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THE DESERT AND THE BLADE

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER SEVEN:

 

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.

 

The High Queen sighed and made a gesture of acknowledgement behind her back as she looked out the window, still collecting herself before she resumed the conference.

“That’s a point, Father. You have a damnable habit of being reasonable and making me be reasonable when I don’t want to be, you know that?”

“We all have our cross to bear, my daughter. I am part of yours, it seems.”

And you are the crossbeam of mine. She felt her lips quirk unwillingly at that as she turned back.

The décor here was antique in the literal sense; the desks and tables and chairs were heavy dark carved Victorian neo-Gothic from some mansion or museum, salvaged not long after the Change by her mother’s teams and stored until the castle needed them. There was a scent of wax and polish about them, and of upholstery covered in red doeskin, probably not changed much since her father’s time—the Onyx Tower had been his particular lair, which accounted for much of its ill reputation.

Lord Chancellor Ignatius—brother of the Order of the Shield of St. Benedict, and priest as well—could have offices here without unpleasant political consequences; his Order had been among the leaders of the resistance against the Association in the old days. Though Ignatius had been a child then—he was less than a decade older than Mathilda, who had been conceived and born in the first Change Year.

Then Ignatius chuckled; his hair and beard were more than half white, but even as it deepened the lines at the corners of his eyes the expression made him look much younger. Though his baptismal name had been Karl Bergfried, his eyes were slanted and of a blue so midnight-dark it could easily be taken for black. That shape was the legacy of a Vietnamese grandmother, a bride brought back from some long-forgotten war of the ancient world. The old Americans had gotten around and about, on a scale inconceivable in modern times.

“Perhaps we should just devise a code, Your Majesty, with letters to fill in conversations we’ve had so often before? You say ‘A’, I reply with ‘X’, and we both save time and effort.”

Maugis looked very slightly shocked again, and the Mackenzie was amused as he ran a hand over his oak-brown curls. This time Mathilda had to work at little harder at keeping the smile away. She and Ignatius... and Rudi... had worked together for a very long time. She knew the Chancellor had often longed to return to the peace and beauty of his warrior order’s mother-house at Mt. Angel and its ancient round of toil and prayer. He never had, except for the odd retreat to refresh his soul. As he’d put it once, the Shield of St. Benedict weren’t the Cistercians and he’d known that when he took his first vows as a novice.

God gave you a cross to carry, the weight precisely tailored to your capacity if you called on Him in your heart, and told you to drag it up to Heaven’s gate. Ignatius had never faltered.

“Sure, and I think better of Christians in general when I hear you say something of that order, Father,” he chuckled.

She stopped for a moment, pressing the palms of her hands together and touching the fingers to her chin. “And we’re exhibiting our internal divisions before these... Japanese.”

And without them, Rudi would still be alive! her heart cried.

She took a moment to force the thought away. Grief was natural, and it paid no account to fairness. She couldn’t control what her heart felt, but she could control what she said and did. The thoughts came unbidden; that didn’t mean she had to welcome them in and give them a home.

I’m an Arminger. That doesn’t mean I have to... that is, the honor of House Artos is in my hands.

She was Lady Protector in her own right, and High Queen Regnant of all Montival until Órlaith came of age. She couldn’t afford to act on resentment or angry impulse, not when she had to account for her actions to her conscience, her people, and to God and the Virgin who was her particular patron. Too much depended on a calm mind and considered decisions.

I saw Her at the Kingmaking, bringing mercy to Father in Purgatory. Remember those eyes, that voice. Holy Mary pierced with sorrows, intercede for a mother now!

And the visitors’ Emperor had died only moments before Montival’s High King, and left his daughter and heir in charge of their party. Apparently this Reiko and Órlaith had become partners in crime, or close friends, or both.

Órlaith... Órlaith is like her father that way. People—most people—like her. They trust her. They look into her eyes and see her smile and... something happens. Some people like me, but it isn’t the same. I have to work at things.

“And they show their disputes before us,” Ignatius said thoughtfully. At her expression of surprise:

“Your Majesty, the senior man left at Montinore manor on Barony Ath was Koyama Akira, the Grand Steward of the Imperial Household. Roughly comparable to my office, I gather. Marshal d’Ath thinks, and from my own flying visit I concur, that he was utterly flabbergasted when he woke and found his Empress and her escort gone and only he, a few of his staff members, and several other officials left. Astonished and, under a very tight control, furious with an anger born of fear for her as he read her note to him. Which indicates why their Empress acted as she did. She is young, very much Órlaith’s age, her succession irregular and recent, and her authority possibly precarious.”

“She took her guard commander and his samurai, plus her ship captain and his remaining sailors. You think the others aren’t loyal?”

“Not necessarily, but in the Grand Steward’s case there is the perhaps natural feeling of men long experienced in government that they know better than a young woman recently bereaved of her father. It was all very quietly managed.”

“Just how deeply is Marshal d’Ath implicated in all this?” Maugis said, the lines deepening in his face.

Technically she was his superior; he was Grand Constable of the Association, but the Baroness of Ath was Marshal of the High King’s Host, supreme commander of all Montival’s soldiery under the Crown. In point of fact the High King had very little in the way of troops under arms in peacetime, apart from the guard regiments. Most of what force the High Kingdom did keep was off patrolling distant wilderness or afloat against the menace of Haida pirates from the far north. The navy rarely came south of Puget Sound and very rarely south of Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia.

The Portland Protective Association’s sheer size and feudal structure meant that it could muster more strength and do it much more quickly than any other part of Montival save perhaps Boise, and Boise was far away over the mountains. The sword had been in the sheath since her early adulthood, but neither her mother nor she herself nor the servants they had chosen had let it rust there.

Any display of Associate might had to be done very carefully, to avoid arousing old fears and feuds. The Prophet’s War and the founding of the High Kingdom had brought them all together, in theory. Keeping it that way in fact took kingcraft. It would be harder now, just when they needed unity more than they had since the dark days of the kingdom’s birth.

Ignatius shrugged. “My lord, the Marshal issued that do-what-the-bearer-orders order, but if the Crown Princess requested it, it’s only a venial sin for Lady d’Ath to sign it without prior reference to Todenangst. She did submit a duplicate in the usual report through the usual channels...”

“Without flagging it for attention,” Maugis said dryly. “So that it disappeared into the routine to-be-read stack in your office, my Lord Chancellor.”

“Yes, and I have been paying less attention to my routine correspondence than I should. Her communication indicates that she did not ask what the prerogative mandamus was for... granted, probably she deliberately did not ask.”

“My mother was fond of those,” Mathilda said. “She used to call them a get out of jail free card, for some reason. Like a lettre de cachet.”

Ignatius nodded; neither of them mentioned that a lettre de cachet from the first Lord Protector or his wife and successor Sandra Arminger had been mostly used when someone—someone like Tiphaine d’Ath in her dreadful deadly prime, for example—was sent out to make a third party disappear, visibly or otherwise, disappear into death or a dungeon or just nonexistence.

Most of those had read: The bearer has done what has been done by my authority, and for the good of the State.

“A pre-Change reference of some sort,” he said.

And went on in an utterly neutral tone: “Your Majesty may of course dismiss Baroness d’Ath, since High Marshall is an office held at the Crown’s pleasure.”

“I don’t think so,” Mathilda said... feeling her own reluctance at the words.

She forced detachment and suppressed the feeling of betrayal and went on judiciously: “D’Ath has built up quite a fund of credit with the Crown, dating back to my parents’ time.”

She winced inwardly; it was only a decade later that she’d realized those services included saving Rudi’s life on her mother’s orders... when her father had tried to have him killed. It wasn’t something they publicized, even now.

Which meant...

“And this doesn’t exhaust it, not yet, not unless it turns to a complete disaster, however annoyed I am with Tiph for abetting this nonsense. And she’s due to retire in a few years anyway. Plus... she’s close to Órlaith, she tutored her a great deal, as she did me when I was a girl.”

“Lady Heuradys d’Ath seems to have been deeply involved,” Ignatius said.

Mathilda shrugged and flipped a hand in a dismissive gesture; that was precisely what she’d have expected of the Marshall’s adopted daughter. She’d known the girl...

Don’t get too middle-aged, Mathilda, she scolded herself. Heuradys d’Ath’s twenty-three and a belted knight and about as dangerous as Tiphaine was at the same age. Not as cold and not nearly as angry at the world as Tiph was when she was Mom’s living stiletto, but... Heuradys is certainly not that wide-eyed page of ten you used to sneak treats to or find giggling in corners with your daughter. Not anymore.

... known the young woman since she’d been born, and had nearly as much to do with her as her own mothers for the last decade and more.

“She’s been Órlaith’s best friend since they were little girls, and she’s her sworn liege knight,” she said. “It’s not even technically illegal for her under Association law, she’s an officer of Orrey’s household, not mine or of the Crown.”

And even if I wanted to punish her, every Associate noble would be up in arms, possibly quite literally, if I did that to a vassal for obeying her oath of fealty.

“And Prince John apparently arranged the charter of the ship in Newport,” Ignatius said. “My informants—”

He ran the High Kingdom’s intelligence network, among other duties.

“—say that a knight matching the Prince’s description, but bearing arms that aren’t in the College of Herald’s records, was closeted with the head of Feldman And Sons several times. Then he wasn’t seen again until the ship left.”

“I thought his valet was supposed to keep an eye on him?” she said sharply.

“Goodman Evrouin is supposed to keep him safe,” the cleric said. “Your Majesty, he couldn’t do that effectively if he were simply a spy fastened on your son against his will. As it is, at least he’s with him. Prince John is no fool, and not easily overborn, for all that he’s only nineteen. Consider his parentage!”

Mathilda slumped into a chair and put a hand to her forehead. “I never thought I’d feel so sympathetic to the way Mother reacted when I went off to join Rudi on the Quest. Still, we can’t let this go on. Lord Maugis, Edain, what are our options?”

“Your Majesty, Feldman’s Tarshish Queen is a fast ship, the Navy people tell me—it’s on the auxiliary reserve list, of course—and this merchant Moishe Feldman a good sailor with a crack crew, one of the best in Newport,” Maugis de Grimmond said. “He’s also a Corvallan naval reservist, rank of Commander. Few civilian ships in all Montival are faster, in fact, save for some rich men’s racing yachts, and they are not seaworthy.”

Ignatius nodded. “Feldman is noted for going into peril,” he said. “He’s fought pirates abroad more than once. His ship is designed for that sort of work, high risk and high reward.”

Shrewd, shrewd choice, my golden girl, she thought. Feldman’s family have obligations to House Artos... and originally the obligation was for protection against House Arminger, back in Father’s time. He’d be more likely to dare my anger for your sake than anyone else you could have picked—certainly more than anyone who had to be simply outright bribed into it. And Corvallis... they’ve never much liked any Associate. They only joined the High Kingdom because there really wasn’t any alternative when all their neighbors did unless they wanted their trade choked off. Fighting the Prophet’s War with the rest of us helped, but factions there are still unhappy about it.

“What do we have that could catch her?” Mathilda said.

“Nothing apart from one frigate in Astoria, the Stormrider, refitting after taking her latest anti-pirate patrol out of Victoria,” Maugis said, touching a file-folder without looking at its contents. “The Royal Montivallan Navy base there is overburdened with more serious work and they sent her south on contract to a civilian yard.”

Stormrider... twelve hundred tons, complement of two hundred and fifteen, thirty marines, twenty-eight eighteen-pounder catapults and two twenty-four pounder track-mounted chasers fore and aft, Captain Russ commanding,” Mathilda said absently.

“Yes, Your Majesty; they’re ten short of complement, losses in dead and seriously injured from a cutting-out expedition that was ambushed ashore.”

Mathilda nodded, the anger she would usually feel at that distant and muffled. She would never have been surprised, though. It wasn’t enough to look at maps. To truly grasp how big the northern sea-land country was you had to see with your own eyes the endless chains of islands from county-sized to bare rocks, and the fiord-riven coasts that ran up into Alaska—which she had. Big and steep, densely forested with enormous trees that came right down to the stony beaches and up to the glaciers, cut by rivers that made overland travel a nightmare, icy seas fog-bound and lashed by huge storms much of the year and full of reefs and rocks. With icebergs as common as driftwood.

That daunting inhuman scale was among the reasons the High Kingdom had never been able to do more than keep the Haida menace from getting completely out of hand. In theory the Crown of Montival claimed everything from Baja up to the Bering Strait; in practice only about a quarter of that vast stretch was remotely under law. Much of it wasn’t even regularly visited, much less ruled.

Maugis went on: “Assuming the Tarshish Queen intends to make a stop in San Francisco Bay...”

“They will, my lord,” Edain said. “The news from home... from my home in Dun Fairfax... is that my son and his friends planned a long overland journey. And they were not present in Newport when the Tarshish Queen weighed anchor. My guess would be that they’re after heading for the Bay; for the Dúnedain holding there, Stath Ingolf. Wherever they intend to go in the end, they’ll stop there.”

Mathilda’s mind clicked through a mixture of reports, maps, her own travels, the links of friendship and vassalage and kinship, and ran them all through the focusing mechanism of a lifetime’s political experience. Rudi’s twin half-sisters Mary and Ritva and their men had founded that Stath of the Rangers, in what had been rechristened Ithilien County in accordance with the Dúnedain...

Obsessions, she thought. Or founding myth, if I was feeling charitable, which I am very much not just now.

Just a little while ago the news had come that one Korean ship had been cast ashore north of the Bay, and the Dúnedain had had a clash with its survivors—acting together with a Haida skaga, a shaman of those piratical tribesfolk, and the cannibal Eaters who haunted the ruins of the lost cities. Mary’s eldest son Malfind had died in that skirmish and her daughter Morfind had been wounded, as had Ritva’s son Faramir Kovalevsky. Mathilda felt a slight twinge of guilt that she hadn’t paid more attention to Mary’s loss. Grief made you selfish. In practical terms, though—

“She’s going to meet the Mackenzies she’s suborned to this lunacy there,” Mathilda said flatly. “And probably pick up a few younger Dúnedain too. And... how did they coordinate this? Without getting into the message files or alerting anyone? Órlaith has been at Montinore Manor almost since she got back, when she wasn’t here. So has Lady Heuradys. And there’s nothing definite in the logs of the Castle Ath heliograph station. Very little but routine traffic.”

“There I can speak,” Edain said. “Susan Mika—Susan Clever Raccoon. I met her in the McClintock dùthchas, nobbut a few months ago, when she bore your messages to the little Princess.”

“Little!” Órlaith’s mother snorted.

Her daughter had inherited Rudi’s looks, and was only an inch below six feet, built like a long-limbed blond leopardess; she could have posed for the warrior-woman on the cover of one of the pre-Change tales of chivalry and adventure her grandmother had liked, though the so-called armor on those usually looked as if they’d been designed for the eyes of thirteen-year-old boys rather than for combat.

Edain probably remembered helping her onto her first pony and tumbling about with her puppy; men were... rather soppy that way.

Mathilda searched her memory again. Then she stopped and snapped her fingers. A young Lakota named Susan Mika had enlisted in the Crown Courier Corps less than two years ago. Rick Three Bears was her uncle, and a friend of Rudi and Mathilda’s from the Quest a generation ago, as well as important in the government of the Lakota tunwan that formed the Kingdom’s eastern frontier. He’d sent a note explaining she’d gotten into bad trouble at home and asking them to find her a job. She’d done well in the Couriers, in fact...

Ignatius slapped his palm on the table, his face showing the pleasure of solving a mental puzzle: “Yes, she was the Rider I sent south with the dispatches from you for Princess Órlaith.”

“Aye,” Edain nodded. “And she met us at Diarmuid Tennart McClintock’s steading.”

Mathilda winced again. Órlaith was of the Old Faith, her father’s religion, and like most maidens of that belief in the clans she’d lost her virginity at a Beltane festival in her teens, about three years after her first menses. To one Diarmuid Tennart McClintock... Mathilda’s Catholic side had been angered; she’d been a virgin on her wedding night, not without considerable effort and inner struggle. And her political antennae had quivered too—lover to the next High Queen was a political position whether the parties wanted it to be or not.

“Diarmuid’s handfasted to another now,” Edain put in. “Just as we showed up out of the wilderness on our way north. But forbye they’re still friends. She’s probably called on him for aid, and some blades who’ll follow him. Say another dozen, to match those my sons Karl and Mathun managed to persuade into it, they’ll not want a great host.”

To the others, which meant mainly Maugis: “Diarmuid’s a feartaic down there, something of a minor chief, what they call a tacksman, like his father and grandfather before him.”

The Mackenzies and McClintocks had always had fairly close relations, but a north-realm noble whose business was mostly within the Protectorate wouldn’t know as much about the more southerly of the great pagan Clans. Mackenzies didn’t have tacksmen, but then they hadn’t been founded by someone as utterly obsessed with his somewhat deranged vision of the Highland past as the first McClintock. Juniper Mackenzie and her followers had just been improvising in a world gone mad.

“This Rider... she had speech with the Princess, more than once,” Edain went on. “And our Golden Princess has all her father’s golden charm. Charm that could bring the birds from the trees, Matti.”

“I know that, Edain,” she said shortly.

He shook his head. “Not the way someone who didn’t nurse her or wipe her wee arse does. A mother is a different thing, blessed be.”

He touched the back of his right hand to his forehead, a gesture of the Clan’s version of the Old Faith to a hearth-mistress—half reverence to the Goddess who was Mother-of-all and half ironic reminder to the High Queen. She was uneasily aware that the pagan part of Montival saw her as the Mother’s surrogate for the High Kingdom, as they’d seen Rudi walking in the power of the Lord who was Her consort. It was politically convenient... but religiously it made her itch. Catholics... well, many Catholics... had stopped interpreting the Lord and Lady as demons and deceivers and moved on to just misunderstood aspects of the Truth; she wished the Old Faith would stop plastering the interpretio paganensis on her theology.

But as the good Father told me long ago, debating doctrine with a witch is like trying to carve fog with a sword.

Ignatius stroked his close-cropped beard. “An ideal way to communicate in confidence. Nobody questions a rider of the Crown Courier Corps. She’s been carrying regular dispatches down to Castle Rutherford and Stath Ingolf since. A few more in the pouch, or simply verbal messages...”

“There was the Yurok shaman we met at Diarmuid’s steading,” Edain said thoughtfully. “She said that there was something that Reiko, their Empress, must recover. Something to the south.”

Ignatius nodded. “It definitely looks like a rendezvous inside the Golden Gate. Whatever mission our mysterious Japanese friends are on, it’s south of there.”

“Has this Grand Steward Koyama Akira said anything about that?” Mathilda asked. “We still haven’t any real idea of what they’re trying to do.”

“Not a word. He is angered, but singularly close-mouthed with outsiders and foreigners. As I would be in his position,” Ignatius said. “A formidably disciplined man, impeccably courteous and utterly unyielding. I think his command of English is better than he would have us think, which helps him be... skillfully unhelpful. We are still trying to find a Japanese-speaking interpreter who knows enough to be useful; there may be one in Boise, and there’s a family of landholding knights in the Skagit baronies who may have kept it up as family tradition, but either will take time to arrive. And I would guess at a certain satisfaction on Lord Koyama’s part that we are as... thunderstruck as he, and for similar reasons.”

“I’d be thinking gobsmacked is the word you’re looking for, Ignatius,” Edain observed dryly.

Maugis nodded. “Stormrider might overtake her—she has more hull speed than the Tarshish Queen when she’s clean, but she was due to have her coppering renewed in the next year.”

“I doubt Moishe Feldman would shoot at a ship of the High Kingdom’s fleet,” Ignatius said thoughtfully. “Even if the Princess told him to, which she would not.”

“She wouldn’t tell him to,” Mathilda said flatly.

She was quite sure of that, at least.

“But he would certainly run away from one if she tells him to do that, and we can’t start flinging roundshot or napalm shells at my daughter and my son! Bolts from a naval catapult are no respecters of persons.”

“No indeed,” Ignatius said. Thoughtfully: “Nor at the Empress of Japan, for that matter. We have enough enemies across the Pacific, it appears, without adding another!”

Mathilda gave a single sharp if unwilling nod to acknowledge the point. “My lord de Grimmond, put... sixty or seventy men on her, from the Protector’s Guard. Select a commander immune to Órlaith’s charm! Instructions are to secure the person of the Crown Princess and Prince John, but without using lethal force against anyone aboard that ship. Including the Japanese.”

“Your Majesty, I’m not in the naval chain of command.”

“Well, I’m not going to tell Tiph to do it, under the circumstances! Ignatius, do up the necessary documentation to regularize things. The High Queen is in the chain—holding the upper end. And jerking it hard right now.”

Maugis stirred again; he knew he was being ordered to tell his men to make bricks without straw. She held up her hand. The impulse to protect his troops from impractical political demands was perfectly natural—essential—but sometimes you had to override things like that. Fighting was always at most a means, never an end, though those born to the sword tended to forget it sometimes. The purpose of having armed force was to use it to get people to do what you wanted, or resist their attempts to do that to you. Anything in the way of actual fighting was a regrettable by-product, like dirty water from a dye-works.

“I’m aware that it’s an impossible thing to task them with, but it has to be done that way,” she said firmly.

“Your Majesty,” Maugis said, tucking his head in acknowledgment. His face grew grimmer. “My son Aleaume—let his person answer for his actions as it pleases you.”

She smiled a little wearily. “My lord, Sir Aleaume’s oath was to the dynasty, not me personally, and he did not violate any direct orders. And according to witnesses, he probably did swear personal fealty to my daughter... which is most irregular, but not strictly speaking illegal since she is the dynasty’s heir, and once done carries an obligation of strict obedience as long as her orders are not direct treason. To be absolutely frank, if my daughter is running off hare-brained, I’m glad he’s there to guard her person. He may have committed a serious error, he may have lost my favor—”

Implying that he was very unlikely to have lost Órlaith’s, who would be High Queen in five years.

—but I’m quite sure nobody will get to her except through him. Not as long as he can breathe and hold a sword.”

Maugis swallowed and ducked his head again, radiating a mixture of anger at his eldest son... and beneath it, deep pride. Mathilda acknowledged both with a gesture.

“We’ll suspend his post in the Guard and rusticate him out at St. Grimmond-on-the-Wold for a year or two with orders not to leave the boundaries of your estates while he contemplates the meaning of discipline and watches the grass grow and the sheep eat it. Then I’ll find him some post on the frontiers for further reflection, somewhere uncomfortable and strenuous. The same for young Droyn, though his father my lord Count Chaka may add to it.”

Maugis had been ready to hear the words dungeon or even high treason; his relief didn’t show, but it was there.

And there are certainly enough people who don’t like the Association watching me like a hawk from the outside for off-with-their-heads impulses now that Rudi’s... gone. Now all Montival is ruled by an Associate.

At the Kingmaking she had seen her father in Purgatory. Heaven’s mercy was infinite... but human beings, alas, were sparks of the Divine, not the thing itself.

And I’m the daughter and heir of the first Lord Protector, at that. Until Órlaith comes of age. Rudi, my love, you built well, but the realm is still new and young. Well, I have experience with young wild things, at that!

Maugis allowed himself a craggy smile. “Here is the first use Her Highness found for the writ from the Marshall.”

Mathilda read the paper he slid across. It was a carbon copy of a standard typewritten logistics requisition on the armed forces of the Republic of Corvallis in the High Kingdom’s name, for everything from spare bowstrings and underwear to tinned sardines and jam and pelletized alfalfa-fodder to boot-grease, to be delivered to a warehouse in Newport. Maugis had probably had to jar several clerks out of their comfortable routine to get it out of the continual flow of paperwork even a very modest army generated. Her brows rose. She’d been, effectively, Rudi’s Chief of Staff during the Prophet’s War, and she had logistics in her bones.

“At least Órlaith isn’t being incompetent even if she’s doing something deeply stupid,” the High Queen said.

“Edain?” she went on.

“I can send a party of the High King’s Archers after that pack of gossoons my sons took off into the wilderness.”

“Cavalry would be useless, even light horse,” Ignatius agreed, and Maugis nodded. “Too steep, too roadless, too forested. And little forage.”

Edain made a gesture of acknowledgement. “Forbye warriors in good hard condition can leave foundered horses dead in their wake over a long run; I’ve done it. There’s a question of law, there, I’m afraid, as well, Matti. It’s not illegal for a dozen youngsters of the Clan to take their bows and blades and go on a bit of a trip to hunt and admire scenery and chase the pretty butterflies and listen to the wee birdies sing praise to the Lady of the Flowers, now is it?”

She snorted, but he was an old friend and had his full share of Mackenzie irreverence anyway.

“How many?” she said.

“The bigger the party the less ground you cover in a day, since you’re bound by the slowest. Two-score, I’d say that will be the best balance.”

There were about seven hundred bows in the High King’s Archers at any one time; a little over half were Mackenzies. Any Montivallan could join if they met the tests... which started with a thirty-mile forced march in armor, before you got to the marksmanship part. The pay was quite reasonable, skilled-craftsman level, and there was the chance to strut about with the pride of an elite, but you earned all of it and more.

“I’ll hand-pick them from those with the reconnaissance badge and take them out myself,” Edain said.

Mathilda winced; Edain was rock-steady and a pillar of the Throne... and someone to whom she was Matti first, a lifelong friend to both her and Rudi. She had many loyal, able subordinates, but that was inexpressibly comforting.

“It’s a lieutenant’s command,” she said.

He shrugged. “With another, Karl might do something... rash. Whereas meself meself... He’s a man grown, but only just. Enough of the boy remains that he may not defy his father face to face, so. If only I can catch him to put my face in his face, as it were.”

“Point,” she said. “This is a political operation, not really a tactical one.”

“Aye, Matti. And Diarmuid Tennart McClintock is a proud and hot-tempered young man, he might fight me personally in a challenge circle, but he’ll not outright offer battle to the High King’s Archers. Most especially if they outnumber him and are led by me, that being by way of precaution, you understand. So two-score is best all around, and it needs my aging carcass in person.”

She raised a brow in question, and he grinned ruefully: “I’m not looking forward to it, mind, but though it’ll hurt me more than it once would I won’t slow them, not yet.”

“Do it,” she said. “Requisition what you need.”

“No guarantees, Matti, not with my boys and their accomplices having so to say a long start,” he warned. “We’ll make up some by taking a hippomotive to the end of rail, and more by not going over to the Tennart’s. Forbye they’ve been going hither and yon picking up people. With a Crown priority we can be at the railhead near Klamath six hours after we load. Good thing we pushed it that far last year.”

She called up maps in her mind, and felt for the link to the land that had been there since the Kingmaking by Lost Lake. It gave her an intuitive feel for the possible, as if all Montival was a set of muscles she could sense the limits of.

Right now she was reluctant to use it.

I shrink from it, she conceded to herself.

And forced herself not to remember the scream that had echoed from the very earth and air and water as well as from her when Rudi fell. Her throat was still a little raw with it.

But I will do it. When I fought by your side on the Quest and in the war, Rudi, I bore wounds from edged steel. I went willingly under the shadow of Azrael’s wings to bear our children in pain and love and blood. I will do this to keep them safe, my darling, and for what we built together.

“Don’t try to follow them, except as far as you’re heading for the same place,” she said after a moment, her voice steady. “My guess is that they’ll head for Stath Ingolf; it’s close to the Bay and Órlaith has friends there.”

“Ingolf the Wanderer himself among them, and her aunts Mary and Ritva, and Ian Kovalevsky,” Edain warned. “They being the lords thereabouts.”

Mathilda nodded. They’d been on the Quest together, fought together, shared hardship and danger and saved each other’s lives. Together they’d been the first to hail Rudi—Artos—High King, far off in the eastern lands. Except for Ian, who’d fallen in with them on the way back west, in Drumheller, and he was a Quester by courtesy not least because he’d wed Ritva.

Edain was reminding her that they all thought of her as a friend first, and their monarch second and in a rather theoretical way. Off on their own in Westria with a message a month if that, they were the Kingdom, pretty much and for all practical local purposes. The High King and Queen traveled a good deal around Montival precisely to demonstrate that the monarchy actually existed; that was why Rudi had been down there. Plus...

“It’s their children who are Orlaith’s friend-friends, not Ingolf and the others,” she said. “Go directly to Stath Ingolf... to the Eryn Muir, that’s where they’ll meet, there or somewhere close to it... and cut them off from the Bay. I’ll give you an authorizing writ for Hîr Ingolf, putting him under your orders for the nonce. That’s Crownland in a Crown province and they hold direct from the High Kingdom; I want him to have to think about disobeying a direct order, not just my theoretical opinions weeks after it’s all a fait accompli.”

Her head turned smoothly, rather like a catapult on its turntable. “My lord Maugis, please report after you’ve contacted Astoria about the Stormrider and checked on her readiness to sail immediately. They can send workmen along to complete repairs while underway, if necessary.”

“Shall I accompany—”

“No, my lord, you may not take personal command. Do it by heliograph. If Edain’s to be away, and I agree he must, I will need you here.”

Plus the Navy belongs to all Montival, not the Protectorate, and your office is an Associate one. It’s one thing to have some of the Protector’s Guard along under naval command, but having you on board and in charge would be provocative.

She decided to sugarcoat it a little. With honesty, which was the best way:

“We’re probably facing war... when we know more about what’s going on. It’s been twenty years since we called out the ban of the Association, much less the arrière-ban; you’ll have more than enough to do. Chancellor Ignatius, please order a meeting of the Congress of Realms in... mmmmm, Dún na Síochána.”

Ignatius nodded, thought for an instant, and began to write. “I will begin laying the political groundwork immediately. The quarters are incomplete and will be uncomfortable for the delegates, which may be for the best in encouraging them to be brief,” he said.

Dún na Síochána was the new capital they’d been building for the High Kingdom; it meant Citadel of Peace, and it was on the site of the ruined pre-Change city known as Salem... which meant about the same thing, only in Hebrew rather than Gaelic.

“And draw up orders to Marshal d’Ath for the implementation of... Plan Baywatch, that was the one for pacifying the dead cities around the Bay. With the Eaters cooperating with a foreign enemy, they’ve moved themselves up the priority list. That will mean levies, we’re going to need six or seven thousand troops for that, and their supplies. Infantry, mostly, and engineers. Mackenzies and Bearkillers and Corvallans, of course, but include a note that I want a field brigade of Boiseans as well, and at least a battalion from New Deseret. Yes,” she went on to raised brows. “It’s a long way but it’ll help remind people we’re all part of the High Kingdom. Instruct her to send the details to Fred... to President Thurston in Boise and to First Elder Mattheson in Logan. If she’s going to stay High Marshall... she’ll do the work, by God.”

Maugis rose, tucked his helm under his arm and his gauntlets in it, clashed his right fist against his chest and bowed. Mathilda controlled herself until he’d gone; he was a devoted servant of the Crown and had been for two decades. The other two men were more than that, though they were that too; and they’d been on the Quest with her. Ignatius was her confessor and spiritual councilor as well.

“How could Órlaith and John do this to me!” she cried. “And... Rudi...”

Edain put an arm around her shoulders. “That’s why, lass. They both need to be doing, don’t you see? And that at once. Their grief will give them no rest, else. Vuissance and Faolán are still young enough to rest in your arms. Herself and Johnnie are too old for that, and too young to sit quiet on their own.”

Ignatius nodded as he stamped his seal on the writ. “The young feel grief through their bodies, when they are freshly come to their full growth,” he said. “It demands action. They think that they can outrun sorrow, or sweat it out like a poison. We know that it will always catch you, but it’s not knowledge that can be transferred in words, even by a preacher with a tongue of fire. Which none of us here is. Only living long enough will do that.”

Mathilda pulled a handkerchief out of her pocket, mopped her eyes and blew her nose.

“Edain... this is important. Something is happening down there. Something terrible. I can feel it in my bones, in my blood, in the air I breathe. It’s... shadowed. As if I’m in a dream of darkness, with things moving I can’t see. I haven’t felt this way in a long time. Not since the war. Go save our children, old friend.”

He nodded soberly. What they were doing was as much to protect her son and daughter as to bring them back for defying her.

I cannot lose them too! her spirit wailed.

Then her mind replied, the part that had been High Queen for a generation, and fought through the Prophet’s War and the Quest before that:

The problem is that Ignatius is right. If you live long enough you learn things. And one thing I’ve learned is that you can lose everything.

Unconsciously her hand touched her stomach. And this child... will never know her father. It’s already cost my child that!

 

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