Chapter Three

Castle Todenangst, Crown demesne
Portland Protective Association
Willamette Valley near Newburg
(formerly western Oregon)
High Kingdom of Montival
(western North America)
June 15th, Change Year 26/2024 AD

 Squire Lioncel de Stafford’s muscles still ached very slightly from the morning’s run in armor up and down the endless flights of stairs, with a shield on his left arm and a weighted wooden practice sword in his fist. Just enough that it felt good standing at parade rest behind the Grand Constable’s chair, where she sat with the document-and-plate-laden table between her and the Lord Chancellor of the Association, Conrad Renfrew, Count of Odell.

The Silver Tower had the exotic luxury of a functioning elevator, powered by convicts on a treadmill in the dungeons, but Baroness Tiphaine d’Ath didn’t believe in letting her menie go soft merely because they were stationed at HQ for a week.

She’d led the run, of course.

A confidential secretary from the Chancellor’s office took notes in shorthand, with an occasional no, not that! to halt the pen about to render permanent an embarrassingly frank opinion about some exalted personage. One of the Count’s squires stood behind his wheelchair, and the Grand Constable’s pages were serving a working lunch when they weren’t standing silently against the far wall out of earshot; still, it was a sign of the trust attached to Lioncel’s position that he was present as the two most powerful officials of the Association conferred in private.

Just now Tiphaine tapped one finger on a note signed in crimson ink:

“Sandra’s gotten a complaint from the Seneschal’s wife at Castle Oliver and passed it on to me with a flag for action after consulting you, Conrad.”

Both the nobles lifted their eyes slightly at the mention of Sandra Arminger, formerly Lady Regent of the Association and now Queen Mother. There was nothing above this level save her apartments, the crenellations, cisterns, a heliograph station, a detachment of the Protector’s Guard and the roof. The Queen Mother was doing pretty much the same work that she had as Lady Regent, and from the same places.

Lioncel carefully didn’t look up. Lately she’d actually been noticing one Lioncel de Stafford a little beyond the pat-on-the-head level. Not in a bad way, but it could be alarming when things shifted like that.

“Castle Oliver… middle of the Okanagan… barony held in Crown demesne… twenty-two manors, the castle and a lot of grazing and woodland. The Seneschal would be Sir Symo Herrera,” the Chancellor said. “His wife… Lady Aicelena of the Chelan Dennisons. Aicelena’s running the place while Sir Symo’s away, the usual.”

Conrad of Odell was nearly sixty and built like a squat muscular toad, with a face that would have looked coarse-featured and rugged even if it hadn’t been terribly burned long ago. A bit gaunt now, without the spare flesh he’d had before the Battle of the Horse Heaven Hills last year. He’d been smacked off his destrier there and suffered a hairline fracture of the pelvis. He was out of traction, but still wearing a long embroidered robe with wide sleeves, informal garb for an invalid which looked rather odd with the massive gold chain of office.

Tiphaine nodded. “Sir Symo’s at the front with the Oliver levy… he’s been doing quite well, too.”

“So has she,” Conrad said thoughtfully. “Deliveries on time, no major complaints, the books balanced last time I send auditors around, and she doesn’t keep asking to have her hand held. What’s her problem, and why didn’t it come direct to me? Why does the military side need to get involved?”

“Apparently a party of men-at-arms on their way south from County Dawson, seventy-three lances and followers plus some light horse, stopped there. Lady Aicelena quite properly invited the chevaliers and esquires in for dinner and had an ox-roast put on in the courtyard for the rest.”

“Ouch,” the Chancellor said. “I think I can see what’s coming.”

Another nod, this one short and curt. “They repaid her by dropping the drawbridge and then emptied the storehouses in the castle bailey and the barns in the home manor of everything a horse could eat. Nobody hurt and nothing else taken except for a couple of chickens, but from the description it was as near as no matter robbery at spear-point.”

Conrad nodded in turn. “After the Crown emergency requisitions, that was probably the last surplus the area has,” he said thoughtfully. “Except what can be bought in at wartime prices.”

“Right. That cupboard’s going to be bare when the next legitimate call comes.”

The Lord Chancellor and the Grand Constable both had suites on the level just below the Queen Mother; it made conferences like this easier. Much of the Portland Protective Association’s government was handled from here in the great fortress-palace of Todenangst, and the hierarchy of status was quite literal; the higher up the massive ferroconcrete bulk of the Silver Tower you were, the more exalted the rank and the less there was of the tomb-like gloom usual in castles. This high there were pointed-arch windows and balconies, letting in a flood of afternoon light through the Gothic tracery along with plenty of fresh air slightly laden with smells of woodsmoke and flowers.

Lioncel still felt a slight chill at the tone of his liege’s voice; calm and even and… angry. There were reasons her title of Lady d’Ath was usually pronounced Lady Death.

“That was also Royal property they took, especially if they didn’t pay,” the Chancellor said.

“Not a penny. Our northern heroes just made noises about military necessity and high-tailed it on down the main rail line towards the Columbia, radiating innocence and dribbling stolen alfalfa-pellets and cracked barley.”

“Who was the Dawson commander?”

“Sir Othon Derby,” Tiphaine said.

Conrad Renfrew closed his eyes, consulting some inner file before he spoke:

“He’s the second son of Lord Hardouin Derby, Baron de Taylor, one of Count Enguerrand of Dawson’s major vassals. Arms: Argent, on a bend azure three buck’s heads cabossed or. With a crescent of cadency, of course. Twenty years old, reputation as a hothead, engaged to one of the Count’s daughters. Bit young for an independent command, I’d have thought.”

“Temporary command; Enguerrand sent him back north to bring in this bunch as replacements for others we’re letting go home for one reason or another. The new levy were mostly men who’ve come of age since the Prophet’s War started.”

“How long since they were called up?” the Chancellor asked.

“When they arrived at Oliver it was twenty-three days since they took the oath at Castle Dawson’s muster-yard,” Tiphaine said, a hint of satisfaction in her voice.

Ah, Lioncel thought. That’s the official start of their period of service.

Land-holders, from Counts and barons down to footmen holding fiefs-minor in sergeantry, were liable to war-service whenever their overlords or the Crown called. That was what being an Associate was about, after all—fighting to protect the realm, which was why a special dagger was the mark of belonging to the Association. The first forty days after a summons to the ban were at the fief-holder’s own expense, though. Only after that was the Crown obliged to furnish maintenance, with a right to draw on Royal storehouses.

So they wouldn’t be able to plead even a shadow of lawfulness, he thought.

Unexpectedly Tiphaine turned slightly. “Lioncel,” she said. “Your opinion—concisely.”

Lioncel gulped; having questions like that shot at you was one of the less attractive parts of moving up from page to squire.

“Umm… definitely unchivalrous conduct towards a gentlewoman, my lady, unworthy of a knight. And a violation of the terms of service. This Sir Othon was obliged to see to his men’s provisioning, but that doesn’t mean he can act like a bandit on Association territory… or anywhere in Montival. Plus it will leave a hole in our supply plans in that area, and it’s a major north-south corridor. My lady.”

“Correct,” Tiphaine said, making a small gesture that stiffened him back into anonymity.

“Sandra so does not like getting ripped off,” Conrad of Odell said, looking upwards. “We used to call it an aggressive zero-tolerance policy.”

“You don’t say,” Tiphaine said dryly, glancing in the same direction. “She is my patron too, Conrad.”

She snapped her fingers without looking around. “Boy! The Count of Dawson’s status reports,” she said.

The Baroness of Ath was forty and looked ageless in the way people who spent their days outdoors in all weathers often did, a tall woman with a build like a swordblade, her sun-faded silver-blond hair cut in a bob much like those worn by pages, and eyes the gray of sea-ice. Her male-style court dress of curl-toed shoes, hose, shirt, jerkin and houppelande coat were as plain as ceremony allowed and mostly shades of rich dark fabrics, relieved only by her chain of office and the small golden spurs of knighthood. A round chaperon hat hung on one ear of her tall chair, the liripipe dangling.

Lioncel slid the logistics file she’d called for forward and stepped back behind her chair, standing in the formal posture with one hand on the hilt of his sword and the other over the heavy cut-steel buckle of the sword-belt. That let him feel more than hear the rumbling of his stomach. He’d had a very substantial lunch and he was hungry again hours short of dinnertime; everyone laughed and told him it was being fourteen and shooting up like a weed.

“Oh, by Our Lady of the Citadel,” Tiphaine said after a moment, flicking pages.

Odd, Lioncel thought. I’ve never head that used as one of the Virgin’s titles before.

She went on: “Did the man seriously expect to ship fodder all the way south from Dawson for his destriers? Without the railway draught teams eating everything they were pulling by the time they got to the Okanagan country? Enguerrand’s a Count these days; it doesn’t give him supernatural powers.”

Conrad flicked through the same file and grinned, an alarming expression as the thick white keloid scars on his face knotted.

“They’ve got a lot more oats than money in the Peace River country and Dawson levies haven’t fought down here in the south much. At a guess, back when the ban was called out at the start of this war my lord Enguerrand told his quartermasters to get the fodder wherever it was cheapest and then forgot about it. Then they tried to draw on his own elevators full of nice cheap tribute grain before they realized how shipping costs would screw their cash flow, and ever since then they’ve been robbing Peter to pay Paul. Coming up short now and then, which was where young Sir Othon found himself, I’d wager. And there’s not much coin circulating up there even now, too remote. Just not used to paying cash for grain.”

“The Count will pay for this, and a fine, plus compensation-money to Lady Aicelena for the abuse of her hospitality,” Tiphaine said flatly. “Or Baron de Taylor will. And the bold Sir Othon can see how he likes a month of attitude adjustment in Little Ease.”

Lioncel winced behind an impassive face as the older nobles smiled, or at least showed their teeth. Little Ease was a dungeon oubliette beneath the Onyx Tower, a cramped cell carefully designed to make it impossible for an inmate to either lie or stand or sit properly, not to mention the rough knobby surface and utter blackness and total silence and cold and filth and damp. Sending people there was done by the prerogative Court called Star Chamber… over which the Queen Mother would preside.

“Oh, a month… that’s a bit much, unless you want a gibbering madman,” Conrad said cheerfully. “A week would be about right. It’ll just feel like months. Like forever and a day in Hell, in fact.”

“All right, a week. You’re getting soft, Conrad.”

Conrad’s smile grew more alarming. “You can be a bit… drastic… when you’re peeved. That’s probably why Sandra had you consult me, you know. We want to discipline Sir Othon and his lieges, not drive them to desperation. Besides, we’ve reformed. We’re the good guys these days. Sorta.”

“Sorta, kinda.” Tiphaine rubbed one hand across her forehead. “I don’t have time for this crap. Our command structure is still scrambled six ways from St. Swithin’s Day. I’m being bounced back and forth from here to Portland to the front like a ping-pong ball. Trailing files and letters like a comet’s tail. And you would be too, Conrad, if you weren’t in that wheelchair.”

Conrad Renfrew shrugged.

“If the High Kingdom of Montival were a human being it’d still be in diapers,” he said. “And His Majesty is trying to run a war with what used to be six or seven separate armies two years ago. Us, and six separate armies built to fight us plus bits and pieces of odds and sods. It’s not our command structure, even if we’re the biggest single element; it’s Montival’s command structure. And yes, it’s fucked.”

The Lord Chancellor chuckled like gravel shaken in a bucket.

“And Ping-Pong? Pre-Change metaphors are so twentieth century for a near-Changeling like you. You’re dating yourself, Tiph.”

“Dating myself? Doesn’t that make you go blind?”

Didn’t dating also mean something like courtship before the Change? Then—

Lioncel suppressed a startled giggle with an effort that made him cough as he struggled to maintain adult gravitas.

Lioncel had the same fair hair and blue eyes as his father Lord Rigobert de Stafford and a similar bold cast of features, and his hands and feet gave promise of equal height, but so far a lot of it was adolescent gawkiness and his sire’s easy natural dignity was only an aspiration. It was like your voice breaking occasionally and having impure thoughts about girls every thirty seconds, about which even his confessor had to work to keep the smile out of his voice. Evidently it all just went with his age.

At least I don’t have pimples. Well, not many.

“I wouldn’t like to be in Sir Othon’s boots when the Count learns how he avoided asking for money. Over and above what we’re going to do to him,” Renfrew said.

“His own damned fault and a valuable life-lesson for the lot of them.”

“At least my lord Enguerrand isn’t complaining about stripping his eastern border any more. They’re still paranoid about the Canuks up there,” the Chancellor said.

As the Grand Constable’s squire—and before that as a page, and before that simply as the son of Lady Delia de Stafford, who’d been the Grand Constable’s Châtelaine since before he was born—Lioncel had been in and out of these rooms for years. He found himself more self-conscious about their function now that he was older and knew more about it. It was no longer simply a place he lived sometimes, like Montinore Manor back in the barony of Ath that he thought of as really home, or the town-house near Portland.

Tiphaine spread the long callused fingers of her right hand slightly, half a gesture of agreement, half a motion like touching a sword-hilt.

“Taking Dawson wasn’t really cost-effective, no matter how much plowland it has or even how many extra workers we got. I remember distinctly at the time Sandra thought Norman was getting Big Eyes syndrome again, pushing our frontier that far north,” she said. “Risky. We were overstretched.”

Renfrew shrugged. “Our big advantage was getting organized first, and at least suspecting where the pointy end of the sword went, not to mention having swords and not just kitchen knives on sticks. That was a wasting asset. Norman knew we had to use it or lose it.”

“Norman just liked looking at the map and rubbing his hands and saying: Mine, all mine! BWA-HA-HA-HA-HA!”

“Yeah, that’s him to the life, but it worked. And half the time back then we hardly had to fight at all to take over, people were so glad to see someone who knew what they were doing and had a plan. Later… later it got a whole lot harder.”

“We had to fight for Dawson, all right,” she said. “And then fight seriously to keep it when the Drumheller government got their act in gear and decided to restore British Columbia.”

Conrad spread his massive hairy spade-shaped hands. “By then we had some castles built, and they never did manage to cleanse us from the sacred soil… or permafrost… of Canukistan.”

“They certainly tried. The Yakima is a lot warmer and closer, and we could have rolled up the rest of the towns there after the Tri-Cities fell, if we hadn’t had so many troops chasing Canuks through the snowdrifts and getting frostbite, also arrows in the rump.”

The Count nodded. “Remember the February campaign? Back in… Change Year 5, or 6, wasn’t it? You were doing scout work there with… mmm, Katrina Georges? She died four or five years later, in that ratfuck rescue attempt with Eddie Liu after the Mackenzies kidnapped Mathilda? Dawson would have been your first real war, apart from all that black-bag and spec-ops work you two were doing as Sandra’s Teen Ninjas.”

“Change Year Five and Six,” Tiphaine said, her voice softening a little. “Kat and I were doing scouting, right… we actually were scouts before the Change, you know. Girl Scouts. It’s the main reason we didn’t die.”

The Chancellor frowned. “I thought you were a gymnast? Olympic hopes and all that?”

“Gymnastics first, but Kat talked me into the Scouts in ’97, my mother pitched a fit… Sandra pulled some strings to have us attached to the reconnaissance element for the Dawson campaign. Norman thought we were a joke, but she wanted us to broaden our skill-sets. And get some mojo with the regulars.”

“Ah, right. I remember you two mousetrapped that Mountie deep-penetration patrol. A nice change from all the times the sneaky bastards did it to us. Yes, and you marched up and plopped the heads down on the breakfast table and said Pray allow us to present some friends, my lord. He didn’t think that was a joke!”

“He laughed, Conrad. He laughed so hard he snarfed his porridge and you had to pound him on the back. Kat offered to do the Heimlich on him and then he turned blue.”

You can always tell when older people are reminiscing, Lioncel thought indulgently. They start using that old-fashioned way of speech, even my lady isn’t quite a Changeling that way.

“He didn’t think you were a joke any more. The heads, yes, that hit him right in the funnybone.”

“We did think it would cheer people up,” Tiphaine said, a little amusement in her tone.

“That was when I really first noticed you. That girl will go far, I thought, and now you’ve got my old job.”

Conrad shivered reminiscently and crossed himself before he went on: “I also thought I’d never feel warm again, and it was so damned dark all the time…”

Tiphaine gave a half-snort: “I remember trying to pee and my armor being so cold that skin stuck hard to the metal anywhere it touched,” she said. “That and the way the Canuk ski troops kept working around our flanks through the woods. If they’d had more body armor and cavalry it would have been impossible.”

Conrad sighed as he referenced a letter and murmured to his clerk. “Enough about the old days, let’s get the rest of these supply projections sorted.”

“All right, let’s start with the barges and that elderly hard-tack we have stockpiled at Goldendale—“

Watching the Chancellor and my lady the Grand Constable do their work is… educational, Lioncel thought as he stood and directed the pageboys with flicks of his hand. Well, I’m the Grand Constable’s squire; I’m supposed to be learning.

They went through the rest of the stack of documents at a pace that made him blink, usually talking in an elliptical compressed way that showed how many years they’d worked together and only stopping long enough to chew when they took a bite of the lunch collation.

“That’s all for now, Mistress Brunisente,” Conrad said to the senior clerk when they came to the bottom of the stack. “Get me a typewritten transcript by tomorrow and do a précis.”

“Copies, my lord?”

“No carbons. We’ll circulate it under seal to the Queen Mother and Chancellor Ignatius after we go over it. No need to bother Their Majesties with this unless the Chancellor-slash-Questing Monk says so. Rudi and Mathilda have enough on their plates.”

The clerk took the hint, bobbed a curtsey and left.

“Good enough,” Tiphaine d’Ath said.

She leaned back, stretching her arms far behind her and tilting her head to one side and then the other until there was a sharp click.

“As far as the Association contingent goes we’re golden on the supply situation for the rest of this campaigning season,” she said. “Especially since His Majesty’s letting a lot of our infantry go back to their villages and plow.”

“The downside of that is that we’re cutting the size of the field force because we can’t feed that many so far from the Columbia, not because Rudi couldn’t use the men,” Conrad grunted. “Anyway, it’s time the rest did their share, and their foot-soldiers are just about as good as ours. Nobody else has anything like our men-at-arms, though.”

“The Bearkillers come fairly close. Nobody else has anything like the Mackenzie archers, either,” Tiphaine said and shrugged. “Our knights are more use on campaign than they are back home beating on each other at tournaments and hawking and boozing, and only a little more expensive.”

“You don’t have to find the money to pay their stipends,” Renfrew said. “Or pay to replace their beloved destriers when the bloody things die in the field—you wouldn’t think something so big would be so fragile. Those damned gee-gees cost more than a suit of plate and they wear out a whole hell of a lot faster.”

Lioncel was mildly shocked at the way the Count was talking about the noble beasts. Nearly everyone he knew loved their destriers and coursers, but you had to make allowances for the older generation. It took six years to breed and train a charger fit to bear an armored lancer into battle wearing armor of its own. He’d been unpleasantly surprised to find out that their average life expectancy on active campaign was around ten months. Even the High King’s fabled steed Epona, who’d gone all the way to the Sunrise Lands and back with him on the Quest, had died at the Horse Heaven Hills.

“The knights pay war-tallage anyway,” Tiphaine said. “So it’s out of one pocket and into another. And the Crown owns a lot of the horse-breeding farms, plus we have insurance. The Counts aren’t complaining really seriously either, it’s just the usual moaning bitchery and mine-is-bigger bickering. Ah, the delights of feudalism.”

“If you think this is bad, you should have seen what SCA politics were like before the Change. Truly murderous, at least as far as emotions went.”

“Society politics? With so little at stake?” Tiphaine asked.

“Because so little was at stake by modern standards. And notice that the Counts bitch to me,” Conrad said. “Not to you.”

“They’re not as afraid you’ll kill them, my lord Chancellor. And you are a Count, of course.”

“Nobody likes paying taxes… also of course. Wait until they see what Matti plans to levy on them for the reconstruction program,” Conrad said, using the familiar form of High Queen Mathilda’s name.

Of course, he’s been around her since she was a baby, Lioncel thought charitably. And the older generation… well, you have to make allowances.

The Count of Odel shuddered slightly for effect, then rubbed his hands together and grinned. “Sandra’s drawing up one of her little lists.”

“You seem to be working well with Father Ignatius, by the way,” Tiphaine said.

“He’s very capable,” Conrad Renfrew said, nodding and running a spade-shaped hand over his head, mostly naturally bald now rather than shaven as had been his custom for decades. “Even if he disapproves of me.”

“Ignatius disapproves of me a lot more,” Tiphaine said. “I can’t say he’s my favorite person in all the world either, though he and Matti are close. And he’d better be able, with his job. He gives it everything he’s got, I grant him that.”

The Knight-Brother was a Lord Chancellor too, but of the whole of the new High Kingdom of Montival. The warrior cleric had won great glory and ringing fame for himself and his Order of the Shield of St. Benedict at the High King’s side on the quest to Nantucket. He’d had a vision of the Virgin, too, which was awe-inspiring.

But Their Majesties gave him high office for his talents, Lioncel thought. The Order are scholars as well as warriors.

They’d also been leaders in the old wars… on the side against the Portland Protective Association, despite the Lord Protector’s championing of the Faith. Of course, technically the Protectorate had been in schism in those days; all contact with Rome had ceased on the day of the Change and for better than a decade after, and Norman Arminger had found a bishop willing to claim the Throne of St. Peter. Rome was a haunted ruin now, but a legitimately chosen Holy Father ruled the universal Church from the Umbrian city of Badia.

Curiosity as to why the Lord Protector’s chosen antipope Leo had only survived him by a month was strongly discouraged in the Association lands. Officially it was a heart attack, providentially easing the task of reunion.

Unofficially, from things overheard at home, Lioncel knew Sandra Arminger had sent one Tiphaine d’Ath to untraceably turn him from a problem into a memory, though it had been before he was born. That sort of thing didn’t happen nearly as often nowadays…

Conrad laughed. “Though unlike me, Ignatius only has to bust his ass for the Crown metaphorically.”

“That joke was funny the first seventeen times, Conrad,” she said in a coolly neutral voice. “And you started the minute the field medics told you what the problem was.”

“Not until they got the morphine into me; before that I just screeched and swore. And I paid for that joke with months of my ass being literally in a sling and I’ll use it as often as I damned well please,” he said cheerfully. “Still, it’s all more fun than it was in the old days.”

He nodded out the pointed-arch window that lit the day-room. That looked south across the courtyard to the glittering gold-tipped black height of the Onyx Tower, the Lord Protector’s old lair.

Tiphaine snorted slightly, but Lioncel thought it had a wealth of meaning.

“Granted Norman blossomed into a tyrant’s tyrant when he got the opportunity, but he wasn’t all bad,” Conrad said a little defensively.

Conrad of Odell had also been a fixture of Lioncel’s life—besides his duties, his Countess and her daughters were good friends of Lioncel’s mother—but at times like this you remembered that the unofficial uncle who’d played ‘bear’ with you in front of the hearth had also been the Lord Protector’s right-hand man. He was beginning to suspect that being disconcerted that way by sudden shifts in perspective was another… disconcerting thing about being his age.

Mother told me once she’d heard from the Countess of Odell that the Armingers stood by him when he got those burns on his face, way back before the Change.

“Ninety percent absolutely rotten bad,” Tiphaine said shortly.

“Except that we’d all have been gnawed bones without him. I sure as shit had no earthly idea what to do when the Change hit and the machines stopped, and he did. Ah, well, it’s ancient history. I think we’ve wrapped up all the essentials and you’ve had a chance to look over the replacements we’re sending forward. They’re eager enough.”

“They’re ironhead macho imbeciles who need to be bled, to correct the balance of their humors,” she said crisply. “Which I will see to. Not to mention learning that there’s more to war than couching a lance and sticking spurs in a horse’s ass.”

“Better to restrain the noble steed than prod the reluctant mule. Give my regards to Rudi… His Majesty… when you’re back in the cow-country.”

“The Prophet’s men did a good cloud-of-locusts imitation out there to slow pursuit. It’s gnawed bones country, since you brought up the phrase, with cows pretty scarce. The buzzards there have to carry their own rations,” she said.

“Speaking of which, here’s the grant,” he said, pulling a last formidable-looking document out of a folder and tossing it in front of her. “That’ll keep you travelling out there the rest of your life!”

“Joy,” she said. “Thank you… I suppose.”

“Hey, it’s free! That’s always a bargain.”

“Like getting fifteen million tons of undelivered Arizona sand for sixpence ha’penny,” she said dryly. “Don’t work yourself to death while I’m gone, Conrad. I’d rather snog wolverines in a confessional booth than be saddled with the job you’ve got now.”

The Count of Odell picked up the ebony cane that leaned against his wheelchair, tapped it on the marble tiles of the floor and waved it forward as he cried:

“En avant!”

There was a ripple of bows as his squire wheeled him out.

“Clear this up, Tasin,” Lioncel said, when nobody was left but the Grand Constable’s household.

The senior page—he was Tasin Jones, one of the younger brothers of Count Chaka of Molalla—slid forward and helped the younger pair clear the remains of lunch. His square brown face was intent; he’d only entered the d’Ath household six months ago. Lioncel had been a page himself until last August, and he remembered how anxious you could get at the thought something would go wrong while you were attending the lords. It would be worse for Tasin, since he hadn’t grown up with the Grand Constable, just knew her fearsome reputation.

He was shaping well, though, now that he’d had gotten over homesickness. Lioncel gave him a discreet wink and a thumbs-up when the job was done, and got a brief broad smile in exchange.

The plates held the remains of a lunch of cold spiced pork loin, a long loaf of white bread, sharp Tillamook cheese, sweet butter, a green salad and fruit tarts; the sort of plain good fare Tiphaine d’Ath preferred even at court. At a gesture, Tasin poured her another glass of watered wine and one for the squire and left the carafe. The pages made a little procession as they took the plates out to hand off to the castle staff; they were eyeing the uneaten blueberry tarts too, since those were their lawful prerogative… though as he remembered it the staff would get them as often as not.

One of the points of page service was to teach young noblemen humility, learning to obey among strangers before they commanded at home. And that good things didn’t simply appear by magic when you waved your hand.

“Lioncel, attend,” Tiphaine said.

They were about as alone as you ever got at court. A tinkle came from a wind-chime near the windows, and one of the interior walls of the big room was mostly bookshelves and map-racks, with a trophy of crude spears taken in some skirmish long ago crossed over a shield made from a battered-looking STOP sign above the swept and empty hearth. The furniture was understated and strongly built, mostly rubbed oak lightly carved and brown tooled leather held by brass rivets; a tapestry showed Castle Ath across a landscape of forest and vineyard and huntsmen bringing in boars, and the rugs were patterned with birds twining through vines.

The decor suited the Grand Constable perfectly, down to the hunting trophies—a stuffed boar’s head, tiger and bear-skins—but she wouldn’t have bothered about it herself. His mother had furnished the place, part of her duties as Châtelaine. In effect, general manager of the whole civilian side of the barony, from interior decoration to keeping the reeves and bailiffs honest and arranging apprenticeships for deserving youngsters. It had only been in the last few years he’d realized just how much work that involved, not least because his mother always made it look either effortless or enjoyable. And how not only the baron’s interests but the comfort and livelihoods of hundreds of families depended on it.

“My lady?” he said.

“Time for a little question-and-answer, boy.”

It had also only been a little while ago that he really realized what it meant that Lady Delia de Stafford lived with the Grand Constable, and that his father was perfectly content with the arrangement. It hadn’t made all that much difference, though he was a good Catholic himself. They were the people he’d grown up around, after all, the ones he knew and loved.

His liege jerked her thumb towards a stool. Lioncel de Stafford was a dutiful young man. He bowed and sank down with a perfectly genuine expression of alert interest. Squirehood involved a lot of lectures, if your liege was conscientious; it was the aristocracy’s equivalent of apprenticeship. His liege-lady was always worth listening to and didn’t just talk because she liked the sound of her own voice.

“What did you gather from all that?” she said, inclining her head towards the door the Lord Chancellor had used.

Tiphaine had always been kind enough to Delia’s children, but the Grand Constable wasn’t a woman who had much use for youngsters. As he got older she was paying more and more attention to him, which was intriguing and disturbing in about equal measure. They were a long way from equals; he didn’t know if they ever would be that, since she was terrifyingly capable at all of a noble’s skills save some of the social ones. But he’d put his foot on the bottom rung.

“That some of the great families are starting to bicker and complain, my lady. Even though the war isn’t over!” Lioncel said, trying to keep the heat out of his voice.

He’d had a ringside seat the last few years, old enough to no longer assume victory was automatic, and things had often looked…

Very bad indeed, he thought. Before the Quest returned with the High King and the Sword… very bad.

“We won the decisive battle at the Horse Heaven Hills, and Rudi killed Martin Thurston to put the brandied cherry on the whipped cream,” Tiphaine said in a cool even voice, wine-cup between her long fingers. “That leads to… premature relaxation. Mistaking are winning for having won.”

“Last year the enemy were winning, and look what happened to them. The Prophet isn’t dead yet! Are these people stupid?” Lioncel burst out. “My lady,” he added hastily.

“Some of them are. The rest… just arrogant and short-sighted and obsessed with who’s getting precedence. And in love with their own supreme awesomeness, particularly since it was a classic chivalric bull-at-a-gate charge with the lance that finished off the battle, like something out of a chanson. They tend to forget the rest.”

Lioncel looked down at his glass. He’d always loved the songs and still did, and the great charge had been like one of the chansons about Arthur or Charlemagne and their paladins come to life.

When eight thousand lances crested the ridge in a blaze of steel and plumes and rearing destriers… and then the oliphants screamed the charge à l’outrance…

It would be a thing of pride for the rest of his life to have taken part, even in a junior squire’s place behind the line… but he’d seen enough of real war now to realize that the troubadours tended to dwell on a very narrow part of it.

And to leave out things like what a man looks like after a conroi’s worth of barded destriers have galloped over him. Or maybe it was a man and a horse to start with, I couldn’t tell for sure in a single glance.

Tiphaine raised one pale brow, as if she was following his thoughts.

“When we were desperate, politics got damped down,” she said. “Now, not so much.”

“Yes, my lady,” Lioncel said. He thought for a moment, then: “Still, it’s better to have the problems of victory than those of defeat.”

She gave a thin small smile. “True. You’re learning, boy.”

And high politics is a lot less boring than classes in feudal law, he thought.

Then she handed him the vellum folio that the Lord Chancellor had given her.

“Your lady mother will be handling most of this, but give me your take.”

He picked it up and read. The snowy material of split lambskin smoothed with pumice and lime was only used for the most important documents, ones that went into the permanent record for reference and had lots of brightly illuminated capitals. The text was bilingual in English and Law French, which he could follow after a fashion, even done in the distinctive littera parisiensis fraktur typeface of the Chancellery of the Association. It included a map and references to the cadastral land survey.

The familiar forms leapt out at him; every nobleman took a keen interest in land-grants. There was going to be a new entry in the next edition of Fiefs of the Portland Protective Association: Tenants in Chief, Vassals, Vavasours and Fiefs-minor in Sergeantry.

His eyebrows went up and he stopped himself from whistling softly with a conscious effort at the acreage listed.

The signatures were Conradius Odeliae Comes, Dominus Cancellarius Consociationis Defensivae Portlandensis and Mathilda, Dei Gratia Princeps Regina Montivalae et Domina Defensor Consociationis Defensivae Portlandensis, complete with all three privy seals in red wax over ribbons.

That translated as Conrad, Count of Odell, Lord Chancellor of the Portland Protective Association and Mathilda, by the Grace of God—

And marriage to Rudi Mackenzie, Artos the First, of course.

—High Queen of Montival and Lady Protector— That in her own hereditary right.

of the PPA.

“That’s… that’s a very generous fief you’ve been granted, my lady. Much bigger than the Barony of Ath! Congratulations!”

His warm glow of delight was entirely unselfish; Lioncel was only heir to Barony Forest Grove. As adopted son of the Grand Constable his younger brother Diomede would inherit the title and lands of Barony Ath, the original fief in the Tualatin Valley west of Portland and now the new grant too. His sister Heuradys was an adopted daughter of d’Ath too, for similar reasons; it left House Stafford and House d’Ath each with one son to inherit and one daughter to dower, a perfect set for succession purposes.

Tiphaine nodded, her long regular face tilting a little to watch his, her ice-colored eyes considering as they met his bright-blue. They looked enough alike in face and feature and build as well as coloring to be close blood kin, though they weren’t.

“Not quite as generous as it looks at first glance, boy,” she said. “It’s in the Palouse out east, not the Willamette.”

Lioncel frowned. He’d been too young then to really follow things, but…

“Didn’t we—the Association—split the Palouse with old President-General Lawrence Thurston of Boise just before the war, my lady?”

“Right, and a couple of armies have passed that way since, so the only other living claimants are pronghorns and prairie dogs. Good wheat and sheep land, though; it’s near a rail line when we get that fixed, and there’s water enough given work and money. By the time Diomede’s my age, it’ll be valuable.”

“Their Majesties are generous,” Lioncel said, thinking hard. “But you certainly deserve it, my lady. You’ve been a, ah, a pillar of the dynasty—

That had started with her working as an assassin for Lady Sandra, early on. Right after the Change, during the Foundation Wars, when she was only a little older than he was now.

“—since the beginning!” he concluded, tactfully.

She’d also been a duelist in the Crown’s interest, and still had a chest full of expired lettres de cachet signed ‘Sandra Arminger’ and inscribed with the dreaded phrase: the bearer has done what has been done by my authority, and for the good of the State.

“And you commanded the rearguard on the retreat from Walla Walla last year, and led the charge at the Horse Heaven Hills. A good lord rewards his most faithful vassals with land. It’s the only wealth that’s really real.”

My lady wants me to pick something out here. What is it? What am I missing?

“OK, Lioncel, look at it as if you were on the throne. What’s the reason not to spill land-grants wholesale like candied nuts out of a piñata?”

“Ummm… well, God isn’t making any more land, my lady. Fiefs are hereditary so it’s a lot easier to give it out than to get it back into the Crown demesne.”

“Right. Now, specifics: Sandra Arminger already sponsored me into the Association in the first place, knighted me with her own hands, and gave me everything I have. She was your mother’s sponsor too. And I was one of Mathilda’s tutors for a long time. I… and your parents… owe everything to her family.”

“Well, yes, my lady. Put that way, House Arminger have been extremely generous already.”

“So even if you didn’t know me personally, can you imagine me not being loyal to the Crown?”

“Ah… put that way, no, my lady. It’s sort of proverbial, in fact.”

They call you the Lady Regent’s Stiletto, actually. Or just Lady Death. Which is a pun on d’Ath, but they mean it.

“And apart from the fact that I want to be loyal, there’s the additional fact that I’m disliked by the Church, and hated by a lot of lay nobles whose relatives I’ve killed. I’ve been generously rewarded with land and office, and I… and your parents… need the Crown’s ongoing protection. Why give me more?”

“Well… it’s good lordship to reward service with an open hand,” Lioncel said, beginning to sweat slightly. “It’s not supposed to be a bribe, after all. It’s recognition, it bestows honor, not just revenues.”

“True, and with Matilda… and Rudi… good lordship means a lot. They like me personally too, oddly enough, and more understandably they like Delia… your lady mother.”

“Ah…” greatly daring, Lioncel cleared his throat. “My lady? Do you like the High King?”

He’d seen them working together, but his liege wasn’t a demonstrative person. He was fairly sure that she regarded the High Queen as something like a younger sister, but he couldn’t tell with Rudi Mackenzie. The ice-gray eyes considered him, and there was a very slight nod of approval.

“Yes, I do,” she said. “And as you may have learned by now, I’m not given to easy likings.”

He nodded. A couple of hours would be enough to learn that, much less a lifetime. It took him an instant more to realize that Tiphaine was making a dry joke.

As if I were a grown man, he thought with a mixture of pride and, oddly, a faint sadness.

“More importantly, we… respect each other. While he was living up here part-time—“

That had been part of the peace settlement after the Protector’s War; the Mackenzie heir had come north, and Mathilda Arminger had spent time every year in Dun Juniper.

“—I helped teach him the sword, among other things. You’d be too young to recall most of that, and mainly it was at court, not Ath.”

Lioncel nodded; he had vague memories of visits, no more. Tiphaine’s face went a little distant, as if looking into time.

“He’s really extremely good. Mathilda always tried her hardest and she’s better than average. But Rudi… he’s a natural, and he soaked up technique like a dry sponge does water. The only man I ever sparred with as fast as I was. A bit faster, now; he’s at his peak and I’m a little past mine. And even experts usually can’t strike full force without losing either speed or precision. I can, but so can Rudi… and he’s extremely strong.”

Another pause, and Lioncel nodded soberly. He’d had glimpses of the High King fighting with his own hands during the tag-end of the great battle, the savage scrimmage around Martin Thurston’s banner, and it had been…

Frightening, he decided. Even on that field of wholesale butchery, even if you’d been raised among swordmasters. Like some pagan God of war come to life.

“Most men remember grudges; Rudi never forgets anyone who does him a good turn,” Tiphaine went on. “And he always returns loyalty. That was obvious even when I first met him, when he was younger than Diomede is now.”

Her eyes met his. “You’ll start out with his favor, for my sake and your parents’, but to keep it, you’ll have to earn it. Never forget that.”

“I won’t, my lady,” Lioncel said seriously.

“Good. Because when he has to be, the High King is… well, you’ve heard the saying: Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent? He won’t spare himself in the kingdom’s service, and he won’t spare you, either. Which brings us back to the grant. What’s the realpolitik reason? Remember that that usually coincides with good lordship, if you’re thinking long-term. The higher your rank, the more careful you have to be about decisions, because the easier it is to break things.”

He resisted an impulse to adjust the collar of his jerkin, suddenly grown a little tight.

“Ah… well, that grant, it’s just idle land right now, not settled manors. No annual revenues, no knights or sergeants owing service. The Crown will get the Royal mesne tithes without having to pay anything upfront if we develop and settle it, full tithes since we’re tenants-in-chief. And we’ll have to see to the roads and rails and patrols at our own expense, too, which means more trade and the dues on that. What did they say in the old days… all gain, no pain?”

Tiphaine almost smiled, which startled him a little. She went on:

“Good points, but those are basically reasons to grant the land to someone, eventually, not necessarily to me and Rigobert right now. Speaking of whom, my lord your father is getting an identical tract next to this—“ she flicked a finger at the parchment “—which means we’ll be neighbors out there, too. On the same terms, just the names and map changed. So?”

“And because it’s important to be seen to reward good service? That’s a big part of a lord’s repute and good name, and that’s part of what makes people eager to take service with you and do their best, and ready to stick with you if things go badly.”

“Another point. I actually am grateful, too… not least because this means I can reward some of my landless followers.”

She visibly took pity on him.

“Lady Sandra used to grill me like this, and she did it to Matti, too. The less obvious part is about your generation of House Ath and House Stafford.”

Lioncel blinked a little, startled. Then he nodded slowly. It made sense that the Crown would start thinking about him… though it was a bit…

Nerve-wracking. Exciting, though, too. Someday not too long from now I’ll be someone who does important things.

Tiphaine spoke, echoing his thoughts closely enough to startle:

“Rigobert and I will be out of the picture in a few decades, but you’ll be in your prime when Crown Princess Órlaith is as old as you are now, and Diomede not long after. This means the Crown thinks you and your brother will likely be assets for her. Plus… take a look at the tenures those manors are held under.”

He reread the document, frowning in concentration; this did involve questions of feudal law.

“Ummm. Parts of it… three manors out of twenty… are held in free and common socage, not just by knight-service and tallages like the rest.”

That was unusual and meant they could be alienated, unlike ordinary land held in fief by a tenant-in-chief, which descended undivided by primogeniture whether held in demesne or subinfeudiated. It didn’t escheat to the Crown in default of natural heirs, either.

A light dawned. “Those parts in socage are an inheritance for Heuradys and Yolande!” he said delightedly.

His young sisters were a bit more than three and less than a year old. When he had thought of it at all he’d expected that they’d be dowered by charges on the revenues of the baronies of Ath and Forest Grove, sums put aside and sunk yearly in government bonds or town properties or the like.

Actual manors in their own names would improve their prospects considerably, whether they wanted to marry, go into the Church, or make some other choice. Right now the ‘manors’ were each just big chunks of rolling bunchgrass, but his sisters were very young.

Wait a minute; if my lord my father got a grant like this, a hell of a lot goes to me, too, he thought for the first time.

Which meant raising him as well as Diomede into the top rank of tenant-in-chief barons; there were Counts with less, though not many. That was a distant enough prospect to seem pretty theoretical, but it was agreeable enough too.

“Right,” Tiphaine said. “And—“

She stopped, cocking her head as if to listen. “That’s odd… did you hear that owl? Sounded like a big Harfang.”

Lioncel looked at her blankly; he knew all the birds of prey well, from hawking and hunting.

“Owl, my lady? It’s the middle of the afternoon!”

It was, and a bright one in early summer; the sunlight was a thick glowing bar across the table, patterned where the Gothic stone tracery of the window cut it, and even the corners of the room showed a bit of glitter on the metallic threads of the tapestries.

“That does make an owl unlikely, eh?” Tiphaine said. “And you’ve got youngster’s ears.”

He’d rarely seen her indecisive. For a moment her face went utterly still, and she touched her right hand to the base of her throat; she wore an owl pendant there lately, he remembered.

Then her eyes opened and she looked upward, crossing her arms and tapping her fingers thoughtfully.

“So, logically…” she murmured. Then, oddly: “Thanks!”

The next floor was the Lady Regent’s… no, now the Queen Mothers’… chambers; some sort of do was on for this afternoon, ostensibly a tea party, with the High Queen and his own mother and a clutch of countesses settling privately what would be supposedly debated publicly later. Tiphaine didn’t raise her voice—she rarely did—but there was a crispness to it when she spoke.

“Tell Sir Armand and Sir Rodard to turn out the menie, everyone on hand right now. Then arm me, half-armor, no more.”

Putting on a suit of plate complete took about fifteen minutes with expert help, and couldn’t be done alone at all.

“Move, boy!”

He did. Nobody stopped him to ask for explanations, just started doing what was needed. And by the time he dashed back with the flexible plate cuirass of lames in his arms and the other equipment slung around him Tiphaine had already tossed her houppelande aside and hung her sword-belt over the back of the chair. The steel would be a little loose without the padded arming doublet beneath, but he latched it quickly and stood by to hand her the articulated steel gauntlets, sallet helm and the four-foot knight’s shield shaped like an elongated teardrop with its arms of sable, a delta or upon a V argent.

“What are we going to do, my lady?” he asked, proud that his voice was steady.

“Head straight in, yelling alarm and murder,” she said absently.

“That will… look strange, my lady.”

She shrugged to settle the harness, and put both hands up on the sallet’s low dome to press the broad-tailed flared helmet with her palms so that its circuit of internal pads were snug in exactly the right place before she buckled the chin-cup. The visor was down. Without a bevoir attached to the breastplate her mouth and chin showed beneath, and the long narrow blankness of the vision slit in the smooth curve gave a look of merciless detachment and power to her glance.

The armor the menie of Ath wore wasn’t black like the harness of the Protector’s Guard, because that color sucked up heat in the sun and sometimes stood out against a background. It wasn’t white—bare and brightly polished—like that of many baronial fighting-tails, either, because that was even more conspicuous.

Instead it was a pale neutral gray like her eyes, the finish very slightly roughened so that it wouldn’t glint, though in fact you rarely tried to hide in plate. Lady Death was meticulous about details.

Mom is that way too, Lioncel realized suddenly. Only she does it about other things.

“It’ll look very strange, my lady,” he added, and didn’t go on to say: Charging into the Queen Mother’s quarters with drawn sword and armed men at your back.

“Lioncel, have you heard the saying that you can do wonders if you don’t care about who gets the credit?”

“Yes, my lady. My lord my father is fond of that one.”

She smiled, a chill stark expression. “Well, you can do even more if you don’t give a damn how crazy it makes you look.”

As she spoke he went down on one knee and buckled the sword-belt around her waist while she pulled on her gauntlets; that took three extra holes on the belt in armor, and he tucked the tongue neatly beneath. Then she drew the sword, a yard of tapering watermarked cross-hilted steel. That slid the honed edge within an inch of his ear, but it didn’t occur to him to flinch. Tiphaine d’Ath’s sword went exactly where she wanted it to go, neither more nor less. He’d seen her flick flies out of the air, neatly bisected with a twitch of the wrist, something he still couldn’t do in practice.

With the curved top of her shield she knocked the visor of her sallet up. His own vision disappeared for an instant as he pulled his light mail shirt over his head; when he settled the familiar weight and belted his own sword on the two household knights where there.

“Lioncel, get your helmet on,” she said. “And stay behind the shields when we move.”

“What’s up, my lady?” Rodard said as he strode briskly in, blinking at the naked sword, his brother Armand at his heels. “I have six men-at-arms including us—“

All knights were men-at-arms, full-armored and capable of fighting as lancers on horseback among their other skills. Not all men-at-arms were knights, though most hoped to be some day.

“—and as many more of spearmen and crossbowmen. I could recall men from other duties or rustle up some more from the Lord Chancellor’s household—“

The Georges brothers had been given the accolade last year; Rodard had been wounded at the Horse Heaven Hills and was just back on full service. Both young household knights were armored cap-a-pie with their shields slung point-down across their backs; they’d been on duty. Usually there weren’t more men than that up here in the Silver Tower; most of the menie of Ath was still at the front, or at work on half a dozen assignments.

“No, no time for explanations,” his liege replied.

Lioncel felt himself nodding, under a tight-held excitement. His liege-lady was fond of the maxim that it was better to react in good time with a small force than too late with a larger one. He used the moment to get his own crossbow and hang the quiver of bolts to his waist; he was still too young to match a grown man with the sword, but he was a good shot and his quarrels hit just as hard as a veteran’s.

“I think the enemy are going to try something underhanded and we need to move now.”

She flicked the point of her blade towards the ceiling, and the steel-framed faces of the knights changed; they pulled on the guige straps that slung their shields and ran their arms through the loops. Armand spun on his heel and began calling orders.

There was a rustle and clank as the command party came through into the outer chambers, and the ranks of the menie stiffened the way a cat did at the beginning of its stalk. This part of the Grand Constable’s suite was interlinked reception rooms; in normal times they were spacious and airy, despite the massiveness of the structure around them. Even a small force of armored men in a bristle of shields and spears and glaives made them at least feel crowded. Honed metal winked and glinted as the polearms shifted into beams of light from the high narrow windows, amid a smell of leather and male sweat and oiled steel.

“There is a plot against the Crown,” Tiphaine said without preliminaries. “Some officers of the Protector’s Guard must have been suborned or replaced and we may have to fight the Guard.”

Which would mean being grossly outnumbered, for starters.

“Anyone who isn’t ready to follow me on this had better step aside right now. Fall out if you care to.”

Fists and swordhilts thumped on breastplates and shields. There was a short crashing bark of:

D’Ath! D’Ath!”

Lioncel wasn’t surprised; he’d have been shocked if anyone had dropped out. These were all men who’d sworn fealty to Tiphaine d’Ath of their own will. Nobody became a personal vassal of Lady Death because they longed for a quiet life.

“The cry is Artos and Montival. Follow me!”

Then they all trotted towards the stairwell; there were two on this level, spirals set in the east and west thicknesses of the tower. A slam of boots and a clatter of harness, men-at-arms and spearmen settling their shields and crossbowmen loading as they ran.

Mother! Lioncel thought suddenly with his hand on the cocking lever. And the girls, and Huon! They’re up there with the High Queen!

The war was here, with shocking suddenness, not just out at the front. It was like running down a staircase in the dark and expecting another step when there wasn’t one, a blow running up into his chest and squeezing even as his hands fumbled through the loading routine.

This is Castle Todenangst, not some gulch out east!