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THE DESERT AND THE BLADE

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER FOUR:

 

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.

 

When they’d walked a little further down the hundred-and-sixty foot length of the deck, Heuradys added sotto voce:

“He doesn’t believe in taking risks? But your brother signed Captain Feldman up to take us on this crazed escapade, didn’t he?” she murmured. “Either Prince John’s grown inhumanly persuasive—”

“I’ve been told he is very persuasive,” Órlaith said, cocking an ironic eye at her knight.

“Feldman isn’t a girl he’s charmed onto her back and besides I was the one who put the make on him, though granted a teenage boy doesn’t need much persuasion. Still, listening to John’s sales pitch shows our good Captain does take chances.”

“But not careless chances. There are things his father did for Grandmother Juniper, during the Protector’s War, I don’t know the details, and vice versa. Though it should be safe enough here in the Bay,” Órlaith answered. “It’s later on things will be getting a bit hairy, probably.”

“Oh, not the Eaters and Haida and Koreans; though some of all three were operating here after we left this spring.”

Órlaith nodded. “That’s how my cousin Malfind of the Rangers died. I haven’t forgotten. Still, that was a skirmish with a small group.”

“Yes, but what I was thinking of was your mother, or more precisely our sovereign lady the High Queen, now sole ruler, and what she might do to Feldman,” Heuradys said. “She’s not going to be pleased with anyone who helped us, you know that as well as I do. Better, probably.”

Órlaith gave a slight mental wince. John and she had promised Feldman their protection, for him and his. That might require something drastic if their mother was stubborn enough to press a treason charge. The Great Charter specified that the Crown wouldn’t pass to her as heir until she was twenty-six, which was still years away. Until then her mother was monarch of all Montival, as well as Lady Protector of the Association in her own right; the Protectorate would pass to John when she died. Órlaith’s would be the first hereditary succession to the High Kingdom, and much of the great law of State was still unsettled; the Kingdom was very young as yet.

About a year older than I am, as something proclaimed abroad and seen like a banner against the sky to draw the dreams and hearts of our folk. Younger, as a thing my mother and father and their comrades built with sweat and their heart’s blood.

All the humor went out of Heuradys’ voice. “Orrey, she’s your mother, she’s always been good to me too and she’s my High Queen... and she’s a good one, she always thinks of the realm, but she is an Arminger. Now that you’re not her little towhaired moppet any more you need to start remembering that side of your heritage. Not just about the way your axe-crazy granddad used to have heads off right in the throne room and you can still see the stains on the floor forty years later when the light’s just right. My second mother spent decades working for your grandmother Sandra, and... well.”

Órlaith nodded. Lady Tiphaine d’Ath had fourteen silver-filled notches in the dimpled black bone of her sword-hilt. That was just the formal death-duels, most of them in the Crown’s interest. It didn’t count the ones she simply made disappear, and spec-ops work in wartime. There was a reason her title had been pronounced Lady Death long before her second career as a field commander.

“And that was all the Queen Mother, your Nonni. My mother was just the dagger in her hand.”

Órlaith nodded again. Baroness d’Ath had handled a good deal of her own martial education, and she’d taught the High King much a generation before that, so that what his daughter got from him was partly her doing. Lady Death was what Nonni Sandra had summoned experts to forge, from a Change-scarred youngster with potentials only the woman who would later be called the Spider of the Silver Tower had seen. You could feel the hand of the maker in the cool perfection of the instrument, all the more remarkable when you considered that Sandra had never been any sort of warrior herself. Fortunately Lady Death was sixty and retired from hands-on wetwork...

“So you may really need to protect Feldman,” Heuradys warned; she was as careful of her liege’s honor as of her person. “Even if it means things getting bruising and damage being done.”

Órlaith nodded a third time, more slowly and reluctantly.

Though Mother won’t... I greatly hope. It would create too much of a problem with Corvallis.

Captain Moishe Feldman was a prominent and wealthy citizen of that wealthy and powerful city-state, sailing out of Newport, its window on the Pacific. He and his firm were rising powers in the Economics Faculty of the University—which was what Corvallans called their Guild Merchant, in their eccentric and old-fashioned way.

Corvallis is as tender about its autonomy as any of the other realms of the High Kingdom, or a bit more so.

She’d experienced that first-hand, studying there.

Surely mother wouldn’t...

With a sudden chill, she realized she wasn’t absolutely sure, only...

Mostly almost sort of sure, so to say.

She’d never known her mother as a sole ruler.

Surely she wouldn’t, unless I’m killed. Then... I’m not sure what she’d do. I should have thought that through better... maybe I didn’t want to think about it? But I have to make sure the Feldmans come through unscathed even if I do die on this.

“I will if I have to. But Herry, mother ran off with Da on the Quest when she was our age,” Órlaith said stoutly, hiding her sudden disquiet—which was with herself, mostly. “And she’s... well, much more moderate in her angers than Nonni Sandra was.”

“No,” Heuradys said flatly. “That’s not the right way to think of it. Queen Mother Sandra didn’t get angry, not so you’d notice. Certainly not the way her husband did before his... early death. Even her loves and hates were... cool.”

“Well, there you are then,” Órlaith said.

Her maternal grandfather Norman Arminger, the first Lord Protector, had died when Órlaith’s mother Mathilda was ten, long before her own birth. Killed by her father’s father Mike Havel, the first Bear Lord, in a fight in which both died: the family history got complex about then.

“But people were just as afraid of Sandra as they were of him while he was alive. And more so, sometimes, after he was out of the way. You know what they called her.”

The Spider of the Silver Tower, whose invisible webs ran throughout the Protectorate and beyond. Binding men of the sword in nets of intrigue and obligation and fear they couldn’t cut with steel.

Heuradys was just a bit older, enough to have known Nonni Sandra from something less like a child’s perspective. Not to mention that she wasn’t an adored granddaughter. And Sandra Arminger had been political patron to all three of Heuradys’ parents, so a lot of dirty linen must have come up around the dinner table. There was knowledgeable conviction in her voice when she went on:

“When Sandra was running things in the Protectorate back in the day, after the Protector’s War, she just killed you... had someone like my second mother kill you... if she thought it was necessary. With a secret trial in Star Chamber, or a smile and a wink and a hint in the right quarters, or even with a sigh and a pity about that. Or you just... died of excruciatingly convenient natural causes. And that was all she wrote.”

Órlaith winced a bit; that was brutal, but not really unfair. As she learned more of the history, she couldn’t even say definitely if there had been any other way to tame the realm her grandfather had founded.

“Well, then let’s say my mother shows her anger more but she’s less ruthless about it than my Nonni was.”

“I certainly hope she is,” Heuradys said dryly. “At seventh and last.”

When it’s really hard, Órlaith added to herself, the thought that hung between them.

“She’s... she’s more under law than either of her parents. Not just the Kingdom’s law, but in her soul.”

They exchanged a glance and put aside things they couldn’t affect right now.

“The High Queen will have found out what we’ve done by now... days ago... I’d have liked to be a fly on the wall at that,” Heuradys said more lightly.
“Oh, no, you wouldn’t,” Órlaith said with conviction. “I said Mother rules her anger. But when there’s no innocent bystander... like you... it can rattle the cage pretty hard. Especially when someone pokes a stick between the bars to tickle the dragon, and by the Dagda’s club, I’ve done that now, eh?”

Her Da had been a man who seldom raged, even in battle; when he fought with his own hands it was with the calm focus of a craftsman doing hard skilled work, or sometimes in an exaltation of joy like possession by the Power that watched over him, the triune Crow Goddess called the Morrigú, the Shadow Queen. In fact for someone who was famous as a conquering hero-king he’d been gentle to a fault when he felt he could be; sometimes his calm reasonableness drove Mother crazy when they were having one of their infrequent arguments. And he’d never signed a death warrant or denied a petition for clemency without much thought and careful study of the details; she could remember him frowning over each, sometimes late into the night. It was only the knowledge that mercy to the guilty was cruelty to the innocent that had kept him from always sparing the axe and noose.

The other side of the family, however... I can feel that anger in me, even if I control it.

“You really wouldn’t have wanted to be there. Even as a crow flying overhead, much less a bug on the wall.”

“Point,” Heuradys said. “But frankly I keep expecting to hear a scream like a tigress with her tail under a wagon-wheel, echoing all the way from Castle Todenangst.”

“I’m sure she’ll get over it,” Órlaith replied confidently.

I hope.

 

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