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THE TEARS OF THE SUN

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


 

CHAPTER NINE:

 

Chartered City of Goldendale
County of Aurea
Portland Protective Association
(Formerly central Washington)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
August 5th, Change Year 25/2023 A.D.

 

Mathilda Arminger, now High Queen of Montival save for a few details concerning coronation ceremonies, groaned slightly as the ladies-in-waiting and the maids started to remove surcote and the long tight dress and the not-quite-crown with its silk veil. She'd been slightly daring, going back to the books—which was where the Association's fashions had come from in the first place, really, before they took on a life of their own—and wearing a form-fitting kirtle of fourteenth century style. The buttoned sleeves were normal, but these buttons were a full two inches apart, carved from golden tiger eyes into the Lidless Eye sigil of her house, leaving the cloth to stretch and show inch-wide medallions of her own flesh all the way up to three fingers below the shoulder, where her chemise started.  The fabric was a peacock-patterned green silk, a precious rarity available only since a little trade with East Asia started up again in the last few years.

It was low cut from the very edge of her shoulders down to the middle of her breastbone, covering all but the very highest beginning swell of her breasts.  There were drawbacks; she couldn't lift her elbows above breast level, and it had required tight lacing, but there was less sheer bulk of fabric than with most court cotte-hardies, which meant something in this weather. The overrobe was a very loose surcote, open at the sides from under her arms to hip level, of chocolate jacquard brocade with silver and gold flames broidered along the edges.

The ladies lifted off the surcote, unlaced the kirtle down her back and unbuttoned the arms, which felt as if she'd suddenly been released from a set of prisoner's irons. Then they coaxed the three inches of tight sleeve down her arms and swept the whole affair away, which left her with the chemise—cotton thickened to double layers in places to make sure sweat didn't stain the silk. Nimble fingers took care of the buttons and hooks and removed the fabric, and she felt almost cool as the air hit her skin.

Thankfully the day's heat was fading anyway now that the stars were out and she could escape the interminable banquet in the Great Hall below.

Where eyes bugged at this outfit, for various reasons. I suspect a lot of the women were taking careful notes!

The solar of Castle Goldendale was most of the way up the dojon tower of the keep and four sets of high arched windows marked the center of each wall, all open now and letting in a very pleasant cooling breeze. One corner of the big square room had a fireplace, empty and swept and garnished with bouquets of roses and dahlias and geraniums now; the other held the spiral staircase. The walls were pale plaster carved in spiderwork Gothic low-relief patterns and the floor was mosaic tile, light blue with a border of green and yellow flowering vines. A few colorful modern rugs were scattered across it.

Westward the new-risen moon shone on distant snowpeaks, like a dream of cool peace in the purple night. Below the lights of the little town were coming on, the warm glow of lanterns and candles, the evening bells from the cathedral and the other churches—there were six, in a town of four thousand, plus a chapel that the other varieties of Christian used in rotation, a small synagogue and a once-clandestine and now merely inconspicuous covenstead.

Outside the walls with their pacing sentries were the tented camps of the gathering armies. They were there to protect the town, of course, but she couldn't blame the citizens and the local fief-holders from feeling nervous at having so many armed men around, and right in the middle of harvest at that.

"Hose and houppelande, please, mesdames," she said, when they'd gotten her down to her underwear.

Another chemise, plain this time, then the tight hose of bias-cut linen; she'd gotten used to pants on the quest, and she'd always been able to get away with practical dress more than most noblewomen, because of her birth and training. Right now she had a reasonable excuse, too. A plain set of shirt, jerkin and loose houppelande coat was a lot more comfortable than anything else respectable for someone of her rank, and she would be on campaign soon.

Though an arming doublet and suit of plate is actually more uncomfortable than a cotte-hardi, hard though that would be to believe if I hadn't experienced both. Which is something not many people have done.

At least she didn't have to feel morally uncomfortable about kicking someone out of their quarters. County Aurea was Crown demesne land, and Castle Goldendale was held by an appointed seneschal rather than as an autonomous fief; it had been built as a headquarters and strongpoint during the wars against the Free Cities of the Yakima League to the north.

A man-at-arms of the Protector's Guard came trotting and clanking up the stairs, thumped his fist to his breastplate and bowed as the staff set out a collation and left.

"Grand Constable d'Ath, Your Highness."

"Admit her, thank you," Mathilda said.

Good old Tiph, she thought warmly, as the familiar light quick steps sounded on the stone risers.

Then: And there are probably tens of thousands of people who wouldn't believe that anyone could think of Lady Death that way.

They hadn't had her around all their lives, of course; hadn't been her pupil in matters warlike. And those were also people who hadn't realized at about the age of eleven that quite a lot of people wanted to kill everyone named Arminger, and that a major reason they couldn't was that Tiphaine d'Ath induced extremely well merited soiled-breeches fear in the enemies of her family and House.

In theory I don't really approve of Tiph, Mathilda thought, as she smiled in greeting. She's an unrepentant sinner in a lot of ways. In practice I'm extremely glad to have her around and besides that I like her and Delia. I hope my children will have the chance to be glad of it as well; a dynasty can't have too many loyal, able supporters. Or friends. Swords about a throne.

"Your Majesty," Tiphaine said, making a leg-bow and sweeping off her hat.

"My lady Grand Constable," Mathilda said. "Or as some dare call you... Tiph."

That startled a rare snort of laughter out of her. Mathilda went on:

"Sit down and have a drink, Tiph. You look as if you could use one."

Tiphaine was in boots and trews and padded arming doublet with mail grommets under the arms. All were black; that was part of her image, and also better for not showing stains. She looked dubiously at the furniture—one of Mother's salvage teams had furnished the domestic parts of this castle from a raid on a Gustav Stickley exhibit in a Seattle museum—and then decided her war-gear wasn't going to do any harm to the Craftsman-style solidity. She poured herself a glass of wine from the delicate Venetian-style glass decanter turned out recently in a Portland workshop and sat back, easy as a cat—though a tired cat pushing forty now.

"And no formality in private, Tiph. We don't have time."

"I've been jumping around like a Tinerant tambourine dancer," the Grand Constable admitted. "You look a bit frazzled too, Matti. Are the local nobility and burghers adequately soothed and stroked about having armies assembling in their fields? Better you than me for that, frankly."

"You could do it."

"Yes, but I don't want to do it. What sort of reaction did you get?"

"I subtly pointed out that the manor-lords and their tenants would make a lot of money by having so many hungry wage-packets walking around, and that the city was creaming off a lot of gold," Mathilda said. "They're nervous, but reassured. It was worth sitting through one banquet. Rudi managed to escape because it was all Associates and they needed to be reassured by one of their own. Or at least that was his excuse! Plus he had some Mackenzie politics to take care of after the military stuff, and he really did have to handle that himself."

Tiphaine sipped at the wine. "His Majesty just gave me my marching orders; I'm off tomorrow. Well, the army he just gave me is off tomorrow, I'm probably going to have to arrive first and last to chivvy everyone along, particularly the Yakima contingents who aren't used to working with the Association. Including them is a good move in about four separate ways, but I'm going to have to sweat to make it work the way he wants."

Mathilda tried to imagine Tiphaine doing anything else with a mission, and failed.

"Rudi's brilliant about that sort of thing," she said instead, with a glow of pride. "Not just a pretty face! Young for it, but he's a first-rate general."

"I've observed that," Tiphaine said dryly; she had been one of his trainers, during his months every year in Association territory since the Protector's War.

Then with something that might have been the barest hint of a wink: "He's even sort of cute... for a guy."

"You're impossible!" Mathilda said.

"No, just improbable. Fortunately only stories have to be plausible; real life just has to exist. Otherwise I'd simply refuse to believe the Sword of the Lady was there at all, for example. Now, what's on your regal mind?"

"First, let Delia know that I'm sorry you two—and Rigobert—couldn't be there for the wedding up at Castle Corbec. We're going to have a commemoration ceremony after the war in the Cardinal-Archbishop's cathedral in Portland, and I want Delia as one of the Matrons of Honor."

"Thanks, she'll love that. We'll come and she can be matron enough for both of us," Tiphaine said, refilling her glass. "What's the serious business?"

"Ah, there's some information I need. Chancellor Ignatius has his old boss Abbot-Bishop Dmwoski working on getting an overall view of the CUT's espionage and infiltration operations in our territory."

"Good choice, Matti," Tiphaine said judiciously. "He was uncomfortably smart when he was fighting against us, and he's still plenty sharp even if he is semi-retired. Plus he has extensive contacts. We need some people who aren't rushing around being too busy to see the big picture."

Mathilda nodded agreement. "And the CUT's going to be a long-term problem even if we manage to decapitate them. Right now he's getting down to the bottom of the House Liu matter. Incidentally I'm going to swear Huon Liu as one of my squires tomorrow and take his sister Yseult into the household as a lady-in-waiting later; if she's got the smarts, and I think she does, I'll have work for her."

Tiphaine frowned into her glass. "Are you sure that's wise? Speaking of decapitation I did do in several of their relatives, one way or another... chopped their mother into dog-meat scraps personally and with my own hands, for starters. Had a nasty turn with the rabid bitch infecting me somehow, like a bite from a mad dog."

Mathilda sighed. "Those were necessary measures. I think their personal experiences will make them know, not just know but really understand, that it was necessary. That's also why I'm having Dmwoski brief them fully, not just pump them for their perspective. They're smart kids, and besides I owe a rather large debt in that direction for what Odard did. Right now I want you to give me your own impression of what happened with Guelf Mortimer and that agent right after the Battle of Pendleton."

She quirked one corner of her mouth up. "Or the Cluster-Fuck of Pendleton, as I understand you christened it."

Tiphaine shrugged. "I'm actually rather proud of how I handled that. A fighting retreat may not get the bards and troubadours excited, but it's technically the most difficult battlefield maneuver, especially with an army made up of contingents from all over none of whom love each other that much... good practice for the opening phases of this campaign, in fact. Oddly enough, Guelf Mortimer helped a good deal while we were breaking contact, him and Sir Constantine ‘Raging Bull' Stavarov. Stavarov's just an obnoxious idiot, of course."

"But a good Anvil," Mathilda said with a chuckle, pouring herself a glass of the wine.

It was a local vintage from the Columbia gorge, a red Malbec with a taste of plums and herbs in its inky purple depths.

Anvil was a phrase Tiphaine had taught her, originally coined by Conrad Renfrew back when he was Grand Constable; someone solid iron from ear to ear whether he had a helmet on or not, useful primarily for dropping on or throwing at the enemy like a large hard heavy weight. And if the anvil broke... you got another anvil.

"If you can imagine an anvil with a really bad temper and testosterone poisoning," Tiphaine said. "Guelf, besides being a traitor had delusions of intelligence... and if he'd been twice as smart as he thought he was, he'd have been a half-wit. I did submit a full report on the business, though."

"You don't have to hint if you think I'm wasting your time, Tiph. I've read the report and Ignatius forwarded it to Dmwoski; it's got all the facts but nothing more. What I want is the rest of it, all the details, how it felt at the time. I need to get what Mom calls the gestalt of the whole business. Also I have to know how much to tell Huon and Yseult. I'm not going to hide the essentials but there may be personal details they don't need to know. They're going to be here in a while, they're fighting traffic on the rail line from Portland, but we'll have time."

Tiphaine sighed; the younger woman knew that talking about her own emotional states was something her Grand Constable didn't like, as in would rather juggle live squid in a confessional booth. She also knew that likes and dislikes weren't all that important to Tiphaine d'Ath when business was involved.

"Well," Tiphaine said, letting her head fall back against the sofa and closing her eyes. "We finally managed to shake the CUT light cavalry off and consolidate around Hermiston, right on the old border we got after the Protector's War."

"Just a strip along the south bank of the river there, though."

"Right, I spent my last day or so there securing the south flank with the CORA levies, who had all the organized cohesion of a bucket of snot. I left the rearguard there and headed back to Portland to get my finger on the pulse and start getting ready for the next enemy offensive because them getting Pendleton really screwed our position, especially south of the Columbia. Nothing between them and the Cascades except the CORA, barring Odell, though we had the castles along the river at the dams and bridges. The first thing I knew about what was going on was—"

 

@@@

 

Town Residence of the Barons of Forest Grove
878 Southwest Green Avenue
Suburbs, Crown City of Portland
(Formerly Portland, Oregon)
Portland Protective Association
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
September 21st, CY 23/2021 A.D.

 

Tiphaine d'Ath woke to the sound of a little bell tinkling, and made the hand on the hilt of the sheathed dagger under her pillow relax. It was a little dangerous to wake her up directly when she'd been in the field, though even unconscious she knew Delia's touch. She could tell Delia was not in the bed, though. At seven months gone she was a significant weight, dipping even a really good pre-Change mattress like this one.

She sighed, rubbing one hand over her eyes. Candles and two alcohol lanterns lit the room and she couldn't tell what time it was, or for a moment where she really was. Her eyelids were a little crusted with sleep, but they didn't burn as badly as they had when she'd collapsed into bed whenever-it-was before. She'd had a vicious migrane yesterday too, the usual one you got if you wore a helm all day with the inside padding tight around your head and were clouted a couple of times to boot, but by now it was down to a slight throb. She could still feel every overstretched tendon, bruise, wrench and minor abrasion and nick.

Long dismal experience told her that getting up and moving would warm the injured muscles and make her feel a little better. The rest needed willow extract and time; more time than it used to, at that. Her sword hand and wrist in particular felt as if someone had driven a laden wagon over them. Her page Lioncel de Stafford was standing by the bed, muffling the little bell he'd rung and looking disgustingly young—which he couldn't help, at twelve—and fresh and blond and rested.

She sat up, running her fingers through her own tangle of pale hair and then spreading her hands out and looking at them:

God, did I go to bed without even washing? Yes, apparently I did, that's dried blood under my nails. Delia is a saint. At least this nightshirt is clean, or was before someone put it on me.

"I'm awake, brat, you can put the bell away. Are your mother and father here? What time is it?"

"Yes, my Lady. No, my Lady. Six fifteen in the morning, my Lady. A train arrived with a number of badly wounded men from Hermiston at four am. Dowager Molalla and the train master sent for help."

Tiphaine frowned. Shit, what went wrong now? Did they take a slap at Hermiston? The way I had it set up we should have fed them their livers if they did and the Viscount knows his business.

She tossed the covers back. I usually wake up when Delia gets out of bed; I must have been really wiped this time, as well as getting older.

She looked around and Lioncel made a small gesture. This was Delia's room, and she could have told that at a glance even if she hadn't woken up here often enough before; pale pastel colors, controlled and elegant froufrou around the canopy of the four-poster, a spectacular tapestry on one wall showing a mountain scene that looked as if it were taken from a Maxfield Parrish poster and probably had been. Some books, a dressing table that looked as if you needed a seven-year apprenticeship and an examination before a panel of guildmasters to handle all the stuff, an embroidery frame, a fretwork door leading to a clothes closet nearly as large as the bedroom.

There was a gentle scent of sachets and bouquets of roses and rhododendrons, and—

"Oh, God, coffee," she said.

About one ship a year came in from the Big Island of Hawaii to Astoria or Newport, with coffee as part of its cargo. There were definite perks to being a baron and Grand Constable.

Lioncel brought it from a wheeled tray; it already had the cream and two spoons of sugar she liked. She drank, yawned, swallowed the paper of bitter powdered willowbark extract he handed her, drank more of the coffee and thought as her brain lurched back into motion. Barony d'Ath's town house was smaller and several blocks away.

Right, memory working now. I got in well after dark last night and there was still blood drying in places all over my armor. I was punch-drunk, thirty hours in the saddle and skirmishes and no sleep.

Lord Rigobert de Stafford, Baron Forest Grove and Marchwarden of the South, had been waiting at Union station. He'd slapped her on the back, told her that everything was in hand and bundled her exhausted form into his pedicab and sent her to his townhouse and his wife; her lover, Delia. Who had poured several glasses of something sweet down her throat and gotten her into this room, nightshirt and bed, and then darkness had walked up and clubbed her unconscious when she was halfway to the pillow.

Yes, the bathroom was the door to the left. She glanced back at the bed, shaking her head minutely in surprise. Getting the seven-month pregnant Delia out of bed usually involved her bouncing and squirming around. They had made a game of it for all of her pregnancies. Today Delia had managed to get herself up and out of the room without waking her.

If I was that dead asleep, I really did need Rigobert to take over last night, she thought as she ran the water into the basin, washing her hands. Well, that is one of the things a second-in-command is for.

Bits of brown flake circled around the marble of the sink as she scrubbed at her hands; her shield-hand knuckles were badly skinned, which meant she'd lost the shield and hit someone or something very hard with her gauntleted fist. Someone; a glimpse returned to her, near-darkness, a bearded snarling face and the crumble of bone under the steel and leather as she struck again and again. Hand to hand combat usually ended up as a plain old-fashioned beat-down at some point, and plate armor was surprisingly useful for that, too.

She called through the slightly-ajar door: "Lioncel, have any messages come for me?"

"Yes, my Lady. Five or six dispatch wallets. But my Lord my father said that he was taking them back to Customs House for your staff and Dame Lilianth to sort and you could deal with them later when, ah, when you were firing on all cylinders again, whatever that means. No more have come since."

"Officious. Your father is officious, Lioncel. Where's Diomede?"

"Yes, my Lady. Sleeping, my Lady. He'll be up soon. We switch off at noon, today. And you really should take a shower."

"You're officious, too, Lioncel."

Tiphaine suppressed a small smile. Lioncel had been well trained by her previous pages when they were promoted to squire. But he was still her son in all ways that mattered; it occasionally showed up in little details and matters of attitude and tricks of speech. And she did need the shower which the gravity fed water system allowed here. She was becoming aware of how badly she needed it; whatever washing she'd done last night had been fairly sketchy.

"What will my lady wear, today?" asked Lioncel beyond the door.

"Working clothes, Lioncel; trews and T-tunic. Court garb is suspended until further notice."

The bathroom was large too; in some ways Delia enjoyed being a noble more than she did. Tiphaine did an abbreviated stretching routine, then ducked into the etched-glass enclosure, turned on the hot water to just short of scalding and stretched some more, grabbing the flower-scented soap. Delia no longer made the stuff with her own hands as she'd done when it was an experiment; the little factory she had established in Forest Grove four years ago was in full production, along with the lavender plantings and rose-plantation. Both baronies made a fair sum off selling it; everyone grew wheat and a lot of manors had a winery, but really first-class soap was getting harder to find. Demand for this had been brisk once the pre-Change stockpiles ran out and it became obvious how much better it was than the sandpaper most amateur soap-boilers were turning out. Managing things like that came under a Châtelaine's duties, which was one reason why it was a demanding job.

Stiff muscles relaxed and some of the soreness washed out with the massage of the pounding hot water, and the sting as scabs came lose reminded her of where to dab iodine when she got out. Her scalp especially felt much better with accumulated battle filth scrubbed out and the last of the nagging headache gave up the ghost as the neck-muscles unclenched.

She toweled off and pulled on the modern underbriefs and linen... bra. As usual, she grimaced at that. The death of the last elastic sports bra had been an occasion for genuine mourning. No matter how brief or what fancy name they were given, or whether they laced up the front like these or not, it was still stays, basically. You did not want things to bounce and swing when you were fighting.

Lioncel had her clothes laid out. Black trews in a soft linen twill, plain white shirt with a keyhole neck; black chamois jerkin with an inconspicuous mesh-mail lining; a T-tunic in a dark charcoal with silver and black embroidery at the collar and hem, and her arms quartered with the Lidless Eye on the chest. The thin kidskin gloves stung as she eased them on, since the insides had been dusted with disinfectant powder. Plain black suede half-boots with the symbolic golden prick-spurs and a black leather belt, and then a chaperon hat completed the outfit.

"And the number two sword, my lady?" Lioncel asked.

"Yes, number two," she said.

She had six nearly identical ones, beside the Grand Constable's sword of state for formal occasions—which had an equally functional blade, despite the jeweled pommel and ivory-and-silver-wire hilt. The one she'd come in with last night would be off to the armorer for repairs and sharpening and disassembly to make sure none of the blood was still under the crosshilt guard or down the tang starting rust. She touched the double-lobed hilt and the dimpled bone and bindings were smoothly firm; when she half-drew it the edge was just right, knife-sharp but not honed so razor-thin it would turn easily the first time it hit bone or armor. The metal was layer-forged alloy steel, the wavy patterns of its surface gleaming under a very light coating of neatsfoot oil, and it slid back into the sheath with precisely the right very slight resistance. She would have been shocked if it hadn't been perfect, but you always checked your own weapons.

"What's the motto, Lioncel?"

"Take care of your gear, and your gear will take care of you, my lady. The one time you're careless is the time it will kill you."

She tossed the sword on the bed and sat, and Lioncel finished drying her hair with warm fluffy towels and then carefully brushed it out. Tiphaine would have rather gone down with wet hair, or done it herself. It was the job of her page. That Lioncel took pride in it argued well for his character.

When he approved, they went down to the breakfast nook where Rigobert's staff had laid out bread, butter, cheese, jam, platters of sausages and bacon and scrambled eggs and more coffee, plus a large bowl of oatmeal cooked with apples for Lioncel to start with. Tiphaine let Lioncel pour her coffee; an Associate learned to command by learning to serve.

First Armand and Radomar, teaching me how to accept service; now Lioncel and Diomede. And I can't steal one tittle of what they consider their job without them raising a very, very polite ruckus.

"Thank you, Lioncel. Please sit and eat, yourself."

This was her usual command when eating alone and her pages had learned to eat with her; however, they always sat after they had served her. Tiphaine shook her head in private amusement at the size of the portions she had to eat these days. A Bearkiller doctor she'd enjoyed talking with a few times had worked out that a knight actually burned off nearly half again as many calories as a peasant on average.

Government by pro athlete, had been the way he'd defined the PPA's neo-feudalism.

And the last few weeks in camp had been short enough rations that she ate with gusto.

"Aunt?"

Tiphaine nodded; the keyword told her this was Lioncel to Tiphaine, not a page to his knight.

"Yes, Lioncel?"

"Aunt, how bad is the situation?"

Tiphaine sighed as she met the serious pale blue eyes.

Looking more and more like Rigobert every day... and me, since Rigobert and I have similar coloring and builds. He's going to be tall, too... which both of us also are.

"It's bad, Lioncel."

She bit off a piece of bread and Tillamook cheese and stared at the ticking grandfather clock against the far wall of the room for a moment, composing her thoughts. He was old enough to be a squire soon; nearly old enough to be treated like an embryonic adult, by modern standards. Certainly old enough to get the unvarnished truth.

"The expression I like to use is cluster-fuck. It's very rude and describes the situation to a T. It also means that more than one thing went wrong at once, and the things that went wrong each made the other things worse than they would have been by themselves. We did very well to get out of it without being wrecked beyond recovery."

"What's it called when everything goes wrong at once?"

"Dead and defeated."

A flash of fear shadowed the boy's eyes for an instant. His jaw clenched. "That means really bad things to Mom and Diomede and the baby she's going to have, doesn't it?"

Tiphaine nodded. Not fear for himself. Lioncel would have been considered insanely courageous, or pathologically fearless in the old days. Today, the rest of the pages at court know better than to tease or harrass him. It's not just that I'm known to kill anybody threatening my family. Lioncel is shaping up to be a really solid, mean fighter, himself and there's no backing down in him.

"Lioncel de Stafford."

He looked up at her, blue eyes meeting gray.

"This is what we're for, boy. We put our selves in the front line between danger and those we love, those who look to us for protection. There will always be some danger or threat, because that's the way human beings work. This is why we have the lands and the castles and power and deference from the commons. It's the price we pay, not just the danger but the responsibility and worry and the knowledge that everything turns on our making the right decisions, and it's what being an Associate and a noble means."

Also it means we were a very successful gang of strong-arm artists back 'when right after the Change, but it's not just a protection racket any more. Things change. Kings start as lucky pirates, and wolves graduate into guard-dogs. The myths they used to tie everything together were stronger than Norman or even Sandra suspected and the stories speeded up the process quite a bit.

The boy looked down at his plate and visibly put the worry aside.

"Will you be going to the War Office this morning, my lady Grand Constable?"

"Yes, boy. Order the pedicab when you're done with breakfast, please. You'll come with me. Tell Diomede that he'll come down with my lunch, your lunch, and his lunch from the kitchens here."

Because I swear I've lost seven or eight pounds in the last two weeks and I was lean to start with, anything I lose is muscle and I need it all. Grandmother told me once when I was about six that her father used to eat sandwiches with lard for filling and I just thought it was gross. But he was a lumberjack. He needed them.

"We'll share it and he will stay. You go home then, and study. I heard something about geometry difficulties."

"Yes, my Lady. Why do I have to study geometry? It's boring; all those lines and arcs and sines and cosines and problems."

Tiphaine gave him a hard look: "That's an important skill. Numbers are how you analyze the world; they're how you to do siegecraft for war, construction and surveying for peace; fight legal battles; aim a catapult... If you can't do it, or at least understand it, you're helpless in the hands of those who can, like lacking a hand or a foot or an eye. Hasn't your tutor explained the applications to you, boy?"

He shook his head, brightening up quite a bit. "It's good for things? Like sword training?"

Tiphaine growled. "I'll talk to the man tonight; remind me. Right now, finish your breakfast."

She sipped her cup of coffee, pausing to admire the delicate rose flower pattern on the cup. She knew Delia had picked it out from the large warehouses the PPA kept for Associates when she'd married Rigobert, and she'd been working with a group of noblewomen and guildsmen here who were trying to get a bone-china works going in Portland for when the plunder ran out. This porcelain had blue roses. The set at Montinore Manor had yellow roses.

And my town house has plain brown dishes because I picked them before I wangled Delia into the office of Châtelaine of Ath and she dove with headfirst glee into Patronness of the Arts and Leader of Fashion mode.

The proprieties required Delia to stay in the Forest Grove townhouse when visiting Portland, mostly; and it was large enough for the nursery. The d'Ath townhouse on Cedar Street had been picked out before she realized she would turn into a family woman with a spouse who entertained during the Court season in the city, so it was comfortable enough but rather small and out of the way. All three used it for flying visits when they didn't have time for the panoply of service and state.

I suppose I could request another townhouse, there are plenty on minimal-maintenance, there's still less than forty thousand people inside the walls of Portland and only a few hundred in this neighborhood, but I'll let Diomede do that when he's married and old enough to need it. Probably we should get a residence in Newberg, as well. Assuming we win the war, of course.

She put the cup down, stood and slid the scabbarded sword into the frow-sling that hung from her belt and walked briskly out to the porch, nodding as servants curtsied or bowed. Outside she returned the fist-to-chest salute of the squire in half-armor commanding a squad of six crossbowmen on guard outside.

"Will you require an escort, my lady Grand Constable?" he said.

"No, I think I can survive in Portland, Jeffries," she said.

Lioncel was just coming around the corner of the street, perched on the back of the pedicab Rigobert kept for town work, with the de Stafford arms displayed on the side: Gules a domed Tower Argent surmounted by a Pennon Or in base a Lion passant guardant of the last.

That was a heraldic joke, if you knew how to read it, rather like her own but a bit less blatant and, she had to admit, more witty.

She glanced up at the white-pillared portico of the residence, then looked east towards the heart of present Portland, squinting a little into the sunrise. This was an extra-mural suburb, literally so these days—better than half a mile outside the city walls. Behind her rose the densely wooded West Hills, green and purple shadows in the light of dawn. Those had been parks and exclusive residential neighborhoods before the Change, and it was all part of the New Forest now; you could smell the fresh greenness of it, and the sky was thick with birdsong. That was Crown demesne under special forest law, and permission to hunt there or an invitation to parties at the royal retreat in the Japanese Gardens was a mark of great favor.

This neighborhood at their foot was reserved for the town-house complexes of noble families, prestigious because of the greenery and open space but not too far from the City Palace downtown and the social-political whirl of Court. Each had a central residence, and several other structures taken over and modified for the trail of servants and followers. Their retainers made sure the hoi polloi didn't intrude, so the usual urban chorus of street vendors and would-be troubadors and the roar of hooves and wheels were lacking, only pedicabs and an occasional rider or horse-carriage moving along the curving, tree-lined streets.

It was all very pleasant, and by no coincidence at all kept the nobility's household troops outside the walls of the Crown City. She swung up into the cab and Lioncel got in beside her.

"Customs House," she said to the man on the pedals. Then:

"Odd," to Lioncel.

The driver-rider pedaled hard down Vista to Everett through the brightening day, then turned east on the thoroughfare, sounding an imperious bell with his thumb and occasionally shouting for way. Most of the passers-by scattered at the sight of the arms on the pedicab or simply because it certainly held someone influential.

"Odd, my Lady?"

"The word cab used to mean a public vehicle for hire. They were everywhere and people flagged them down and were taken to where they needed to go. There was enough business that several hundred could work all day long. In the downtown and on docksides, where the streets were really narrow, pedicabs like this were used. We still call these things cabs but they're private vehicles and only nobles and a few guildmasters and such have them."

The boy nodded, polite but slightly baffled, and Tiphaine stifled a sigh.

They just don't have the background. Best to live in the present as much as you can, Tiphaine, like a Changeling which you almost are anyway. The oldsters get tiresome when they go on about the old world and I don't want to end up like that. Of course, everybody thinks about the past more as they get older. I'm just starting to realize that's because you've got more past as you get older. And Portland sets me off because I was born here. Forget it. That Portland died at the Change, this place just has the same name and some of the geography. It's like a new person wearing a dead man's shoes.

The trip from the de Stafford residence to the South Park blocks and the old Customs House was quick, less than a mile and a half. Most of the buildings outside the city wall had been systematically torn down to leave clear fields of fire for the monstrous throwing-engines on Portland's walls, except for the Civic Stadium to the south of Everett, still used for soccer, baseball and jousting tournaments. Tented camps with troops from all over the Protectorate and the other realms of the Meeting sprawled over the open space usually used for turn-out pasture and truck gardens and livery stables, and there was a thick mist of woodsmoke as cooks started their morning fires.

As always, she felt a prickle of unease as she approached the city wall.

You do, if you remember how Norman used the labor camps as a horrible example of what could happen to you. People sobbed with joy when they got picked to be peasants on the manors instead. That's a long time ago now, but the memory sticks.

The defenses ran along the eastern edge of what had been Interstate 405, which neatly enclosed the old core of Portland, the original city along the west bank of the Willamette before the 20th century and sprawl. The broad roadway was sunken well below the surface most of the way too, which had made it a perfect dry moat; apart from narrow laneways left for workmen it was a continuous bristle of outward-slanting angle iron posts now, set deep and then ground to vicious points and edges like a forest of swords.

The wall itself was poured mass concrete sixty feet high and thirty thick, around a frame of steel girders ripped out of old skyscrapers. Round towers stood at hundred-yard intervals, rearing twice as high and thick enough to seem squat, each a miniature fortress in its own right that could be cut off from the outside by raising footways and slamming thick steel doors. The towers had steep metal roofs like witches' hats, steel plated with copper; a hoarding of the same material made a sloping roof over the crenellations of the wall. Wall and towers both were machiolated, the fighting platforms on top protruding over the walls on arches so that trapdoors could be opened to drop things straight down.

"Say what you like about Norman, he didn't think small," Tiphaine said, looking at the curiously graceful massiveness of it, glistening in the dawn light with the white stucco that covered the whole surface.

"My lady?"

"Nothing, boy."

Most of the bridges that had crossed Interstate 405 had been destroyed. The others had been fortified with Norman Arminger's usual combination of brutal functionalism, paranoid thoroughness and deliberately soul-crushing use of intimidation-architecture. Everett Street Gate was typical. They crossed a drawbridge that could be raised instantly by giant counterweights, then a great squat castle of four towers on the western bank of the 405, with the roadway running past massive gates of solid steel and under a high arched ceiling pierced with murder holes and slots for portcullis after portcullis to drop, more gates, the bridge with sections that could be dropped at the pull of levers or flooded with burning napalm or both, then another castle as strong as the first in the city wall proper.

The guard commander gave her a swift but genuine once-over before passing her through; despite the early hour the traffic was heavy, but the crossbowmen were still searching wagons and pulling random or suspicious travelers aside for more thorough searches. Tiphaine nodded sober approval; she'd signed off on those orders herself, and damn the inconvenience. Being dead was more inconvenient still.

Lioncel looked at the fortifications with innocent pride; they'd been finished before he was born.

"They say Des Moines in Iowa is bigger, my lady, but I doubt there's a city anywhere that's stronger!"

"Probably not," Tiphaine said, and the page rested silently; he knew better than to try and chat.

She swung down from the pedicab outside the building that housed the War Ministry, across from a small square of greenery and trees. Other pedicabs came and went along Park, and horses clip-clopped; churls and varlets pulled handcarts, led long teams of oxen that dragged heavy wagons, hurried about errands. A streetcar rumbled by behind its six-mule hitch down tracks completed just last year, and there was a scattering of private carriages as well.

Further north and closer to the river-wall the Main Post Office building was serving as a hospital and relocation depot, since it was amply large and was conveniently across the street from Union train station. A tickle of ambulances passed, taking the recovering elsewhere, and everyone tried to make way for them.

"Lioncel," she said. "Go down to the hospital and make sure your lady mother isn't overdoing it. If she is tired or looks tired, tell her I said to go get some rest and to remind her she's seven months pregnant. If she won't, go find the Dowager Molalla and get Phillipa to help you chase her home. Don't take no for an answer. Once you've done that, get one of the housemaids to sit with her while she rests and come back to my office."

"Yes, my Lady!"

He smiled, ducked his bright head with its black brimless page's hat, and dashed away.

The guards in front of five-arched granite loggia of the War Ministry were a platoon in three-quarter armor with glaives, seven-foot polearms topped with a wicked head like a giant single-edged butcher's knife with a thick hook on the reverse. They were at parade rest—feet apart, left hand tucked behind the back, extended right hand holding the weapon with the butt against the right foot and the rest slanted out. As she came up they went to attention and rapped the steel-shod buts of the glaives against the pavement, and Tiphaine returned the salute gravely.

Their gear was not quite the kind the Association used, and the sigil on their breastplates was the snarling red bear's-head of the Bearkillers. They weren't A-listers, the Bearkiller equivalent of knights; things were too fraught to waste elite troops on duty like this, though even Bearkiller militia had a precise snap to the way they did things.

But they're doing something useful here, not just propping up their glaives. They're showing for everyone to see that this is an alliance and we're all in the war together. Armed Bearkillers in Portland, the people founded by Mike Havel, the man who killed Norman Arminger. Now if we had more than a talking-shop to coordinate things at the top, we'd be... not fine, you can't be fine when you're outnumbered two to one... we'd be a lot better off. The problem is none of the existing rulers will bow to one of their own.

The legend along the top of the loggia had been switched from U.S. Customs House to War Ministry of the Portland Protective Association long ago. Now that was tactfully obscured by staffs bearing a dozen flags, covering all the more important realms of the Meeting. The Lidless Eye in gold and crimson on black wasn't even in the center.

Sandra really knows how to handle this sort of thing, Tiphaine thought. Considering that this is where we plotted and planned and schemed to conquer everyone and divide their land up into fiefs. What a magnificent bitch that woman is!

The building was a block-square pile in the Victorian era's idea of Italian Renaissance style right down to the terra-cotta up on the fourth-floor roofs and the Doric columns. The nineteenth century stone-and-brick construction was why it had been a natural for post-Change conversion once Portland settled down, with a hundred thousand square feet of office space that didn't absolutely depend on powered ventilation to remain habitable. She flung up a hand to halt a rush of paper-waving bureaucrats trying to get her attention as she came through the doors and into the marble splendors of the lobby, grunting thankfully when a pair of her military secretaries showed up and started running interference.

The situation room on the left occupied one of the flanking tower chambers with an overhead skylight; it was in purposeful movement when she stuck her head in, under the management of Lord Rigobert, Baron Forest Grove, Marchwarden of the South and currently her number two.

He gave her a quick nod that said: under control. Tiphaine could see several Bearkillers and some Corvallans with him, all gesturing at the same great square map table. Aides moved unit markers with rods like pool cues, and the technical conversation stopped now and then for quick lessons in various groups' military terminology.

We're trying to keep a lid on the news of the Great Pendleton Cluster-Fuck; a panic would be a bad thing. But it'll break soon. News still moves.

She'd never been able to really understand the impulse to run in circles and squeal when faced with a problem; she knew it existed and had to be dealt with, but she couldn't imagine how it felt. Even as a child she'd always been able to put danger out of mind with a simple effort of will and go on with what needed doing. Otherwise she couldn't have been a gymnast and spent hours every day stressing her body to ten-tenths of capacity.

Fortunately the heliograph net is the fastest way to move information and we control it, so we can get ahead of the curve, if we're sharp, and Sandra most certainly is. She'll have a version that's spun our way and have it out so widely and thoroughly that it'll be the one most people accept, the more so as it'll be true enough that the actual news reinforces our subsidized troubadours and newsletters and Sunday sermons.

Up through arched doorways, marble-clad piers, beams with classical plaster moldings, murals and groined vaults. A grand cast-iron stairway extended from the center of the first floor to the fourth floor, with marble treads, double balusters with spiral and acanthus ornamentation. Tiphaine took the stairs three at a time, dodging the steady stream of pages who charged up and down with a sublime disregard for any obstacles and packets of messages in their hands.

It's a minor miracle this didn't end up as the Lord Protector's City Palace, she thought. Though the Central Library's about as good.

She strode through her outer office, where what she privately dubbed the widow brigade were busily keeping up with the constant flow of paper reports; male nobles dodged this sort of job when they could, and the clerics who swarmed over the ordinary civil administration of the PPA weren't considered suitable. Typewriters clacked, adding machines clattered and rang their bells; abacus made rattling sounds and pages ran back and forth on softsoled shoes, yelping:

"Excuse me—"

"My Lady!"

"Not there, you nit!"

While carrying completed reports, paper and ink supplies, food, and drinks...

Maps flapped back and forth on swinging panel poster display racks as the clerks pushed in pins updating troop positions, enemy sightings and resource allocation.

Color-coded file bins crowded the aisle to her office; more hung around inside, packed with information, sorted in any order she might need. Carefully stacked piles of dockets, folders and accordion files covered the long tables that ran around the outer wall of the antechamber. As she entered her own office and racked her sword she could see a neat pile of dispatch wallets on the desk sorted into levels of urgency as indicated by the knot codes, right beside the Seal and the tray of red wax disks.

Rigobert brought six packets in, according to Lioncel; that's nine there. They breed the way coat-hangers used to do in closets. I'd better process them.

A map table, much smaller than Rigobert's downstairs, tried to make sense of troop dispositions and the strategic situation.

What a cluster-fuck, she repeated to herself after a quick look to check for major developments.

‘They have humbugged me, by God' as Wellington put it. At least we had contingency plans in place. And thank heavens for Sandra's habit of collecting valuable people!

Meticulous notes on her desk flagged the most urgent files in order of priority. Which important task was done by...

"Dame Lilianth, if you would," Tiphaine called, raising her voice slightly.

Dame Lilianth of Kalama did not look like a spy as she came in and firmly closed the glass door behind her; she hardly even looked like an office manager. Five foot four, plump going on fat, rosy cheeks, her silvering hair hidden under a light blue wimple that picked up the lighter color on her brocaded cotte-hardi. She looked like a happy matronly woman whose primary concern was spoiling her grandchildren and perhaps puttering around her garden bossing the workmen.

Tiphaine suddenly grinned sardonically at her and Dame Lilianth matched her expression with an equal savagery.

I look pretty much like what I am. She doesn't. Both useful, Tiphaine thought.

Lilianth Oppenhier had been an Office Administrator in the days when light traveled along wires rather than coming from oil-soaked wicks, and a member of the Society. Sandra had taken her and her three daughters into the household when her husband was killed in the opening moves of the Protector's War and her lack of a male heir lost her a land-claim in a legal mud-wrestling match with House Gutierrez. Since then she'd been extremely useful and had prospered accordingly. Sandra Arminger knew how to reward good service, and in more ways that simple largess.

"There's a little nuisance to get out of the way first, my lady Grand Constable," Lilianth said. "Herluin Smith's widow is asking for a page placement for their son, Henriot. This is the third letter in three months, she's using the squeaky-wheel principle, but she does have a claim."

"That's Mary Smith we're talking about... why is every other woman in the Association named Mary?"

Lilianth grinned at her. "Including me. Mary Oppenheir. Sandra was very firm that I needed to use my Society name forevermore... for the reason you just stated."

"She renamed me out of a book, when I made Associate, and I never even liked the character—a pathetic little dweeb. I should have gotten Yolande or Heuradys."

"Oh, those books. What were you called, my lady? I've never heard."

"Collette. Collette Rutherston; strange, I haven't thought of that in years. At Binnsmeade Middle School they used to call me Collie and go woof-woof at me in the corridors."

Back before we reinstated the Code Duello. Nothing like the prospect of dying with six inches of steel through the brisket to keep people polite.

"The mind boggles. Do you want me to hint that Mary Smith should remember that squeaky wheels make good firewood?" Lilianth said.

"No, no. We're feudalists."

Which means you can't separate the personal and the political and everything is family and patronage.

"Have a polite letter sent to her saying that after the crisis is past, meaning if we're still alive, say between Michaelmas and Christmas, I will find a place for the boy. By the way, how's Ysolde? I see that she's going to pop, probably a month after Delia?"

Lilianth turned her head towards the door for a moment. Her eldest daughter was outside, updating some of the graphs posted on the far wall. She'd made an extremely advantageous marriage with the Betancourt family's eldest, not least because Sandra worked the network behind the scenes. As a bonus the two young people liked each other.

"That's all working out very well, my lady," she said, with satisfaction in her voice.

Tiphaine nodded and looked at her desk. "Where shall I begin, Mistress Lilianth?"

"The Lady Regent sent a very urgent and confidential dispatch box yesterday, quite late. I have it under lock and key."

Right, Sandra doesn't joggle my elbow for trivia, Tiphaine thought.

One of the nicer things about working for the Spider of the Silver Tower was that she gave you a job and the resources and information you needed and then left you to get on with it.

Though God have mercy if you screw the pooch, for she won't.

"I'd suggest that you start your day with that. You can continue with the dispatches from the hospital and the death letters."

She plucked two wallets out of the pile. Tiphaine took them and waited for Lilianth to bring Sandra's dispatch.

No need to guess what's about. Mathilda's letter is quite clear; Alex Vinton finked her out to the Cutters off there in the wilds of Idaho, and did it with Mary Liu's knowledge and approbation. The only upside is that Odard Liu wasn't involved; he got screwed over too, and saved Matti's life. And he's Baron Gervais now, so since the head of the family is loyal and can be shown to be loyal we needn't proscribe the lot of them and attaint the estates. That would drop the horseapple in the bobbing bucket right along with the Golden Delicious just now, the way the nobility are antsy about things in general.

But Mary Liu would have to go, one way or another. Which probably meant her brother Guelf Mortimer had to go, too, he was a notorious grudge bearer and was almost certainly involved in anything she was. Her other brother Sir Jason had been a serious loose cannon, and Tiphaine had had to deal with him back fifteen years ago. There wouldn't be any need to cook a trial for Mary, the evidence was right there, but Guelf might be awkward if he didn't fuck up in dramatic fashion or show what a skank he was politically.

The problem was that so far he'd been performing far better than she'd expected. Killing a competent leader just because had a serious potential for blowback down the road these days. It wasn't like Norman's time, when nobody knew in the morning if their head would be attached to a spike over the gate at sundown.

Will the Lady Regent prefer a large public trial for the Dowager Baroness Liu or a nice private referral to the Court of Star-Chamber, which is to say, herself? A large, very emotionally charged trial, against a woman who has proclaimed her ill-usage since before the Field of the Cloth of Gold will not go over well with the Associates with this war getting going and so far not going well at all. On the other hand, just having her mysteriously drop dead... we've been trying to cut back on stuff that raw, getting ready for the transition when Mathilda turns twenty-six and becomes Lady Protector. On the third hand, Mathilda ran away with Rudi and they're off looking for a magic sword in the Death Zones of the east, and along the way she just handed us this can of worms. Damn it, I love the girl like a kid sister but smart as she is she's a pain in the ass sometimes.

She was still thinking hard when Lilianth came back with a small steel box. It had the Lady Regent's personal sigil on it, an etching of the Virgin subduing the Dragon of Sin, which was one of Sandra's private jokes. The same was stamped onto a paper-and-wax seal over the lock.

"I witness that the seal is unbroken," Tiphaine said, then flicked it off with the point of her dagger.

"I witness that you have broken the seal and unlocked the dispatch box," Lilianth said as Tiphaine turned the key.

The Grand Constable gestured to the door. Lilianth closed it as she left. The carrick bend knot wound with copper wire was one only used by Sandra Arminger and only to Tiphaine or Conrad Renfrew. She drummed her fingers on the disk, still turning over the implications of Mary's treason and the way the Associates would react to any public news of her complicity. Then she neatly snipped the copper coils and undid the knot and unfolded her instructions.

Hmmm, she wrote this with her own hand; and she was upset. Unusual for Sandra, but then Mathilda is the focus of everything for her. Her latest amanuensis... Lady Jehane, of House Jones... is what, seventeen? Why didn't she entrust it to her? She's old enough and she'll have to deal with the grittier aspects of life, soon enough.

Tiphaine read the directions again.

Oh! Tricky, very tricky. How are we going to do this? Glad I stuck Guelf with Viscount Chenoweth at Hermiston, he's nicely out of the way for now and young Renfrew can keep an eye on him.

Tiphaine closed her eyes, used a mnemonic trick to make sure she'd memorized the Regent's missive and then set it alight in the room's empty fireplace. A few strokes of the poker made sure that nobody could reconstruct anything from the ashes as well.

She sat for a moment in silence, then looked up as the door opened.

"The condolence letters, my lady," Lilianth said.

An unpleasantly long casualty list was attached, and the allies had suffered badly while breaking loose too. Tiphaine took the letters and began to sign them carefully; it was her job to take care of the noblemen, just as each lord would do the same by letter or in person for his subordinates. No dashing off her signature in the pre-Change fashion. Each one was a work of art, and much treasured by many of the recipients.

They gave their lives for the Association, the least the Association can give them back is a duly formal letter of thanks. And for once it's not the most unpleasant duty in prospect.

She shook her hand out when she'd finished and plunged into the data in the rest of the files and reports. It was even soothing, in a way; when you were in the thick of things any battle felt like a defeat and an actual defeat felt like unmitigated disaster.

But according to this it's more of a mitigated disaster.

Meanwhile she could feel her subconscious chewing over Sandra's orders and the information she had and coming up with a way to reach the desired outcome. A page came in with a list of provisional unit movement orders from Rigobert de Stafford; she glanced at it, went over to the map, thought for a moment and scribbled approved, d'Ath on the bottom and set him running back to the situation room. The door opened at ten, just as she was about to call for a stenographer, and Lioncel came in with a cup of hot coffee. She gave a slight jerk of her head towards the desk.

"Good, I'll have an errand for you soon. Put it there. Did you get Delia home?"

"Yes, my Lady, at your orders, my Lady. Lady Phillipa had to help me, but we sent her home an hour ago. Lady Phillipa asked me to help with the records and said she'd make it good with you."

Tiphaine nodded. "I'm fine with that. Does she need any more help? I can probably send over a few of the widow brigade."

Lioncel grinned. "She says no. I say yes, my lady. She doesn't want to interfere with the war ministry's needs."

Tiphaine scribbled some names on a scrap of paper and waved her hand in dismissal. "Notify these that they're seconded. And send Dame Lilianth in on your way," she said as she took a quick swallow of the acrid brew.

Better watch it or I'll be peeing all afternoon, she thought. And remember what the headaches were like the last time you had to cold-turkey, the stuff's too expensive and the supply's too unreliable to get really dependent on it.

"Sit, Dame Lilianth. I am going to make you the possessor of a secret and part of a conspiracy. I have instructions from the Lady Regent and wide latitude on how to carry them out."

The older woman sat, her plain brown eyes deliberately and annoyingly bland. "By your word," she said, an ironic twist to her voice. "What can I do for my Lady the Spider?"

Tiphaine leaned back in her swivel chair and put her hands behind her head, staring thoughtfully at the coffered ceiling.

"It's complicated and it will need us to be very quiet and sneaky. As a start, I want you to have a fainting fit—people actually believe in those again, so useful—and call for your son-in-law's brother's help. He's on garrison duty with the city castellan, isn't he?"

"Garrick? Certainly... what next?"

"It's enough like my special-ops days to make me feel nostalgic. We—"

 

@@@

 

As the door closed on Dame Lilianth, Tiphaine broke open the next dispatch. My head hurts again... but not as much as Astrid's does!

Alone, she let a sudden sharp grin split her face. She relished the second of pure, unadulterated joy contemplating Astrid Loring's concussion gave her. The thought of how the fact that Tiphaine had rescued her from the wreck of her covert ops mission gave a more subtle pleasure; it would be grit under the Hiril Dúnedain's eyelids for the rest of her life.

Or it would be for me, in her position, and I can hope we're enough alike for that to be so for her as well.

She worked her way through the day's stack of wallets and made a good start on the stack of allocation files. The Association's military system was largely self-financing, but only as long as you didn't need to use it for anything but routine. Once vassals had done more than their regulation forty days of service in the field, they had to be paid. And of course all the allied contingents were trying to shift as much of their costs as possible onto the Portland treasury.

Lioncel brought her lunch. And his brother, two years younger and as dark as Lioncel was fair, but otherwise much like his brother. The three made their usual quick meal in the office on the pork-loin sandwiches and potato salad and fruit. Dame Lilianth scolded as Diomede tried to avoid getting a huge yellow mustard blot on his hose—and succeeded in getting it all over the floor. After he had cleaned it up, she sent him out with Dame Lilianth and Ysolde to work on organizing the kitchens to cope with the influx of temporary workers; that was good training in logistics.

She was deep into a plan submitted by the Count Palantine of Walla-Walla to reinforce Castle Campscapell and wondering if it could, just possibly, be a scheme to get his own troops inside that Crown fortress when a quick tap on the door broke into her concentration.

"Come."

Her senior squire Armand Georges poked his head in.

"Urgent dispatch, my lady Grand Constable."

"Another?"

She managed to keep most of the sound of resentment out of her voice; this sort of thing went with the job.

"What is it this time?"

"Sir Guelf Mortimer of Loison... did a bunk."

"Shit! A bunk?"

"Fled. Scarpered. Twinkle-toed into the wild blue distance. Absent without leave..."

"All right."

Tiphaine snapped her mouth shut, and squeezed her eyes shut for an instant. She'd parked him out at Hermiston to keep him on ice while the Gervais problem was dealt with. On the other hand...

"Tell me how Guelf pulled it off."

He shrugged. "From what we've managed to piece together, he conned each of the back-scouting parties into believing he was with the other one. Unfortunately for him, Sir Thierry Renfrew ran into a CUT probe down the Columbia. He fought and called for reinforcements. That's the train that arrived at four this morning with the wounded. Chenoweth called up Mortimer's picket. They had some trouble finding them. He finally tracked them down late yesterday. Guelf left early on the 19th."

"Days! He could be anywhere by now.

"But there's not much doubt where he's headed. Gervais."

"Yes." She frowned. "That getaway was a lot more subtle than Guelf's usual level. But heading for Gervais is putting his head on the block and even he should have been able to see that. Uncharacteristically smart, then bone-stupid even beyond his usual."

"Offhand, I'd say that means he's being used as a puppet, and by someone who doesn't care about the consequences for him."

"Good analysis."

She smiled then, and even Armand blinked, though he'd been one of her operatives for years.

"I was hoping to keep the Gervais problems on hold, but the operation's ready to go. And Guelf has just delivered himself into my hand. Desertion in the face of the enemy!"

She held her right hand out, palm-up, and then slowly closed the long fingers into a fist. Then she reached out for Chenoweth's dispatch.

"Go find Sir Garrick Betancourt. He'll be down with the Marchwarden of the South in the situation room. Tell him drop the hammer. Verbal orders only, of course."

Armand nodded and left at a brisk walk; running would attract the eye and arouse curiosity.

Tiphaine leaned back from the crowded desk and let her fingers trace the pommel of the misericord at his belt.

Thirty miles, give or take, and the rail runs right through Gervais. Betancourt should be there by mid afternoon if he pushes it.

Mistress Douglas came in with a new sheaf of papers and searched for the correct docket to file them in.

Tiphaine followed her out to talk to one of the typists.

"Mistress Romero, write and send a message to the Regent. It can go in the clear, as fast as possible. Guelf Mortimer of Loiston has drawn the dotted line."

Puzzlement, and then she could see everyone assuming that it was some private code. It was; the rest of the phrase was on the back of his neck, which was where the headsman's ax went—Guelf wouldn't rate the two-handed sword, not being a tenant-in-chief.

 

@@@

 

Chartered City of Goldendale
County of Aurea
Portland Protective Association
(Formerly central Washington)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
August 5th, Change Year 25/2023 A.D.

 

Mathilda grimaced slightly as Tiphaine halted her narrative.

"There weren't any palatable choices right there, were there, Tiph?"

"That's war for you, Matti. Particularly this type; we just couldn't take any chances on the politics of it. Fortunately I'm not at the ultimate policy-making level. I'm more like a crossbow. You point me and pull the trigger."

"And I am doing the aiming now, and the only ones I can blame things on if it goes wrong are Rudi and God, which wouldn't be a good idea. Well, the Liu siblings need to know some of that. That way of dealing with Mary Liu was so Mom, though. Just trying to follow her logic makes my brain hurt, sometimes. It's always there but it's... twisty."

"At least you can follow it. Thousands couldn't, and a lot of them came down with a case of the deads. Not least the late unlamented Dowager Baroness Liu, in the end."

The man-at-arms came back up the stairs.

"His Reverence Abbot-Bishop Dmwoski, Your Majesty," he said. "The Honorable Huon Liu, heir to Barony Gervais; the Honorable Yseult Liu."

Tiphaine looked at her, and Mathilda nodded slightly. Then she smiled and rose as they entered and made their bow and curtsey; she advanced and kissed Dmwoski's ring respectfully, then extended her hands to the youngsters. She'd known them socially, of course—Odard had been a frequent companion of hers for years before the quest. But they'd both been teenagers and then young adults, and at that age you tended to ignore younger siblings who were still children. Neither had been presented at court.

And their mother tended to keep them very close, she thought. Even before she went to the bad.

"Lord Huon, Lady Yseult," she said gently. "I am so sorry about Odard. I miss him terribly, but you can be very proud of him. It was an honor to be his friend and liege."

She liked the way Huon reacted, dignified but reserved; for a fifteen-year-old it was rather impressive. He moved well, too, and looked as if he'd have something of Odard's wiry strength. Yseult was more reserved still, and...

Tiphaine gives her the willies, though she hides it well. Of course, looked at objectively Tiph is scary as hell; she doesn't scare me because I grew up around her. She did kill Yseult's mother. So I don't expect more than courtesy, but if the girl is going to be around Court, she just has to get used to it.

"And you all know Baroness d'Ath."

Another round of polite bows. Mathilda could tell that Dmwoski was being a bit chilly, and Tiphaine was secretly amused by it; she respected Dmwoski despite his faith, not for it.

I don't think the Lius noticed. They're smart enough, but young yet.

The cleric and the Grand Constable were both far too self-controlled to make it obvious. Or to let personal dislikes interfere with the job, for that matter.

"Please sit, and help yourselves," Mathilda said. "I understand you've been on the train all day, and it can't have been much fun."

"Crowded and slow, Your Majesty," Dmwoski said. "But that's only to be expected in wartime."

Mathilda chatted a little to relax them; Huon grew enthusiastic about the gear and horses he'd picked up in Portland, and the prospect of going on his first real campaign after training to war all his life, and his swearing ceremony as a squire. That was natural enough, since it was big step and one that was overdue. After a few minutes he was also wolfing down the chicken empanadas. Yseult nibbled on one and agreed that she was up to transferring to a forward field hospital of the type the Sisters were setting up here in Goldendale.

"Ah... do you want to take my oath now, Your Majesty?" Huon said.

Mathilda shook her head. "Tomorrow, and publicly," she said decisively. "That will be better, if you think about it."

She watched them carefully; Yseult grasped the point first, but Huon was only a second behind. A public oath would be a public statement: I trust Huon Liu at my back, or more specifically I trust Huon Liu at my back with a dagger, twenty-four-seven. Neither was obvious about it either, which was good.

People might, would, still talk, but they'd do it in a whisper and not where he could hear. More importantly, they wouldn't do it where the High Queen or anyone close to her could hear it either.

"I understand that you've been eager to hear the results of the Most Reverend Father's investigations," she said after a moment's quiet contemplation. "Besides being most helpful."

"Ah... not exactly eager, Your Majesty," Huon said.

He and his sister exchanged a glance.

Those two are allies against the world, Mathilda thought.

A little wistfully, since she'd been an only child. And necessarily a little isolated from others her own age by her birth, except for Rudi.

Though that only child thing may have been for the best. Still, I'm glad my children will have lots of brothers and sisters. Kinship is... not everything, but close.

"But we do want to know," Yseult said. "It's, ummm, hit us so often and so badly, but a lot of it was just bewildering, especially at the time. We only knew the bits that happened to us, Your Majesty, and then it was like... we had to realize that all this had been going on around us without our knowing."

Mathilda nodded. "That's part of growing up, but this is a pretty extreme case. You've earned the right to know," she said. "I'm going to tell you what happened immediately after Pendleton. That was when my letter arrived back home, about how Alex Vinson betrayed us... betrayed me and Odard to the Cutters. Unfortunately, that was also when the CUT decided to activate your uncle Guelf. Whether he liked it or not. They probably knew the news would get back, after Odard and I were rescued."

Dmwoski nodded. "As I've said before, there is no spoon long enough to sup safely with them. I heard a little of this from a Mackenzie who was involved."

"I debriefed the Renfrews," Tiphaine said. "And handled a lot of stuff later that revealed what had been going on at Hermiston. Chime in if I'm missing anything, Most Reverend Father. What apparently happened is that Guelf got desperate because—"

 

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Hermiston, County Hermiston
(Formerly Umatilla County)
Portland Protective Association
(Formerly north-central Oregon)
September 17th, Change Year 23/2021 A.D.

 

Sir Guelf Mortimer felt he was doing a good imitation of a brooding falcon as the pedal-car rumbled into the Hermiston station and orderlies rushed forward to take the badly wounded away. The brooding was keeping his chatty squires away from him, at least. He hoped they were still smarting from his tongue-lashing.

"Off and down, off and down, clear the line!" someone shouted.

No word from the Ascended Masters, he thought. Was it because I was always with the Odell crowd, or that they don't have any word for me?

Odo was clinging to him as they jumped off the pedalcab. The boy was shaking and had bruises under his eyes, emphasized by the light of the flaring torches that supplemented the alcohol lanterns; the sun was nearly down, though the western horizon was still eye-hurting crimson. As soon as the Gervais men were clear a party came running up with loaded stretchers.

On another siding reinforcements were jumping down off a train of eastbound horse-drawn rail wagons and falling into ranks, their three-quarter armor incongruously clean and their eyes wide as they stared about at the filthy blood-splashed scarecrow figures, the limping walking wounded and the grisly shapes on the stretchers. Corvallans, from the Benny the Beaver image on their breastplates; their knockdown pikes or crossbows were still slung over their backs as they formed up and marched away.

"OK, Odo. Tonight you will camp with us. But tomorrow you and Father Stanyon are taking Terry home for burial. I don't want you slipping out of that."

And in this heat, we'll have to get a well-sealed coffin.

His heart ached for the boy as he shook his head, dark greasy hair clinging to his skin, tear tracks down the dirty cheeks, mouth gapping as he yawned so wide Guelf wondered if he'd crack the jaw joint. And while disobedience couldn't be tolerated, at least he'd done it from an excess of spirit.

"Let's go find Father Stanyon," he said firmly, suppressing his own wide yawn.

"Charlmain! You and Brandon get the men bivouacked and set up sentries. I don't care how safe you feel; we've left a lot of angry enemies behind. They thought they were going to swallow us down and they didn't and they'll be feeling cheated."

The squires knuckled their foreheads and went in search of Sir Thierry's provosts and directions to the campgrounds. Guelf found Stanyon a block away, after pushing his way through streets that were a mass of troops and horses and vehicles almost to the edge of the castle moat; the little town was so insignificant it didn't even have a wall, and the few locals were like chips on a torrent. One of the warehouses was being used as a field hospital. As he walked into its lantern-lit dimness there was a heavy smell of spoiled blood from the bandages heaped in corners, heat, sweat, pain and disinfectant. Healers from half a dozen of the allied powers were sorting and doing emergency surgery on a set of blood-stained tables. A line of volunteers stood ready to lie down next to the injured and provide transfusions.

Odo slitted his eyes to keep out as much as he could. Even Guelf gulped a little. He was well-used to the butcher-shop horrors that happened when men hacked and stabbed with edged weapons, but there was something chilling about this in an entirely different way. Moans and shrieks sounded every now and then, not often enough to be disregarded, so that every new one hit you fresh.

The seven wounded from Gervais who'd survived and three bodies of those who'd died here were laid together. Father Stanyon and a Mackenzie medic were standing toe to toe over one unconscious figure. The kilted clanswoman was slight but bristling, her brown braid swinging as she shook her head emphatically.

"And what part of no is it that's too complicated for you to be understanding the now, you cowan blockhead?" she shouted in a Mackenzie lilt, arms windmilling the way they did.

"Here's my Lord, talk to him, pagan bitch!" the priest shouted back.

Guelf grunted; he felt as if his eyes had been taken out and the backs sanded, then the sockets dusted with hot ash before they were replaced. He glared, but neither quailed.

"Out," he snarled, and turned on his heel. "Now!"

Outside Father Stanyon spoke in an angry, even tone. "She dosed that man we picked up with laudanum. Dosed him heavily, forced it suddenly down his throat."

Guelf frowned. "So?" he asked.

Even he knew that was standard if you didn't want to inject a wounded man with morphine, which was expensive even for military use and had to be saved for the most urgent cases. Ones who were unconscious or who couldn't keep an oral medication down.

The Mackenzie medic nodded at him. "Not going to apologize, my Lord. Both the Father and I agree, the spalpeen isn't actually one of your Gervais men."

Baffled, Guelf's stubbled face swung back and forth. "He isn't?"

"No." Father Stanyon hesitated. "He's dressed in the bloodstained clothing of one of ours, however. Blood all over the right kidney."

Guelf growled. That was the mark of an assassin; a knife in the kidney was the fastest and quietest way to kill quickly. There was a whole knot of big blood vessels there, and if you stuck the blade deep, in just the right place, and twisted sharply unconsciousness followed almost instantly. It was a lot easier and less obviously messy than slitting a throat too, if you left the knife in for a moment.

"Killed one of ours to sneak in one of their spies?" he grated.

The Mackenzie nodded briskly, removing the surgical mask that had fallen around her neck over the thin golden torc.

"Yes. ‘twould be my guess, do you see, that he threw himself down looking all wounded and hurt to be carried in, planning to get up when nobody was looking in the hurry and chaos. Blood on clothing is not the most uncommon of things about here, I'm observing. It's the Mother's own luck that I happened to do a quick triage check; and there the spalpeen's back was, not sliced or cut or stabbed at all. So I grabbed the creature's nose and poured the dose down his throat."

Now what?

Guelf felt like a parrot lived in his brain; or that an ax had cut it in half. One side of it was reacting with an instinctive rage. The other...

Was he sent to contact me? I can't tell. And the man is unconscious and going to stay that way... damned officious Mackenzie. Better send him on to the Grand Constable. The Witch-Queen might easily learn too much. I can't kill him or keep him, that would make people suspicious right away!

"Right. Father Stanyon, my thanks for defending our interests and referring this decision to me. I'll take the advice of our ally. Who should take charge of the prisoner, witch?"

The Mackenzie gestured to the men standing by. Both of them were notably hard-faced, and the clothes under their armor were a uniform brown. Scratches and dings and a spray of something reddish-brown dried across one didn't disguise the snarling face-on bear's head.

"Those are a couple of Larsdalen men; they came with us. They'll get the prisoner to the Grand Constable or Lady Juniper, if I ask. Lady d'Ath is with Odell south of here, at Biggs Junction; our Chief is at Dun Juniper. Mac an donais! Just get the creature out of here, and fast would be best. He smells, and in more ways than one."

Guelf bowed, a short gesture. "He's all yours, gentlemen; take him to the Grand Constable and report all you've heard. Just give me back the clothes; I hope to identify the man he killed. One more notch on the blade."

"Come, Odo, we need to say goodbye to Terry and check on Chezzy."

Guelf sighed gently as he turned away. If the man had been his contact, it was a good thing the Mackenzie had intervened. Good in the short term, at least. A bubble of fear was starting to burn down under his breastbone; fear worse than a spearpoint coming for his face.

The Mackenzie nodded. "I want him out and harmless. We've been warned that the Cutters sometimes possess powers dangerous to ordinary folk, so."

Father Stanyon crossed himself and murmured a prayer.

The Mackenzie gave him a sardonic look. "We'll hog-tie him and send him on to the Grand Constable... but he goes drugged. I know more about magic than you do. By definition. And the first and the last and the heart of it is paying attention."

Guelf looked at Father Stanyon.

He was one of Pope Leo's men. Very srtict, but very brave, and honest... Well, so am I! I just know more Now what? I want to say good bye to Terry, check up on Chezzy and go to sleep. God, I must sleep!

 

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"Sir Guelf..."

Guelf Mortimer began to start up from his bedroll and draw his sword where it lay near him across his saddle, but forced himself to be still instead.

Am I dreaming? Did I hear that?

It was very dark, but the steel might be seen. He knew that voice; Alex Vinton, Odard's manservant. But there was nobody here, nobody at all.

God. I keep waiting for provosts with a warrant for arrest. Or to turn around and it's that bitch d'Ath, smiling. Or one of her pupils. Or I just don't wake up. Did the man talk? It's days now.... of course he'd talk! Everyone talks when you hold their head under water the fiftieth time! Did he know my name, that's the question.

There just a hint of light on the rolling ground around him, starlight teasing with almost-sight.

Or maybe... maybe they don't talk. The Ascended Masters...

The whisper hung in the star-spangled dark. The moon hung low in the west, this late in the night; a few days past full. Guelf turned, thrashed a second, kicking off his blanket, and staggered up to his feet and away from the sleeping men, past the one sentry.

"Back in a minute," he mumbled, fumbling with his trews.

"Aye, my lord," murmured the sentry back.

The latrine was ten paces further on and a new dark shadow was lying on the far side of the little ditch where the excess dirt had been piled up. The bright moonlight distorted expected shapes and humps.

"Sir Guelf?"

"Vinton?"

"Yes, my lord."

Guelf controlled his anger. Yelling at the man was not going to help right now and would wake the men behind them. They were all Loiston Manor men, but you never could tell. Chenoweth had had words with all of them before they'd left.

"What news?"

"The Ascended Masters say you are to return to Gervais as fast as possible. A spy has found you and the Lady Mary out and we couldn't intercept either the spy or the dispatches. They've been in the hands of the Regency for several days, now."

"What's happened with my damned nephew?"

An odd sound came from across the ditch. "Captured with the Princess by the CUT. I freed him; the fellowship freed her. The little nephilite whore sent the news to her bitch of a mother."

"Does my nephew know?"

"Good question. You've been standing here too long. I'll meet you on the Woodburn Road after you've helped your sister burn the papers."

Strange, he thought, letting a stream go into the stinking trench. I'm really going to do that. I can't really tell why I'm going to do it, though.

The thought floated away. There was a rustle and Vinton was gone. Guelf shrugged and peed before making his way back to the men. He didn't lie down, but paced quietly near the sentry instead.

His mind was moving, thinking, planning, but the forepart of his brain refused to analyze it. Now and then he'd feel another surge of fear, as if he were floating over one of the waterfalls in gorge of the Columbia, weightless, rushing out into space and turning and turning with the rocks below, and then it would slip away again.

I must get back to Gervairs, Guelf thought and spat reflexively. No, the longer but more sure route is my best bet.

Dawn came soon, touching the eastern horizon with a paler color. He grabbed one of the bicycles and spoke quietly to the sentry.

"I'm uneasy about our railroad team. Something woke me up. Tell Sergeant Gavin to carry on as planned and I'll re-join you late tomorrow."

"Sir Guelf, do you think you should? Alone?"

If anything was lacking to convince him that his cover had been ripped, this questioning of his orders was it.

"I'm not loosing seven good men just because I'm too timid to follow up my instincts. Carry on."

He wanted to snap, to yell, to roar at the impertinence of the man... But he didn't want to wake up Sergeant Gavin.

Let the interfering old relic sleep. If I'm gone, he'll wait for me to return. Besides which, he really needs to get the scouting done, not waste time chasing a wild hare called Guelf!

 

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