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THE SWORD OF THE LADY

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


 

CHAPTER TWO:

 

Barony of Ath, Portland Protective Association

Tulatin Valley, Oregon

August 15th, Change Year 24/2022 AD

 

The Lord High Chancellor and the Grand Constable of the PPA rode side-by-side through the harvested field, with their hawks on their wrists and the attendants at a discreet distance behind. A covey of pheasants exploded from the ground ahead of their horses in a cracking flutter of wings.

Both the Associates were in what Portlander fashion decreed for gentlemen engaged in rural pleasures on a summer’s day; turned-down thigh-boots with the golden spurs of knighthood on the heels, doeskin breeches, baggy-sleeved linen shirts beneath long T-tunics cinched by broad sword-belts of studded and tooled leather, and wraparound sunglasses in gilded frames.

Embroidered heraldic shields on their chests showed their arms. Those of Lord Chancellor Conrad Renfrew—also Count of Odell—were sable, a snow-topped mountain argent on vert; it echoed the towering perfect cone of Mt. Hood, just visible as a tiny silver spike on the eastern horizon. Baroness Tiphaine d’Ath bore sable, a delta or over a V argent; she wore a discreet livery badge at the brow of her hat as well, her own arms quartered with Sandra Arminger’s in token of vassalage.

“Your turn,” the Count of Odell said, nodding towards the pheasants skimming over the ground.

“Thanks, Conrad,” Tiphaine said.

This was one of the Five Great Fields of her manor of Montinore, and the three hundred acres of brown-blond wheat stubble with clover pushing up below provided plenty of cover. The ring of hawthorn hedge and wide-spaced poplars around it were full of good places for nesting, and even conscientious gleaners didn’t get all the fallen grain that attracted quarry.

“Three gets you five that cock pheasant makes it to the hedge,” the older noble said.

The big black-gray peregrine on her wrist crouched and bated with a bristle of feathers as she slipped free the hood, and a faint sweet ring from the silver bells on its bewit-straps as the talons closed and relaxed in anticipation. It knew what the sudden coming of the light meant. Then its mad slit-pupil yellow eyes flared dark as they fixed themselves on the prey; she could feel the strength of its grip on her wrist through the thick leather of the glove.

“Done,” Tiphaine replied. “Go for it, Riot Grrrl.”

She tossed the arm up in a quick throwing arc and the bird flung itself skyward, soaring upward in a widening gyre with a harsh skri-skri-skri. The wind of long graceful wings was cool on her cheek and neck for an instant, in the mild dry warmth of a Willamette summer’s day.

The covey’s alarm suddenly turned panic-stricken as the incarnate shadow of deep ancestral fear fell across them; they scattered, spattering away like water popping on a hot griddle. Frenzied, the male pheasant tried to outrace the circling doom rather than going for cover, his long tail feathers streaming as he strove for height.

“Stop taking the air, you idiot,” the Count of Odell said sourly. “She’s twice as fast as you are!”

Tiphaine watched the dance of life and death in the cloudless blue above with eyes the color of moonlit glaciers, and smiled with a very slight curve of the lips. It made everything seem more intense for a moment, from the feel of the great muscles moving between her thighs to the smells of equine sweat and oiled leather, sweet crushed clover and dry dusty earth.

“That’s a lovely falcon you’ve got there,” Conrad said, following the flight of the peregrine. “And she’s going to cost me some money, dammit. Alaskan?”

She nodded. “Aleutian.”

“Must have cost you,” he said.

Trade was sparse from those remote islands, and had to run the gauntlet of Haida pirates in the Queen Charlottes and the Inland Passage. Only the most expensive luxury goods could bear the costs.

“Worth it,” she replied. “Northern birds always fly better, especially in yarak.”

The Association nobles reined in and watched the falcon climb; the bird sitting hooded on Conrad Renfrew’s wrist was a big dark-brown mews-bred Harris Hawk with chestnut shoulders and white banding on the base and tip of its tail. It had already taken two rabbits and a duck today. Despite which...

It’s hardly falconry at all with a Harris, Tiphaine thought.

She privately considered that species to be like Irish setters with feathers and talons. Unlike pretty well all other birds of prey they were social hunters, coursing in flocks in the wild, and they were affectionate to their handlers in ways other breeds just weren’t. That and the ease with which they could be bred in captivity made them favorites.

They do everything but lick your hand and lift a leg to pee.

“You’ve got a good eye for a falcon,” he admitted.

“I always did identify with predators. Back before the Change—“

Conrad had been over thirty then; she’d been fourteen. They’d both survived the first Change Year when the vast majority of the human race had not, but the experience divided as much as it linked them.

—“my bedroom was plastered with pictures of hawks and wolves and tigers and leopards.”

The Count of Odell’s hideously scarred face quirked in a smile. “Isn’t it usually horses with girls that age?”

“Usually. I preferred things with fangs or claws or both.”

“Why am I not surprised, Lady Death?” he said, using the common pun on her title.

“Well, I had a Melissa Etheridge poster on the wall too.”

“Who... oh, she was a musician, right? I think I’ve heard you do some of her stuff now and then.”

“Right. Serious crush on her at the time.”

That had been an eventful spring. She’d turned fourteen in January, met Katrina Georges in February when the other girl transferred to Binnsmeade Middle School, won a medal at the Oakridge gymnastics meet at the beginning of March, and then on the 17th the world had ended, at 6:15 pm Pacific Time.

Birthday, first love, victory, then the laws of nature Change while you’re on a camping trip. Killed my first man five days later and couldn’t believe how easy it was. But I do miss CD’s and my Walkman sometimes. Calling for the minstrel just isn’t the same.

The thought was odd; it had been a long time since she remembered the Change much, or thought of herself as Collette Rutherton rather than the name Sandra had chosen for her when she became an Associate of the PPA. Conrad’s generation always had one mental foot planted in the old world, however hard they tried to pull it out or deny it; hers remembered it, but as though seen faded through multiple panes of glass... except on the rare occasions when it came flooding back to make the now seem like a mad dream for an instant. To those a few years younger, the Changelings, it was a fable.

And I envy them that.

“Ah,” Tiphaine said, pulling off her tinted glasses and shading her eyes with the hand that held them.

A second later Conrad pushed his mirrorshades up onto the bald dome of his head and muttered something under his breath—probably damn as the falcon selected the cock pheasant’s gaudy gold-and-green plumage for its target.

The peregrine stooped out of the sun, folding its wings and turning itself into a blurred streak of purpose. There was a faint thud from the air above, a puff of feathers against the bright afternoon sky.

“She binds!” Tiphaine said, and didn’t add: I win.

The two birds spun groundward locked together by the attacker’s talons. They struck with a thump on the wheat-stubble not far away; the peregrine shrieked its triumph and its rage, mantling and darting its ripping beak downward with cruel precision. Everyone cantered over and pulled up; the falconer dismounted and whirled his feathered lure on the end of its cord with a rattling humm. The bird cocked an eye at it and jumped, then consented to be hooded again and fed from the hand. Varlets picked up the pheasant and added it to the basket, giving the neck a quick twist to make sure.

“That’s enough for verisimilitude,” Conrad said with a sigh. “Duty calls, and so does lunch.”

Tiphaine nodded and turned her horse. They heeled their mounts into a faster pace, towards the little unwalled pavilion where the others waited. Conrad looked around at the stubble-field.

“Nice work,” he said. “You can hardly see where the individual strips are.”

Montinore manor operated on the usual PPA system; the peasant families each held scattered strips in all of the Five Fields, and the crops—winter wheat, spring oats and roots like turnips or potatoes, grass and clover for fodder—were rotated through the fields in turn. Back in the early days the semi-communal arrangement had let a few real farmers supervise hordes of refugee suburbanites who’d never before done anything more rural than curse the dandelions in their lawns. Nowadays it made it easy for the manor lord to exact his share of the crop and labor-service on the demesne.

Tiphaine shrugged. “I’ve got good reeves on my estates and a first-rate seneschal,” she said. “And Delia keeps them from dipping the till while I’m away, which is too often. I like living here, and to hell with Portland and Castle Todenangst. I’m sick of spending my days in armor; being Sandra’s assassin and duelist was fun, but Grand Constable is just work. Damn the Prophet, damn the United States of Boise, and damn this war too.”

“Now you know why I was so glad to unload the job on you,” Conrad shrugged in turn. “Be glad you’ve got a nice defensive war you can really get your teeth into. We’d likely be fighting about now even if Boise and Corwin hadn’t gotten big eyes. Sandra hasn’t had us spend the last decade and change building castles and saving up money and training troops for nothing.”

Tiphaine sighed. “You’re right, of course. She’s not any less ambitious than Norman was, just a hell of a lot more patient and sneaky. Oh, well, she’s the sovereign.”

“Until Mathilda comes of age,” Conrad said, and grinned like the ornament on a cathedral waterspout. “That’s going to be interesting.”

“Then it’ll be the Changelings’ turn. I suspect by then a lot of things will be different.”

They drew rein near the pavilion, under the branches of the great garry oak that shaded it; Tiphaine returned the salute of the Guard captain with a curt nod and a lift of her riding crop.

“Sir Lothair.”

He wore half-armor like the two-score mounted crossbowmen, and a peaked Montero cap with a long curling feather at one side, what she’d have called a Robin Hood hat in her youth. The dozen lancers nearby were in full fig, armored cap-a-pie on barded destriers, blazing steel statues with their visors down and eyes invisible behind the narrow vision slits. The men-at-arms would be feeling like buns in a bake-oven right now, combined with a sauna. She’d experienced it often enough, and would again unless the enemy were civilized enough to fight only in cool weather.

Though oddly enough, when the weather’s really cold, full armor doesn’t give you any warmth at all.

“My lady Grand Constable,” he said after a moment’s scrutiny for form’s sake. “My lord Chancellor. You are recognized and may pass.”

Grooms took the horses as they dismounted, and the hunt-servants brought up their count of pheasant and duck, quail and rabbit, for the semi-ritual inspection.

They are, indeed, very dead, Tiphaine thought with a trace of whimsy as she looked at the limp, bloodied forms and prodded one with a gloved finger. And someone should eat them very soon in this warm weather.

She went on aloud as Conrad handed his hawk and perching glove to his falconer:

“The game to good Father Mendoza, with my complements.”

She nodded towards the steeple of the village church a mile westward across the great common field, rising above trees and red-tiled roofs, with the Coast Range green-blue beyond it. They’d give the parish priest, his household and some of the ill or indigent a couple of good dinners.

Slyly: “And tell him that my lord the Count of Odell has graciously donated five rose nobles for the almshouse fund.”

“Gold? I didn’t say anything about ‘three gets you five’ in gold,” Conrad said, alarmed; that was a month’s wage for a mounted man-at-arms.

“Even for someone who started out as an accountant you are such a cheapskate, Conrad. You’ve got the whole Hood River Valley in your fief, for God’s sake. And a chartered town to tax. I’m a lowly baroness with a few manors. Show some class.”

She stripped off her gauntlet and held it out. He unwillingly dropped the little dime-sized coins inside; she folded the long cuff over and into the wrist, then tossed it into the game basket.

“Go,” she said.

The varlet gulped thankfully and jogged away. Listening to the higher nobility exchanging badinage wasn’t comfortable for someone that low on the food chain, though it would probably make excellent gossip at the village taverns, crowded as they were with the entourages of the visitors.

The pavilion was Sandra’s, and hence in exquisite taste—heavy oiled silk striped white and blue on a hidden framework of galvanized poles. Bullion tassels all around the edges were woven with glass strips that chimed lightly when they touched. Rugs covered the ground, glowing with designs of flowers and vines in wine-red and green and blue. A light folding table and chairs of carved reddish wood stood within; it was quite private, and even the men-at-arms and crossbowmen of the Protector’s Guard were at a discreet distance.

Tiphaine removed her round roll-brimmed noble’s hat with the broad trailing tail and joined Conrad in two elaborate leg-and-hand-flourish bows to the pair of noblewomen within. One was Delia de Stafford, blue-eyed and black-haired and delicately beautiful and thirty to her own thirty-eight, and dressed in a daring new mode she’d pioneered for semi-formal occasions away from court. It was based on what commoner women wore, knee-length under-shift and long overtunic, but with gauzy silks and lots of lace, a fantasy in white and lavender. A belt of old woven gold held a jewel-hilted ceremonial dagger to show that she was an Associate, and the equally symbolic ring of silver keys that marked her as Chatelaine of Barony d’Ath.

The other was Sandra Arminger, Lady Regent of the PPA, in a conservative pearl-gray-and-white cotte-hardi and a silk headdress confined in a net of platinum and diamonds. To her Tiphaine and Conrad added a bend of the right knee that touched the carpet for an instant.

Although technically I should curtsey, she thought. It looks ridiculous in pants, though.

“My lady Delia,” she said. And: “My liege-lady and Regent.”

“If you two are finally finished slaughtering harmless birds and quite small animals we can get to work,” Sandra Arminger said.

She folded the Weekly Trumpet she’d been reading—it was turned either to the crossword puzzle or to an article headlined: Feudalism: God’s Will Or Just Common Sense?—and tossed the newspaper on top of two illustrated magazines, Tournaments Illuminated and The Associate’s Town and Castle Journal. Then she extended her hand to both of them in turn for the ritual kiss of homage.

“The social cover story for this is a bit of hawking,” Conrad of Odell pointed out. “It helps to actually do some hawking.”

Tiphaine nodded, standing hipshot at catlike ease with her left hand on the hilt of her longsword. A falconry party was something you could invite only chosen people to, without offending anyone—or at least without giving them formal reason to be offended, as exclusion from a Council meeting would. Even if everyone knew it was really a political conclave before the Council.

“Though we’ll miss the boar hunting this year, with the war,” she said with a sigh, looking westward.

Montinore village was in the foreground, just across the road and railway that led south to Newburg; beyond that was the white manor house, the fields and hilly vineyards and orchards of her demesne, and then the stark square tower and walls of Castle Ath on its height, ferroconcrete covered in pale stucco, like a fortress in a picture-book with banners streaming from the turrets.

After that started the great forests of the Coast Range, mile after mile of quiet umber shade. She thought of the quick belling of hounds through the glades in the chill October air, and the quarry at bay beneath a half-fallen fir tree...

“Fighting with pigs?” Sandra said, sipping at a glass of scented herbal tisane that tinkled with ice. “In freezing mud? While it’s raining? This is recreation?”

“It’s not quite as much fun as hot sweaty sex,” Conrad acknowledged. “But in the right season you can do it more often, or at least for longer.”

“Speak for yourself, Odell,” Tiphaine said with an expression that had the shadow of a wolf’s grin behind it. “Not all of us have your limitations.”

Delia smothered a chuckle, and Sandra sighed.

“Children, children. Oh, sit down, Tiph,” she went on, tucking a lock of graying brown hair back under her wimple. “You do tend to... loom over one.”

“My lady Regent is... a dimensionally challenged person,” Tiphaine said; Sandra was five-two, and still slight in her fifty-fourth year. “I was fourteen when you took me and Kat into the Household and I was already taller than you. I can’t help looming.”

“You can’t help being a big blond horse of a woman, you mean, d’Ath,” Conrad said. “That’s why you’d never have made it to the Olympics.”

She nodded, although she had a whipcord-and-steel length of limb that made her look quite slender at first glance. The Olympics had been her dream before the Change, but...

But in fact I was already too tall and still growing. Gymnasts were all munchkins, like muscular little steroidal pixies. I’d have ended up a Phys Ed teacher or a girls’ basketball coach or something. Or, maybe if I’d switched to track and field—

“Whereas I just cast a welcome shade,” Conrad continued smugly, slapping dust off his blocky torso.

His chair creaked a little as he sat. The Chancellor of the Portland Protective Association was no taller than Tiphaine—around five-ten—but he’d always been shaped like a fireplug made of bone and muscle. Now that he was past fifty and not taking the field any more he’d added some solid flesh to that, and he grunted with relief as he sat, running one spatulate hand over the shaven dome of his bullet-shaped head.

“That’s one way of saying I’m getting fat, Odell.”

Tiphaine sat with more than her usual leopard grace and crossed ankle over knee. Conrad grunted again as he reached to take a handful of shelled hazelnuts and walnuts from a Venetian-glass bowl on the table, salvage from some museum.

“You too shall be in your fifties sometime, my lady Grand Constable,” he said, tossing one of the nutmeats into his mouth. “In precisely twelve years, in fact.”

“Possibly, my lord Chancellor,” Tiphaine said. In the unlikely event someone doesn’t kill me first. “But I don’t think the years shall weigh quite so heavily on me as they do on you.”

Conrad’s facial nightmare of thick white keloid scars made his laugh even more alarming than that gravelly sound would have been otherwise. A steward with a white tabard and ivory baton made a gesture, and two pages brought trays from the other—much plainer—tent twenty yards away. They set out a platter of sandwiches, petit-fours, and chilled white pinot grigio wine with seltzer and waited, demure in their black livery of silk hose and pourpoint jackets embroidered with the d’Ath arms, curl-toed shoes of gilded leather cutwork and fez-like brimless hats.

“Your sons make such charming and efficient pages, Lady Delia,” Sandra Arminger said. “With such large, pink, shell-like, quivering ears.”

Delia took the hint: “Lioncel, Diomede,” she said, and made a graceful gesture.

The boys—blond Lioncel was twelve, dark Diomede two years younger—bowed in unison and walked backward until the distance was outside easy hearing, even with keen young ears. Tiphaine took a sandwich. The PPA’s liege-lady Sandra and Tiphaine’s lady-in-waiting and chatelaine Delia—

My girlfriend-for-the-last-fourteen-years Delia, Tiphaine thought, with a familiar flicker of resentment at the necessity for discretion. Best not to get out of the habit of being careful, though.

—shared a liking for dainty little things on manchet bread with the crusts cut off and some parsley on the side; in this case potted shrimp in aspic, deviled ham with minced sweet Walla Walla onions, or cucumber. Since this was Tiphaine’s own personal fief, there were also some substantial examples of bacon-lettuce-and-tomato with mayo on sourdough. She smiled a little as she bit into one, savoring the smoky taste of the apple-cured meat and fresh, melting-ripe tomatoes and almost-warm crusty bread.

“What’s the joke, darling?” Delia asked.

They’d been together since Kat died in the Protector’s War, and she knew that slight curve of Tiphaine’s lips was the equivalent of a grin or even a chortle.

The baroness shrugged, swallowed, blotted her lips with a linen napkin and said:

“A pleasant memory. The only pleasant memory our unlamented pseudo-Pope Leo ever gave me, but it made up for all the rest.”

These days the local branch of the reunified Church was just annoying to someone like her, guarded by rank and powerful patronage. She pretended to be a good Catholic with sardonic relish and with gritted teeth the clergy pretended to believe her; Delia did the same, and was a secret witch to boot and High Priestess of a coven. But Norman Arminger had been literally medieval on the subject of gay people, as on much else, and his psychopathic pet ‘Pope’ Leo had been worse.

About the time her husband died Sandra Arminger had found out that the real Catholic Church had survived—a remnant had fled dying Rome behind the halberds of the Swiss Guard and ended up in the little Umbrian hill town of Badia, still their HQ—and that they’d managed to call a conclave to elect an equally real Pope. To lay the groundwork for reunion the Lady Regent had delegated schismatic Leo’s tragic, timely and officially accidental demise to Tiphaine, who’d been her wetwork specialist of choice back then.

“One sane Pope half the world away by sailing ship is much less trouble than a deranged one right next door,” Sandra acknowledged. “We needed our own Church immediately after the Change, but by that time Leo was... a problem.”

Tiphaine’s smile grew a little wider. Sandra was fond of an old Russian saying: When a man causes you a problem, remember: no man, no problem. The recollection of the look on his starved-eagle ascetic face when he saw her step silently from behind an arras in his private chambers and hold up the hypodermic...

I smiled then, too, she thought, happily nostalgic. That was a good day. We did a lot of housecleaning around then.

“Ah, if tombstones were only honest—how many would read died of being an inconvenience to the powerful,” Conrad said genially.

He was obviously following at least some of her thoughts; Delia winced slightly, for the same reason. She was a gentle soul.

“It’s not as if it was a personal impulse,” Tiphaine said, mildly defensive. “As the Lady Regent said, the man needed killing.”

“And you certainly didn’t leave muddy footprints all over the place,” Conrad said admiringly. “Very neat. Until just now I actually thought there was an outside chance it was really natural causes.”

“I don’t screw up. And I had a lettre de cachet with me just in case, anyway,” she pointed out.

Sandra smiled, with a faraway reminiscent expression of her own:

The bearer has done what has been done by my authority, and for the good of the State. I always loved actually writing that... milady.”

“Tiph never had one stolen by a dashing Gascon musketeer, either,” the Count of Odell said. “And God knows she had enough of them pass through her hands—or did you just use the first and not bother having a fresh one made up for every job, d’Ath?”

“No, a new letter every time. I’ve still got all the old ones, stamped cancelled in red ink.”

“You’re joking, right?”

Delia shuddered and rolled her eyes. “No, she isn’t. A whole file of them, all on parchment and all tied up with ribbons.”

“That’s sort of sick, you know?” the Count of Odell laughed.

“We all have our hobbies, Conrad,” Tiphaine said, pouring herself a glass of the fizzy white wine, and taking a sip that tasted of flowers and almonds and oranges. “The Regent has her cats. You and Lady Odell are always on about those roses of yours. Delia loves babies.”

Sandra turned to Delia and asked politely: “And how is little Heuradys?”

The younger woman brightened. “Teething, poor lamb, my lady. But...” she caught Tiphaine’s eye and abbreviated the details to: “... still cute as a button.”

“Oh, cute as a puppy,” Tiphaine agreed. “She’s going to be fair, like Lioncel.”

And this is the last one!

Three was a smallish family these days, and Delia had wanted to try again for another daughter to balance the set, but...

We’re retiring that turkey baster, if I have anything to say about it! Which admittedly I may not.

“However, babies are much harder to housebreak,” she finished. “Plus puppies don’t need to be found dowries or fiefs when they grow up.”

“And on that note,” Sandra said more seriously. “What do you make of the situation? Not the details—the larger picture.”

As always she was in combinations of gray and white, with silver-gilt buttons down the sleeves and bodice of her cotte-hardi. A Persian kitten rested in a small basket on her lap, and dodged a paw out at the dangling trails of the wimple now and then.

“The enemy are still not pressing us very hard,” she added, reaching in a hand and running a finger down its head; the little beast turned on its back and began to wrestle with the digit as she tickled its stomach. “I expected them to be more aggressive.”

“The dance starts soon,” Tiphaine said, and went into the details.

Conrad nodded agreement when she’d finished. “It’s a persisting strategy. Subtle, for an alliance. The sum total of a whole lot of little fights is more predictable than one or two big ones where luck and generalship can overcome the odds.”

Unlike the older noble, Tiphaine reached for a second sandwich. Benefits of an active metabolism, she thought, as she marshaled reports and observations in her mind. Perks of running around wearing sixty pounds of steel half the time. Also good food makes me feel less pessimistic.

Sandra pursed her lips and tapped a finger on them. “I’m surprised our enemies are being so... far-sighted. They’re both young men—Prophet Sethaz is barely thirty, and General-President Martin Thurston of Boise is younger still. In my experience, patience isn’t a quality of which men that age show any great fund.”

“Sethaz is... I’m not sure if he’s altogether human,” Tiphaine said. “He’s certainly mad and I wouldn’t rule out the stories of demonic possession.”

Conrad grunted agreement. Sandra raised one elegant brow; her brown eyes were a little surprised.

Et tu, Tiphaine?”

“I’ve had too much contact with the CUT to doubt that something very strange is going on out there in the Valley of Paradise,” she said. “Strange and... unpleasant. You taught me to evaluate the evidence, my lady, not reject it because it conflicted with my assumptions. And you heard about Lady Astrid’s headache?”

Sandra’s brow went up. “That was supernatural?” she said.

Conrad snorted. “Damned straight it is. I’ve seen Tiph draw, spin a hundred and eighty degrees, cut a dragonfly in half on the wing, sheath the blade and be back where she started in about a second,” he said. “Astrid’s just as good.”

“Just as fast, certainly,” Tiphaine said with hard-won professional detachment.

The Hiril Dúnedain had killed her lover Katrina during the Protector’s War in the course of the botched first attempt to get Mathilda back from the Mackenzies. Tiphaine didn’t dwell on the memory; it was too stressful.

‘Stress’ is mostly the result of not being allowed to kill some asshole you really want to slice and dice.

Something is going on,” Conrad said grimly. “And I lost my belief in the absolute reign of impersonal natural laws about twenty-four years ago. There’s something else at work in the universe. And it doesn’t seem to like us much.”

“A point,” Sandra said reluctantly.

She was that rarity these days, an atheist to the core, a complete materialist and rationalist. Tiphaine had been one herself, until recently, though they were both pious enough in public. As Sandra said, God was a myth but religion was as real as rocks and far more useful to rulers.

Now I’m... not sure any more, Tiphaine thought. I’m still not sure about God, that is, but the devil is starting to look awfully convincing. I’m going to have to have a talk with Delia about that. Even if I’d rather pull out my own toenails with my teeth.

She went on aloud, her voice coolly neutral:

“And Thurston is just too smart for comfort. He is having riverboats built in Pendleton, with the locals and the CUT supplying materials. Sethaz lets him do that—the Cutters have those religious taboos about machinery. But as long as we hold the castles and walled cities along the Columbia we can strike north or south at the flank of any invader and we have superior water transport for our logistics.”

“Clear enough, then. Let’s not get bogged down in military details at this point,” Sandra said. “I leave that to you, my lady Grand Constable, and to the Chancellor. What’s the state of morale, Conrad?” she went on.

The thick-bodied man looked at the wineglass in his hand and said grudgingly:

“Uneven. The older nobles are being effusively loyal—and will stay that way as long as we keep the enemy outside our boundaries. If they get inside and it looks profitable to start cutting deals...”

He shrugged, and Tiphaine mentally followed suit. Norman Arminger had built a feudal kingdom, albeit a strong one; his personal obsession had been the 11th-century Norman duchy and its offshoots. Home-grown varieties of neo-feudalism without the PPA’s elaborate organization and terminology...

Or our spiffy boots and radical-cool costumes, she thought.

... were certainly common in other areas of the continent, and evidently overseas as well. But.

But while loyalty is the great feudal virtue, unfortunately treachery is the corresponding vice, Tiphaine thought; history had been a compulsory subject in Sandra’s Household. And the older generation had to learn loyalty, while treachery was something they already knew very, very well indeed. All those gangers...

Sandra had never pretended to be any sort of soldier, and generally didn’t try to joggle her subordinate’s elbows—unlike her husband’s practice. At politics, however...

“I’ve looked over the list of tenants-in-chief you want to summon to the muster,” the Lady Regent went on. “It’s approved, with the following modifications.”

She reached into an attaché case on the ground beside her and slid the typewritten schedules to them. Tiphaine took hers and her eyebrows went up. Tenants-in-chief held their land directly from the Throne on payment of mesne tithes—a share of their income—and service of knights, men-at-arms and foot soldiers of set number and equipment on demand. Part of the Grand Constable’s job was to see the troops were ready and call them up at need. The total numbers here were the same as her recommendations for the opening stages of the campaigning season, but some of those summoned were awkwardly placed.

Then she smiled thinly as the reasoning sprang out at her. The initial levies of House Stavarov, the Counts of Chehalis up near Puget Sound, were summoned for the war in the east and the rally-point at Walla Walla—the Counts themselves, their menie of household knights and paid men-at-arms, spearmen and crossbowmen, their castle garrisons, their subinfeudiated vassals and their menies. The third string, the peasant militia and town levies, were detached for service under the Warden of the Coast March against the nuisance-verging-on-threat of Haida raiders. Which meant...

Conrad spoke first. “Ah... Uriah the Hittite, my lady?”

If there’s anyone who would change sides when a Cutter army arrived in front of his castle gates, it’s Count Piotr Alexevitch Stavarov. And Conrad’s not looking too upset. He had that run-in with Piotr during the Protector’s War, when the idiot got half his command killed trying to rush a bunch of Mackenzies head-on. There’s still bad blood there.

“No, no,” Sandra said. “I’m not telling you to get them killed. We need every man, from what you and Lady d’Ath say. But if men must die, why not men from the menie of County Chehalis? They do their duty, and the Stavarovs are weakened.”

She held two small, beautifully manicured hands out palm-up and mimicked a balance, raising first one and then the other. The Grand Constable nodded.

“I can make the adjustments easily enough, my lady,” she said. “The logistics are a little more difficult, but not enough to matter.”

“The younger nobles are eager for a fight,” Conrad went on, and Tiphaine nodded silent agreement”

“Ordinary people are... frightened, my lady Regent,” Delia said, a frown on her oval face as she joined the conversation.

She’d been a miller’s daughter here in Montinore village before she met Tiphaine. When it came to how the commons thought, she had a better instinctive grasp than any of them, despite all the Regent’s spies. Sandra and Conrad Renfrew had been founders of the Association, of course, and Tiphaine had been raised as an Associate. Delia went on:

“They’re nearly as frightened of having the Throne weakened and the nobles unrestrained if we lose as they are of Boise and the CUT. What’s helping a lot is the stories and songs about Princess Mathilda and Rudi and the rest, particularly with the younger people.”

She was near-as-no-matter a Changeling, too, which helped. Tiphaine had noticed that the older generation tended to miss things, and she did too, albeit less often.

“Ah, yes,” Sandra murmured, with a secret smile. “How helpful of dear Juniper to compose and spread them. Between her and the Church preaching a holy war, we’re well covered on the propaganda front.”

I’ve never seen you so openly furious as you were when you found out Mathilda had scooted off east with Rudi, Tiphaine thought. I actually had to talk you out of sending the army haring off eastward to drag her back. But trust the Spider of the Silver Tower to adjust and see the advantages!

“My lady, I think you’re underestimating the impact of these... songs... that are going the rounds,” Tiphaine warned. “As Delia said, the same technique is more effective nowadays, since so many more are Changelings. Yes, it’s convenient right now—but it will have political consequences after the war too, provided we win, that is. Ignoring Mackenzie propaganda hurt us badly in the Protector’s War.”

Sandra frowned; she’d known her husband’s weaknesses, but—

But then she actually loved him, Tiphaine thought; she’d hated Norman Arminger herself, and feared him as she feared few men. Loved him despite his screwing everything that moved and shaking what didn’t, and his general skankiness. Leaving aside the mass murder and so forth; that was just business, though he enjoyed it.

“The latest... this vision of the Virgin telling Father Ignatius to look after Mathilda...” Sandra said. “I like that one very much indeed. It makes anyone who challenges her rights a blasphemer. And the cream of the jest is that Ignatius probably believes it himself—everyone knows the Order of the Shield of St. Benedict is outside our influence. Mt. Angel is cool to the Protectorate at best. They fought us in the war, after all.”

“The Princess was already popular,” Delia said. “Everyone who met her liked her. The commons love her. They... ah...”

“Look forward to her rule,” Sandra nodded, with a wry twist to her mouth.

Tiphaine could read her thought: and they’ll never love me.

Respect and fear, yes; the smarter ones realized how she held the barons in check; but love, no. Too many memories of the early days remained raw, among the ordinary people. And for different reasons, among the Associates as well. Norman Arminger had taken Machiavelli’s dictum that it was better to be feared than loved rather literally.

“This... this quest thing... it’s made her more like an icon,” Delia continued. She hesitated again. “Rudi too. The Sword of the Lady... it’s not just the people who follow the Old Religion. The rest think of the Virgin, you see? And Ignatius’ vision added to that. They think Rudi is the hero who returns, the one who comes back to save his people when the evil day arrives and things look their worst.”

Sandra chuckled, a gurgling sound that made her cool brown eyes warm for a moment.

“Certainly dear Rudi has all the qualifications for a legendary hero. He’s very young, and he’s very handsome, and he’s very strong, and he’s very brave, and he’s very... not stupid.”

For some reason Conrad thought that was funny too, though she couldn’t see why: it was all true. He sobered quickly, though.

“It’s good that the stories are perking the ordinary people up,” he said. “Even with our allies, we can’t win this war just with the nobility and their retainers; it’s going to be too big for the Associates to handle. But what happens... well, my lady, what happens if Rudi and Mathilda don’t show up?”

Sandra was very quiet for a moment. “If Mathilda is killed? Then it’s all rather moot.” Softly: “What have I worked for, if not for her?”

 

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