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THE SEA PEOPLES

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER NINE:

 

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

 

Between waking world and Shadow

 

Alan Thurston dreamed. A cat was singing in human words, but not to him, its voice as sweet as clover honey dripping from a comb of beeswax on a hot August day. Honey of the type his mother had given him, smeared on a hunk of fresh bread as a treat when he’d done his lessons well:

 

Hush, child
The darkness will rise from the deep, child
And carry you down into sleep, child
The darkness will rise from the deep, child
And carry you down into sleep.

 

Alan stirred, and felt chains clink. He was in a bare room, brick and boards, sitting with his hands above his head and manacled to the wall. The prison around him was dim, the details strangely indefinite—as if it were somehow a generic representation for the concept of prison itself. Alan knew he’d been here for a very long time. Perhaps he’d been there always, though he’d never been aware of it. Or one of him had always been here.

He could see another man in the dimness, hanging in bonds that fastened his wrists to a bar of wood hung from the ceiling at a height that made him stretch his toes to touch the floor. The cat sat at his feet and crooned:

 

Guileless son,
I'll shape your belief
And you'll always know that your God is a thief
And you won't understand the cause of your grief
But you'll always follow the voices beneath

 

The animal swayed, and the hanging man’s eyes followed it, brown-green and haunted, staring into the yellow ones:

 

Loyalty loyalty loyalty loyalty
Loyalty loyalty loyalty only to me

 

Guileless son,
Your spirit will hate her
The flower who married your father the traitor
And you will bring them the only true savior...

 

Then he was... elsewhere.

Ah. I recognize this, the city of New York more than a hundred years ago. No, Hildred Castaigne recognizes this; I dream him again. This is the armorer’s chambers he visits sometimes.

He was looking at a young woman; a very pretty one, with light-brown hair piled in an elaborate halo-like manner framing delicate features.

Constance Hawberk, he thought, not sure if the name came to Alan Thurston or the man he dreamed he was. To—

Hildred Castaigne, Alan reminded himself: that thought at least he knew was his, because you didn’t think of your own name very often so he must be thinking it himself, against the other one.

The man who will be Emperor of America as royal servant to the King in Yellow, who will rule even the unborn thoughts of men.

Probably the girl’s name was in the dream-man’s mind, because the man was looking at her with concentrated dislike and no hint of desire. But it was an oddly abstract hatred, directed at her as an object rather than a person, as bundle of potential problems. Less like that you felt towards a person who’d done you an injury, and more the way you cursed a landslip that blocked a droving-trail and thought about how many days of sweating work it would mean to get it shored up again. Though Alan hoped he’d never feel that spiteful simply because something or someone was in the way.

I really don’t like Hildred Castaigne much, even if we’re related, Alan thought with the detachment of dream. And there’s something very strange about him.

“Did you see the opening ceremonies at the Government Lethal Chamber, Mr. Castaigne?” she asked. “I was out on Broadway this morning and saw the cavalry passing, but I needed to get this banner finished for the Museum’s exhibit.”

“You mean I imposed on you, dear,” her father said, giving the greave a final buff of the chamois cloth.

He was a thick-set man with muscular shoulders, arms and hands but a bit of a belly on him and a brown beard that reached his chest. Every one of the tools his battered, callused hands used was familiar, which itself was strange in this dream-place.

“Helping you with your work with my needle is not an imposition, Father!” she said with a chuckle. “It’s not as if we were gentlefolk of leisure, with nothing better to do that stroll about and see the sights.”

“I was there, yes. Rather boring speeches, though the Chamber is a nice piece of architecture,” Castaigne said. “Thank God this city has finally developed a sense of aesthetic decency.”

Then she hesitated and looked at him and quickly away again, flushing: “Did you see your cousin, Lieutenant Castaigne, there?”

“No,” dream-Castaigne said carelessly; inwardly he was snarling like a rabid wolf.

That’s very odd. He’s almost ready to murder her because she loves his cousin, but there’s no... he doesn’t want her himself, but the thought enrages him utterly. What a strange man!

He’d seen people willing to kill over jealousy, and ones who’d done it—Boise was a fairly law-abiding sort of place even in the rough remote parts he’d lived in, but people were people. This was different.

“Louis' regiment is maneuvering out in Westchester County,” Hildred said.

He rose and picked up his hat and cane. There was a flash of disturbing images; holding Constance by the throat and smashing the silver hilt of the cane into her face again and again, blood spattering into his mouth and eyes as the fragile bones crunched and an eye popped out of its socket...

“Are you going upstairs to see the lunatic again?” the older man said with a laugh.

At the word lunatic a flash of white fire went through Alan’s mind, or rather that of the man whose body he shared. The thoughts that followed made his desire to beat the young woman’s face in look like a gentle caress, and they started with a red-hot knife-blade. Alan tried to pull away. He wasn’t a squeamish young man, and he’d grown up around the normal accidents of herding and logging and hunting dangerous beasts, with a couple of brief brushes with bandits. He hadn’t flinched when the only thing to do was give the mercy-stroke to a man who’d had a horse stumble and fall and catch his pelvis between the saddle and a boulder.

But there were things you didn’t want to know human beings were capable of, even in imagination. The dream held him, in bonds that were no less unpleasant for being imperceptible. Hildred Castaigne didn’t just want to kill, he wanted screams and begging and pleading and to gloat over despair. The agonies of a continent wouldn’t satisfy his lust for revenge.

"I think I shall drop in and see Mr. Wilde for a moment or two," Castaigne said quietly.

How can they not know? Alan thought. How can they listen to him and not know what he is?

“Poor fellow,” Constance said compassionately, with a shake of the head. “It must be hard to live alone year after year. Poor, crippled and almost demented. It is very good of you, Mr. Castaigne, to visit him as often as you do.”

“I think he is vicious,” her father said, beginning again with his hammer.

“No, he is not vicious,” Castaigne said. “Nor is he in the least demented. No more than I.”

Alan’s dream-mind laughed aloud. That was rare enough in these dreams that he enjoyed the moment threefold, because Castaigne was demented; like a large barrel-full of starving coyotes fed on locoweed and kicked downhill.

And vicious didn’t begin to cover it.

Hildred went on: “His mind is a wonder chamber, from which he can extract treasures that you and I would give years of our life to acquire.”

Hawberk laughed, and Alan felt a kinship with the bluff Englishman. Hildred amplified:

“He knows history as no one else could know it. Nothing, however trivial, escapes his search, and his memory is so absolute, so precise in details, that were it known in New York that such a man existed, the people could not honor him enough.”

“Nonsense,” muttered Hawberk, searching on the floor for a fallen rivet.

Where Alan came from the word would have been bullshit with an added horse-laugh.

“Is it nonsense,” Hildred said, suppressing another vivid image of the heel of his shoe crushing Hawberk’s jaw so that he choked to death on his own blood: “Is it nonsense when he says that the tassets and cuissards of the enameled suit of armor commonly known as the Prince's Emblazoned can be found among a mass of rusty theatrical properties, broken stoves and ragpicker's refuse in a garret in Pell Street?”

That hit, Alan thought, watching the shock on the middle-aged man’s face. That really hit.

“How... how did you know? Know that they were missing?”

“I did not know until Mr. Wilde mentioned it to me the other day. He said they were in the garret of 998 Pell Street.”

"Nonsense,” Hawberk said again, but his hands trembled under the leather artisan’s apron.

“Is this nonsense too?" Castaigne said, with a smile that felt as if it could cut like a razor. “Is it nonsense when Mr. Wilde continually speaks of you as the Marquis of Avonshire, and of Miss Constance as...”

Constance leapt up, her face gone pale and sweating; the embroidery fallen unheeded to the floor. Hawberk smoothed his leathern apron; Alan saw his face settle into the mask of a brave man facing danger.

“That is impossible,” he said quietly. “Mr. Wilde may know a great many things—”

“About armour, for instance, and the Prince's Emblazoned,” Castaigne said, grinning.

“Yes," Hawberk continued, slowly. “About armor also, maybe. But he is wrong in regard to the Marquis of Avonshire, who, as you know, killed his wife's traducer years ago, and went to Australia where he did not long survive his wife.”

“Mr. Wilde is wrong,” murmured Constance.

Her lips were pale and her fingers clenched, but her voice was sweet and calm.

There’s a girl with nerve and grit, Alan thought admiringly. And we have something in common—she and her father are political exiles too. Maybe she’s an ancestor as well?

“Let us agree, if you please, that in this one circumstance Mr. Wilde is wrong,” Castaigne said.

Inwardly, Castaigne was laughing. Cackling, rather, and reciting to himself:

When from Carcosa, the Hyades, Hastur, and Aldebaran... and through a long line of names, too: the Last King... Hildred de Calvados, only son of Hildred Castaigne and Edythe Landes Castaigne, first in succession...”

 

@@@

 

“Wakey-wakey, sweetie.”

Alan started up. For a moment he had no idea where he was; someone had flicked him on the backside with a towel. Memories fled through his mind as he grasped at them, like eels slithering between his hands. He shook his head, rolling over and sitting up.

He felt tired, which turned out to be as much a feature of a field soldier’s life as it did of a working rancher’s except that it was less seasonal. This time he had no objection, because it hadn’t been a case of staying up late to make sure the tents were pitched and the horse corals in the right place and the chow line would be ready for breakfast.

Órlaith stood grinning at him, as nude as he, his own height of blond comeliness and reminding him of a cougar he’d seen running up a rocky slope once, moving like falling water from boulder to boulder with casual ease. Though she also reminded him of a Golden Eagle swooping down a valley.

Good God, what a woman! he thought; his dreams might be troubled and vague, but he remembered the waking part of last night vividly. I wasn’t a virgin, but I might as well have been.

And that has nothing to do with who her parents are. Well, she takes after the High King’s looks, I’ll admit.

He’d been about eight when Artos the First had visited their ranch; it had been very much High King Artos, and not Rudi Mackenzie. Brief and formal and the High Queen hadn’t been with him, but it had been intended to show that his mother was fully forgiven as far as Court was concerned, and it had. And he’d never forgotten the meeting, or the moment of unaffected kindness to the small boy he’d been.

And not just his height and complexion. He was... very alive, and she’s the same way.

“Time for a swim,” she said.

“It’s dawn,” he said blurrily, peering at the morning sunlight falling in narrow slits through the woven bamboo walls of the room.

“That’s why it’s time for a swim,” she said. “I’ve got to be at the conference very soon. As my father said to me, on campaign always take an opportunity; it may be your last chance.”

She winked. “And he said you’ll be short of sleep anyway, but you can sleep in the Summerlands.”

He smiled back; Summerlands was what Órlaith’s version of the Old Faith called the afterlife. Even if there weren’t many witches in Latah County, everyone knew a little of the stories behind the High King’s religion. Then the smile faded slightly for an instant...

Is she testing me by mentioning him? he thought. Her father killed mine, after all, even if I was still in the womb at the time. No, probably not.

Everyone in Montival who listened to the epics, and more particularly every educated person whose family were involved in the politics of the High Kingdom, new the history of House Artos and House Arminger back in the War of the Eye—the Protector’s War, people from the Association called it. And how the son of the Bear Lord and Lady Juniper had ended up marrying the only child of Norman and Sandra Arminger.

And from the stories, the High King did my father a favor, there at the end. Even Mother thinks so, though she’s just said it was very bad after he came under the Prophet’s control and that he wasn’t himself any more. But he tried to kill her when she defected, after all, and in front of hundreds of witnesses, and while she was pregnant at that. If that crossbow bolt had hit it would have been a short and unmerry life for me. I think Orrey just doesn’t hold him against me, which I like. Very much.

He laughed and stretched. “I was just thinking, one generation with a history of getting together after mutual homicide by their parents could be happenstance, but twice... that’s a pattern there.”

She grinned back at him, tossed him one of the towels she was carrying and led the way out to the villa’s courtyard pool. Several of her close household were already splashing around, or watching and letting the mild warmth dry them off. And none of them thought wearing clothes to swim in was a good idea.

He wasn’t shocked, though he’d been raised in a conservative part of a conservative part of Montival. Most of the people he’d grown up around were old-fashioned Protestant Christians, with a scattering of Mormons. The ruling Boise City branch of the Thurstons were of the Old Faith—Asatru heathen specifically, not Wiccans like the Mackenzies or McClintocks. His uncle Frederick had taken to it on his trip to the Sunrise Lands with the High King, and his mother and sister had followed when he came back. It had spread widely through Boise’s territories in the generation since because of the prestige of that association with the victorious General-President, but not yet to many in the remote backlands of Latah County.

You got over being body-conscious in field service, though. The heavy infantry brigades of the US of Boise Army were all-male, but the support echelons and the light cavalry weren’t.

And I don’t want to look like a bumpkin from the back of beyond, anyway. Even if I am a bumpkin from the back of beyond, for now. I’ve got a brother to take over the ranch, and Tom never wanted to leave.

They all nodded to him as he followed Órlaith out, most of them smiling. One medium-sized man with long brown hair and mustache gave him a considering look, walking a few paces to take in all of him. He had a wildcat build, a thin torc of twisted gold around his neck and tattoos all over his otherwise naked body; apparently what they said about McClintocks was true, though Alan had never met any before he came east for the war. Latah County in the US of B and the hill lands south of the Willamette down by the old Californian border where the Clan McClintock laired were both mountain-and-valley, but apart from that they were about as far apart as possible in every imaginable way.

Diarmuid’s his name, Alan reminded himself.

He’d been working on learning who was who in the Household.

Diarmuid Tennart McClintock. Personal name, family name, clan, like the Mackenzies. He’s a tacksman, sort of like a rancher or squire, and in his mid-twenties, oldest man here.

Diarmuid gave Alan a final close examination and spoke to the big blond young Mackenzie, Karl Aylward:

“Nae scrat up. Ye owe tha’ price ay a scuttle sheeps,” he said cheerfully; his accent was thick even compared to the way Mackenzies spoke, and much rougher. “Ah tauld ye she wasnae given tae claws.”

Two women—the short slight Sioux girl and the tall black-haired Ranger with the scar—quietly stepped up behind the McClintock. Each planted a foot against her side of his bare butt and shoved in neat unison, and he went windmilling forward to land in the water with a shout cut short in a gurgle and a huge splash.

Karl Aylward Mackenzie apparently thought that was hilarious, which was the sort of rural sense of humor Alan was familiar with. Heuradys d’Ath grabbed Karl’s arm while he was standing helpless with bellowing laughter, put it in a lock and spun him neatly into the water after the southern clansman with a move Alan recognized but thought he might have had trouble countering. Diarmuid promptly tried to hold his head underwater.

Alan had never swum in anything but rivers and ponds in his home-range, though in plenty of those; they were handy and fun, especially if you didn’t mind sharing the water with beavers, trout and the occasional muskrat.

This pool was an oval of marble occupying most of a courtyard, with water running into it from a wall-fountain shaped like a bronze lion’s mouth; like the marble it was probably salvage. The fancy villa was the best the locals had and they’d quite rightly provided it for the Crown Princess’ party. He’d thought the expeditionary force was being more deferential to local sensibilities than was strictly necessary, considering that the fleet and the army it escorted numbered rather more than the entire population of the island’s capital city.

I have trouble taking Hawaii all that seriously, he thought, watching with appreciation as Órlaith dove in with scarcely a splash and began doing an underwater lap. Maybe I should try harder.

In the days of his grandfather Lawrence Thurston the United States of Boise—back then, they’d just called it the United States of America because they hadn’t cared how it read with the neighbors—had aspired to recreate the United States from sea to sea. That hadn’t worked out despite President-General Lawrence Thurston’s fanatical dedication—he’d been a soldier of the old Republic and took it very seriously—but Montival incorporated the western third of what had been the United States and what had been British Columbia as well, which had made Boise’s membership go down a lot easier. It was a reunification of sorts, even if not the one their first General-President had had in mind.

Granted that large parts of Montival’s vast expanse were empty, or empty of anything but a few neo-savages living on deer and collecting their enemies’ heads, or had scattered hamlets and herding camps whose contact with the High Kingdom were entirely theoretical, but it was still hard for him to take this little miniature toy of a kingdom in mid-Pacific very seriously. You could drop it into Boise alone a dozen times over without making much of a splash. And while the USB was probably the second most populous part of Montival—the other possibility was Boise’s neighbor New Deseret—it wasn’t the biggest in area by a long shot. He’d known Montival was huge before he left home, and after traveling overland on horseback and by rail and barge all the way to the coast he appreciated it down in his gut in a way that only watching countryside crawl by for weeks could bring.

The official and even more the unofficial briefings they’d gotten before landing had repeatedly made it crystal clear that anyone in the USB Army who let the locals see that sort of dismissive attitude was going to be very, very sorry, and so were the NCO’s and officers who allowed it. He supposed that the other contingents of the Montivallan expeditionary force had received the same message, in appropriate ways; some of them came from places where heads will roll wasn’t necessarily a metaphor.

Alan dove into the sun-filtered water himself. It was a big enough pool that there was still plenty of room even with several of Órlaith’s Household making determined attempts to drown each other in it. One end was around four feet deep, and the other twelve, and it was all just deliciously, comfortably cool given the warmth of the local climate.

He came to the surface and shook back his head, the honey-brown of his curls darkened by the water. The contrast with diving into a mountain lake fed by glacial runoff was startling. The closest he could think of was a stock-watering pond in summer, without its disadvantages, starting with what cattle and horses and sheep did whenever and wherever they felt like it.

“I could get used to this!” he said.

Swimming pools were luxuries for the very wealthy in some places; feudal ones like the Association, or rich city-states like Corvallis. The US of Boise had its share of rich men, but it discouraged ostentation and display, usually with swingeing taxation, on the theory that if you could waste money that way you should be paying more.

He’d brought along a set of his dress greens, so he had a uniform that didn’t look too out of place even after he’d settled his beret on his head Boise was a conservative sort of place, so they weren’t much different from what the old Republic’s soldiers had worn on formal occasions, except that they had a Mandarin collar rather than the open one with shirt and necktie and boots rather than shoes.

He did tuck a napkin into the collar while they all took a brief breakfast from a table, especially since a lot of it was fruit helpfully cut up—though he was glad of that, because many of the types were delicious but so unfamiliar he wasn’t sure how to eat them. He’d never seen a banana until the day before yesterday, for example, and he’d assumed from the few pictures in yellowing heirloom books and magazines that you just bit into them like an apple.

Heuradys d’Ath was doing the same, though she was in an Associate’s getup of hose, shoes with turned-up toes and points at the ankles, jerkin, loose-sleeved shirt and—across a chair for the moment—houppelande coat with great dagged sleeves and roll-edged chaperon hat with a dangling tail and heraldic livery badge over the brow. By Associate standards it was fairly restrained; the hose wasn’t particolored, there weren’t little golden bells on the toes of the shoes, and the houppelande was a subdued maroon with only a little gold embroidery around the cuffs and buttonholes.

Of course, Boiseans had always mocked the PPA’s selective medieval revivals, though he supposed when you thought about it following 20th-century Pre-Change official fashions was only slightly stranger than using 15th-century ones. He suspected that part of it was that the Portland Protective Association had been too strong for even Lawrence Thurston to feel like tackling back in the old days, though both parties had spent twenty years preparing for the final confrontation that never happened. Satire had been a harmless outlet for the tension.

“At least you’re wearing something more uncomfortable than I am, Herry,” he said.

She winked at him. “No I’m not, gorgeous,” she said. “This is a special outfit I had done up in a hurry before we headed out, all cotton and linen and silk. That’s official-issue-as-specified-in-field-regulations linsey-woolsey you’re wearing, isn’t it?”

He grinned back, though he was also feeling slightly uneasy. If things had worked out just a little differently when he and his retainers showed up at one of the d’Ath manors on their way to Portland—she and Órlaith had been quasi-exiled there while the High Queen was angry—he might have ended up with her, at least for a while.

Instead of just for one night, and then I threw myself in front of that tiger—which I swear I didn’t think about, I just did it when the damned things came jumping out of the brush—and Orrey and I sort of collapsed into the sack and then I was sorry I’d been with Herry. But God, I’m twenty and healthy and I was unattached at the time—if a good-looking woman made it plain, what the hell was I supposed to do, say: Get your well-shaped ass out of here, and take that damn bottle of wine with you? Guys just don’t do that, we’re not made that way. At least I’m pretty sure by now she wasn’t checking me out for her liege, which was an icky thought. Associates are weird but I don’t think they’re that weird.

Though the total, cheerful absence of jealousy on the part of either of the young women was a bit...

Deflating, he thought. Not literally, though, thank God, And if I were getting swollen-headed over my looks—

He wasn’t vain but he’d had enough direct experience to know that he hit women fairly hard

—it would be an ego corrective that Herry thought once was enough.

He finished with a couple of rolls—spicy pork sausage in a crust made of some local tree-grown-thing that mimicked bread or potatoes quite closely—and fell in with the rest. He’d pitched in during the landing precisely so he’d have some leave time now, and nobody seemed to mind that he was tagging along.

The conference was outside under canvas, but considerably more serious than the lūʻau in the same place had been last night; all the senior Montivallan military commanders were there, for starters, including his Uncle Fred, aka General-President Frederick Thurston, looking very serious.

They exchanged salutes after the elder Thurston had paid his respects to Órlaith; nobody in the US of B was surprised that their head of state was personally leading the national contingent, since he’d commanded in the field with distinction during the Prophet’s War.

“Hello, Lieutenant,” the older man said, shaking his hand after the exchange of military courtesies. “You haven’t met Alice and Lawrence.”

He’d met his uncle Frederick Thurston five times, briefly and counting only the times he’d been old enough to remember it as an adult. His mother had told him that his uncle and his father had resembled each other closely, down to the light-brown complexion and loosely-curled black hair worn short. His children were just old enough to be in uniform—as newly minted Second Lieutenants on their father’s staff—and looked a good deal like their cousin in turn. Each regarded the other curiously.

Except that they look more earnest and serious than I usually do, and that one of them will probably be General-President, Alan thought. And I won’t.

The current incumbent wasn’t quite a king and the position wasn’t theoretically hereditary. Boise had free and open elections for President every seven years, and had since the New Constitution was adapted right after the Prophet’s War and the founding of the High Kingdom.

On the other hand, nobody not named Thurston had ever ruled in Boise since the Change, and in the last election the second-highest total of votes had gone to someone who ran as the official Presidential candidate of the Gibbering Lunatic Party, on a platform that included making transport cheaper by having all roads run downhill both ways and replacing all taxes with royalties from the Big Rock Candy Mountain. That candidate had worn a large red artificial nose, floppy shoes, and a buttonhole carnation that shot water, too, and had been given to shouting:

I’m the most serious alternative you’ve got!

“You’re moving in more exalted circles than ours, I hear, cousin,” Alice Thurston said, with a slight smile and a raised brow.

Alan shrugged and grinned. “An army’s pretty gossipy.”

His uncle laughed as well. “Oh, yeah. Worse than the tavern crowd at a crossroads village.”

“I ’m a lucky man,” Alan said. “It sort of just... happened.”

“I heard something about a tiger,” Lawrence said. “Two tigers, actually.”

Alan’s smile was a bit tight, remembering the great striped shape rising up before him and the impact of the paw against his spear, like a blurring-fast triphammer flipping him through the air, the carrion smell of its breath. And the voice at the back of his mind, the monkey yammering: this thing eats men.

“I didn’t actually kill either of them,” he said. “I sort of delayed one after Órlaith’s horse threw her. Then the Crown Princess... stepped in with the Sword and... that was sort of alarming, really, in a way that was different from the way the tigers were. And Lady d’Ath, I swear to God she was as fast as the cat, and then everyone piled in.”

Frederick Thurston nodded, his eyes distant for a moment. “I remember seeing Rudi... the High King... use the Sword of the Lady. That first time in Norrheim, on the Sunrise Sea. He was... terrifying when he fought with his own hands even before that. And the Sword was—”

The General-President stopped for a moment, and when he continued his voice was soft: “Like something out of the Sagas. Like Tyrfing come again. When it’s drawn in anger the world shakes, it flexes, as though the whole fabric of things stretched. You can feel it might just rip at any instant.”

Alan looked at Reiko, where she stood among her advisors and guards, and what she carried by her side. The hair on the back of his neck bristled a little if he got any closer than this, and he’d heard the stories the others told about what happened when she drew it and called on the Power she claimed as her Ancestress.

All the Thurstons nodded soberly as they followed his glance. They lived in a world where such things were; as their grandparents had endured the Change, so they must accept it for good or ill.

“And now, duty calls,” his uncle said.

 

@@@

 

Órlaith looked at the Capricornian envoys and the evidence they’d laid out on the table before the monarchs and their closest advistors. The giant skull of the seagoing crocodile grinned at her with a faint waft of corruption, and some of her followers made protective signs against evil, including crossing themselves among the Christians.

“Forty feet, you say?” she said to the head of the delegation, trying to imagine the live animal coming at her out of the water.

The Capricornian king’s envoy was a woman named Darla Wooton, dressed in what was evidently the national costume, khaki shorts, sandals and a sleeveless blue vest-like garment. A broad-brimmed hat bore corks on dangling strings, from which Órlaith deduced that flies were a real problem at home.

“Too right,” she said. “Thirty-six, to be exact. Your ship fished the the beastie out and kept the skin and the skull, and they thought it weighed about four tons before the sharks and gulls went to work on it. They get big, the open-ocean salties, and they’ve been getting bigger since the Blackout—”

Which was apparently what they called the Change in her part of the world.

“—since nobody’s shooting them with guns, but that’s bloody ridiculous.”

She was around thirty—possibly a little less, given the scourging tropical sun—with sun-streaked brown hair, a wiry build and a face like a very intelligent rat, with a beak of a nose and receding chin. The two guards behind her were much bigger, tall rangy-muscular men carrying broad-bladed spears with round shields slung over their backs blazoned with a five-petaled rose-like flower, and short heavy chopping swords at their belts; one was very black-skinned, the other a deeply tanned blond, but they could have been brothers otherwise.

“Frightening bugger, isn’t it?” Wooton said, jerking a thumb at it; apparently the Court of Darwin wasn’t long on formality. “From what your Captain Russ said of the way he reconstructed the wreckage, the Koreans chased Moishe’s ship—the Tarshish Queen—all the way to the Ceram Sea.”

There was a map on the table, and she showed a location about a thousand miles north of Australia, a sea of myriad islands from tiny to huge.

“Then they all ran into the lizard with the grin. Your captain Moishe turned on the Koreans while they were fighting it, and finished off the saltie with a bolt. And the last Korean too, burned her to the waterline with napalm shell. Your frigate Stormrider came across the wreckage a day or two later, the dead saltie floating belly-up and one survivor on the keel of a capsized. Gibbering mad, apparently.”

“They could talk with him?” Órlaith said, surprised.

Woolton shook her head. “He was a Biter... what you lot call Eaters... from Los Angeles.”

She gestured to the two catapult bolts lying beside the skull; one was unmistakably the product of Donaldson Foundry & Machine, a well-known Corvallis firm and the supplier Feldman & Sons Merchant Venturers used. The other was cruder, a steel head heat-shrunk on a broken-off wooden shaft.

“Definitely Jinnikukaburi work, Heika,” Egawa Noboru grunted, leaning over to examine it.

And using an extremely insulting nickname the Nihonjin used for their enemies from across the Sea of Japan; it meant roughly cockroach crawling in human flesh.

“So,” Reiko said. “The last of the chon ships which pursued us to Montival are destroyed. My revenge for my father’s death continues.”

“That was very well done,” Egawa conceded. “But our Captain Ishikawa was with them on the merchant’s ship, of course.”

“Of course, Egawa-san,” Órlaith said, hiding her smile.

There’s arrogance so sublime it’s an odd sort of innocence, Órlaith thought. And Egawa is a very good fighting man and utterly loyal to his Tennō. And if he’s ruthless... well, he’s fought all his life against an enemy who would eat the flesh from his children’s bones, and that’s the cold and literal truth.

“What’s really got King Birmo’s knickers in a twist is this,” Woolton said, pulling aside a cloth that covered a small object beside the catapult-bolts and the man-sized skull. “The saltie was wearing this, on its forearm.”

It was an armband composed of ruddy metal, probably aluminum-bronze. On it was a broad circle of some glossy black material, and inlaid on that was a three-armed triskele of gold, with curved writhing arms coming from a central knot.

She heard Alan hiss from the group standing behind her. Órlaith nodded in sympathy; there was a feeling to that thing that made her feel as if her bones had suddenly been filled with icewater pouring off a glacier in the spring.

But not in that good-clean-painful way.

One of Karl’s Mackenzies, the young fioasache—seeress—Gwri Beauregard Mackenzie gave a pained grunt too. Reiko’s hand dropped to the hilt of the Grasscutter. One of the kahunas beside King Kalākaua raised his tabu-staff and began a chant of pula mahiki, a prayer to cast out evil spirits.

“Gives me the willies,” Woolton said, then stopped and looked from face to face. “Not the only one, eh?”

Órlaith nodded grimly. “That beast didn’t attack by accident, I think.”

“Crikey, weaponized salties?” Woolton blurted. “Look, mates, there’s something bloody dodgy going on up there in the Ceram. For a long time it was just ships disappearing now and then and we reckoned, what the hell, fuckin’ pirates, right? But it’s more than that.”

“It is,” Reiko said in her slow, clear but accented English. “But this is not the same evil akuma who works through the kangshinmu of our enemies. It sent the beast against the chon ships, not to help them.”

Órlaith nodded. “Or the Power that was behind the Prophet and the CUT in Montival,” she said. “That feels like your enemies, Heika. This does not. Well, the Powers that are our guardians are many; we shouldn’t be surprised that those who wish us ill are as well. Or that they fall out among themselves.”

She put her hand to the long double-lobed hilt of the Sword of the Lady.

“You powerful God, you Goddess gentle and strong, be with me now,” she whispered, and drew it slowly. “Threefold Morrigu, Crow of Battle, patron and guardian of my House, spread Your wings about me.”

Shock.

The world seemed to halt for an instant. Seeing with the eyes that drank the light of common day, you saw only a yard of marvelously shaped steel... but it was never only that. The steel and crystal caught the sunlight and refracted it, and there was a glow, something you couldn’t be sure you were seeing or only somehow sensing.

Órlaith raised it high, then gently lowered the point to the sigil.

Shock.

This time the feeling was sharper, more like the way the Sword felt when she drew it in hot blood for war. There was an intense internal feeling of stress and release like the snap of breaking wire as the point touched the yellow sign. A sigh went through the watchers as she sheathed the Lady’s gift.

Like a pain you didn’t know was there until it’s gone, she thought.

Wooton blinked and rubbed her eyes, as if suddenly realizing she hadn’t been completely awake.

“I’ll be stuffed,” she said reverently. “I was right not to touch the bloody thing.”

“I think you were indeed,” Órlaith said.

She sighed. “It appears my brother Prince John has fallen into a conflict no less serious for good and ill than this,” she said. “And considering how the Tarshish Queen and Stormrider ended up in the Ceram, I refuse to think it an accident. Our guardians are also taking a hand here, and giving us a warning.”

Reiko looked stricken beneath an iron calm. The alliance with Montival was formally one of equals, but in cold hard fact it was a lifeline that her folk needed if they were not to be gradually ground to powder by superior numbers. If Órlaith decided to change the priorities to put rescuing her brother first, there was little Reiko could do about it, the more so as there were now strong arguments for it.

Órlaith’s hand gripped the hilt of the Sword until her fingers whitened. When she spoke again her normally even contralto voice had gone flat and harsh, with a note of iron:

“But one war at a time. Who tries to be strong everywhere at once is weak everywhere all the timeľ”

The senior war-leaders all nodded, as if an unseen hand had moved their heads. That was something they all agreed with down in their souls.

“—and the High Kingdom keeps its oaths. Captain Russ and Stormrider are a considerable force in their own right, and they can stay in the area and continue the search for the Prince and his companions. We’ll deal with the matter before us, and if the situation in the south hasn’t resolved itself by then, we’ll deal with that in turn.”

A deep breath, holding the image of a drop of water falling into a pond and the ripples fading that she had learned as a centering technique in a visit to Chenrezi Monastery in the Valley of the Sun:

“My brother Prince John is a tried fighting man—”

Of good but not absolutely exceptional quality, she thought.

“—and he’s with a shipload of able comrades, and a MRN frigate is looking for him.

And Deor Godulfson is there, which means there’s one who knows of the world beyond the light of common day, she thought but again did not say; those around her would be uneasy enough.

“That will have to do for now.”

Egawa Noboru rose for a moment, bowed to her, and sat again.

And I feel a little flattered, Órlaith thought, giving a brief nod in return.

The man was not really likeable if you weren’t of his own folk and kin, but you had to respect him, and hence his respect was worth having. The more so for knowing he wouldn’t readily give it to an outsider unless his own sense of honor forced him to it.

King Kalākaua frowned. “I see your point, Your Highness,” he said. “But we of Hawaii have had good relations with Capricornia for many years. If King John is worried, we should be too. He is a very shrewd man.”

“Fair dinkum, Your Majesty,” Wooton observed; she’d evidently been here before as her monarch’s emissary. “There’s no flies on King Birmo. Except when there are, if you know what I mean.”

Lord Maugis de Grimmond cleared his throat. “If we could return to the matter the Crown Princess has said is the first priority, I would think a month’s rest for the force before moving out would be best.”

Admiral Naismith frowned. “It’s not time-critical from a naval point of view. The weather’s going to be bad in northeast Asia anyway until well beyond that.”

One of Reiko’s naval advisors began to reply when a drum throbbed. Everyone looked up; a pair of Hawaiian guardsmen came trotting through escorting a courtier, the same polished young man who’d conducted the Montivallan and Nihonjin parties to their quarters in the palace district. He looked much less relaxed now.

Uh-oh, Órlaith thought, and heard Heuradys say the same thing softly behind her. It’s never good news when someone runs in like than and interrupts his king at council.

“Your Majesty,” he said slightly breathlessly, going to one knee before Kalākaua and pressing his right palm to his heart as he bowed. “A guardship has arrived from Oahu. The Koreans have attacked Pearl Harbour! Attacked in great strength!”

Órlaith blinked. Her briefings kicked in; Pearl Harbor was on Oahu, the island most heavily populated in ancient days and hence worst hit by the Change. The Hawaiians had been resettling it over the last generation, and Pearl Harbor was a center of industry—the ships of the old American navy there provided a bottomless source of steel, aluminum, brass, glass and other materials, and there were foundries and machine-shops.

It also included their Royal catapult works, a top-priority military target in any war.

“They attacked without even making demands of us!” Kalākaua exclaimed, clenching a large fist. “They’ll regret this! No doubts now—the Aupuni o Hawaii is in this war, to the death!”

Reiko put her hand to her sword-hilt. “And Dai-Nippon fights with you against this treacherous sneak attack!”

“And so does Montival,” Órlaith echoed. “We will avenge this infamy.”

 

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