Chapter Five

Two more of the armored guards stood outside the panels of the door to the private apartments, saluting as Baron Huon bowed them through. Pip blinked again when they stepped in, past an antechamber, and into the dining room; it wasn’t nearly as grand as she’d expected.

Well, grand enough, but not huge. And I’m used to open-plan buildings in hot countries, so I underestimated the size. Still, not overpowering.

There was an oval mahogany table with a snowy linen cloth set for twelve under a chandelier, and the walls covered in tapestries and lined with side tables—neither were ancient, but very well done, the tapestries showing elongated lords and ladies flying their hawks in a rolling countryside of hills and flower-starred fields. The cloth gave the room a warmer feel, as well.

Dinner started with introductions, including an array of John’s siblings: a redheaded fifteen-year-old boy named Faolán, in a kilt and plaid; a ten-year-old girl called Vuissance crying with happiness in a dress called a kirtle with only a band around her loose black locks as she threw herself against John and hugged him and was hugged in return; and a sleepy baby in a nurse’s arms with that who-are-these-people-what-is-this-place-what-the-devil-am-I-doing-here look that they had at that age.

“God, Johnnie, you got to have actual adventures like Mother and Da!” the boy said, torn between happiness and envy, and giving her a covert appreciative glance after he kissed her hand; he was old enough for that. “And brought home a beautiful princess—it’s like those chansons de geste you like so much!”

John shuddered and gave him a brotherly push on the side of the head that was nearly a clout.

“I got to be lost, terrified, nearly eaten by a giant enchanted crocodile, have a burning siege tower collapse on me, nearly be assassinated by headhunters with bones through their noses, be captured by demonolaters, and subjected to nameless frights by eldritch abominations, squib,” he said.

Then a smile at Pip. “But the beautiful princess was worth it all! And the epic I compose will live forever!”

The younger ones were packed off after kisses and embraces, and Faolán got to sit at the foot of the table for educational purposes, under a binding oath of shut-up-ed-ness, which he obeyed in an obvious bid not to be remembered and excluded.

Pip filed names and faces. That was a trader’s trick she had learned at her uncle’s knee. The non-immediate-family members were more immediately important, and there were five of them. One was in a much longer version of a kilt called an arisaid, with a plaid pinned over a loose shirt of embroidered linen, wearing a silver headband around hair gone white that had obviously been fire-red once and bearing something that she realized was a triple moon—waxing, full and waning. Faded, very keen green eyes marked a face she was so at home in that the wrinkles looked like an expression in themselves.

“I’m your new grandma, Pip,” she said, with an impish grin that made Pip feel they were of an age for a moment, sharing a secret at school. “Juniper Mackenzie, but call me Juniper—or anything you want, to be sure.”

She had an accent, more or less Irish, which Pip had met before at home from a few elderly survivors, and a hint of something else.

“How about Mac?”

The old woman threw back her head and laughed, a rich, silvery sound that recalled cathedral bells peeling.

“Oh, yes.” She chuckled when at last she had herself back under control. “You will indeed be fine here. Mac it is, then. So mote it be.”

Pip tilted her head, slightly unsettled.

Mac had not been anywhere near Mattie when she’d said…

The old witch, or wiccan or whatever the Hell she was gave Deor a long considering look.

“I see you’ve been putting my teaching to very good use, young man.”

“I have, Lady Juniper, and I thank you for it once again. It saved more than my life.”

“And I thank you, Deor Woden’s-man. You saved my grandchild… and my great-grandchild, the thought! I won’t forget it.”

“My grandmother, and former Chieftain of the Clan Mackenzie,” John explained. “The Witch-Queen.”

“Oh, not that again!” Juniper said, rolling her eyes.

“Now retired, which means she has the power but doesn’t have to do the routine work down there in the Mackenzie dúthchasanymore.”

“Nonsense, Maude’s the Chief of the Name now, I just give her advice when she asks,” Juniper said stoutly. “There’s such a thing as knowing when to step aside.”

John smiled. “And Aunt Maude… and the Oneach Mór… that’s a sort of parliament, Pip… disregard your advice so often, Grandmother.”

“The which is why I give it so seldom, Johnnie-me-lad.”

There was an elderly cleric in a plain black-and-white Benedictine monk’s robe, introduced as Father Ignatius, and also as Lord Chancellor—of the High Kingdom, not the Association—which accounted for the gold chain of office on his chest. Watching him stand and move told a story too.

This was a fighting man, and a very good one, Pip thought, and knew from Toa’s thoughtful grunt behind her he’d sensed the same thing.

More surprising was a sixtyish woman, tall and blade-straight, with hair cut in a pageboy bob that must have been mostly pale blond once, and the coldest gray eyes Pip had ever seen, though they warmed just a little at the sight of John. She was in a darker, plainer version of John’s hose and jerkin and houppelande coat with dagged sleeves, and also had a chain of office and the little golden spurs on her heels. Nobody was wearing weapons except for the apparently-ceremonial jeweled daggers, but you could tell this one usually had a sword at her side.

“Baroness Tiphaine d’Ath, Grand Marshal of the High Queen’s Host,” John said, as he made the introductions.

“Chief of the Montivallan General Staff, to put it without the folderol,” she said coolly. Pip realized with a jolt she must have been at least a teenager at the time of the Change.

She bowed and kissed Pip’s hand. “Welcome to Montival, Princess Philippa.”

With her was a very feminine woman in exquisite Associate garb involving a good deal of lace that made you want to examine it in detail; she was about a decade younger than Tiphaine, but could have passed for forty and was still stunning in a matronly way.

“Don’t be old-fashioned, Tiph,” she said, and poked the Marshal in the ribs with her fan.

“Lady Delia, Countess de Stafford and Châtelaine of Barony Ath,” John continued, as Pip got the kiss-on-both-cheeks greeting and a waft of some indefinable scent that smelled as if it had started as lavender and lilac before squads had labored over it.

Châtelaine… does that mean what I think it means? Pip thought, looked at the two of them, and decided: Too bloody right it does. They have that look like Uncle Pete and Aunt Fifi, been together forever and worn grooves in the world doing it.

“Nobody told me this was a matriarchy,” Pip said, looking around.

That got a general laugh; except for Delia, who giggled and managed to bring it off despite a buxom middle age.

“Oh, this one’s going to run you ragged, John,” she said, tapping him on the cheek with the fan. “But you’ll enjoy the process.”

John laughed again. “Very likely, Delly.”

“It’s not a matriarchy, Pip,” Mathilda said. “It just looks that way.”

“It is so a matriarchy, Mattie,” Juniper Mackenzie said. “And all the better for it! We just didn’t intend for it to work out that way; but human-kind proposes and the Powers dispose. Even you Associates have had a Lady Protector and not a Lord Protector for thirty-six of the past forty-six years, between Sandra and you, and that despite all the plate-armored machismo.”

“Women just survive better,” d’Ath said, and at Mathilda’s swift reproving look: “I miss him too, Mattie, but it’s true.”

Juniper sighed. “It was the same with his father. Ah, a beautiful man he was, body and spirit both, and Rudi was so like him. My lovely Sun-born boy, with a spirit like the morning light.”

“I’m just a monk,” Ignatius said dryly. “Like mules, we don’t count in the pedigrees of the Great Houses.”

Pip snorted. She’d never been religious, but she liked this bloke right off the bat, she decided. He seemed…


A pang of homesickness followed immediately upon the realization that Uncle Pete would probably pick him out and whisk him away from the informal formalities for some serious drinking and yarn spinning at the first opportunity.

“Are you implying the nobility are horses, or just some particular part of a horse?” d’Ath said.

Everyone chuckled at that. “You’re a monk of the Order of the Shield of Saint Benedict, my Lord Chancellor,” she went on. “Who are sovereigns in Mount Angel and have chapter houses all over the realm. I remember fighting your Brothers during the Lord Protector’s wars; you weren’t the most numerous enemies we had but you were trouble enough.”

“Ah, but then you were in schism from Holy Mother Church,” Ignatius said urbanely.

“Personally I was just faking it because Norman wanted his own Pope and that lunatic he picked burned people alive if he thought they were heretics,” she replied. “Until Sandra… solved that problem, after the Protector’s War when Rudi’s dad put Norman out of the picture.”

Pip’s head was spinning like a willy-willy with the effort of keeping up.

Juniper Mackenzie gave d’Ath a look that went with a raised eyebrow. “You were close to Sandra, as I recall.”

“I was her finest assassin, Lady Juniper, as you well know,” d’Ath said calmly, and left it at that; Delia winced slightly.

My, what a lot of history they have here! Pip thought. And history is mostly about people killing each other.

A squire with a white baton cleared his throat. Pip put her hand on John’s again and he led her to the table; Mathilda sat at the head, with her son and new daughter-in-law to the right, and everyone followed in a ripple of precedence.

Pages in their early teens served the meal, which arrived via a dumbwaiter shaft in the wall behind a carved screen; with the previous exchange in mind Pip noted that the majority were page boys, but not all by any means.

Page didn’t mean servant, exactly, not in the sense she thought of the word. John had said it was a sort of chrysalis stage before you burst out as a squire, which in turn was the stage before knight, and all the upper-class sprigs went through it; girls became maidens-in-waiting if they had a different career path in mind, one that didn’t involve plentiful sweat and bruising and a focus on sharp pointy things. Both were rather like going to boarding school, and as with the classic British hellholes one of the purposes was to drum a little humility into the spawn of the upper orders. Along with building social contacts and networks of patronage.

Ignatius led the Catholics in crossing themselves and saying their grace:

“Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Through Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.”

“Amen,” Pip said.

Then to herself: Well, here’s an assortment, glancing out of the corners of her eyes and listing them mentally:

Baroness d’Ath and her Châtelaine put aside a crumb of bread dipped in wine and murmured:

“Holy Hestia, Hearth-guardian, to whom we offer first and last on every day, glorious is your portion and your right, for without You mortals hold no feast.”

Deor and Thora Hammer-signed their plates and invoked someone called All-giving Nerthus; Juniper Mackenzie’s equivalent, which her grandson Faolán echoed, began with a pentagram and ended with: Their hands helping Earth to bring forth life.

The memory of weeks of naval slumgullion and sea-biscuit was recent enough that the meal itself was very welcome.

They started with caviar on rye-toast points, which she’d read about but never had before and could see would be an easily-acquired taste, accompanied by a chilled Chardonnay, dry and flinty, that had her exclaiming slightly as she sipped her pregnancy-dictated half glass. One of the things her mother had taught her was how to appreciate wine—Townsville didn’t have vineyards, but plenty came up from the southern parts of Oz and over from New Zealand by ship.

The Kiwi plonk is always better, she grudgingly admitted.

“Ours,” Delia said proudly. “From the demesne vines of Montinore Manor; that’s the home-estate of Barony Ath.”

“I just drink it; my Châtelaine manages the estates,” d’Ath said. “Farming was never my strong point.”

A clear seafood broth with scallions and small chunks of lobster followed and then a winter spinach salad with chopped toasted walnuts, pomegranate seeds, a little feta cheese and dried cranberries topped with cored and thin-sliced pears that were firm but ripe, dressed with herb-infused olive oil and apple vinegar, and accompanied by a Chenin Blanc that had hints of pear, honeysuckle, quince, and apple, and perhaps a little ginger.

“And here I was expecting to rip with my teeth at great joints of meat laid on bread trenchers,” Pip said appreciatively as she broke and buttered a warm crusty roll. “And tear chickens apart with my hands and quaff from tankards.”

That got another laugh. “About some things my mother put her foot down, even with Father,” Mathilda said. “Actual medieval food wasn’t like that either, really… though they did use the bread trenchers. And eat with their fingers and share cups, but there was an elaborate etiquette about it. Some of the noble Houses do that, but usually only on special occasions.”

The main course was slices of marinated roast boar haunch covered in a tangy dark gravy with a fruity taste and flanked by steamed halved Brussels sprouts topped with lemon butter sprinkled with chopped hazelnuts, honey-glazed carrots, and cubes of potato grilled with rosemary and garlic-infused oil, and with it a glass of Pinot Noir. She rolled it over her tongue and tasted overtones of sage, cedar, coffee, and tobacco.

“All right, there are compensations for the weather here,” she said mock-grudgingly, and got a chuckle.

“This pig died happy!” Toa said… happily, taking a second helping from the attentive page, who was covertly fascinated with his tattoos.

D’Ath suddenly grinned at him, though she seemed a bit dour in general; Pip revised her initial ice-woman estimate, and even more favorably. She tended to approve of people who approved of her mother’s old friend-retainer-bodyguard-right-hand-man.

“No, Master Toa, it didn’t die happy. It died squealing and trying to run up my spear and kill me, all five hundred pounds of it.”

She pointed with her knife at what Pip had assumed were ivory ornaments on the side of the serving plate where the slices lay in a neat fan on a bed of parsley. At a second glance the ornaments turned out to be tusks, curved and pointed and easily as long as the dagger at her waist, reminding her of the ones warrior tribesmen in New Guinea wore through their noses or made into necklaces.

Then the noblewoman indicated one of the tapestries, which showed a beast built like a battering ram on legs, with huge shoulders, flashing tusks, and…

Vicious piggy little red eyes, Pip thought. Rubies there but the reality is just bloody, I suppose.

… lunging at hunters with broad-bladed spears that had cross guards below the steel as hounds jumped about being understandably hysterical. Pip suddenly realized that the cross guard was entirely practical, with something that strong and that size—five hundred pounds was a small pony—and that determined to take you with them to Hog Heaven, doubtless to be the object of the hunts there.

Toa’s eyes lit up and his smile smoldered. “If it died trying to gut you, mate, it died happy.”

Lady Delia’s eyes rolled up. “Don’t encourage her! You’re too old for boar hunting now, darling! Your bruises from this beast are still that disgusting yellow and green color!”

“I’m too old for duels, and for tournaments, except as a judge,” d’Ath said. “And I’m not allowed to duel as Marshal, anyway. Hunting I can still do; allow me some outdoor pleasures, sweetie.”

“Fighting with massive murderous pigs in deep cold mud is a pleasure?” Delia asked with a sigh.

“Sounds bloody awesome,” Toa said around a mouthful of pork. “A lot more fun than fighting with murderous blokes any day of the week.”

“Yes,” d’Ath said succinctly. “And I don’t do it alone.”

“There’s hawking,” Delia said. “We can do that together.”

“And we do, as often as I can tolerate watching a bird have all the fun of killing something edible,” d’Ath said.

She turned to Toa: “If you’d like, you can have a taste of it in a little while. After all the”—

her voice held an exaggerated disgust, and she winked at her partner, who gave her a pout

—“parties and ceremonies and the Christmas revels.”

“Too easy. I’m there!” Toa said with an enormous, alarming grin showing white tombstone teeth.

“If you weren’t Grand Marshal, some duelist would have killed you long ago, Tiph,” Mathilda said.

“Dueling is barbaric,” Juniper said. “You should ban it.”

“Rebellions are even more barbaric,” Mathilda said to her, with the air of someone treading a familiar measure, and turned back to d’Ath:

“Did Rudi and I save you from murderous relatives out for revenge just so a pig could kill you?”

“Probably,” d’Ath said tranquilly. “Not that there’s all that much difference between Count Stavarov and a wild boar and his relatives are mostly pigs except the ones who are weasels.”

Toa laughed appreciatively, even though he had no idea who they were talking about. There were more than enough Stavarov types in Townsville or Darwin to get the joke. Unsure whether she was supposed to be scandalized, Pip simply smirked.

“Or a tiger will get me, or I’ll break my neck falling off a horse jumping a log. I’m older now than I ever expected to be… ever expected since the Change… and the children are pretty much grown.”

“Well, I’d miss you, I assure you!” Lady Delia said tartly.

Then she looked at the dessert tray, sighed, patted her midriff and shook her head.

Ignatius cleared his throat; he’d restricted himself to water and soup and bread, and he ignored the plates of little fruit-tarts with dabs of whipped cream, gleaming glazed confections of blueberries, dried candied apple and peach, and toasted hazelnuts and walnuts on clove-and-nutmeg infused yellow custard inside pastry shells. D’Ath loaded a plate with them and began methodically eating them and stirring rich cream and sugar into her Hawaiian coffee.

Delia looked at her and murmured: “Brute! Skinny brute!”

“Mud-wrestling with giant pigs works it off,” d’Ath said, and they smiled at each other.

“Your adventures in the Ceram Sea are intriguing, and disturbing, Prince John,” Ignatius said, ignoring the byplay.

“They were even more disturbing at the time,” John said fervently.

Pip nodded as she tried one of the tarts and sipped the Hawaiian coffee, which was excellent—it was sold in Darwin, though the Papuan product was much cheaper—and sampled a small glass of a clear pear brandy whose label showed a volcano and the legend Hood River Ducal Reserve; there was a whole peeled pear in the bottle.

“More than you think,” Ignatius said. “There is the question of how Alan Thurston—”

Pip felt herself sit bolt upright, and the others of her party did likewise. They’d met a man… or possibly the quasi-material projection of a man—of that name in the domain outside time and space where Deor had led them, into the world of a mad God’s dream.

“—ended up with a knife emblazoned with the Yellow Seal… on Crown Princess Órlaith’s ship off Pearl Harbor. Young Thurston killed himself with it, by the way, rather than injure the Crown Princess… which some mental pressure was evidently trying to force him to do. And then the knife… went away.”

“Wait a minute, he was in Hawaiʻi?” John said. “But we saw him in Baru Denpasar!”

“John,” Deor said. “We saw him, yes, but not in Baru Denpasar. Where we saw him was when our spirits walked—and where yours was taken as captive by the King in Yellow after the battle. Our bodies were there in the Raja’s guesthouse, but the rest of us was… elsewhere. And there the essence of Alan Thurston, the real man, was held captive with you. When we freed you, with his aid, we freed him as well.”

He sighed. “It’s a pity to hear he died—I liked him.”

“So did I,” John said soberly. “But apparently he died well, fighting for his own soul.”

“Which is as much as a man can do,” Deor said.

He signed the Hammer; Pip felt herself crossing herself again, which was a new habit for her when it wasn’t obligatory.

Ignatius and Mathilda did likewise, and the monk continued: “Yes, I do not think that could be classified as suicide, though I shall pray for him, and it would be a charitable act to have masses said for his soul.”

He glanced at Mathilda, who nodded and made a gesture to her amanuensis, who made a note on her pad. The monk went on:

“When your reports all mentioned such a person in this very unpleasant Otherworld from which you rescued the Prince it was… alarming.”

“Saint Michael by my side,” John said, halfway between reverential prayer and reverential curse and a factual description of what had happened there at the end.

He crossed himself. Pip did the same again, Thora and Deor drew the Hammer, Juniper Mackenzie the pentagram, and Toa muttered something in Maori.

“Precisely,” the cleric said, with an iron in his tone that reminded you that his was a warrior order. “There was a link there, one that spanned both time and space… very large spans of both.”

Mathilda’s amanuensis leaned forward and murmured in her ear, and handed her a slip of paper. She read it and nodded.

“I’ve had searchers looking into some things—in the libraries here,” she said. “Alan’s mother took a book from the Silver Tower collection just after the Prophet’s War, when she… went to her ranch. Part of a bundle, a gift from my mother the Lady Regent. It was called The King in Yellow.”


Copyright © 2018 by S.M. Stirling