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THE SEA PEOPLES

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER ONE:

 

Hilo
Capital City, Aupuni o Hawaii
(Kingdom of Hawaii)
December 1st
Change Year 46/2044 A.D.

 

Crown Princess Órlaith Arminger Mackenzie looked south and shoreward towards the Hawaiian capital of Hilo, shading her eyes with a hand. The planks beneath her feet were the quarterdeck of the frigate RMN Sea-Leopard, pride of the Royal Montivallan Navy and new-built in the Astoria yards; eighteen hundred tons of Douglas fir and Garry oak and Sitka spruce, cordage and sailcloth and copper sheathing and brass and steel salvaged from the dead cities, at nearly three hundred feet from bowsprit to rudder the most powerful warship afloat in the Pacific.

It had also been packed to the gunwales with double its normal complement on the trip across from Montival, nearly seven hundred souls, since there weren’t enough transports to spare the warships. The Sea-Leopard wasn’t as busy or as crowded now: the sails on the three towering masts were furled as she lay at anchor, and all the extra personnel plus the liberty party were ashore. Most would be members of the crowd whose surf-murmur carried over the thousand yards or so to the docks, apart from the ones whose main ambition on dry land was to find a bottle and go from upright and sober to horizontal and unconscious with the least possible interval in between.

After this trip I find that a wee bit attractive, Órlaith thought dryly. Sure and it would be the more so if I’d been sleeping in a hammock in the hold with two inches space on either side and someone on a pallet on the deck below and nobody washing much for that there’s not enough fresh water for anything but drinking. Even the rats are probably swimming for it.

She’d been in a bunk in the Captain’s cabin, sharing the space with the Admiral and six others, and had gotten admiring looks for not taking the whole for herself. Now everything on board was squared away and shipshape, down to the neat coils of cable and hawser, and the pyramids of roundshot and racks of bolt next to the long rows of massive catapults on the gun-deck below. There had been a good deal of coming and going by everyone except Órlaith herself; her setting foot on Hawaiian soil was a political matter, and had to be staged with due ceremony.

Shore leave or no, the Sea-Leopard could still be ready to sail and fight in the very short time it took the topmast hands to run up the ratlines and reach the gaskets on the sails; the catapults would be cocked and loaded by then and the anchors cast off with empty casks to float the ends of their cables for later attention. The Montivallans were among friends... but it never hurt to be ready.

Admiral Naismith had been standing with her hands clasped behind her back, hard-featured square face with the little blue burn-mark of the Bearkiller A-List between her brows impassive above the white linen tropical-service uniform jacket and gold-braided epaulettes. Now she nodded at the signal-flag that went up a mast rigged on the dock ashore and turned to the ship’s captain.

“We’re ready to proceed, Mr. Edwards,” she said. “Make it so.”

The orders ran down the chain of command, more and more specific as they did. Signal-flags of their own went up the halyard to the mizzen-peak. Órlaith politely ignored the exchange, studying the town instead; she liked and respected the blunt-spoken Bearkiller’s professionalism but they weren’t close, and she was careful not to infringe on her area of authority. As overall commander of the expedition Órlaith was entitled to tell her what she wanted to accomplish, but how to do it was the Admiral’s business.

She suspected that the middle-aged Naismith had doubts about someone of the same twenty-two years as her own eldest child—who was a lieutenant somewhere in the fleet—being in charge of a major expedition, bearer of the royal Sword or no, though of course she’d never say a word to that effect. Looking at it from the outside she had something of a point. Órlaith had grown up watching famously good strategists in action, but she knew she wasn’t equal to either of her parents.

Yet. And they started as young as I am now, overshadowed by their famous parents... two of whom...

Her maternal and paternal grandfathers had been deadly enemies from the Change on and had ended up killing each other in single combat with several thousand witnesses whooping them on.

Ah, well, youth is the one disease age always cures... and we of House Artos are not a long-lived breed, anyway... and besides, it’s an interesting view. It’s my first time off the mainland, even if I’m not traveling just for the pleasure of it.

Hilo was a very substantial if not huge city of more than twenty thousand souls, low-built and spread out amid trees and greenery and gardens ornamental or practical or both. White walls and roofs of tile or palm-thatch showed through the greenery and even at this distance you could see the purple and blue and crimson of banks of flowers and blossoming trees, citrus and tropical fruits, jacarandas and flamboyants and flame trees.

Southward loomed the peaks of massive mountains, not steep but very high; snow glittered from the tops of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. The sight made the hair prickle on the back of her neck, and she felt a return of that sense... a feeling of chambers within in her mind opening... that she’d felt when she first took up the Sword of the Lady. Her hand went to the crystal pommel at her side, the symbol of the High Kingship that her father had won on the Quest of the Sunrise Lands. In form it was a knight’s longsword, save that the guard was shaped like a crescent moon rather than a cross, and the pommel at the end of the double-lobed horn-and-silver hilt was moon-colored crystal cradled in a stag’s antlers rather than a metal ball.

Beneath that seeming... it could be and do many things, and you could never entirely disregard the sheer presence of it even when it was quiescent. She’d often thought that it wasn’t really a thing of matter as most understood such things, but a thought in the mind of the Goddess made manifest in the world of common day.

Now it let her sense...

That’s sacredness, she thought.

She inclined her head towards the peaks of the volcanoes and made the Old Faith’s gesture of reverence with the back of her hand to her forehead.

As she did images flashed through her mind; a great canoe’s prow grinding ashore on a beach of blinding white sand, its grotesquely carved figurehead alive somehow; a giant figure roaring in mirth as he wrestled with a huge eight-eyed bat; a man of stern kingly majesty raising a carved staff as his black hair blew around a tattooed face and the sea broke at his feet in a storm of terrible power; a woman of unbearable beauty whose eyes were the fires at the core of Earth, walking atop the surface of a river that ran with molten stone...

But a sacredness that is not mine. Not hostile and not bad, but Powers fierce and wild and strong and... foreign. Stories I haven’t heard, walking the ridge of the world once more. The Change opened many doors, and the world is very wide.

The warm moist air from the shore fluttered her long hair beneath its plumed Scots bonnet, locks yellow-gold with a slight hint of copper. It bore scents from the land, some homely enough from cooking and people, others spicy and sweet and wild, welcome amid the usual war-fleet smells of tar and smoke, bilgewater and imperfectly clean sailors and troops packed in too tightly and rancid canola-oil smeared on armor and blades against the corrosive salt of the sea-spray.

And the overpowering stink of the horse-transports, which was like a badly-kept stable on a huge scale no matter how many times the bilges were flooded and the animals were put to work on treadmills pumping them out. Rank gave her a bubble of space on the warship to enjoy the contrast.

Some of Hilo’s buildings were from before the Change, though none of the really tall ones you still saw now and then on the mainland, even in living cities like Boise or Portland. Those had probably been dismantled for their metal and glass, since without artificial ventilation and cooling they’d be even less practical in this climate than at home. More were new, and the great stepped stone platform in the middle distance was just finished, judging by the remains of bamboo scaffolding and hoisting cranes still being taken down. That was a heiau, a temple to the Gods who were worshipped here once more.

Unlike all of the cities and many of the duns and towns and steadings she knew at home there was no encompassing defensive wall to make a sharp distinction between dense-built settlement and open countryside, despite the obvious technical capacity to build one. The plots around buildings just got bigger, until you could say they were small farms and country villas rather than houses with gardens, and they started to include pastures for cattle and horses and runs for swine.

Which means they haven’t had war here lately, probably not since right after the Change; not great wars with massed armies and strong siege-trains, at least, Órlaith thought. Lucky them!

There had been little peace in Montival-to-be until her parents and their comrades had brought the High Kingdom’s order with the Sword of the Lady. She had grown up among the veterans who’d fought the long grim death-grapple of the Prophet’s War across half a continent, starting with her parents, and there had been the wars against the Association before that in the time of her great, wicked maternal grandfather. Her generation had lived in a spreading peace, but the memories remained.

The most familiar single sight was a massive modern fort on the peninsula to the westward where the maps of the ancient world showed a golf course, not much different save in details and decoration from the castles in the northern parts of Montival. An orca-shaped observation balloon hung high in the air above it, tethered by a long curve of cable.

Form follows function, she thought. Everyone makes their wheels round and everyone puts a pointy stabby thing on the end of a spear.

The towers there flew the bright striped flag of the Aupuni Mōʻī o HawaiʻI, and as a courtesy the green-silver-gold banner of the High Kingdom of Montival and the Hinomaru of Japan.

Órlaith knew that the Kingdoms of Hawaii and Montival had been friendly as long as they’d been aware of each other’s existence. Since not long before her father Rudi Mackenzie’s accession—as Artos the First—in the year of her birth, in fact. There had been a king again in Hawaii well before that; since right after the Change, as folk turned to ancient things as an anchor in a world gone mad. Their current ruler, Kalākaua II, was his grandson and only a few years older than Órlaith.

But that friendliness had been confined to good wishes, resident merchants who doubled as ambassadors, growing trade and a little cooperation against the pirates and raiders who grew right along with the traffic they preyed on. Just exchanging messages at this distance was hard and slow, despite a more-or-less common language, and the chances of misunderstanding vast.

It was a good sign that the vanguard of the fleet and army of Montival—frigates, smaller warships, scores of merchantmen turned troop-transports—had been welcomed within the long curving breakwater that guarded Hilo’s harbor. Many were already tied up at the wharfs, and boats and barges plied busily back and forth to the others. And there was other shipping here too, dozens of hulls and a forest of masts, the Royal Navy of Hawaii and traders from here and around the world and others down to little fishing boats and outrigger canoes, all amid the raucous swarm of gulls and seabirds that marked a rich port.

“I wish we had more troops ashore,” her liege knight—and aide-de-camp and Head of Household and childhood friend—Heuradys d’Ath grumbled beside her.

She was trying to look everywhere at once without being obvious about it and preparing to be even more overburdened ashore, with the mixture of irritation and slightly self-mocking amusement of a hyper-competent person in a position where they knew full well no amount of competence could ever be enough. In a sense it was easier for Órlaith to ignore the prospect of assassins popping up with daggers in their teeth—or waiting with concealed crossbows and poison darts—than it was for those around her. All she had to fear was death; they had the much stronger terror of living long enough to know they’d failed in their duty.

After all, the Crone comes for us all, soon or late, she thought. I don’t expect to make old bones myself, even if the Powers haven’t warned me about it the way they did Da. Either I’ll have children by then to take up the Sword, or one of the sibs will.

Then she went on aloud: “We’ve got thousands of troops ashore,” she pointed out cheerfully. “And glad to be out of the transports they are. The horses especially, poor things. We’d have lost half or better if we couldn’t stop here to let them pasture and run, and the survivors would have been useless for weeks on the other side.”

Heuradys snorted. “To clarify: more troops besides the ones in their shirtsleeves seeing the sights... and chatting up the better-looking locals... and trying to eat bananas without knowing how to peel them... and sucking rum out of coconuts in the shade of the palms... and frolicking on the beaches.”

“The beaches are wonderful here. And the oceans. The levies deserve some time off after the voyage. Fair winds and a quick passage, but it was hard sailing at times. Four hundred cases of seasickness at the same time...”

“Seawater warm enough to swim in! Athana witness, that’s just not right, proper or natural.”

“You just want some company for your iron-clad misery, Herry,” the Crown Princess said with a smile.

Though to be fair most of Montival’s coasts did have an Arctic current running down them from Alaska; you had to go down near the ruins of Los Angeles before you could swim in it without a wetsuit, and even there it wasn’t like Hawaii.

“That shirtsleeves remark was a blazon, so.”

Heuradys was five-ten to her liege’s five-eleven, with tightly braided red-brown hair of the shade usually called auburn and catlike amber eyes, slightly older in her mid-twenties but with much the same leopardess build. She was also wearing full knight’s harness of white plate armor—hers was a titanium-alloy suit that had been a royal gift when she turned twenty-one and gained the golden spurs four years ago—with her visored sallet helm in the crook of her left arm and her teardrop-shaped kite shield slung over her back.

“Oh, rub it in, Your Highness-ness, rub it in,” she said.

In a staccato north-realm accent much like High Queen Mathilda; Órlaith had picked up the Mackenzie lilt from her father.

Salt rivulets ran down Heuradys’ high-cheeked face, one with an underlying hardness but comely in a way blunter than her liege’s sharp-cut good looks. It wasn’t so very hot, no more than a warm summer’s day in much of Montival, but it was unrelenting and the air was very humid. This was the sort of weather that was pure comfort if you were lying naked save for a flower wreath in the shade of a palm tree and watching the surf...

While sucking a rum drink out of a coconut through a straw and thinking about a swim and then dinner, Órlaith thought.

In armor... you sweated whenever you wore plate. Not so much from the weight, which was only about fifty or sixty pounds and less with one of these titanium-alloy marvels that only monarchs and great nobles could afford, and well-distributed over your whole body. But it and the padded doublet underneath cut your skin off from the air and trapped the body’s heat very effectively. You could manage to work up plenty of perspiration even in cold weather, and there were good reasons it wasn’t a very common style of protection in areas that grew sugarcane and breadfruit, starting with the risk of heat exhaustion. Órlaith had suffered enough in plate herself—she wasn’t a north-realm Associate like Heuradys but she was a knight and entitled to the golden spurs—to be glad it wasn’t necessary today.

Besides her own bonnet with its silver clasp and the Golden Eagle feather that marked the totem of her sept, the Crown Princess wore a sleeveless shirt of saffron-dyed linen embroidered in green and blue at the hems, chased gold bands pushed up each arm, a pleated knee-length kilt and a fringed plaid pinned at the shoulder with a broach of swirling knotwork in silver and gold and niello and hanging behind nearly to the ground, both in the Mackenzie tartan, knit knee-hose, and silver-buckled shoes.

The gear was not particularly martial and certainly not aristocratic. In fact, it was simply what Mackenzie clansfolk wore back in Montival, albeit of the sort you saw brought out on the festival days of the Wheel of the Year, not the set kept for mucking out a pigsty. Or the plaid you wore wrapped tight over a jacket to keep warm in the Black Months while you stood under a rain-dripping tree leaning on a shepherd’s crook and staring at sheep who were even more miserable than you were.

But with the Sword of the Lady at your side you never lacked for majesty; there was no need to stick a thumb in any Hawaiian eye by way of toploftiness to make them take notice.

“I’d be saying it’s just pleasantly warm,” Órlaith grinned. “And by the Powers, doesn’t everyone know that a knight of the Association laughs at hardship as they do at danger?”

Her friend made a slight sound that would have been a loud raspberry in less public circumstances; they’d always teased each other.

Heuradys was properly respectful of the Sword, but not in the least intimidated by its presence, having grown up as much at Court as in her own family’s manors and castles. Her father Lord Rigobert was Count of Campscapell and her birth-mother Countess Delia was a leader of fashion in the Association territories. Her other mother Lady Tiphaine d’Ath was Baroness of Ath in her own right, and a commander of note who’d been Grand Constable of the Association for years and Marshall-Commander of Montival for even longer.

“Ah, and here we go,” Heuradys said, watching the Hawaiian dock. “At last! I’ve already got the impression that driving, compulsive urgency is not the local vice of choice.”

“Boiseans and Corvallans say that sort of thing about Associates, you’ll remember.”

“Yes, but they’re just being prejudiced and tight-arsed; when we say it, it’s true.”

A pair of stately barges rowed out from the largest Hawaiian wharf, the one reserved for their King’s vessels; they were decorated lavishly with flowers in colors ranging from brilliant white to a red so deep it was almost black. The one heading for her had the Montivallan and Hawaiian flags prominently displayed. The crew of the Sea-Leopard poured on deck and lined the rails to the commands of the petty officers.

“To Her Highness... general... salute!” a bosun barked and then trilled out a call on his pipe.

Hands snapped to brows, the old-style gesture that the RMN used. Órlaith returned Admiral Naismith’s salute—and the crew’s through her—then put fist to her heart towards the national flag at the mizzen-gaff. A pair of trumpeters sounded a peal as she walked to the gangway—an extensible stairway with a rope rail that could be lowered down from quarterdeck to the waterline.

“For Her Highness and Montival—three cheers!” the Admiral called, raising her fore-and-aft hat.

The ship’s officers on the quarterdeck did likewise, and the crewfolk standing in rigid lines along the bulwarks lifted their plain round caps.

“Hip-hip—“

“Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!”

Órlaith gave a cheerful wave and took the first step. Her dog Macmac had been stretched out in the shade of a bulwark. He rose and padded over panting slightly as he fell in at heel—he was a typical Mackenzie greathound, forty shaggy inches at the shoulder and weighing more than she did, with a head like a furry barrel full of fangs and bright brown eyes. Macmac was too disciplined to frolic in public like this, but he was even more eager to get ashore than she. The close quarters were hard on an active beast his size, even with a run on the treadmill daily.

In his way, he was a bodyguard as effective as Heuradys and didn’t have any other duties to distract him.

“And sure, it would be beneath my dignity to climb down a ladder like common mortals,” Órlaith murmured.

When you lived your life in public, which she mostly had since babyhood, doing and saying things because they had to be said and done, you learned how to talk so that you weren’t overheard. All the kin of House Artos had to be ready to die for the land and the folk to whom they were bound, in battle or at the hand of Fate when the Powers judged it was time that the King’s blood must be shed to renew the land.

You also had to be ready to dance this dance of symbols and gestures, like it or not, and whenever she grew impatient with it she made herself think of all the other callings. A farmer didn’t necessarily think spending a day pulling and topping turnips in the cold mud and week-long drizzles of a Willamette November was better than mulled cider and apple-cakes with cream in front of the hearth, but it was necessary if humankind was to eat.

Órlaith knew; she’d done it now and then. King’s work was just as necessary, so that farmers could sit safe by their hearths and reap what they’d sown in due season.

“A ladder... that would be interesting for anyone who wanted to look up your princessly kilt, too,” Heuradys said dryly from behind her; she was, of course, wearing hose beneath the armor.

“My underwear’s clean just this morning,” Órlaith replied in a tone equally pawky, and they both suppressed grins. “And my princessly arse is in very viewable condition, mark you. Nicely trim.”

The Hawaiian crew of the barge were tall stalwart muscular young men, clad in loincloths and with the wraparound skirts that seemed to be the other main part of the local garb laid aside and folded as padding on their benches. Flowers glowed in their long hair and sweat sheened on the taut curves of their bodies; Órlaith and her knight both cast sidelong appreciative looks without being too obvious about it.

And you have a lover the now who’s better-looking than any of them, and a man of wit and grace forbye, Órlaith reminded herself happily.

Though she hadn’t seen Alan Thurston since they left Astoria, since he’d made the crossing on one of the troop-transports with his cavalry troop, and frankly missed his company.

Soon, Alan, soon!

 

@@@

 

Am I mad? Alan Thurston thought.

It was a thought that he often had during the dreams, and that flitted away like a dream when he woke, leaving only a shadow of unexplained fear to haunt his darker waking moments. He could remember that, with an odd detachment, remember so much more than he did when he was awake though he couldn’t, didn’t think about it... the knowledge was simply there.

In the waking world he wondered without knowledge, and in dreams he knew without pondering. In an abstract way it was interesting, raising the question of whether there was an Alan Thurston, rather than fragments and masks that fooled even whatever it was that wore them.

This wasn’t one of the really bad dreams, either. They came in series, like sets of linked tales, like those of the knights of the Round Table or King Conan’s wanderings or the Quest of the Ring or the epic of Captain Call and Guss McRae from Texas to Montana.

This particular set of dream-tales was perhaps the oddest of them all. He thought it was of an ancestor of his, another of the lost Imperial Dynasty of America; the man called himself Hildred Castaigne.

Certainly it was from before the Change, since in it he saw machines that no longer functioned—steamships and locomotive engines and flying ships like giant observation balloons with engines that were a droning buzz in the sky. The bits and pieces were from different points in the dream-man’s life, in no particular order, sometimes new, sometimes maddeningly the same over and over, night after night, sometimes with a doubled view as if he were seeing what the man saw and also what was really there... if real had any meaning in a dream.

It’s like talking to a lunatic in your own head, he thought. A lunatic who’s also a God.

In the old days there had been special places for the insane, asylums. In the world the Change had made few places or families had resources to spare for someone who couldn’t earn at least part of their keep, not if it went on for years they didn’t. Functional madmen were tolerated, and the other types tended to have accidents or just quietly pass away unless some religious group took them in as an act of piety and sacrifice.

Not that I’ve got all that much experience with lunatics, but it’s the way I’ve always imagined it.

This time he/they looked out from a window over a city, many of the buildings newish and looking much like the Capitol buildings in Boise, all columns and domes and marble. Others reared grotesquely high, dozens of stories, but even the tallest weren’t glass-faced like the ones you still saw sometimes where they hadn’t been taken down for salvage. These were sheathed in more natural stone and brick but looking the odder for that, because he had enough engineering education to know that you couldn’t possibly build load-bearing walls that high.

Castaigne—the man he dreamed of being—was sitting in a soft-padded chair in a book-lined study not altogether unlike the one in the ranch-house back home, reading a book between glances out the window. The slightly stuffy smell of velvet and leather-bound books contrasted with the fresher air through the open panes, but that had a tinge of metallic smokiness too as well as the concentrated town-smell of horses.

The hands that held the book weren’t his own—thinner and paler, not the hands of a man who’d ridden as early as he could walk and handled bow and reins and saber, lariat and branding-iron, or pitched in with the ranch-hands at roundups and the endless rounds of chores in the lonely estate on the shores of Lake Hali in the mountains of what had once been Idaho.

These were a city man’s hands, and a scholar’s, he thought. The words on the page were familiar both to the man he was in the dream and to his waking self—it was the play he’d read so often, The King in Yellow. There was an eerie detachment to the scene; he knew the words, and the man he was in the dream knew the words, though he was more frightened of them than Alan. The thin fingers trembled as they traced the lines of text, and Alan could hear the way his mind spoke to itself and what it felt, like a faint echo in his own, a tale told so often that it had become part of him:

I cannot forget Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens; where the shadows of men's thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the lake of Hali; and my mind will bear for ever the memory of the Pallid Mask. I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth—a world which now trembles before the King in Yellow.

Castaigne slammed the book shut and sat shivering and sweating, tears trickling down his face as he laughed shrilly for a moment. The leather cover bore an embossed figure in gold, the outline of a tall man robed and hooded and masked in yellow with the shadow of ragged crimson wings behind him.

A ghost of pain shot through the man whose shaking hands held the book, focused at the back of the neck; Alan recognized the sort of ache you felt from a bad thump on the head, the sort he’d had occasionally after a horse threw him or a sparring-match with wooden sabers got out of hand and someone bounced the ashwood blade off his helmet too hard.

Then the dream-man rose and walked into a luxurious if fussily-ornamented bedroom, and then to a picture on the wall, an oil-painting of a woman in an elaborate uncomfortable-looking dress that left most of her upper body bare. It swung aside to reveal a safe with a combination-lock of curious design. The thin fingers were deft on it, and Alan could feel the ridged metal beneath them.

Dream-man waited for three minutes or so, his mind a golden reverie, an ecstasy of waiting, and in it Alan found his mind more and more one with the man he dreamed. It was hard to resist the feeling of exultation, of power beyond imagining in vistas of rule and glory. The safe clicked and chimed like a musical clock, and he swung back the solid steel doors when the safe opened...

...and I lift, from its velvet crown, a diadem of purest gold, blazing with diamonds. I do this every day, and yet the joy of waiting and at last touching again the diadem, only seems to increase as the days pass. It is a diadem fit for a King among kings, an Emperor among emperors. The King in Yellow might scorn it, but it shall be worn by his royal servant.

I held it in my arms until the alarm in the safe rang harshly, and then tenderly, proudly, I replaced it and shut the steel doors.

The pleasure of the crown was infinite, but somehow also repellant; it blazed with life and power, but made him feel as if he’d stumbled into a tomb and found it on the head of a mummified corpse stretched out on a bier over which black beetles scuttled.

Dream-self walked slowly back into the study, and leaned on a window sill that overlooked a great square. The afternoon sun poured into the windows, and a gentle breeze stirred the branches of the elms and maples in the park; from the buds and tender new leaves it was spring, wherever this was. A flock of pigeons circled about the tower of a Christian church, swirls of them alighting on the purple tiled roof or wheeling downward to a bronze fountain cast in the semblance of a lotus blossom in front of a marble triumphal arch. Gardeners were busy with the flower beds around the fountain, and the freshly turned earth smelled sweet and spicy. A familiar style of lawn mower drawn by a fat white horse clinked across the dense velvety green, and watering-carts poured showers of spray over the roads about.

Children in odd clothing—miniature suits shaped like the uniforms sailors wore, or flared gauzy skirts for the girls—ran and played in the spring sunshine amid the banks of bright flowers, and young women in modest long-skirted costumes that reminded him of what the more conservative Mormon ladies wore back home wheeled elaborate baby carriages. They chose paths that let them exchange flirtatious glances with men lolling on the benches; from their boots and spurs and sabers they were horse-soldiers, though the uniforms of gold-slashed blue jackets and tight scarlet pants and polished tasseled boots were more far colorful than most he knew. Only Associates among the peoples he knew were such peacocks at war, and the cut was different from theirs.

Through the trees, the triumphal arch of the monument at the park’s heart glistened like silver in the sunshine. On the other side of the square were handsome-looking barracks and stables of white stone, three stories of regular windows above pillars and arches, enough for several regiments and alive with color and motion. It all seemed like a vision of a land strong, contented and at peace as its folk went about the business of their lives.

Yet he felt—unsure if it was himself or dream-self—an irresistible impulse to lean out and scream warnings of what crawled hungrily beneath the surface and waited to emerge.

Warnings or threats? Of the doom that falls from the darkening sky?

“Cassilda’s fate shall be yours! You cannot escape! None of you can escape! None of us can escape!”

Alan Thurston woke gasping. His troop-sergeant lifted a hand from his shoulder.

“That must have been a doozy, sir!” he said. “It’s all these heathen fruit you ate giving you collywobbles, not a decent apple in the place.”

Alan sat upright on his cot, head nearly brushing the hot canvas of the tent and smelling the stuffy scent; it had cleared up outside, only a few piled white clouds in a dome of blue sky broken by the white tips of the volcanoes. The sides of the tent were rolled up to show that, and the vivid green of the grass that the encampment of the 1st Latah Volunteer Cavalry (Army of the United States of Boise) was busily treading into mud. Memory tattered away like wisps of yellow thread, sliding through the fingers of his attention, and he shrugged his bare shoulders.

Instead he remembered what day it was, and a long slow smile lit his face.

Órlaith! he thought, conscious of a tightness in his throat. And we actually should have some time for each other.

Sergeant Creveld was a weathered man in his thirties with several scars on his tanned face and close-cropped sandy hair; he looked at Alan with avuncular fondness beneath the disciplined respect. Order was strict in all the Boisean forces, but the cavalry were less formal about it than the heavy infantry... and this was a volunteer unit anyway, raised for the campaign to avenge the High King’s death. Creveld was a Regular, though, one of the cadre transferred to see that the reservists who made up the rest of the force came up to scratch. Everyone in Boise did his three years in the service and drilled regularly for the next twenty, of course, but cavalry came from ranching areas where folk were born and raised in the saddle.

It took a lot more than three years to make a first class horse-archer; you had to be practically born at it.

“You wanted a bath, sir? Don’t blame you after wiping down with salt water for weeks. And since you’ve got a date with the local bigwigs and you-know-who...”

He grinned, a friendly male expression that knew no rank and grew wider as Alan flushed and cleared his throat.

Alan had worked hard helping get the unit settled in, and everyone was proud that their commander was dating the Crown Princess, who had neither shouted it to the skies nor made any attempt to conceal it. They were more-or-less proud that the President’s nephew was their commander, too, especially since Frederick Thurston was leading the Boisean contingent personally and had made it plain he wasn’t holding Alan’s father against him. Quite a few of the troopers were his neighbors or retainers or neighbors’ retainers back home, which helped since they’d been used to seeing him at county fairs and barbeques and round-ups and militia musters all their lives.

Most of the time he and his mother were just well-to-do neighbors, not internal political exiles, the more so as memories of the Prophet’s War faded and a new generation grew up very tired of hearing their parents’ stories.

Everyone was glad the First Lady was back in Boise watching the store, too. Virginia Thurston had never forgotten or forgiven anything about anyone, as far as anyone knew, and it was widely thought that included anyone descended from her husband’s dead traitor of a brother. She’d have been far more unpopular if it wasn’t equally true that she never forgot a friend or supporter or hesitated to help them when they needed it.

Well, Mother’s more or less the same way—maybe it’s something women with blue eyes have in common, he thought.

He’d been sleeping naked under a light blanket, all you needed here in the heat that also explained why the sides of the tent were rolled up under the eaves—though you did need a roof, since it had rained hard twice in the twenty-six hours they’d been ashore. He ducked out with a towel around his waist—he was thinking about that date too and didn’t want to give more help than he had to the cavalry’s bawdy sense of humor—and found a folding canvas bath steaming and ready, and slipped gratefully into the hot warmth. Working through most of the night had made the afternoon nap just enough, even for someone only twenty-two and in hard good shape. It was nothing he couldn’t handle, as he’d handled spending twenty hours in the saddle on a roundup.

“We’ve got a good spot for drawing water, too, sir. Upstream of that mob from the CORA,” Creveld said.

Alan snorted and nodded agreement. The levy from the Central Oregon Ranchers Association were individually tough plainsmen and mountaineers, hunters and herders who were good riders and handy with blade and their saddle-bows; they even had some coordination, at a friends-and-neighbors level. At anything beyond that they were all anarchists by Boisean standards, and while he didn’t really think they pissed in the same places they drew drinking water he wasn’t altogether sure that the company sergeant was just being prejudiced, either.

A freckle-faced HQ clerk with red braids who doubled as an orderly brought him a cup of coffee, and he thanked her absently. Since they grew it here it was the real thing, too, not the mixture of chicory and toasted grain that went by that name in most of Montival unless you lived near navigable water or a railroad or were very wealthy or both; he’d only tasted it two or three times a year before he left home. He could feel it making his heart beat faster, unless that was just anticipation. He certainly felt alert enough by the time he’d drained the last of the sweet black liquid.

He sipped and watched the business of the camp, though he could have followed most of it with his eyes closed—the thudding of hooves as a troop galloped past the targets, the snap of bowstrings and whistle of shafts and thud of points hitting piled-earth targets, the clatter of wooden practice blades against each other or on the pell-posts hammered into the ground or the flatter crack on the varnished bullhide of a shield. Fainter and farther he could hear iron on iron from the blacksmith-farrier.

Getting the unit settled in hadn’t been a problem, just familiar hard work, since competitive pitching and breaking camp was a popular youngster’s school sport in Boise and second nature to anyone grown. Neat rows of tents along regular laneways marked the streets of the camp; coils of barbed wire on slanted, sharpened steel stakes marked the perimeter; the center held the larger tents that held HQ, infirmary, armory and portable forge. Off to one side were the wagon park and rope corrals for the regiment’s horses, which had taken far more shipping space than those who rode them. A crew were working on a disassembled catapult, the sort of light scorpion that galloped along with horse-soldiers.

If you knew horses, which he did, you could tell that the mounts were still very happy to be ashore, though not quite as hysterically glad as they had been yesterday. The campsite a few miles outside Hilo was only gently sloping, but it was thin-soiled and rocky and had been used as cattle-pasture; everything more fertile was densely cultivated with fields and groves of crops he only knew from books, like oranges and limes, or didn’t know at all like breadfruit and cassava and taro. The Montivallan expeditionary force was paying the owner generous rental fees, fertilizing his grass, and had paid premium prices in cash for most of his herd except the picked breeding stock to boot.

Several of them were roasting over fires somewhere within smelling distance right now, and the scent of meat basted with barbeque sauce made his mouth water after a long time on ship’s biscuit and salt meat and canned goods. Everyone craved greens even more.

As of the morning’s roll-call, the regiment had had four troops plus the HQ company, with five hundred and ninety-six effectives—one luckless individual had fallen overboard in the middle of the night four days out from Astoria, unless he’d been carried off by a very large seagoing owl, and six were currently on sick report. Several hundred were on leave with thousands from the other contingents, wandering around Hilo and seeing the sights and just stretching their legs.

The rest were mostly working; grooming the horses, going over their tack, or drilling with weapons and practicing moving mounted in groups to the commands, by word or bugle. The tink-tink of the farrier sounded in the background, the panting wheeze of the bellows, and the screech as someone sharpened a saber on the pedal-powered grindstone.

When the water had cooled a little—and he had too, which made standing up a little less embarrassing—he dressed in field uniform; riding boots made so they’d be fairly comfortable for work on foot too, baggy linsey-woolsey trousers of light summer weight, pullover short-sleeved shirt of knit linen, and four-pocket uniform jacket. He’d left off the mail shirt and the steel helmet modeled after the one the old American forces had used, but buckled on the belt with bowie-knife and curved stirrup-hilted sword as automatically as he put on his hat or boots; he’d have done that at home, too. You didn’t go beyond the front verandah unarmed once you were an adult, unless you were of the small minority who lived in big cities. That was true most places he knew about, not just Boise.

At least it’s a better uniform than one with crimson tights, he thought, then wondered for an instant why he’d had the thought before it slipped away.

The only people he knew who did wear crimson tights were from the Portland Protective Association, and they didn’t’ do it in the field, just when they were peacocking around their castles and manors and at court.

“I’m going to practice a little more, sergeant,” he said.

The man’s eyebrows quirked. “That crazy Mackenzie dancing?” he said. “And you’ll wear a kilt?”

“I wouldn’t want to look clumsy,” Alan said; the clansman’s costume was bundled up in his tent on top of his footlocker, and fortunately there were a couple of men in the Crown Princess’ train who were close enough to his size. “But if I do, I’ll cut my foot in half without making all Boise look bad in front of foreigners. Remember, that dance is done over naked steel, sergeant.”

He looked up at the sun; a little past noon. “I’ve got some time. Her Highness ought to be coming ashore about now, anyway.”

 

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