Participatory Democracy of Topanga
(Formerly Topanga Canyon)
Crown Province of Westria
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
August 26th/Haochizuki 26th
Change Year 46/Shōhei 1/2044 A.D.
Prince John Arminger Mackenzie stood and sweated in his suit of chrome-steel plate, glad of the shade of the raised visor that stuck out from his flared sallet helm like the bill of the ritual cap baseball players wore. The fierce southland sun glittered off the rocky ground and sank into the faded asphalt of the ancient roadway and blinked in endless sparkles from the surface of the Pacific to the southward.
There was a familiar smell of hot horse, hot human, sweat-soaked leather and metal greased with canola oil that always went slightly rancid, a composite scent common to wherever warriors gathered no matter how polished their appearance; it was fairly powerful since his sister, their men-at-arms and crossbowmen and Mackenzie archers and McClintock caterans, the Japanese contingent and several hundred local levies from Topanga and the Chatsworth Lancers were all standing and sweltering together. The score of robed bnei Yaakov from the Mohave were a little to one side—a people apart—but their mounts added hot camel to the mix, which was indescribable.
Despite the tension of the moment as everyone stared out over the water towards the quartet of enemy ships he smiled to himself, remembering his parents inspecting troops once. That had also been on a hot day, in the County Palatine of Walla-Walla far up the Columbia. There had been a rather sheltered town-based cleric with them and he’d asked what the smell was. His mother had considered gravely for a moment, and said:
Esprit de corps.
She’d said it deadpan, but he’d noticed his father working hard at not bellowing with laughter.
Today that familiar almost-stink went with the odd alien scents of fennel and sage that summer baked out of the chaparral here, harsh and spicy at once.
We’re back in the stewpot just when we thought the adventure was over with, he thought. Though everything’s grist for the mill.
He was a prince and warrior by birth—second child of the first High King and Queen of Montival—but a troubadour and bard by aspiration, and he could appreciate the irony of the situation from an artistic point of view. They’d dared the desert and the supernatural perils of the Valley of Death...
Well, to be entirely fair, mostly Orrey and Reiko dared them in that last bit. Good ensemble cast, some comic relief from the heroic characters’ point of view, someone for the groundlings to identify with too...
... they’d reclaimed the fabled Grass-Cutting Sword that their Nihonjin friends had crossed the sea to find, made unexpected allies of the desert-dwelling bnei Yaakov to bring it back through the desert and the just-barely-friendly lands of the Chatsworth Lancers and the Topangans... and now four enemy ships were sitting out there waiting for them, instead of the clear passage back to the northern heartlands of the realm that they’d expected.
It would make an excellent startling reverse in the epical chanson he’d tentatively entitled The Desert and the Blade. A quiet interlude in the music, then a hint of doubt, minor key, crashing cords building to a crescendo—
Artistically fine. In my all too mortal person, it’s a bloody menace. Not to mention those ugly-looking Eaters the Koreans have picked up from the Los Angeles ruins.
The locals had a powerful pre-Change telescope set up. One look had been enough. The Korean vessels swarmed with the naked savages, scrawny and scarred and ferocious as great rats among the ordered, armored easterners. The diabolists could control them, somehow.
This bunch look even worse than the ones we fought up on the Bay, and those were bad enough.
He swallowed and blinked, as the stink came back, and the screaming faces and the ugly feel of edged metal hammering into meat and bone vibrating up into his hand. And the taste, when a gout of blood landed on his face. He hadn’t had time to be frightened during the actual fighting, mostly that had been drilled reflex working.
But the times in between the rushes waiting for the wild men to work themselves up to another attack and listening to their mad squealing brabble... that had been fairly bad. Having to keep up appearances had helped, and so had giving everyone some verses from La Chanson du Roland. He found that a bravura gesture could convince one’s own mind just as thoroughly as it did an audience.
And the Koreans may not be savages, but they’re outright diabolists. Or at least their rulers and lords are.
His eyes narrowed. It had been servants of the Korean ruler who killed his father the High King only a few months ago, a spillover of their long war with Dai-Nippon, and a chess-move in the game Heaven and the Malevolence were playing in the Changed world. There was a blood-debt yet unpaid. That would be part of the song too.
“Reiko, can I borrow your Captain Ishikawa, and his men?” Crown Princess Órlaith said.
John’s ears perked; when his older sister...
... three years older. I’m almost twenty and it’s not as if we were children any more...
... adopted that crisp tone, things were about to happen. She sounded like their father when she used it, allowing for her being a woman of twenty-one and not a man in his forties.
The Empress of Dai-Nippon nodded decisively, and spoke a word of command to her followers. She was actually a little older than Órlaith, though her almost-delicate features made some layer of his mind see her as closer to his own nineteen summers. He’d been half in love with her since they met at Montinore Manor in June, when his sister had brought him into the conspiracy. It was more or less required of a young knight when confronted with a beautiful, absolutely unobtainable foreign princess. The romaunts made that clear enough. And of course her father had died in the same skirmish as his, just too late for rescue. He hadn’t been there, she had, and somehow that made her a link to that tremendous absence, the loss that still broke through the shell of his life at times with a jarring suddenness that he never expected.
In actual fact as opposed to aesthetic theory he found her very capable, and very likeable on the rare occasions when she relaxed... and more than a little intimidating.
“Johnnie,” Órlaith went on in a clipped tone.
Her chiseled face was utterly intent as she weighed the situation. The cooler sea-breeze cuffed at the little wisps of sun-faded yellow hair that escaped her tightly-clubbed fighting braid; she took more after their father’s side of the family, while he had the hazel eyes and brown hair and blunter features of the Armingers. She was also an inch taller that he was, but since that made him a very respectable five-ten he didn’t mind.
Come to think about it, she’s getting very focused too. Granted this is a good time for it.
They’d always been fairly close, and the gap in their ages mattered less now. He gave her the Associate salute, a martial clank of gauntlet against breastplate.
“Take Ishikawa and the Nihonjin sailors, and go there.”
She pointed westward and downslope from the low ridge that bore the old coast road.
“There are some longboats at the Topangans’ saltworks. Take them, and... the crossbowmen from the Protector’s Guard, and a few others, say four, pick them yourself. Feldman’s short-handed; you reinforce him. And tell him to be cooperating fully with the Stormrider.”
He shot her a swift look of surprise; for weeks now they’d been dodging the Royal Montivallan Navy warship their mother had sent to drag them back as if they were naughty toddlers to be hauled in by one ear. And there it was, to seaward of Captain Feldman’s Tarshish Queen, their own hired ship, which in turn was slowly cruising back and forth south of the four Korean ships at anchor just offshore.
Órlaith stepped closer and spoke softly; there was no need to broadcast the facts about their little disagreement with their mother, High Queen Regnant Mathilda.
“Johnnie, Reiko has her Sacred Treasure the now. We’ve done what we set out to do. Now we clear this up, go back to Mother, roll on our backs, wave our paws in the air and whimper for forgiveness. We’ll get it, too. Eventually.”
He didn’t let the jolt of raw fear that image brought show on his face.
I knew we’d have to confront Mother eventually. Ah, well, better to seek forgiveness than ask permission! And we did bring it off. Success has a thousand fathers and failure’s an orphan.
“She’ll recognize a magic sword when she sees one!” his sister said, echoing his thought.
Her hand rested on the moon-crystal pommel of the Sword of the Lady, the heirloom of their House that their father and mother had won on the Quest.
“So will anyone with the least bit of the Sight, without Reiko having to do anything too... dramatic.”
John gave the not-really-a-katana-any-more at Reiko’s side a glance and suppressed an impulse to cross himself. The Sword of the Lady was disturbing enough, but his Church officially regarded it as the gift of the Lady, Mary Queen of Heaven and Mother of God, which pagans like his father and sister unfortunately conflated with their mythology. Coming from a mixed family could be awkward at times; his mother was a devout Catholic, and he was too or tried to be, but Órlaith followed the Old Faith as their father had. It wasn’t like having the old wars of Clan and Association in the same household—the union of their parents had laid that to rest, with many other feuds—but it could be... difficult.
Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, the Grass-Cutting Sword, was something else entirely, altogether outside Montival’s complex of religions and all their mixed history and old grudges and sometimes grudging common life. As far as he could tell from what Órlaith and Reiko had let slip, the pieces of it had been absorbed into her Masamune sword as the Empress fought her way through that lost castle and his sister stood guard outside with the Lady’s blade. There had been something about a monster with eight heads, as well...
Deor Godulfson was standing close. The wiry Hraefnbeorg poet nodded. Among his folk, a scop was likely to know something of rune-craft too, the arts of magic reborn since the Change. The angular raven image on his round shield wasn’t just the symbol of his people, but also of Woden Allfather, and a protective sign.
“It burns,” he said. “Like carrying the very sun in your hand...”
John nodded himself, giving it a glance. He felt it like a prickling on the skin. A little like the feeling of the Sword of the Lady, but... he could hold the Sword; he didn’t like to, but it was in his blood and if his sister fell—Which God forfend!—he would have to bear it.
Kusanagi was wholly alien.
“Then why not just have everyone go out to the Tarshish Queen and show them our heels?” he said quietly to his sister and liege-lady. “Stormrider would be glad to escort us back to Portland, since that was what Mother tasked them with in the first place.”
She shook her head. “They’ve some on those Korean ships who could sense Reiko and I moving, given what we bear,” she said.
The enemy called their adepts kangshinmu, and John swallowed at the thought of meeting one again. Especially on his own. As their father’s heir Órlaith carried the Sword of the Lady, which was proof against all fell enchantments and a great deal else besides. All he had was his own entirely mortal and fallible self and a length of very skillfully reworked leaf-spring at his side; and while he was a faithful son of Mother Church, he didn’t delude himself that he was any sort of saint, or as armored in sanctity as he was in plate.
I’m the son of a great hero-King and a great and powerful Queen, he thought as he pulled out his crucifix and kissed it before tucking it away again. What I am myself... isn’t entirely apparent yet. There would be better ways of finding out than being thrown in over my head, though!
Órlaith went on: “They’d be waiting for us on the water, that they would. For you, not so much.”
Deor Godulfson made a soft sound of agreement at that, too; and John remembered how he’d tracked the Haida shaman at the battle on the shores of the Bay.
“Also I’m not inclined to leave our new subjects in the lurch,” Órlaith said, and tapped her titanium-sabaton-armored foot on the dusty faded asphalt with a clank.
Her voice rang. “This is Montivallan soil now, and by Macha Red-Locks and Nemain of the Blood-Shout and Badb of the Crows, these are our folk, every one of them, and House Artos stands with them! The Shadow Queen bear witness!”
John nodded; he agreed with every word of that, barring the paganism, and he knew that she meant it too. But there was an element of performance to ruling. He’d been surprised to find so many similarities to the family business he’d been raised in when he also took up music seriously.
Except that if you’re born to our House, you never get to step away from the limelights and sit backstage laughing with a glass in your hand and a towel around your neck.
Now he saluted again and decided:
“Deor, Thora, Evrouin, you’re with me. Sergeant Fayard, your squad. Captain Ishikawa. Thora, get mounted and scout ahead. Let’s go!”
Deor was a valuable asset for a whole clutch of skills, and the scop’s oath-sister Thora Garwood of the Bearkillers was a warrior’s warrior who went where he did... and neither of them was part of a larger unit that would be disrupted by tagging along with him, and besides, he liked them both.
Though not in the same way!
Evrouin, John’s valet-bodyguard-minder wasn’t going to go more than arm’s-length from his charge anyway: they hadn’t been able to shed him when they skipped out to begin all this, despite vigorous efforts. Before they’d gone more than a dozen paces someone else dashed up; it was one of the young Mackenzies who’d come on the journey with them, Ruan Chu Mackenzie of Dun Fairfax. He and Deor embraced fiercely for an instant, and they were both grinning as they caught up.
John’s Catholic-reared mind disapproved, but that was a matter of dutiful conscious thought, not feeling. For one thing he’d spent a lot of time among Mackenzies, who had their own customs, and you were supposed to hate the sin and not the sinner, anyway, as St. Augustine had put it, and he just plain and simple liked Deor as a person and admired his talents.
And for another, his confessor had always told him that it was a good idea to concentrate your hatred for sin on the ones that you were vulnerable to yourself. Sloth tempted him, and women tempted him a lot, he even felt the tug of gluttony, occasionally, and he’d been known to envy a bit, and he couldn’t even confess and be absolved for feeling wrath against those who’d killed his father because he had no intention of reforming on that one yet and you couldn’t even ask forgiveness unless you sincerely intended to repent. But spending a lot of energy hating a sin that simply didn’t attract you was entirely too easy.
To be real virtue had to be hard-won.
And Deor’s a good solid fighting man as well as a poet and runemaster, and Ruan’s a healer and a first-rate archer, and both are men to trust. Glad to have them along, if it comes to bad trouble. Worse trouble.
Thora had a horse at hand, and Bearkiller A-listers like her rode as soon as they walked, rather like knights but even more so. She swung into the saddle, pulled her recurve bow out of the scabbard and galloped ahead, then back to meet them.
“Four boats, big fishing boats by the look of it, and some smaller stuff,” she said. “The hamlet’s completely deserted, as far as I could see from the saddle.”
The dust of the path on her handsome bony face and reddish-brown hair made her look a bit older than her thirty-two years; she was wearing what her folk called cataphract armor, a bit lighter than an Association suit of plate, with the helm slung at her saddlebow.
“None of the fisherfolk there?” John said, and she gestured assent. “That’s a relief.”
He’d leave some gold anyway, but they didn’t need to waste time and trouble arguing with some screaming local determined to protect her family’s main asset against armed strangers. John had seen that Topangans didn’t react well to toploftiness.
“Whoever owned them just took off uphill when the enemy showed up, looks like. Didn’t even take their gear.”
She fell in beside him, and he gratefully grasped her stirrup-leather as he jogged with a clang and clatter of plates, as much to even his pace as for actual support, and he forced himself to breathe deeply and hold it for an instant rather than the shallow inefficient panting that his lungs wanted to do. He was a big young man, broad-shouldered and long-legged and very strong, but this would be hard work for anyone.
“Don’t worry, Johnnie, I’ll protect you if they try anything with fish-hooks,” she added, then grinned at his flush. “Sorry, sweetie, couldn’t resist.”
It wasn’t the first time he’d been involved with a woman older than himself. It was the first time with anyone like the Bearkiller, who’d travelled literally around the world in the past six years with Deor. It made things... interesting.
And Thora doesn’t want anything from me but my company for a while. Which is... refreshing. You can just take what’s offered and ignore the unspoken hopes... but while God knows I’m a frail sinner and I like women, I’d have to be a worse man than I am to enjoy a woman under false pretenses.
Topanga’s harbor was an accident of the Change; the coast ran east-west here without any natural protection against wind or surf, rising immediately into canyon-fissured hills or low mountains. In the first winter after the old world fell one of its vessels had come ashore in a storm here, what they’d called a container ship. It was a monstrosity, at nearly a thousand feet long and a hundred wide, and the rust-eaten hulk lay canted with its deck inclining westward, looming more like a geological freak than a human artifact to eyes born generations later. It had settled to the bottom with its bow to the eastward, making a sheltered V-shape in its lee.
And it’s ugly. It would have been ugly when it was floating and moving around. Odd. Ocean-going ships are beautiful, among the most beautiful things humans make, I’d have thought they had to be, to work at all.
The longshore current had piled sand against it almost to the rail, and storms and human hands had tumbled the steel freight containers overboard to mingle with the sand and break the waves. The rickety dock—empty now that the few foreign merchantmen had fled a conflict they didn’t see as theirs—was on the inner, eastern side. Ships stopped here now and then, more lately as trade picked up.
West of it was a rather crude set of stepped evaporating pans built of salvaged concrete rubble, with the skeletal windmills for pumping brine inactive now. Tools lay scattered about, and sacks and barrels where the laborers had been shoveling the beds of glittering white crystals stood half-empty, abandoned when the alarm went out. Shacks of reused cinderblock for the workers stood in a clump, with incongruously pretty roofs of red tile from some ancient mansion, and at a little distance more for the fishers. An abandoned mongrel dog barked at them and then ran off, and a cat raised its head and looked with cool insolence from the fish-drying racks. Gulls were swarming on the rest.
War was waste. His parents had told him that more than once, and now he was seeing it with his own eyes.
Thora slid down as they halted, unbuckling her saddle and throwing it over her shoulder before she left the borrowed beast loosely tethered. A baby carriage lay tumbled on its side near one of the huts, with an arm protruding from it. He took a horrified step towards it, then saw it was a doll; a thing of the ancients, of that smooth ivory-like substance they called plastic, but painstakingly dressed by the hands of love in miniature modern clothes. He flushed, hesitated for a moment, then stepped over and set the toy carriage upright and pushed it into the little cottage and pulled the door closed so that the latch fell.
As he looked up a couple of the others were glancing at him; Thora met his eyes and nodded soberly. He felt obscurely cheered, for no reason he could think of. The brief incident made him remember his father somehow—well, so many things did, nowadays.
Rudi Mackenzie, High King Artos, had been a mild-tempered and gentle man for the most part; it often surprised folk who met him for the first time in person, after hearing of his deeds on the Quest, and in the storm and thunder of the Prophet’s War. One of the High King’s prerogatives under the Great Charter was to review death sentences where a petition for clemency was made, and it was one he’d taken very seriously, enough to risk the touchy care for their autonomy of Montival’s many member-realms. He’d commuted about one in ten to exile or hard labor or some other lesser penalty, and pardoned about one in twenty altogether.
Don’t be over-quick to deal out death in judgment, he’d said to John once, two years ago, after explaining a case to him and patiently taking him through the testimony, showing how the bone and muscle of fact could be traced beneath the fatty tissue of interpretation.
But one thing that had turned his father savage had been harm to children; he still checked the facts of the matter carefully, but in those cases he’d almost always written:
Let it be so, and let him make accounting to the Guardians of the Western Gate. Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent. Artos, Ard Rí in Montival and first of that name at the bottom.
And stamped his seal into the wax more forcefully than usual, too.
“Let’s go,” John said sharply, shaking off the memory
It was only a few steps to the high-tide mark. There were four of the boats, long double-ended things of sheet aluminum hand-riveted to metal frames and waterproofed with heated plastic, honestly made but crude to his eyes.
“We’ll take those three,” John said calmly, indicating the closest; there didn’t seem to be much difference between them.
Don’t shout unless you have to and if you have to shout bark it out and don’t let your voice wobble. Don’t hesitate, a perfect decision made too late is worse than a second-best one in good time. And don’t look worried, he could remember his father saying. It’s part of what you owe them. Nothing disheartens like seeing a leader doubt himself.
Then a grin. You will doubt yourself, lad, and that often, or at least I did, but keep it private.
“Fayard, you and half your men with me. Thora, you take Deor and Ruan and the other half of the squad, you’re in charge. Captain Ishikawa, you’re in the third. Let’s go!”
The boats were chained to posts and the chains fastened with twists of wire designed to hold against sudden squalls, but the rusted metal gave way easily to a few blows with the steel-shod butts of a naginata or crossbow. He tossed his shield into the first boat with a clatter and helped in the brief labor of throwing out the coils of net and boxes of very smelly bait and lines and old plastic tubs and bottles reused as floats. The Guard men weren’t expert boatmen, but they could all pull an oar, more or less. And the Royal family had enjoyed sailing and fishing.
He dropped a purse of rose nobles on top of the heap of discarded gear, and put his shoulder to the hull with the others, staggering a little as the boat hissed down the wet sand into the waves and began to pitch. As the cold Pacific swirled round his feet he rolled into the boat cautiously—there was a layer of tattered ancient plywood at the bottom but he suspected if he was wasn’t careful he could punch his armored foot right through the hull. Then he pulled the lashings on the tiller free, holding the end of it down so the rudder wouldn’t scrape on the sand.
Evrouin grinned at him as he swung in with John’s lute-case and his glaive both held carefully high, stowed them and took an oar. He was a stocky, muscular man in his early thirties, black-haired and olive-skinned. The jewel-hilted, foot-long dagger at his belt proclaimed him an Associate, but he was of the lowest rank in the ruling order the Portland Protective Association had established after the Change. Until recently John had strongly suspected that the man regarded him as something like an absentminded, dimwitted younger brother, behind a façade of imperturbable good manners and due deference to his birth. Since the battle in the Bay he’d been promoted. To promising younger brother.
The rest of the scratch crew came over the side as they ran the boat out deeper, seizing the oars and running them out through the rowing locks with thunks and clanking sounds as they slipped the retaining pins home. The under-officer Fayard used an oar to hold the boat against the sand and keep it from being shoved backward onto the beach by the incoming tide.
“On the mark...” John said.
The men bent forward, the oars rising on both sides.
“Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!” he called, letting the rudder drop down into its working position.
The blades of the oars dipped and bit and threw spray back at him. He felt his heart lighten; it was a bright day and he was young and healthy and a prince and the tiller was coming alive under his palm as it bit into the moving water... life could be worse.
He risked a quick glance behind him. The other boats were following to either side, spread out in a shallow V. Thora and Deor had travelled the world around, mostly in ships, and knew boat-handling a lot better than he did. Captain Ishikawa and his men were professionals who slipped into a boat and put the boat into the sea like otters off a rock, and could have overtaken the others without raising much more of a sweat. Ishikawa was what the Nihonjin called a samurai—roughly like a knight—as well as a naval officer. His men weren’t, but John suspected they’d all been born in fishing villages and had grown up as amphibious as seals.
He steered as close as was safe to the wreck and the sandbar that had piled up against it, for concealment and because it damped down the waves, and in places that meant the ancient ship hung over them and cast a shadow like a steep hillside. It was noisier than he’d have expected, sighing and soughing where the water ran in and out of jagged holes in the time-eaten steel, and loose cables and fittings went bang... bang... bang hollowly like drums beaten by skeletons.
The choppy slap of the waves when they rounded the canted bows of the wreck came as a surprise, and the cold spray struck his face. The surface of the harbor proper had looked as smooth as a manor millpond, but they were seaward of that now, and he could barely see the mast-tops of the Tarshish Queen at all. He thought for a moment, then turned and pointed.
Ishikawa waved back, and his boat moved into the lead. John grinned wryly as he passed; even with unfamiliar equipment, the Japanese commander and his little crew—all the survivors of his lost Red Dragon—were demonstrating the difference between passable and expert. Very much like what happened when someone who carried a sword for self-defense against ruffians and practiced a bit ran up against a knight. He took up counting the stroke again, and the crossbowmen-turned-oarsmen worked doggedly. He also followed just as closely in Ishikawa’s wake as he could.
Then the sleek shape of the Tarshish Queen turned sharply, more sail blossoming in offwhite curves as she heeled to the northwest wind. They must have seen the boats from the masthead lookouts, up there nearly a hundred feet above the surface. He could also see the bow-chaser catapult moving, the eighteen-pounder rumbling along metal tracks laid into the deck until the throwing trough jutting from a slot in the middle of the sloped steel shield pointed straight at them.
The Queen was a merchantman, not a warship, and flew the beaver-head flag of the city-state of Corvallis as well as the High Kingdom’s crowned mountain and sword. But Feldman & Sons of Newport—Corvallis’ window on the Pacific—traded in the sort of places where a respectable broadside and a fast pair of heels were costs of doing business. Or of living to see home again, for that matter. That and an old link between House Artos and the Feldmans, dating back to their grandparents’ time, was why Órlaith had sent John to talk her owner into providing the ship. It hadn’t been hard...
He recognized the musical tones in the voice as the big schooner came near despite the distortion of a speaking trumpet and water purling back from its sharp cutwater; that was First Mate Radavindraban, who’d been born a long, long way from Montival.
He’d asked the man why he’d left home once, and he’d shrugged and answered: Most unreasonably angry bloody-minded bloody Raja, Your Highness.
“Prince John and party!”
The ship slowed in the simplest possible way, turning directly into the wind and letting itself be what sailors called taken aback. It stopped in its own length... if you didn’t count the violent pitching up and down, accompanied by sailorish cursing from the crew trying to deal with the effect of the drastic measure on the rigging. The shadow of the hull fell over them as they approached, and the crew threw a net over the side to lie flapping against the thin sheet metal anti-flame sheathing that covered the Douglas fir planks. The Queen was a big ship but not enormous, a three-masted topsail schooner of about four hundred and fifty tons displacement, and a bit over two hundred feet long from fantail to bowsprit. The rail was only a little more than a tall man’s height above the waves.
“Permission to come aboard!” John shouted.
“By all means, your Highness,” the captain called from near the wheel, a slight irony in the flat, neutral and rather old-fashioned Corvallan accent.
“Send ropes too!” he shouted to the deck crew; his parents had taught him never to take an avoidable risk. “Everybody use one and secure yourself first, that’s an order!”
The bosun up above shouted her own commands which boiled down to lines for the dimwit lubbers. Lines duly came whirring down, with loops on the ends. He took one gratefully and snugged it up under his armpits, slung his shield and jumped to the netting. One armored foot slipped, sending his stomach twisting and lurching even if the only real risk was getting his feet wet; a sabaton made your foot rather rigid, for all that it was articulated, and the motion of the ship slapped the net against the side at unpredictable intervals as he swarmed up hand-over-hand. One of the tests for knighthood—if you were knighted in peacetime, not on the battlefield with a bloodied sword slapping you on the shoulder—was hauling your armored self up a twenty-foot rope using only your arms. He’d probably gotten the opportunity to seek the golden spurs rather young because of his high birth, but nobody got to fudge the results, if only because it was all done in public.
John waved to the captain, but turned immediately to make sure Sergeant Fayard and his guardsmen were coming up safely, lending a hand here and there. Ishikawa’s contingent came over the other side as if they were strolling up the path to their homes, and immediately headed for two of the portside catapults; the Tarshish Queen had eight a side plus her stern and bow-chasers and the Nihonjin sailors had trained on them coming south, getting used to the differences between these and the similar-but-not-identical models the Imperial Navy of Dai-Nippon used. The crews of those two nodded thanks, then split up to bring the others closer to full complements.
Thora and Deor waited a moment and then came in where John’s boat had come alongside. He took the loop of rope he’d used and tossed it accurately to her; she sent her saddle up on it first, then looped it under her arms as he had before she stood and leapt, and he pulled her up hand-over-hand while she held the line in an experienced rappeler’s grip and fended off the side with her booted feet.
“Thanks, lover,” she said, as she turned and caught Deor’s wrist. “Up you go, brother.”
Thora and Deor weren’t actually related; their birthplaces were almost exactly half a thousand miles apart. They’d just been comrades and very close friends for half their lives, starting when they’d been younger than he was. They came at his heels as he trotted quickly up to the quarterdeck; the owner was rapping out a series of orders, and the ship heeled sharply as it fell off into the wind and the sails cracked taut. The pitching motion gave way to a long smooth rocking-horse gait.
“Mission accomplished, Captain Feldman,” he said. “Except for those Korean ships in our way. My sister says you should cooperate fully with the Stormrider and her captain, and we’re here to reinforce you.”
“Captain Russ RMN commanding,” Feldman said, looking southward at the frigate. “We’ve been playing dodge-‘em and I don’t think he’s very happy with me. He couldn’t shoot when we slipped away like a wet watermelon seed... but I think he very much wanted to.”
He grinned as he said it; he was a slender dark man in his mid-thirties, black-eyed and black-haired and with a single streak of white in his close-cropped beard over a scar, dressed with plain practicality in a peaked sailor’s hat over his kippa and brass-buttoned blue coat and pants and soft-soled boots. He stood for a moment with his thumbs in the belt that supported his cutlass, tapping his fingers on the walrus-hide. Then he turned to his signaler:
“Run up Prince aboard, Crown Princess ashore and will conform to your movements,” he said.
“Aye Aye, Cap’n.”
The signal hoist went up, worked by a sailor universally known as “Rat” McGuire, for his face and general attitude. Feldman turned his telescope on the frigate.
“Acknowledged,” he read. “Brief. My, my, Captain Russ is in a temper. He’s actually not a bad sailor... for an Astoria man.”
Astoria was the main port for the southern Association territories, just past the dangerous bar at the mouth of the Columbia; Newport was Corvallis’ sole seaport, linked to the inland capital of the city-state by a busy rail line. Their rivalry went back well before the High Kingdom.
Then he turned to John: “This situation is unstable, your Highness. May I ask why the Princess and the rest of your party didn’t accompany you?”
John hesitated, then told him. Feldman whistled slightly between his teeth before he spoke.
“Magic swords and wicked sorcerers. I don’t suppose they’re more dangerous than catapult shot or storms, but...”
“I grew up around a magic sword, Captain. This... what they brought back out of the desert... it’s most definitely the genuine article.”
“Like the Sword of the Lady?”
Feldman’s voice was dry. He acknowledged the force of the thing the Quest had brought back from haunted Nantucket; you couldn’t see it and not do so, especially if you were a Montivallan yourself. That didn’t mean he had to like the fact that in the modern age such things walked abroad in the light of common day.
“Not exactly. It’s more... more for battle. They have... other Sacred Treasures... for some of the things the Sword of the Lady does. Kusanagi is more purely a weapon. It’s a symbol of the ruler as Power. The power to protect and to punish; symbol of it, and the thing itself too. And it scares me silly.”
He shook himself and returned to things less mysterious, to their mutual relief:
“Who’ll win if it comes to a sea-fight?” John said.
“A close-run thing, given all those savages they’ve picked up.”
“They can’t storm the shore,” John said, and Feldman nodded.
“Right, we’d move in on them,” the captain said.
“And the Crown Princess and the locals could just pull into the mouth of the canyon there. It’s fortified.”
“They must be planning something else,” Feldman said meditatively.
“Perhaps,” John said, and then smiled. “Or perhaps they’re not as clever as you, Captain. I’ve noticed that extremely smart people tend to assume that there’s a deep-laid plan when they may be facing blundering incompetence. My grandmother the Queen Mother Sandra said she had to watch that tendency in herself, and she only had to walk into any room on earth to be the smartest person in it.”
Feldman chuckled, but grimly. “Ordinarily you might be right. But the things we’re fighting... they’re not stupid, worse luck.”
“True, but a lot of their followers are dumb as a knapsack full of hammers,” John pointed out. “I think it goes with the territory. I’ll eat you last isn’t really a recruiting slogan to attract the intelligent.”
Feldman gave him a considering look, and then a respectful nod. John was flattered... and slightly annoyed. If you were a young, handsome prince with an eye for the ladies and artistic inclinations people tended to assume you were a lightweight, for some reason. Nobody ever thought that about Órlaith, she was always taken seriously... though to be fair, Órlaith had never underestimated him. She knew he was perfectly capable at anything he put his mind to; she just thought he was lazy, and was always shoving work onto his plate like a second helping of boiled broccoli.
Feldman turned his telescope towards the shore again. Time stretched. He’d noticed that happened when things got tense. A while ago, in fact—the same thing happened at tournaments, or before a performance, but never quite like this. Some of the younger sailors—younger than him—were looking a bit anxious, peering shoreward. Some of the others were relaxed enough that there was a quiet game of skat going on behind one catapult, though he’d have bet himself that the grinning woman who was raking in the pot had been the one who started it.
One of the bits of barracks wisdom Evrouin had taught him was that you generally did a lot better at cards if you were focused and the other players weren’t.
“Hello,” Feldman said. “Something’s going on there. Boat going ashore from the Korean flagship—just one. White parley flag... no, and that’s a Japanese flag it’s flying too.”
John’s eyebrows shot up. Reiko and her followers had made very clear that Dai-Nippon and the realm that called itself Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk were deadly enemies. Chosŏn was ruled by the descendants of the man who’d run the northern part of that country before the Change. He’d been a spectacularly bad ruler then by all accounts, managing to starve his people even in the abundance of the ancient world, and he’d brought himself and his immediate followers through the chaotic aftermath of the Change by eating their enemies—not to mention many of their subjects. That had opened the way for certain things from beyond the world of common day; extreme evil often did, and his descendants had become far worse as they spiraled down that trap. They’d been raiding Japan’s less numerous survivors ever since, too. He had a strong impression that the grimly warlike cast of the Nihonjin was a result of that long merciless struggle.
John stretched out a hand. Evrouin put his binoculars in it, and he leveled them. It was surprisingly difficult to keep them trained on the shore from a moving ship, and the way the picture swayed and pitched made his stomach swoop in sympathy for a moment before excitement drove it out of his awareness.
“Reiko’s coming down the road to meet the ones under the Japanese flag... two of them are in Nihonjin armor, whoever they are,” John said. “She’s got Egawa and six of her samurai with her. Mother of God, but I wish I could hear what’s being said... Wait a minute... that weird little kid she picked up at the castle in the desert is there... The Koreans are attacking! They’re fighting!”
He opened his mouth to say something more, then gave a quick gasping grunt. Something had punched him in an entirely non-physical way that still felt like a paralyzing blow to the pit of the stomach. The Sword of the Lady had been bared, and then thrust into the living flesh of Montival, the land it had been created to embody and protect. John could feel that protection spreading, like a skin of invisible steel rooted deep in the bones of Earth.
What came next was a hurricane wash of flame. For a moment he drew breath to scream as his skin was flayed off, then realized that there was no pain and no heat. Feldman and a few of the sailors were looking at him oddly. Deor wasn’t; he’d stumbled to his knees, and Thora was beside him with an arm around his shoulders and stark concern on her face.
“Kusanagi has been drawn in anger,” he said, or Something spoke through him. “Amaterasu-ōmikami’s daughter takes the Grasscutter Sword to war.”
Feldman was frowning slightly, but no more than that. As if he was mildly frustrated that things were happening which might involve him in a deadly fight at any moment. There were things that being of the High King’s line gave you; he wasn’t at all sure that they were advantages, though.
“Captain, something very bad is going to happen,” John said tightly.
He hadn’t known exactly what he was going to say until he’d said it, but when he had it rang with the brazen inevitability of utter truth.
Feldman nodded cautiously. “With those mamzrim—” he inclined his head towards the Korean warships “—I’m not surprised.”
John swallowed. A good deal depended on his being very clear. Including my life, he thought.
And while he was good with words, he usually wasn’t talking for his life. Fortunately he wasn’t the only man of words on the ship.
“He’s right, Moishe,” Deor said; he and the captain had first met when they were both in their teens and were good if not exactly close friends. “The Prince doesn’t mean bad as in evil. Just... terrible. Something terrible is about to happen, not wicked, but powerful and very dangerous to anyone who gets caught in it. Like an earthquake or a storm.”
The word the scop used tripped something, and suddenly John was very certain. “Storm! There’s going to be a storm!”
Feldman looked at him, waiting. He swallowed again, conscious that his life, all their lives, might depend on what he said next.
“Kusanagi... the Grass-Cutting Sword was named after a battle where a Japanese prince used it to turn a blaze back on its makers. It commands the spirits of Fire and Air... what they called it before then was Ama-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi. The Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven! A fragment of the sun embodied in the world of men. Like... like a flail of flame and wind. And the Sun drives the Earth’s tempests; even the ancients knew that much.”
Feldman met his eyes for a long moment, glanced at Deor’s face gone pale under its weathered tan, then nodded slightly, a single quick jerk of the chin. Then he turned to his First Mate:
“Mr. Radavindraban, strike all sail. Storm canvas only. Batten down around, and have a sea anchor ready to go over the stern. Lively, if you please. McGuire, signal make storm preparations to the RMN ship.”
The deck officer called out instructions through his speaking-trumpet. Sailors exploded into motion. The catapults were uncocked and doubled tarpaulins lashed over them. The sails came down at a run, all but the narrow triangular staysails that ran from the foremast to the bowsprit, and the crew lashed the furled canvas round and round with lengths of rope tied with complex knots. The hatches were battened, which turned out to mean putting heavy tarpaulins over them too and hammering home hardwood rods in grooves to keep them there. Everyone else went below, except Deor and Thora; both of them had years at sea, if not exactly as sailors, and they’d shown on the voyage down from the Bay that they knew enough to be useful and not get in the way. Thora murmured as she worked:
“Fair-footed father of Freyr and Freya,
Wave-rider, winning us wealth from the sea,
Shielder of ships, send us good fortune,
Hear us and help us to prosperous harbor,
Bring us a blessing, oh brother of Nerthus,
Pledge of the Vanir, by our prayers be pleased
In Noatun, oh Njordr, know now our need.”
John knew he and Evrouin were on the quarterdeck because of his rank, not for anything he could do except take up room and pray, which he was doing silently.
But I gave the warning. That was something worthwhile.
“And rig manropes—everyone on a line,” Feldman went on. “Everyone but the deck watch below, but warn them to be ready to hook on when or if they’re called up. The Lord alone knows if Captain Russ will pay attention, but we tried.”
Radavindraban looked up at a sky still calm, at the masts, then at his employer. “Double the backstays, Captain? Preventers?”
It took a moment before John realized he meant putting extra ropes between the masts up at the top; he knew that was a major job. Feldman was looking at him again... and the feeling of pressure was building, building. Whatever was going to happen would be soon, very soon. He shook his head.
I’m sort of the hero if I was right. If I’m imagining things, I’m the goat.
“No, Mr. Mate,” Feldman said. “Yes if we had time, but we don’t. Proceed with orders.”
The whole process of readying the ship took mere moments. John watched with fascination; he was used to masses of people moving in quick unison—everything from the Guard on drill to dances—but this had a grimly utilitarian flavor. Everyone was acting as if their lives depended on doing the right thing quickly, which it very probably did, and they trusted their skipper’s alarm even if they didn’t know why he was giving the orders.
A quick inhalation of breath brought his head up. The sky had been blue and streaked with a little high white cloud. John blinked, uncertain for a moment of what he was seeing. Then the captain’s incredulous grunt told him that it wasn’t an illusion; the clouds were thickening as he watched, the skies darkening. Streamers of wolf-gray appeared, turning, curving as if an invisible giant spoon was stirring...
Suddenly the sky northward was covered, bulging downward in a blackened rush like a huge hand rising over the Santa Monicas. Rising like an avalanche of flaying wind. Lightning crackled within the clouds and between cloud and earth, its actinic blue-white suddenly very bright in the darkening day. Each stroke seemed closer, and he could feel the small hairs on the back of his neck trying to stand erect.
“Baruch ata Adonai, Elohanu Melech Haolam she kocho u-gevurato maleh olam,” Feldman said, and John recognized it as a prayer even before he repeated it in Montival’s common tongue:
“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, whose power and might fill the world.”
“Amen,” John said wholeheartedly. I feel like an ant on a pavement!
Then the captain went on softly: “It’s like a typhoon over in Asia. I’ve seen them coming on, but... not like this. Never like this.”
He turned his head and snapped: “That sea-anchor! Lively!”
The bosun went by with a party of sailors, an apparatus of canvas and chains in their arms, their eyes wide and flickering up to the mass of cloud.
“Just reeving the cable to the anchor bitts, Cap’n!” she called, her voice carefully controlled.
“Good,” Feldman said. “At the wheel there, port your helm.”
The ship heeled and turned a smooth steady arc, until the bowsprit pointed nearly southward.
“Thus, thus, very well, thus. Steady as she goes. We’ll head away from that—” he jerked a thumb at the gathering clouds “—for now.
As the ship’s bow turned they had a good view of the frigate; it seemed to be in a similar state of upheaval, but a bit behind, and of course it was a more complex task on a much bigger ship. Evrouin came up, knelt, and began stripping off John’s suit of plate, fingers quick and deft on the buckles and snaps. John gave a start and then began to work himself on the pieces around his shoulders and arms and the bevoir around his neck, the ones you could come at yourself. The peril driving down on them wasn’t one steel armor could protect him from. His valet-cum-bodyguard dropped the pieces into a canvas sack—for once not wrapping them carefully and individually—put John’s thick supple swordbelt back around his waist, cinched it tight and tied some of the points from his arming doublet through the metal-rimmed eyelets in the leather, snapped a line onto a loop and ran it to one of the manropes.
Then donned his own just before the prince could open his mouth to order him to do it.
“Devoted to duty, Your Highness, but not suicidal,” he said.
There was a shiver in the air. John looked shoreward again, finding himself curiously reluctant—it reminded him uncomfortably of the way he’d felt as a child when he’d convinced himself something ugly was hiding under the bed and he tried to make himself look because he thought he was too old to cry for his parents or the nanny, but oh how he wanted to do just that. When he did look the breath hissed between his teeth and he crossed himself reflexively and murmured a brief prayer to invoke the aid and intercession of St. Francis, who’d been a musician too. The thunderheads were piled mountain-high now, and they covered everything he could see left and right. Already the mountain peaks had disappeared in a silvery-gray mass that must be scourging rain. The chaparral on the stark hillsides bent before the wind like the fur of some great mangy beast, and then a line rippled across the water that churned it into white foam, swifter than a galloping horse.
John ducked his head instinctively and threw up an arm as it struck and staggered him, as much by its own force as the way it made the ship buck. The staysail cracked taut like a catapult releasing, and the ship heeled sharply and seemed to jerk forward. The leading edge of the wind had grit and twigs in it, whipped up off the dry scrubby hills to the north, and he slitted his eyes and threw up his hand. Then it was full of flying salt-spume. Rain followed hard on its heels, cold and stinging, soaking his arming-doublet and hose instantly. The note of the wind in the rigging deepened to what his musician’s ear recognized as bass for a moment, then tore up into a shriek.
“There’s an old saying,” Feldman shouted with a grim smile, holding to a stay. “We beat Pharaoh, we’ll get through this. I thought this expedition would be interesting and my judgment was sound!”
The wind built from second to second. John squinted through the stinging wet, then shouted himself:
“One of the Korean ships just capsized!”
It had been a glimpse, the masts crackling and toppling, sails and ropes flailing through the air, the hull heeling further and further and then suddenly pitching over in a flash and the weed-grown keel showing for an instant before a wave hid it and threw bits of wood and he thought people up into the driving darkness. He couldn’t see the others at all, and then for an instant he could, one of them was heading towards him on the crest of a wave with its bow headed nearly straight down. They must have cut their anchors and be trying to run before the storm.
“Get that—“ Feldman shouted.
There was a sensation underfoot, as if the ship had jerked somehow, but soft and elongated, as if the jerk had been through a cushion. John felt his feet skidding across the wet-slick deck, and then Evrouin had him by one upper arm and Deor by the other, with Thora gripping his belt and the back of his doublet.
“Got it!” he said.
And he did; he clamped his hand on one of the manropes and used it to haul himself back to near the helm. Feldman hadn’t even staggered, and he shouted again.
“That was the sea-anchor taking hold. It’ll keep our stern to the wind!”
He had to do it louder this time; the gale had risen until the sound in the rigging was a roar and a shriek in one, and the masts were bending visibly. Then there was a huge series of popping cracks from the bow, like a whip miles long snapping. They all looked that way, and John saw Feldman’s lips shape the word shit! Perhaps he’d said it; ordinary speech would be inaudible right now. The jib and the other forestaysails had blown out of their boltropes and were flogging themselves into scraps of pale canvas, just visible across the hundred and fifty feet of heaving deck, with banks of half-solid spray rolling across it in between. The ship gave another jolt, then settled into the same heaving roll.
Feldman glanced back over his shoulder. His eyes went wide, and his mouth shaped shit! again. Then something else, which John suspected was:
Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!
That was the prayer Jews spoke in the face of imminent death. On its heel came a shout of:
“Lash the wheel, now, now!”
Unwillingly, forcing his head to turn, John looked in the same direction as the sailors frantically hooked the loops of cable around the spokes to keep it steady if their hands came off.
There was a wave behind them. Towering, a wall of water rising nearly like a cliff. A moving cliff topped with a line of white, visible in the stark flicker of the lightning bolts.
“No!” the prince shouted into the wind that tore the words from his mouth. “I haven’t finished making the song yet!”
And the world fell.
Copyright © 2015-2016 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>