Capital, Provisional Republic of Iowa
August 20th, Change Year 24/2022 AD
“So, you’re really a princess?” Kate Heasleroad said, her pink young face wide-eyed and guileless. “I mean, they call you that?”
“Yes, I’m entitled Princess and styled Your Highness at home; my mother’s the Lady Regent,” Mathilda Arminger explained to the Bossman’s consort.
She must be at least twenty, she thought. And I’m only two years older, but it feels like more. I think she led a sheltered life. Until recently, at least.
Aloud: “But I inherit through my father, Lord Norman Arminger, whose only child I am. He was our first sovereign lord; Lord Protector of the Portland Protective Association. He was a knight before the Change, of course, in the Society, as well as a great scholar of the old ways at the university.”
The other woman made a fascinated sound and inclined her head towards a painfully young man in a military uniform that involved a good deal of braid and a gold lanyard.
“Something for me and the Princess, please, Lieutenant.”
“At once, Mrs. Heaslroad!”
The aide sprang away towards the buffet and the bar.
It’s all just homelike enough to make me homesick but not enough to comfort, Mathilda thought, as she schooled her face to friendly interest. Not that it’s hard to be friendly. It’s brief acquaintance, but I find I do like Kate.
A burbling surf of conversation rose to the carved plaster of the ceiling two stories above; more guests leaned on the balustrade that ringed the reception room. Heels clicked on the marble tiles and on the curving staircase that linked the levels. The Bossman’s household troops—they called them the State Police—stood at attention along the walls amid framed pictures and half-columns, their burnished mail-shirts and helms glittering in the brilliance of the incandescent mantles of the gaslights, along with the crowd’s crystal and gold and diamonds, fine cloth and polished leather. Open French doors brought an occasional waft of cooler air from the gardens, and the scents of roses and cut grass, along with the odd suicide-bent moth.
“So everyone says your Highness?” Kate said, returning to the subject that fascinated her.
“Yes,” Mathilda Arminger said, with a practiced smile; there were people at home obsessed with protocol too.
Quite a few of them, in fact.
The aide came back and she took a plate of what her mother called faculty fodder for some obscure pre-Change reason; little pieces of toast with shaved ham and pungent cheese, or bits of pickled fish, or tiny sausages and capers and pate or peppers and sweet corn. A glass of some fizzy drink called sarsaparilla came with it.
“I’m not Princess Regnant or Lady Protector yet, of course, not until I’m twenty-six. Then I’ll be styled Your Majesty.”
Kate laughed. “And everyone will have to go down on their knees?”
“Only one, until then. And only at ceremonies, of course—receiving homage, bestowing fiefs, that sort of thing. We’re less formal most of the time.”
“Is there a book of rules or something?”
“Well, the College of Heralds have their lists... but really, if you grow up around it... it’s all sort of natural.”
“It sounds like fun, really. Like a costume party!”
Not if it’s your life, Mathilda thought. Mother complains about it sometimes. Of course, for her before the Change it was a game.
An inspiration came to her: “You’re a princess too, my dear Kate.”
At the other woman’s laugh she went on: “No, truly. You’re the lawful consort of a ruling prince, after all... unless it would be more accurate to call him a King? In which case you’d be Queen, of course, and your children would be Princes and Princesses.”
“There’s only little Tommie so far,” Kate said. For a moment her face was soft with love, and went from strikingly pretty to beautiful. “And he’s my Prince!”
“Then you’re definitely a Princess, at the very least.”
She made a dismissive gesture, but Mathilda could see the corners of her mouth turn up in pleasure; she could also see half a dozen others in the big room noting the exchange as they milled around. The biggest knot was around Anthony Heasleroad, of course, the Bossman of Iowa—Governor and President Pro Tem, formally, but that was the word everyone used in ordinary speech. She could just hear him saying:
“... keep the great agricultural industry of Iowa in responsible, experienced hands for the common good of Farmer and Evacuee alike...”
His voice held the same booming sententiousness most barons at home would use when talking about mesne tithes and heraldry and the idleness of the peasants. Like Mathilda and Rudi he’d been born in the first Change Year, but he looked older to her. Part of that was the fact that he also looked like the statue of an athlete that had been covered in an inch of soft tallow and left in the hot sun until it began to sag a little.
Though I may be prejudiced, Mathilda thought. And he also looks like a man who trusts nobody, including the men who guard his sleep. They say Mom’s that way but she isn’t: she always said paranoia was as stupid as gullibility, and just as likely to kill you.
Kate was tall and willowy; her neck and fingers and piled dark hair sparkled with some truly impressive and not too gaudy jewelry, offset by the simply cut but obviously new blue silk of her knee-length dress. That had probably cost more. Jewelry could be salvaged, but silk had to be imported around the world over trade routes just beginning to function again.
And unlike her demented spouse, she seems amiable enough. Not the brightest candle in the chandelier, but good-hearted.
“Oh, it’s bad enough being married to the Governor, much less being a, um, Queen!” Kate said. “I swear, I didn’t expect everyone to be always asking for things before I married Tony! That was before his father died and he became Bossman, of course.”
“Ah, well, that is a drawback of being close to a sovereign,” Mathilda said.
She forced herself not to give an incredulous snort; what else would a ruler’s consort or heir await? That was one reason she’d enjoyed her yearly stay with the Mackenzies so much after the Protector’s War—there on the Clan’s land she was just Rudi’s friend Mathilda.
What did you expect when you married the ruler here, Kate? she thought but did not say. Gossiping with the other goodwives at the village bakery while your husband digs the garden or sits in the tavern with his cronies over a mug of beer?
Instead she turned to take a real drink off a tray; it was something sweet but potent in a glass like a cone on a stem, with a little cherry on top. For the first time in her life, she understood the temptation that made some people drink to excess. It wasn’t so much a matter of drowning sorrows as of untangling the knot of fear that curdled under her breastbone. Or at least putting a slight glassy layer between her and it.
There wasn’t anything she could do about the fear—she was here, the guards wouldn’t let her leave, Rudi was in hideous danger across the river among the savages with only Edain at his side, poor Ingolf was in a dungeon, and most of the rest of her friends were hiding God-knew-where in this vast alien city, even dear kindly Father Ignatius was away so that she couldn’t confess or receive the Sacraments...
But God does know where each is, as He sees every sparrow. Mary pierced with sorrows, watch over the ones I love! And especially Rudi. Everything depends on him. And I miss him so much.
“And sometimes I wish I was back on father’s farm—“ Kate went on; she probably felt freer to speak with a stranger than with most of her courtiers.
Farm... ah, she means a barony, Mathilda translated; they’d kept the old words here, but a tract one family could work with machines before the Change needed scores or hundreds now, with the landholder as lord. A manor, a knight’s-fee, at least.
“—instead of all this. I like a party, but they’re all the same and there are so many of them. And a lot of the people aren’t really here for the fun.”
“I get the same feeling at balls and tournaments,” Mathilda said.
Sometimes. As mom says, they’re our working time. If God calls you to a station, you have to do your best, whether it’s peasant or Princess. With princes and nobles, socializing is a big part of the business of ruling. Things that come up formally at councils really get settled first while you’re feasting or hawking or hunting or dancing a pavanne.
“This is a fine country,” Kate said softly after a moment. “We Iowans have so much more than anyone else. Our parents were so lucky! Why do people have to quarrel and fight each other for more?”
Mathilda bowed her head slightly, honoring the sentiment if not the thought.
“Why indeed?” she said. “But that seems to be the way people are, a lot of them.”
Kate sighed and nodded, looking around. Candles burned on the tables whose snowy linen held the buffet; the aide brought them a second set of hand-sized plates, this time with garlicky meatballs on toothpicks and little skewers of hot spicy grilled chicken and tiny, tender vegetables. Some of the guests plowed stolidly through cold meats and breads and salads and dishes of spiced pickled fish or nibbled on candied fruits, while others punished the wet bar and grew red-faced and expansive or brooded in corners.
“It scares me sometimes,” the Bossman’s wife said softly. Then in an undertone, but fiercely: “And they’re always flattering Anthony, and, and telling him anything he wants to hear. It’s like water dripping on iron!”
Mathilda turned away diplomatically, watching the crowd as Kate stammered and flushed and then cast her a grateful look for letting the matter drop. Younger men and women flirted; serious-looking ones in middle age stood in small circles, holding drinks and talking politics and business... or possibly just gossiping. A chamber group of musicians tootled away at something soothing in a corner, and the air smelled of fine food, wine, perfume, warm linen and wool, a little of sweat and perfume, and strongly of expensive beeswax candles.
Like the feast before the High Council meets, Mathilda thought.
If you mentally substituted colorful modern tunic and hose and cotte-hardis for the drab, antique Iowan costumes, and tabards for the servants’ white coats and bow-ties. The occasional lidded glances were easy enough to catch, and the way factions avoided each other accidentally-on-purpose. She’d grown up in a real court, after all, where her own frowns or smiles could set feuds going. Granted, it was the court run by her mother—her father had been killed in the Protector’s War when she was ten—but the Lady Regent had known how to do things. She’d been in the Society before the Change, where the knowledge of such things was kept alive. Iowa was large, and rich, and far more populous than any of the realms around the Columbia and Willamette, or even all of them together...
More than two and a half million people! A hundred and twenty thousand just in this one city!
... but in some ways it was a bit old-fashioned, as Boise had been if not quite so much. A good many of the older men here were actually wearing suits with jacket and tie, for example, or military uniforms based on those of the old American republic. Though more favored the bib-overalls and billed feedstore cap that were a gentleman’s garb in Iowa, the mark of a Farmer or Sheriff, which was what they called knights and barons.
And they’re running a court, but doing it badly, as if they were stumbling through an unfamiliar dance, or like children in a catechism class with a half-literate teacher.
“That dress looks absolutely gorgeous,” Kate went on, brightening once more. “What’s it called again?”
“A cotte-hardi. There’s an arcane terminology for every bit of it—this headdress is a wrapped wimple, for instance.”
“Beautiful!” she said. “Those carved rose-crystal buttons down the front and sleeves, and the lace! I’ve never seen such fine needlework, either.”
“Well, Mother does have the best. But right from the beginning my parents went looking for craftspeople—they were thinking ahead.”
She flicked her wrist, and the ivory leaves of her long-handled fan opened out to make a tracery of tiny figures that showed children dancing around a maypole.
“By now we have a lot of fine makers, for practical things and for beautiful ones as well. And not just in my mother’s Household. This was a present from a friend, Lady Delia de Stafford.”
“Lovely!” Kate said, taking it for a moment and holding it up against a light.
She hesitated and then went on: “But... isn’t that dress... well, isn’t it all a bit cumbersome?”
Mathilda laughed. “It certainly is if you don’t have a lady-in-waiting and a couple of maidservants to help you on and off with it,” she said. “Which I suspect was part of the point—that’s why it’s a noblewoman’s style.”
At home she wore male dress as often as her special status let her get away with it, and hated the constriction of the court fashion’s buttoned sleeves and bodice and the way you couldn’t lift your arms above your shoulders, and the long full skirts and the wrapped headdress, though even that was better than the tall cone-shaped ones. The two tunics and shift of commoner female costume were much more comfortable and less confining, but noblewomen could only get away with that in the most casual settings.
She’d have just chucked the clothes-chest, herself—God and His Mother knew that they’d lost most of the gear they’d started out with in Bend at one emergency or another, which had included everything from battle and headlong flight to million-strong stampedes of mad buffalo. Now she was glad she hadn’t insisted; it made her feel a little less frightened and homesick, and it emphasized that she wasn’t officially just a prisoner here.
And the warm browns and golds of the silk and embroidery did complement her seal-brown hair and hazel eyes and warm light-olive complexion. She wasn’t beautiful; her features took after her father’s, too bold and a little irregular, but she knew she could be striking.
And I have to uphold the Portland Protective Association’s honor here. These Iowans think everyone else is a monkey from the wilds, or at best a hick.
“You look enchanting, your Highness,” Odard Liu said.
He came up to them, a middle-sized young man, black-haired and olive-umber of skin, slim and elegant in parti-colored hose and curl-toed shoes with little silver bells, trailing dagged sleeves and hood with tippets and gold-link belt, his slanted blue eyes amused and his lute over his back, troubadour-fashion.
Some of the younger local gentry as well trailed , who looked fascinated; the more so when he made an elaborate leg-bow and hand-flourish to both women, the long tail of his round flat nobleman’s hat fluttering and sweeping the floor as he drew it through the complex measure.
“And your Majesty is also enchanting in her own person, if I may be so bold,” he went on to Kate Heasleroad. “Your lord is to be envied for his wealth and power, but not least for the jeweled beauty of his consort.”
Everyone loves flattery, but keep in mind that when people deal with royalty they lay it on with a trowel, Mathilda’s mother had told her once. Your friend Odard at least does it with some style.
He’d also clung to the box with their last Court outfits inside like grim death, even when they were starving in that cave in the Rockies wondering if they’d have to eat the horses while the blizzards howled outside. He’d laid out gold here to have the gear repaired, too—and hers, to be sure.
“But though Iowa is rich and mighty, I say that only in Portland do we know how to praise fair ladies.”
Odard brought his lute around and strummed. His fingers teased out a stately tune, one of his own.
Oh, no! Mathilda thought. Not that one!
The chamber group had fallen silent. His smile was half-warm and half a teasing pleasure in her embarrassment as he sang a chorus in a pleasant tenor:
“So let the Hall ring for the Light of the North!
For the Princess Mathilda—the Light of the North!”
“Odard, I still haven’t forgiven you for composing that,” she said, and rapped his knuckles with her fan.
He grinned unrepentantly as he shook the hand and then went on: “I was just telling these good fellows about the High Tournament of the Association.”
“Great stuff!” one of them said enthusiastically. “We have Reserve drills and National Guard muster days at the county fairs, but nothing that fancy. It sounds like a hell of a lot of fun!”
“Not when you’re smacked right off your horse and knocked silly and you throw up inside a close helm and they have to un-harness you with bolt cutters,” Mathilda said with feeling. “Or when a horse breaks something and screams until they put it down. I always hate that part.”
“Girls compete?” Kate said, interested.
“The Princess is a special case, to be sure,” Odard said smoothly. “And of course the current Grand Constable of the Association—Lady Tiphaine, Baroness d’Ath. Apart from them, no, not very often. Though one young lady is always crowned Queen of Love and Beauty by the winner.”
Mathilda choked back a gurgling laugh. Two years ago Tiphaine d’Ath had won, and the Grand Constable had ridden up to the stands and dropped the crown from the point of her lance into the lap of her lady-in-waiting Delia de Stafford. At which the local bishop had nearly choked on the blessing, since everyone knew about Tiphaine and Delia.
That was wicked of her. Funny, yes, but wicked.
Though nobody spoke about it, unless they wanted to face Baroness d’Ath in a duel, which wasn’t anything a sane human being would do unless they were tired of life. Mathilda sighed a little, struck by sudden homesickness.
In the unlikely event that I ever win a tournament—
She knew herself to be fair-to-middling at best despite a lifetime’s coaching by experts, without the supernal speed and skill that d’Ath used to compensate for men’s greater raw strength.
—I’m going to crown myself Queen of Love and Beauty and nobody else! Or maybe I could crown Rudi King of Love and Beauty... all the warrior saints witness he’s beautiful...
Odard went on, diplomatically ignoring her sudden flush:
“I’m surprised you don’t have tournaments here... weren’t there any Society people in Iowa? In most places which survived at all they did very well.”
A new voice broke in: “Oh, there were some here in Des Moines. Dad said he found them very useful as instructors, the craftsmen and the fighters at least—the rest were... sort of flaky. He didn’t want anything to do with all that ceremonial they liked so much.”
Mathilda concealed a start. That was the Bossman, just breaking away from the people she didn’t want him talking to—the emissaries from Corwin in Montana, the red-robed and shaven-skulled priest of the Church Universal and Triumphant, and the hard-eyed officer of the Sword of the Prophet who’d been pursuing them ever since they left Oregon. Anthony Heasleroad saw her glare at them and motioned them away. Being here on sufferance themselves they went, not without glances of their own.
“Dad always said you could afford to have people curse you in private, but not laugh.”
Pride stiffened Mathilda’s spine, and she sank in the formal curtsey her tutors had drilled into her in girlhood. When she spoke her voice was cool courtesy:
“I’m sure your father was a very able man, my lord Bossman,” she said. “But so was mine; Portland lives, when all the other great cities on the West Coast died. And I assure you nobody laughed when he was styled Majesty or my lord. Not more than once, at least. Your Majesty.”
Then Mathilda saw the glitter in his pale eyes. There was something not quite right there.
“You say that word ‘Majesty’ with such conviction,” Heasleroad said. “I could get used to it... if people said it the way you do. And if I was sure you’re not trying to disrespect me.”
Mathilda met his eyes. If he says kill her, the guardsmen will cut me down, she thought.
There was a slight hush around them; even Kate stiffened, until the Bossman chuckled and nodded. People relaxed, and the bubble of silence collapsed inward again.
She felt a slight trickle of sweat down her spine, more than the heavy clothing and sticky-warm night warranted, and sipped at the sweet strong liquor again. That wouldn’t have happened at the Palace at home, or Castle Todenangst. Sandra Arminger killed when she had to, with the cool dispassion of a housewife selecting a chicken. But not from spite or for the pleasure of it.
Darling, people should be afraid of the ruler’s power, she’d said to her daughter. They shouldn’t live in terror of the Throne’s whims—that can make men willing to kill even if it means dying, just to end the uncertainty. The surest way to drive a dog dangerously crazy is to punish and reward unpredictably, and people aren’t that much different.
An intense longing for that cool quiet voice filled her, and their evenings together in the Silver Tower, talking or listening to the minstrel or playing chess or just sitting together reading...
I even miss Mom’s damned Persian cats shedding all over me! I’m even looking forward to how mad she’s going to be at me for running away with Rudi on the quest!
A little to her right Odard slid his right hand away from his left sleeve. She wasn’t surprised that he’d managed to get a knife and conceal it. But she was suddenly, shockingly aware that he’d been ready to attack Heasleroad if he ordered her cut down. One thing desperate times did was show you who your friends really were. She’d had her doubts about Odard before they left home.
And I really doubted it when he said he loved me. Now I’m not so sure. Which is... messy. I don’t love him that way... do I? More like a brother.
“Your family were Society people, then?” Iowa’s Bossman said to the baron of Gervais.
“Ah... not exactly, my lord Bossman,” Odard said cautiously. “My father Edward Liu was a freelance man-at-arms before the Change, and gained the golden spurs afterward. He rose high in the Lord Protector’s service and was ennobled and granted Barony Gervais to hold as tenant-in-chief, for his loyalty and valor.”
Mathilda winced slightly behind a polite smile and nod. Her father Norman Arminger had been in the Society for Creative Anachronism, but not all his first followers had been of its Households. A lot of them had been like Odard’s father Eddie Liu—freelances, bandits, mercenaries—what they called gangsters back before the Change, or Mafiya like old Alexi Stavarov with his reptile eyes.
Dad had to use what was to hand, she told herself. The others didn’t understand what had to be done, that so many had to die if anyone at all was to live. Yes, Dad wanted power. What conqueror or founder of a dynasty hasn’t? But if he hadn’t gotten it, Portland would have been like Seattle or LA, nothing but bones and ruins and wilderness.
Instead there were hundreds of thousands of people in the Association’s territories in the Columbia valley, villages and towns, the living fields that fed humankind, the churches and proud castles...
Even Eddie Liu wasn’t that bad. He was always nice to me, at least.
“But my mother was of a Society household,” Odard said. “And of course both the Princess’ parents were, and they gave a lead to things. The Lord Protector was a very great man, and his lady has ruled us with justice and wisdom since his death.”
And your mother has lethally pissed my mother off, Odard, Mathilda thought. She’s been intriguing with the CUT. You know and I know Mother... the Lady Regent... will have her head for it.
That wasn’t a metaphor; it meant an appointment with a wooden block and a man in a black hood with a very large ax, the latter a privilege reserved for the execution of those of noble blood. Ordinary people just hung by the neck.
Where does that put you, Odard? I know you’re loyal to me here and now, but a mother is a mother. When we get back...
“And that... Rudi fellow?” Heasleroad said.
“His mother was... is... a bard,” she said.
Mathilda fought down a smile as she remembered how indignant Lady Juniper had gotten when a teenaged Mathilda Arminger thoughtlessly suggested that being The Mackenzie was more dignified for one of noble blood than busking.
Chiefing it is as dignified as pumping out a cesspit, the which is needful work too, she’d said indignantly. And I’m of the blood of plain dirt farmers and workingmen. A bard I was and a bard I shall be until the Hunter comes for me, and I will make music in the Lands of Summer for the simple joy of it!
Then she’d sung—a beautiful a capella piece that ended:
I ha’ harpit you up to the Gods’ own thrones,
I ha’ harpit your midmost soul in three;
I ha’ harpit you down to Anwyn’s dell,
And ye would make a Chief of me?”
The smile was in Mathilda’s voice for a moment as she went on:
“Lady Juniper Mackenzie, the Mackenzie of the Clan Mackenzie. There was a war... her forces captured me during a raid, then my father’s took me back and captured Rudi, and then the Bear Lord and the Lord Protector fought between their armies and killed each other—it’s a very long complicated story.”
Not least because the various sides tell different versions and I’m not altogether sure which one is true, if any, even though I was there myself for part of it. I was too young to know a lot of what went on.
Aloud: “After the Protector’s War Rudi and I spent time with each other’s peoples every year as part of the peace settlement, so we were raised together a lot of the time. We’re, umm, very good friends.”
“Extraordinary,” the Bossman said. “My mother used to read me stories like that—Richard the Lionheart, Robin Hood...”
“I always sympathized with the Sheriff of Nottingham, myself, my lord,” Odard said. He raised his hands with a charming grin. “After all, he was on the side of law and order.”
“Rudi’s a... very able man, too,” Mathilda said. “I’m sure he’ll get your wagons back, your Majesty.”
The glitter came back. “He’d better.”
Mary pierced with sorrows, pagan though he is, Rudi was also born of woman. Help him! Help us all!
Capital, Provisional Republic of Iowa
September 5th, Change Year 24/2022 AD
“At least I’m not hanging up by my thumbs,” Ingolf Vogeler said to himself, looking up at the gray cracked concrete of the cell’s roof and breathing the smells of iron and old sweat and piss and less pleasant things. “Or being hammered with lead-lined hoses. Or being strung up and hammered. Yet. Rudi’s got a couple more days before the month is up.”
It was too dark now to read the graffiti. He’d spent several days tracing the opinions of a generation of prisoners about the Heasleroads, father and son. The standard of literacy had gone down but the sentiments were pretty uniform—and he agreed with every one of them. He’d been tempted to add his own, at length. He’d been born a Sheriff’s son back home in the Free Republic of Richland and sat through schooling every winter until he was fourteen or so, his family being masters of broad acres and able to spare his labor without hardship.
But it was always possible that it would make things worse. Venting was a luxury he could only afford if he gave up every scrap of hope, and he couldn’t do that. For Mary’s sake if not his own, and for the others.
“Here’s my plan!” someone screamed in a cell down the row. “Just listen! First we catch the rats and train them and then—“
“Shut up!” half a dozen others bellowed, until the madman drifted off into grumbles and then snores.
“Fucking politicals!” one of the other voices yelled, and gave the bars of his cell a rattling kick before he lay down again. “Fucking loonies, every God-damned one of you!”
The common prisoners were genuinely angry. Sleep was the only real escape from the State Prison, at least for the hard-cases who made it to this pen inside the perimeter wall of Des Moines’ inner citadel. The other ways out led to places that were even worse. The main punishment for offences against the—permanent—Emergency Regulations was life at hard labor. Which only meant four or five years in the salvage gangs or quarries or in the mines grubbing out coal, or a miserable decade if you were rented out as a part of a convict chain-gang. The Heasleroads thought capital punishment was wasteful, save in exceptional cases. And far too merciful.
Anthony will probably make an exception for me, if Rudi doesn’t get those wagons to the bridge on time. Or maybe even if he does.
The close confinement here was a compliment, in a way; it meant they were taking his capacity to do harm seriously, even if they didn’t believe it had been a Cutter spy who’d betrayed him and Vogeler’s Villains when they were nearly back to the Mississippi with the plunder of Boston’s galleries. Here the Church Universal and Triumphant was a barely-noticed oddity somewhere far, far out west, beyond Nebraska and the ranchers and the Sioux. He’d learned better, painfully...
And Rudi’s quite a guy, but he’s not going to pull four Conestoga wagons two hundred miles by himself. Or even with that damned spooky black mare of his, and Edain to help. And even if he did, I somehow doubt Tony Heasleroad will pay up on the bet. Though Rudi may actually have a better chance at it than I would. The Villains just cut their way through and back—he doesn’t have any blood feuds among the wild-men.
“Back in goddamned Iowa,” he muttered, with a quirk of the lips. “Nothing’s gone right since I took that Boston job from Tony H.”
He sighed, remembering one place near Boston. It had a four-story internal courtyard with a mosaic floor and a marble throne in it, still dimly lit by the great pyramidal glass roof at the top, unbroken by some miracle. The galleries around it had held some things that had riveted him, even in that place of hideous peril; paintings, carved wood, a curious statue with its hand upraised in blessing and an infinite compassion in the ancient stone face. Treasures and wonders beyond knowing lying doomed behind dusty glass, looming up out of the darkness as their lanterns passed, then fading into oblivion. They’d had a list to salvage, but it was a fraction of that one single treasure-house.
And if we’re lucky, the stuff we did get is still in those steel boxes on the wagons.
The keepers had solidly boarded the doors and windows to preserve their charges, before they went off to meet their deaths. He’d admired that at the time, and the more so as he saw what was within. There had been this wall of stained glass like nothing he’d seen in all his life, far too large and fragile to take...
I got to see that. It came all the way from Europe! And I met Mary. That was better than right. Hmmm. Unless meeting the one woman you want to settle down with just makes this worse? Giving you more to regret, you betcha.
He’d set up an exercise program when they put him in this cell, which for a wonder he had to himself—except for the miniature inmates in the cornshuck mattress. The sit-ups and chin-ups and pushups and running in place ought to have left him tired enough to sleep easily, but the stinks and snores from the other cells kept him wakeful.
Now he lay on his back with his hands behind his head, a tall powerfully-built man just short of thirty, with a pleasant battered face and a nose that had healed a little crooked long ago after an encounter with the blunt end of a Sioux tomahawk, brown hair and short-cropped beard, and dark-blue eyes now half closed. He was barefoot, and his trousers and undershirt were getting a little gamy, but he’d known worse conditions—as a hired soldier in a free company, and then as a salvager leading a gang working the dead cities.
Memories drifted through his mind on the verge of sleep. His home, Readstown, the day he’d left with the volunteers who were going to go fight the short glorious war against the Sioux, turning to watch petals from the blossoming apple-orchards blowing like frothing white mist down towards the river. Mountain-tall towers in Chicago, scorched and leaning against each other like drunken giants long asleep, with their feet in swirls of lake-water running in whitecaps through rivers that had once been streets. Dawn breaking up like thunder out of the Atlantic—he’d been one of the few men from the civilized lands to see that, since the Change. That weird little village on Nantucket, and the even weirder... place... that shared the island with those refugees out of time. Mary’s one bright blue eye laughing at him, as she reached for him with long-fingered slender hands.
Mountains rearing above the half-built bulk of the Temple in Corwin...
He awoke with a shudder; he’d been back there for a moment. His chest heaved under a film of sweat, and he called up something they’d taught him in the Valley of the Sun this last winter, in the Monastery of Chenrezi—a mandala, and a chant. The patterned figure began to turn, drawing his mind into its depths, and heart and breath slowed.
Heels beet a staccato on the concrete, hobnails grating. A bright Coleman lantern showed, and then the man carrying it as he turned the corner. None of the other occupants complained, even if they felt inclined; the man wore the harness and uniform of the State Police, not the turnkeys. They were the Bossman’s personal retainers, and widely—and justly—feared. And this one had Captain’s bars on the shoulders of his plain mail shirt; he carried a cloth-wrapped bundle as well.
Edgar Denson, by God! Ingolf thought, with a sudden prickle. Come to kill me in person? Possibly. Though he’d probably have brought a crossbow if he had that in mind.
The State Policeman kicked a three-legged stool over and sat, one foot sweeping the scabbard of his shete aside as he did. The distance was close enough for easy conversation—but just beyond reach if Ingolf lunged against the bars. He was bigger than the policeman, and at least ten years younger, since Denson had to be with a couple of years either side of forty.
He’s a tough son of a bitch, but I could take him one on one. Somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen.
“You know, you’re a pain in the ass,” Denson said conversationally, leaning forward with his palms on his knees. “Ordinarily I’d think you should have been ‘killed while resisting arrest’. Or ‘while trying to escape’.”
Urrrk! Ingolf thought.
That was not what you wanted to hear from a high officer of the all-powerful secret police and general Brute Squad.
“Anthony Heasleroad would have been sort of annoyed if you’d killed me before anyone asked questions,” Ingolf pointed out, his voice carefully neutral. “He wanted to find out what happened to four wagons full of salvaged artwork.”
There was a flicker of respect in the other man’s cold gray eyes, and he ran a hand over his close-cropped graying blond hair.
“Yeah, there is that... especially since he really believes you about his man Kuttner being a spy and finking you out to the Cutters.”
“He does?” Ingolf said, keeping his voice from squeaking by an effort of will.
“Yeah. You know, a lot of people think Tony is just a stupid, crazy spoiled brat. They’re only about half right, and only about half the time.”
“If he believes Kuttner was a spy and ratted me and my Villains out, why am I here?” Ingolf ground out, clutching at the bars to burn the rage out of his muscles. “Why aren’t the Cutters in here?”
Denson grinned, a remarkably evil expression. “I didn’t say he wasn’t crazy. I didn’t say he wasn’t a spoiled brat. I just said he wasn’t stupid... when he bothers to think.”
“What would he say if he heard you voicing that opinion?” Ingolf asked, forcing calm on himself.
Because it might be the sort of confidence you get killed for hearing.
“He’d laugh, like he did when I told him to his face. He thinks it’s funny. It is, when you look at it right. I need him just as much as he needs me, and the way I need him means I do all the work and he gets all the fun. I’ve told him that, too.”
“Must be a refreshing change, someone telling him what they really think.”
“Hell, he’s had people lying to him to get stuff all his life, and like I said, he’s not stupid. He’s gotten pretty good sensing it. And then there are all the people who swear they think he’s a devil of a good fellow, and he knows better than to believe that... So he realized Kuttner was stringing him; he just didn’t realize it was more than the usual get-on-the-gravy-train stuff.”
A slight wince. “And it makes me and the Staties look bad; we didn’t figure him for a plant, either.”
For a moment Ingolf wondered what it must be like to be Bossman Anthony Heasleroad, Governor and President Pro Tem, the wealthiest and most powerful man on the North American continent. He felt one corner of his mouth quirk up involuntarily in an emotion uncomfortably hanging somewhere between pity and schadenfreude.
“Yah, he must be about the loneliest man on earth,” he mused.
Denson shrugged. “Kate actually loves the fat, ugly bastard, poor girl. God knows why. Oh, yeah, and his son loves him too, but Tommie’s only eighteen months old. And old Bossman Tom doted on him. Apart from that... you said it, Sheriff Vogeler.”
“Captain Vogeler, if you have to use something besides my name. I earned that. My dad was a Sheriff, but my elder brother inherited the title. The pompous asshole.”
Another chuckle. “Vogeler, I’m not surprised you made your hometown too hot to hold you, and your friends are just as bad. That priest who was with you was seen going into the Catholic Cardinal’s palace—and it wouldn’t be good politics to try to muscle in there, even though I suspect he gets in and out without our noticing, somehow. The other four, the black kid and the three women, haven’t been found, and I don’t think they’re just waiting for you to get the chop. That sensitive spot between my shoulderblades starts getting an arrow-itch every time I go outdoors. And the two we did catch are the Bossman’s pets now. They’re giving him ideas.”
“I thought you State Police were the Bossman’s loyal muscle. What do you care what ideas he gets?”
“We are,” Denson said, and pulled a pipe out of a case at his belt. “And don’t play dumb with me.”
To Ingolf’s surprise he pulled out the wanderer’s battered briar as well and filled and lighted it, before handing it to him through the bars.
“Your two friends in the playing-card costumes are telling the Bossman he should be a King with everyone swearing homage on bended knee. And telling Kate Heaslroad that she should be Queen. He likes the idea. So does she, though I think it’s mostly the thought of having a crown and a fancy dress like that Princess...”
“Yeah, Mathilda Arminger... has. I said Kate loved Tony. That’s pretty good evidence she’s not too bright, hey?”
“Tony is King, near as no matter, Denson,” Ingolf pointed out. “That’s the way they think out west, anyway—Mathilda’s and Odard’s bunch of them, at least. They’re nuts for that knights-and-castles stuff. Some of the castles are pretty damned impressive, too; not as big as Des Moines, but high. And you wouldn’t want to meet their heavy cavalry in a bad mood, believe you me.”
“No shit. Actually it all sounds pretty workable. Not all that different from the way we do things, but more... polished. More regularized, you know, sort of as if a lot of the kinks and rough spots had been worked out.”
Ingolf nodded; he’d had the same thought, when he was west of the Cascades. If you subtracted the castles and coats-of-arms, the Association’s territories had the same setup as most parts of the Midwest; refugees from the cities and their children—grandkids, too, just lately—working for landowners, the landowners owing allegiance to bigger landowners who managed the local defenses, and all of them to an overboss. Although the Farmers and Sheriffs in Richland—his own homeland in what had been southern Wisconsin—were a lot less high-and-mighty about it than here in Iowa, and the Bossman of the Free Republic was a lot closer to first-among-equals than either of the Heasleroads, father or son.
“But a King doesn’t have quite as much need for the State Police,” Denson said, smiling like a shark. “The only reason we haven’t done anything about ‘em is those Cutters from Montana. They’ve been telling Tony the Bossman should be a fucking God. Provided he follows the—what do they call that funny-farm fake Bible of theirs?”
“The Dictations. And the Book of Dzur. That’s how they run things, which I’ve seen firsthand,” Ingolf said.
Along with some other things I’m not going to mention, because you’d think I was crazy. And being a prisoner in Corwin... you do go crazy. I don’t think I realized how much until I began to recover, in Chenrezi Monastery.
“But I think they have their own Prophet in mind for the job, and nobody else,” he said aloud.
“That’s about what I thought,” Denson said. “Besides, that everyone-is-dirt-beneath-your-feet and soulless-minions-of-the-Nephilim stuff is just far too tempting. I’m all for the Bossman’s authority, but let’s not get ridiculous.”
He produced a silver flask from his belt and took a nip. Without looking around he also lashed out with one foot, and connected with a set of fingers that were gripping the bars of the next cell at the sight of the liquor. The hairy face behind them jerked backward, swearing—quietly—and disappeared.
“Which sort of presents me with a problem,” he said. “They’ve also been telling the Bossman that you and your friends should all get the chop, soonest.”
“That’s the sort of advice Tony Heasleroad usually listens to,” Ingolf said sourly.
There was a certain freedom in his position. Denson’s confiding mood confirmed it; the man was probably talking more freely to him than he could to anyone else, because he didn’t expect one Ingolf Vogeler to be around very much longer. One way or another. Though he wondered at his letting the other prisoners eavesdrop.
Ah, he thought. He wants to judge my reactions before he risks letting me out of the cage even for an instant, even at the end of a catchpole.
“I get it,” Ingolf said, snapping his fingers with a look of sardonically exaggerated surprise. “You’re going to sit there and tell me all your evil plans before you kill me.”
“Christ, no, I saw that movie before the Change,” Denson said genially.
He extended the flask—cautiously, at arm’s length, so that Ingolf could just reach it but not the other man’s hand. It was peach brandy, well-aged, smooth and sweet, and went well with—at least temporary—relief.
“Ah, that’s sippin’ liquor,” Ingolf said. To himself: Phew. He needs me for something. Needs me alive.
“You’re welcome,” Denson said, taking it back. “No, when I’m going to kill someone I just kill them, fast and quiet. Dead men don’t figure a way to turn the tables on you.”
Ingolf felt an unwelcome stab of emotion; it took him a moment to recognize it as hope. That made the inside of his head itch.
Careful, he told himself as his breath caught involuntarily. You can’t afford to get muddle-headed.
“So I figure I need to get that hard-ass Graber and even more that lunatic they call a High Seeker out of town, and hopefully your bunch too. You can all go off and kill each other somewhere else, and we can get on with life. Tony will be annoyed, but he’ll get over it when he finds some new toys. If I had you all chopped against his orders, he might... probably would... start thinking of me as a threat.”
“And that wouldn’t do. He might get antsy.”
“Oh, you’ve got no idea. Our boy has a well-developed sense of self-preservation.”
“The Corwinites probably have plans of their own,” Ingolf said.
“Yeah. The other guy usually does, the dirty bastard.” Apropos of nothing, Denson went on: “You’re not old enough to remember the Change, are you?”
“Nope,” Ingolf said. “Not really. I remember the flash of light and the headache, but not much before that and not much more after, not for years. I wasn’t even six then.”
“Yeah, I can’t remember much of when I was six either,” Denson nodded.
“I do remember how scared everyone was.”
“Yes,” Denson said; the flask halted for a moment halfway to his lips, then came down again. “I was old enough to know.”
When he went on his eyes were locked on nothing, on a vision that gave them a haunted bleakness Ingolf recognized. He’d grown up seeing it in his father, and the other adults.
“People are always saying how lucky Iowa was. It didn’t feel that way then. The whole world had just dropped out from under our feet. If the fucking laws of nature can change on you, what can you count on? Most people were... you know how a cow or a pig looks when you hit it on the head with the hammer, just before you cut its throat?”
Ingolf nodded at the familiar image; the only people who didn’t know that were those too exalted to ever slaughter their own food or so poor they didn’t eat meat, both small minorities in this part of the world. Denson snorted at the automatic agreement.
“Yeah, you’re a Changeling, all right. Back then, even here in Iowa most people didn’t know how that looked, ‘cause they’d never seen an animal butchered unless they worked in a slaughterhouse. Even farmers hadn’t. Hell, I hadn’t.”
“Woah,” Ingolf said, shocked despite himself.
He’d known things were very different back then, but—
“Not around Readstown. My dad butchered deer, he was a hunter even before the Change. I do remember that. And one of my uncles raised pigs and slaughtered them and smoked his own bacon.”
“Wisconsin. The Kickapoo country in Wisconsin at that—the sticks.”
“Yah, we’re all ignorant cheeseheads, I’ve heard that before. You still had it lucky here.”
“Everyone says that, because we’ve got as many people now as before the Change. That’s after a generation of everyone breeding like crazy—hell, the kids are even useful, now, instead of swallowing a fortune in college tuition. Back around the Change enough people here died that life got real cheap, real fast. Only a few saw what had to be done if we weren’t all going to die. Get the city people out to the farms, get the farms rerigged to work with hand tools, get tools made, get the food in the silos and such stored before it went bad, get the livestock out of the confinement pens before they died, organize the Amish as instructors so we could plant a crop that first year...”
“Wise people like you, I suppose,” Ingolf said.
Denson grinned. “No. I was sixteen then, scared spitless, but old enough I remember it pretty good. Dad was like some crazy preacher then, spreading the gospel—that drove it into my head good and hard. He was number three or four in the State Police; though he drafted me, soon enough. And Tom Heasleroad, he really knew what had to be done, and saw the opportunities, if you know what I mean. Abel Heuisink saw it too, damn him, and he was in the State government like Tom.”
“I’ve met him. We stayed at his place.”
“He’s no fool, just... in his old age he’s turned into what they used to call a flaming liberal.”
“You mean he’s a free spender?” Ingolf said, puzzled; the Heuisinks had struck him as generous, even for well-born landholders, but not wasteful.
“Nah. The word’s changed meaning—changed back, actually; I looked it up once when I noticed. We could close him down, but he’s got supporters. And Anthony likes to have an official opposition... keeps all the other groups competing to make sure he doesn’t deal them in. Plus he knows Abel isn’t a friend of mine, personally, and neither is your friend Heuisink Junior. Balance of power stuff.”
“Jack doesn’t like you either, no. His father worked with your father, though.”
“Yup. Holding his nose while he did. Trouble was, they weren’t the real bossmen back then. The guys right at the top were sitting around wringing their hands, or putting band-aids on gut-stabs, shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic—“
He paused at Ingolf’s look of incomprehension and shrugged, amending the phrase:
“Fiddling while things burned, when we didn’t have any time to waste. They couldn’t get their heads around what had happened. Not fast enough.”
“So Tom Heasleroad and old Abel Heuisink and your dad took over,” Ingolf said. “And of course, Tom and your late father just had to keep running things because the Emergency never quite stopped.”
Denson laughed. “Pretty much. Though that bastard Heuisink really would turn everything over to the vakis—“
Which was Iowa slang for evacuee, the ex-townsmen and their descendants who were the Farmers’ labor-force.
“—which I admit just between me and you wouldn’t mean everyone starving to death, not any more, since these days they know something about working the land, but that’s politics.”
“But you’ve put all your money on the Heasleroads, and if they go down, you do too,” Ingolf said. “Why haven’t you just taken the Bossman’s Chair yourself?”
Denson shrugged again. “I’m the boogeyman for Tony, like Dad was for his father. The Bad Cop,” he added, chuckling. “Though with Tom Heasleroad and my father it was more like Bad and Worse. A lot of these Sheriffs and County Commissioners and Guard colonels hate me too much to take my orders directly, but the Heasleroad name still has a lot of chops—we didn’t all starve, after all, which everyone likes, and the Farmers and Sheriffs are on top of the heap, which they like plenty. And they like the way the State Police keep order without their having to do the dirty work themselves.”
“And the point of this little history lesson is?”
“That I have to manage the Heasleroads. Which means I have to keep the wrong people away from Tony; his father was a lot more sensible, but what can you do?”
“Not give him everything he wants just because he wants it?” Ingolf suggested. “That’d turn a saint into a monster, and I’ll bet Tony Heasleroad was never a saint.”
“Well, maybe. Tom was a lot better Bossman than he was a father, if you ask me; Dad never spoiled us. Water under the bridge, though.”
“Nice to know I’ve got a good grasp on the situation, you betcha,” Ingolf said. “But why the little confessional? I’m Catholic—“
More or less. Mary isn’t, and... well, one of us has to convert in the interests of a happy marriage, so...
“—but you were Lutheran, I thought.”
“That’s where getting rid of the Cutters comes in. Or you come in to get rid of them; I always believed in giving men a full briefing before I sent them to do something. You’re more likely to get results if your people understand what’s going on. That way they can improvise, not just be robots... be wind-up toys, I mean.”
Ingolf bit back I’m no man of yours, Denson, and the policeman’s grin replied: For this you are, like it or not.
Aloud Denson went on: “They’re staying here because you are here, and because that Rudi guy is coming back for you. If he is.”
“Ah,” Ingolf said, and smiled wolfishly. “I bleed for you. I won’t say from where. And Rudi will flap his arms and fly like a duck before he abandons friends. Or anyone he promised to rescue.”
“Oh, one of those, is he? That type gets more throats cut than evil bastards like me.”
“I’ll take Rudi’s word for it on who needs fighting,” Ingolf said.
Then he blinked to himself. You know, I really believe that, he thought. Life’s not dull around Rudi Mackenzie, or safe, but you don’t have to worry about him . A man could do a lot worse than be the one who had his back. One way or another he’s going to need good men, and not just on this trip.
He thought of Mary, who was after all the Mackenzie’s half-sister, and grinned to himself.
And I could do a hell of a lot worse than be his brother-in-law. Half-brother-in-law. Whatever.
Denson looked at him slit-eyed, evidently distrusting his good cheer.
“You said the Cutters had plans of their own? They do. Evidently they’ve got a real hard-on for all of you; especially the big redhead, but they want you all dead in the worst way, and it’s starting to sink in with them that Tony thinks you’re too much fun to kill and isn’t going to change his mind. Not anytime soon. And then your friend—the big redhead—sent a message, saying he’s gotten the stuff. The wagons.”
“He did?” Ingolf almost-squeaked.
Denson laughed. “Yeah. Surprised me no end too. I thought the wild-men would be tanning his hide for a drum over there by now. And that made the Cutters decide they could get you all at one swell foop, if they timed it right.”
He nudged the bundle at his feet. It clinked significantly; Ingolf stiffened. He recognized the metallic shink sound of chain-mail, and the rattle of a boiled-leather scabbard against something hard.
“What they forgot,” Denson said, “is that the State Police is a police force, not just the...”
He grinned like a shark and made an odd gesture with his hands spread and the first two fingers of each crooked.
“... ‘Royal Guard’ quote unquote. We’re not the fucking National Guard, either, just parading around in tin shirts and breaking heads hup-one-two-three-left-right. We find things out. And we’ve got informants all over the place, including the guest quarters of the Bossman’s House. Those guys should really be more careful how they plot where the help can hear. I know all about them now.”
“Why not tell the Bossman?” Ingolf asked.
To himself: You don’t know as much about the Church Universal and Triumphant as you think, Denson. But I’m not here to tell you what the monks at Chenrezi told me.
“That might get rid of the Cutters, though not until they start to bore Tony. It wouldn’t get rid of you guys. Tony really likes that Arminger chick. Got the hots for her, maybe, and he likes the stories she tells. What I’m going to do is let my problems... sort of solve each other. The timing will be close, though. Get moving. You’re going to Dubuque.”
Ingolf nodded slowly. “So, what’s in it for me, Denson?”
“Longevity,” the State Policeman said. “And a better view.”
He toed the bundle over. Ingolf grabbed it, snaked the awkward length through the bars. There was the padded jacket, the short mail shirt that went over it, the weapons belt with his new shete—what they’d called a dao in Chenrezi—and bowie and tomahawk, shield and quiver, bow in the case beside them. He left the kettle helmet looped over the shield and tied down with a rawhide thong.
“Don’t put the ironmongery on right now. Figured you’d want a shower and some strong soap first. And keep the shete wrapped; it might attract attention.”
Ingolf nodded reluctantly. He did stamp his feet into the boots; it was amazing how much better they made him feel... which was the demoralizing point of taking away prisoner’s footwear, of course.
“What about after we get out?” he asked. If we get out, he added to himself. “I presume we’re not all that welcome in Iowa, so how do we leave?”
“Oh, your friend Tancredo took care of that,” Denson said, with a crooked smile. “And wouldn’t he just shit if he knew we knew about that ship he rented? Nice little gaff-rigged river pedal-galley.”
“What if we get caught in Dubuque?”
“Well, that’s where killed while resisting arrest could come back into the picture. So don’t screw up.”
“You’re an evil bastard, Denson,” Ingolf said. And now I know you need me, so I can say so. “I think you’ve got a hole where your conscience should be.”
“People say it runs in the family. But we survived the Change without morals when billions died fully equipped with theirs. Plus I’m a rich, powerful evil bastard, and most of the other survivors ended up hoeing beans twelve hours every day, and living on cornbread and fatback with some hick farmer kicking their ass. Now follow me.”
The sound of the key grating in the lock made Ingolf release a breath he hadn’t been conscious of holding; that was when his gut decided that he really was getting out of here—if only into mortal peril. The feel of the blade and the weight of the mail shirt in his hands put his shoulders back, and a swing into his stride. Eyes glittered at them from the cells, reflecting a little of the light of the lantern Denson carried; he cupped a hand around the chimney to blow it out when they reached the steel door and the sections where the gaslights were left on all night.
But at least it’s mortal peril I can do something about. The helplessness was the worst part of being locked up.
A squad of Denson’s men waited outside the door at the end of the corridor, most of them holding their crossbows at port-arms, along with a scared-looking screw Ingolf recognized without affection from his habit of spitting in the prisoners’ food before he pushed it through to them, and laughing when they complained. As they passed, Denson jerked a thumb over his shoulder and spoke:
“Don’t you men hear the riot?”
“Riot, sir?” the sergeant of the squad said.
“Yeah, the criminal scum are out of their cages and running wild. Go to it, men! I wouldn’t be surprised if you had to kill them all to reestablish order.”
“Yessir, that riot,” the sergeant said.
“Stack the bodies in the corridor.”
Then he nudged the turnkey with an elbow; the man was still gaping in thick-witted bewilderment.
“What about this sad sack of shit, Captain?”
“Ah, too bad about the way the prisoners hauled him through the bars and took his keys off his dead, mangled body,” Denson said. “Still, it was fucking careless of him to get that close to the cells, right?”
The turnkey blinked in alarm as the words began to penetrate; the sergeant grinned.
“Dead men contradict no tales,” he said.
And struck again with his elbow—this time into the man’s throat, a quick savage jerk of a blow without warning, and then followed it with a steel-toed boot to the side of the head when the man collapsed. One of his men dragged the body behind the file of troopers as they went through the massive door and then closed it behind them with a clunk and a rattle. Ingolf winced as he and the Police captain walked away, and then again. Faint from the cell-block he’d shared came the sound of screams, screams and then the deep tung of crossbows.
Denson’s doing me a big favor, Ingolf thought. Why doesn’t this make me feel as optimistic as it should?
“Don’t sweat it,” Denson said, at the gray of his face. “It isn’t you, right?”
“Right,” Ingolf said tightly.
I’ve got to live, he thought. I’ve even got to let Denson help me. Too much depends on this mission coming off. Mary... all her friends... Christ, I think the world may depend on it. I want to have someplace we can go when this is all over.
Copyright © 2008-2009 by S.M. Stirling <email@example.com>