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THE SEA PEOPLES

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER TWO:

 

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

 

The Hawaiian commander made a sweeping gesture of respect and greeting as Órlaith stepped onto the barge and barked an order as the last of her entourage came aboard. The boathooks that two men had hooked in the gangway were released, the long oars pushed the craft away from the great warship’s side, and they bent to row in trained unison.

He called out:

 

I ku mau mau!

 

The Sword gave her command of all tongues as she needed it, a skill most useful to monarchs. Words and the intricacies of their patterns poured into her mind. That meant: “Stand together!”

The crew replied in a roar as they poised their oars:

 

“I ku wa!”

 

Stand and shout, with action suited to the words.

The leader cried out again:

 

“I ku mau mau—
I ku huluhulu—

 

She knew: Stand together—haul with mighty strength—under the great trees!

The barge surged under her feet as the oars bit, but the acceleration was smooth and even, the work of hands that knew their task intimately. Admiral Naismith would be coming ashore later, and so would Edain Aylward Mackenzie, her chief of staff and Bow-Captain of the High King’s Archers. Her commander of ground forces Lord Maugis de Grimmond was already there, overseeing the encampments in the places the Hawaiians had staked out and keeping the touchy pride of contingents from all over the High Kingdom’s wildly varied member-realms in check.

She was keeping her...

Grim, middle-aged and formidable.

... military commanders out of the picture right now, for diplomatic reasons, the same ones that meant no complete regiment or battery of field-artillery had gone ashore formed and armed, and the broadsides of the frigates were aimed anywhere but at a potential target.

For that they have faces like clenched fists when they’re at their jobs. A face like a fist is entirely right and proper, when you need a fist. Which we will, but not here and not now.

It was all a matter of which face you wanted to be seen.

Montival was much, much bigger and much more populous and, when it cared to be, much stronger in arms than Hawaii. As far as she knew they were stronger than anyone this side of Hinduraj over in the Bay of Bengal, or possibly some of the larger among the fragments that made up the wreckage of China, currently occupied fighting each other and Mongol and Tibetan and even Amur-Russian invaders pouring into the shattered chaos of flood and famine that still reigned there.

There was no need to be rude about flaunting the fact. She was here to woo and not threaten; if any intimidation was necessary at all it could be accomplished by inference rather than action. The Hawaiians weren’t fools, to need an obvious fact shoved up their noses on the point of a blade.

She wanted Hawaii as an ally, but ‘friendly quasi-neutral’ allowing her forces to base themselves here would do. Hostility would ruin everything. Not even Montival could fight a war across the Pacific from its own ports.

There was a sufficient entourage with her to keep a minimum of state, a minimum which had the added advantage of not overshadowing Reiko; she’d managed to convince the stewards and house-mistresses at home that she should have only what was called a riding household, one stripped down for war. Sometimes her mother, who was an Associate, forgot to remember that Órlaith wasn’t... and that North-realm ideas of what was due a person of consequence sometimes grated on other parts of Montival where rank and title didn’t count for quite so much and where folk remembered the old wars of her grandparents’ day and resented the fact that the Portland Protective Association was the largest single member-realm of the High Kingdom.

Fortunately High Queen Mathilda was also a knight, and had been on the Quest of the Sunrise Lands in her youth and knew in her bones you couldn’t always lug crates of cottie-hardies and a twitter of dressers along to make you look like the Princesses of ancient storytellers like Mallory or Froissart or Disney.

There were Heuradys and Sir Droyn Jones de Molalla, also a north-realm knight of the Association and also of her personal household, in charge of the dozen men-at-arms from the Protector’s Guard; Karl Aylward Mackenzie and a half-score of longbowmen from the Clan Mackenzie dúthchas; the young Dúnedain Rangers Faramir and Morfind, who were the son and daughter of her father’s twin half-sisters; and Susan Mika of the Lakota tunwan and until recently of the Crown Courier Corps. Diarmuid Tennart McClintock was there too, with a like number of his tattooed caterans from the wild hill lands south of Eugene and the valley of the Rogaire, draped in their baggy Great Kilts and assorted ironmongery. All had accompanied her and Reiko on the journey to the Valley of Death.

And they’re my sworn followers, not just under my orders by Mother’s command as Queen-Regent, she thought.

She loved her mother Mathilda dearly, but they had had their quarrels, and Órlaith would not be High Queen in her own right until she turned twenty-six, which was still several years away. Until then the High Queen Regent’s word was final, which was fair enough...

When she’s there to give it. I spent half the last year carefully not being there when someone showed up waving a Crown Writ I knew I didn’t want to read, even if it meant hiding in a cave with the bears or lying underwater and breathing through a hollow reed. It’s something I should remember when I take the Throne, if I get delusions of omnipotence. As an added boon, they’re all about my age, give or take.

Órlaith looked over to the Arī no Okurimono, which was her friend Reiko’s ship... and more importantly in this context, the ship of her friend’s other hat: as Shōhei Tennō, the Empress of Dai-Nippon, Sovereign Majesty of Victorious Peace. Haring off into the wilderness with a band of young scapegraces to help Reiko recover the Grass-Cutting Sword had been the occasion of one of those quarrels with her mother, and the worst of them.

Not dying, success, not dying, and picking up a few new signatories to the Great Charter of the High Kingdom along the way down in South Westria while not dying counted for much, as did not dying... but Mathilda hadn’t forgotten that her daughter defied her either, even if she’d avoided violating the letter of the law. Or that her brother Prince John had been along and was still missing.

Da’s loss has made her... grasp at known things and fear change, Órlaith thought. Nor can she altogether forget that if the Japanese had quietly sunk in a storm up in the Aleutians or arrived two days earlier and been killed in Westria by the Koreans chasing them before we turned up, Da would still be alive. She doesn’t let it affect her actions much, but it’s there. I saw Reiko lose her father at the same time as Da, and that... makes a difference. And I knew he was fated, had for years... Mother’s a Christian and they think differently about things like that.

Órlaith had given Reiko the ship, which was a three-masted topsail schooner much the same size and armament as the one which had originally born her from Japan to Montival... and her father to his death there, where Órlaith’s own sire had died at the hands of the same foe in the same fight. Three Nihonjin warcraft of similar size from the Dai-Nippon Teikoku Kaigun—the Imperial Japanese Navy—had joined them here in Hawaii.

The schooner was the product of a private yard in Newport, and had been built for Feldman & Sons, who were willing to take Órlaith’s word that they wouldn’t lose by the transaction in the long run. That was why it was called Gift of the Ally.

I miss you so, Da. And your advice... that too. I knew you were a very wise man, but I’m only realizing how wise now that it’s not there for me to lean on. The foe took you from us, and not the least of it that they robbed us of the wisdom of your deep age. The responsibility is something I have to bear now, will I or nill I. Nobody else can do it, so the Powers have decreed, but it’s fair frightening.

Reiko’s barge was setting off for shore at exactly the same moment, with a united barking scream of:

“Tennō Heika banzai! Banzai! Banzai!” from the crew of her ship and its consorts.

To the Heavenly Sovereign Majesty, ten thousand years!

Órlaith couldn’t give her a ship the size of the Sea-Leopard—the Crown Princess wasn’t in a position to dispose of a frigate, didn’t want to since even mighty Montival couldn’t spare them, and the Imperial Japanese Navy couldn’t easily spare the massive crew needed for one anyway—but strict formal equality had to be observed.

Not that either of them cared that much personally, though Reiko was more easily shocked by breaches in decorum than she. But the modern Nihonjin were a proud and touchy people, fiercely warlike and suspicious of outsiders, and that pride centered in the person of their Tennō. The more so as their country had been hit so hard and fallen so far in the time of the Change, and had had so little contact with outsiders until recently, except their Korean enemies. In Reiko’s life, even more than in her own, you were rarely just yourself, personally.

You savor such moments, then put them away and get on with the day’s work of being what your people needed you to be.

The pier where they disembarked was solid and built of dark stone. The barges came in to either side and the crews latched on; Heuradys and Droyn helmed themselves and flicked the visors of their sallets down, going from human beings to metal figures covered from head to toe in smooth curves of shining metal, like the fabled robot-men of the ancients with only the dark cavity of the thin horizontal vision-slit across the visors to mar it.

They went up the stair ahead of her with a rattle and clank of plate and steel sabatons on stone, moving with catlike ease in the war-harness weight of metal and leather and wood. They took stance to either side, sliding their big kite-shields onto their arms and drawing their longswords to lay over their shoulders. Then they stood motionless in a glitter of steel and plumes and colorful heraldry, family arms on their shields quartered with the Royal crest marked by a baton of cadency.

Órlaith followed. Reiko was just stepping onto the stones opposite her, close enough for them to exchange a look—not a smile, their faces both stayed grave, but it was there beneath. She had friends, some close as her heartbeat, but she and the young Nihonjin woman shared things besides the bonds of battle and shared peril, beyond even the pleasures of conversation and simple company. Things that only the heir to a throne that had come to them with the death of their fathers could.

They were equals, in a life where both had known only their sovereign parents on one hand and vassals, however beloved, on the other.

Two of the Nihonjin samurai preceded Reiko, carrying naginatas with the shafts tucked under one arm and the blades pointed down; both were in that bright lacquered armor of silk cords and lames of lacquered steel whose blacks and crimsons and yellows looked almost liquid. Grimacing black-and-silver metal masks adorned with fierce horsehair mustaches covered their faces below the broad helmets, and staffs in holders on their backplates held small banners aloft marked in the angular characters of kanji script.

Reiko was in a short dark kimono with a subtle black-on-black pattern, her hair pinned up beneath a woven straw hat shaped like the top of a mushroom, held under her chin by a complex knot of soft silk cords. It and the gray-striped hakama that covered her legs and the dark grey haori jacket were crisply perfect but gave a note of sober formality to the occasion, along with the five kamon that showed the stylized chrysanthemum mon of the Yamato dynasty. She moved with a quiet dignity so graceful that it took a moment to realize that she was as tall as most of the Nihonjin men around her, and that the quietness was complicit of a promise of savage speed at need.

Behind her two bannermen carried poles with the white-and-red hinomaru flag of Dai-Nippon—the Rising Sun sigil of the reborn Empire of Great Japan—and the red banner with a sixteen-petal golden chrysanthemum in its center, the personal standard of the Tennō. Beside her and a little to the rear was Imperial Guard commander Noboru Egawa, a man in his forties with a brutal-looking scarred thick-featured face and fireplug build and missing left hand. His gray-shot hair was shaven back in a strip across the pate to the complex topknot at the rear, the mark of the warrior caste in Japan once more.

Behind him came a brace of ladies-in-waiting in dark kuro-tomesode kimonos embroidered with a pattern of cranes and a double file of more samurai bearing naginatas or long asymmetric higoyumi bows, their faces bare but as immobile as their brothers’ steel masks beneath their helmet-brims.

At the rear was another lady-in-waiting, leading a small child by the hand—in Nihonjin clothing, but with a pale freckled round face and reddish hair, looking around her with solemnity that occasionally broke into the delighted gap-toothed grin of a brave, bright child who loved new sights and had just been presented with an infinity of them. Reiko had rescued her from the lost castle in the Valley of Death when she found the Grasscutter, and it appeared that had been early enough to spare her lifelong damage from its horrors.

Most of the Japanese carried the two swords thrust through their belt-sashes, long katana and the shorter close-quarter wakizashi. In modern times was that was the other Nipponese mark of one whose trade was war, rather like a knight’s spurs. Egawa’s katana was an ancient masterpiece from the smithy of the legendary Masamune, the Honjo sword, that they had recovered in the Valley of Death. Reiko had gifted him with it as a mark of great honor. The Grasscutter that was one-third of the ancient Imperial Regalia had been there too, in fragments born within living bodies. Those had been absorbed somehow as she fought her way through that place of horrors and the union of them with the Kotegiri Masamune blade she used was...

The Grass-Cutter reborn, Órlaith thought with an awe that never faded, looking at the sheath of black lacquer in which golden flecks moved very slowly, with an illusion... perhaps an illusion... of stars in an endless black depth that you only noticed if you stared.

The gift of the Sun Goddess to Her descendant and chosen daughter.

In Nihon they’d long had a story that the Yamato dynasty were Her descendants. Apparently in a way that mere human minds could not fathom that was literally true, not just a metaphor for how the ruler stood for the folk before the Powers that warded land and dwellers, and at times embodied them.

Perhaps I alone of human kind besides Reiko can sense that blade’s true might, since I bear its equal. And that gives me new ground to stand on to understand what it is that I bear. This war is not just a contention of kings, or even against the tyranny of evil rulers, though the Goddess knows it is that. More is at stake, much more.

She and Reiko fell in beside each other, each with their two armsmen ahead and the rest of their retinue behind.

“John?” Reiko said softly.

Órlaith shook her head, her lips thinning as her hand rested on the pommel of the Sword. It linked all of her line, the descendants of her father and mother who’d mingled their blood on its point and driven it into the living rock of Montival at the first King-Making. Unfortunately that usually just gave you flashes, not...

Actionable intelligence, she thought, and went on aloud:

“Nothing since we left Astoria. Just that he’s alive and in peril, and to the south and west of here,” Órlaith said.

She spoke Japanese as they usually did together; Reiko’s English was now passable but no more. The sounds were difficult for someone who’d grown up speaking nothing but Nihongo.

Reiko sighed slightly, and her steel tessen war-fan made a graceful gesture. The Sword had given Órlaith a native-born speaker’s command of her language, and also of those things its speakers did that conveyed meaning without words.

I am so very sorry.

Reiko’s face was calm, but her eyes conveyed her trouble; it was sincerely meant, too... and with the Sword, Órlaith didn’t have to guess at that, as all others did. Her father had warned her that could cut her off from human-kind if she weren’t careful, and it had been one reason he didn’t carry the Sword unless he must.

“Not your fault,” Órlaith said.

Which is... true. Yet and perhaps not altogether so.

Reiko hadn’t meant any harm to Órlaith’s brother. She’d met her own brother there on that beach, heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne and long thought dead, revealed as a prisoner and puppet of the enemy. She’d turned the Grasscutter over to him, and when he’d drawn it the gift of the Sun Goddess had burned him to a drift of fine ash in an instant. The Immortal One Shining in Heaven had shown who was truly Her child.

Then Reiko had taken it up and danced by the sea’s edge, a dance of anger and summoning... and become one with her Ancestress for an unimaginable instant as that strong and ancient Power reached from the world beyond the world into the land of common day. Órlaith had used the Sword of the Lady to shield Montival from it, but the grief and burning wrath of Amaterasu-ōmikami had fallen on the sea with a terrifying might, like an avalanche falling down from forever.

“Yet I unleashed the forces which drove his ship so far from your shore,” Reiko said.

Órlaith’s eyes flicked to the Grasscutter.

No, she thought, her mind turning to its older, original name. That’s Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi, the Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven. The blade that commands the spirits of fire, of sky and storm and air, when the Tennō wields it and the folk of Nihon are threatened.

“You did what you must,” Órlaith said. “The enemy were strong and had fell powers of their own to command, and the outcome of the battle was uncertain. Many who walk the ridge of Earth today would lie stark if you had not. John and myself, it might be, and you, and all the hopes of our peoples with us.”

But I miss you, Johnnie, and I fear for you.

She couldn’t let worry for him consume her day-to-day; that would be as much a breach of duty as running away in battle. She needed her unhindered wits about her, and that required a balance in the soul, not grieving memories of toddler-John stumping around chortling or crying over a broken toy or even being an annoying broody spotty-faced brat at thirteen, convinced he was a musical genius and that nobody understood him and (to his credit) whether girls really liked him or his rank.

But sometimes the fear and sorrow returned, strong and harsh.

How do you fare today, my little brother?

 

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Copyright © 2016-2017 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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