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THE GOLDEN PRINCESS

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER FOUR:

 

 
Darwin
Capital city, Kingdom of Capricornia
(Formerly northern Australia)
May 10th, Change Year 46/2044 A.D.

 

“Huzzah! Huzzah for King Birmo!”

“Good on you, JB!”

Prince Thomas frowned at the informality: “Cheeky fucking peasants.”

The King of Capricornia snorted at his son as the carriage rumbled slowly through the crowd over pavement that had started out as tarmac and been patched with whatever came to hand over the generations since. He turned a wave to the crowd into a mime of a clout over the ear.

“You were born a peasant, or a bloody commoner at any rate, and don’t forget it, you little prick. The whole fucking realm is only as strong as the lowliest peasant. They carry us all, in the end, the poor bastards. Remember that, and respect the truth of it.”

The King was eighty-two, unbelievably ancient in this new world. There were a couple of hundred thousand people in Capricornia, counting everyone from his family to the ones living on grubs, roos and other assorted bush tucker in the outermost outback down towards Uluru. Out of all of them there probably weren’t more than a dozen older than he was, and most of those had been on remote cattle stations when the Change came and spent the first year comfortably eating the beef they couldn’t sell any more. He’d been in bloody Brisbane, ninety-nine percent of whose population hadn’t survived those twelve months.

New world?

He snorted again, but quietly and to himself this time. This was a new world that looked like it’d been stitched together from a madwoman’s patchwork quilt of the old, the not-so-old, and the really old. What he liked to refer to as Ye Fuckin’ Olde when he had a few quiet drinks under his belt. But never aloud, and never in public. King John knew that the new world took itself very seriously indeed. As deadly serious as edged metal and liquid fire.

He turned inwards, away from the happy, caterwauling crush of his subjects.

My subjects? Sweet baby cheeses isn’t that a sour fuckin’ fate for a bloke who’d once been a member in good standing of the Australian Republican Movement? But not as sour as starvin’ to death or being eaten by Zed or chopped up with a shovel or stabbed with a pair of garden shears on a stick, which was what happened to most of the people I knew in the way back when. Along with typhus and cholera. But sour enough.

He sketched an expression somewhere between grimace and grin at the idea of the old British monarchy carrying on up there in the cold, grey isles, turning into a fierce squint at the tropical sun before Thomas asked him what was wrong. That nearly led to a giggle: he’d gotten a letter from the King-Emperor of Greater Britain in Winchester last year, addressed to His Majesty John I and hoping for a continuation of their brotherly relations and a discreet hint that they had a surplus Windsor princess or two they needed to place usefully if any of his grandsons were interested. He wondered what poor old Lizzy II would have thought of it, since he’d been born her not-so-humble subject.

And after all, what could be wrong? He was only the most powerful wrinkly in the world, lord and master of a fairytale kingdom he couldn’t have dreamed up in the wildest drug-addled days of his youth.

His youth.

The King stifled a sigh, hid it away behind a wave and thumbs-up gesture for an especially rowdy concentration of well-wishers, the front row of the Backwater Rugby Club if their banner didn’t lie. They cheered him past.

“Hats off for JB!”

“Pants down for JB!”

Raucous laughter and another frown from Thomas.

“Go you good king!”

Ah, his youth. Nineteen sixty-four, he’d been born, under the old calendar. The Age of Mystery to most of his subjects. A long lost Golden Time, to him.

God I miss television. And espresso. And rock music.

He found himself recalling the distant past more and more often these days. Sometimes it was a comfort, but often it just made him grumpy for what was lost.

Being grumpy was acceptable when you were older than God, or at least thirty-four years older than the Change, but he tried to avoid it. Had to work his benevolent dictator mojo, after all. He waved back to the crowd and shouted:

“Have a cold one on JB. And if you’re goin’ to the bar grab your mates one!”

He felt the high sun on the parchment-thin skin of his hand when it crept out from beneath sheltering shade of the parasol.

Another stifled sigh.

Yeah, that’s right, a fucking parasol. What of it?

His rapidly advancing years made riding in the open carriage with a parasol top totally bloody acceptable. His subjects were a hard people, as unforgiving of weakness in themselves as they were upon finding it in any of their many foes. But beneath the armor of that sometimes callous stoicism he knew them to be a good and even kind-hearted mob. They indulged him in his twilight years and increasingly quaint fancies, after all.

He pulled a bottle of Saltie Bites Lager out of the cooler; the label had a lively print of the giant seagoing crocodile in question biting a fishing boat in two, something which did happen now and then. They were a lot less cautious around people now that guns were gone and catapults rare. He tossed the treat to one of his enthusiastic subjects in the dense crowd, who snatched it out of the air with a broad grin.

“Thanks, JB!”

The grin was all the more conspicuous because the face under the shock of white-blond hair was very black; he pulled out the cork with his teeth, spat it aside, then poured the icy beer down with a blissful expression and an evident determination to transfer the frosty beverage from bottle to stomach without touching the sides of his gullet. It wasn’t an especially hot day for the tail-end of the Big Wet, which meant it was a hundred degrees and steamy, literally so as the puddles on the pavement smoked vapor upwards. King John decided what was good enough for the freeman was good for his Lord and fished out another longneck for himself, his Adam’s apple bobbling up and down under a snowy beard as he drank. He lowered the bottle and belched.

“He necked it in one,” cried out a voice from the crowd.

“Huzzah! Huzzah for JB! Long live the King!”

“Long live the People of the North!” he crowed back, summoning up a hint of the residual power in the voice that had more than once called the whole city to arms.

“The People!” roared Prince Thomas, already on his feet.

“The King, the blood, the People and the Land,” they roared back.

Who’d-a-thunk an undergrad degree in politics and bullshit psychology would lead to this? he thought.

The King belched softly again, his head a spinning a little from the cold, heavy lager. Brewed from the finest barley malt and Tasmanian hops. None of your Sorghum Specials here.

Thomas resumed his seat and leaned forward to speak to his father under the roar of the crowd. “Come on, Dad, do you really have to whip up the Bogan Horde like this? It’s been a long time since you had to call them to weapons. The bad times are done with. Passed. You don’t reckon you could throttle back the politics a bit?”

The King had been a heavy-boned muscular man for most of his life; he was stringy now and nearly hairless except for the beard, but still spry enough, especially for a man with his collection of scars. Those were mostly visible, dusty white against his tanned skin, because he was wearing the national costume; khaki shorts, sandals on knobby bare feet, a sleeveless vest, and a low-crowned, broad-brimmed hat with corks dangling on strings around the edge to encourage the ubiquitous flies to move along.

Part of him still thought the hat a ridiculous piece of costumery, but one that had become necessary about five minutes after the last aerosol can of insect repellent had run out. He still remembered fashioning his first one a year after the Change, when feeling like an idiot was less important than keeping the flies out of the sores that had opened up on his face after the scurvy caught up with them on the road.

His son and heir sat across from him dressed much the same, save for the kerchief tied around his greying blond hair and knotted at the rear.

“Bad times are like the Big Wet and the Dry, son, they always come around. And at least I don’t have tickets on myself like you,” King John said affectionately. “Wanker.”

“Your time has passed, old man,” Prince Thomas smiled, a long running family joke. “At least make yourself useful and fetch me a Saltie.”

King John leaned forward and flipped up the top of the cooler, pulling another bottle from the slurry of lightly salted water and ice. Very, very expensive ice. He waved an informal salute to the Captain of the Royal Escort; six mounted troopers of Capricornia’s First Light Horse, in old-fashioned bush hats, one side of the brim pinned up with a long ostrich feather; their bowl helmets hung at their saddlebows. They were armed with Golok knives—heavy single-edged chopping swords—at their belts, lances in scabbards at the rear of their saddles, and cased bows at their knees. Each man carried a heavy slingshot on his right hip, and a leather pouch full of heavy warshot on the left. The Captain of the Guard also sported a long boomerang in a scabbard on his back. The sun glinted on the razor sharp steel embedded in the shorter, killing arm of the throwing stick. A highly polished ceremonial weapon, to be sure, but no less deadly for it; it stood up from the fancy off-the-shoulder tigerskin cloak the officer wore, product of some demented idiot’s decision to let his beloved big kitties go feral when he couldn’t feed them.

The King hoped they’d eaten him first of all; their descendants were all over the Top End, meeting the lions spreading up from the south and tucking in to livestock and the odd farmer and bothering the roos. There were even giraffes around now, ripping the tops off the gum-trees. He could remember when the worst intrusive exotic animals had been rabbits and cane toads and Englishmen...

“Poor fellah my country indeed,” he muttered.

Three of the troopers rode before the carriage and three behind, with pennants in the black-white-ochre colors of Capricornia snapping below the honed steel of the lanceheads, and its symbol of a stylized Desert Rose on their lacquered buffalo-hide breastplates and the round shields slung over their backs, seven white petals around a seven-pointed black center. Occasionally their sergeant would shout:

“Out of the fucking way, you bludgers!” with a strong nasal Vietnamese accent peeking out from under his impressive command of the local dialect.

The replies of the crowd were even less polite, when anyone bothered to reply at all. Many just waved the sergeant off with a middle-fingered salute. They were not a deferential peasantry, and King John regarded that as one of his greatest achievements. A bubble of space let the Royal carriage proceed, but at nothing better than a brisk walk. The crowds were thick, as always towards sunset when the heat eased up a little and people came out to finish the day’s business or make a serious start on the piss: Darwin had fifty thousand people now within the city wall, not counting transients. Which made it either the largest city on the continent or the second behind Cairns, whatever those apple-eating retards from Hobart said about the fading glories of their chilly village.

Workshops lined the street, their fronts open and samples of the merchants’ goods spilling out under awnings—knives and edged tools, bolts of cotton and wool and silk cloth in colors ranging from utilitarian khaki to glittering embroidered splendor, pottery, glasswork, leather, piles of spices in gaudy colors on wicker platters, books... and anything else anyone on this continent or half the one to the north thought would sell. Craftsmen and vendors bellowed or shrilled the high quality and low prices of their wares; here and there an iron-barred shopfront and staff with cutlasses at their belts, crossed arms over muscled chests and stony faces behind their wraparound shades marked a jeweler or goldsmith or small banker.

Carts drawn by oxen, water buffalo, horses and mules fought their way past pedestrians, rickshaws and handcarts. It sounded to his old ears as though curses in a dozen different languages rode the thick, tropic air. But that was probably a few curses short of the truth. A string of snorting, spitting, stinking camels caused a bubble of chaos as it passed; there was even an elephant about the town somewhere, which some clown had trapped as a calf from one of the feral herds and tamed for heavy work. For a while the King had thought on an expedition to trap more of the giant beasts, perhaps to add a squadron to the city’s defences, but in the end there were too many other calls on the Royal Treasury and he had always believed in meeting the enemy as far forward as possible. That meant aggressively patrolling the island chain to the north.

Not constructing a fucking heffelump zoo here in Darwin, he harrumphed to himself.

There were certain strategic truths that even the Change had not changed. Any threat to the city or to the continent beyond had to come from or through the old Indonesian archipelago. Java and the other densely populated bits were wastelands with nothing left except ruins and Zed, but the still inhabited portions of the islands had shattered into a kaleidoscope even more patchy than Australia. Threats would always come from there, just as so much of the city’s trade and people did.

The vehicles choking the streets of the busy town were piled high with everything from sacks of Papuan coffee to salt fish from Timor, Balinese furniture, kegs of Sumatran palm oil, musky-pungent hides from as far away as Borneo and Kalimantan. The royal procession halted for a moment at an intersection blocked by a cart loaded impossibly high with reed baskets, heavy with rice from Ceram and the much prized millet of the Eyre Peninsula. The Captain of his guard detailed two of the troopers forward to encourage the merchant to get a move on. The king sipped at the dregs of his Saltie and enjoyed the thick aromas of Darwin’s famous food carts, a heady blend of deep-frying meat, grilling fish, garlic and chilies, piles of dripping peeled mangos under gauze and bunches of bananas and a color wheel of tropical fruits, many of which remained an utter mystery to him, even after all these years.

Truth is, a lot of those stupid hippy fruits give me the runs.

“What are you smiling at?” asked Thomas.

“Hippies,” said the King. “Memories.”

A nearby street vendor whipped two skewers of barramundi, onions and peppers off a grill, wrapped them in flat grey sorghum pancakes and ran over to offer them up to her sovereign. King John waved off the Light Horse captain who had moved his horse to block the woman’s progress. The officer backed his mount off a few paces with an expert’s ease and grace. His hand did drift down towards the worn hilt of his Golok knife, though. It was his job to be paranoid, even about a young woman with a sandwich in either hand and not enough clothing between her conical straw hat and her sandals to conceal a nail-file, much less a hidden crossbow. He was lucky the man didn’t insist on taking a bite from the sandwiches first.

Prince Thomas took the offered gift with a nod and a wink, and King John flipped a small silver coin back at her. About ten times the value of the meal, and having King and Prince tucking in to her stock-in-trade in public wouldn’t do her business any harm at all.

“Cheers, luv,” he called out over the din of the crowd. “I do like me a fish finger sandwich.”

The flaky white flesh had been marinated with onion juice, tamari, lemon and black pepper before it went over the coals, and he savored every bite, wishing he hadn’t necked that whole beer in one go. It would have gone down a treat with this. They said that knowing hunger, real hunger, changed the way you tasted food forever, the way you thought about it. It made even the plainest meal something to be savored and thankful for. Every bite, ever after, a joyful thing. He’d heard some survivor of a Japanese POW camp in Burma say that on the television when he was a kid.

God knew he’d done some starving of his own in the year after the Change—he and his young family had made it out of Brisbane early, which was why they hadn’t quite died by the roadside like millions of the slow, the stupid and the unlucky.

Then again, he thought. I always loved a feed, even in the old days.

A memory shook free and dropped on him, wholly formed and heavy with significance; a dinner date with his late wife, his one true love, at a restaurant by the ocean in the golden days. They had ridden an elevator—an elevator!—to the top floor of an old, whitewashed building on the bay at Bondi Beach. It was the first time he had ever had real French champagne. He...

“Dad? Earth to Dad. You’ve gone to your happy place again, haven’t you?”

King John shook his head, the memory gone, only sadness left. For his wife. For a whole world. It had been so real.

“Come on,” said Thomas. “Focus. At least give them a wave.”

His hand came up automatically, a thumbs up gesture for the crowd that brought forth another cheer as the traffic snarl at the intersection cleared. The mounted troopers clip-clopped back into formation and the carriage lurched forward again. King John shaded his eyes, which were no good for close reading work anymore, but not bad over longer distances.

Northeast from here you could just see the thick forest of masts at the docks, pennants hanging limp in the hot moist air, dirty canvas sails visible above the roofline of the waterfront. The port grew busier every month, though he could still remember the first outside trader in the fifth year after the Change—a schooner from New Caledonia with a hold full of yams, taro and coconuts looking for metal tools and cloth. Today the warehouses were stuffed with goods from as far away as Puerto Mont and Hinduraj, Zanzibar and Astoria and Newport; there was even a ship or so from Europe per year. A goodly number of those ships down the harbor were built and crewed right here in Capricornia, merchantmen and Navy frigates, fishing boats and the half-piratical salvager craft working the dead cities, crewed by mad fuckers who risked becoming dinner for Zed, all to bring back cargoes of metal and lenses, gearwork and sometimes even art treasures or precious metals that could make such a crew rich for life. He’d seen long ago that Darwin could be the meeting-place and entrepôt of continents, and by God it was coming true.

The odd tall building still reared skywards, but most of them had been disassembled for materials as the township rebuilt. Two or three stories of brick or timber was typical now, with lots of verandahs, tall slatted windows and overhanging roofs, and for the better-off, courtyards with shady plantings within. Colorful signage was everywhere, with paper lanterns waiting to be lit.

Anyway, he thought, old Darwin was a low rise joint.

Now the highest points were usually church spires; there were a dozen different varieties, along with gaudy Buddhist temples, even gaudier Hindu shrines covered in writhing sculptures and flower offerings, the odd mosque and a couple of synagogues. Another of life’s insulting ironies. He had once been quite the fiery atheist. Now he was Protector of the Faiths. All fifty-seven flavors of them.

Well, most of them.

He beckoned Prince Thomas forward again, waving a suntanned, liverspotted hand around.

“You’re gonna be right with all this, aren’t you mate? You’re gonna do the right thing? Look after ‘em, all?”

Thomas frowned.

“Well yeah, but where do you think you’re pissing off to, you lazy bugger? You’ve still got years of work ahead of you.”

King John leaned back and grinned with pride at the crowds; Station-bosses in from the remote countryside with their outriders, cockies with carts of vegetables from the small farms around the city, a Papuan merchant in grass skirt and mother-of-pearl nose pendant, a party of chattering Surabayans in sarongs with kris-knives thrust through the waistbands, a band of Koori Warriors from Arnheim-land leaning on their spears and watching the pageant. Altogether livelier than any other town in Australia, and a lot more interesting in his opinion.

“I’m almost done, I reckon, son” he said. “On the back nine, as Greg Norman used to say.”

“Norman who? That mad black knight prick in America? Shit, he’s long dead.”

“Not that wanker, no. Classical reference, forget it. But don’t forget what I’ve taught you and your sister.”

Prince Thomas seemed to catch himself before he could sigh. Instead he sat up and instead of reciting the lessons, as he had a thousand times before, he spoke them as if revealing a truth for the first time.

“The kingdom is the people. The people are the land. Without them we are nothing.”

“Good lad. Say it like a prayer, every night. God knows you’re gonna have the fucking bunyip aristocracy in your ear before my scrawny carcass is even cold, and the merchant prince wannabees are even worse because they’re smarter. They’re gonna want to tighten their grip on things, on people. But it’s plenty tight enough already and could even do with some more loosening up in my opinion. Might be we should offer up a little more power to the Council and the Guilds.”

Thomas look alarmed.

“Bloody hell! Really?”

King John smiled, a wicked mischievous smile.

“Oh, yeah, make it an offer they can’t refuse but with a rider they wouldn’t otherwise go for. True universal suffrage. One man or woman, one vote, and none of this bullshit about property requirements. You come of age. You serve your time in the militias or the army, you get a say. A small one at first. You don’t want to freak the station bosses too badly. But from little things...”

“Big things grow,” Thomas finished for him. He stared at his old man, searching his eyes for something as the noise of the crowds seem to fall away. “You know things can never go back to the way they were, don’t you? Before...”

“Before the Change, yes, I know,” said King John testily. “I understand that. There will always be a King in Darwin. Just like there’s a Premier of Hobart and a Mayor of Launceston, a Colonel in Townsville and a fucking idiot in Cairns.”

Thomas grinned for a moment. “The Lord High Moron Joh III? You think that dynasty’s going downhill?”

“Nah. They started in a pit under the Seventh Circle of Hell. They’ll be right.” He went on seriously: “We’ve done well here, son. But we can do better. For them and by them.”

He waved his hand at the crush of townsfolk on the sidewalks. He knew visitors from the south referred to Capricornia’s capital as Wogland and Slopetown or the City of a Thousand And One Frights; the polite ones with an air of disbelief, but many with open distaste.

About what you’d expect from a bunch of inbred bogans.

Down south the Change had all but erased a century of migration by killing off the big coastal cities while sparing the Outback and, of course, gallant little Tasmania. He’d noticed that a fair number of their youngsters drifted up here, looking for something more exciting than a life spent growing spuds or staring up the arseholes of sheep.

Tasmanians. Those self important pricks, he thought, even as anxiety at the latest reports from his spies in Mindanao stabbed at him: Christ, there’s a whole kingdom of Zed up in the islands? We might just need those self-important pricks.

“And we’ll need them,” said King John jerking a thumb at the throngs of peasants and commoners. “More than they need us.”

The driver took his bare foot off the brake lever and sat up as they came up to the wrought-iron gate and the four mules pulling the carriage slowed. The guards rapped the butts of their pikes on the brick roadway, or presented their crossbows.

A banner over the arch read: Darwin Welcomes The Regional Security Conference Delegates.

“Because I’ve got a bad fucking feeling about this. It’s going to be bad. For us and everyone else.”

 

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Copyright © 2013-2014 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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