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PRINCE OF OUTCASTS

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER SIX:

 

County Palatine of Walla-Walla
To Barony Harfang
County of Campscapell
(Formerly eastern Washington State)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
September 16TH, Change Year 46/44 A.D.

 

“Thanks, cousin,” Órlaith said absently, taking one of the loaded plates Faramir offered.

She’d learned to eat on swaying trains as a child. Lunch was gendarme—also called man-at-arms—sausage, air-cured and fermented links made from equal portions of pork and beef with pepper, cumin, and a little honey. It was named that because it kept well, and was common in military rations and travelers’ food generally. She knew from personal experience that this tasted a lot better than the mass-produced version handed out to the troops, because her father had started a tradition that in the field commanders ate what came out of the common mess like everyone else.

With it went a sweet-nutty Fol Epi cheese from Barony Gervais or a soft spreadable Tillamook with bits of hot pepper worked in, cracker-like rye flatbread, pickles and some bottles of garlic-cured mushrooms. Last was a maida cake of fine flour, eggs, clarified butter, sugar, petha, marmalade, hazelnuts and walnuts, ginger and fennel, also famous for keeping well, and bottles of fizzy mild cider still fairly chilly though the ice had melted by now.

Macmac sighed loudly, his head moving with every transit of her hand from plate to mouth and deep sadness in his eyes. She relented and tossed him half the sausage, not being all that hungry anyway despite putting in most of the morning on the treadmills with the horses.

The recently-built line they were using as they curved north under the noon sun was modern steel strip on wooden rails. It crossed the broad County Palatine of Walla Walla, which was basically most of the area from the loop of the Snake River southward to the borders of the Pendleton Round-Up, founded long ago to anchor and protect the Association’s eastern marchland in her wicked grandfather Norman’s time. But they went well west of the great walled city of Walla Walla itself, which was tactful and why she’d done it.

Count Palatine Felipe de Aguirre Smith was a loyal supporter of House Artos, but also a battle-comrade and guest-friend of Baroness Tiphaine d’Ath since an episode in the Prophet’s War. Her family visited here fairly often on their way to their estates in the Palouse, and the Count had given her a hunting-lodge in the Blue Mountains as a mark of his esteem. If Órlaith had shown up in the capital city of his County honor would have demanded that he extend her daughter Heuradys—and the daughter’s liege—full public hospitality.

And Mother would feel that he was poking at her with a Disapproval Stick, though she’d know better.

The rising sun had lit the rich rolling valley-land west of the city as they passed, with the low massive line of the Blue Mountains on the horizon to the southeast just visible. Fields edged with Lombardy poplars were patterned with strips of reaped yellow grain-stubble or green with alfalfa; vineyards and orchards drew geometries over hillsides; manors and villages could be glimpsed amid gardens and woodlots.

Now and then the great stucco-covered concrete bulk of a baron’s castle loomed with banners flying from the witches-hat peaks of the machicolated towers and a town huddling beneath their shadow, or a monastery or convent stood solid and square amid gardens and almshouse-hospice. The plane-tree-lined macadamized roads smoked white dust as trains of ox-wagons crawled and carriages clipped along, or nobles rode in gaudy brightness. Peasants and peddlers, monks and pilgrims went trudging afoot or pedaling on bicycles between rows of roadside trees showing a hint of tattered autumnal lushness, and under the drowsy warmth somehow came a hint of the coming rain and snows.

At one stop some enterprising soul handed up a basket full of fruit for a silver half-tenth while the teams were being changed, crisp apples and ruby-red late cherries and dripping-ripe pears. For a while the young clansfolk and Susan and the Dúnedain cousins engaged in a cherry-stone-spitting contest out the windows aiming at the trees planted along the right-of-way. Karl had stood on his dignity as bow-captain for about five minutes before crowding forward to take a try.

“Were we ever that young?” Órlaith said softly, as a cheer marked a bullseye.

Heuradys chuckled quietly as she strummed her lute, lying back with her boots off, her chaperon hat pushed forward over her eyes and her feet up on the opposite seat. Where Macmac seemed to find them a never-ceasing source of olfactory interest but needed to be poked occasionally to keep him from absently starting to nibble.

“Oh, possibly, just possibly, I say to the girl who had us run away from home on a Quest to find the Super Man in his Castle of Ice beyond Drumheller when she was eight.”

“I was impressed by that story Lord Huon told us about his mission to the north, but I wasn’t really up to understanding it then.”

“I told you it wouldn’t work, but noooooo...”

“You’re never going to let me forget that little slip the now, are you?”

“No, I’m not, my liege. Though now we’re the oldest ones in this crowd... and it feels very strange.”

“Tell me.”

Droyn wasn’t participating in the pit-spitting, being a belted knight now, but he was watching and grinning.

“Or,” Heuradys went on, “possibly you’re just still in a bad mood, Orrey. Relax. After all we’ve been through in the past few months some time lazing around with nothing more strenuous to do than falconry and sparring and music... and maybe chatting up some handsome huntsman... has some appeal. Against Necessity, even Gods do not fight. The morai spin, and that’s it.”

“Yes, Atropos,” Órlaith grumbled with a sigh, and laughed unwillingly when her knight made crisp snipping motions with two fingers.

She laid aside her book—it was The Broken Sword, a pre-Change historical novel of grim gritty realism by a knight named Sir Béla of Eastmarch, and more accessible to modern tastes than the more fanciful efforts of the time. Then she looked out the window again, the warm wind fluttering wisps of hair that had escaped her braid, a breeze that smelled of dust and straw. It was odd to feel impatient with a journey to someplace you were supposed to sit and be bored once you arrived.

The domains of the Counts Palatine ended at Castle Lyon, guarding the bridge across the Snake. Northward the Palouse proper began, barer and higher and far less peopled, mostly within the frontier County of Campscapell that marked the boundary between the Protectorate and the United States of Boise. The hills were like an endless beach of low undulating dunes occasionally rising into a ridge, except that it was all covered in rippling knee-high summer-dry grass, studded here and there with bushes of snowberry and wild rose green against the tawny pelt.

Órlaith reached out and touched the Sword, where it was lashed to the car’s wicker inner wall with rawhide ties. There was less of human kind to the feel of the land here, and what there was had an edge like a knife, with an undertone of grimness and old sorrows.

For generation this had been a borderland between the PPA and the United States of Boise, claimed by both and ruled by neither; raid and skirmish had gone back and forth across the marches along with the banditry that always sprang up in debatable lands. In the Prophet’s War the wild horsemen from beyond the Rockies had poured through with fire and sword. Peace had found it a wasteland.

A herd of pronghorn stood and watched the train from a ridgeline, then fled like fawn-and-white streaks over the yellow-brown hills. A group of a dozen mounted Nez Perce in red-dyed deerskin shirts and otterskin collars accompanied by a chuckwagon passed them on a broken, potholed ancient road, driving a herd of their prized Appaloosa horses southward. A lobo pack trotted by in the middle distance, dark dots against the grass. Birds swarmed, from clouds of Barrow’s Sparrow to hawks hanging in the air above watching for rabbits and ground squirrels. Glimpses showed mule deer and elk, scattered clumps of buffalo, and once a sounder of wild boar grubbing for camas roots in a low patch, ignoring the train with surly indifference. Nothing of human-kind, save here and there the burnt-out snags of an ancient farmhouse or some huge piece of farm machinery that sat rusting as it had since before her parents were born.

Heuradys was smiling slightly and affectionately as she looked out at the lion-colored hills.

“I remember Mom One saying that getting Barony Harfang in fief as a reward was like being given a free grant of seventeen million tons of undelivered Arizona sand FOB origin,” she said. “Though when I was little I always got sort of excited when we packed up for the yearly trip out here. I can just remember when it meant camping in tents.”

Delia had been Tiphaine’s official Châtelaine for three decades, and as such general business manager of her estates while Lady d’Ath fulfilled public duties in war and at court. Heuradys went on:

“Mom Two always liked it here—lots of hunting and falconry and best of all quiet, like a vacation, she says. Mom One does too, I think, because there’s been so much work for her overseeing the development. She also said that at least sand in Arizona wouldn’t reach out and swallow all the revenue from your established estates for twenty years.”

“A gross exaggeration,” Órlaith teased. “You can’t hunt or fly falcons on sand.”

“Or collect share rents and labor-service from the antelope and prairie chickens. The only thing that’s consistently turned a profit here is the wool, and we can’t fulfill our baronial obligations with a sheep ranch.”

“Speaking of obligations, House Ath never did get around to the castle,” Órlaith said, unhelpfully teasing and putting on a mock-monarchic frown. “A barony is scarcely worthy of the name without one!”

Heuradys rolled her amber eyes. “Have you got any idea of what those monsters cost? A castle is a heavily fortified bottomless pit you shovel money into. Diomede can do it when he’s baron.”

The first sign they were on Harfang was a wooden heliograph relay tower sprouting from a higher-than-usual piece of Palouse; then a mounted patrol of light cavalry armed with sword and recurve bow who raised their hands in salute.

Big flocks of white Corriedale sheep appeared, and herds of red-coated, white-faced cattle, and mare-and-colt clumps of horses, all under the eye of armed and mounted buckaroos. Here and there winding strings of earthen check-dams had been built across swales to turn them into a series of ponds and marshes edged with willows and cottonwoods, and planted woodlots of black locust, fir, lodgepole pine, hybrid poplar and chestnut oak showed on some of the ridges or north-facing slopes and along the banks of streams. Most of the trees were thriving but still spindly with youth, though some had already been coppiced to supply poles and fuel on a regular basis.

Then they could see the four big windmills that served the home-estate where they stood on the nearest hillcrest eastward, slender distance-tiny tapering towers with their great airfoil vanes rotating with majestic deliberation, powering everything from flour-mills to wool-presses. They also pumped at need from deep tube wells into a big concrete-lined tank set at their base, so Athana had running water now, still uncommon in most of Montival outside the cities, and piped sewage delivered to a biogas plant for lighting the manor and the public buildings.

Then they were among the tilled land of what was officially Saint Athana Manor. The Five Great Fields of the peasant tenants were vast squares edged with neatly trimmed hedges of head-high black hawthorn and tall poplars; within each was a swirling pattern of broad strips laid out along the contours. Two held the dun-gold of reaped grain pimpled with stooked sheaves, two the vibrant green of sweetclover or alfalfa, one the variegated patterns of root crops. Closer to the center were bench-terraced orchards and truck-gardens, and off to the south was the demesne, the lord’s home-farm.

“That wheat looks better than I’d have expected in a place too dry for forest,” Karl said thoughtfully as they passed close enough to estimate the weight of the grain in the ears and he counted the number of sheaves in a section. “What do you get here, lady?”

“Forty bushels an acre on the demesne in a bad year, better than sixty in a good one, usually,” she said. “The tenants the same, unless they all turn up on rent-day beating their breasts and sobbing in heart-rending unison that it’s less because they wore themselves out on the demesne, poor lambs.”

She shrugged. “We don’t fuss if it’s close enough for feudal work. Nobody really tries to push the line with Mom One. Not twice.”

By now lord and peasant both throughout the Association lands were used to that dance and trod the steps without thinking about it much.

“Sure, and that’s not a bad yield, not at all! ‘twould be thought fine even in the dúthchas,” Karl said; and the Willamette was a byword for lush fertility.

“The soil here is wonderful and it retains water. We’ve even got a vineyard going, on a south-facing slope with good frost drainage. And my brother Diomede has been putting in some sugar beet on the demesne, just small patches on trial, seeing if it goes well enough to justify building a refinery. Dionysus knows there’s always a market for sugar.”

The gearing hummed as the train swayed and clicked onto the siding by the Athana station. There was a brief metal-on-metal screech of brakes as they stopped, a feeling of surging forward and a falling whine as the treadmills sank back to horizontal. Karl strung his longbow and set the other Mackenzies doing likewise, which was an interesting operation for those sitting down. Heuradys joined him at the door as he twitched back the cover on his quiver, sliding her longsword into the frog-sling at her belt and working her hands to full suppleness with a set of brief exercises that were so automatic she probably wasn’t consciously aware of what she was doing.

They opened the door and hopped down together and spread out to either side, and the rest of the party followed. This part of the rail platform was unwalled, a concrete pavement covered with bricks set in a herringbone pattern and a tiled roof supported on wooden posts. Órlaith rose and stretched before she buckled on the Sword of the Lady and came out last, save for Macmac at her heels. She’d been accustomed to bodyguards all her life. Though it was disturbing to know that so many people... whether ones you knew and liked, or ones you knew only as faces you passed them braced to attention in front of walls or doors... were ready to throw their bodies between you and a blade to stop that hypothetical enemy. The more so now that she’d seen real battle and some had died in her place.

A man she recognized as one of Baroness d’Ath’s light horse commanders waited outside, in half-armor and with his well-trained mount standing motionless behind him over the dropped reins. He had the golden spurs on his heels, a wagon and a few saddled horses standing by, and ten mounted troopers behind him in open-face sallets and short-sleeved mail shirts riveted inside their jerkins, quivers on their backs and four-foot horn-and-sinew bows in the boiled-leather cases before their right knees. Their shoulders had badges in the same black-gold-and-silver arms as he wore on his breastplate, the sigil of House Ath, sable, a delta or over a V argent. There were a group of locals in the background gaping and slowing down and stopping in the middle of shifting stacked pallets of boxed Mason jars onto a cart as they recognized her.

Obviously the news of who was visiting hadn’t leaked, which was good.

They doffed their hats and fell to one knee anyway when they saw who got off the train and the soldiers saluted fist-to-breast, since she was well-known by sight here. She absently made the gesture—hand out at waist height, then turned palm upward and fingers curled slightly—that meant you may rise. She found it all slightly absurd, but custom was king of all.

The knight was a grizzled dark man tanned and windburned to leather with a patch over his left eye, a short stub middle finger on the left hand, and thinning bowl-cut black hair shot with silver like his clipped beard and mustache. She noticed that two of his command were around his age and scarred too, and the rest in their teens and disconcertingly fresh-faced. Including a pair of youngish but tough-looking girls who were shooting glances of adolescent admiration at either Heuradys, herself, or both, or both of them and Suzie and Morfind and some of the Mackenzies too. For women to take up the trade of arms was less uncommon on the d’Ath domains than elsewhere in the Protectorate.

He noticed her noticing the makeup of the horse-archers.

“My lord Diomede has most of the regular garrison and the vassals doing their annual forty days over at Castle Campscapell for the post-harvest maneuvers, Your Highness,” he said. “These are what’s left.”

He took a knee for a moment and inclined his head. She extended her right hand for the kiss of homage.

“Rise, Sir Savaric,” Órlaith said, when he’d made it.

Then he bowed to his liege’s daughter with the leg-forward gesture that involved touching his right-hand fingers to his brow and then sweeping them outward with the bend so that it nearly touched the ground. Faramir and Morfind got a salute and small stiff bow, which did duty for Suzie as well. He nodded casually to Sir Droyn as one equal to another, which made the very-recently-knighted nobleman fight down a grin of pure pleasure. The younger man was the son of a Count and hence much better-born than a landless retainer, but knighthood had its own hierarchies and brotherhoods and he’d just been welcomed into a select company.

“God give you good afternoon, Lady Heuradys,” Savaric said. “My lord your brother and his good Lady Ysabeau send their love, and Ygraine and Gussalin and Ismay and young Morgause as well.”

“Morgause said that?” Heuradys said. “I knew the little beast was precocious, but...”

“Well, she said wanna see Anti Herry!”

Savaric’s rather stark single brown eye went gentle for a moment. Then he went on briskly:

“They bid you visit the keep of my lord your father at Campscapell if your duty to your liege permits, since my lord Sir Diomede intends to keep the winter season at Barony Ath in the west with his lady mother and the Baroness. There’s word of a muster and he wants to be at hand if... when...”

“When,” Heuradys said flatly to his raised and questioning eyebrow.

When the ban of the Association is called to arms.”

Órlaith nodded to herself, mentally noting that she would see that Heuradys got time to visit.

She enjoys her nieces so!

It had been a while since Ysabeau’s difficult last pregnancy, after a close-set series; there would probably be no more.

So Ygraine’s the heir of Ath in her generation, and she idolizes Herry and wants to follow in her footsteps to knighthood, too, and her parents sound as if they’re reluctantly willing. I can have her attached to my household when this thing with Mother is cleared up, that’ll mean her seeing the Kingdom beyond the Protectorate too.

Associate pages were expected to put up with a certain amount of hazing and hardship as part of their training; getting them out of their own privileged family settings and on their own among their peers while still young was part of the reason for the system, as well as forging bonds between families. A page was a very lowly form of life in a noble household, in practice if not theory subordinate to most of the commoner servants and run off their feet between drill, classes and duties. The baboon-troop jostling and bullyragging among the pack of pages in a castle could be quite a bit worse for a girl, though.

Easier to keep a close eye on her in a small menie, which mine will be until I come of Crown age, and Herry will be there to help, maybe she could be Herry’s squire in a few years, or mine if we get on and she shapes well. I’d like to do her family a favor.

She swung into the saddle of the waiting courser with a half-skip and a vault; it was good to be on a horse again after the ordeal of sitting still for a day and night, and feel the lively interaction between rider and mount as the great muscles moved between her knees. The rest of her party did likewise, except for the Mackenzies who slung the gear into the waiting wagon and trotted along on foot. Children who’d been playing in the slightly scruffy soccer field and baseball diamond and tournament track that separated the train station from the village stopped to stare, many running back home as fast as they could accompanied by barking mutts and yelling shrilly themselves.

Athana Manor was bigger and more complex than most, since it was the heart of a barony and provided specialist services for the other settlements on Harfang. In fact, by now it was trembling on the verge of being a town. That was marked by the fact that a second church was under construction behind a maze of scaffolding, and confirmed by the multiple workshops of smiths and carpenters and wheelwrights and leatherworkers and more, and the fact that that there were actual full-time stores rather than traveling peddlers on market-days. It was also neater, more uniform and more efficiently laid out than many, because it had been purpose-built on vacant land to a set plan by experts starting well after the Change, rather than cobbled together by fumbling amateurs in a desperate emergency from whatever was to hand and then improved later catch-as-catch-can.

I’m more at home in the dúthchas among Mackenzies, at seventh and last, but this is a good place, Órlaith thought.

A roadway of compacted crushed rock ran from the sheds and stables of the railway station through the village proper on its way to the manor house, lined with copper beeches now casting a welcome shade beneath their reddish-purple leaves on this hot dry summer’s day. The whitewashed, tile-roofed, rammed-earth cottages of the peasants and craftsmen were on dusty-brown tree-lined lanes, each steading in its rectangular toft with sheds and gardens and chicken-coops at the rear and flowers or perhaps a trellised rose or honeysuckle in front.

Folk in coarse homespun were busy about the day, the ceaseless chores and working on things like roofs and fences and general tidying-up after the shattering all-hands labor of the harvest Most just bobbed their heads, but Boudicca jumped in cat-quick to rescue one basket of eggs dropped when a towhaired girl barely old enough for the double tunics, headscarf and wooden clogs of womanhood suddenly recognized the Crown Princess. The air was full of the scents of pickling and canning and bottling and smoking and drying foodstuffs to be packed away in cellars and sheds for the cold season, as well as the inevitable smells of horse and woodsmoke.

They clattered through a stone-paved central square with its church in the Italo-Gothic style still bedecked with sheaves from the Harvest mass, tavern sporting a creaking low-relief sign carved and colored to show a drunken owl lying on its back with a mug in one claw, and shops and worksteads and the long weaving-shed that doubled as town hall and site for dances.

The houses grew larger and the gardens broader and brighter as you went south towards the lord’s dwelling, until there were some quite substantial ones built around courtyards for the married gentry staff like Sir Savaric who didn’t live in, and a square of barracks set by itself with stables and corrals.

The manor-house proper sat on its own gentle south-facing slope some distance away and a bit higher for the view. They entered through a fretted metal gate; there was a whitewashed wall topped with wrought-iron work and lined with cedars that enclosed lawns and terraced gardens, banks of flowers and clipped shrubberies and scattered trees and a swimming pool behind hedges and windbreaks. A small herd of ornamental white-spotted fallow deer stood in a clump and stared in horror at the Mackenzie greathounds, who in turn covertly looked back as they padded along at heel and let their tongues lap at their noses in interest. A peacock glared with offended aggression, gave its raucous cry and then stalked off past a row of espaliered fruit-trees. Gardeners stood and bowed as they clattered through the gates, busy getting ready for the cold season after the harvest rush.

The E-shaped Great House was rammed earth too, the more expensive variety with five parts in a hundred of cement mixed in, three stories covered in a warm cream stucco with just a hint of reddish gold, picked out by colored tile arches over the doors and windows. The drive that led to the main entryway curled around a burbling fountain surrounded by elongated leaping bronze greyhounds. A five-story square tower at one corner had an open top floor to accommodate the heliograph, and also had tracks for mounting a nine-pounder usually kept disassembled in the basement.

The whole rather Iberian-Gothic composition was so charming that you took a minute to realize that there was a dry moat disguised by a ha-ha, and the fact that all the exterior windows were too narrow for a man to climb through, and could be slammed closed in moments by loopholed steel shutters just as strong and fireproof as the yard-thick walls. It wasn’t a castle, but it was definitely defensible against anything short of a formal attack with artillery and siege gear.

A fortyish man in a black-and-white tabard holding a white staff of office stood at the front doors, which were high blond oak over a steel core and studded with octagonal bosses of black lacquered iron. He made a knee to Órlaith and bowed deeply to Heuradys as they dismounted and handed off their reins to the grooms, with the heads of the various staff divisions doing the same in the background.

“Your Highness. My lady Heuradys,” he said, with a slightly strained smile.

As he contemplated a somewhat out-of-favor Princess who nonetheless was heir to the throne, accompanied by more than a dozen rowdy young warriors, mostly pagans from beyond the Association lands with God-knew-what uncouth customs and unreasonable expectations. All that just when he’d contemplated months of having the place to himself while he put everything in painstaking order.

“Sir Droyn. My... ah... honored guests of the house.”

Heuradys grinned. “Don’t worry, Goodman Paein,” she said. “This is the last disruption for a while, I promise.”

 

@@@

 

“Shining pearl within the crimson sky
Guide me in the coming night—

Perfect seed within a humble husk
Ground my feet in soil so I may rise—

Patient leaf within the endless pool
Calm me when the torrent falls—

Gentle wind within the slanting grass
Bear me ever on until I rest!

 

Órlaith lowered her arms and slid the sheathed Sword of the Lady she’d laid across her palms back to her swordbelt’s frog-sling; since her father died she’d taken up his habit of holding it so when she made the Farewell to the setting Sun. Then she turned from the balcony and stepped back into the suite, looking around the bedchamber’s expanse of smooth pale tile.

The floor was a geometry of cream squares edged with green vines, and the French doors she’d just used opened onto balconies with their decorative wrought-iron balustrades overlooking the fountain, walkways and gardens in the courtyard below. She sighed happily at the comforting familiarity. This was the suite the Royal family usually got on visits. Like many modern manor houses, it made up with interior inner-facing windows and glass doors for the light excluded by solid exterior walls. There was a big fireplace with a carved stone surround of owls and vines, swept and garnished with dried wildflowers for summer, but discreet bronze grill vents showed a central heating system, and the frosted globes of the gaslights glowed brightly now that the sun was on the horizon westward.

The large bed had been replaced by two slightly smaller ones, probably last night when the heliograph message came in. She didn’t mind sharing with Herry at need, of course...

Despite the fact that she thrashes about and snores and hogs the covers and has cold feet.

But it was nice to be in one place in the Protectorate outside her family’s homes that actually understood they weren’t lovers. Instead of elaborately pretending they didn’t know something that wasn’t so in the first place, and which she would have scorned to conceal if it was so.

Strange folk, Christians. Though it’s wicked of Herry to take advantage of those who think she’s a royal favorite just for giggles.

“Remember the first time we met?” Órlaith said. “That was here, I think.”

“Not the first time we met,” Heuradys said, coming out of the bath suite still combing her damp and slightly frizzy hair.

There was a very nice sunken marble tub, salvaged long ago by one of her Noni Sandra’s programs and stored against the time of some favored noble’s need. Norman Arminger had died before she was born, but the Spider of the Silver Tower had always been the brains of the Armingers in her opinion. Certainly the better long-term planner; her schemes were still producing useful things or skills or opportunities long after her death. Norman had been the Brute Squad and the obsessive dream and driving savage will in the first, terrible years of the modern world.

“It was just the first time I thought of you as a potential human being and someone of interest, my liege, not just a snotty little brat with interesting parents.”

“Sure, and we were both snotty little brats then, for all your pretensions to the wisdom of age!” Orlaith said, and looked around. “I remember the house was a lot plainer then. In fact I think I remember you could still smell the walls curing.”

The murals here now were classical-themed mosaics done in tiny squares of iridescent favrile glass, a method invented by the semi-legendary master-craftsman Tiffany in the time of the ancients and redeveloped by artisans under her grandmother Sandra’s patronage. The colors glowed in a way that was intense and delicate at the same time, with a surprising sense of depth; one mural showed a trio of dancing Graces in a flowering meadow that suggested Botticelli without imitating. The other had a long view of a white columned temple on a blue-tinted rocky hill above a wine-colored sea, with a sacrificial procession in the foreground leading a garlanded bull up a narrow path between olive-trees and pencil cypress to the music of double-flutes and cymbals.

Órlaith remembered seeing it for the first time about ten years ago. It was Delia de Stafford’s taste, but aimed at Tiphaine’s interests; like her adopted daughter she followed the Olympians, and Athana in particular. Delia was a witch, more or less of Órlaith’s branch of the Old Faith though with less of the Gael.

She grinned as she buttoned her Montrose jacket and watched Heuradys struggling with her hose—it was particolored, of cotton knit and skin-tight, which made it an irritating struggle to get on unwrinkled when your skin was still slightly damp from the baths.

“Sure, and I’m glad I like kilts,” she said. “Why not a kirtle?”

Various types of headdress and kirtle over a blouse-shift were what Associate noblewomen wore in casual or semi-formal country settings rather than the formality—and discomfort and difficulty—of the close-fitted court cotte-hardie, which needed skilled help to get you into and out of.

Rather like plate armor, which is a good metaphor, she thought, looking over at the armor-stands that bore their suits and shields, looking rather like the harness of invisible warriors.

The most elaborate versions of Protectorate court dress required on-the-spot sewing to don and pricking-out of seams to take off. They looked pretty when done well and were more varied than the Clan’s quasi-uniform and Órlaith had enjoyed wearing them... just long enough for a ball or masque.

“I would, except that there’s no formal guard here with you, and I’m not going to put on anything that might slow my movements,” Heuradys said.

When she’d donned the snowy full-sleeved shirt and brown suede jerkin and rust-colored houppelande coat with its dagged sleeves she opened the leaves of the shrine that stood before the scene of sacrifice; it was much like a big Catholic prie-dieu, except that it was taller and designed for those who prayed standing rather than kneeling. The doors held a round disk of thin hammered gold worked around the edge with olive branches and a silver owl in its center, the design taken from an ancient Athenian drachma.

The wood into which it was set was highly polished olive itself, inlaid with images of the moon and a frieze of feathers patterned on the wings of a harfang, done in mother-of-pearl. When they were opened you saw the carved form of a standing woman, ivory flesh and golden robe. Against her thigh rested a shield painted with a grimacing snake-haired head, and a serpent coiled inside it; one hand held an upright spear, and the palm of the other supported a winged figure of Victory. On her head was a tall triple-crested helm, and her eyes were the shimmering gray of moonstone.

“Athana, great Goddess, ever have I, Heuradys d’Ath, prayed to You foremost of all, and unto You have I made the acceptable offerings...”

Heuradys murmured the formula as she cleansed her hands and face with ritual drops of khernips, lustral water, lit dried olive twigs and incense in the offering bowl on its golden tripod, scattered a little barley in it and passed the owl feather through the smoke and touched it to eyes and lips. Then she poured wine and oil from the libation chalice on the flames, raised her arms with palms upward and softly chanted, her face rapt amid the scented smoke:

 

“I sing now of Thee;

Blessed and fierce, warlike Pallas, whose Olympian kind,
Bright and clear we ever find:
Thy far-famed altar upon the rocky height,
And olive groves, and shady mountains Thee delight:
In cunning plan rejoicing, who with subtle art and dire
And wild, the souls of mortals does inspire.

Maiden of the awesome mind,
Gorgon's bane, ever-virgin, blessed, kind:
Patron of piercing thought and craft well-understood,
Rage to the wicked, wisdom to the good:
Sprung from the head of Zeus, of splendid mien,
Purger of evils, all-victorious Queen.

Hear me, O Goddess, when to Thee I pray,
With supplicating voice both night and day,
And in my latest hour, give peace and health,
Propitious times, and necessary wealth,
And ever present, be shield and aid,
Much worshipped, art's parent, gray-eyed maid.

 

After that and a moment of silent prayer she wiped the vessels clean, replaced everything and shut the doors with their shimmering mother-of-pearl inlay. Everyone here knew the split religious allegiances of House Ath—her brothers were Catholics—but sticking a thumb in the majority’s eye would have been both unwise and discourteous. There were pagans in the Association and probably more than usual on this barony, but they stayed discreet.

“You know,” Órlaith said when they’d both completed their devotions, “after all that happened down south, it’s a comfort to think that so many great Powers of the otherworld are inclined to us, and only one to the other side. Granted, it’s a formidable One, and it turns out the Prophet was just one string on Its bow, but still...”

Heuradys started to nod, then cocked an eye at her. “It would be comfortable if we knew that,” she said thoughtfully. “Only we don’t. We only know what we’ve met so far.”

“Reiko...” Órlaith began slowly. “Reiko said that her father once told her he thought the Change was like a hard blow opening a door in the world, one that had been closing slowly for thousands of years. Just a crack at first, and then wider and wider.”

“And we don’t know what’s going to walk through,” Heuradys said. “Or what has already walked through, for that matter; Montival is big, but the world is far bigger. Let’s leave superstitions like dualism to the Christians, shall we?”

Órlaith blinked. That was true, but profoundly disturbing and there was absolutely nothing she could do about it right now.

“You’re such a comfort at times, Herry!”

“Well, it would be even more uncomfortable if I let you blunder confidently into things, my liege. And in the meantime, let’s eat,” she said.

There was a knock on the door of the chambers even as Heuradys extended her hand towards it. It opened, and Tair looked through; he and his sister Rionach had been standing guard there.

“They’ve news for Herself, lady,” he said.

Órlaith recognized the servant in the tabard behind them. “News, Goodman Seffrid?” she said.

“A gentleman has arrived,” he said. “A Boisean gentlemen, by the name of Alan Thurston, and a dozen retainers; they came overland.”

Órlaith whistled silently, and Heuradys gave her a glance.

“So much for getting away from politics!” Órlaith said. “Shut the door and they climb in the window, that they do!”

Lawrence Thurston had founded the United States of Boise—of America, he’d maintained until his death, though it actually governed only most of the old state of Idaho and parts of Nevada and Montana. His son Frederick ruled Boise now as a member-realm of the High Kingdom, duly elected by local custom every seven years against any opponent who wanted to run and didn’t mind making a complete waste of their time and being something of a joke.

“So far, so good,” Heuradys murmured, echoing her thought.

The problem was that Lawrence Thurston’s eldest son Martin had killed his own father unbeknownst to most and had ruled Boise during much of the Prophet’s War as parricide, usurper, ally and ultimately puppet of the Prophet Sethaz and the Church Universal and Triumphant. It had been a civil strife for that folk, until her father killed him at the Horse Heaven Hills and then took Boise a little later by a personal coupe-de-main with Fred.

Martin’s wife Juliet had defected to the Montivallan side while he still lived and ruled; not because she disapproved of the murder and usurpation that made her a queen with a prospect of becoming an empress, but because of what Martin had become as the Prophet’s Ascended Masters gnawed at his soul. That had made her recoil in horror. Her second son—born after her husband’s death—was called Alan. He and his mother and sibling had lived quietly on a remote ranch since the war and taken no part in public affairs.

Forgetting, and by the world forgot, Órlaith thought; that was what had made it unnecessary for Fred to kill them, which he’d been reluctant to do in any case. But apparently Alan’s not willing to hide any more. He’d be about my age. I don’t blame him for being restless... but it may be a foolish thing.

“He sent this card, Your Highness,” the servant said, holding out a little silver card-tray, a habit the Association ladies had picked up from the perennially popular Austen novels.

She took the paper on it and unfolded it, breaking the daub of wax that held the folded rectangle of cream linen-rag paper together. Within was a visitor’s card that read:

 

Captain Alan Thurston (United States Army, reserve)
Hali Lake Ranch, District of Latah

 

And beneath it a sign, not one she recognized at all; like a triskel, but as if the central point were a writhing knot and the arms like irregular question-marks, the whole in yellow on a circle of black. It was probably a cattle-brand; most interior Ranchers used theirs as the rough equivalent of an Associate noble’s coat-of-arms.

Or a like a Japanese mon, she thought; she’d come to appreciate those for their spare elegance.

Heuradys leaned in to read it, touching the Sword lightly as she did with her hip, which was unusual. Órlaith blinked at a feeling of... something. It vanished when she tried to grasp it, and she shrugged and turned back to the message.

The paper itself bore a brief note addressed to The Lord of this manor, or the senior official in residence, asking leave to stay for a party on its way to the muster of the realm. Actually there hadn’t been a general muster yet, only a specific call-up, but everyone suspected what was coming, and there was a general obligation to help.

“We’ll have to invite him and his retainers to dinner, at least,” Heuradys said. “Convey the usual compliments, Seffrid. A seat for him at the high table, of course, and his folk below according to their rank and station.”

“It may make things a little awkward,” Órlaith said.

Heuradys grinned like a wolf. “What, the fact that your father killed his father at the Horse Heaven Hills with that magical Sword you’re wearing right now?” she said. “How could that possibly disturb the succession of courses at dinner? Blood feuds with the soup, epic revenge over the salad, the clash of steel with the entrée and a five-minute skewered-liver dying oratorio with the sweet?”

Órlaith gave her a jaundiced look and then shrugged. “Well, my grandfathers killed each other too,” she said. “My parents learned to deal with it, and sure, he’ll just have to do the same.”

 

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