doesn’t believe in taking chances, Your Highness,” he said.

With a musical sing-song accent to his version of Montival’s common English, and a way of stressing the syllables that showed his native tongue was something else altogether; she gathered he came from some place one of Feldman’s ships had touched far abroad.

“Glad to see it, Mr. Radavindraban,” Órlaith said gravely.

Because I am feeling nervous about something. I think. And I didn’t like that report from the Dúnedain. A Haida shaman and these Koreans and Eaters all working together... that’s not like anything that’s happened before.

She murmured that to Heuradys. Her knight raised an auburn brow. “Very true. On the other hand, we hadn’t worked with the Japanese before... and they are...”

She paused, obviously searching for the right words. “I’m glad they’re with us, not against us. There may not be all that many of them, but they are serious people.”

 

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