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THE DESERT AND THE BLADE

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER FIVE:

 

Castle Todenangst, Crown Demesne
Portland Protective Association
(Formerly northern Oregon)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
July 7th, Change Year 46/2044 A.D.

 

“Your Majesty, if you do not master your anger—” Lord Chancellor Ignatius began.

Then my anger will master me, priest!” she said, whirling and pointing one finger at his face for a moment. “That’s what you were going to say, isn’t it?”

The silence that followed the shout stretched as High Queen Mathilda went pacing like a caged tigress through the chamber high in the Onyx Tower, while he and two select advisors sat at the conference table looking at her with...

With absolutely infuriating patience!

The stacks of documents at either side of each man were as untouched as the carafes of water and wine and the bowls of nuts and dried apricots and figs and cinnamon-flavored wafers. There were no clerks or secretaries in this great room with its curved outer wall and pointed-arch windows, though they could be called by the bell at the Chancellor’s right hand. The loudest sound was the swish of her skirts and the scuff of her slippers on tile and carpet, and the hammering of blood in her ears. And very faintly in the distance the tolling of a church-bell. A cathedral was built into Todenangst, and other chapels as well.

It did not help when Ignatius tucked his hands into the sleeves of his plain Benedictine monk’s robe and bowed his tonsured head in rueful acknowledgment and quite genuine humility. She felt as if the silk and jewels of the headdress that covered her coiled brown hair and framed her face were choking her, tighter than the mail coif under a helmet.

Then the priest-brother spoke, bolder than the two soldiers: “Yes, my child, that was what I was about to say. How well you know me, after all these years! Was I really that much of a sanctimonious prig just now?”

“My daughter—the heir to the Throne of Montival—and my son John who is heir to the Protectorate—abscond into the wild, not three months after their father was assassinated, and I should be calm?

She paced in and out of the pools of light that shone through the Venetian-gothic tracery of the windows with her strong hands clasped behind her back and her gold-embroidered slippers scuffing on tile and fringed carpets. In middle age and after four children she was solidly built, her face square and rather heavy-featured, but the leonine brown eyes and the vigor of her stride were reminders that she had been a knight herself in her day, and a good one. The heavy furniture seemed to need its solid carved bulk to be safe around the controlled fury that crackled from her at the news that her two eldest children had slipped away and taken ship without permission.

Today she wore a dark-green kirtle over a long-sleeved tunic of royal-blue silk and a wimple of the same hue, bound with a gold chain and with a similar woven belt that bore her jeweled Associate’s dagger. A black mourning band and a pinned-back veil of filmy black gauze marked her recent widowhood. The lines of grief new-graven into her face marked it more clearly still. She wasn’t much past the prime of life and she was carrying a child even now, but the lineaments of her deep age could be glimpsed, a visage that would daunt the boldest.

“It’s just now that you do need to be calm,” one of the other advisors said. “And it’s cruel hard on the pretty rugs you’re being, grinding them underfoot so, Matti.”

She scowled at Edain Aylward Mackenzie; the commander of the High King’s Archers looked back steadily, with the familiarity of lifelong friendship and the Clan Mackenzie’s indifference to hereditary rank. She flushed a little at the irony in the level grey eyes and the soft lilting Mackenzie accent.

“Don’t tell me you abetted this, Edain!” Mathilda said.

“I had no knowledge of it, at all, at all, Matti,” he said. “No suspicion, either—and I would have liked it the more if my mother or my wife had sent a wee message about it. But then, I’ve been tied up here.”

Mathilda winced. While you let the reins slip in your grief went unspoken. And being pregnant always gave me mood swings. By the Saints and Holy Mary, that’s not it now! I’ve got good reason to be furious!

With her husband Rudi Mackenzie—High King Artos to the rest of Montival—so recently dead by shocking treachery, killed by a prisoner he’d spared...

“He should have put them all to the sword, or hanged them as pirates taken in the act!” she burst out.

Edain spread his scarred strong hands. “In strict law, yes, he could have.”

They’d landed in Montival unannounced, weapons bare. Fighting in company with Haida reavers who were outlaw by definition and their own choice, long since proclaimed as among the enemies-general of human kind to be slain on sight.

“But we knew nothing of the rights and wrongs of it, and Rudi wasn’t ever the sort who’d kill without thought just because he could or because it was easier to bury the problem under bodies. Else he wouldn’t have been the man we loved.”

“You have a right to grief and anger, Your Majesty,” Ignatius said gently. “But not to endanger the realm.”

The words were like a wet towel slapped into the face. The more so for the restraint and sympathy. The realm came first. That was unavoidable even in the middle of a rage.

True enough, she thought, checking herself for an instant; there was a momentary surge of nausea, but that was the pregnancy, and she suppressed it with an effort of will.

At least I’m not far enough along for the baby to imitate a porpoise or get the hiccups, she thought. Now, that’s distracting!

“How in the name of God, the Virgin and the Saints did she manage to do this with nobody the wiser?” she asked aloud.

“Very quickly, carefully and skillfully,” Ignatius said. “I’ve pieced a little of it together.”

“I’ll tan her hide quickly too!” Mathilda burst out.

Edain gave a grim chuckle. “It’s also true my first thought was to wallop your Órlaith, and my Karl and Mathun for haring off to the south after her,” he said. “But on second thoughts, aren’t they both a bit along in years for a swat on the backside? The pack of them are about the same age as you and I and the good Father here were on a certain day about twenty-three years ago, eh?”

He nodded to the other soldier present, Lord Maugis de Grimmond, Grand Constable of the Association and Baron of Tucannon.

“And the lord Baron’s son is not much older,” he added.

“That was different,” Mathilda said.

She was conscious of how weak it sounded even as the words came out; she’d joined Rudi on the Quest eastward without a second thought, despite knowing how furious her mother would be.

And that defiance is literally famed in song and story and no doubt encouraged Órlaith and John to do the same to me. The biter bit!

Grand Constable Maugis was a shortish grim-looking jug-eared man in his forties with greying dark-red hair and a beak of a nose in the middle of a hard, scarred, seamed face that had been rather ugly to start with. He looked a little shocked at the Clansman’s irreverence, but also stolidly determined to endure whatever his ruler chose to do.

And that’s just as effective in getting me to calm down, she decided. And come to think of it, he and I and Edain are all of an age, a few years more or less are nothing once you’re past forty summers, and Ignatius is only a decade older. We’ve been running things since we were in our twenties, we Changelings... but our children are nearly grown now, itching to do. Think, Mathilda, think...

Her mother had always said that self-command was half the secret of ruling well, not to mention more than half the secret of a ruler dying in power, old, and of natural causes; it was as close as she came to a direct criticism of her long-dead spouse.

The Quest had stayed a winter at Chenrezi Monastery, up in the high Rockies, while Rudi healed from an envenomed wound.

Mathilda’s lips tightened as she remembered his fever-drawn face at the worst, in the cave before the monks found them. Hot and thin, the strong bones looking out from the wasting flesh, and the stink of death from the finger-deep hole in his right shoulder where the High Seeker’s arrow had struck. She had known with cold certainty that he was dying then, like an abyss before her feet. Something had changed it, they’d all felt the change as his body relaxed and sweat broke out all over him and his eyes opened. He’d recovered over the months at Chenrezi, with careful nursing, but that right shoulder had never been quite the same—after that he’d fought with his blade in his left. It had killed him in the end, from what Órlaith and Edain said, slowing his shield-arm just a fraction of a second the way it did increasingly over the years when he was tired or cold.

She took a deep breath. The monks of the Noble Eightfold Path had taught them many things during the short days and long dark nights. She thought of a still pond, and her anger like the ripples from a stone tossed into it.

Let the ripples fade, let them pass through you and only the quiet waters remain.

She took another deep breath and turned her attention outward, grounding herself. The tapestries of war and the hunt and Catholic ritual that hung from the high ceiling of carved-plaster tracery to the tiled floor between the windows glittered with threads of precious metals and inset jewels, seeming to stir in the wind of her passage as much as the languorous drifts of summer air from outside. Bouquets on tables and in the hearth swept for summer scented the air with flowers, beneath the smell of furniture oil and polish and the lavender-infused wax of the unlit candles.

“Your Majesty, whatever decisions we make, we had best make them quickly,” Maugis said.

Ignatius nodded. “Forgive me, but the death of the High King and the manner of it will render opinion more... malleable. For a while, at least.”

Rudi Mackenzie had been widely loved and even more widely respected, the hero-king who’d turned back the Prophet’s hordes and founded Montival, herself at his side. It hurt to trade on it, but he’d have been the first to tell her that king-craft required you to think like that. It was what they were for.

And so would Mother. They were alike in that, at least. I’ll have to trade on that love, and the horror and anger at his death, to balance against the problems I’m going to have, ruling without him and being the child of my parents. Oh, Rudi!

Her father Norman Arminger, the first Lord Protector, had lived here in the Onyx Tower for a few years, between the completion of Castle Todenangst and his death in the Protector’s War when she was still a girl. The Arminger line had avoided it since, and the memories of blood and terror it evoked.

“Your Majesty...” the Knight-Brother who’d been Montival’s Lord Chancellor since its inception said. “... consider that part of your anger is that you now have a focus for the rage we all feel at the High King’s death. But however reckless and irresponsible their actions, Crown Princess Órlaith and her brother do not deserve that. They too are driven by anger and by grief. That is more pardonable in a woman so newly come to an adult’s years or a young man... barely more than a boy of nineteen... than in us, who are charged by God with the welfare of millions.”

Grudgingly, she nodded. She’d seen strong men, tried scarred knights gone white-haired and wrinkled in the Crown’s service, glance at the famous portrait of her father peering out from under his brows that hung in her mother’s quarters in the Silver Tower on the west side of Todenangst’s keep. And seen them blanch and turn pale around the lips as they met that glowering gaze, even when the man portrayed was more than three decades dead. That anger was there in her too. She could feel it.

And now that Rudi’s gone they’ll remember it even more. I am his daughter and I am an Associate. I have to keep things together until Órlaith comes of Throne age... and now she’s run off into the Wild!

As if reading her mind, which wasn’t surprising after a generation of working together, Ignatius added:

“You have always been the face the High Kingdom turned to the Protectorate, Your Majesty.”

“And Rudi was the High King who showed everyone else that the High Kingdom was not the north-realm writ large,” she replied. “Yes, and Órlaith will continue that, while John gives the barons here a Lord Protector who’s one of their own, an Associate and a Catholic... but one who can be relied on to back her up without disputing her authority. But they’ve both left!

She sat at the head of the table, and slapped the dark oak with a hand that still had sword-calluses.

I am not going to let them abandon their duty!

 

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