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PRINCE OF OUTCASTS

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER EIGHT:

 

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.

 

The Great Hall of the manor held most of the central arm of the building’s E-shaped layout. Archways on either side were filled with French doors now open to the cooling evening breeze and the musky scent of roses and the lemony tang of verbena, and wet stone from the fountains. A gallery ran all around it at second-floor level, shadowy now but lively in the winter months.

Órlaith looked up at it and grinned for a moment; on one memorable occasion she and Herry had hidden up there and eavesdropped on their elders discussing matters of weight... including whether one Heuradys d’Ath should be allowed to take the first steps on the path of knighthood. The smile died quickly; John had been along on that visit, a four-year-old running about with a gap-toothed smile that could melt even a sister’s heart.

Above that were the great man-thick ponderosa-pine timbers of the hammer-beam ceiling, whence hung wrought-metal chandeliers on long chains and captured banners stirring among shadows that obscured the rips and narrow holes and faded crusty red-brown stains. The yellow-and-red sunburst of the CUT was prominent among them, trophies of the great charge that broke the Prophet’s guardsmen at the Horse Heaven Hills.

Heuradys’ eyes were on the banners too, and apparently her thoughts followed the same track.

“I’ve been told that after the charge Mom Two found a bunch of the Prophet’s men eyeing her, when everything was mixed up and she and her menie were between them and the way out,” the knight said, love and pride in her voice. “She drew her sword and looked at them and then said: I am Grand Constable Tiphaine d’Ath. And you are in my way.”

It was a multipurpose room, in many ways the heart of the estate; the Court Baron met here, and it was where dances and masques happened when they weren’t out in the gardens, where ceremonies were held and public announcements made. This evening it was put to the most common use, though. This was where everyone who slept under the manor roof from nobles to garden-boys and laundresses would take the main evening meal, save only the actual kitchen-staff; that was old Association custom, with the ceremonial golden salt cellar marking the transition from the gentry on the dais at the upper table before the hearth to the commons at the trestle tables below. With the Baroness and her Châtelaine on their other estate in the West and her heir Diomede and his lady and their principal fighting tail and personal attendants all gone, even the guests didn’t make it look fully occupied. Not even including the extra dozen who’d just arrived.

Alan Thurston was waiting in a circle of space, since nobody quite knew what to make of him, leaning one shoulder against the wall and reading a small book bound in sandy-buff-colored leather. He looked up and smiled as Órlaith and her knight came through the doors at the base of the Hall, closing the book and slipping it into a pocket in his jacket. She caught part of the title as he did: -rial Dynasty of America

That didn’t make much of an impact, because Alan Thurston was possibly the most beautiful man she’d ever seen, discounting her father. Enough that looking at him made her feel a little winded for a moment. He was just a hair above her own height, perhaps six feet, broad in the shoulders but tapering to lean hips and long trimly muscular legs shown off by the tight blue linen jeans and the tooled riding boots that were de rigeur for a Boisean rancher. The hair that curled past his ears was a shade of dark honey-brown sun-streaked with something on the verge of gold, and his eyes were large and a sage green rimmed with a darker color, seeming to flicker with some secret jest. His features were very regular but not aquiline, nose straight and slightly flared, high cheekbones tapering down to a square chin with a cleft, full lips smiling and showing very white, even teeth.

His father had probably looked a lot like Sir Droyn—his uncle Frederick Thurston certainly did, with thirty years added—but Alan evidently favored his mother, and his complexion had a creamy olive tint just on the pale side of very light brown, a little darker with sun on his face than on his neck where a neatly folded silk bandana rested. His short blue jacket had copper studs and worked silver buttons and was open to reveal how his shirt of imported cotton clung to the lean sculpted muscle of chest and stomach. There was a plain gold ring in his left earlobe.

There was someone at home there, too, you could see that. Thought flickered in his eyes, and a feeling that laughter did too.

Beside her, Heuradys made a small quiet wordless oooooh sound, which Órlaith understood perfectly.

And he moves well. Graceful, and trained to the sword. Sure, and he probably dances well too. And he doesn’t wear that ugly short crop most Boisean men do, I do like a man with nice hair. The sort that feels like living silk when you run your fingers... stop that!

“You Highness,” he said, his voice holding a slight eastern twang under an educated man’s diction. “Such a pleasure, and pardon the imposition. My lady Heuradys, my thanks and that of my men for your hospitality.”

“Though it isn’t actually the first time we’ve met, Your Highness,” he said, following her lead towards the dais.

Órlaith lost half a step as she racked the Sword in the stand behind the chairs on the dais. That was true... or at least the man believed it.

“It isn’t?” she said.

“So my mother tells me. You were about a year old at the time, and your mother Her Majesty was carrying you in her arms, and my mother the same with me. It was during the tail-end of the war, of course. Just before she and my brother, ah, retired to Hali Lake Ranch. As a matter of fact, that was when she got the name for our land-grant; from some things she found in the libraries at Todenangst. She said your grandmother... the Lady Regent Sandra, the Queen Mother... was quite a collector.”

“That she was, to be sure,” Órlaith said.

“She and my mother corresponded occasionally, and the Queen Mother loaned her books.”

The which must have been a comfort in that remote place, Órlaith thought; Juliet Thurston had grown up in Boise, a major city with an active cultural life. But it’s more compassion than I’d have expected from Nonni.

Her grandmother Sandra had shocked her once by remarking that pity was how suffering became a communicable disease, quoting some ancient philosopher she’d liked.

She put him on her right at the high table, with Heuradys cheerfully moving a seat further away; he was royalty, of a sort, if of a fallen line. As they sat her liege knight caught her eye behind the man’s back, cocked an eyebrow and made a gesture with thumb and forefinger, as if flipping a coin to decide who got a prize. Órlaith answered with a gesture of her own, involving the middle finger, and they grinned at each other for an instant before gravely assuming their seats.

Droyn was on her left in Associate dress, beyond him were the Dúnedain cousins, in the long loose-sleeved robe that Rangers wore for social occasions; his was black silk with cable-work in bullion around the hems and in two bands down the front, hers dark indigo linen worked with silver thread and turquoise beads in the forms of fantastic birds. Between them Susan Clever Raccoon wore a bleached deerskin tunic with a blue-and-red yoke of beadwork and elk teeth over the shoulders and beadwork elsewhere, fringes along the seams, and leggings likewise fringed above strap-up moccasins decorated with colored porcupine quills. Two eagle feathers were thrust in the long braids on either side of her head.

The plump, jolly-looking House chaplain in his cassock rose and said the Catholic grace, ending by crossing himself as those of his faith in the room did likewise and murmured along with him:

Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we receive from Thy bounty, though Christ our Lord, Amen.”

Heuradys made her small offering to Hestia the hearth-Goddess, and Órlaith and the Mackenzies drew the Pentagram over their plates and the invocation that ended with ... their hands helping Earth bring forth life. Faramir and Morfind put their hands to their hearts and bent their heads to the westward; in the silence of their minds the form of words would be:

To Númenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.

Susan Mike murmured something that started with: Ate Wankantanka, Mitawa ki; thanks to the Sword Órlaith spoke fluent Lakota—several dialects of it, in fact—but as usual when she was at a social occasion she made a slight practiced effort and didn’t mentally translate that and tried not to focus on the truthfulness of what anyone was saying.

You had to be cautious about the Sword’s gifts; her father had said that if you didn’t restrain yourself you’d become impossible for ordinary people to be around with any degree of comfort or even liking.

When you could say to someone how do you feel about me and know exactly how true the answer was, for instance. There were reasons her parents laughed bitterly when they heard of someone envying them the right to bear the Lady’s gift. And it explained why they’d trained themselves to be extremely honest with each other without allowing it to hurt.

“One thing I’m looking forward to when I get to the coast is tasting fresh seafood,” Alan said lightly. “We’re not much for fish on our home-range.”

She’d notice that he just bent his head while the others said their various thank-prayers, rather than joining in or hammer-signing his plate. The main branch of the Thurstons offered to the Aesir, which was a major reason that branch of the Old Faith had spread widely in Boise’s domains these last decades; they were popular rulers, both from the war and from Fred’s firm and just hand since. A substantial majority were still Christian though, many of them Latter-Day Saints, and Protestants outnumbered Catholics among the remainder, in vivid contrast to the near-monopoly of the Church in the Association lands.

She was curious, but didn’t ask. By Boisean standards that would be rude if he didn’t bring up the subject first. Their tradition was that religion wasn’t a matter strangers had any right to ask about. And that those in power should be strictly neutral, as far as their public acts went; they were like that in Corvallis too.

“Apart from trout,” he qualified. “We’ve got plenty of trout, and bass. Smoked and salted ocean-fish we see occasionally, and potted shrimp or canned salmon or sardines, but it isn’t the same. Or so my grandmother said when she visited.”

“No, it isn’t,” Órlaith answered, smiling at the fondness in his voice and eyes as he mentioned her.

Yes, Cecile would have visited there, even if she didn’t mention it. He and his brother are her grandchildren, even if she repudiated his father and never liked Juliet.

“She said fresh oysters were like kissing the ocean on the lips,” he chuckled. “Which she says my grandfather Lawrence said to her while they were courting—dating, they said in the old days, didn’t they?”

She’d met Cecile Thurston, and liked her, though there was a deep well of sadness in her that left her wholly only when she was with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. After the war she’d busied herself with good works, too; most notably in the chaos and despair of Nakamtu, where the fall of the Church Universal and Triumphant had left a gaping void in hearts and souls of the folk as well as hunger in their bellies. Órlaith’s parents had been glad of that, and had funneled a good deal of the Kingdom’s aid through her. As her father said, they remembered him there with a sword in his hand against a background lit by burning roof-trees. He’d added that some wounds healed faster if you didn’t poke at them.

“Well, there’s seafood in plenty in Portland and Astoria,” Heuradys said. “If we’re out there the same time I can point you to some good places; or we could ask you over to the d’Ath town-house. Nancy, she’s our cook there, can do things with lobster you wouldn’t believe.”

I’d invite him myself, but that wouldn’t be politic. Not without consulting Mother, Órlaith thought. And she still grinds her teeth whenever the subject of Martin Thurston comes up. Sigh...

“I’ll hold you to that, Lady Heuradys,” he said genially, not seeming to notice that Órlaith hadn’t issued any invitation.

Then he leaned a little closer and murmured to Órlaith: “I understand perfectly, Your Highness.”

Oh, sweet Brigid, he even smells nice, she thought in exasperation. And he’s perceptive and sensitive, too.

Aloud he added:

“Though this looks very fine,” as the food was born in.

Everyone in an Associate lord’s household ate in the same room, but of course not on the same fare. Down below the salt they were getting baskets of still-warm maslin loaves—half wheat, half barley—set beside butter and rounds of cheese. There were crocks of white bean and ham soup, roasts of pork and mutton with gravy, steamed cabbage and carrots and peas and green beans and heaps of fried potato, along with locally-made catsup and pickles. For after there were pies put out to cool on a sideboard, apple and cherry and rhubarb and peach. It was good plain food and plenty of it, much like what a minor knight would have daily or a well-to-do peasant on Sunday. Plus there was a cask of small beer in its carved X-shaped wooden stand from which anyone could draw.

And a noble’s staff saw far less of the hard grind of labor that went with a peasant or craftsman’s life. Positions in a great household were sought-after, as long as the master and his kin didn’t have a reputation for bad temper.

Karl and Mathun could have made a good case for seats at the high table, since their father was Bow-Captain of the High King’s Archers, the premier guard regiment. Like the other Mackenzies, they looked perfectly content where they were, talking and chaffing with the manor staff and retainers and sampling the beer with the air of experts. Some other parts of Montival found the Protectorate’s system of ranks childish—she inclined to that view herself sometimes—and some considered it intensely annoying, while a few inclined to the view that it was active wickedness.

Which in our grandparents’ day it sometimes was, she thought. More to the point it often was when my mother’s father was Lord Protector. But those were harder times, very hard indeed.

In their own more modern day most Mackenzies treated it as an amusing game, with which they would play along indulgently if it wasn’t too much trouble. The more touchy-proud Associates found that provoking in a way that hatred wasn’t. When someone hated you they were at least taking you seriously.

The food above the golden cellar wasn’t the formal dishes you found at a high Court function either, for which she was thankful. Her father had said he’d had more success beating hostile armies than getting the palace cooks in Portland and Todenangst to stop putting so much of their efforts into making their dishes look like anything but what the makings actually were, from whipped-cream swans with goldenberry eyes to forcemeat pastries like ocean-going ships.

And the pity of it is that the Protectorate sets fashions in food; though it’s good when they don’t go berserk.

She knew that apart from a passion for asparagus in season Baroness d’Ath liked simple hearty fare, and would have been perfectly content with what the commons were getting here, but also didn’t care enough about the matter to spend much thought on it. Countess Delia had always seen to the kitchen appointments, and her tastes tended to an elegant simplicity largely copied from Sandra Arminger, her original political patron.

They started with little half-moon-shaped fried dumplings of translucent dough filled with a mixture of scallions and minced lamb spiced with garlic and rosemary, and a sauce of hot chilies spooned over it to taste. The soup was a clear beef broth with noodles, several varieties of mushrooms and small veal meatballs made with ricotta, and followed by a green salad garnished with walnuts and dressed with local oil and fruit vinegar. After that came Hungarian pheasant—they thrived on the rangelands and stubblefields around here—done in the Norman style with gently cooked apples, sweet onions, cider and cream until it was tender enough to come off the bone on the point of a fork. Their fried potatoes were elegantly cut in long shoestrings rather than chunks, and there were baked tomatoes stuffed with sweet peppers, mint, dill, and a little sharp sheep’s-milk cheese, along with tender steamed Brussels sprouts in a tart lemony butter sauce.

“Is this a local vintage?” Alan asked as the butler poured for the pheasant course and set out the tall gracefully-shaped decanters.

“By Dionysus Oeneus, no!” Heuradys said, sniffing and sipping. “Our vineyard here’s still experimental. We donate most of it to the Church for communion wine, or for the lord’s portion in village festivals on the estate. This is from Montinore Manor back on Barony Ath in the Tualatin. Most of our demesne there is vineyards.”

Órlaith took the scent: freshly-caramelized pear and a pleasant overtone of herbs, like walking through a spring hillside. She ate a forkful of the pheasant, then drank some of the wine. It had a hint of green apple and butterscotch and lime, which went well with the rich sweet savor of the bird, but there was a dry mineral quality that left the palate clear after a moment and ready for more.

“That’s your ’43 Pinot Gris Reserve, isn’t it?” she said; she recognized it well enough without a label.

“Yup, my liege. This one can stand quite a bit of aging. Well, quite a bit for a white, and it’s a little tight right out of the bottle. Better decanted.”

Droyn poured himself another glass. “My lord my father is rather bitter about the Montinore vineyards, Rancher Thurston. They were famous before the Change, and are now. Even abroad.”

“They like our wines in Hawaii,” Heuradys agreed. “We have a contract with Feldman & Sons for three thousand cases a year for that market. Though the Goat Killer alone knows what they do with it at blood temperature among the palm-trees and pineapples and breadfruit on Maui. Some of our reds would go well with pit-roasted pig, I suppose.”

Droyn finished his glass. “We’ve good vineyards in Molalla now, but it’s a slow business.”

Heuradys winked at him. “Unless you poach a master-vintner from our winery with showers of gold,” she said.

“No, even then,” Droyn replied, and everyone laughed.

Alan broke one of the dinner rolls—fine crusty white manchet bread here—took a bite to clear his palate and sipped again.

“Very nice,” he said. “But truly, at Hali Lake we were mostly a beer-cider-and-whiskey ranch. Wine was for Sunday dinner, and from the co-ops around the capital... Boise City... at that.”

Heuradys laughed. “You haven’t lived until you’ve drunken wine made by Mormons,” she said.

The Latter-Day Saints didn’t drink anything with alcohol, and there were a lot of them in Boise. For that matter they didn’t drink coffee or tea, either, though that mattered much less in the modern world where both were exotic luxuries.

“Oh, that’s not quite fair,” Órlaith said; not coming from a family with vineyards, she had no dog in that fight. “A lot of the Boisean wines are quite drinkable, whoever makes it.”

Suzie leaned forward from between her two taller companions. “Yeah, I hear you, Alan. Out on the makol we really didn’t see wine very often at all. And that was from Iowa as often as not. I can taste that this is a lot better, but that’s about it.”

Heuradys shuddered with deliberate theatricality. Órlaith laughed; that was a little bit of Montivallan chauvinism. True, Iowa was never going to rival the west coast of the continent for wine. Their fat black earth was better for grain and livestock, which it produced in quantities both amazing and needful, given Iowa’s enormous population and vast teeming cities. Des Moines alone had a hundred and fifty thousand people, twice the size of the largest urban center in Montival and far and away bigger than any other in the stretch between Panama and Hudson’s bay. Iowa as a whole had as many people as it had before the Change or possibly even a little more, something very rare in the modern world.

She’d been there herself, as part of a Royal diplomatic visit a few years ago. And her mother and the Dowager Bosswoman there were friends from the time of the Quest.

“Mind you, back home a lot of the older bigshots don’t like anyone drinking firewater at all, not that that stops people, you know?” Suzie went on. “Sour old killjoys with their mouths pursed up like a cat’s asshole, the way they talk you’d think White Buffalo Woman was whispering in their ears every damn day. Yeah, I hear it was a bad problem for our people before the Change, but that was then and most nowadays can handle it OK. Though what we drink for day-to-day is airag. I miss that, you just can’t get it anywhere else.”

Faramir and Morfind looked interested. Órlaith and Heuradys kept their faces politely blank as they nodded. Órlaith had enjoyed her long stay with the Lakota in her seventeenth year immensely, for its own sake and because it had been one of the first where her parents had left her on her own.

Not that I didn’t miss them, but it was... like growing up. Which back then I was wild to do.

Fermented mare’s milk had not been one of the high points, though, even when served with superb grilled buffalo-hump steak after a hard day’s ride; and it wasn’t even a local tradition. A young Mongol had been studying range management at South Dakota State University when the Change struck, and had already been a close friend of Suzie’s grandfather John Red Leaf. Red Leaf became one of the leaders of the renascent Lakota tunwan, and his friend Ulagan Chinua had become his right-hand man, married into the family and introduced quite a few of his native customs, which had worked well because they were so suited to tent-dwelling herders on a high cold steppe. Airag had been one of them, giving a nourishing and very mildly alcoholic drink to nomads many of whom couldn’t digest ordinary raw milk anyway. Órlaith had gotten used to it, more or less. Heuradys had simply refused to try it more than once.

“I envy you all,” Alan said. “I’ve always wanted to travel. Hali is beautiful, but...”

There was a slight silence; the reasons he and his mother and brother had been planted in the backlands and encouraged to stay there were political, and at a level that was still sensitive a full generation after his father’s treason. Órlaith thought she detected a fair degree of sympathy for Alan among her friends, precisely because he’d been born after his father died. They’d all found themselves unwillingly entangled in their parents’ feuds now and then.

“Oh, we’ve just started travelling too,” Faramir said. “Morfind and I were born in the Willamette, but we moved south when we were small, when our parents founded Stath Ingolf, and stayed there. It’s beautiful and there’s plenty to do, but it is the same old round of place and people.”

Which was how most people lived all their lives; without ever going more than a day or two’s journey from their birthplace. Unless war or disaster struck, of course. But the well-born and warriors, often the same thing, moved around a good deal more in ordinary times.

“I’ve heard from Rangers—some pass through Hali—”

“Yes, there’s a Stath in the Bitterroot country in Nakamtu these days,” Farmair said. “And we have an exchange program with the Scouts in the Mountains of Golden Stone. We’ve learned from them, and they from us.”

Alan nodded. “The ones I met say that it’s customary for young Dúnedain to move around between Staths.”

“Oh, yes. The Mincolasira, we call it. The... time between, time of the gap, in the Common Tongue; the gap between being old enough to travel and fight, and settling down. You move around between Staths, and help with whatever they do and hone your skills, especially at places like Tawar-in-Mithril... Mithrilwood, where our rulers live. And you join expeditions—salvagers, caravan guards, explorers—or reinforce Staths that have fighting to do or need help getting established. We, Morfind and I ah, we weren’t quite ready.”

Morfind was usually more taciturn than her cousin, and blunter when she did speak: “Our parents didn’t think we were old enough yet.”

“Our mothers weren’t much older when they went on the Quest of the Lady’s Sword,” Faramir said.

“And my father—Hîr Ingolf the Wanderer—left home when he was younger than us,” Morfind added. “He crossed the whole continent three times.”

That seemed to be a sore point, and she finished her wine at a gulp. Faramir was more philosophical, and smiled as he said:

“Uncle Ingolf’s always saying he wants to imitate a barnacle on a rock, and that travel is overrated, mostly being uncomfortable and bored when you’re not being chased by people trying to kill you, but he’s done it.”

“Same here,” Suzie said. “Always wanted to travel, never got the chance until I, ah, sorta had to leave.”

Everyone knew her folk were nomads; she went on at their look of surprise:

“Yeah, we live in tents... ger, actually, some people call ‘em yurts. Tipis are sorta for official stuff. And we move camp every couple of weeks in summer. But we move to the same places, mostly. Spring pasture, summer pasture, fall pasture, winter quarters... There’s the buffalo hunts, and that’s when the guys get to hunt and we butcher and scrape hides and make pemmican.”

“I thought you hunted?” Faramir said.

“Yeah, but I had to kick up a fuss and everyone looks at you funny. The festivals when everyone gets together for the ceremonies and meetings and dances are fun but it’s the same everyone you met last time, except for some traders trying to sell you stuff. A lot of the time it’s almost as boring as farming. Except for horse-stealing, that’s fucking exciting but mostly girls don’t get to do that either, which sucks, frankly. When the High King got me into the Crown Courier Corps I was happy as a colt in clover. Couriers get to go everywhere and see everything.”

She gave an elbow to the Dúnedain on each side of her. “And you meet people!”

The dessert was a tribute to Lady Delia’s sweet tooth; layers of dense chocolate cake soaked in a clear light cherry brandy that had a faint overtaste of almonds, separated by layers of sweetened whipped cream and brandied cherries, frosted on the sides with chocolate and topped with more of the cherries and cream and chocolate shavings. Heuradys took a substantial wedge of it and began to chuckle again. When Droyn looked at her:

“My lady mother Mom One absolutely loves this stuff. Because, well, Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte.”

Órlaith forced herself not to choke on her piece. Heuradys had once told her that when they were both in their cups her birth mother had confessed with a giggle that she’d had her first experience of this cake when Tiphaine gave her one as a present on her nineteenth birthday. The cake had been presented when they were in bed, and ever since she’d associated it with piling one pleasure on another.

“So we have it fairly often,” Heuradys said, smiling fondly as you did at a pleasant family memory. “And she takes this little tiny piece, looks at it, pats her waistline, and eats it one teensy particle at a time. The rest of us around the table, Mom Two and Lioncel and Diomede and me and Evil Small Sis would have big slices and be scarfing it down and she looks like she’s going to cry, and Mom Two says she can always spend two or three hours a day running up and down stairs in armor or hunting boar and then Mom One just glares at us.”

Everyone laughed, though Sir Droyn looked as if he was feeling a little shocked too, or at least thought he should be.

“Your lady mother the Countess has a most uncommonly genteel figure,” he said. “Spectacular, even, for a lady of her years.”

“Sure she does, Droyn. She’s as disciplined as a knight. But she has to work at it. And not in the way most people do.”

Which for the overwhelming majority meant long hours of sweating-hard labor nearly every day. For that matter, given what chocolate and sugar cost, nobody but a noble or a very wealthy merchant could afford to have this sort of dish often enough to be a problem. That reminded Órlaith of an early memory.

“I remember something Grandmother Juniper said once, that half the people in her coven had weight problems before the Change—I think that’s how they said were fat back then—but that none of the ones still alive did a year later. She said it was a case of be as you wish to seem.”

Somehow that led to talking about being and seeming and that to the theatre season in Portland, which Alan Thurston had heard of and was eager to hear compared to its competitors in Boise and Corvallis.

“I’ve only read plays, really,” he said wistfully. “Though I’d love to see professionals stage them.”

“You don’t get strolling companies, or even tinerants?” Droyn asked; both were common in the Willamette and up the Columbia.

Alan’s smile turned a little sour. “At our ranch, we visit neighbors maybe once a month, and we see real outsiders... oh, three times a year. One to buy our wool and steers, one to deliver a pack-train of what we need to buy, and once to collect the taxes. And we go to the county Ready Reserve militia musters, at the same time as the County Fair. Hali’s... remote. Nobody had used that land since before the Change, and not much then.”

More cheerfully: “I used to go outside past the horse barn where nobody could hear and do the parts myself:

 

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen in Carcosa—“

 

“Taking in some shows ought to be possible, even off-season. They say you can find anything in Portland,” Heuradys said.

Alan’s smile turned slightly bitter again. “Then maybe I can find... someone who repairs reputations.”

He nodded upward at the captured banners; in the dark space beneath the rafters you could somehow sense the tatters and the old dark-brown stains where warriors had fought over them savagely, hand-to-hand, and where the vanquished had fallen bleeding to death on the cloth at the last.

“God, how I hate those people... those things behind the people. They’re the ones who really killed my father. He was an ambitious man and maybe a ruthless one, but he was a man, and a great one, before they got their hooks into him.”

Then he collected himself, rose and bowed. “Many thanks for your hospitality again, Lady Heuradys, and for a delightful evening, Your Highness.”

“The Steward can find you a room, Rancher Thurston,” Heuradys said. “We’re not crowded!”

“I appreciate the offer, but it might be better if I don’t sleep beneath your rooftree, my lady. Causing you trouble would be poor repayment for your generosity. I’ll camp with my troop; if I’m to lead them in battle, I should share their hardships.”

That was, of course, unanswerable; even if sleeping in a hayloft on a summer night after a good dinner wasn’t much of a hardship. When he had gone, Heuradys cocked an eyebrow and glanced after him and then at the Sword where it stood on the polished, carved ashwood of the rack behind them. She knew it and its powers and limitations as well as anyone outside the Royal kindred, and she knew that the truth-sensing remained when it wasn’t under hand, fading and blurring with distance.

“He was certainly sincere about hating the CUT,” Órlaith said.

“Well, he’d be the heir of Boise, but for them,” Heuradys said.

“And sincere in general. But... unspoken reservations.”

Her knight nodded. “Well, who doesn’t have those? Do you think your mother will let him fight? He has gone around his uncle President Fred. Gone over his head, in a sense. If he does well in the field it’ll be impossible to keep him out watching the grass grow and the cows shit for the rest of his life.”

“Possibly he’s gone around Fred by prior arrangement with people in Boise. Probably Fred himself, even if nobody spelled it out.”

“Hints and machinations,” Heuradys agreed.

“He’s his father’s son, but he’s Fred’s nephew, and Fred’s the sort of man who’ll remember that. Doing it under the table, maybe? So Victoria won’t know until it’s too late.”

Heuradys shuddered slightly. Victoria Thurston was a Rancher’s daughter from the Powder River south and east of the old Montana border. The CUT had killed her father and run her off her family’s land during the war, which was how she’d met the Questers, and she had a ferociously straightforward view of what was best done with enemies... or their heirs.

“You saw Alan’s retainers?” Órlaith went on.

“I did, briefly, and they were doing a little target practice to keep their hands in. Quite good of their kind for cow-country horse archers, from what I could see, and well mounted and armed. Maybe I’ll go take a closer look after dinner.”

“Then I think Mother will let him. Another troop of good light cavalry is always welcome. She’ll hope he gets heroically and conveniently killed down fighting the Eaters in Westria or across the sea, but she won’t put him in the way of it. Fighting’s a dangerous occupation all on its own, without any of that... what’s that story the Christians tell? From the Jewish part of their Bible?”

“Uriah the Hittite,” Heuradys supplied.

“Just so, without any funny business of that not-very-funny kind, so to say. And that may occur to Victoria too, after a while, that it might. She’s a bit bloodthirsty, but no fool. Sharp as Fred, sharper possibly.”

Heuradys yawned. “We should turn in. We need to make an early start on doing nothing tomorrow. We could take some falcons out, for example. Or see if there’s a polo match going... no, not until the autumn maneuvers are over. Maybe hunt some antelope?”

“It’s a hard job but, sure, someone must slog through, and it’s up to us,” Órlaith paused. “I wonder what in Anwyn’s name Johnnie’s up to?”

“And with who?” Heuradys said, watching as Faramir and Suzie and Morfind sauntered off, hand in hand, and the Mackenzies and the house retainers and the Boisean horse-soldiers started to sing.

“Let’s just hope it involves more fornication than decapitation,” Órlaith said. “We’ll be feeling the consequences fairly soon, I think.”

“See you later, then,” Heuradys said.

 

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I’m awake, she thought, several hours later.

Heuradys had shown up a while ago smiling a revoltingly smug smile and with bits of hay in her hair. She was snoring slightly in the other bed, sleeping turned on her left side with one hand under the pillow, resting on the hilt of her knife. Órlaith swung her feet to the floor, feeling oddly reluctant to look back, and walked over to the French doors on tile that felt cool to her feet. They’d been left slightly ajar for the night breezes, and she walked out onto the balcony. Nobody was about in the courtyard below, though there would be two of her party on guard at the foot of the stairs under the arcade below. Moonlight played on the water splashing from a fountain in the middle of the long narrow pool that ran down the center of the rectangular space.

She looked up. The black of the stars moved against the sky, in patterns obscurely meaningful. A tower rose in a field of dark flowers, and huge blurred columnar shapes with the heads of bats or twisted dogs floated around it, slowly turning so that their blank yellow eyes glared in her direction. They started to drift towards her. The moon was huge and full beyond the wall southward, and behind it were the spires of a city...

“Woah!” she said.

She jerked upright in bed and pressed her hands to the sides of her head. Macmac whimpered and twitched in his basket by the door.

“Wazzat?” Heuradys said, opening her eyes without moving her head.

“Nothing, just a dream... can’t even remember the details.”

She sank back and closed her eyes. Soft music fell down the stairs of sleep with her, past long terraces of pink stone to a cerulean sea where Johnny’s ship ghosted along with all sails set.

 

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