Chapter 1

“Now that was a strange and lovely dinner, my darling, and fine people,” Ciara Whelan said dreamily from behind the wheel of the auto. “Though it’s good to be home, too.”

“Glad you enjoyed yourself, querida,” Black Chamber operative Luz O’Malley Aróstegui said over her shoulder as she swung the wrought-iron gates closed behind them and shot the bolt with a clank.

And speaking of joy, it’s finally here, she thought as she fished a small package out of the mailbox built into the thickness of the wall beside the gate and slipped it into the pocket of her skirt.

“I had fun too,” she added sincerely.

Warmed sake was insidious, but neither of them was more than slightly elevated, and very pleasantly satisfied but not full. Their hosts had laid on the full seven-course splendor of a kaiseki-ryori, but Japanese cooking at that level hewed to an austere and elegant restraint. The Taguchis couldn’t have afforded a feast like that back in Hiroshima Prefecture—Mrs. Taguchi had learned the art working as an assistant cook at a ryokan inn, and her husband had been the fourth son on a little peasant farm—but they’d done very well for themselves here with their nursery-gardening-landscaping business after years of toil and grit and thrift.

“And the hair glued across the lock wasn’t broken?” Ciara asked.

“Intact!” Luz said.

She’d set three; here, at the front door, and on the light switch just inside it, and she’d been conscious of the FN automatic in her jacket and the six-inch navaja folding knife in its special pocket in her skirt as she checked the marker just now. The likelihood of some surviving Mexican revolucionario or an inquisitive Abteilung IIIb agent finding out where a Black Chamber operative lived was quite low… but low wasn’t zero and she didn’t intend to die of stupid.

“If they’re all still in place, it’s pretty certain no one came through the gate or the front door,” she continued. “Two intact would be suspicious. One would be very suspicious, and three gone definitely means enemy action.”

Ciara nodded. She was picking up tradecraft on the job the way most in the Chamber did, though she’d torn through the manuals with ferocious concentration; there were regular training courses now, but still not enough time to put everyone through them first. She’d already noted how all the exterior doors and windows in Luz’s home could be fasted from the inside with unpickable bolts.

“But you’ve got to be careful with the spirit gum or it’s obvious,” Luz went on. “Just a touch on your pinkie from the tinfoil tube when you apply it, or better still draw the hair through it. The main problem is that even a… hair-fine… hair is visible on a pale surface, and mine’s black so it shows up worse even in low light. Sometimes I carry a spool of light-colored thread… or I could just pull out one of yours, now, I suppose, sweetie.”

“Warn me first, so I don’t give us away by shrieking!” Ciara chuckled.

Then she frowned. It was the expression Luz had come to know meant she was deep in something technical and about to display the fruits of natural talent and a lifelong project of self-education, though that life had seen barely twenty-one years so far.

Witness her happy squeals going through Papá’s old project plans. Every time she says: Oh, Luz, this is so clever or Your da did this so elegantly! that makes me feel proud of Papá… and her… all over again.

“You know, I could do a… a hidden counting system… adapting a factory punch clock, maybe… for all the gates and doors and windows,” Ciara said. “And a master switch to set it all going when you left.”

“Exelente!” Luz said. “Hmmm… probably we could get the Chamber to pay for it, too. And the design would look good in your record jacket, Junior Field Operative Whelan! Very… progressive!”

She leaned into the driver’s side for a brief soft kiss that tasted of sake and ginger-infused pear, walked around the hood, laid a hand on the side, and swung into the passenger seat with a lithe hop. The low-slung, open-top Cole 4-40 roadster slid forward with a burble of throttled-down engine and a pop and crunch of gravel beneath the wheels. The electric headlamps cut two yellow tunnels in the darkness, showing white crushed stone, and now and then the flutter of a pink tiger moth or a glimpse through groves and gardens.

“And how kind it was of the Taguchis to invite us both to dinner!” Ciara added.

“I thought it was about time to introduce you to some family friends, mi amor. And the Taguchis are about the oldest friends my parents had here in Santa Barbara.”

She thought Ciara’s nod and smile in return had an element of relief. They’d been together just long enough to start thinking seriously about the future, and being madly in love didn’t mean you completely knew someone—not when they’d only met in September. If you were smart you realized that, and while Ciara was naïve in some ways and had no natural talent for dealing with people…

She is as smart as they come. And I’m relieved she’s relieved.

Luz let her head fall against the back of her seat and the pleasantly cool wind of Southern California’s November night play through her bobbed raven-black hair as they drove, looking up at the bright Pacific stars flickering through the leaves of the live oaks that lined the long curving driveway. The air carried the scent of cut grass, flowers, and the sea, and the hiss of surf on the beach southward was just audible.

It took a little time to reach the Casa de los Amantes, as the yellow stucco walls and Roman-tile roof loomed through the trees. It wasn’t particularly large by the standards of Montecito, as this neighborhood was known, but the grounds were big, with small groves of oranges and olives, figs and peaches, and a little vineyard around a big kitchen garden as well as lawns and flower beds between winding paths, live oak and poplar and cypress, and scattered tall palms. Her father had taken this land as payment for his first big local commission; here she’d played and roamed as a girl, amid brightly colored dreams of adventure and formless longings for she-knew-not-what.

Enjoy every moment, Luz thought, with a mixture of pleasure and sadness. The Great War isn’t going to leave us alone forever.

She was a little surprised the Director had waited this long to throw them back into the stewpot…

Which means I can’t wait any longer to say what I’m planning on saying. But am I reluctant for scruples’ sake… she is very young… or is it sheer cowardice that’s giving me palpitations? Scruples were never something I was afflicted with before, any more than I was with pimples, but I’ve never been in love before either, not like this.

“It’s been a while since I went to a family dinner party,” Ciara added.

And then in a voice less happy as her hands clenched on the wheel:

“Not since I let that foolish wicked man Sean McDuffy talk me into going to Germany for him like a fool myself, and believed him when he said that it was for Ireland.”

Ciara had wanted to do something dreadful to the British to avenge the brother who’d died on the barricades in Dublin in the Easter Rising… though not enough to go along when she realized how dreadful the plan was, or that it was meant for America too.

“I’m glad you did go to Germany, or we’d never have met!” Luz said.

And it was revenge on Villa and his men for my mima and papá that sent me into the Chamber.

Aloud she went on: “Also I’d have been dead without you to confirm my cover to Colonel Nicolai and warn me about his alarm system before I went into crack his files. Dead and very lonely, if that makes any sense! Everyone makes mistakes; it’s turning them around that’s important, and you certainly did that.”

Ciara laughed, and Luz could see her shoulders relax in the dim light. She brought the two-seat roadster to a halt in the converted carriage house with skilled panache, hardly needing to use the brake at all, though she’d never even been a passenger in an auto before she left Boston a few months ago as a clandestine courier for the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

Going straight from the violently illegal IRB to the Black Chamber—jocularly known in government and Party circles as “el jefe’s brass knucks”—was a first, too. But then the Chamber prided itself on putting function ahead of formality, and its ever-growing rolls were full of adventurers, eccentrics, buccaneering soldiers of fortune, genteel university-educated thugs, old cowboy Rough Riders, the odd Indian, and the just plain odd… like one Luz O’Malley Aróstegui.

Sometimes the borderline mad, like the head of the Technical Section, Nicolai Tesla.

Hot metal ticked in the engine as they picked up the coats they might have needed on a Santa Barbara November night but hadn’t, and walked back to the house hand in hand and up the four semicircular steps of white limestone to the front door, breathing in the scent of the banks of purple-blossomed Mexicali Rose planted around the cream-stucco walls.

Then she unlocked the solid outer doors, twin arched leaves of carved oak set with pyramidal iron studs, and checked that the hair was in place across the inward-swinging inner ones of wrought iron and hammered brass in the shape of peacocks. They had the sixteen-room building to themselves; Luz hadn’t kept any live-in staff since she pensioned off the last old retainers when she went into the Chamber. A cleaning and maintenance service did well enough, when she was away so much, and was easy to get in this area of vacation homes. Taguchi Gardens saw to the grounds.

“And the front door and light-switch markers are intact too,” she said, swinging the doors shut behind them, locking them and turning on the lights; the chandelier high overhead glowed, turning cavernous gloom to brightness.

¡Ay! That flower scent always takes me back to my childhood. Mima planted those right after Papá built the first part of this house for her, the south wing. They reminded her of her home in Cuba.”

Though hopefully not of how her own father tried to have them both killed the night they eloped, she added to herself; she’d told Ciara about that, but few others.

Ciara nodded, then returned to her thought: “I didn’t know if… well, if we could do that. You know, visit with people… together.”

“As a couple? With discretion, yes, and depending on the circles you move in,” Luz said. “More discretion with some people than others, of course, and absolute discretion with many, alas for the world’s idiocy. But even people who disapprove in theory will often make an exception for you in practice if they know and like you as an individual… consistency is for fanatics, after all. Your aunties did well enough in South Boston, didn’t they?”

“Well, yes, bless them!”

Bless them indeed, Luz thought.

Not for the first time, either. Without Ciara’s aunt Colleen and her life-companion, honorary Auntie Treinel, and their good example, things would have been…

Much more complicated.

“Yes, they’re very well liked in the neighborhood, for that they’ve always been ready to lend a hand when there’s bad luck or strong need—marketing done or a meal cooked for someone who has to sit up with a sick child, letters written or accounts cast up for those who haven’t the knack, help at a wedding or funeral, things like that. So there’s a smile and nod and many a stop to pass on gossip when they pass by, but nobody knew that they were—”

Ciara stopped, thought for a moment, then went on:

“No, I think… looking back, and knowing what I know now… I think a lot of people did know about Auntie Colleen and Auntie Treinel, or suspected, but they just didn’t say anything where I could hear it. So I didn’t realize it myself until I started thinking about how I felt about you and it all went click in my head, even though they raised me and Colm nearly as much as Da did. To be sure, someone said Boston marriage once… but that’s…”

“Ambiguous,” Luz said. “Though not as ambiguous as it was in our parents’ time. Still, it’s not what people know is true that’s usually important, it’s what they’ll pretend to believe is true by unspoken mutual consent because it’s easier all ’round.”

“Did the Taguchis… ummm…” Ciara said.

“Know we were lovers? Well, nothing was said aloud on either side, but I’m pretty sure they did. I’m absolutely sure that Fumiko and Midori did. We were like sisters as little girls and we’re still very good friends and keep in touch, and from the smiles and nods and thumbs-up they gave when nobody was looking I know they thoroughly liked you. They’d have been polite to you even if they hadn’t, but…”

And I appreciate the gesture, Luz thought fondly as Ciara gave her a glowing grin that lit her turquoise eyes and snub-nosed, freckled round face for a moment. The whole Taguchi family always did have exquisite manners, Dios los bendiga.

Luz grinned herself and trailed her fingers on the balustrade as they linked hands and walked slowly up the curving stairs to the second-story landing, their footsteps going click on the iron-hard, black-streaked maroon curupay wood of the risers, louder for the silence of the house.

“When I was a little girl I used to love to slide down the banister here. Mima scolded me… ¡Ay, mi nena, pero que chamaca mas traviesa eres!, she’d say… but her heart wasn’t in it, and Papá smiled. Sometimes he’d do it himself, with me in his lap! He always liked it when I did things like that, or climbed trees or rode my pony fast.”

“It’s quite the tomboy you were, then! And you so… so smooth and elegant a lady now!”

“No reason you can’t like both. It depends on the circumstances. Once when I was eight and Tommy Deveraux yanked on my pigtails from behind in class hard enough to make my eyes show tears… and not for the first time, I might add—”

“The miserable bully!” Ciara said sympathetically; there weren’t many schoolgirls who hadn’t had that experience. “I hope someone gave him a taste of his own medicine someday!”

Luz grinned. “One Luz O’Malley turned around and gave him a black eye then and there, and he punched me back and we went tumbling around the floor knocking things over and screeching and bellowing. Well, I screeched; he tried to bellow and he was built like a little blond bullock, but at eight…”

Ciara stopped and clapped her hands in delight. “And how did that end?”

“With me sitting on his chest barking my knuckles on his face and screaming like a banshee while he bawled for mercy and his mother, until the teacher pushed through and pulled me off and carried me bodily out of the room in a hissing fury, wiggling and kicking like a mad ferret, and then they sent for my father. This was back right after the war with Spain started, just before he left for the Rough Rider camp in Texas with a telegram from Uncle Teddy in his hand telling him to make haste if he wanted a commission.”

Ciara winced. “Oh, I hope he wasn’t too angry!”

Luz shook her head, a fond expression on her face. “Papá? He came into the principal’s office with the teacher pouring the tale of it in his ear, and saw me sitting and pouting with my blouse ripped, my hair like a haystack, and my face like a thundercloud, and Tommy whimpering through a cloth full of ice on the other side of the room…”

“I can see it as if I were there! He wasn’t angry?”

“He laughed and said: Well, and here’s the tail end of a shindy I’d have paid good money to see, and no mistake, eh?

“And your father wouldn’t by any chance have had the blood of Erin’s warriors in his veins, would he, Miss O’Malley?”

“Oh, perhaps solo un poco.”

“More! Tell me what happened next!”

Luz chuckled; they were still at the stage where they were trying to swallow each other’s pasts at a gulp. She marshaled her memories:

“He came over and felt my hands gently; they were all bloody, and skinned in places, and the left one had started to swell. I winced a bit because I’d popped a knuckle… you can feel it, here, see, the second on the left hand, it’s still a little bit bigger…”

“Oh, you poor thing!” Ciara said, and kissed it. “That must have hurt!”

Luz chuckled agreement and touched the finger to Ciara’s snub nose.

“By then? It hurt like it was dipped in fire, and the memory’s yet green! Papá’s eyebrows went up as he felt it—he knew brawler’s injuries. Well, he’d been bossing countryside construction projects for years.”

“Rough men?”

“Rough men, away from home, many with no family and good reason to keep moving from job to job. And a love of the jug. So that meant thumping beefy quarrelsome drunks now and then to teach them respect, or helping patch up enough of them on Sunday morning to get the project going again come dawn on Monday. And he said:

“We’ll need some ice over here too, please, and I think a strip of bandage and a sling… does it hurt when I touch the knuckle here, a stóirín, my darling little treasure?”

Luz smiled at the memory of his face. “I said: A bit, Papá, just since I stopped.

“It didn’t hurt right away?” Ciara asked curiously.

“No… no, when you’re in a fight you’re… transported, changed, taken beyond the everyday, so things like that don’t matter. It’s like sharing love, or like flying in dreams. Or at least it is for me, sometimes. And he whistled and said:

You kept right on punching him hard as you could with that, didn’t you, my little Miss Spitfire O’Malley?

“To which I replied: It didn’t hurt when I was hitting him, Papá, I was too busy.

Ciara snorted at that, and Luz squeezed her hand as she continued: “Then he whistled again and shook his head when he put my hands down—gently—and said, as if to himself or to Mima:

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph but we’ve bred us a wild one, Maria darling!

“And then to me: Your mother will have a word or two to say when she sees you!

“And what did you have to say to that?” Ciara asked. “It would have had me quaking, I’ll tell you!”

“I said with a smugness only an eight-year-old could muster that Tommy’s mother would cry, when she saw him.”

“Did she?”

“Like a gardener’s watering can… only much louder. Papá looked over and they’d just taken down the cloth with the ice so the nurse could have a look at Tommy—she was clucking, but luckily not finding anything that wouldn’t heal—and he whistled again and said:

Faith! His face looks like the beefsteak he’ll be putting on that fine shiner you gave him! and I smiled… though that hurt too; I had a split lip dribbling down my chin onto my blouse… and I said:

Well, that’ll teach him to pull on an O’Malley’s braids!”

Ciara gave a peal of delighted laughter.

“Good for you! And good for your da!” she said. “A fine man he was! And was it all worth the switching you got from the principal?”

Absolutely worth sitting down carefully for a while. Doubly so when Tommy got the cane too for starting it and he walked out of the principal’s office blubbing and I didn’t.”

“Oh, foolish of him! Knowing children…”

Luz’s catlike expression was one Tommy Devereaux would have recognized and flinched from.

“The other boys would go boooo-hoooo at him on the playground and the girls whispered behind their hands and giggled and he’d turn red as a boiled beet every time. It was wonderful… and he never pulled another girl’s braids.”

“That sounds like you, my heart!” Ciara said. “Now, sneaking out of bed to read at night was my naughtiness, if I couldn’t bear to stop where I was in the story.”

Luz smiled and leaned over to kiss the top of her head. “Why am I not surprised? Raised in a bookstore, Ciara Whelan was, the sorrow and pity of it… oh, don’t throw me in the briar patch, Br’er Fox! So you burned the midnight oil, eh?”

Ciara stuck out her tongue before she continued: “Downstairs in the shop where the streetlamp came through the window, and I’d sit wrapped in the quilt in the big armchair. Da said I’d ruin my eyes and stunt my growth when he caught me at it or saw me yawning too much at breakfast, but never gave me more than a little smack on the fanny, and sometimes he’d come read me a bit until I fell asleep, The Field of Boliauns or The Children of Lir. He never did take the belt to Colm much, either, for all that he was wild enough as a boy. I think he saw our ma in us. From her picture she looked a little like me, and I inherited her hair—”

She touched her piled locks, a yellow halfway to copper-red.

“—Da’s was brown.”

She sighed; her mother had died of childbed fever not long after she was born. Then her white, slightly irregular teeth showed in a broad grin full of crackling energy as they came to the top of the stairs. She tugged at Luz’s hand and said:

“Let’s go swim!”

That was another thing Ciara had never had much chance to do in Boston and had taken to with enormous enthusiasm here. They helped each other unhook their semiformal afternoon dresses when they reached the master bedroom—you didn’t do an evening gown for a small family dinner party, not at the O’Malley-Taguchi level of society and not in these more casual modern times. It was a much less complicated process than it would have been a few years ago. As well as being…

Luz leaned forward and whispered in Ciara’s ear: “It’s Christmas early this year, and I’m unwrapping the world’s most beautiful present.”

Then she kissed her between the shoulder blades.

A happy: “Oh, you!” in reply came with a poke in the ribs. And: “These dresses! They’re so comfortable!”

Women’s clothing had changed drastically even in the five years since she was Ciara’s age, and in ways she heartily approved; Coco Chanel’s latest continued the trend.

But hobble skirts… hobble skirts were an evil plot against half the human race.

They hung the clothes and tossed the underthings in a hamper in the walk-in cupboard. Then Luz stretched on tiptoe with her fingers linked above her head before going down on one knee to light the paper-and-kindling fire set beneath stacked driftwood ready in the bedroom’s hearth.

We’ll want this blazing when we’re through in the pool, even if my love is part polar bear.

She felt Ciara’s eyes on her as she tossed the splint into the flames, and winked.

“It’s not fair!” Ciara laughed, putting her hands on her hips. “You can put me to the blush so much more easily than I can you!”

That was true enough even discounting experience, since Luz’s complexion was a clear olive that tanned readily to a warm light honey-golden-brown; she took after her mother that way, along with full lips and high cheekbones, though the narrow blue streaks near the pupils of her dark eyes were her father’s, and so was her long-limbed build. Hair the almost iridescent black of a raven’s wing could have been from either. By contrast Ciara’s skin had a translucent paleness that showed blue traceries of vein and didn’t take the sun at all. She was also fuller-figured than Luz’s leopardess build, two inches shorter at five-four but weighing about the same.

She did blush now at Luz’s frank appreciation, a flush spreading down from face to bosom.

“So, swim!” she said, extending a hand.

Half an hour later Luz was glad of the loose djellabas of striped wool she and Ciara were both wearing as they climbed back to the terrace outside the bedchamber. A friend had brought a dozen of them back from a mission in Oran in French North Africa and given them to her last Christmas, and they were amazingly, softly comfortable, one-size-fits-all, and just warm enough.

I’m glad I got Julie something nice for this Christmas, Luz thought, distracted for an instant—or perhaps taking refuge in an irrelevant thought. She and Bob will love those matching Purdey .338 side-by-sides. And there won’t be any more, since Purdey & Sons had their shop right in Mayfair.

Ciara didn’t notice cold nearly as much, but then this was fine June weather, by Massachusetts standards. Perhaps she felt the chill in Luz’s fingers.

“There’s that lovely alpaca-skin rug before the fire,” she said as they came to the top of the stairs, her voice sweet with promise. “That would be all toasty by now for my delicate hibiscus-blossom beloved…”

Una inspiración maravillosa, but wait just a moment, my heart, mi amor,” Luz said.

And my goose bumps aren’t all from the chill, she thought before continuing aloud:

“There’s something worth seeing from here about to happen.”

They stood by the railing, arms around each other’s waists and Ciara’s head on her shoulder. Luz leaned her own cheek against her lover’s damp locks, looking out from the terrace toward the blue-black line of the ocean just west of due south from here. The sky was cloudless and a blaze of stars from horizon to horizon; she’d switched off the exterior lights, and Santa Barbara was neither close enough nor large enough nor bright enough at nearly midnight to wash out the sky. The Milky Way reared in an arch of white diamond dust above them.

Then it dimmed a little. Gibbous and hugely yellow-gold, the moon rose over the waters to the south and east. A long path glittered from it over the foam-flecked waves, leading beyond the world.

Ciara made a wordless sighing sound, and her arm tightened on Luz’s waist.

“Oh, thank you, my darling!” she said after the lower edge of the moon broke free of the Pacific. “That was… marvelous!”

Luz swallowed; her throat was a little dry and tight. She turned and faced Ciara. The younger woman’s eyes searched hers gravely, matching the sudden seriousness she sensed.

Mi amor… mi corazón… these weeks together have been the happiest in my life. Not just fun, but… happy.”

So happy I feel very slightly guilty, feeling so absolutely happy amid the wreck of the world… but life goes on for people. It has to, and it would do nobody good to sit and mope po-faced.

“For me too, my darling one,” Ciara said earnestly. “I love you so much, and I want more of this… more than anything. I want you, for my very own, always.”

“And I you, beloved,” Luz said.

She reached into the pocket of her robe, and her fingers closed around the little box that had arrived while they were out.

“If it weren’t for the war, I’d… I might have waited a little, for your sake, my heart, so that we could have gotten to know each other better, more deeply. But we don’t have all the time in the world before the world visits us again.”

And quite possibly kills us, she thought, and knew the thought was shared. Probably, even.

Ciara smiled a little. “If it weren’t for the war, we wouldn’t have met at all! I know how it says hurry. So don’t keep me in suspense!”

Luz braced herself and opened the box, setting it on the balustrade railing between them. Ciara gave a soft gasp. Within the velvet padding were two Claddagh, Irish pledge rings with bezels in the shape of two linked hands clasping across a crowned heart, done in gold, silver, diamonds and ruby chips that glittered softly by the light of moon and stars. The form had been used among the Gael for centuries, in pledging loyalty or troth.

“Ciara… will you stay with me, and be my love?” Luz said, taking up one ring. “Shall we be comrades and partners through life?”

A tear glistened at the corner of one of Ciara’s turquoise-green eyes.

“I… yes, Luz. Oh, yes.”


Copyright © 2018-2019 by S.M. Stirling