Chapter Seven

Órlaith had heard the far-faring merchant skipper Moishe Feldman of Newport describe Hawaiian feasts, and had prudently eaten nothing but a few ship’s biscuits and some local fruit bought from the bumboats that clustered around the fleet that morning… though it had been hard to stop with one when she tasted her first mango.

Which restraint was advisable, but those smells are making me dribble, the which would not be dignified!

The lūʻau was held outdoors, though she noticed that there were big pavilion-style tents ready to be deployed in an instant. Hilo had a wet climate, even by the standards of Montival’s own coast where it went stretching up through rainforest miles into Alaska. Tonight the sky was clear and the stars were many and bright; torches and baskets of burning wood on poles cast a flickering light, beneath the more prosaic glow of incandescent-mantle pressure lamps.

The tables were low and flanked by cushioned wicker benches that were only about six inches above the short-cropped green grass and the woven-leaf mats that covered it; fragrant mounds of sweet-smelling pink and blue frangipani and almost overpoweringly sweet night-blooming jasmine and musky guava blossoms competed with the smells of food. Palm trees rustled overhead, and there was a chattering that died away as a herald entered and boomed in Hawaiian and English:

“The King comes! The Chief!”

Musicians struck up, and the crowd went to one knee briefly before they rose and sang. Órlaith’s Sword-trained ear translated:

Hawaiʻi ponoʻī,
Hawaiʻi’s own true sons,

Nānā i kou mōʻī,
Be loyal to your king,

Kalani aliʻi,
Your country’s liege and lord

Ke aliʻi!
The chief!

Makua lani ē,
Father above us all,

Na kaua e pale,
Who guarded in the war,

Me ka ihe!
With his spear!

The band then politely added the themes from Nihon’s Kimigayo and Montival’s Voices Speak of Home, which latter meant they’d really been paying attention since it had been adopted very recently.

One song that was first heard in Japan when Charlemagne was King of the Franks, one that was made in Queen Victoria’s time, and one that was written by my aunt Fiorbhinn last year, Órlaith thought. The which is the respective antiquity of our three dynasties and kingdoms, too. Ah, well, all traditions are new when they start and they all start somewhere.

Kalākaua II’s entourage entered between the lines of cloaked and ceremonially bare-chested spearmen; their working dress that afternoon had included light torso-armor of leather and steel, practical domed helmets and stout round shields. A tall noblewoman reverently bore the folded yellow cloak that was too precious to risk by actually wearing very often since it was fashioned from the feathers of the long-extinct mamo bird, and another had the golden ring of state on a cushion. Men carried the dove-headed staff that symbolized the royal line, and the two tabu-staffs crowned with black and white cloth that showed his sacred link to the Gods of the land.

Kalākaua himself was dressed in a kikepa of shimmering blue and gold silk knotted over one shoulder and leaving the other bare. He was a good-looking man in a leonine fashion, though she thought he’d be thickset in later life unless he worked very hard at it. Both he and Queen Haukea wore flowers in their locks, apparently a sign of informality and festival here.

They also both wore niho palaoa around their necks, hooked ivory ornaments made from sperm whale teeth strung on human hair, a symbol of noble blood like an Associate’s woven-wire ring or jeweled dagger.

Protocol governed the almost-identically-equal bows the Hawaiian monarchs exchanged with her and Reiko. Apparently that ended the formalities, for then the local overlords sat with her and Reiko to either side, and much more lively music started. The dancers that swept in between the tables certainly looked festive, with a style that switched between a fast rhythm based on swift stamping and hip-movements that made their grass skirts quiver and a slow languorous one with swaying and hand-and-arm gestures that probably meant something complex. It was certainly pretty even if you didn’t know the conventions.

“We’re about as private here as possible,” Kalākaua said as the first course was served. “And it doesn’t draw the eye like closing a door.”

The starter was bowls of poke, very fresh cubes of raw ahi tuna tossed with soy sauce, sesame oil, a touch of honey and chopped sweet onion, garnished with dried green seaweed and scallions. Órlaith signed hers with the Pentagram, murmured the blessing that ended:

“… and blessed be those who toiled with You
Their hands helping Earth to bring forth life

The she made an appreciative sound at the rich almost-meaty taste, and the second journey of Reiko’s chopsticks was much more enthusiastic than the first. At the table just beyond her Nihonjin followers were showing—if you could pick up on very subtle expressions and then dawning smiles—profound relief at being served something edible and not having to pretend to enjoy some loathsome barbarian swill.

Reiko’s more flexible, but I’ve rarely run across a group more conservative about things like food than the Nihonjin, Órlaith thought.

Once they’d gotten back from the Valley of Death and the first exchange of boats had brought a Nihonjin chef for Reiko she’d thoroughly enjoyed the products of his art, which was the more remarkable for its disciplined restraint. The world was very wide and varied; even Montival was, and she’d traveled over most of it with her parents, enjoying the local dishes all her life, from buffalo-hump steak to the complex fantasies of Associate court cuisine.

And they’re very relieved there’s rice—to them that is food, and everything else a garnish. And there were plenty of Nihonjin here in the ancient days; this dish is probably partly the legacy of their foodways.

The alternatives were the same dish with octopus, which was equally popular; there was also fruit-juice, beer, sake, various rum-and-fruit concoctions, a brandy distilled from pineapple that was a truly vile waste of a delicious fruit, and wine. Heuradys grinned and leaned in to turn one of the wine bottles in their coolers toward Órlaith; the label read Chateau d’Ath and it was the ’40 Pinot Noir red.

“If your un-esteemed maternal grandfather had known how valuable those Montinore vineyards were going to be, he’d never have enfeoffed that estate to Mom Two,” she murmured.

“Ah, well, that was Lady D’Ath’s reward for kidnapping my father,” Órlaith replied, also sotto voice.

“Turn about is fair play,” Heuradys said. “It was also her reward from rescuing your lady mother.”

Which was true; Mackenzie raiders under Grandmother Juniper’s personal command had captured Órlaith’s mother Mathilda, first, and Lady d’Ath had led the party which got her back and took Rudi Mackenzie in turn… thus introducing the future High King and High Queen to each other as children, despite their parents’ bitter enmity.

The memory heartened her. The old wars against the Association had been desperate enough in their day, but now she united their blood and Montival dwelt at peace with itself.

The red wine went well with the succulently rich, herb-infused, melting-tender pit-roasted whole pig that was the main course, served steaming on the leaves that had wrapped it in the imu, the underground oven. Many other dishes accompanied it or followed.

When everyone was nibbling bits of sweet fresh pineapple and banana on slivers of bamboo and sampling little bowls of mango custard, Kalākaua moved on from the generalities.

“We’ve had a fairly sheltered life here in the islands since the Change,” he said.

Queen Haukea snorted. “If you don’t count Oahu,” she said, and explained to Órlaith and Reiko: “My grandparents made it out… just before the rest of the islands sealed it off.”

“It was… necessary,” Kalākaua said.

“It also meant driving a million people back to die,” she said. “You know what they found in Oahu afterwards.”

Órlaith nodded; allowing for local details it was a conversation she’d heard before, though more among her grandparents’ generation than her own. Oahu and its great city of Honolulu had held most of the dwellers in these isles before the Change, utterly dependent on food shipped in from the rest of the world. The result had been what folk in Montival called a Death Zone, where there were few survivors except some who’d hidden very well, and others who’d lived by hunting and eating their fellows when everything else findable or catchable had been devoured. Most of human-kind had died in the twelve months after the Change, of violence and above all of hunger and thirst and the plagues they bred, and more than half of the remainder in the next few years. In some places it had been worse; the main islands of Japan, for example.

Reiko made a sign of affirmation with her fan: “We also on Sado-ga-shima, and the other islands of refuge,” she said. “The times were very hard, and called for very hard measures everywhere.”

Reiko turned the fan towards her Guard commander. “General Egawa-san’s father, Egawa Katashi, brought my grandmother across Honshu from Tokyo, a month after the Change. He and the Seventy Loyal Men; and so the Yamato dynasty was preserved and our Empire founded anew. But they fought with the others to turn back the starving who followed. Else those fleeing death would have carried it with them, and brought everything down in wreck.”

The Hawaiian monarch sighed, looking troubled. “It could have worse. From what we’re hearing about Korea, it was worse there.”

Órlaith nodded. “When we were in South Westria… southern California, on the old maps… I watched one of the Korean warships through a telescope.”

She was silent for a moment before she described the officer on the enemy warship’s deck looking back at her through a pair of binoculars… and chewing idly on a smoked hand, spitting out the little finger-bones now and then.

“You’re serious, aren’t you?” the king asked; his Queen put down her spoon and took a gulp of the wine.

“I’m glad you told us that one after dinner,” she said.

Órlaith nodded. “I don’t suppose Koreans are any more or less wicked than other folk by nature,” she said.

Reiko nodded, if a little unwillingly, which said a good deal for her, considering what her folk and she personally had suffered at the hands of that dark kingdom. Lord Egawa would never publically disagree with his Tennō, but Órlaith felt a moral certainty that he assuredly did in his innermost heart. To him an enemy was simply an enemy, and the only good one was a dead one.

For now, that makes no practical difference, Órlaith thought.

Her own first impulse was the same, to turn the place over to sword and flame from one end to the other and not just because its warriors had killed her father.

But a monarch must have justice in their soul, or else you’re nothing but a bandit chief with a fancy golden hat. Also in the long run it’s more practical, if you want peace, or at least as much peace as a quarrelsome tribe like human kind is ever likely to get.

“But they’ve been ruled and corrupted by darkness for a long time now,” Órlaith said. “The longer it’s left to fester, the worse for the world.”

Kalākaua hesitated, and then nodded; so did the Queen. Órlaith merely nodded in return. Agreement in principle was the crucial step. The rest was detail work, and could be left to those whose business it was. She certainly wasn’t going to endanger it by trying to push for too much right now.

“And the worse for those unlucky enough to dwell there, too, the ordinary people, who I’d like to see set free and helped if we can do it,” she added. “That’s not the most important of my aims, mind you. The Powers have entrusted House Artos with Montival and its folk, first and foremost. After that we’re allied with Dai-Nippon now, bound by oath and honor to pursue this war to victory for us both. But it’s something to be kept in mind.”

Best leave things there for now.

She turned her head to Karl where he and the other Mackenzies sat a table away, with the McClintocks beyond. Clansfolk often drank deep at a feast—the McClintocks certainly were sampling the local tipples, and Diarmuid had had a couple of them dragged off and was reduced to clouting the heads of others with his bonnet now and then to remind them of the fact that he was their war-chief and that they weren’t at a Yule feast back home with nothing to worry about except hangovers and brawls, if not of the principle of moderation. Karl had seen that his fellows hadn’t done more than grow a little merry, and now he caught her eye. She gave him a slight nod and a hint of a wink.

Then she turned back to the Hawaiian monarchs. “You’ve shown us a hint of the riches of your folk’s songs and dances,” she said. “Let us return the favor!”

Kalākaua grinned and nodded, obviously glad to change the subject for a bit, and looked his youthful age while he did. He clapped his hands and called in his own language. The local instruments—nose-flutes, xaphoons, drums and bamboo xylophones—died away. Most of the Mackenzies drew their leaf-shaped shortswords and the guards tensed imperceptibly, then relaxed again as they set them down in the turf between the main tables in a broad circle divided into eight parts, one edge up and the points inward. Firelight glittered on the honed steel. That symbolized the divisions of the Wheel of the Year, the Old Faith’s sacred calendar.

Gwri Beauregard Mackenzie had had a set of bagpipes bundled at her feet and now she brought them out. Not the great hoarse píob mhór, the war-pipes that could cut through the clamor of battle and whip fighters to a frenzy, but the smaller and sweeter-toned Uillean variety. Gwri sat cross-legged and strapped the instrument’s belt around herself; uillean pipes were inflated by a bellows arrangement under the elbow. She was grinning as she did, teeth white against her creamy brown skin, the long braids of her hair tipped with silver balls that glittered as she bent to the pipe’s mouthpiece.

Karl bowed and addressed the assembly; he was Órlaith’s age or a little less, a tall young man with a handsome squarish face and an archer’s broad shoulders and wheat-colored hair worn past the shoulders, loose for the feast rather than braided battle-style. The Mackenzie lilt was stronger in his voice than in his liege’s, though he’d spent plenty of time outside the dúthchas since his father commanded the High King’s Archers. He wasn’t quite as guileless as the wide blue eyes suggested, but he was young and the grin was wide and friendly.

“Friends and hosts, our thanks to you for the hospitality, and to the Powers by whatever names They are most pleased to be called here. We were after thinkin’ we’d make some small recompense by showing you a dance of our own, and a song of the season to go with it—little though this fair land of yours resembles the Black Months at home, where it’s chill and dark this time of year!”

The pipes sounded, high and sweet like the horns of Elfland in the distance, and the crisp rattling buzz of a bodhrán-drum held in the left hand and played with the little double-headed striker stick in the right. A lively six-eight double jig rhythm sounded, and there was a murmur of interest and appreciation from the audience that quickly died away.

Sure, and you can tell the Clan Mackenzie was founded by a musician! Órlaith thought, remembering her grandmother kindly. Lady Juniper left her mark for good and all, right enough.

All her father’s folk learned song and an instrument in Moon school, since it was an important part of their strand of the Old Faith. And it was notorious that an impromptu céilí broke out wherever a few of them were set down without something more urgent to do.

Though if it were the war-pipes and Lambeg drums…

Karl and his brother Mathun, who looked very much like him with a few years subtracted, faced each other motionless across the circle of swords for a moment. Then they began to dance, left hand on hip and right up so that the crooked fingers were above the blue flat beret-like Scots bonnet; they were both from Dun Fairfax and of the Wolf sept, and had a swatch of the gray fur of their totem in the silver clasps above the left eye.

The rest of the clansfolk took up the words of the song, strong young voices in expert harmony:

“Yule is come
Now beat the drum
And light the Solstice flame!”

The sword-dance kept the upper body almost still, save for when left and right hand switched positions, but the feet moved in a skipping rhythm that sent kilt and sporran and the tail of the plaid swaying; every six beats there was a quick stamping jump to the right, that left the dancer in the next of the eights into which the swords divided the circle.

If you made a mistake, it also meant you were stamping a foot down on the upraised blade of a sword, which would be unfortunate for the sole of your shoe and the foot within. Back in the Mackenzie dúthchas, the Clan’s grave elders waged a continual battle to try and make everyone use dulled blades for this dance; at the major public festivals and for practice among those too young to be Initiates they even succeeded.

“Tonight we’ll raise
A hymn of praise
For the Sun returns again!”

Two more of the young Mackenzies fed themselves into the dance, Boudicca and Rowan, moving in perfect unison.

Hail to Yule, the longest night
Of all the turning year—
Await the resurrecting Light
That banishes despair!

Then Karl surprised her a little; he signaled her to come over if she wished, but she was willing enough. Without undue modesty she knew she was a striking dancer. And she’d seen enough to know that here, as in much of Montival, dancing was considered suitable for those of high rank, particularly with a religious element. Which wasn’t a problem, since pretty well everything Mackenzies did had a religious part to it; the Old Faith didn’t make much distinction between the everyday and things of the spirit.

And besides that, I like dancing, and this is a chance to do it!

You needed an even number of dancers for the sword-ring, and it got more difficult with every pair; six was as high as it usually went, with eight reserved for the great feasts of the Quarter Festivals and even there for teams who’d practiced together often.

Órlaith wasn’t surprised when a man in Mackenzie dress stepped up opposite her, but she almost missed the beat when she recognized Alan Thurston. That took only an instant despite his wearing kilt and plaid and bonnet rather than the tight blue copper-riveted trousers and tooled boots and Stetson of a Boisean rancher, or the bleak gray practicality of the USB Army’s uniform.

Alan was the nephew of the President-General of the United States of Boise but had only a vague resemblance to his uncle Frederick, though more to his cousins; the family’s men ran to a tall, broad-shouldered, long-limbed build and squared-off chins, and he had all of that. His father Martin was long-dead, and had also been a traitor, parricide and collaborator—later mindless puppet—of the Prophet of the Church Universal and Triumphant, and the reason the Prophet’s War had been a civil strife in Boise. That was also the reason Alan had grown up in quiet exile on a remote ranch with his mother Juliet.

He was also…

Gorgeous, she thought happily, returning his grin. If he’d ever gone on the stage, there wouldn’t be a dry seat in the house. Mine all mine! Well, yes, Da killed his father… but then, Da’s father killed Mother’s father long before they were married, and that never bothered them much. All the better for the Kingdom’s peace that they wed, in fact, to be a symbol of the burying of old feuds and to produce… me.

Curling honey-brown hair sun-streaked with his mother’s gold, eyes of sage green rimmed with a darker color, nose straight and slightly flared, high cheekbones tapering down to a square chin with a cleft, full lips smiling and showing even teeth against skin that was a creamy olive tint just on the pale side of very light brown.

For a moment she worried that he’d have trouble with the dance; square dancing was the closest thing the wilds of rural Boise had to this. Then he took up the tune and the step outside the circle without missing a beat. He must have been practicing.

And Karl must have been helping him, the scheming lout! Órlaith thought with fond amusement. Not that it would have worked if he wasn’t quick and graceful by nature.

She sang with the rest, noticing Alan’s sharper accent, with its eastern across-the-mountains hint of a twang:

For now the tide will start to turn
Night will yield to Day
And the waning Year will shed its skin
And cast the dark away!

As she moved, she admired the smooth play of muscle in the young man’s legs. He had the strong thighs of a horseman, but good calves as well; in fact he’d told her that he’d deliberately trained by running along side his horse for an hour or more every day, vaulting across the saddle now and then.

Which is why I’m not bandy-legged like a lot of people in my neck of the woods, he’d said with a grin.

Moving into the circle in mid-dance was hard, and Órlaith concentrated on letting the music take her body and move it as if it were playing directly on muscle and nerve. She turned a gliding side-step into a skip forward, and that meant instantly doing the high-knee sideways motion into another wedge. Alan matched it effortlessly, and then they were fully into the rhythm. Everyone followed Karl into a pirouette, turning in a complete circle in a wave of plaids one after the other without changing the pace and then ending with another shift:

“Pile the bonfire
Join the dance
Come raise your voices high—
Lord Winter can no more advance
His hold on Earth and Sky!”

The pipes and bodhrán picked up the pace, and she could feel the unified scuffing of six pairs of boots on the turf as if the soles of her feet were the skin of the drum:

For soon the sap will rise again
The mute once more will sing—
And the heart will wake anew
To the promise of the Spring!

With the last note they all stopped, then bowed deeply by extending the right leg back and extending the right hand, first to each other and then turning and repeating the gesture outward to the audience half-glimpsed in the light of the flames.

The gathering broke the silence after the last dying note of the pipes and tap of the bodhrán with a storm of laughter and applause. Órlaith returned to the upper table, parting from Alan with a long glance and a wink; Karl would get him into the villa easily enough later and she could sleep late tomorrow.

The smile died on her face as she saw the expression on the messenger who’d knelt behind the Hawaiian monarchs and was speaking urgently as they leaned in to follow him. The more so as their faces took on the look of his.

Kalākaua turned to her. “A courier boat from Australia has arrived,” he said. “From Darwin. They say they’ve a message from your frigate Stormrider, and then to you personally from King John… King Birmo… of Capricornia.”

Órlaith hissed between her teeth and exchanged a glance with Reiko as the Hawaiian handed her an envelope. She nodded slightly to the Tennō who was also her friend. The Stormrider had been blown in John’s wake by the same blast, but evidently she’d lived up to her name and survived the journey to…

All the way to Capricornia!

That was a very long way indeed. There was some direct trade between Montival and Capricornia, but only recently and only by the more daring skippers… such as Moishe Feldman of the Tarshish Queen. Most were content to use Hilo as an entrepôt, paying higher prices to the Hawaiian middlemen in recompense for lower costs and risks on the long dangerous voyage to the pirate-invested Asian waters.

The message was certainly on Royal Montivallan Navy stationary, and sealed with blue wax and the stamp of a RMN captain, a stylized ship’s wheel and sextant. The seal looked intact…

“We’ve had it brought directly to you, Your Highness,” Kalākaua said. “The Capricornians are standing by for you to interview.”

The Sword of the Lady rested by her side, sheathed and with the belt wrapped around it. She knew he spoke the truth… as far as he knew it.

He was frowning a little, too. That was one of the better-known abilities the Lady’s gift conferred on the one of House Artos who bore it, but she wasn’t sure how much of that was known here. Or believed, even if the facts were known. Back home everyone knew it, and virtually everyone believed it right down in their bones, too—by the time her father reached his second decade on the throne, men had been known to flee to the wilderness or jump from high places rather than face a monarch who couldn’t be taken in by even the most cunning and convincing lie, because he could sense the intent to deceive.

That was one reason he’d used it less than he might have. As he’d put it, having that ability required restraint if you weren’t to convince a fatal number of people that the only way to make life tolerable was to kill you.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” she said soberly. “That’s appreciated, and it will be remembered.”

She took a deep breath, then cracked the sealing-wax and opened the eight-and-a-half-by-eleven structure of heavy water-resistant cream-colored paper.

Her eyes went quickly down the lines of text—it was typewritten, but had Captain Russ’ signature at the bottom of four single-spaced pages. Another was from King John of Capricornia—or King Birmo as he was more commonly known, apparently.

Stormrider’s intact,” she said; her own party had their ears cocked, and so did Reiko and her commanders. “They took some damage from the storm off Topanga, but they’ve been repaired in Darwin’s own naval yards… which means we owe the King of Capricornia a favor.”

Her eyes went to the date-stamp.

“Goddess gentle and strong, they made a fast passage! And they have news of the Tarshish Queen, hence of John. No direct contact, but strong circumstantial evidence that she was afloat recently, and where that was. The Korean warships chasing them have definitely all been destroyed, apparently by the Tarshish Queen’s catapults and by… chance circumstances, about which they’ve sent evidence. They and a supply ship from Darwin are heading for the area to search further.”

Reiko’s face was impassive as she nodded and smiled slightly. Nevertheless her polite:

“Very good news, Orrey-Chan,” was entirely sincere; and it held an element of relief.

Órlaith thought hard. “We’ll hold a conference tomorrow,” she said. “Time’s short, but not so short we won’t do better after a good night’s sleep.”


Copyright © 2016-2017 by S.M. Stirling