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THE DESERT AND THE BLADE

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER NINE:

 

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.

 

The orange-red towers climbed out of the curling tendrils of sun-brightened mist, like sculptured pillars in the temples of some high God, and the long graceful swoop of the cables between them linking headland to headland, all still hints glimpsed as the mist thinned.

“The fog was very heavy when my father... when we came in; and it was still nearly dark,” Reiko said softly; she must be feeling the pain of loss as well, but her face was quietly serene. “We saw the bridge only as a shadow and we were... preoccupied. This is indeed very fine! And the way it changes from moment to moment, each revealing a little more.”

The wind was still from the northwest, and the Tarshish Queen stood in under plain sail—her gaff-rigged mainsails alone, sacrificing speed for quick reaction. There was a perceptible roll to the motion now, as they cut diagonally across the waves. Not far away to the north the huge rusted shape of an ancient ship slanted bow-upwards, water breaking white around it and spouting in foam through the gaps that time and Ocean had eaten. With the tide on the ebb you could see how thick the crust of barnacle and weed was on the remainder, life swarming about it in fish and seal and birds.

“That wreck’s on the north bar, Your Highness,” Feldman said from beside the wheel.

Then he jerked his head a little southward, without moving his eyes.

“There’s another bar like it not far that way; sometimes bits are above the surface. The whole thing’s like a horseshoe with the arch pointing westward, and a hole in the center kept clear by the tidal scour. They’re both dangerous, not just shallow water but sudden waves that can come from nowhere and swamp you or pile you into something that’ll rip your hull open bow to stern. Starting with parts of wrecks. The ones you can see aren’t so bad, but there are a lot just beneath the surface, like rusty gutting knives. They shift around, too. Mainly after storms but sometimes for no reason anyone can tell.”

Captain Ishikawa Goru was looking deeply unhappy at leaving his Empress’ safety to someone else, no matter how competent. He was also keeping very quiet. Feldman knew this harbor. Ishikawa had only sailed through here once, on a one-way journey in a burning ship, and he’d observed enough to develop a healthy respect for the Montivallan skipper’s seamanship and that of his crew. Órlaith caught the slight byplay as Reiko gave her naval officer a very tiny approving nod. Ishikawa was youngish for a senior command and a bit wild and brash by the standards of the Nihonjin party. Which meant he was only moderately buttoned-down by those of the more rule-bound parts of Montival.

“And your captain was either skillful, lucky or both to make it in safely on his first try without a modern chart or an experienced pilot, Your Majesty,” Feldman added to Reiko.

“Ryūjin... sea-kami... help,” Ishikawa said, with a shrug.

Ah, Feldman is clever; not least in using truth for praise. From what I’ve seen Japanese enjoy praise as much as anyone; when it’s well-earned and from someone who knows what they’re talking about, at least. But they’re very modest about it. Or at least this small bunch of them do and are; I don’t suppose they’re altogether typical.

The ones here were all of the upper classes, as were the samurai of the Guard waiting belowdecks with her men-at-arms, and in the direct service of the Chrysanthemum Throne. The only commoners in their party were Ishikawa’s eight surviving sailors, with whom she’d had little contact except to note that they were much more carefree and less reserved with their local equivalents than their almost maniacally disciplined and studiously reserved overlords. At least when those overlords weren’t watching; they didn’t say a word if they were.

I don’t know all that much about Japan, even as it was before the Change, apart from what happens when I think in their language.

Sometimes that conveyed information simply because of the assumptions and penumbras inherent in the words. What the Sword did wasn’t like learning a second language; it was like acquiring the command you would have had if you’d grown up speaking it.

And doubtless they’ve changed a great deal since the Change, just as we have. Possibly changed just as much, too. I know Reiko fairly well, I think—brief acquaintance but intense, these last few months.

Like his sovereign the Nihonjin captain had known English—theoretically, in the written form—before his party landed here. Unlike her he hadn’t become fully fluent yet. The sounds of English were difficult for speakers of Nihongo, and vice-versa, and nobody who actually spoke the language as their birth-tongue had survived the Change there to teach anyone else, so it was rather impressive that they’d done as well as they had.

Reiko still had a charming soft accent. Ishikawa’s was just thick.

Though he had become at least understandable, unlike the Imperial Guard commander; perhaps it was because he was younger. The grizzled soldier was in his mid-forties, and Órlaith suspected...

Knew, she thought.

... that behind a stony calm Egawa fiercely resented needing foreign help in recovering one of his people’s great treasures. Doubtless that tied in to memories of Japan’s defeat by the ancient Americans in the great war of the last century; his Empress had let drop that his grandfather had died in that struggle, a hero who perished deliberately diving his flying machine into one of the invaders’ warships. Apparently that man’s son had grown up hero-worshipping the memory of the father he’d barely known, and his son had kept up the tradition.

Reiko didn’t think that way. She was alarmingly intelligent, fanatically determined about anything she considered important or a matter of giri, of duty, and ruthlessly pragmatic to boot, focused on what she could do to bend the future to her will. That made her capable of grinding out astonishing results by sheer willpower.

Ishikawa indicated the course the Red Dragon had followed.

“Your Haida pilate... pirate and bakachon ship close behind—”

Órlaith winced slightly without showing it as the Sword-gained command of the language cataracted through her. Sometimes that was like having her mind split in two, and she had to pause and consciously unpack things.

Baka meant idiot, and chon was a contemptuous diminutive of what the folk of Korea had called their own land, Chosŏn; the other term the Nihonjin employed for their foes was jinnikukaburi, a new coinage that meant human flesh cockroach. To her Sword-trained ear it carried a freight of dread and loathing and sheer murderous hatred like a boiling cauldron in the minds of the users, a flame that could only be quenched in blood. If the chance for wholesale revenge ever came, she didn’t think her new allies would be inclined to mercy.

Granted that from what she’d been able to learn Korea was currently ruled by a mad cult of diabolist cannibals who’d taken it over just after the Change and who were even worse than the Church Universal and Triumphant that her parents had fought. And they had been raiding and tormenting Nippon’s survivors for more than forty years in an utterly grisly fashion.

Yet it is still a bit of a... rude... way to look at an entire realm and folk, even if one of them killed my father. I doubt the most of them chose to live so. Still, the folk of Chosŏn haven’t injured my whole people as they have the Japanese, or threatened our very existence. And didn’t Da say himself that you should keep in mind that fighting against Evil mostly means killing farmers that Evil has levied from the plow at spearpoint?

Ishikawa continued, and her thought was a flicker beneath her attention to his words:

Bakachon shooting fire-bolts and shells, gaining on us as we shipped water through very many leak and around plugs in holes below waterline, our stern catapults dismounted, sails ripped, fires starting already in rigging, many men killed trying to carry hoses aloft. Only chance of death from underwater wrecks, very sure death if we don’t go through, no doubt on best odds. I think then enemy lose one ship on approach—four when we pass through, three land after us very close. But your reports say one wrecked to north later, perhaps turn back with bad hull damage.”

“How many initially?” Feldman said, then repeated it more slowly: “How many enemy ships in pursuit of you at the beginning, back in Asia?”

“Twelve,” the Japanese sailor said. “We sink five—burn with firebolt or napalm shell, dismast with roundshot so they swamp and blake up in storm, one we turn on when it get ahead of others, that one we board short time and Imperial Guard samurai jump down hatch.”

“Jump, Captain?” Sir Aleaume de Grimmond said.

The commander of her men-at-arms was red-haired, handsome except for his jug ears and rather melancholy by inclination.

Egawa Noboru spoke softly in his own language, and Reiko translated for the others:

“They cried Tennōheika Banzai! And jumped with incendiaries in their arms. So that the fire would be sheltered from the rain and sleet and take hold quickly, and so they could fight off the bakachon damage-control parties until it was too late, while our ship broke away.”

The Montivallans blinked, then bowed their heads for an instant to honor the memory of warriors so brave and so true to their oaths; the Catholics among them crossed themselves.

“Duty, heavier than mountains,” Órlaith said, in Nihongo.

“Death, lighter than a feather,” Reiko said, completing the proverb.

Egawa nodded crisply, but looked a little surprised that she’d known it. Órlaith crooked one blond brow a very little as she caught his eye for an instant. Ishikawa went on:

“Many bakachon... disappear along way. Much bad gales, much iceberg, many long-range actions in bad visibirity. Hard to tell what to them all happen.”

Brrrr! Órlaith thought. And all Reiko said was that it was difficult and troublesome!

Then everything else was lost as the fog dwindled again and sank towards the sea and streamed away in tatters, and the long curves spanning the open water became fully visible, their deep orange glowing against blue and white and green. Reiko gave a little involuntary gasp beside her, and Egawa grunted, a small guttural sound. Órlaith stopped herself from whistling with a slight effort of will; it seemed insufficiently reverent, and she drew the Invoking pentagram instead.

Sir Aleaume and Droyn Jones de Molalla crossed themselves; so did her brother John and Luanne. Even John’s valet-bodyguard Evrouin did it, where he stood inconspicuously behind the Prince’s shoulder. All of them were accustomed to seeing the huge structures of the ancients occasionally; enough so that they usually mentally edited them out of the landscape as irrelevant to modern life, unless you were looking for raw materials or needed a lookout post.

This was different.

It took a few moments for the sheer scale of the twin towers to north and south to fully sink in, soaring most of a thousand feet into the sky. But these were as cleanly delicate as spears, without the stark brutality of so many ancient structures. She could see Reiko’s hand trace the curve of her sword, a lovely and deadly masterpiece crafted seven centuries ago by the legendary Masamune, as her eyes followed the long swoop of the suspension cables between, and the way they nestled into the hills that anchored them at either end.

“Ahhh,” she said, her voice almost a crooning sigh. “Your ancestors built very well. And your father was right that those who conceived it deserved honor.”

Órlaith nodded. “I’ve seen his face carved into a mountain in the eastern stretches of the realm with some of his kin, and Da said it was fitting for him to have that everlasting glory, for he had many great works to his credit. In peace as much as in war, helping his folk in times of dearth and drought. But this is the most beautiful of them.”

The Japanese present made little bows in the direction of the bridge. Everyone except the sailors at work tilted their heads up as they passed beneath; Órlaith felt tiny for an instant, as if she’d walked out the front gate and found that she’d been living in a child’s dollhouse and the furnishings of giants stood around her.

“And this time, they gave something godlike to the Gods, enhancing what They gave us,” Heuradys agreed, with a sigh and a murmur and a look over her shoulder as they passed. “Apollon must have inspired them, He who loves beauty and due proportion in all things, in humans and their realms and the work of their hands. Hard to believe anything so big could be so beautiful. Like Mt. Hood or Ranier, or those waterfalls on the cliffs of the Columbia gorge.”

Ashore in the wreck of San Francisco most of the great towers of the ancient world still stood, though some were twisted shapes of girder and some slumped against each other, tilted from the force of earthquakes and gnawing rust.

The bats and nesting birds must love them, Órlaith thought. Their lower levels were green-shaggy with vines, the upper dull rusted metal and sandblasted glass, with only a few shards glinting here and there in one great triangular mass. Birds soared about their nesting-sites like a shimmer in the sun, and you wouldn’t think from looking in the bright light of day that the ruins were the haunt of terror. A thin thread of smoke from further down the peninsula was the sole sign of the bands who prowled them.

Feldman nodded. “I’ve been here half a dozen times, and it’s always impressive. The channel in the middle is usually pretty safe, the tidal scour keeps it thirty feet deep or better. Though the Bay is full of wrecks too, and not all of them are visible. Enjoy the sights—and now this is going to take concentration, I haven’t been here for a couple of years and things shift. Mr. Radavindraban, leadsmen to the bows, if you please.”

The ruins of San Francisco spread out on the hilly peninsula behind them as they turned north—

It’s astern, Órlaith reminded herself with an inner chuckle. At sea, behind is astern.

—astern, edged with a thick fringe of intensely green salt marsh through which an occasional stub of stone or concrete or steel poked. Every possible spot, the islands the maps called Alcatraz and Angel Island and Yerba Buena and the decks of sunken ships, and little bits of higher land among the longshore marshes, was alive with fur-seals and harbor-seals, sea-lions and shorebirds. Sleek shapes slid into the water when the ship passed too close, and a score of brown wide-eyed heads lifted from a raft of sea-otters to stare curiously at the unusual sight of human-kind passing by.

Sir Aleaume passed her a pair of binoculars and she used them to scan about after a word of thanks to the knight; she wasn’t a sailor and couldn’t interpret the signs well enough to be useful looking for wrecks lurking beneath the blue. The others were doing likewise, equally interested in this southernmost outpost of civilization and symbol of the old world’s fall. There were ruins everywhere—there would be for centuries, some would last for millennia like those statues in the Black Hills—but the ones where most of them lived had been worked by the survivors and showed it. Here the landscape of cataclysm was mostly as time and nature had left it.

The huge fringe of wooden houses around the adamantine towers had burned away long ago, mostly in the unimaginable violence of the firestorms that had run all around the Bay in the summer of the first Change Year. And up into the foothills where the ancients had let masses of fuel accumulate in the woods by suppressing the fire cycle. Sand-dunes laced with salt grass and dune weeds covered much of the northern tip of the peninsula that she could see, and elsewhere tawny grassland rolled amid ruin.

Further south the hills were blue-green with renascent forest. More forest covered the East Bay across from them with the stubs of larger buildings or snags of wall rising like green-covered markers. Where reservoirs had burst the hills were gashed by long tongues of silt and gravel and rubble overgrown with shrub and vine, stretching out into the water.

There was a deep silence, save for the creak of wood and cordage, the lapping of water, the thrum of wind; by now, after most of a week at sea, those were pure background. The occasional sharp command echoed the louder, and the slap of feet on the deck as the crew on duty raced to obey, tweaking the sails or moving the wheels in precise increments.

They passed another bridge—one very long, but mostly tangled wreckage in the water save for the single middle span. There the towers leaned drunkenly apart, trailing girders like writhing windblown branches frozen in motion. Time and sea air had obviously eaten deep, and everyone looked up a bit apprehensively. Eventually the rest would topple; it was just a question of when.

“Soundings, Mr. Radavindraban,” Feldman said as the schooner passed through on its journey northward.

The leadsmen began whirling their cords with the teardrop-shaped lead weights and casting them out before the schooner’s bows, the ropes dropping down into the water while the sailors drew them in until they stood vertically as the ship passed over them.

“By the mark... eight! Eight fathoms even!”

“Thus, thus; very well, thus,” Feldman said. “Steady as she goes.”

“By the mark... five! Five fathoms even!”

“Port your helm, two points to port.”

“By the mark... five! Full fathom five!”

“Port your helm, three points to port. Steady, steady as she goes. Very well, thus.”

“By the mark... four! Full fathom four!”

She had grown to adulthood in a world where the sky was usually thick with wings, more so every year, but even to one of her generation the noise of the flocks here was stunning. Seagulls in snowy drifts, duck and Canuk Geese, herons and snowy egrets and uncounted others, and the osprey and bald eagles and hawks that preyed on them and the fish. A big pod of dolphins slipped by not far away, the school of white sturgeon they were chasing thrashing the surface into foam as a dozen of the sea-mammals leapt and dove, the lighter stripes on their sides flashing. The fishing must be fabulous here...

Hmmmm, she thought, as she saw a patch where the water was reddish and nothing grew, and another of a strange metallic green.

Then again, perhaps I’d be a little reluctant to eat any fish that lived here year-round. Perhaps my grandchildren can.

“By the mark—four! Full fathom four!”

She completed her circuit and looked northwards again. Mountains ran like a ridge against the sea to the west, then fell away eastward in hills that were a mixture of forest and scrub and yellow-brown grassland, down towards the lowlands.

“Are you looking for something in particular?” Heuradys said, quietly.

Órlaith touched her lower lip meditatively with her right thumb. “No... but...”

Then: “I heard Da talking to Grandmother Juniper once about how the Sword gave him feelings at times. She called it his spider-sense for some reason.”

Heuradys’ brows went up. “What did she mean by that? I didn’t think spiders had particularly sensitive senses except through their webs... though...” She frowned. “Wasn’t there a legendary hero who had a Spider totem? But your father’s was Raven. Of course, if she said there was something to it...”

Juniper Mackenzie was not only the founder of the Clan Mackenzie and its Chief until she retired in favor of her daughter Maude; she was Goddess-on-Earth and among the reasons the Old Faith was prominent in Montival. You didn’t treat her word lightly on such matters. Or any others, if you were wise.

“Da didn’t understand it either, and she wouldn’t tell me—said it would spoil the jest,” Órlaith said. “Sure, and she can be as mischievous as a girl of six, not a great-grandmother of six-and-seventy years. But she was serious enough about the thing itself, to be sure.”

She laid her open left palm on the moon-crystal pommel of the Sword. It was the gesture her father had used, and now she could feel why.

“Da spoke sometimes... Mother less often, but once or twice ... of how after the Kingmaking they felt as if they were the land of Montival, and not just as a manner of speaking. Da said he could feel it, almost like his own body in a way.”

“Can you?” Reiko said.

She was listening with closest attention, as she always did when the Sword came up; being on a quest for a fabled blade of her own made that natural. She made a gesture with her tessen—a steel war-fan—and Egawa moved aside, as if casually stepping to the rail. The others did as well, granting the leaders as much privacy as was possible on board ship. Not that any of them would much want to hear these particular matters spoken of. The folk of Montival revered the Sword of the Lady and understood it according to their various faiths, but there was fear in that awe as well. It wasn’t something that any sane mortal felt easy with.

“Mmmmm... a bit?” Órlaith said. “For a moment when I took it from the flames of the pyre. It’s... muffled, somehow. I think perhaps nobody can bear its fullness all the time, and also because I haven’t gone to Lost Lake yet; there’s a rite there that only the Royal kin know of, a binding. Yet there’s an itch as it were. Something not quite right. But I can’t tell what. And to be sure, something will be wrong somewhere always, in a land as wide and varied as ours!”

She looked around at the disheveled loveliness of the ruined Bay. “This—there’s a wrongness to it. The weight of steel and stone upon the land, it still... It feels out of balance. Like an ill note in a song, or one of those dreams where one leg is longer than the other.”

“And the rightness?” her liege-knight asked.

“There should be a city of human-kind here. With the harbor and the fine land and timber and the rivers running into it from the valleys all about, and a clime so mild and fine and the place itself with a beauty that sings to the soul, how not? Buildings and farms and workshops, yes, towers and walls and gardens and sails upon the water and a coming and going of ships. We have our rightful place in the great dance too.”

“Like the beautiful bridge,” Reiko said softly. “It is our nature to build, so the kami made us. We may do it well, or badly, but we will do it. We cannot do otherwise.”

Órlaith nodded vigorous agreement. “But to take it all and cover it with the makings of our hands, no, that is an offense to the Powers and the aes dana.”

Aes dana was how a Montivallan of the Old Faith—and some Christians, for that matter—would usually name the spirits of place, the mostly-unseen beings not as men were but lesser than the great Gods. Heathen might say wight or alfar or aelfen. Kami meant very much the same thing. Though strict Catholics usually referred to the patron Saints they believed watched over particular places or occupations, in her opinion it all came down to very much the same thing in the end.

She went on:

“The land will forgive as it heals. That’s not altogether what I’m worried by, though. It’s something more specific... but vague to the point of driving me mad, so.”

Heuradys grinned. “I think I remember the High King saying that he didn’t get actionable intelligence from it very often.”

Órlaith nodded. “The Lady Herself isn’t that much concerned with the ordinary affairs of our kind, the intrigues of power and the contentions of tribes and rulers and such. That’s... you might say it’s like the scurrying of ants, or those macaques they have about here leaping and chattering in a tree; important to the ants and the apes, but otherwise, not so much of a much. The Sword is... it’s Her gift, but it’s more particular. Tied to this land, and the human folk and the other Kindreds that dwell here; and it’s linked to my family’s bloodline. What Da said it gave was a sense of what could be,” she agreed.

“He was not more definite?” Reiko said, and sighed.

“No. Forbye, he would say that it couldn’t be described in human words spoken in the light of common day. Sometimes it prompted him, in peace often when it was a matter of the way we of human kind dealt with the other Kindreds and the land; or he would know the likely outcome of actions more clearly because of it. During the Prophet’s War it was a matter of not needing maps, never being lost or forgetting the needful, knowing what the land could and should do; and who its folk were, and how best to bring them together to the Kingdom’s need. A strengthening of what were already his strengths. And a knowledge of a new wrongness, when it arose. The Prophet, he was like a tooth being drilled, Da said; though he and the other magi of the CUT could cast shadow over what they did, and where.”

Quietly she added: “And... remember what Diarmuid’s mother said, when we guested at his steading on the way north?”

Heuradys tossed her head slightly in agreement. Gormall Tennart McClintock was a priestess of the triple cords, High Priestess on her family’s land and lady of its nemed, its sacred wood. The knight quoted her words softly:

The Earth’s very self wept and keened him, when his blood lay upon it. It weeps yet, and rages, that the sacred King was slain untimely by the weapons of foreign men.”

“Aye. I can feel that, more now that I’m near where it happened again. That will echo down the years, forward and back. Yet I’m not sure if that is all. I wish I could—”

A line of smoke suddenly rose from the hills behind the shore ahead. One long puff, then a pause, then another—what you got when you burned green boughs on a fire first made intensely hot, and then used a wet blanket to interrupt the smoke.

Órlaith watched the signal with satisfaction. One long... one long... three short, repeated and one very long to end.

That’s it, by the Powers.

“You can put in, Captain,” she said. “That’s my courier’s code for all present and accounted for at this location.”

“Someone could have got it out of her, I suppose,” Heuradys said.

At Órlaith’s exasperated look: “I know, Orrey, but I’m your household knight. It’s my duty to be paranoid about anything that could threaten you. You said yourself something was bothering you.”

“Even if someone overran the whole of Stath Ingolf and took her prisoner, all she’d have to do is lie,” Órlaith pointed out. “We arranged the code verbally, nothing written down, and it’s a one-off.”

“Good practice, my liege,” Sir Aleaume said respectfully; he hadn’t been a member of the...

Conspiracy, Órlaith thought. Other people have to be honest around me, why shouldn’t I follow suit? At least with myself!

... conspiracy when Susan Mika, one of the Crown Courier Corps, joined it; her name meant Clever Raccoon in the tongue of the Lakota folk. Beside him, Droyn Jones de Molalla blinked, obviously making a mental note; he was a younger man, about John’s age, tall and rangy and with the dark skin and curled hair of House Jones, the Counts of Molalla. Egawa grunted and nodded, understanding well enough. Then he said in Japanese:

“At home, perhaps not. The jinnikukaburi can twist men’s minds, sometimes. But in ordinary terms, yes.”

“Right, Your Highness,” Feldman said, and relaxed a little as they turned and sailed close-hauled to the north with the wind broad on the starboard bow.

A channel was marked with buoys here, where the Dúnedain of Stath Ingolf maintained a landing at what had once been China Camp State Park. A quick check of the Castle Todenangst reference libraries via the heliograph net back at Montinore Manor on Barony Ath had shown that China Camp had been called that because Han fishermen had dwelt there for a while. The Dúnedain, more particularly her aunts Mary and Ritva, had renamed it Círbann Rómenadrim, which meant Haven of the Easterners in the secret language of that folk.

“Dúnedain?” Reiko asked, when she said that aloud. “So sorry, is that English?”

Her brother John pointed northwest, to the peninsula that closed that end of the bay. He was looking quite dashing in a prince-ish way with the golden spurs on the heels of his sabatons, his broad shoulders emphasized by a dark blue cloak of merino wool with a gold-embroidered hem, blowing in the sea breeze over his polished armor... and he was wearing a complete suit of white armor, burnished steel, kept bright by Evrouin’s dogged care. The helmet resting at his feet with his shield had a crest of ostrich feathers dyed gold and purple.

And sure, when he’s in full sunlight you can’t look at him without getting spots before the eyes, which might actually be an advantage in a fight.

Órlaith suspected it was all carefully calculated, down to the way the wind tousled his seal-brown hair, which he also wore a bit longer than the usual Associate knight’s bowl-cut. And the fact that the tooled leather of his sword-sheath contained, if you looked closely, something in musical notation.

So did the markings on the lute-case slung over his valet’s back, and he’d named the instrument within. Azalaïs, after a famous female troubadour of ancient times, which she had to admit was a nice touch. Evrouin carefully kept it within reach for troubadourish moments of inspiration... except when they’d tied him up in a warehouse back in Newport, until he promised not to try to escape or report them to the High Queen.

And she had to admit John’s manners had been perfect with Reiko, if also unaffectedly natural and friendly...

Except that in the way of nature John can no more not try to charm a female than he can not breathe, she thought a little sourly. I love my brother, but sometimes I want to show it by clouting him upside the head, so I do, I do.

He was using that charming smile as he spoke: “Dúnedain is what they call themselves, which means Folk of the West; or Rangers, in English.”

Aa, so desu ka,” Reiko said.

Which meant more or less I see, and they’d all picked up at least that much Nihongo since it was a common conversational placeholder, rather like really? or is that so? in English.

“A good place,” Reiko said. “We have lookouts like that around all our settlements, there is nowhere far from mountains.”

“By the mark... three! Full fathom three!” the leadsman cried as their lines came fully vertical.

“Mr. Radavindraban, do you make our mooring?” Feldman said, with his telescope trained to the left.

Port, Órlaith reminded herself.

From a cluster of low buildings on the shore there ahead a long pier ran out, much of it made of thick wooden posts that looked like old telephone poles and probably were. Two lines of them had been driven into the mud and secured by a lattice of more of the same, supporting a plank deck. A few single-masted fishing boats rode anchored to floats near it, but the portion furthest out that made the whole arrangement into a T about a hundred and fifty feet by fifty was a floating wharf, and vacant save for a pile of wooden barrels. Two figures stood on it, waving as they approached.

“Aye aye, Captain.”

“Bring us in, then.”

“Aye aye!”

“And we’ll take sail on the mains now,” Captain Feldman said. “Yarely, yarely.”

The first mate nodded and brought his speaking-trumpet up again. The nauticalese included let go the aloft halyards and outhaul the clew. What it amounted to was letting the upper yards at the top of the sails down, and rows of sailors tying off the loose canvas at the bottom with the cords sewn into the surface of the sail. The ship came more upright, and then turned in towards the dock and leaned the other way.

Then a lookout cried: “Sail! Sail ho! Three sail to sternward on the port... Christ, Haida! Orcas! Jesus Christ, four sail! Another one to the west, ship-rigged and a big’un!

Órlaith’s head whipped around; the shapes were clear now, but still tiny-distant; three sets of sails to the south, two of them very hard to see because they were a neutral blue-green color... which meant pirates for certain, and probably Haida ones. The islanders of the far north weren’t the only sea-thieves around, just the best organized and most effective, and their big low-slung sleek-hulled schooners didn’t miss a trick. She couldn’t see the fourth.

Captain Feldman was already training his telescope in that direction, then turning more directly south.

“The one coming in from the southwest is a RMN frigate, by the Lord of Hosts!” he said. “They must have run the Gate not long behind us... Stormrider, from the cut of her gaff. I thought she was in drydock in Victoria!”

Mother! Órlaith thought. I should have known she’d act without hesitating!

He turned the instrument. “The other three were hiding behind a wreck, that flat-topped one, a tanker they called them. Must have had a lookout up atop the hulk’s funnel, that’s taller than a masthead. Two of them are Haida—orcas right enough, big ones, three-masters, three to four hundred tons I’d guess. And that third one, I don’t recognize her lines at all. The sails have slats and the bow is squared off above the cutwater. It’s bigger than the Tarshish Queen, smaller than the frigate.”

Bakachon!” Ishikawa burst out. He used his own telescope: “The squadron flagship!”

Feldman looked at her. “I can evade the frigate, or the Haida and the Korean, but evading one means running into the other, Your Highness. I won’t fight the Navy and I can’t fight three ships the size of those with no maneuver room. If they can lay alongside or rake us from astern and bow-on we’re all dead. I know a spot where I may be able to get out through the ruined bridge if they all start pitching in to the frigate, which they probably will, but I’ve got to start right now. Your decision—do we turn back?”

Órlaith took a deep breath, making her thoughts stop jabbering and dancing by an effort of will; from an expected meeting with friends to battle in the blink of an eye.

“Can you put us ashore?” she said. “There.”

She pointed to the T-wharf; the figures there were close enough to be individuals now, and they’d noticed the other ships too now. One of them took off running, leapt to the back of a horse and heeled it into a flat-out gallop. Otherwise the long timber rectangle was empty except for stack of big wooden barrels, hogsheads of some type.

“If we’re ashore, the Navy has no reason to stop you. Nor a legal right, really.”

“We can get you ashore if we use the longboats, and if we do it right now,” Feldman said. “But I can’t pick you up again. Not here. Getting out of the Bay is going to be damn tricky at best and Captain Russ of the Stormrider might arrest me now and argue about legal rights in an Admiralty court later.”

“Then meet us at Albion Cove,” she said. “If you can. If not... we walk, and fare you well. I have no complaints about how you kept up your end of the bargain.”

He nodded and then bowed briefly and formally; there was a quiet approval in it as well as agreement.

“Your Highness.”

“Right, everyone—let’s go! Sir Aleaume! Load everyone, and fast, just grab the bugout bags. Shields up and eyes open, this may be a hostile landing. Those ships could have put landing parties ashore.”

And what in the name of Anwyn’s Hounds has been happening? she wondered, as the rush began to strip the covers off the longboats and swing out the davits; Reiko nodded to her guard-commander and Egawa barked his own orders.

The enemy... but the frigate? Mother must have been busy!

 

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