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The Golden Princess: A Novel of the Change (Anglais) Relié – 2 septembre 2014

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Description du produit

Extrait

ALSO BY S. M. STIRLING

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

CHAPTER ONE

Near the nemed of Dun Barstow

County of Napa, Crown Province of Westria

(Formerly Napa County, California)

High Kingdom of Montival

(Formerly western North America)

April 30th, Change Year 46/2044 AD

Órlaith Arminger Mackenzie bore the first unlit torch forward to her father’s pyre as the sun touched the low mountains to the west.

All I want is to crawl alone into somewhere dark and greep like a little lass, she thought. Or run to my mother that we may weep together. But I’ve more than twenty summers now, Mother is far away in the north building Dún na Síochána, I’m his heir. I must do this for him.

His big long-fingered hands were crossed on the hilt of the Sword of the Lady as he lay on the bier, shapely though scarred and battered. He was dressed plainly in the simple kilt and shirt and plaid, ankle-boots and knee-hose of the people who’d borne him. There was an inhuman peace now to the face that had been so lively with the play of thought and feeling, and the golden torque around his neck hid the wound that had killed him. Rudi Mackenzie—High King Artos—had been a tall man, still broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped in his forty-seventh year; his red-gold hair held no trace of gray, or his short-cropped beard, though there were deep lines beside his eyes. It was as if he were withdrawing before her eyes, from the living man who had sired her to the sculptured image of the King who’d forged a realm that stretched over half a continent.

From the light of common day into the time of legends.

At least she was among Mackenzie clansfolk, mostly, so they wouldn’t expect her not to weep. Following the steps of ritual helped, she found. The tears trickled down her face, but her voice was steady as she laid the torch at her feet and raised her arms in her faith’s gesture of prayer:

“He was High King and father to all the land, but to me he was my da,” she said. “This memory I give, and it is my first of him: my mother lets me go and I run stumping towards him and he sweeps me up, high, so high, and he laughing up at me with the wind and sun in his hair, his hands as strong as the bones of Earth and gentle as the Lady’s love. We will miss you, I and Mother and the sibs. Wait for us in the Summerlands beyond the Western Gate, Da, where no sorrow or evil comes and all hurts are healed.”

She knew that would be so; as he lay dying they had grasped the Sword of the Lady together, and they had met and spoken in the world beyond the world. The eeriness of it was still with her a day later, but it was colder comfort than she would have thought. He’d said grief was for the living, and it was so. He still was . . . but he was gone.

The symbol of the High Kingdom lay naked on his breast now, by his own longstanding command for the day of his death-pyre. In its form it was a knight’s weapon, what they called a hand-and-a-half sword; thirty-six straight inches of tapering double-edged blade, a shallow crescent of guard, a long double-lobed hilt of silver-inlaid black staghorn ending in a pommel of moonstone gripped in antlers. Merely a sword of superlative quality, until you looked closely. Then there were patterns in the metal and crystal—not quite seen—that led the mind inward and inward . . .

She’d heard her father say that the blade he had brought back from the Quest might not be a thing of matter at all as humankind understood the word. Instead somehow an embodied concept, a thought in the mind of the Goddess, one that could be touched in the light of common day. Though that was a perilous thing, very dangerous indeed to anyone not of the Royal kin.

The pyre was a large one, set in a deep pit so that the top was breast-high to the ground about, with a narrow trench to provide draught. Mackenzies gave their dead to the fire and the ashes to Earth for the most part, and the High King had long made clear that he wished that rite. Dun Barstow was a new settlement that had spent hard labor clearing land here in the renascent wilderness that had once been California, and it was the eve of Beltane, a festival always celebrated with bonfires; there was any amount of dry timber on hand, even with the other funeral pyres that had been needed.

Edain Aylward Mackenzie came up next, to stand at the northern end of the pyre. He was commander of the High King’s Archers, a stocky broad-shouldered man of about her father’s age with a square weathered face, oak-brown curls and gray eyes. His voice held the Mackenzie lilt, stronger than hers:

“He was my Chief, and my friend from my earliest years, the brother of my heart, the one I chose, the one I followed on the Quest to Nantucket. My father Samkin Aylward taught us both the bow. This memory I give: when I first carried the Silver Arrow at the Lughnasadh Games, my da gave me a nod and a hand on the shoulder I prized more than the Arrow itself. Then Da turned and cuffed him upside the head and said he was a natural, he’d been slacking on his practice or he’d have done better than third place. He grinned, that smile that could bring the birds from the trees, and said: Edain has the blessing of Llew of the Steady Hand as much as I, Sam, and he works harder at it; he earned it, it’s his. Ochone, my Chief, would that I could have died for you! But I’ll look to the lass and Prince John and Vuissance and Faolán so long as a man may, I promise you that. We’ll have a mug together and talk it over, in the Land of Summer.”

The headman of Dun Barstow was Oak Barstow Mackenzie, a tall rangy graying man, one of the few here who’d been born before the Change—though he’d been a child of nine and couldn’t remember it beyond fragments. He’d been First Armsman of the Clan Mackenzie for many years. When he laid it down he’d led a party of pioneers south to found Dun Barstow, including many of his own children and grandchildren.

He stepped forward and nodded somberly.

“I was an orphan of the Change, reared in Dun Juniper, and I knew Rudi Mackenzie first as a brat running about underfoot, then a wild youngster always in a scrape. When he returned from the Quest with the Sword of the Lady and was hailed the Ard Rí, the High King, it was as a story from the old tales to me, and I cheered it mainly because I saw how it gave our folk heart in those dark times and united the alliance. This memory I give: when I led the full levy north from our dùthchas in the Prophet’s War, I told him: This is all we have, Ard Rí. If we lose it, the Clan dies. And he nodded, and told me what he’d planned. As he spoke the memory of him tumbling with the puppies before the hearth dropped away, and my heart said within me:

“This man is a King you may follow to the death. You may leave your bones on foreign soil, but he will save our folk.

“The great battles lay ahead, and the march to Corwin, but I never doubted again.”

Heuradys d’Ath came to the eastern side. Alone of them she wasn’t a Mackenzie, though she was of the Old Faith: she was a noble of the Portland Protective Association from the north-realm, Órlaith’s liege-sworn knight and her best friend. And of her own generation, only two years older, like her one of those who’d grown up wholly in the world the Change had made, children of those who had laid its foundations.

“This memory I share,” she said. “When I came to be a page at Court, only Órlaith was my friend at first, and the High King seemed godlike to me, to be honored from far away. The other Associate pages were all boys and all Catholics, and . . . Then the High King came to the salle d’armes, and I’d just lost a practice bout. I was sitting there rubbing my elbow—and telling myself I would not cry where anyone could see me—and he just stood at the back, arms crossed, making this little gesture to the teacher to keep going, and watching. I got back up and picked up my practice blade and stepped into another circle and lost again. He watched me keep losing and keep going back time after time. I was the youngest there, and the smallest, and the others didn’t dare bully me too badly in the open but they thought they could make me so miserable I’d leave anyway.

“I got back up . . . and he walked over and said to me: And so you wish to be a knight, do you? My knight? And I said: No, Your Majesty. I’ll be Princess Orrey’s knight and fight by her side and be the shield on her shoulder!

“And he smiled, and rested his hand on the Sword and looked . . . looked through the wall for a moment. And then he looked back at me and said, so that everyone could hear:

“And so you will be, girl, and glad of it I am, for I want only the best backing my Princess in the hour of her deadly need.”

Heuradys lifted her gaze and smiled, though her eyes were wet. “And after that, First Armsman Oak, I also never doubted that I would win the victory, hard as it might be.”

She turned to the bier and lifted her hands. “Go in peace to the Shades, my King, and rest content in the flower-meads of Elýsion pedíon before you drink of Lethe and return. I will fulfill my oath.”

There was a moment of echoing silence, with the sound of the birds greeting the sunset the loudest noise, that and the wind in the treetops. Then a set of bagpipes began to play, a slow mournful pibroch of lament. The piper paced slowly ahead of the High Priestess of the Dun’s coven, Oak’s daughter Rowan, a lanky brown-haired woman in her thirties. She wore a black cloak over her white robe and a black scowl on her fair face as she raised a staff topped with the Triple Moon, waxing and full and waning. Behind her two muscular women carried a large wooden yoke, holding a cauldron loaded with coals, and another pair and another pair came behind, each with a cauldron packed with oak burned down to a savage white heat. A dry smell of scorched bronze and silver and iron filled the air, under the sap of the cut wood in the pyre.

A song began as the piper paced in a circle around the High King’s resting place, walking deosil, sunwise, as the spirit traveled to the Western Gate.

“We all come from the Goddess

And to Her we shall return

Like a drop of rain

Flowing to the ocean—”

Órlaith met the angry hazel eyes calmly, more calmly than she felt. They’d had words; Rowan had thought the day wrong. This was Beltane Eve—which was the festival of love and life, as Samhain was of death and endings and the Otherworld. Few gainsaid a High Priestess of the triple cords in her own dun, and this one had all the bull-headed stubbornness Oak had shown on the battlefields of the Prophet’s War, and all the strength of will of her grandmother Judy who’d been the Clan’s first healer and Maiden of the Singing Moon coven before the Change. The cross-talk had rent the afternoon as the women washed the High King’s body while the men had laid out clothing and gear to wear on his final journey. Finally Oak had stepped in, his gnarled hand gentle on his daughter’s shoulder.

A leanbh na páirte; hush now. Beltane is the rite of life and love, yes. But the High King has fallen on this eve, leaving us the young Queen to pick up the reins. So does her life as Queen begin; and his death is the sacrifice that renews the life of the land, his blood freely spilled upon it bringing the growth of spring, as the Lord of the Corn dies and is reborn. From death comes life. She is the Spring Queen indeed, her strength and youth that of the kingdom. So it is fitting that he should be sent on his way on the holy day, and by her hand.”

They’d been silenced, and Rowan had bowed her head and agreed to the pyre this very night. But ill feeling lingered. And Órlaith was too shaken to be diplomatic.

Rowan came to Edain’s side, the priestesses with the black cauldron following her. The white and the brass cauldrons were brought equidistant along the pyre, closer to Órlaith. Rowan looked across to the Princess and her face changed as she thrust back the cowl and shook free her hair. Each Priestess copied her, and after a second, Órlaith, Heraudys, Edain and Oak did likewise. Rowan cut a long lock of her hair and held it in her left hand. The small crowd beyond milled and seethed. Órlaith glanced back to see them holding up their hands, holding locks cut free. She swallowed, her throat tight again. That was the rite for close kin or anamchara—oath-sword brothers or sisters of the soul, for it sent part of your very self to the otherworld with the dead. Her father had been respected by all, feared by enemies of the peace he’d brought . . . but he’d also been loved by many. Her own grief was a wave on a great sea of sorrow that would wash over the kingdom. That didn’t make it less, but it did make her feel a little less alone.

Rowan opened her mouth and took a breath . . . and let it out, again, and shook her head, tears suddenly running down her face; Órlaith heard them clogging her throat as she tried to speak through them. Edain turned and tugged out a handkerchief from his sporran and handed it over. Rowan gave a half-hysterical laugh that hiccuped and skidded sideways.

“I wanted to be so solemn, so perfect for the High King!”

“The honest voice of your heart is a greater tribute,” her father said gently.

Órlaith felt her own anger fade. There had been times in her childhood when she was jealous of the way her parents seemed to belong to everyone—the King was Father to the land, and the Queen stood for the Mother. Right now seeing the echo of her grief brought a sense of fellowship.

The High Priestess turned to those watching—the folk of Dun Barstow, the archers and men-at-arms and varlets of the Royal party, and the others from half-built Castle Rutherford who’d answered the courier’s call to arrive horror-struck to find the High King dead, killed by a prisoner’s treachery after the short victorious fight. The Nihonjin who’d been rescued stood at a farther remove, and kneeled as they sat back on their heels, heads bowed in respect. Not that they hadn’t borne their share of the fight, and more, and their own Emperor had fallen in it.

Rowan’s voice rose, soaring sure now, as if something or Someone else joined its strength to hers:

“As it was said in the ancient days and now again—The King is dead! Long live the Queen!

The crowd took up the cry, and Órlaith bowed her head a little at the crushing weight of it. In strict law according to the Great Charter she wouldn’t be assuming the throne until she was twenty-six, still a few years from now. Her mother the High Queen Mathilda had always been her father’s right hand and closest councilor as well as his handfasted wife, and Órlaith knew she would be doing the bulk of the work for years to come, she and Chancellor Ignatius and Edain and High Marshal d’Ath and the others.

Rowan was speaking as the Lady’s priestess, at a level beyond human law and politics; or above or behind or beneath it. She went on, her voice ringing:

“And I say, Mourn! Mourn! You have seen the death of greatness; the swift daring strength of his youth and the steady hand of his ripe manhood we have had, but the wisdom of his deep age is taken from us and that we will never have, spilled with the blood he shed for us! Mourn, then, mourn! For he is lost and gone and we will send him to the sky and the earth and the sea. For his soul has gone on, gone on and left us here, bereft, but not unconsoled. Princess! Light the balefire!”

Órlaith shook herself and took up the torch. Edain, Oak and Heuradys copied her. Two steps took her to the brass cauldron and she thrust the soaked head into the glowing coals and pulled it swiftly out as it took flame with a sudden flare and dragon-hiss. Oak, Heuradys and Edain followed suit and she spun it around her head as a wordless cry of pain burst from her chest. She thrust it deep into the pile of wood, to the prepared pot of tallow, oil and spirits. A scream like a Harfang, a roar of the bison, the howl of a wolf echoed on the trailing edges of her voice as the others called on their totems. The fire roared up from the four quarters, huge and hungry and the Priestesses grabbed the yokes and tipped the coals in a stream along the edges, moving widdershins as the chant rose:

“We all come from the Maiden—

And to Her we shall return.

Like a budding flower, blooming in the springtime.

We all come from the Mother—

And to Her we shall return.

Like a stalk of wheat falling to the reaper’s blade.

We all come from the Wise One—

And to Her we shall return.

Like the waning moon, shining on the winter’s snow.”

Órlaith raised her voice into the dying fall at the end of the verse:

“God of Light, You of the Long Hand, Swift Striker, Lover, Warrior, wise Father, Knower of Roads and Ways, in Your form he came among us, ever walking in Your power. Take him to Yourself now!”

She threw her handful of yellow hair at the fire and it flared, caught the air currents and danced even as it glowed, crisped and charred. With a shout, the crowd moved forward to do the same. The keening rose with the flames, the wail for the beloved dead. The flames caught swiftly . . .

She felt a prickle of awe break through the intense self-focus of grief as she flung up a hand to warn the others and stepped backward, and then again. The rest retreated behind her.

Yes, the wood was tinder-dry and cunningly placed furnace-style and there were tons of it, around the well-stacked kindling. But surely this torrent of red and gold reaching for the purple sky of sunset was something else again. Sparks flew upward, turning in a widening gyre like a dance of hot stars. There was no scent save the intense dry smell of the fire, and the tears dried on her face. She had to look aside, as the blaze grew to a white heat where steel itself might burn, a roaring amid a wind that torrented towards it from every side and cuffed plaids and hair and robes. That wind seemed to blow through her as well, a storm of fire and power and light, filling her and shining as if she were turned to glass that contained the very Sun.

Rowan looked at her, and her eyes widened as if she saw something as well. She turned her gaze away from the King’s daughter, and then her breath caught again as she raised her staff in a gesture half of reverence and half of warding. More heads turned to follow. A raven was flying out of the setting sun, down the slanting rays that came from the piled clouds above the mountains.

“Morrigú,” someone murmured, and then Órlaith realized it was herself. “Badb-Macha-Nemain. Moro-rıganı-s, Shadow Queen.”

The pyre burned down swiftly, consumed in minutes and dying as if the flames were falling back into the earth. That left the drifting circle of sparks. Gasps rose from the crowd as the raven banked about them, midnight against gold, its wings a yard across and its beak a slightly curved blade like the spike on the back of a war-hammer. And in the center of the hot glow—

She hadn’t expected the Sword of the Lady to be harmed. Her father had been certain it could not be, not by any flame kindled by men, not by the fires at the heart of Earth or the core of the Sun itself. But now it hung suspended, point-down in the middle of the golden coil. And it blazed, the crystal pommel a star brought down from the heavens. She advanced towards it step by step, each feeling as if miles passed, or distances of time and space beyond conception. Edain started to cry out in alarm as she reached for the hilt, but the staghorn and silver were cool and solid beneath her palm, and the blade swung upward like a living thing in her grip.

Chambers opened within her mind, currents of thought too vast and strange to even be given names, then surged away leaving a sense of potential, as if her soul was stretched like an iridescent bubble vanishing-thin, hollow and waiting to be filled. She would have staggered, would have cried out, but it was too swift and too large. Eons passed in an instant. When she came to herself again the raven hung before her, its wings beating about her head once and twice and thrice. The flint-sharp beak stabbed forward, landing between her brows with a quick pain that grounded her again, like her very self pouring back into her body. The little trickle of blood was cool fire, and the darkening wilderness glowed with meaning, a thousandfold millionfold dance with herself at the center.

She fell to her knees, panting, as the raven circled above her and turned back into the West.

“Are you all right, Orrey?” Heuradys asked.

Edain was at her other side, looking for once as if he could not decide what to do. Rowan grounded her staff and bowed her head, and the crowd had fallen silent.

“Are you all right?” Heuradys asked again, sharply.

“I’m—” Órlaith began hoarsely.

She rose. Earth spoke in her as she did, one sharp syllable that left an echo that faded but never quite died. The land of Montival, all of it from the deeps of the Ocean of Peace to the hot heart of the Valley of Death, all of it her.

“I’m . . . I’m what I need to be, Herry,” she said.

A moment, then to the people: “Go, and feast in my father’s memory. We keen the dead, and then we make merry at the wake. Sorrow, but also take what joy you may on this day. For there will be much to do before what begins here is finished.”

When her father had finally found the time and labor to begin building a capital for the High Kingdom, he’d called it Dún na Síochána, the Citadel of Peace. Peace was good—in fact, it was divine, a face of the Mother, She who loved all Her children without distinction.

But Justice is also a Goddess.

And from the images they made of Her, even the ancients knew—

—that Justice . . . Justice carries a sword.

CHAPTER TWO

Near Dun Barstow

County of Napa, Crown Province of Westria

(Formerly California)

High Kingdom of Montival

(Formerly western North America)

April/Uzuki 30th, Change Year 46/2044 AD/Shohei 1

The newly-made Empress of Japan took council with her advisors as the night wound down into silence.

Reiko looked at the urn with her father’s ashes and swallowed at the sight of the plain, subtle gray curve and the three thin sticks of incense burning before it. As his only blood-relative here it had fallen to her to use the special chopsticks and pick the charred fragments of bone up out of the remains of the pyre with due reverence, for transfer to the ceramic container. It hadn’t been as hard as she feared; concentrating on doing it properly had helped, as ritual was meant to do. When every motion was prescribed, you need not think. Nor was the memory gruesome. It had been a means of saying good-bye, a final act of love. But . . .

For an instant she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and cleared her mind by feeling the mild air on her skin, the slip and slide of linen haori on silk kimono belted with the warm wool hakama; and the smells of warm canvas turning cool with night, and the alien greenery beyond, a scent drier and spicier and more dusty beneath the dew than her homeland.

When she opened them the men kneeling around the table in the center of the open-sided tent were waiting for her to speak, eyes politely lowered. The lantern hanging from the center-pole cast slight, flickering shadows. Everything was changed, now that she was jotei.

“We await your orders, Majesty,” her Grand Steward said.

He was a thin weathered man in his late fifties named Koyama Akira, the only one of the senior men who’d been born before the Change. Few such had survived the terrible years since.

It was a little disconcerting to have them waiting on her word, since the half-dozen of them were all at least a decade more than her twenty years—commanders and advisors she’d seen working with her father all her life. They’d always treated her very politely, of course, and with increasing deference since it became clear that Prince Yoshihito was lost and there would never be another heir except her or her younger sisters.

Reigning Empresses were very unusual but not completely unknown. Her grandmother had been one, for all her short life, until she died bearing the son who had been Reiko’s father. She had been the sole survivor of the Imperial line, brought from Change-stricken Tokyo through chaos and terror and death on an unimaginable scale, on a journey that had been an epic of sacrificial heroism by men determined that the seed of Amaterasu-Omikami be preserved at any cost.

“The Renso-no-Gi and the Ryosho-no-Gi are out of the question,” she said quietly; those were the funeral rites. “Investiture with the Regalia . . . well, you all know why we are here. For the present we will simply take this meeting as Sokui-go-Choken-no-Gi, the First Audience of my reign. I hereby authorize it.”

Koyama bowed and slid a sheet of creamy mulberry paper towards her, and then a leather-covered box. She opened it, hearing an intake of breath as the square gold shapes within were exposed to view; not everyone on this voyage knew that the State and Privy Seals were with them.

Reiko paused for a moment to clear her mind, then in one fluid movement held back the sleeve of her kimono, touched her brush to the wet surface of the inkstone and quickly signed the characters of her name on the paper. Then she pressed the seals home—they were heavy, being of pure gold and three and a half inches on a side, but her hands were strong and steady. The special cinnabar ink stood out below the plain black brushstrokes.

“Are there any objections?” she asked quietly, as she folded the box closed again. “No? Then we will proceed.”

There had been whispers that the Emperor treated her too much like a son after her brother Yoshihito’s ship was lost, as if grief had driven him to distraction. These were his most loyal followers, but they would be weighing her every word and action.

She knew that there had been many times in the long, long history of her people when the Emperor had been a revered but powerless figurehead, a puppet-prisoner in the hands of iron-fisted generals or simply presiding at the rituals of State while politicians ruled. This was not such a time, and her father had been clear that she must command as well as preside. Reaching a consensus was important, it provided the framework that made action possible just as the bones did for a man’s body, but without a central focus it degenerated into paralysis all too easily.

“There is simply no time for ceremony,” she said, after waiting a moment, putting a decisive snap into her tone. “Nor do we have the other requirements for it. The Montivallans can conduct their rituals for their High King because they are on their own ground. We will give—”

She felt another wave of pain as she stopped herself from referring to her father by his name, or by any title he’d borne in life. That would be inauspicious, but it was like another step away. She controlled her breathing—if you ruled the body, you ruled the mind—and went on by using his posthumous name, called after his era, the Rebirth.

“—Saisei Tenno the proper obsequies when we can. In the meantime we will do him honor by carrying out his plan. Is that understood?”

“Hai, Heika! Wakarimashita!” the others replied, ducking their heads in formal agreement.

Nobody was happy about it, she judged, but necessity had no respect for law. Even custom must bow to it at times. They were probably grateful to have her say it for them, though. Most of these men had loved her father too, in their different ways.

“We will also take this as the first year of Shohei,” she said.

That was the era-name she had chosen: Victorious Peace. There was a very slight rustle at the boldness of her claim, though eras were named as an aspiration, not in retrospect. Only time would tell whether it was correct . . . or a bitter irony.

“I require a complete and frank analysis of our situation. Egawa, you will begin,” she went on briskly.

Remembering to use his name alone this first time, as a marker of their relative positions. Another man might have been offended, though most wouldn’t show it, but Egawa Noboru’s eyes flicked very slightly in approval before he lowered his head in acknowledgement.

“How are we placed?” she said.

The Imperial Guard commander bowed.

“Heika,” he said.

That was Majesty, as informal as was really possible, acceding to her unspoken command that they keep strictly to practicalities. Until she saw her mother and sisters again—and even then only in private—it was unlikely anyone would actually use her name to her face. The living being vanished inside the outline of the Heavenly Sovereign One.

Egawa’s face was an iron mask, his voice flatly objective, though she knew his grief was if anything worse than hers—and tinged with shame that his lord had fallen in battle while he lived. The bandage on his left hand marked where he’d intercepted the throwing knife aimed at her by desperately and instantly putting his own flesh in the way, only moments later. She hoped that soothed his honor; if so it certainly made her glad. He would be the sword-hand of her reign, as he had been for her sire.

“The Montivallans have furnished all the supplies we could ask,” he began.

She nodded. They’d had nothing left, and the food and water had been running short for weeks before they made land. For the last ten days of shattering labor at pumps and sails and catapults there had been only a handful of rice each, and barely enough water to cook it and give one strictly rationed cup to drink. Nobody had gone quite mad enough to drink the seawater around them, but some had probably been close.

And Father smiled as he refused the men who pleaded with him to take their ration, she thought.

Her people prided themselves on the warrior spirit that could overcome mere material things, but there were limits and thirst and starvation and scurvy were among them in the end. The beaching and desperate flight and savage battle that followed had taken the last reserves of everyone’s strength.

Nobody showed it openly, of course, but just being able to drink their fill of clean water and feel it soothe the savage pain between the ears was inexpressible bliss. And it had required all the iron control samurai learned not to gobble and stuff themselves with fresh food like peasants at a festival; they had been very hungry, and for just long enough that it became a grinding, nagging ache without the numbing that followed in real famine conditions. The food here was not what they were accustomed to, apart from the fish, but there was plenty of it and they could prepare the raw ingredients in the fashion they preferred.

In a way she almost missed the physical misery, because it preoccupied you and the spiritual effort of suppressing it smothered the pains of soul and heart.

Father—

“And they have provided excellent care for our wounded, treatment much like ours,” Egawa continued.

“That is most fortunate,” she said, proud that her voice was steady.

And she’d noticed the same thing when she visited their injured. It was a comfort that those who’d suffered wounds in the Throne’s service were being given the best possible care, though it was a pity that it was among strangers with whom they shared not a word. Still, the skill and sympathy of the healers and their assistants had been unmistakable. To a man in pain, no matter how brave, a smile and a gentle hand meant much.

“Not one man can be spared if recovery is possible,” she said, with iron in her tones. “And we have no true healers left.”

One of their doctors had intercepted a jinnikukaburi roundshot with her head in the Aleutians, and the other had been slashed to death in the brutal scrimmage around the ship trying to drag a wounded man back from the front line. Everyone learned field medicine, but that didn’t make you a real doctor.

“We have thirty-two men of the Imperial Guard fit for duty, including some lightly wounded, and adequate gear for all though we are short of arrows,” Egawa continued. “Two more have died, and six are seriously injured. I regret to inform you, Majesty, that Watanabe Atsuko-gozen never recovered consciousness.”

Reiko closed her eyes again for an instant. Lady Atsuko had been the last of her female attendants; there had been three originally, all well-born young women a little older than her and selected for their varied skills. She could see Atsuko driving the point of her naginata into the face of the Korean swordsman who’d been about to strike Reiko . . . and to do it, ignoring the scar-faced savage who brought a stone-headed club down two-handed to shatter the plates of her helmet. Reiko could remember her frowning over the go board, too, or gently, patiently mopping the face of her friend Haru by the flickering light of a single swaying lantern when she was prostrate with seasickness in the endless storms.

“Duty, heavier than mountains,” she said quietly.

They hadn’t been friends, not exactly—there were barriers—but they had all become close, in the confined quarters and constant shared peril and hardship.

“Death, lighter than a feather,” another voice murmured, completing the formula. Then: “But now you will have no woman to attend you, Majesty.”

“We will do as we must. Continue, General-san,” she said levelly, switching to the more courteous distant form of address with his title.

“Our ship Red Dragon is a wreck and most of the crew perished in the rearguard action there.”

Young Ishikawa Goru, who had been Kaigun Daisa—captain—of the Red Dragon—leaned forward slightly at his gesture and supplied the precise information. Her father had directly ordered him to join the retreat because they absolutely must have an experienced navigator, and there had been tears in his eyes as he obeyed.

“The upperworks burned and there is structural damage to the scantlings, Your Majesty, from the fire, from the grounding, and from the storms—we were leaking like a ladle dipping noodles out of the pot for days before we sighted land.”

“I remember the pumping,” she said; her hands had hard calluses from weapons practice, but that had worn them sore.

He ducked his head. “Majesty. And the repairs we could make to strikes by roundshot and catapult bolts at sea were makeshift. So sorry, we would need a shipyard, timber and cordage and sailcloth, many skilled workers and even with all these things at least a month or so to make her seaworthy. Effectively, complete rebuilding. As it is, here in this wilderness the ship must be regarded as a total loss. To return to the homeland we will require a new ship, and at least some of the crew for it.”

“The Montivallans have ships capable of the voyage. They trade regularly with Hawaii and even more distant lands,” Reiko said.

“Mainly by the southern routes, Majesty,” Koyama confirmed. “To avoid the savages who helped the bakachon against us.”

“This is why the Montivallans took our side, Lord Steward?” someone asked. “They couldn’t know what was going on. We were all warriors from nowhere, we and the bakachon and those savages they picked up.”

Here Reiko could answer: “The savages fighting with our enemy, the ones whose ship kept us off the coast so long after we reached Alaska . . . they are called Haida. And evidently they are enemies of Montival—pirates, I think.”

Ishikawa nodded thoughtfully. “Ah so desu ka. That would explain why the seas were so completely empty as we came across the Pacific from Hokkaido, though that is the best sailing route from Asia to this continent, Majesty,” he said. “It is not that there is no sea traffic at all, as we feared, but that it avoids that route despite the favorable winds.”

Reiko gestured agreement with her fan. “That came out when they made sure of where we came from. We are not stranded.”

Nobody moved, but she could feel their relief.

“Continue, General Egawa.”

He went on: “The ship is lost, but a good deal of the baggage and gear in the hold was salvaged by the Montivallans after they put out the fire, and promptly turned over to us, unopened. There is much goodwill on their part, I think, but communications are a problem; those of us who have some English have to use written messages. Thankfully they are all literate in the Latin alphabet and a number of us can use it, but it is still awkward.”

Koyama said thoughtfully: “Their High King spoke perfect Japanese . . . Sado-ga-shima dialect, even . . . and apparently Korean as well. And now his daughter does. I still do not understand that. Certainly none of the others have any, Majesty.”

“Yes, I recall, and I was astonished at his fluency even then,” she said. “The difficulty in speaking with them is very awkward; we cannot expect a ruler to act as our interpreter whenever it would be convenient. We must master their language as rapidly as possible, and that applies to you all, and to your subordinates.”

Her mouth twisted a little wryly. Her tutors had been convinced that she could already speak fluent English. She had studied dutifully, even though it had seemed a useless accomplishment to her.

They were very wrong, and so was I!

It would have been extremely useful to speak English now, but though she could handle the written language easily enough, several embarrassing attempts at the spoken tongue had proved incomprehensible to the locals. Nor could she follow more than a word or two per sentence when they spoke. The sounds that English-speakers actually used were excruciatingly difficult—many of them were identical to her ear but were distinct and crucial to meaning—and the spelling in the supposedly phonetic Latin alphabet was bizarrely useless as a guide. Why did night have a g and an h and no e on the end?

And while she was not sure, she suspected that at least two very different dialects of English were involved here.

The Kami know it’s hard enough to understand someone from Hachijo, the way they mumble everything as if their mouths were full and call a field a mountain or say garbage for firewood. It might be something like that. And I don’t even know which dialect is more important! But the important thing here is—

“It is the sword he carried, and that his daughter now bears, that did these things,” Reiko said flatly. “It is . . . shintai.”

She turned slightly and bowed to the urn. Everyone followed suit; it wasn’t necessary to speak. Shintai was a word with many implications: literally it meant something that served as the dwelling of a kami.

Most commonly it was at the center of a shrine, and it could be a rock, a tree, a waterfall . . . or an object like a sword. Some considered the relationship merely symbolic, but the ancient tales could make the power embodied in a shintai sound quite bluntly literal. Her father’s quest involved taking the stories very seriously indeed, and they now had direct proof in the light of day that he had been absolutely right.

Koyama went on slowly: “These people . . . they are not at all as I would have imagined Americans, from the records and stories. Even two generations after the Change. Though they recognized us immediately, what we were and where we came from. Even using our own terms; I heard their ruler’s daughter say Nihon as soon as she saw us closely. Curious.”

“As far as custom and appearance go, I suspect that we too might be surprising to someone who had no knowledge of Japan since Heisei 10,” she said; that spring was when the machines had stopped. “Since we have returned to many of the older ways.”

She reminded herself to think of the Western calendar as well, though it wasn’t much used in everyday speech anymore: Heisei 10 was 1998 AD.

“And just as surprising to someone brought forward in time from before Meiji, Majesty,” Koyama said, surprising her a little. “Though they might take a little longer to realize it. History cannot be completely undone, even by the Change, nor can the past be truly brought back even if you wear its clothes.”

True enough, she thought. I am not about to shave my eyebrows off or blacken my teeth or apologize for existing every time I speak to a man.

“My father once said he felt as if he had awoken in a Kurosawa epic and could not escape,” Koyama added.

They all ignored the mysterious last sentence; the Grand Steward was given to gnomic references nobody else could understand.

Egawa’s second-in-command Nakamura Ichiro spoke; his left arm was bandaged and in a sling.

“These gaijin look so strange, though. More so than the pictures prepared me for. Hardly like human beings at all. More like characters in an ancient manga!”

Reiko tapped her fan on her chin; that had struck her too. Nobody born in Japan since the Change had seen a living gaijin, of course. When nine hundred and ninety-nine in every thousand perished, it wasn’t to be expected that any of a tiny group of foreigners centered in the cities where devastation was worst would survive. For her generation, their parents hadn’t seen one either, though there were surviving photographs.

A representation was one thing, the living reality another. The fantastic hair and eye colors were like something from a dream, and the odd angular features, even the way they differed so strongly one from another in things like the tint of their skin—she had seen everything from the commonest odd-looking pink shade through normal tan to a very dark brown almost the color of an aubergine. It all made it a little difficult to see most of them as individuals, though she supposed she’d grow accustomed to it.

And frankly, most of them are repulsively ugly. So hairy! Almost like oni. Though this Princess Órlaith is striking, in a deeply strange way—hard to realize that the yellow hair and blue eyes are real. And her face is like a blade.

“They seem civilized enough in some respects,” she said thoughtfully. “Not too smelly, at least.”

Everyone nodded. The communal bathhouse in the little village looked as if it had been among the very first things built there when the settlement was established a few years ago, and it had been almost exactly like the sento, the equivalents back in the homeland. Almost as if it had been modeled on them, with provision for scrubbing down first and then soaking in a large tub of hot water. Hers were a fastidious people, when they could be, and it had been a deep relief to be properly clean again after so long. Though it had been a little strange and sad to be rattling around in it by herself.

“General Egawa, your military evaluation of our . . . hosts,” Reiko said.

She wanted everyone to have the facts, and she was also interested to see if his judgment would match hers.

And the battle was so . . . chaotic. Despair, and then it was arrows and lances in the enemy’s back. I could easily have missed something crucial. I am the descendant of the Sun Goddess, not Herself. And even the Great Kami are not omniscient.

“Majesty.”

He passed his bandaged hand over the shaven strip on his head, back towards the topknot, and frowned for a moment as he organized his thoughts.

“Their High King’s personal troops dealt with the jinnikukaburi who were about to wipe us out very well. From what I observed their individual weapons-handling with sword and lance was reasonable, allowing for different weapons and styles. The archers were truly excellent, as good as our shashu, and the heavy cavalry charge was fearsome, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Or those horses!”

“Huge but graceful,” Reiko agreed.

“Feeding them might be a problem, though—I’ve seen that they eat grain, General-sama,” his second-in-command said thoughtfully.

Egawa nodded; it was a valid point. In Japan, animals ate only what humans couldn’t, apart from the odd handful of barley to keep chickens tame enough to be easy to catch. The Imperial Guard commander went on:

“Coordination between arms was nearly perfect. Beautiful timing, which requires not only a commander with good judgment but a force with maneuver discipline. And the way they deployed indicates to me that they scouted carefully with those lightly armed horse-archers without either we or the enemy noticing them before they struck. The jinnikukaburi were taken entirely by surprise.”

“Their High King assumed that any friend of the Haida was an enemy of his, and any enemy of an enemy was a friend,” Reiko said. “Logical, but it is not easy to be completely logical in a situation like that, with so much unknown and so much at stake.”

Egawa nodded. “Hai, Majesty, that was sound thinking, when he had so little time to consider and no precise information. Swift! Decisive! He saw the situation and struck precisely with all his force, and without a moment of the hesitation that might have let the enemy recover their balance. A great pity he was killed.”

Silence fell for a moment as they thought of their own loss, until Grand Steward Koyama nodded.

“Very fortunate thinking for us,” he said dryly. Then: “And perhaps not so much of a pity that their High King was killed.”

“Explain,” Reiko said sharply.

“Majesty, even without understanding the language well, it is obvious that the Montivallans are stricken with sorrow. And beneath their sorrow, a deep anger, hot but lasting; both as great as ours at the loss of our Emperor. The jinnikukaburi have killed a man, but they may well have awoken an entire nation. And filled it with a terrible resolve.”

“That is a point,” Reiko said thoughtfully. “Yes . . . yes, considering what I have seen, you may well be correct. Continue, General. You spoke of the household troops of the Montivallan ruler, who are presumably their best men. What about the rest?”

Egawa went on: “The militia from the village are good archers, and well equipped for light troops. I cannot say more without seeing them in action, but my impression is favorable. They resemble our kosakunin-ashigaru, our farmer-infantry.”

More nods. Every household in the homeland kept weapons ready to hand, trained to arms in what spare time they had, and every fit man and every woman not pregnant or recovering from childbirth was ready to turn out with bow and naginata when the alarm-drum boomed out. Full-time samurai were a handful, their numbers set by what the land and the peasants and craftsmen who worked it could produce, but the raiders from across the Sea of Japan did not find an easy meal anywhere.

Her commander went on: “The reinforcements they’ve received since then look generally similar to the regular troops we saw fight, well equipped, well-fed and strong, with good march and camp discipline as well. They hold themselves with pride, care for their gear without being driven, obey orders promptly, work hard, and set alert watches.”

Everyone nodded; those were good rule-of-thumb indicators of quality if you couldn’t actually see men fight. Egawa continued in a slightly lighter tone.

“Some of the older troops have seen much action, judging from their smooth skins and beautiful looks.”

There were a few smiles as he touched one of the scars that seamed his square pug face before he went on:

“Apparently they also have heliographs, gliders and observation balloons. And catapults. Probably fortifications, castles, too. The crossbows some of the reinforcements carry have a very ingenious rapid cocking mechanism, and I noticed a number of other good tricks that might be worth copying. Unless there were implausible stockpiles before the Change, most of what they use is of modern make, done to a very high standard.”

“So your appraisal is on the whole positive?”

Egawa nodded. “Hai, Majesty, very much so. They would make formidable allies, if we can persuade them. If I could combine our own total forces with an equal number of troops of the quality I have seen here, and the necessary ships, I would pledge to lay all Korea at your Majesty’s feet in two campaigning seasons.”

At the thought his expression changed slightly. To something you might glimpse on the face of the very last tiger you ever saw.

Ishikawa Goru was only ten years older than her, which made him the second-youngest present, and the sailor was also inclined to headlong brashness.

“But their country seems to be very thinly populated, General-sama,” he said. “How many of them can there be?”

They all looked at him, and he flushed and mumbled: “So sorry.”

Reiko made a tapping gesture towards the naval captain with her closed tessen war-fan in mild reproof, making allowances for the way he’d kept them afloat through weeks of storms in the frozen wastes of water north of Hokkaido as they ran before the gales and the relentless pursuit of the jinnikukaburi squadron. And for the fact that the Red Dragon under his command had sunk several of the enemy ships in brilliant slash-and-run engagements without taking crippling damage or heavy casualties. If those extra jinnikukaburi crews and marines had been on their tails when they came ashore here not one of the Japanese would have lived long enough to be rescued.

“This is probably only a fringe territory, like our new settlements on the main islands,” she said gently. “The equipment, weapons and tools we have seen . . . there must be plenty of large workshops somewhere, with highly skilled specialists, their tools, and a labor force. Which means many farming villages like this one we have seen to support them. Hundreds, at the very least. Probably thousands.”

Koyama nodded. “Yes, Majesty. I have definitely learned from maps they have shown me and what conversation we have been able to manage that this is the southernmost of their inhabited territories and far from the center.”

There was an old map of western North America on the table, and he used a finger that had been broken long ago and healed slightly crooked to point:

“From what I was able to learn, the heart of their realm lies here in the valley of this river to the north, the Columbia, and the other rivers flowing into it, from the coast far into the interior. This was where the largest number survived the Change. Rather as Sado-ga-shima or Hachijojima or Goto and Oki-shoto and the other islands of refuge are to us, but I suspect they have more people than we do. Possibly many more; that river and those seaports were the path by which huge quantities of grain were exported before the Change, and much would have been available in ships, storage elevators and trains. There were a few large cities which doubtless perished, but also very broad farmlands with few inhabitants. Very few, by our standards.”

“Ah, yes,” Egawa said clinically. “With organization, that could have made quite a difference to the logistics.”

His was not the only nod of agreement. Famine had been the greatest killer everywhere in the year after the Change, closely followed by the chaos and plague that inevitably came in famine’s wake and brought everything down in wreck. There had been a hundred and twenty million people in Japan in 1998; thirty-five million in Greater Tokyo alone. She had learned those numbers from her tutors, but it was difficult to think of them as anything real. Sado-ga-shima had been a rural backwater, and not many of the few surviving adults from the cities willingly spoke of that time. Or of the battles on the island’s shores to keep out starving refugees, fought by men weeping as they killed.

All her people together were perhaps a third of a million now, and that was much more than it had been at the lowest point. When a city of thirty-five millions found itself with only a week’s food, and no light or clean water or sewage disposal or transport or ability to communicate faster than a man on foot . . . Tokyo and Osaka had burned for months. The skies had been dark that year, the elderly said when they spoke of it at all, and stank of smoke, and the cold rain left stains like liquid soot. Her father’s generation had been more haunted by it than hers, but it would be centuries before the memory of horror lifted entirely.

The Grand Steward concluded: “Montival claims the whole western half of this continent. I have not yet determined how real that is.”

Reiko nodded; her government claimed all of the old Empire, but most of that was howling wilderness and haunted ruins. Her people were the children and grandchildren of remnants preserved on offshore islands with enough food—just. And not too impossibly many mouths as the Change flashed around the globe like a flicker of malignant lightning and the great world-machine stopped in its tracks. On some of those islands the aged and infirm had refused food or opened their veins or walked into the ocean lest they starve the children, or overburden those strong enough to work and fight and breed.

“Not entirely unlike us in the breadth of their claims, then,” she said dryly. “However little substance there is to either.”

“Every reality that we can make begins with a dream, Majesty,” the Grand Steward said. “The Seventy Loyal Men who brought your grandmother to Sado dreamed, and made the dream truth in the face of the wrath of the Kami.”

“Hai, honto desu ne,” she conceded to the unspoken reproof. “Unquestionably true. Or I would not be here.”

Some of those men had paid with their sanity, most with their lives, many with both, and none were still among the living; but every child in Nippon learned their names now, and made offerings to their memories in summer at the Obon festival. Their giri had been fulfilled, but an unbreakable burden of obligation remained with the living.

This too passes to me with Father’s death. All the generations past and those to come look to us now, their fate balancing on the blade of the sword we hold. Duty heavier than mountains, neh? But we may not escape it through death; we must triumph and live and hand down our heritage. The first duty we owe our ancestors is that they have descendants.

Her shoulders moved as she set herself to it, but her face showed nothing. Koyama acknowledged the point with a gesture and continued:

“But certainly they are pushing new settlements into the wilderness here in what the maps call California. Here the Change struck as badly as it did in Japan. Our hosts recognize the name California, by the way, but do not use it. I also have . . . mmm . . . an impression that this High Kingdom is a federation of very different units. No details yet, so sorry, Majesty.”

Reiko made a small hissing sound of frustration, and there were nods of agreement.

We know so little! And we cannot make sensible decisions until we do know more.

The jinnikukaburi raids had kept Japan’s survivors isolated from any real contact with the outside world all her lifetime. There was an occasional ship from the mainland looking for salvage or trade or just fleeing chaos, but the coasts of China were mostly a wreck as bad as the main islands of Japan. And from what they had heard the interior was a bloody murk of warlords fighting each other and Tibetan and Mongol invaders, seasoned with flood and disaster as the dams and dykes and canals of the old world broke down and spilled the great rivers across their floodplains.

The rest of the world was barely even rumors. And all her people had wanted to do was begin the long slow process of resettlement of their homeland, until the enemies of humanity forced them onto another path.

“There is another matter,” Reiko said; after her first reminder, it was time to drive the lesson home. “You all watched the cremation of their High King.”

Another series of bows. This time they masked deep unease. They had been politely distant, but close enough to know that something entirely strange had taken place.

“You saw what happened then. I know many of you thought Saisei Tenno was . . . possibly unwise . . . to seek Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi. You thought it was a piece of mysticism, perhaps even madness, to follow visions seen in dreams. I suggest that you reconsider. The Grass-Cutting Sword is exactly what he said: our only hope.”

CHAPTER THREE

County of Napa, Crown Province of Westria

(Formerly California)

High Kingdom of Montival

(Formerly western North America)

May 2nd, Change Year 46/2044 AD

The varlets would have the tent down in minutes when she was finished, but some things should be done with due form when you could.

Heuradys d’Ath stood before the folding table and poured khernips, lustral water, into two identical glasses, crystal flutes salvaged from one of the dead cities long ago. They were part of the traveling altar given to her by her adoptive mother Tiphaine d’Ath when Heuradys became an Initiate and they realized that they had the same patron deity. The gift was a bronze votive case, a foot on each side and four inches deep, with padded velvet recesses in the lower half for the glasses and flask, a small golden tripod and a libation cup like a shallow bowl, fine pottery with sprays of olive-boughs and owls painted on it in black.

When it was opened, as now, the low-relief silver image of the Owl on its inner lid made it a miniature shrine. The dim light of dawn glistened softly in a diffuse blur through the gauze windows of the tent she shared with Órlaith, carrying the smell of woodsmoke and frying bacon, the scorched iron and horse odors of a camp.

“Tegea,” she said softly, touching one glass, and then for the other: “Tritonis.”

She poured a little from the first over the dark-auburn braids coiled on her head, feeling the cold drip down her bare back, and murmured:

“I cleanse myself by the waters of the sacred Tegea, Waters of Refuge.”

Then she poured some from the other onto her hands and touched her face with them, concentrating on an image of sunlight sparkling in clean cold water bubbling from the mountain spring that had supplied the khernips, and of the incense and burning twig that had sanctified it.

“I purify myself to receive the Goddess, by the sacred waters of the Tritonis, Spring of Abundance. Make me clean, I pray, of any offenses I may have committed against You knowing or unknowing.”

She wiped the glasses both reverently and replaced them, set up the little golden tripod and lit a small sprig of olive wood and leaves in its cup—fortunately common here in the south, she’d had to use Russian Olive before. It was the symbol that counted, but the best symbol for something was the thing itself, and the pleasant slightly musky scent curled up with the smoke as she poured in a drop of olive oil and wine from the libation cup. Then she took out a long black and white feather from a Harfang, the great northern Owl, passed it through the smoke, planted it upright before the image and stood back with her arms raised and outstretched and palms up in the gesture of prayer.

“Athene, Bright-Eyed Lady, unwearied One, Shield of the City, Former of Plans, Granter of Victories, You I honor and to You I pray. I, Heuradys d’Ath, have worshipped you above all others in the past, with libation and placing such offerings as are acceptable to You on Your altar. I give thanks that You locked shields with me in the vanguard as I fought for my liege-lady. Grant to me sharp insight and an undeceived mind and well-taught hands that I may fulfill my oaths and guard her whom I am sworn to uphold, and through her the Kingdom. In league with You will I set my own hand and mind to work with all my strength, as is ever pleasing to You, Who loved Odysseos of Ithaka for his many skills and undaunted cunning. Accept now my offering of wine and Your sacred olive, I pray. Be You always by my side, Shining Lady.”

She touched the feather to her eyelids and lips and tucked it into its holder, wiped the tripod and libation-cup clean and replaced them, fastened the straps and then closed and locked the case. It went into another, slightly larger and of plain hard olive wood; that went into the saddlebag hanging from the tent-pole. The brief ceremony always made her feel better, more focused and determined and sharp somehow.

Today it also helped with the odd dislocation of grief, that flux between moments of normalcy and the sudden realization he’s gone hitting you over and over, fresh each time.

Though of course her patroness understood if circumstances forbade; there were advantages to being a follower of a rational deity. Some of the other Olympians . . . Ares, for example . . . she shuddered.

It still got her odd looks up north in the Protectorate, the Association territories, though things were much better there than they’d been in the old days when the first Lord Protector had his tame antipope running an Inquisition, complete with Auto-da-fé.

Her mother Lady Delia had had to be a Church pagan—pretending to be a Catholic—all of her childhood and much of her young adult years. The Great Charter didn’t actually say all the realms of Montival had to practice religious toleration, though it did say anyone who wanted to could move, but the High King had certainly encouraged it even when he didn’t have the power to command. By his own example not least.

Damn, there it goes again, she thought, as a stab struck her. He’s gone. But you built well, my King.

She dressed quickly in traveling garb, knit cotton drawers and sports bra, snug doeskin breeks and turned-down thigh boots with gilt spurs, and a loose persimmon-colored linen shirt fastened by ties at throat and wrists. Her armor was on a stand beside her cot, as Órlaith’s was beside her camp-bed. That was standard procedure in any camp; getting into it in an emergency was hard enough without having to rummage through a trunk, and it was the reason why surprise attack was the great weakness of men-at-arms. She certainly wasn’t going to wear the full suit of plate today, with no danger within miles that anyone could tell; nobody did that unless they had to, for training or combat or on occasions of ceremony. Just for starters, you needed skilled assistance to put it on and to get it off. She considered wearing half-armor instead, just the vambraces and back-and-breast, but . . .

But we’re all reacting irrationally. The horse has already left the stable, alas. Anyway, the High King was wearing full armor, everything except his bevoir and helm, when that prisoner got him with the throwing knife . . . and the bastard was aiming at Orrey, at that. Her father threw her back, I’ve never seen anyone move another full-grown person in plate so fast, I swear he started moving before we saw the knife. And I got my shield in front of her and then he jerked his shield-arm up and wasn’t quite quick enough to protect himself. That old shoulder wound . . .

She forced herself not to play the scene over again in her mind imagining a better outcome; the past was done and had to be accepted, and her immediate responsibility had been to her liege-lady.

Instead she shrugged into a supple, sleeveless thigh-length black jerkin of kidskin that had a layer of light meshmail between the leather and its silk lining, held together by patterns of flat rivets made of gilded brass. It being a warmish spring day she decided against a houppelande coat and instead pulled on a short-sleeved divided T-tunic of fine thin cinnamon-colored merino wool that came nearly to her knees, embroidered with silver thread at throat, deep V-neck and cuffs and with her arms—Sable, a delta Or on a V Argent, with a crescent of cadency—in a heraldic shield over her heart.

A habitual quick glance at the mirror showed the effect was quite striking, given her height and build, and went well with her mahogany hair and amber eyes. The look was not in the least masculine, despite the fact that it was decidedly male dress by the standards of the northern nobility.

Elegant, but ever so slightly threatening, she thought. Dashing, that’s the word I was looking for.

She had a reputation as a bit of a fop about dress whether she was in hose or skirts, and it wasn’t undeserved. Right now she was still feeling too shocked at the High King’s murder to take her usual full innocent pleasure in a good turn-out, but it never hurt to seem as you wished to be and vice-versa. Or to keep up standards.

Heuradys cinched the belt that held sword, dagger and pouch around her hips, tucked a pair of long leather riding gloves through it, and picked up her chaperon hat—a round thing with a rolled brim and long dangling liripipe and a livery badge that quartered her own arms with the Crowned Mountain and Sword of the High King’s house. A chaperon was almost as much a marker for gentlefolk as the spurs.

“Droyn!” she said briskly.

Droyn Jones de Molalla was the senior Household squire, a grandson of the first Count of Molalla and a younger son of the current one; Molalla was a smallish but very rich County southeast of Portland, one of the first established by the PPA after the Change, during the Foundation Wars. The young man was three fingers taller than her five-ten-and-a-half, with a cap of curled black hair and skin somewhere between dark olive and very light brown.

He was in armor with his visor up as he ducked into the tent, and his kite-shaped shield was slung over his back, but then he was on duty. There was a clash of steel on steel as he brought his clenched right fist to his breast in salute.

His face might have been carved from seasoned oak, but she thought he’d probably been weeping himself, when he was alone. There was enough sorrow to go around, a kingdom’s worth, a continent’s. Millions would be mourning, soon enough.

Then they’ll want blood. Hades in the Underworld, I want blood. Armies will march and cities will burn because of this, she realized with a slight chill.

“My lady?” he said, and inclined his head with formal deference.

Quite properly; she was a knight, even if she hadn’t been in his chain of command until now, and he wasn’t one yet, though he was about Órlaith’s age. Heuradys was two years older but still young to wear the golden spurs in peacetime, though she’d passed all the tests and done very well in tournaments and won a couple of duels to first blood. Including one where she was pretty sure the man who’d challenged her had been planning to kill her and claim it was an accident. There hadn’t been any wars to speak of since she came of a squire’s years, though.

Until now. I’m young for the accolade in what was peacetime, she thought grimly. That’s about to change too. And obviously, I’m going to be close to the Throne, and Droyn realizes that.

They were about equal as far as birth went, though that counted less in the Household. Her father Rigobert de Stafford was a Count too, of Campscapell just north of the Eastermark in the Palouse, and had estates in the Willamette as well—he’d been Baron of Forest Grove since the Lord Protector’s time, not long after the Change.

There was the added complication that her adoptive mother Baroness Tiphaine d’Ath was a noble in her own right, seigneur of Ath and Harfang and a tenant-in-chief, but Heuradys wasn’t in line to succeed to those either. Her elder brother Diomede d’Ath would be Baron under the Association law of primogeniture, as their eldest sibling Lioncel de Stafford would inherit the Barony of Forest Grove and the County of Campscapell.

She’d take livery of seisin of three good manors on Barony Harfang eventually, held in free and common socage, which would make her a vavassor—a minor but well-to-do landed noble holding directly from the Crown, rather than from a baron or count or duke. That was as much as she really wanted, that and being Orrey’s household knight. She’d absorbed the knowledge that being a baron involved a lot of hard dull work through her skin as a child. At least if you wanted to do it right.

The complex balance of status went through both young Associate nobles’ minds in a subliminal instant; that sort of calculation was as natural as instinct.

“Droyn, Her Highness isn’t to be troubled with matters of precedence and Household organization yet. Grief aside, there are high matters of State that demand her full attention.”

He frowned. “Yes, my lady. Everything’s all ahoo, but . . . yes. We can improvise and work around. We’ll leave the High King’s tent and trappings with the baggage we’re having sent on, and leave most of the staff with them. The . . . the High King wasn’t traveling with much state anyway.”

Heuradys nodded; Rudi Mackenzie had been a knight but not an Associate despite being married to one, and he’d always retained the informality of the Clan’s chieftains when he could. The north-realm’s ideas of how to show the consequence due to rank weren’t popular in the greater part of Montival outside the Protectorate, anyway. They were a legacy of the Association’s precursor, the Society for Creative Anachronism, a pre-Change brotherhood. Who’d practiced them, and the other arts of chivalry . . . as far as she could tell from what her adoptive mother had let fall in private moments, simply as a pastime. They were deadly serious matters to their descendants, most of whom didn’t think of the centuries between modern times and the days of Charlemagne and Arthur and the Black Prince as important . . . or even very real.

A tradition had to start somewhere, and enough belief made it as real as a rock.

“So we can . . . ease things in,” Droyn said.

“Good idea,” she said.

She was relieved that he was thinking along the same lines. Being the son of a Count didn’t guarantee you weren’t a natural-born damned fool. On the other hand, it didn’t mean you necessarily were, either. She’d dealt with her share of well-and-high-born idiots, though they were rarer than in the general population. Foolish or timid people just hadn’t survived the Darwinian process that had produced the Associate nobility’s survivors in the first generation, and there hadn’t been enough time for much regression to the mean.

“Select a minimum number of varlets to handle this tent and Her Highness’ baggage. Young and strong ones and good riders, because we want to make all speed we can north. It wouldn’t hurt if they at least knew which end of the sword goes where, just in case.”

“Guard relays?”

“Sir Aleaume will handle that as usual, under Captain Edain’s direction; they’ll set the rosters. I’ve consulted with both. Just remember that we do not want to start formally treating the Crown Princess as if she were her father, or as if she’d been crowned High Queen Regnant. High Queen Mathilda wouldn’t get very upset, but a lot of other people would. Starting with Her Highness, which we do not want!”

“St. Michael and the Virgin, no!” Droyn said, crossing himself.

“Glad you understand that. We’ll be taking most of the horses to use as remounts at least as far as White Mountain; the carts can wait here for more to arrive. So no gear that won’t fit on a pack-saddle. I’ll coordinate with Sir Aleaume, but I think I can rely on you to be inconspicuous and still get things done? The Household has to keep as much off of Her Highness’ shoulders as we can, right now.”

His clenched fist in its armored gauntlet clashed on his articulated breastplate again. “My lady!”

“And one final matter.”

She turned to a steel box about two feet on a side, turned the key in the lock and opened it. Within rested a vase twenty inches high, a tulip-shape of sleek silver-colored glass with a design of reeds and flowers that made you think of warm early-summer days beneath the shade of a riverside willow-tree. It had been intended as a gift from Dun Barstow to the High King because of its beauty, an ancient thing found in the ruins of a mansion in Napa. Now it held his ashes.

And there wasn’t anything left but ashes, she thought with a slight shiver. Usually even a hot pyre left bone fragments. This time . . .

Ashes. Fine as dust, almost. Impossible to tell where the wood-ash left off and the body began. Even the buckles and the gold of the torc were gone.

The box was sturdy, and the thick glass of the vase was packed carefully with dense soft lamb’s-wool.

“The most vigilant care must be taken with the High King’s remains,” she said.

“My lady!” He crossed himself. “My men and I will guard it with our lives, and bring it to the High Queen.”

“Good man,” she said. “I’ll leave you to it. The Crown Princess and I have full confidence in you.”

His face looked more alive after that, though still very solemn. She’d found that with men of his sort giving them an important task to focus on was the best way to get ten-tenths of capacity working. She settled her hat, draped the liripipe over her shoulder and came out of the tent, making her stride brisk and nodding to the squad of the High King’s Archers outside as they brought up their longbows in salute.

High King’s Archers? she thought grimly. That’s going to change.

Her own status was going to change; everything would. The ground was shifting under her feet, and Droyn’s attitude had been a foretaste.

What was that ancient saying? I expected this, but not so soon?

As she walked away there was a concerted rush of varlets behind her; the baggage was coming out and the canvas coming down before she’d gone a dozen paces.

The camp in one of Dun Barstow’s fields was larger now that the reinforcements from Castle Rutherford had joined the party that had first accompanied the High King and his heir on their tour of the new Westrian settlements. The broad flat expanse had been in wheat last year and was thick with green burrclover and medic now, knee-deep where it hadn’t been trampled and sweet-smelling where it had, starred with yellow and purple flowers and murmurous with bees and hummingbirds.

The breakfast table stood beneath a great live oak, one that must have been growing here when Napa was a sea of vines. Possibly before the old Americans or even their Hispano predecessors had come, in a distant pre-dawn past when only the tribes of the First Folk dwelt here. The Mackenzie settlers establishing Dun Barstow had left it in their turn when they ripped out the thickets of dead and living vines and brush to make their crofts, for looks and shade for livestock in the fierce southern summer.

And as an act of piety to the Goddess in Her form as Lady Flidais and to the Horned Lord, Cernunnos of the Forest, Master of Beasts. It was a recognition that humanity was not over and above the other kindreds, and held what they did on sufferance. Órlaith was just lowering her arms from her own morning devotion to the rising Sun, and her expression froze for an instant as she turned. As if everything in the world reminded her of her loss and her dead.

“I know, Orrey,” Heuradys said softly, and rested her hand on her liege-lady’s shoulder.

Órlaith laid her own hand on the knight’s and squeezed briefly. Heuradys saw the Gods thanked for her for a moment, which was comforting; it meant she was making a difference. She loved all three of her own parents and would grieve when they died in the way of nature, but Órlaith had been much closer to her father than Heuradys was to the Count of Campscapell, who was more like a wonderful uncle in many ways. And the brutal surprise of the assassination made it far worse, like a raw wound on the soul.

Plus Orrey is probably feeling guilty that he took a knife meant for her. Illogical, but the heart has its own reasons that the mind does not know.

The camp looked different without the High King’s pavilion, sparser somehow despite the greater numbers, and all the banners flying at half-mast. Even the bustle of packing up and getting ready for departure was somehow subdued. It was odd to think that in most of Montival things would still be completely normal, the High King merely gone on a progress with his heir to inspect the remote southern frontier.

The news of his death would be spreading northward already, of course. As fast as relays of couriers on horseback could take it to the edge of the heliograph network, and then by coded flashes of light from hilltop to hilltop, city to city, castle to castle, mirrors reflecting the sun’s rays in the day and burning lime in darkness. They would know in Portland in a few days, and eastward to the Lakota country and north to the Peace River in a fortnight. It might be months before it filtered out to the most remote villages and ranches, or even years in the vast wilderness borderlands. Large chunks of those weren’t inhabited at all, or had a few wildmen who weren’t even aware that they were part of the kingdom.

But there will be a great stirring, a sharpening of blades and a stringing of bows. Whoever those strangers were, they made a very bad mistake when they shed our King’s blood on our own land.

“I’ve asked the Nihonjin ruler . . . jotei, Tenno, Empress . . . over for breakfast,” Órlaith said. “Her and two followers, and you and me and Edain.”

“Are you ready for that, Orrey?” Heuradys asked bluntly. “If you’re so stressed your judgment’s off it would be better to wait. You took a heavy hit, we’re all here to handle things for you, and our guests aren’t going anywhere soon.”

“No, I can push it,” Órlaith said calmly, after glancing aside for an instant. “It’s not a council, just a talk. I think this could be really important and we need to set things off on the right foot. There will be plenty of time for detail on the way north.”

Heuradys looked at the Sword of the Lady hanging in its black tooled-leather scabbard at Órlaith’s left hip. The High King had always worn it on his right, and it looked a little odd there.

And I could swear it’s a bit smaller. A weapon sized for her father would over-blade Orrey, but that looks as perfect for her as it did for him. Brrr!

“Talk?” she said. “You can understand them?”

Órlaith nodded as she turned and walked towards the meeting-place. She was wearing a loose saffron shirt and Mackenzie garb, a pleated knee-length kilt in the Clan’s brown-green-orange tartan. A plaid of the same fabric was wrapped around her chest and under the right arm, pulled firm to the body, pinned at the left shoulder by a sapphire and gold knotwork brooch that left the trailing end with its fringe hanging down behind to her knee-hose. Her hair hung loose past her shoulders under the flat blue Scots bonnet with its spray of Golden Eagle feathers in its silver clasp, and the morning sun brought out the hint of copper in that thick yellow mane. She put her left hand to the pommel of the Sword.

“Yes, it’s working for me the way it did for . . . for Da.”

She swallowed, and visibly forced herself back to calm. “It feels . . . odd. For a moment there was . . . was this balloon swelling in my head, then it popped and I knew the language. As if I’d always known it, somehow. No, as if I’d grown up speaking it. I could tell that some of the people with her speak different dialects, and I just . . . knew what the honorifics and so forth meant, not just literally but all the implications. I can switch over to thinking in it like turning a tap and when I do the whole world looks a wee bit different.”

“Useful!” Heuradys said. “But better thee than me, my liege.”

Arra, tell me. Being warned isn’t like feeling it. There’s all sorts of stuff that comes with it, too. I think ‘food’ and . . . what comes into your mind when you’re after thinking the word food, Herry? Comes first, at least.”

“Bread,” she said instantly.

A loaf was what you thought of immediately. A nice long crusty loaf right out of the oven and off the baker’s wooden paddle, butter melting into the steaming surface when you broke it . . . damn, but she was ready for breakfast. Feeling sorrow didn’t stop your digestive system, outside the more romantical chansons, she found.

“Me too. But I switch over to Nihongo and suddenly for a moment I’m thinking of a bowl of rice . . . or noodles . . . with little separate dishes of things on the side, and I look at an ordinary plate and go euuu at the way everything’s mixed up. Fair disgusting . . . for an instant.”

“How many times have you eaten rice? Really, I mean,” Heuradys asked curiously.

It wasn’t grown in Montival, not yet, and anything imported was a hideously expensive luxury. Though it still grew wild, seeded from old plantings in the Sacramento Delta not far from here. Perhaps someday folk would settle there to raise it.

“A few times. Rice puddings at Yule, mostly, and sushi on occasion in Portland. But when I start thinking in Nihongo my mouth wants it steamed and sort of sticky . . .”

“The Sword of the Lady is a cookbook, too?” Heuradys said, chuckling.

Having been around it so long at court, from her childhood as page and then squire and now household knight, she didn’t have quite the awe of the Sword that most people did.

Not quite, and that still leaves a fair degree of awe. And not that I’d touch it willingly.

“Not recipes exactly, but sort of . . . an ideal of what food is. Or I think ‘hello’ and I know how to say hello to people of different ranks and in different circumstances and a whole bunch of stuff like that. I think ‘clothes’ and it’s various robes that come to mind, not a kilt or hose. Kimono just means the thing you wear. I get the language, and how to use it. It doesn’t . . . I mean, I still want bacon and eggs. But I can sort of . . . switch.”

“I don’t know what we’d do without the Sword this time. Though there’s the other stuff.”

“No need to mention that just yet, I think.”

They both nodded slightly. The bearer of the Sword of the Lady could detect falsehood—or as Rudi Mackenzie had put it, the speaker’s belief that what he was saying was false, the intent to deceive. Everyone in Montival knew that and virtually all of them had believed it by now; it had been a long time since anyone but foreigners and the densely stupid tried to lie to the High King. There was no need to explain that to their new . . .

Guests, Heuradys decided. Possibly allies, but not until we know a lot more.

“Is there anyone in Montival . . . besides you . . . who speaks Japanese?” she asked.

“Not that I know of, though there are almost certainly a few tucked away somewhere. Ones who learned from their grandparents.”

A weary smile; Órlaith hadn’t slept much. “Reiko . . . that’s her name, it means something like Child of Courtesy . . . or possibly Courteous Lady . . . actually speaks English quite well.”

“It didn’t sound like it!” Heuradys said.

She’d thought the woman was trying to say Thank you very much to the people who’d saved her outnumbered party from being overrun and slaughtered where they’d been brought to bay, but she hadn’t been at all certain, and she was well-traveled and versed in the weird and wonderful ways the English language had evolved in Montival since the Change. It was amazing what could happen to a language if a few hundred people were cut off from most outside contact for a half-century, and that was just accidental stuff and not counting deliberate alterations, which were also common.

“All right, knows English. She learned from people who’d learned from people who’d learned English as a second language. For someone who grows up hearing nothing but nihongo the sounds are difficult. She’s got the grammar and vocabulary quite well; it’s just a matter of learning to pronounce them.”

Edain came up and saluted briskly.

“Sir Aleaume has matters in hand; we’ll be ready to march as soon as breakfast is over, Princess,” he said. “And once we’ve talked to the foreigners.”

He scowled a little at that. Órlaith laid a hand on his arm below the short mail sleeve, where it was corded with muscle and scars.

“It’s not their fault, my old wolf,” she said. “And they suffered a like misfortune. We have a common enemy, at the very least.”

He drew a deep breath. “Yes. Yes. I saw the one who did it—”

And you put three clothyard arrows through him in less than three breaths, Heuradys thought.

The commander of the guard regiment was known as Aylward the Archer for good reason.

Revue de presse

Praise for S.M. Stirling and his Novels of the Change
 “Absorbing.”—San Diego Union-Tribune
“[A] richly realized story of swordplay and intrigue.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Nobody wrecks a world better than S. M. Stirling, and nobody does a better job of showing that people remain people, with all their high points and low, in the wreckage.”—Harry Turtledove, New York Times bestselling author of Supervolcano: Things Fall Apart
“Vivid…Stirling eloquently describes a devastated, mystical world that will appeal to fans of traditional fantasy as well as post-apocalyptic SF.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Stirling is a perfect master of keep-them-up-all-night pacing, possibly the best in American SF, quite capable of sweeping readers all the way to the end.”—Booklist (starred review)
“A highly complex fictional universe with loads of characters and political intrigue.”—Kirkus Reviews
“[A] vivid portrait of a world gone insane…Full of bloody action, exposition that expands character and telling detail that makes it all seem very real.”—Statesman Journal (Salem, OR)
“Stirling has blazed a clear comet trail across his post-apocalyptic landscape that illuminates both the best and the worst of which our species is capable.”—Science Fiction Weekly

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