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THE DESERT AND THE BLADE

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER SIX:

 

Golden Gate/Glorannon
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.

 

Órlaith nodded respectfully in return to Captain Feldman’s salute as she and Heuradys trotted up the ladder to the low poopdeck—sailors insisted on calling it a ladder, at least. They were as attached to the jargon of their trade as the College of Heralds, and that was saying a great deal.

Reiko stood by the sternchaser catapult, giving a shallow bow that Órlaith returned to exactly the same degree, though she and the Empress of the much-diminished modern Japan also shared a small smile. Nobody back there would know that she was the Empress yet, which was odd when you thought of it, as if time passed more and more slowly as places grew more distant.

The smile lit up a face delicate yet strong, albeit usually rather somber in the time Órlaith had known her.

Though that’s no surprise. I’ve not been in much of a mood for song, dancing and dalliance myself, of late, and it would have been worse for the both of us if we hadn’t found a way to strike back. Reiko’s excellent company when she relaxes, clever and with a sly sense of humor.

The commanders of Órlaith’s men-at-arms, Sir Aleaume de Grimmond and Squire Droyn Jones de Mollala gave her actual salutes Association-style, right fist to breastplate, as they followed her up the ladder. She returned them punctiliously. They’d both sworn personal allegiance to her and risked the anger of her mother, and not so incidentally that of their own parents, to come along on what many would think a crazed escapade. At their level, family and politics were inseparable.

And gestures are important. How do we of human-kind deal with each other, if not with gestures and symbols? And doubly so, if you’re royal. I don’t think you can do this properly at all, if you don’t realize that.

Her brother John was leaning against the stern rail trying out a shakuhachi bamboo flute he’d borrowed from one of Reiko’s samurai. Making friends was one of his gifts. He lowered it and waved with a broad grin; he was two years younger than his sister and an inch shorter and in full armor, carrying it off well with his lean and broad-shouldered build. He favored their mother’s side of the family, with green-flecked hazel eyes and wavy hair of a warm brown.

In fact he favored their mother’s father, but with enough of Rudi Mackenzie to fine down the brutal bluntness to a lazy handsomeness, and laughter in the gaze rather than the hot throttled fury you saw in portraits of their famous, wicked maternal grandfather.

“We’ll be heading in shortly, Your Highness,” Feldman said to Órlaith, without taking the telescope from his eye as he scanned the fog-shrouded headlands to the east. “But I want good visibility for this.”

She nodded silently; her parents had told and more importantly shown her that the mark of a good commander or ruler was to pick capable and trustworthy subordinates, see that they had whatever resources they needed, tell them very clearly what you wanted done... and then mostly stand back and let them do it. That was why judging character was the single most important skill a monarch needed. They’d also told her that it was surprisingly hard not to try and do someone else’s work when things were tense and you had nothing to do but wait.

Alas, it’s true, I’m finding, she thought. Bad as an itch under your breastplate.

Feldman struck her as extremely capable, trim and mentally and physically tough, and he knew perfectly well that speed was important. He was a wiry olive-skinned man in his mid-thirties, a few inches shorter than she, with black hair and dark brown eyes and a close-cropped beard the color of raven-feathers except for a white streak that covered a scar. There were brass buttons on his blue nautical coat, a cutlass at his belt, and a flat peaked cap on his head that covered the kippa skullcap of his faith.

Reiko’s Imperial Guard commander Egawa Noboru stood in his usual position at her elbow, short and thickset and strong in a full suit of the same Môgame-Dô armor, save for the gauntlets in the upended helmet he had under one arm. Apparently he was simply ignoring the thought of falling overboard. The gear was lighter than a Montivallan knight’s suit of plate, but not enough to matter if you were trying to swim. A healing scar on his left hand...

The same prisoner...

Luanne Salander nodded towards Egawa and spoke sotto voce to Órlaith:

“I think if Reiko’s personal troll did go over the side, he’d just walk ashore along the bottom and come up on the beach dragging a disemboweled shark for sushi.”

At barely nineteen Luanne was the youngest of their core of conspirators, a Bearkiller by origin and a cousin of hers and John’s by courtesy, since she was the grand-niece of the woman who’d married their father’s father Mike Havel. After he’d sired Rudi Mackenzie in a brief encounter with Lady Juniper, back in the first Change Year. There had been bad blood on his wife’s side about it back then, and she’d been ruler of the Bearkillers for quite a while after Havel had died in the War of the Eye, but it had never quite come to blows, and it hadn’t passed down to their generation.

“Tsk!” Órlaith said, a little sharply, but she half-welcomed the distraction.

Egawa still didn’t speak much English, but she suspected that by now he understood far more. He looked like a blunt, no-nonsense fighting man. And largely was, but that didn’t mean he was at all stupid, and he probably used his appearance and natural temperament as a conscious tool. Fighting meant breaking heads from the inside too, particularly at the higher levels.

I would wager any sum that underestimating Egawa-san’s wits was the very last mistake a number of men ever made.

“That’s a compliment, cousin,” the Bearkiller said, her handsome full-lipped olive face and grey eyes smiling as she bowed slightly towards him. “Hey, I owe him one. And he’s scary enough that I’m glad he’s on our side.”

Heuradys gave a very slight snort, and Órlaith nodded to her.

He isn’t on our side, Luey, she thought. Though it would be tactless to say anything of the sort aloud. He’s on his ruler’s side, and his nation’s, and none other whatsoever. And for the present, that means he works with us, so. But if his duty demanded it he’d turn on us in an instant. So would Reiko, though she’d genuinely mourn such a necessity afterwards. Not that it’s likely any such thing will happen—very unlikely indeed—but it’s something to keep in mind. Also he does not tolerate disorder in his ranks.

One of Egawa’s Imperial Guard samurai had misinterpreted Luanne’s reason for hopping their hippomotive-drawn train at the Larsdalen station in an unpleasantly personal way that might well have turned into something worse. The Japanese commander had administered discipline, also personally, with a series of open-handed blows to one side of the face and then the other until the man fell down semiconscious and bleeding from eyes, ears, nose and mouth, all delivered while the recipient stood at rigid attention. The bruises were still fairly spectacular; that was apparently the standard punishment drill in the Imperial Guard, equivalent to a Montivallan doing forced-march maneuvers with a sack full of sixty pounds of wet sand held across their shoulders. The subtle but definite mockery he received from his comrades probably hurt worse still.

The general’s heavily scarred middle-aged face was impassive beneath the distinctive haircut with the pate shaved back towards the topknot; she’d rarely seen any expression on it except a slight scowl, but the almost imperceptible flick of his eyes towards Luanne confirmed Órlaith’s guess.

That stone face is partly because he’s a natural stoic, she thought. And partly because he’s feeling so out of place. He never dealt with foreigners much at other than sword’s-point before he came here, and he can’t really speak the language. Also...

Órlaith grinned to herself. Reiko, who was much more mentally flexible than her guard-commander, had confessed in private that it had taken her concentration and time to learn how to distinguish one non-Japanese face from another beyond things like male or female and hair color. And that for weeks she’d been frightened that she’d commit some gross rudeness because to her eye Montivallans all looked alike.

“How are we placed, Captain?” Órlaith asked formally when Feldman snapped his telescope shut and nodded as if to himself.

“No new obstacles that I can see, Your Highness. The wind’s favorable, right abaft the beam, which is the Queen’s best point of sailing,” he said, cocking an eye skyward with a navigator’s reflex and studying the flags at the main and mizzen. “Best of all, it’s steady and it feels in a mood to stay that way for the next few hours at least. We’ll make our run under the bridge as soon as the fog lifts enough for safety’s sake.”

He grinned. “Or as much safety as you can expect, at sea,” he qualified.

There was a feeling through the Sword like a bronze bell ringing—truth, or at least conviction; when someone tried to lie to her now she could feel it like metal foil clenched between the back teeth. She frowned. Somehow the Sword-born certainty made her feel as if she was being unjustly mistrustful. There was no logic in that, but emotions didn’t work by rule.

“The first time I came into these waters was my first voyage far-foreign when I was in my teens. As an apprentice supercargo on the old Ark, with my father Daniel, taking a load of metals and dried fruit and wine to Hawaii to trade for rum and indigo and Kona Gold. We made landfall not far north of here on our way back.”

The Japanese naval captain Ishikawa Goru had studied the Montivallan marine maps very carefully. “Why make land so far south?” he said. “So sorry, but wind and current run south here, I think? Harder to beat back to your home port.”

He’d been commander of the Red Dragon, the ship that brought the Japanese party here; a man of around thirty with a more lively expression than most of his countrymen. He wore a light kikko tunic of small hexagonal steel plates joined by fine mail and sewn to a cloth backing, practical for a sailor and something you could shrug out of in seconds.

“Into the teeth of the winds and currents from here to Newport, yes,” Feldman said.

His hand caressed the hilt of his cutlass. “But we were jumped by pirates. Three ships, Suluk corsairs out of Mindanao, they came in at dawn while we still had the peak of Mauna Loa in sight. Two of them chased us all the way back, keeping to north of us to head us off from waters the Navy patrolled. We’d have been wrecked on this coast if we hadn’t stumbled on people from the Mist Hills barony, and they saved our lives again later.”

Aside to Órlaith: “If you think civilization is thin on the ground here in Westria now, Your Highness, you should have seen it then! The Mist Hills people were afraid they were the last real human beings left.”

And what is safety? she thought grimly as she nodded to him.

She knew the bones of that story. Mist Hills was yet another case of the pre-Change brotherhood known as the Society for Creative Anachronism preparing folk in ways that proved to be life-saving afterwards. The High King had confirmed Baron Godric in his land and title, and said the man was a strong lord and fine warrior, shrewd and just and well-liked by the folk in the little out-of-the-way valley his father had brought through the Change. She didn’t recall him, but his younger brother Deor the bard had been much more at court.

Yet Da died here this very spring, where we thought there was no threat, and Reiko’s father—two monarchs on a single day. And my cousin Malfind of the Dúnedain near here only a little later, which proves we didn’t make as clean a sweep of the strangers as we thought at the time. This is a very large land, and we Montivallans few yet so far south. Things can still brew without attracting notice.

“How did the gaijin merchant deal with the kaizoku, Captain?” Egawa asked in his own language.

Ishikawa translated the question and was obviously interested himself. Órlaith hid her amusement at the tactful way he rendered it. Gaijin wasn’t formally an insult; it translated fairly literally as foreign country person more or less, or someone from another country. As opposed to ketōjin, which was the alternative for non-Japanese of her type or Feldman’s and meant something like hairy savage or smelly barbarian monkey.

Gaijin wasn’t exactly a compliment, either, though; she didn’t think there was a favorable or even neutral way to say ‘foreigner’ in Japanese unless you tacked on some honorifics. The word for merchant he’d used, shō, wasn’t particularly flattering either, but Órlaith wasn’t surprised. Plenty of Associate nobles looked down their noses at traders too. The raised-hackle rivalry between those who lived by the sword and those who sought exchange was as old as the feud between dog and wolf, and unlikely ever to end.

Kaizoku... that is, sea-bandit, pirate,” Ishikawa said to Feldman. “You sink? Or escape?”

“We beat off boarders from one that first morning,” he said.

“They not act together?”

“Not so you’d notice; more like dogs with a bone.”

Ishikawa grinned. “Except bone not bite dog. How you do?”

“We dropped a sea-anchor to starboard where they couldn’t see it and cracked on with every inch of canvas, had the crew run around to give a convincing imitation of absolute panic, let them get close without suspecting it was a broken wing trick... and then caught them point-blank with a broadside of case-shot just as they were rising to leap,” Feldman said, his eyes distant for a second, his hand touching the hilt of his cutlass again.

“Need good timing, Feldman-san,” the Japanese sailor said approvingly. “Risky, but... ichiban if it work.”

Órlaith and her companions nodded grimly, the image of what those words meant when metal met flesh and bone flashing instantly into their minds. They were all young—Sir Aleaume was the oldest at twenty-six—but in their various ways they were all from families born to the sword and raised in the arts of war. Bulwarks or heavy shields or plate armor would stop the half-inch round balls, and they lost velocity quickly with distance. If you shot too soon the boarders would swarm over you before the catapults could be reloaded, and a pirate or warship could carry far more blades than a trader.

But right into the faces of half-naked men crowded tight together and jumping to the railing to leap between ships...

“My father was always good at picking the right moment, ashore or afloat,” Feldman said. “He said it was the key to the deal. That one decided to go look for an easier prize.”

Softly: “You could see the blood running out of her scuppers in streams, I remember that. That and the screaming.”

He shook himself slightly and went on: “Then we cut the cable on the sea-anchor before the others could come up, and just ran. We traded bolts and roundshot with the other two for weeks off and on, never quite managed to shake them though we tried every trick in the book at night and in bad weather—they’re nasty bastards, Suluk corsairs, but they’re good seamen with good ships, and no cowards. We had the advantage that they didn’t want to burn or sink us, of course, there’s no profit on a scatter of flaming splinters. They kept trying for our masts and rigging, or the rudder.”

Ishikawa thought hard. “Why sea-thief so... ganbaru... so determined? I think not—”

Órlaith translated the word he used next: “Not cost-effective.”

“I think they hung on so hard because they wanted our catapults, more than our hull or cargo—coffee and sugar aren’t hard to come by in the tropic islands, nor ship-timber,” Feldman said. “But war-catapults are scarce where they come from, and they can’t exactly send an order in to Donaldson Foundry & Machine in Corvallis. And they were prepared to work and bleed for it.”

“Life would be easier if only good and honest men were brave or skillful or determined,” Egawa observed, and everyone chuckled when it was translated. “For we are good and honest altogether.”

“Of course, General Egawa,” Órlaith said dryly, and got a very brief glance of acknowledgment in return.

The captain of the Tarshish Queen went on: “Then we got lucky with a napalm shell that burst just short of the sails on another one and sprayed their canvas with flame. They dropped away to fight the fire, we didn’t see them again, for which the name of the Lord be sanctified and blessed.”

Another universal nod; wooden sailing ships were floating tinderboxes of dry wood, cloth and rope liberally smeared with tar.

“And we smashed the bowsprit off the third a week later. In a storm not long before we made landfall, they may have foundered or just given up. The Ark was in bad shape by then too. One mast was damaged by roundshot, it went overboard in the blow despite all we could do with capstan bars and wolding, and we had half a dozen patched holes below the waterline, but we brought her in. Then we did emergency repairs and limped home to our families... and the drydock in the Newport repair yards.”

Ganbaru, Feldman-san,” Reiko said, as Egawa grunted thoughtfully.

Ganbaru means... ummmm, working hard,” Órlaith said to the merchant sailor. “Or persistence and hard work... doing your best. It’s by way of being a proverb, and a compliment, so, being a quality our Nihonjin friends think very highly of.”

The fog thinned again, and Órlaith’s lips shaped a soundless whistle into the cool salt breeze as her eyes adjusted. She’d seen the great bridge from the northern end on land once years ago, but never from the western sea until now. Never from the water at all, in fact. Her father had wanted to show it to her so and take a sailboat around the great Bay together...

There was stab of pain like a hand squeezing at her lungs and heart, and then she pushed it aside.

Da wouldn’t want me to pass over something like this because of him.

Just the opposite; he’d always taken a boy’s wholehearted laughing delight in wonders. She could remember the time he’d showed her one of the buffalo herds of the high plains on the eastern border of Montival, the land of the Seven Council Fires. Stampeding past four hundred thousand strong, and he sharing her whooping excitement as they galloped their horses less than half bowshot from the endless wall of moving flesh, the thunder and the dust and the grinning brown faces and streaming feather headdresses of their Lakota escort. She’d been eleven then, a decade ago.

And he would have kept that joy into the years of his deep age, she thought. All that was taken from him! But I will see it for both of us.

“And this is a wonder of the world, so it is,” she said aloud.

To Reiko: “My father said that it was made during the reign of the ancient ruler of the Americans called Roosevelt.”

She knew that the old America had been a republic, but it was more natural to use the modern terms. And few in Montival studied that part of history very closely; it grew more and more alien, less and less relevant to the contemporary world, as you approached the day of the Change. Often it was just incomprehensible by anyone but the rare scholar who immersed themselves in it; there were whole rows of dusty books in the university library in Corvallis about literary theories nobody could make heads or tails of and sciences that just didn’t function any more, if they ever had. Apparently the Japanese felt the same way about their history, if anything more strongly.

“I know the name,” Reiko said neutrally, and Egawa frowned more emphatically.

Oooops, Órlaith thought. Yes, he was the one who ruled here during that war the old Americans fought with Nihon back a century ago, when they were allied with the ruler of Deutschland—the one Reiko’s folk call the Pacific War. Ah, well, even I can’t be diplomatic all the time!

Her eyes rested on the bridge. Its beauty tugged at the heart, but her mind was still working. How fast they could make the landing stage in Ithilien was one thing; whether the allies she’d summoned would be there... there was no way to tell.

Or to tell precisely how her mother had been reacting to that summons.

Or overreacting, to be sure.

Or for that matter, how the other effects were rippling out, and what the enemy were doing in response—it wouldn’t do to forget that. When you cast words out into the world, you could neither recall it nor predict exactly where it would land. Rather like an arrow, except that words multiplied with compound interest.

 

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