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THE GOLDEN PRINCESS

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER THREE:

 

 
County of Napa, Crown Province of Westria
(Formerly California)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
May 2nd, Change Year 46/2044 A.D.

 

The varlets would have the tent down in minutes when she was finished, but some things should be done with due form when you could.

Heuradys d’Ath stood before the folding table and poured khernips, lustral water, into two identical glasses, crystal flutes salvaged from one of the dead cities long ago. They were part of the travelling altar given to her by her adoptive mother Tiphaine d’Ath when Heuradys became an Initiate and they realized that they had the same patron deity. The gift was a bronze votive case a foot on each side and four inches deep, with padded velvet recesses in the lower half for the glasses and flask, a small golden tripod and a libation cup like a shallow bowl, fine pottery with sprays of olive-boughs and owls painted on it in black.

When it was opened, as now, the low-relief silver image of the Owl on its inner lid made it a miniature shrine. The dim light of dawn glistened softly in a diffuse blur through the gauze windows of the tent she shared with Órlaith, carrying the smell of woodsmoke and frying bacon, the scorched iron and horse odors of a camp.

“Tegea,” she said softly, touching one glass, and then for the other: “Tritonis.”
She poured a little from the first over the dark-auburn braids coiled on her head, feeling the cold drip down her bare back, and murmured:

"I cleanse myself by the waters of the sacred Tegea, Waters of Refuge."

Then she poured some from the other onto her hands and touched her face with them, concentrating on an image of sunlight sparkling in clean cold water bubbling from the mountain spring that had supplied the khernips, and of the incense and burning twig that had sanctified it.

“I purify myself to receive the Goddess, by the sacred waters of the Tritonis, Spring of Abundance. Make me clean, I pray, of any offenses I may have committed against You knowing or unknowing."

She wiped the glasses both reverently and replaced them, set up the little golden tripod and lit a small sprig of olive wood and leaves in its cup—fortunately common here in the south, she’d had to use Russian Olive before. It was the symbol that counted, but the best symbol for something was the thing itself, and the pleasant slightly musky scent curled up with the smoke as she poured in a drop of olive oil and wine from the libation cup. Then she took out a long black and white feather from a Harfang, the great northern Owl, passed it through the smoke, planted it upright before the image and stood back with her arms raised and outstretched and palms up in the gesture of prayer.

“Athene, Bright-Eyed Lady, unwearied One, Shield of the City, Former of Plans, Granter of Victories, You I honor and to You I pray. I, Heuradys d’Ath, have worshiped you above all others in the past, with libation and placing such offerings as are acceptable to You on Your altar. I give thanks that You locked shields with me in the vanguard as I fought for my liege-lady. Grant to me sharp insight and an undeceived mind and well-taught hands that I may fulfill my oaths and guard her whom I am sworn to uphold, and through her the Kingdom. In league with You will I set my own hand and mind to work with all my strength, as is ever pleasing to You, Who loved Odysseos of Ithaka for his many skills and undaunted cunning. Accept now my offering of wine and Your sacred olive, I pray. Be You always by my side, Shining Lady.”

She touched the feather to her eyelids and lips and tucked it into its holder, wiped the tripod and libation-cup clean and replaced them, fastened the straps and then closed and locked the case. It went into another, slightly larger and of plain hard olive wood; that went into the saddlebag hanging from the tent-pole. The brief ceremony always made her feel better, more focused and determined and sharp somehow.

Today it also helped with the odd dislocation of grief, that flux between moments of normalcy and the sudden realization he’s gone hitting you over and over, fresh each time.

Though of course her patroness understood if circumstances forbade; there were advantages to being a follower of a rational deity. Some of the other Olympians... Ares, for example... she shuddered.

It still got her odd looks up north in the Protectorate, the Association territories, though things were much better there than they’d been in the old days when the first Lord Protector had his tame antipope running an Inquisition, complete with Auto-da-fé.

Her mother Lady Delia had had to be a Church pagan—pretending to be a Catholic—all of her childhood and much of her young adult years. The Great Charter didn’t actually say all the realms of Montival had to practice religious toleration, though it did say anyone who wanted to could move, but the High King had certainly encouraged it even when he didn’t have the power to command. By his own example not least.

Damn, there it goes again, she thought, as a stab struck her. He’s gone. But you built well, my King.

She dressed quickly in traveling garb, knit cotton drawers and sports bra, snug doeskin breeks and turned-down thigh boots with gilt spurs, and a loose persimmon-colored linen shirt fastened by ties at throat and wrists. Her armor was on a stand beside her cot, as Órlaith’s was beside her camp-bed. That was standard procedure in any camp; getting into it in an emergency was hard enough without having to rummage through a trunk, and it was the reason why surprise attack was the great weakness of men-at-arms. She certainly wasn’t going to wear the full suit of plate today, with no danger within miles that anyone could tell; nobody did that unless they had to, for training or combat or on occasions of ceremony. Just for starters, you needed skilled assistance to put it on and to get it off. She considered wearing half-armor instead, just the vambraces and back-and-breast, but...

But we’re all reacting irrationally. The horse has already left the stable, alas. Anyway, the High King was wearing full armor, everything except his bevoir and helm, when that prisoner got him with the throwing knife... and the bastard was aiming at Orrey, at that. Her father threw her back, I’ve never seen anyone move another full-grown person in plate so fast, I swear he started moving before we saw the knife. And I got my shield in front of her and then he jerked his shield-arm up and wasn’t quite quick enough to protect himself. That old shoulder wound...

She forced herself not to play the scene over again in her mind imagining a better outcome; the past was done and had to be accepted, and her immediate responsibility had been to her liege-lady.

Instead she shrugged into a supple, sleeveless thigh-length black jerkin of kidskin that had a layer of light meshmail between the leather and its silk lining, held together by patterns of flat rivets made of gilded brass. It being a warmish spring day she decided against a houppelande coat and instead pulled on a short-sleeved divided t-tunic of fine thin cinnamon-colored merino wool that came nearly to her knees, embroidered with silver thread at throat, deep v-neck and cuffs and with her arms—sable, a delta Or on a V argent, with a crescent of cadency—in a heraldic shield over her heart.

A habitual quick glance at the mirror showed the effect was quite striking, given her height and build, and went well with her mahogany hair and amber eyes. The look was not in the least masculine, despite the fact that it was decidedly male dress by the standards of the northern nobility.

Elegant, but ever so slightly threatening, she thought. Dashing, that’s the word I was looking for.

She had a reputation as a bit of a fop about dress whether she was in hose or skirts, and it wasn’t undeserved. Right now she was still feeling too shocked at the High King’s murder to take her usual full innocent pleasure in a good turn-out, but it never hurt to seem as you wished to be and vice-versa. Or to keep up standards.

Heuradys cinched the belt that held sword, dagger and pouch around her hips, tucked a pair of long leather riding gloves through it, and picked up her chaperon hat—a round thing with a rolled brim and long dangling liripipe and a livery badge that quartered her own arms with the Crowned Mountain and Sword of the High King’s house. A chaperon was almost as much a marker for gentlefolk as the spurs.

“Droyn!” she said briskly.

Droyn Jones de Molalla was the senior Household squire, a grandson of the first Count of Molalla and a younger son of the current one; Molalla was a smallish but very rich County southeast of Portland, one of the first established by the PPA after the Change, during the Foundation Wars. The young man was three fingers taller than her five-ten-and-a-half, with a cap of curled black hair and skin somewhere between dark-olive and very light brown.

He was in armor with his visor up as he ducked into the tent, and his kite-shaped shield was slung over his back, but then he was on duty. There was a clash of steel on steel as he brought his clenched right fist to his breast in salute.

His face might have been carved from seasoned oak, but she thought he’d probably been weeping himself, when he was alone. There was enough sorrow to go around, a kingdom’s worth, a continent’s. Millions would be mourning, soon enough.

Then they’ll want blood. Hades in the Underworld, I want blood. Armies will march and cities will burn because of this, she realized with a slight chill.

“My lady?” he said, and inclined his head with formal deference.

Quite properly; she was a knight, even if she hadn’t been in his chain of command until now, and he wasn’t one yet, though he was about Órlaith’s age. Heuradys was two years older but still young to wear the golden spurs in peacetime, though she’d passed all the tests and done very well in tournaments and won a couple of duels to first blood. Including one where she was pretty sure the man who’d challenged her had been planning to kill her and claim it was an accident. There hadn’t been any wars to speak of since she came of a squire’s years, though.

Until now. I’m young for the accolade in what was peacetime, she thought grimly. That’s about to change too. And obviously, I’m going to be close to the Throne, and Droyn realizes that.

They were about equal as far as birth went, though that counted less in the Household. Her father Rigobert de Stafford was a Count too, of Campscapell just north of the Eastermark in the Palouse, and had estates in the Willamette as well—he’d been Baron of Forest Grove since the Lord Protector’s time, not long after the Change.

There was the added complication that her adoptive mother Baroness Tiphaine d’Ath was a noble in her own right, seigneur of Ath and Harfang and a tenant-in-chief, but Heuradys wasn’t in line to succeed to those either. Her elder brother Diomede d’Ath would be Baron under the Association law of primogeniture, as their eldest sibling Lioncel de Stafford would inherit the Barony of Forest Grove and the County of Campscapell.

She’d take livery of seisin of three good manors on Barony Harfang eventually, held in free and common socage, which would make her a vavassor—a minor but well-to-do landed noble holding directly from the Crown, rather than from a baron or count or duke. That was as much as she really wanted, that and being Orrey’s household knight. She’d absorbed the knowledge that being a baron involved a lot of hard dull work through her skin as a child. At least if you wanted to do it right.

The complex balance of status went through both young Associate nobles’ minds in a subliminal instant; that sort of calculation was as natural as instinct.

“Droyn, Her Highness isn’t to be troubled with matters of precedence and Household organization yet. Grief aside, there are high matters of State that demand her full attention.”

He frowned. “Yes, my lady. Everything’s all ahoo, but... yes. We can improvise and work around. We’ll leave the High King’s tent and trappings with the baggage we’re having sent on, and leave most of the staff with them. The... the High King wasn’t traveling with much state anyway.”

Heuradys nodded; Rudi Mackenzie had been a knight but not an Associate despite being married to one, and he’d always retained the informality of the Clan’s chieftains when he could. The north-realm’s ideas of how to show the consequence due to rank weren’t popular in the greater part of Montival outside the Protectorate, anyway. They were a legacy of the Association’s precursor, the Society for Creative Anachronism, a pre-Change brotherhood. Who’d practiced them, and the other arts of chivalry... as far as she could tell from what her adoptive mother had let fall in private moments, simply as a pastime. They were deadly serious matters to their descendants, most of whom didn’t think of the centuries between modern times and the days of Charlemagne and Arthur and the Black Prince as important... or even very real.

A tradition had to start somewhere, and enough belief made it as real as a rock.

“So we can... ease things in,” Droyn said.

“Good idea,” she said.

She was relieved that he was thinking along the same lines. Being the son of a Count didn’t guarantee you weren’t a natural-born damned fool. On the other hand, it didn’t mean you necessarily were, either. She’d dealt with her share of well-and-high born idiots, though they were rarer than in the general population. Foolish or timid people just hadn’t survived the Darwinian process that had produced the Associate nobility’s survivors in the first generation, and there hadn’t been enough time for much regression to the mean.

“Select a minimum number of varlets to handle this tent and Her Highness’ baggage. Young and strong ones and good riders, because we want to make all speed we can north. It wouldn’t hurt if they at least knew which end of the sword goes where, just in case.”

“Guard relays?”

“Sir Aleaume will handle that as usual, under Captain Edain’s direction; they’ll set the rosters. I’ve consulted with both. Just remember that we do not want to start formally treating the Crown Princess as if she were her father, or as if she’d been crowned High Queen Regnant. High Queen Matilda wouldn’t get very upset, but a lot of other people would. Starting with Her Highness, which we do not want!”

“St. Michael and the Virgin, no!” Droyn said, crossing himself.

“Glad you understand that. We’ll be taking most of the horses to use as remounts at least as far as White Mountain; the carts can wait here for more to arrive. So no gear that won’t fit on a pack-saddle. I’ll coordinate with Sir Aleaume, but I think I can rely on you to be inconspicuous and still get things done? The Household has to keep as much off of Her Highness’ shoulders as we can, right now.”

His clenched fist in its armored gauntlet clashed on his articulated breastplate again. “My lady!”

“And one final matter.”

She turned to a steel box about two feet on a side, turned the key in the lock and opened it. Within rested a vase twenty inches high, a tulip-shape of sleek silver-colored glass with a design of reeds and flowers that made you think of warm early-summer days beneath the shade of a riverside willow-tree. It had been intended as a gift from Dun Barstow to the High King because of its beauty, an ancient thing found in the ruins of a mansion in Napa. Now it held his ashes.

And there wasn’t anything left but ashes, she thought with a slight shiver. Usually even a hot pyre left bone fragments. This time...

Ashes. Fine as dust, almost. Impossible to tell where the wood-ash left off and the body began. Even the buckles and the gold of the torc were gone.

The box was sturdy, and the thick glass of the vase was packed carefully with dense soft lamb’s-wool.

“The most vigilant care must be taken with the High King’s remains,” she said.

“My lady!” He crossed himself. “My men and I will guard it with our lives, and bring it to the High Queen.”

“Good man,” she said. “I’ll leave you to it. The Crown Princess and I have full confidence in you.”

His face looked more alive after that, though still very solemn. She’d found that with men of his sort giving them an important task to focus on was the best way to get ten-tenths of capacity working. She settled her hat, draped the liripipe over her shoulder and came out of the tent, making her stride brisk and nodding to the squad of the High King’s Archers outside as they brought up their longbows in salute.

High King’s Archers? she thought grimly. That’s going to change.

Her own status was going to change; everything would. The ground was shifting under her feet, and Droyn’s attitude had been a foretaste.

What was that ancient saying? I expected this, but not so soon?

As she walked away there was a concerted rush of varlets behind her; the baggage was coming out and the canvas coming down before she’d gone a dozen paces.

The camp in one of Dun Barstow’s fields was larger now that the reinforcements from Castle Rutherford had joined the party that had first accompanied the High King and his heir on their tour of the new Westrian settlements. The broad flat expanse had been in wheat last year and was thick with green burrclover and medic now, knee-deep where it hadn’t been trampled and sweet-smelling where it had, starred with yellow and purple flowers and murmurous with bees and hummingbirds.

The breakfast table stood beneath a great live oak, one that must have been growing here when Napa was a sea of vines. Possibly before the old Americans or even their Hispano predecessors had come, in a distant pre-dawn past when only the tribes of the First Folk dwelt here. The Mackenzie settlers establishing Dun Barstow had left it in their turn when they ripped out the thickets of dead and living vines and brush to make their crofts, for looks and shade for livestock in the fierce southern summer.

And as an act of piety to the Goddess in Her form as Lady Flidais and to the Horned Lord, Cernnunos of the Forest, Master of Beasts. It was a recognition that humanity was not over and above the other kindreds, and held what they did on sufferance. Órlaith was just lowering her arms from her own morning devotion to the rising Sun, and her expression froze for an instant as she turned. As if everything in the world reminded her of her loss and her dead.

“I know, Orrey,” Heuradys said softly, and rested her hand on her liege-lady’s shoulder.

Órlaith laid her own hand on the knight’s and squeezed briefly. Heuradys saw the Gods thanked for her for a moment, which was comforting; it meant she was making a difference. She loved all three of her own parents and would grieve when they died in the way of nature, but Órlaith had been much closer to her father than Heuradys was to the Count of Campscapell, who was more like a wonderful uncle in many ways. And the brutal surprise of the assassination made it far worse, like a raw wound on the soul.

Plus Orrey is probably feeling guilty that he took a knife meant for her. Illogical, but the heart has its own reasons that the mind does not know.

The camp looked different without the High King’s pavilion, sparser somehow despite the greater numbers, and all the banners flying at half-mast. Even the bustle of packing up and getting ready for departure was somehow subdued. It was odd to think that in most of Montival things would still be completely normal, the High King merely gone on a progress with his heir to inspect the remote southern frontier.

The news of his death would be spreading northward already, of course. As fast as relays of couriers on horseback could take it to the edge of the heliograph network, and then by coded flashes of light from hilltop to hilltop, city to city, castle to castle, mirrors reflecting the sun’s rays in the day and burning lime in darkness. They would know in Portland in a few days, and eastward to the Lakota country and north to the Peace River in a fortnight. It might be months before it filtered out to the most remote villages and ranches, or even years in the vast wilderness borderlands. Large chunks of those weren’t inhabited at all, or had a few wildmen who weren’t even aware that they were part of the kingdom.

But there will be a great stirring, a sharpening of blades and a stringing of bows. Whoever those strangers were, they made a very bad mistake when they shed our King’s blood on our own land.

“I’ve asked the Nihonjin ruler... jotei, Tennō, Empress... over for breakfast,” Órlaith said. “Her and two followers, and you and me and Edain.”

“Are you ready for that, Orrey?” Heuradys asked bluntly. “If you’re so stressed your judgment’s off it would be better to wait. You took a heavy hit, we’re all here to handle things for you, and our guests aren’t going anywhere soon.”

“No, I can push it,” Órlaith said calmly, after glancing aside for an instant. “It’s not a council, just a talk. I think this could be really important and we need to set things off on the right foot. There will be plenty of time for detail on the way north.”

Heuradys looked at the Sword of the Lady hanging in its black tooled-leather scabbard at Órlaith’s left hip. The High King had always worn it on his right, and it looked a little odd here.

And I could swear it’s a bit smaller. A weapon sized for her father would over-blade Orrey, but that looks as perfect for her as it did for him. Brrr!

“Talk?” she said. “You can understand them?’

Órlaith nodded as she turned and walked towards the meeting-place. She was wearing a loose saffron shirt and Mackenzie garb, a pleated knee-length kilt in the Clan’s brown-green-orange tartan. A plaid of the same fabric was wrapped around her chest and under the right arm, pulled firm to the body, pinned at the left shoulder by a sapphire and gold knotwork brooch that left the trailing end with its fringe hanging down behind to her knee-hose. Her hair hung loose past her shoulders under the flat blue scots bonnet with its spray of Golden Eagle feathers in its silver clasp, and the morning sun brought out the hint of copper in that thick yellow mane. She put her left hand to the pommel of the Sword.

“Yes, it’s working for me the way it did for... for Da.”

She swallowed, and visibly forced herself back to calm. “It feels... odd. For a moment there was... was this balloon swelling in my head, then it popped and I knew the language. As if I’d always known it, somehow. No, as if I’d grown up speaking it. I could tell that some of the people with her speak different dialects, and I just... knew what the honorifics and so forth meant, not just literally but all the implications. I can switch over to thinking in it like turning a tap and when I do the whole world looks a wee bit different.”

“Useful!” Heuradys said. “But better thee than me, my liege.”

“Arra, tell me. Being warned isn’t like feeling it. There’s all sorts of stuff that comes with it, too. I think ‘food’ and... what comes into you mind when you’re after thinking the word food, Herry? Comes first, at least.”

“Bread,” she said instantly.

A loaf was what you thought of immediately. A nice long crusty loaf right out of the oven and off the baker’s wooden paddle, butter melting into the steaming surface when you broke it... damn, but she was ready for breakfast. Feeling sorrow didn’t stop your digestive system, outside the more romantical chansons, she found.

“Me too. But I switch over to Nihongo and suddenly for a moment I’m thinking of a bowl of rice... or noodles... with little separate dishes of things on the side, and I look at an ordinary plate and go euuu at the way everything’s mixed up. Fair disgusting... for an instant.”

“How many times have you eaten rice? Really, I mean,” Heuradys asked curiously.

It wasn’t grown in Montival, not yet, and anything imported was a hideously expensive luxury. Though it still grew wild, seeded from old plantings in the Sacramento Delta not far from here. Perhaps someday folk would settle there to raise it.

“A few times. Rice puddings at Yule, mostly, and sushi on occasion in Portland. But when I start thinking in Nihongo my mouth wants it steamed and sort of sticky...”

“The Sword of the Lady is a cookbook, too?” Heuradys said, chuckling.

Having been around it so long at court, from her childhood as page and then squire and now household knight, she didn’t have quite the awe of the Sword that most people did.

Not quite, and that still leaves a fair degree of awe. And not that I’d touch it willingly.

“Not recipes exactly, but sort of... an ideal of what food is. Or I think ‘hello’ and I know how to say hello to people of different ranks and in different circumstances and a whole bunch of stuff like that. I think ‘clothes’ and it’s various robes that come to mind, not a kilt or hose. Kimono just means the thing you wear. I get the language, and how to use it. It doesn’t... I mean, I still want bacon and eggs. But I can sort of... switch.”

“I don’t know what we’d do without the Sword this time. Though there’s the other stuff.”

“No need to mention that just yet, I think.”

They both nodded slightly. The bearer of the Sword of the Lady could detect falsehood—or as Rudi Mackenzie had put it, the speaker’s belief that what he was saying was false, the intent to deceive. Everyone in Montival knew that and virtually all of them had believed it by now; it had been a long time since anyone but foreigners and the densely stupid tried to lie to the High King. There was no need to explain that to their new...

Guests, Heuradys decided. Possibly allies, but not until we know a lot more.

“Is there anyone in Montival... besides you... who speaks Japanese?” she asked.

“Not that I know of, though there are almost certainly a few tucked away somewhere. Ones who learned from their grandparents.”

A weary smile; Órlaith hadn’t slept much. “Reiko... that’s her name, it means something like Child of Courtesy... or possibly Courteous Lady... actually speaks English quite well.”

“It didn’t sound like it!” Heuradys said.

She’d thought the woman was trying to say Thank you very much to the people who’d saved her outnumbered party from being overrun and slaughtered where they’d been brought to bay, but she hadn’t been at all certain, and she was well-travelled and versed in the weird and wonderful ways the English language had evolved in Montival since the Change. It was amazing what could happen to a language if a few hundred people were cut off from most outside contact for a half-century, and that was just accidental stuff and not counting deliberate alterations, which were also common.

“All, right, knows English. She learned from people who’d learned from people who’d learned English as a second language. For someone who grows up hearing nothing but nihongo the sounds are difficult. She’s got the grammar and vocabulary quite well; it’s just a matter of learning to pronounce them.”

Edain came up and saluted briskly.

“Sir Aleaume has matters in hand; we’ll be ready to march as soon as breakfast is over, Princess,” he said. “And once we’ve talked to the foreigners.”

He scowled a little at that. Órlaith laid a hand on his arm below the short mail sleeve, where it was corded with muscle and scars.

“It’s not their fault, my old wolf,” she said. “And they suffered a like misfortune. We have a common enemy, at the very least.”

He drew a deep breath. “Yes. Yes. I saw the one who did it—“

And you put three clothyard arrows through him in less than three breaths, Heuradys thought.

The commander of the guard regiment was known as Aylward the Archer for good reason.

I’d heard about you doing things like that in the chansons about the old wars, but I’d thought they were exaggerated. And the dead man didn’t stop moving. I’d hoped that those stories were exaggerated too, but apparently not.

“—and he was like a magus of the Church Universal and Triumphant, I haven’t seen the like since Corwin fell in the Prophet’s War, nor missed it, but it’s not something you forget. It was fated that your Da would not live to see his beard go gray. It’s not just Fiorbhinn’s songs. The Chief told me so, long ago on the Quest. And not a month past, just before we came south... he told me he’d dreamed of wading across a river, and seeing blood flowing by his feet from the clothes an old woman beat on the rocks.”

Heuradys shuddered very slightly, and she and Órlaith made the sign of the Horns with their left hands. The scarred archer did so too; they all knew what it meant to see the Washer at the Ford in your dreams. The knight shared a look with her liege-lady, and saw she also knew why the High King had spoken no word of it to anyone else but his trusted lifelong comrade: he’d wanted Órlaith to have the joy of their last time together on this journey, not to blight it with pain come before its season. The Princess’ eyes closed again, then opened as her face set.

Edain gave a crooked smile. “So don’t worry, lass... Princess... I’ll keep an open mind with these strangers.” Thoughtfully: “They’re bonny fighters, and that’s a fact. So let’s go break bread with them this spring morn. And speak of the fine red revenge the both of us will be having, to brew bale-wind for the chieftains we’ve both lost.”

A dozen of the Archers were drawn up a tactful twelve paces behind the folding camp table, in brigantine and short mail sleeves and kilts, with their longbows cradled in their arms; equally tactfully, they were wearing their flat Scots bonnets rather than their helms, with the raven-feathers of the High King’s sept-totem in the badges. A man-at-arms in a full suit of armory-issue plate held the banner of Montival. You couldn’t tell much when the visor of the sallet helm was down and he wasn’t wearing a tabard with his own arms, but Heuradys knew it was Sir Aleaume de Grimmond, commander of the mounted guards on this expedition and son of the Grand Constable of the Association, Baron Maugis de Grimmond. He’d probably taken the duty so he could keep a close eye on the Crown Princess without openly violating orders to be inconspicuous and tactful. To be fair, the foreigners wouldn’t know him from Prometheus.

A similar number of the Japanese followed their Empress; the equipment wasn’t quite what Heuradys recalled from pictures of ancient Samurai in the Gusoku armor of the 16th century, but closely similar—lamellae and plates mostly laced together, and flared helmets much like northern sallets but larger. The surfaces shone with exotic combinations of colored lacquer in liquid brilliance, and the man in charge of the detachment had a flag on a short pole in a holder on his back with writing in spiky script and a visor shaped like a grimacing face complete with mustache.

The overall effect wasn’t frivolous at all, despite its vividness and touches of fancy like crescents set on the brow of the helmets.

More like a collection of giant killer wasps, she thought, remembering the brief battle.

When the Montivallans showed up and pitched into the enemy’s rear these folk had risen from the ruins where they sheltered and charged instantly with a uniform scream of Tennōheika banzai!

When they hit it had been like a many-legged mincing machine flinging sprays of blood and body-parts in every direction. She swallowed a little at the memory; she’d trained for war since her childhood and to live and die by the sword was her inheritance, but that had been her first real combat. There hadn’t been time to be queasy about it then, but the memory was a bit... unpleasant... even now. At the same time she couldn’t help but wonder how they’d fare against Associate knights or Bearkiller cataphracts or Boisean legionnaires...

The armored men halted and bowed; the Archers responded by tapping their bows to their brows and the standardbearer thumped his gauntlet to his breastplate and ducked his head. The three walking forward were in civil garb, the men on either side in plain dark short kimonos with round embroidered kamon symbols on either side of the chest that her education said corresponded to heraldic blazons, and hakama—broad loose trousers of striped fabric with pleats, almost like a divided skirt. Heuradys carefully hid a grin; in the north-realm, in the territories of the Portland Protective Association, something very similar was the usual dress for ladies when traveling on horseback.

The ones who don’t scandalize the respectable by wearing breeks or hose, like me, she thought.

It was known as a riding habit, but the original inspiration had been precisely the sort of clothing she was seeing now, and Delia de Stafford had made it the thing. Her birth mother had always been a leader of fashion and had a huge library on the history of textiles and costume worldwide. There weren’t many people in Montival who had several walk-in closets full of classic kimono simply because they were interesting, but Lady Delia was one.

The young woman called Reiko—evidently Japanese royalty didn’t have a surname, though apparently you didn’t call them by name either—was wearing a longer kimono of very dark blue silk, dyed with tiny dots in black and paler blue that made patterns that might be either clouds or dragons, and with golden kamon badges in the form of a stylized chrysanthemum. She was within a few years of Heuradys or her liege, give or take, though shorter, and under a studied formality of movement walked with the cat-grace of someone who could wield a mean naginata, which the knight knew was true from personal observation.

When she took off the shallow bowl-like straw hat she was wearing the face beneath was marked by grief and probably lack of sleep, but strikingly regular from high cheekbones down to rosebud mouth, small straight nose and narrow cleft chin. Not quite delicate, the bones were too pronounced, but verging on it; her long black hair was parted in the middle over the forehead and then gathered at the nape into a woven knot, with two long gold-headed ebony pins. There was an indefinable air of taut, controlled thought to her as well. Altogether it was an attractive face, and strong.

Exotic, too, the knight thought. Striking.

Heuradys didn’t have the slightest erotic interest in women—which had been disappointing to at least one of her mothers and which her father Count Rigobert liked to say with a chuckle she’d gotten from him—but she could appreciate the ensemble aesthetically.

All three of the strangers had broad sashes around their waists, tied at the back and with long katana and short wakizashi thrust through it on the left, the blades nearly parallel to the ground. Their left hands rested on the sheaths in a way that must be utterly unconscious, thumbs lightly pressed against the guards in a gesture that made it possible to flick the blade forward in an instant, an aid to the draw-and-strike technique that could give you a crucial extra fraction of a second.

These are serious people, she thought soberly.

That term too was a legacy of the Foundation Wars in the early days of the Association. Besides his fellow-members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, the first Lord Protector had recruited what were euphemistically referred to in the heavily mythologized chronicles of family history kept by noble houses as freelance men-at-arms, to help him hold and extend the power he’d seized in the chaos.

In areas of Montival outside the north-realm she’d heard the same men referred to as gangsters and thugs. They’d mostly taken up Society ways with the enthusiasm of converts, but the traffic hadn’t all been one way.

Órlaith and Reiko bowed—at moderate angles, simultaneously, with their hands before their thighs and to exactly the same degree; the two male Japanese bowed with their hands to their sides, and rather more deeply towards the Montivallan leader. Heuradys exchanged a glance with Edain, and then they both made the gestures of respect they were accustomed to—Edain bowing slightly with the back of his right hand to his forehead, Heuradys sweeping off her chaperon with a flourish and making a leg. That was safer than trying to fathom the depths of a system of etiquette they didn’t know well.

The Japanese hesitated at the sight of the chairs; she got the impression they knew about them but didn’t use them much at home. Heuradys drew out Órlaith’s and held it for her, a motion which one of Reiko’s attendants copied; they were utilitarian collapsible canvas-and-aluminum models. The three Nihonjin removed their sheathed swords and laid them on the table before they sat—on their right sides, and with the curved cutting-edges in.

Ah, Heuradys thought. That would make them hard to draw quickly. Probably a gesture of courtesy or trust.

The three Montivallans unbuckled their sword-belts and hung them across the backs of their chairs before they sat. That was polite too. And wearing a sword sitting down was plain uncomfortable; they were always catching in things, especially the long knight’s weapon.

Heuradys studied the three across the table carefully. Even the friendliest negotiation was a battle of wits, a matter of controlling the exchange of information. She suspected that her side had one advantage here, at least at first. People of that East Asian physique weren’t common in Montival, especially unmixed, but they weren’t vanishingly rare either. Sir Aleaume’s mother was one-quarter Japanese by descent for instance, a legacy of her grandparents back before the Change. From what she’d seen and heard, the newcomers had never before met anyone who wasn’t of their own physical type before they landed on these shores. Probably that made it more difficult for them to read the more subtle expressions, piled on top of differences in custom and body-language.

One of the male Japanese looked as if he were a few years either way of sixty, with a lean impassive face and a slightly hooked nose; she guessed that the bare strip up his pate to the topknot at the rear was mostly natural by now.

A fighting-man in his day, she guessed. But more of an advisor now, or senior administrator, probably both.

The other man was about Edain’s age and stocky-strong, with a formidable collection of scars and a weathered complexion, the sort you got from being outside all the time regardless of weather—warriors and peasants both looked like that, and she didn’t think this man had spent his life growing rice. He and Edain were appraising each other, and after a second gave a very slight nod of mutual recognition.

This one’s a man of the sword—a commander, I’d judge, and tough enough to chew iron and crap caltrops, as the saying goes.

Sharing a meal was a gesture of welcome almost everywhere. Varlets came forward with plates and a basket of maslin penny loaves, the rough one-pound ration issue made from mixed flour of barley and wheat. The strangers looked very slightly apprehensive, then showed equally well-hidden pleased surprise when they were presented with bowls of noodles in broth and plates with a grilled trout each.

Relieved that they don’t have to pretend to enjoy revolting barbarian swill, Heuradys thought, amused behind an impassive face. Nice touch, Orrey.

Not too difficult either. Fish swarmed in the Napa river and its tributaries, and with a civil settlement at hand finding pasta wasn’t difficult. For that matter, it was where the risen bread was coming from; in the field you mostly made do with tortillas unless there was a chuckwagon along. But the Crown Princess was being... tactful... again. The foreigners each brought out a little lacquered case and set their chopsticks on a rest built into it, the sharp-tapered points to the left.

Well, well, Orrey’s really getting benefit from the Sword, she thought.

The Japanese pressed their hands together before their faces and murmured something, then sat impassively; Reiko drew a folding metal fan from her sash, probably a habitual gesture, but the edges glittered like razors. Órlaith and the Empress introduced their companions—Heuradys caught the words bushi and samurai, terms which had been part of her military education, and shaped the names Koyama Akira and Egawa Noboru to fix them in her memory.

Right, surname first, I remember that. And only family and very close friends use the personal name.

They all sat, and the Japanese laid pads and writing-sticks before them.

And this is going to be a bit of a strain, the knight realized. Well, at least the breakfast looks good.

 

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Harvest Lord who dies for the ripened grain—
Corn Mother who births the fertile field—
Blessed be those who share this bounty;
And blessed be the mortals who toiled with You
Their hands helping Earth to bring forth life.

 

Órlaith signed her plate with the Invoking pentagram as they murmured the Blessing, and she and Edain dropped a crumb of the bread. Heuradys flicked a drop of her hot herb tea aside as a libation. Órlaith would have offered the Nihonjin real tea if there had been any to be had, but it was an expensive luxury in her kingdom, imported or grown on a few experimental plantations, not the sort of thing you dragged along on a trip through wilderness.

“Is that a religious ceremony, Your Highness?” Koyama said slowly and carefully, pronouncing each word distinctly.

Órlaith nodded, her lips quirking in a slight smile. They knew she spoke Japanese like someone who’d been born among them, but it seemed hard for them to grasp.

“You may speak normally. I think you will find I speak your language reasonably well,” she said.

His face was entirely expressionless as he looked at her chin. The habit of avoiding direct eye contact after a first glance was a little disconcerting, but she copied it. They were also avoiding watching the Montivallans wield knife and fork on their bacon, scrambled eggs and fried potatoes, which they seemed to find mildly revolting.

“You speak it perfectly, in fact,” Koyama said. “Even with the same distinct regional accent as myself or the Majesty, and with post-Change Court diction. Which is remarkable. I understand it is due to that... sacred weapon?”

They were stealing occasional glances at the Sword of the Lady; slung across the back of the chair, the crystal antler-cradled pommel was just visible. She nodded and continued:

“The Sword of the Lady. And yes, this is a religious ceremony, a minor rite. We give thanks to the Earth Mother and the dying and reborn Lord, and an offering to the...”

She dropped into her own language for the term before she explained it in theirs:

“... the aes dana. The spirits of place. Kami, I think you would say. My religion believes that each place and thing has a spirit, parts of the greater Gods but also distinct, as They themselves are aspects of the Lord and Lady, who in turn make up a greater Oneness that is all that is, or was, or might be.”

The Japanese looked at each other. Reiko cleared her throat.

“We... ah, were under the impression that most Americans were Christians.”

Órlaith smiled. In a way it was like meeting time-travelers. They would have no idea what had happened on this side of the Pacific, nothing but surviving stories and books that ended with the death of the old world.

“Well, things have changed rather drastically here since the Change. We usually refer to the Americans as the ancients,” she said.

Leaving aside some of the old diehards in the United States of Boise who insist that the Change was just a broken carriage wheel on the upward road of progress, but let’s keep it simple at first, for all love, she thought to herself. That’s sort of... sad, anyway.

Aloud she went on: “And yes, there are plenty of Christians in Montival, more than half the total, probably. Catholics especially. My mother the High Queen and two of my siblings are Catholics, for example. As it happens my guard commander here and my hatamoto Heuradys are of what we call the Old Faith.”

She could tell that Heuradys stirred a little at that because it was an oversimplification. The knight was a pagan but not a witch like Órlaith or her own mother, strictly speaking. Still, it was close enough for government work.

And since I am the government...

“And there are also Mormons, Buddhists, Jews, I think there are some Muslims about somewhere, and then the First People—Indians—have their own rites and beliefs, differing between their tribes. It varies regionally, too.”

She held up a hand and glanced over her shoulder. “Arbogast? Did you find it?”

A senior varlet slid forward and handed her a slim book, with The High Kingdom of Montival: a Regional Study stamped on the leather of the spine.

“Yes, Your Highness. Young Ghyslain is taking a correspondence course.”

“Ah, good. Thank you, Arbogast, that was quick. See that he draws funds to replace it.” To the Nihonjin:

“This is published in Corvallis for students... that’s a great center of learning. One of our cities with a university.”

It’s actually more of a case of a university having a city-state, but let’s keep things simple for now.

Aloud she continued: “It’ll furnish some background information. I thought it might be useful, since for now you all find written English a little easier than the spoken language.”

Which was a polite way of saying can read it but might as well be deaf and dumb.

Koyama looked at the textbook with a trace of eagerness, Reiko with interest, and Egawa with resignation.

The conversation became more general. Órlaith listened carefully. Reiko was trying to reply in English occasionally, and managing the sounds a little better, working at it doggedly.

“Yes, we have seen something like that... thing... that killed our fathers before. Have you?” the Japanese woman said.

The Crown Princess nodded. “Yes. There was a war here, we call it the Prophet’s War, against a... religion... of sorts, one that saw most people as... worthless, tools. Their leaders were like that at times. As if something else looked out through their eyes, and at deep need they could do things that ordinary men could not—keep moving for a little while after they should have been dead. Even their blood could be perilous. This ended the year I was born, you understand, when Corwin... their capital... fell, and my father killed their Prophet on the steps of the Temple. The last of them was hunted down before I rode my first pony, and I have only heard of it, not seen it... until... the day before yesterday.”

She swallowed pain and fury, that the enemy defeated so long ago had come back, and slain her father in the end.

Who then has the victory? she thought. Then: He bought us a generation when common folk could reap what they sowed with no one to put them in fear. He and mother built the Kingdom on strong foundations. That is his victory, and nothing can take it away so long as we keep faith with him. To every generation their own task.

But the sheer fact that she had something important to do, something that required her full concentration, kept the misery at bay. Her father had been fond of the saying that work was the best cure for sorrow, and it was true. The three leaders across the table looked at each other. Pure envy seemed to be involved in the subtle play of feeling on their faces.

“The jinnikukaburi leaders are like that,” Egawa said. “Their ruling dynasty, and some of the lesser ones.”

Jinnikukaburi?” Órlaith asked.

That wasn’t an ordinary Nihongo word; it was a compound that meant roughly human flesh cockroach or perhaps cockroach in human flesh and to her it... tasted... as if it were a new coinage. There was a freight of loathing and unacknowledged fear to it.

“What we call the bakachon these days,” Egawa went on. “Cannibal bastards.”

One of Órlaith’s brows went up. Baka was the word for fool or imbecile. Chon translated in her mind as Korean and at the same time as something like—

Her consciousness stumbled, as the new language tried to flow into concepts not present in her mind, superimposing on what she’d grown up speaking in a way strange to her. Terms she knew only vaguely floated by at the back of whatever part of her paid attention to the way the Sword amplified her knowledge of words: dink and gook among them, with Canuk a more familiar but very distant and qualified third.

Here in Montival people insulted each other all the time over things like religion, tribe or clan, old feuds, occupation, social class and neighborhood, and they did it in ways ranging from rough half-friendly teasing to an active will to harm. But not in quite that way.

Finally she got a sense that the closest rough equivalent in her native dialect of English would be something like Korean crossed with the content of the phrase stinking retarded monkey; the whole process took less than a second, though it seemed longer.

Right, ‘Chon’ is not a compliment. I don’t think they love each other, so.

Reiko made a slight sound, the equivalent of an English-speaker’s tsk-tsk, and touched her folded fan to the man’s wrist for an instant.

“That is not quite fair, General Egawa,” she said gently.

To Órlaith: “We are not sure of the details, but from prisoners we know that there was a terrible war in Korea, not long after the Change. The enemy believe that the man who was their ruler then, who had escaped Pyongyang and hidden with his closest followers in a mountain fortress, received a divine revelation that enabled him to reunite Korea... what was left of Korea. He emerged when the chaos had destroyed all that went before and imposed his rule, claiming that the spirits had made him a kangshinmu, seer and sorcerer and priest, and that those who pledged allegiance to him alone were pure, and were entitled to make cattle of all others. Those who resisted were... disposed of, though it took years of fighting. We only really became aware of this afterwards, from interrogating prisoners we took when their raids began, and so we know only the story as the victors told it.”

“Ah. That would be where the human flesh and cannibal bastards comes in?” Órlaith said with distaste.

We were lucky here. I’ve heard oldsters laugh when we say that, but it’s true nonetheless. Luck is always something you say when thinking of someone with less of it, or more.

“Yes. So they survived the terrible times, until there were crops again. That is why there are so many of them, for the stronger ate the weaker. That happened in many places, but not so... so organized, so disciplined, so deliberate. We Nihonjin and the folk of Chosen have never been what you would call friends—too many old wars and grudges—but they are not evil in their natures or corrupt in their blood, any more than we. They have been forced and twisted to become the enemies of the human race. Fate, neh?”

Egawa looked obedient, but not altogether convinced: Órlaith thought he must not be a man much given to that sort of fine distinction. To him an enemy of his nation and ruler was just an enemy, and scum were just scum.

And it says something about Reiko, that she does make that sort of distinction. Even now. Da always said a ruler couldn’t afford hot hatreds, and she seems to know that too. Be careful not to underestimate this one!

Edain leaned close and murmured to her after she translated: “Sounds as if they had a Prophet’s War of their own, these Chosen folk. But the wrong side won.”

Órlaith nodded. “My grandmother Juniper said visions had shown her the same conflict in many lands,” she said softly. “Why suppose the outcome would always be the same? It was a close-run thing here.”

“We apparently have a common enemy,” she said across the table, in Japanese once more. “And for that at the very least we owe you transport back to your homeland, and possibly much more... and more would be my inclination, as of this moment.”

Then she held up a hand. “But I am not High Queen Regnant yet. Not until I come of age, which is twenty-six for heirs to the Throne. Five years from now. Until then my mother is ruler, though she will listen very carefully to my advice. My... my father has been killed, but we need to know much more before we send the kin of many to die. Much more of what is gathering on the other side of the Mother Ocean.”

 

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