Castle Todenangst, Crown Demesne
Portland Protective Association
(Formerly northern Oregon)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
September 15th, Change Year 46/2044 A.D.
“Johnnie’s alive, mother,” Órlaith said softly.
She’d gone to her knees as the High Queen—Mathilda Arminger Mackenzie—entered and now she stripped the sheathed Sword of the Lady from the leather-and-brass sling that kept it angled back from her belt and held it up on her open palms. Her blue eyes met her mother’s hazel-brown, and she saw a slight thawing in the cold anger there as the older woman put her hand on the black staghorn and silver inlay of the hilt.
She knew much of the anger had been born of fear for her and her brother, not just that a masterful will had been successfully defied. And it was natural enough to fear, when they put themselves at risk so soon after her father’s death. That didn’t make the anger any less real, and perilous. It was even a bit justified, if you looked at it from her perspective.
She’d have been mad at Johnnie too, if he was here. He’s not, he’s still in danger, and I’m safe to take both our shares out on.
Their faces both went blank as the Sword linked them to things beyond the world of common day, and to each other. There was a moment of communion on a level Órlaith found impossible to describe even to herself. She felt a single word, as if it hummed in her mother’s mind and echoed across miles and years:
A ghost of her father’s presence, faded but still there in the Sword and the land it embodied, the land he had died for and blessed with the sacred King’s own blood, as the very Lord in whose power he had walked died each year for the ripened corn that fed human-kind. An echo that would live forever. Beneath it were the linked lines of blood that connected her parents to her and to her siblings—even to the unnamed babe that her mother bore, stirring now with six month’s growth.
“Yes, we’d know if John was... if he wasn’t,” the High Queen said. “But he’s... far away. I can tell that much. Beyond Montival. And that’s all we know. The western Pacific is... very large.”
She released the hilt, implicitly not demanding that the sacred blade be turned over to her. Who had the better right was moot, and her daughter was the High King’s heir.
“What can we do?” Órlaith asked
The Pacific was indeed very large, and sending the whole Navy haring off into the beyond would be like looking for a particular grain of sand on a beach. It was hard enough to keep the piracy problem down, and they knew that started in the northern isles. Even sending a second warship down to Topanga had stretched things, though it had given them a quick safe journey home.
“For now, you’ve done more than enough, Órlaith; you’ve lost your brother, lost the Tarshish Queen, and lost the Stormrider. Rise,” she said.
She made a palms-up gesture as she did and sank back onto the throne of wrought and inlaid teakwood that stood on a low dais beneath an embroidered canopy. The strong worn hands gripped the carved lions’ heads of the armrests. Everyone rose, save the black-armored guards who stood motionless before the tapestries, the honed steel edges on the blades of their glaives catching the beams of light from the high round rosette windows.
It glittered too on the carved wood and gold leaf of the coffered ceiling—one of her grandmother Sandra’s salvage expeditions had brought it back with much else from a palace on the coast of Westria, California-that-was, built for some forgotten prince of the old Americans generations prior to the Change. Moorish craftsmen had first wrought it for Spanish lords half a thousand years before that, across the eastern sea in Andalusia. Órlaith was suddenly conscious of it; what dramas had it seen in its journey across seas and centuries? What might it behold between now and the time of her grandchildren’s grandchildren?
Everyone had knelt save the guards. Except of course Reiko and her followers; she was a reigning monarch in her own right, not a subject of the High Kingdom, and had remained standing after a respectful inclination of the head. Her followers had bowed deeply instead. Her dark kimono with a subtle black-on-black pattern and gray-striped hakama and dark grey five-kamon haori jacket were crisply perfect but gave a note of sober formality to the occasion—for starters, it was men’s formal dress where she came from, apart from the high belting of the hakama. It stood out vividly amid the multicolored and wildly-varied splendor of lords and delegates from all of Montival’s member-realms. There were even a party of Lakota from the easternmost border marches, in the fringed and beaded leather and the eagle-feather bonnets they kept for special occasions and impressing outsiders.
Todenangst was familiar home ground to Órlaith, but she could tell the Japanese had been impressed by the sheer alien bulk of the great fortress-palace-town, and positively shaken beneath their impassive politesse when they realized it had been built right after the Change when their grandparents had been scrambling for bare survival. What castles they had in Japan now were either refurbished survivors from very ancient times or much smaller modern copies.
Of course, Grandfather Norman built this to impress people... to intimidate people... well, to crush them, really. Nonna Sandra said he’d been drawing plans for it even before the Change. Nobody’s ever even tried to besiege it.
The engineers he’d rounded up in his initial coup had picked a suitable hill with a nearby stream, then set to work with girders, rebar, concrete, Fresno scrapers and thousands upon thousands of steel cargo containers brought in over the railway, often by gangs of laborers hauling on ropes. Sometimes she felt a little uneasy remembering the hosts who’d died building the great pile and his other works. There was no getting around the fact that her mother’s father had been something close to the Platonic ideal of merciless tyrant and possibly... almost certainly... more than a little mad, in a functional sort of way. And yet nearly all of those people would have died anyway. Hundreds of thousands who would have died otherwise had lived because of his ruthless vision.
Reiko had the two swords thrust through her sash and the steel tessen-war fan in her hand, and more than one eye among the ranks of watchers turned to the old-gold colored silk cords and sharkskin of Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi’s hilt. An ancient monk, shaven-headed and saffron-robed among the emissaries of the Monastery of Chenrezi far off eastward across the mountains in the Valley of the Sun took a sharp breath and made a gesture of reverence with his palms pressed together before his face.
The High Queen wore a cotte-hardie in deep forest green that showed her six month’s pregnancy rather obviously, and she looked exhausted beneath an iron resolution, her face framed by a pinned-back mourning veil of black gauze held by a silver-and-gold band and a chain of office around her neck, plaques alternating the Lidless Eye of the Armingers and the spread-winged Raven of House Artos. Órlaith was in a kilt of the Mackenzie green-brown-orange tartan, with the plaid pinned back so that the fringe fell nearly to her knees behind; because she preferred that, and because it emphasized that she might be her mother’s daughter but she wasn’t an Associate. She was also wearing a tight green Montrose jacket with its double row of silver buttons and lace at the throat and cuffs, and a flat Scots bonnet with a spray of Golden Eagle feathers in the clasp—the Eagle was her totem, the creature that had come to her in dreams.
The High Queen’s eyes also rested on the hilt of the Grass-Cutting Sword at Reiko’s waist for a moment. Órlaith knew her mother felt the reality of flaming power held in check by an intricate pattern of control, as she did; it seemed like called to like. Reiko had told her privately that she could sense the Sword of the Lady likewise, now that she bore the Grasscutter.
“The Tennō Heika of Dai-Nippon is most welcome at Our court,” Mathilda went on, a cool graciousness in her tone. “Our realms share a common enemy and will seek a common retribution for the wrongs done our peoples and the death of our High King and your Emperor. It is a pity that this consultation has been delayed, but We recognize the urgency of the... project... with respect to Your Majesty’s Sacred Treasure.”
Reiko’s face was unreadable as she made the slightest inclination of her head. Then she blinked as Mathilda repeated it in accentless Japanese, and in the formal, deliberately archaic dialect used by the court on Sado-ga-shima at that.
Well, I should have expected that, Órlaith thought. Mother never liked using the Sword of the Lady... nor did Da, really, and I can understand why now. She’s always disliked it more... but they mingled their blood on its point at the Kingmaking, and it is linked to her as well. And to me through her as well as through Da.
Reiko’s followers were a little shocked at her fluency as well. But Egawa Noboru, the Imperial Guard commander who’d been with her on the journey south to the desert and the lost castle, and her Grand Steward Koyama Akira—who’d been left to wake up to a brief letter explaining why she was gone—both showed well-concealed delight. That statement was a promise of alliance, an alliance that Nippon still desperately needed and that Órlaith simply did not yet have the power to grant.
The Grass-Cutting Sword was a thing of terrible power, and enough to assure that even mighty Montival took Japan seriously. But war still needed fleets and armies, and they were heavily outnumbered. It had always been very likely indeed, virtually certain, that Montival would retaliate for the slaying of the High King, but this made it formal. There was a murmur of agreement from the crowd, and one Powder River rancher even let loose with a kiy-yip! of enthusiasm. Sometimes Órlaith thought that the wildly various realms of the High Kingdom were held together by eternal repetitive arguments as much as anything else, but her father’s death had brought a wave of unified fury. Sacred blood had been shed, and her folk wanted blood in turn; preferably whole rivers of it.
That happened when you desecrated a people’s symbols, unless there was something badly wrong with the people concerned.
“We will confer on these issues, Your Majesty,” Mathilda said. “With your advisors and mine. Fortunately the meeting of the Congress of Realms means the whole kingdom can be consulted and informed swiftly.”
“This is very good, Your Majesty,” Reiko said, her voice soft but carrying clearly. “Yet it is also necessary to inform my homeland of what has occurred.”
Mathilda nodded. “As soon as he have the outline of an agreement, I will dispatch a fast frigate to Dai-Nippon, with whoever you wish to bear the news, carrying such instructions as you think best. That will take—”
She turned her head to a square-built woman in a blue uniform and fore-and-aft cocked hat standing not far from the Throne, and they murmured for a moment.
“Sixty-five to ninety days sailing round-trip, depending on the winds,” she said when she turned back to Reiko. “Continuous passage and not counting any time spent at the other end.”
“I will emphasize the need for haste,” Reiko said, and the two monarchs shared a smile as dry as her tone.
Then Mathilda turned her eyes on Órlaith, and her carefully neutral voice quivered with love and anger and pain. Her child wasn’t sure that she would have known that quite so certainly before they’d both been bearers of the Sword of the Lady.
“You are Our beloved daughter and heir,” she said, and Órlaith winced invisibly at the continued use of the formal Royal second person. “But you are also under Our displeasure on this day. Her Majesty of Nihon had no obligation of obedience to Us. You do. You disobeyed; you suborned others to disobedience, and placed still others under conflicts of oath and loyalty.”
Órlaith considered arguing that she hadn’t been specifically forbidden to assist Reiko on her search for the lost treasure. One hard glance told her that her mother had seen the impulse almost as soon as it had occurred to her and that it was wisdom to suppress it. Particularly since she’d done everything but hide on the bottom of ponds breathing through a reed to avoid being confronted by servants of the Crown pursuing her with a sealed rescript demanding her immediate return.
Still, it had worked...
Her mother seemed to sense that one too: “Even success does not fully excuse that offense. This is not a tyranny, but a Kingdom under law.”
Órlaith blinked. In the time of her mother’s father, men had been beheaded at a nod from the first Lord Protector, some of them in this very room. When you looked at it that way, her mother had a point. The High Queen went on:
“There must be due regard for rank and station and respect for authority among the mighty as well as the commons, or that authority becomes merely the willfulness of vanity sustained by force. You cannot truly or rightly command obedience until you show that you yourself are obedient to your lawful superiors, and disciplined in your soul. You are forbidden the Court until I inform you otherwise, and you would be well-advised not to draw Our attention until then. You may go.”
Órlaith swallowed and went to one knee again, bowing with right fist to chest.
“The High Queen commands,” she said, backed the precise four steps that etiquette required before she turned and walked down the strip of carpet towards the high arched doors.
Some of the delegates stared or very quietly murmured among themselves, the newcomers from distant parts of the kingdom being filled in by those who were or thought they were more knowledgeable. The courtiers mostly kept their gazes carefully neutral. Disfavor was contagious, but Órlaith would be High Queen fairly soon and might remember an open slight. On the other hand her mother would still be Lady Protector of the Association, since she held that title for life in her own right through inheritance from her parents rather than as a temporary regency through marriage.
Mathilda’s mouth tightened, and she struck the arm of the throne with one palm. When she spoke it was with the same implacable calm, and to Reiko:
“Your Majesty, we will consult briefly in private with our respective Chancellors, if that is agreeable to you.”
“Very much so, Your Majesty,” Reiko said, making a graceful gesture of assent with her fan.
“Then this audience is dismissed for the present.”
Reiko spared her friend and ally only a single flicker of the eyes as she passed. Órlaith would have been shocked if she’d done otherwise, and inclined to scold her. They’d become comrades and close friends, but Reiko’s duty was to her realm and right now that meant her dealings with the High Queen came first. She could tell without looking around when her mother went through the door of the inner chamber; voices began to fill the echoing silence.
Heuradys d’Ath fell in a step behind Órlaith, cat-polite and entirely unconcerned as her long wine-colored cape swung just above the golden spurs on her heels, and her elaborately braided dark-auburn hair brushed her houppelande-clad shoulders beneath her round roll-edged chaperon hat. She was Órlaith’s personal liege knight as well as a childhood friend, and had no higher loyalty. Her amber-colored eyes didn’t stop looking for danger even here.
As they left the audience room the knight’s adoptive mother stepped close for a moment, in vivid contrast to those carefully looking elsewhere as they left, or acting as if they wanted to avoid a contagious disease without being rude about it, or fixing their eyes on documents to the exclusion of all else.
“Rusticate, infants,” Baroness Tiphaine d’Ath said quietly. “And once you’ve jumped in the prairie-dog hole pull it in after you. Let her get over it. She can be mad at me in the interim, since I have to be here.”
The High Marshall of Montival didn’t exactly whisper, and it wasn’t necessary for privacy anyway. Even now that she was in her early sixties and there was as much silver-white as white-gold in her bobbed hair most people just moved away from that sword-slim, black-clad form when Lady Death obviously didn’t want to be overheard. Heuradys’ birth mother, Delia de Stafford, Countess of Campscapell and Tiphaine’s Châtelaine for thirty-six years, simply gestured anxious agreement from behind her. The knight nodded briskly to them both without checking her stride, though Órlaith suspected she also winked.
Órlaith sighed as they walked through the gates of the presence chamber and the glaivesmen rapped the butts of their weapons on the floor.
“And the worst of it is I couldn’t just be worried for John with Mother,” she said. “The last we saw of him was that bloody wave hitting him!”
“We know it didn’t kill him,” Heuradys said.
“Yet,” Órlaith replied. “And that doesn’t mean that it didn’t hurt him, you see. Or that something hasn’t.”
Heuradys nodded. “You know, I almost envy him the experience of living through that wave, since we know he did.”
“Well, there’s always the feeling of relief you get at not dying,” Órlaith said dryly. “But wishing for the experience... you might as well hit yourself with a war-hammer because it feels so good when you stop.”
“I did say almost, my liege,” the knight said. “And anyway, he’ll make a nice vivid song of it!”
Copyright © 2015-2016 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>