Chapter Four

“It’s absolutely bloody freezing out there! And it’s still raining!” Philippa Arminger Mackenzie—née Balwyn-Abercrombie—said.

In fact, Pip almost snarled.

This was the sort of weather her ancestors had known and loathed and through the centuries had conquered colonies to avoid… or before that, gone on Crusades; a Balwyn had gone over the walls of Jerusalem in 1099 behind Godfrey de Bouillon, wading ankle-deep in blood on his way to the loot with the Pope’s blessing on it all.

She herself had grown up in Townsville, where sugarcane grew in the steam-press heat, and gigantic saltwater crocs occasionally ambled out of the marshes on the edge of town looking for something tasty to eat. She hadn’t quite believed her mother’s stories about the sustained dreariness of which England was capable. Though she had been willing to abscond from Townsville and go adventuring on her own ship northward to frustrate her father’s plans to send her to Winchester in the hopes of picking up a Windsor sprig to decorate the bloodline of the newly and recently hereditary Colonels of Townsville.

And I ended up snagging a Prince on my own, somewhere with weather just like England! God’s sense of the ironic… Granted, Johnnie makes up for a lot, but…

“Bugger me, Johnnie, is the cold always so murderous? I can see now why there’s no brass monkeys on your family crest. Is it always like this here? I haven’t seen the sun for five minutes since we docked, and then it looked embarrassed, as if you’d walked in on it while it was bathing.”

Prince John Arminger Mackenzie, heir to the Lord Protectorship of the PPA, next heir to the High Kingdom of Montival after his elder sister Órlaith, listened to her and winced slightly. He sat across from her as he sipped at his hot tea and tuned his lute. This car in the Royal train was comprised of sets of chairs set opposite each other in groups, across a low table that held a tea service and cups. The railcar was heated by a little airtight metal stove with a glass window that let you see the cheery flicker of the burning apple-wood that scented the air, there were some quite splendid rugs on the floor, and the walls and ceiling were carved and inlaid woods, some of which must have been imported from her part of the world.

My previous, decently warm part of the world.

“Well, this is winter,” John said. “And it’s fairly typical for this time of year. We call it the Black Months. At least it’s typical this far north, and west of the Cascades. It’s drier and sunnier here than it is on the coast.”


He continued doggedly. “And drier still east of the mountains. And warmer farther south, of course. Summer is sunny and warm here and it doesn’t rain much. In South Westria it’s as hot as the islands of the Ceram Sea. In the Mojave Desert for example, I went there recently—”

With the Empress of Japan, of all people, she thought. Though from the description that hadn’t been an affair with a starring role for John and she got the impression that this Reiko had frankly terrified him.

“—but that’s hot and dry.”

He didn’t laugh at her reaction to the weather—which was wisdom—but Deor Godulfson and Thora Garwood, who were sharing his side of the railway coach, did. And still worse, they did it indulgently.

“Be happy, Princess Pip of the Flowering Frangipani. It’s not snowing, not yet,” Deor said.

He was a wiry black-haired, gray-eyed man with a musician’s long supple fingers, a scop as his people called it, a wandering bard. Pip gave the minstrel and the swordswoman a look of loathing, wondering why she’d never realized how much they resembled a pair of laughing hyenas before; though objectively, they looked like the two battered thirty-something adventurers she’d known, and liked, and fought and fared widely beside for months now.

Deor and John had been playing a round of improvised tunes—jamming was the technical name for it—on John’s mandolin and Deor’s harp, a pleasant tinkling buzz that occasionally gave way to what she recognized as jazz. Uncle Pete liked that sound.

“You could be first rate, if only you didn’t waste time on being a Prince,” Deor said.

John snorted. “And why don’t you stay home and make music then, my friend, rather than roaming the whole wide world?”

“I needed things to make songs about. And now and then I must make seidh, to rescue Princes from ill-wreaking trolls, or swing a sword. Our time on Baru Denpasar certainly gave me materials I’ll be years working up!”

I’m extremely nervous about meeting the Queen Mum and it’s making me irritable, so maybe I’d better shut my cakehole, she thought. Let’s not take it out on the other kiddies, Pip, old girl. Buck up! You’ve fought pirates and storms and kept a crew of pretty rugged desperados well in line, and then dealt with what looked like bloody evil magic… well, no, what actually was bloody evil magic in Baru Denpasar. I don’t know what else to call it, even if it is too much like those pre-Blackout books Uncle Pete used to love so much, with barbarian swordsmen and busty wenches and such. And, well, being a little bit preggers is upsetting the balance of my… what did they call them before the Blackout… humors? No, hormones.

Another reason for her envy? Thora’s impressive and lanky height was tricked out in Bearkiller formal garb, which started with that little blue mark between the brows that was some sort of warrior-caste thing. But the clothes were a very sensible combination of knee boots, loose pants of dark maroon wool, linen shirt and fur-lined leather jacket of soft brown doeskin with a bear’s-head badge on it; all super premium quality, with touches like gold buttons on the coat and a silver Thor’s-Hammer pendant, and she carried her sword—a basket-hilted backsword—resting easily between her knees.

It all made Pip feel like a very gaudy Christmas-tree decoration in her new Associate court garb, overdressed and under-armed. You had to adjust your whole way of moving, and Pip wasn’t used to feeling gauche. Or adjusting anything she did for anyone.

That’s Princess Philippa Arminger Mackenzie, now, she reminded herself. Daddy will love it, almost as much as if I had gone to Winchester and snagged the giggling chinless third cousin of the King-Emperor. Mummy would have laughed herself silly over a gin and tonic and said I was a true Balwyn and always landed on my feet… in stolen shoes. Uncle Pete and Auntie Fifi will laugh themselves silly when they read the letters I sent back with the Silver Surfer, and so will King Birmo… and then he’ll wring everything he can out of the connection for Darwin and Capricornia, the evil old scrote.

The outfit she wore (and several others in the helpfully-provided luggage) had been scrounged from the very accommodating Mayor and Corporation of the Free and Loyal Chartered City of Astoria and cut and sewn and refitted by frantic day-and-night relays from the Seamstress’ Guild, which she’d endured with as much good humor as she could; at least it was partly made out of the gorgeous fabrics the suitably grateful Raja of Baru Denpasar had pressed on her. They called them cotte-hardies. They had a full skirt and fitted bodice and were they were surprisingly comfortable.

Astoria had been impressive. As big as Darwin, if colder, a gray city massively fortified against a hilly forested shore green and gray, and a gray sea and river bustling with shipping from all around the world, and riverboat and barge and rail traffic from the Columbia Valley and ringing with workshops and small factories, sawmills and shipyards and ropeworks—though also quaint, with all the half-timbered new buildings, which she supposed were practical in this climate. And the medieval-ish clothes, which ditto. Crowds had turned out to cheer John as soon as word got out that the lost Prince was back from heroics to rival his father’s and safe on the frigate Stormrider, almost as soon as the families of the crew had arrived on the quay amid laughter and tears.

Pip knew ships and cargo; she had successfully captained a trading schooner herself. Her father was heir to a realm whose capital was a busy seaport second only to Darwin and Hobart, and her mother had been a seaborne merchant-adventurer. She was the friend of King Birmo of Darwin and the unofficial niece of her mother’s friends Pete and Fifi Holder… who were currently heads of the Darwin and East Indies Trading Company, having worked their way up with her mother as very successful salvagers-cum-buccaneers.

They’d cheered her as well, since apparently the rumors about the exotic foreign bride were considered romantic in the extreme—the seamstresses had been very competent, but inclined to twitter and gush and sigh over John’s dreaminess, since the Troubadour Prince was a major heartthrob here, with girls putting his lithographed picture cut out of magazines with names like Tournaments Illuminated on bedroom walls and mooning over him.

John playing and singing at some lady’s knee in a castle solar dressed in slightly disheveled finery, John alone under a tree in loose shirt and tight hose dreaming and composing, John in armor at tournaments with some lady’s favor tucked into his breastplate, John kneeling before an altar and looking soulful…

All rather amusing… in a way, though in another way one is inclined to roll one’s eyes and possibly chunder up lunch. Which I couldn’t eat anyway because my stomach was clenched too tight and now I’m starving.

The two bureaucrats from the Lord Chancellor’s office had been oddly dressed—rather like a subdued form of the clothes you saw on playing cards, with a robed and tonsured monk as number three—but they’d also been as workmanlike in their way as the seamstresses in kirtles and wimples had been in theirs, and had extracted everything in jig time.

The news that she was expecting had produced a mild panic combined with exultation, whereupon they’d brought in a nun-doctor who had confirmed that yes, she had a bun in the oven though it was early days yet and everything was going fine, if God and His Mother were kind. Thora had privately snagged the medical sister on the way out, but nobody else had noticed since they were focused on her and John and apparently the local medical profession was very strong on patient confidentiality, possibly as a sort of penumbral spillover from attitudes towards the confessional.

Sometimes the report-takers had been inclined to choke on the exotic details of what had happened in Baru Denpasar off in the Ceram Sea, where the good… or rather bad… ship Hastur docked with the Pallid Mask as captain, and Carcosa rose in pink-and-white abomination on the shore like a tumor with the brooding presence of the King in Yellow looming above it trying to shape the world according to hellish dreams older than time. But Deor and Thora and John had backed her up on that from their varying perspectives, and unlike her they had plenty of local credibility.

And anyway, here in Montival they seemed to have more experience with evil sorcerer-lords and malignant otherworldliness than was common in Oz, where it was mostly rumors about foreign lands or things the Aborigines got up to in the lands they’d taken back. It did produce a temptation to run for some remote outback station and never ever ever leave again, but with her current run of luck she’d get sidetracked into the Dreamtime and have to live on witchetty grubs and honey ants for the rest of eternity, squatting over a fire on her hams while the grubs roasted on twigs.

You could tell from the questions that they already knew a good deal about Oz here, more than she’d known about Montival. There was a trickle of trade and apparently John’s maternal grandmamma had had a thing about collecting intelligence and it had stuck, locally, and the ones taking her story down were specialists.

The density of traffic on the Columbia and the way the network of heliograph stations had flashed the news before them had been even more impressive. Mirrors and sunlight were used back home too, but they had a backup system here of limelight—quicklime burning in a hydrogen-oxygen flame—for when it was dim or dark… which seemed to be a lot of the time.

The railways here were well kept up and equipped with things like the hippomotive—eight big horses on treadmills driving geared wheels—pulling this Royal train, which with relays kept them going at over twenty miles an hour. That was very fast indeed for overland travel; the only other way to do it was along a route with relays of riding horses at the stops.

Which means pounding your arse to sausage.

The Royal train was much more comfortable than that. Despite her complaints it was actually quite warm inside… if you thought sixty degrees Fahrenheit was a good indoor temperature; there were excellent incandescent mantle lanterns and even a hot-water shower in the rear car, and the food had been a welcome relief from shipborne rations when she wasn’t too wrought-up to eat.

Even more impressive than that, however, was the extent of the softly green-and-brown tilled land and cow-and-sheep dotted pasture and leafless but flourishing-looking orchards and vineyards surrounding manor houses and villages outside the windows, in the intervals between conifer-forested hills. It was the ultimate source of all wealth, after all, of which all others were at seventh and last merely symbols.

Montival held, or at least claimed and held in part, the western third of this continent from Baja to Alaska, which made it a bit smaller than Australia. Unlike Australia it wasn’t a rim of habitability clinging to the edges around an empty desert heart, and it hadn’t permanently split up into dozens of squabbling statelets either. John’s father had brought the local successor-states together a generation ago, and while there was supposedly plenty of ruin and wilderness here they did have nearly five million people—at least twice what Oz did. This great river and the valleys running into it were the heart of things, evidently.

And those castles… my God! Talk about picture books!

This subunit of Montival here was the Portland Protective Association, where Associates were the top-drawer and built castles and manors, and the rest were the common herd. Apparently Associate ladies didn’t wear swords on public occasions, though she’d already heard there were exceptions; she just didn’t feel familiar enough with the local customs to be one of them yet. She’d barely managed to hang on to her cane, a yard of black super-hard Ireng wood with grooved gold heads on both ends; which she privately called Bash ’em and Thrash ’em.

Fortunately Associate ladies all carried a knife much like their menfolk—again, some sort of warrior-caste thing—and the one she’d been given was a solid poniard with a ten-inch, double-edged blade of watered steel kept very sharp and a jeweled but practical hilt, which kept her from feeling entirely naked, although her mother’s twin kukri-knives would have been better.

Deor had hung up his coat and was comfortable in his long tunic of fine Merino twill dyed deep green, and embroidered with crimson and gold thread at hem and neck; an arm-ring of worked gold showed clearly around the sleeve, and his black breeks were cross-gartered below the knee above elegantly buckled shoes. There were silver-and-turquoise plaques on the belt that held his seax and Saxon-style broadsword, currently hung with his coat, and a silver-and-gold valknut on a chain around his neck, showing his allegiance to Woden, who was apparently Lord of poetry and music, as well as running a celestial retirement home for old soldiers complete with booze, bints and roast pork.

“You’re too bloody right, Pip!” the big man beside her said. “This makes Dunedin down in South Island look like fuckin’ Tahiti. And it bloody snows in sodding Dunedin, regular as clockwork, nearly once every year.”

Toa was very big—a full foot on her five-six—and very broad and very brown, including his stiff roach of hair drawn back through a bone ring, his eyes and his skin. It made a striking contrast to her gray-eyed, tawny-haired cat-build; Uncle Pete had once said she was a perfect Hyborian, whatever the hell that meant.

Usually Toa didn’t wear much but two feathers thrust into his topknot, a broad belt of patterned flax to hold his loincloth and knives, and a sort of short string apron before and behind. Almost all the rest of him was covered with a swirling pattern of tattoos, including his thick-featured face, contrasting with the scars he’d picked up in an adventurous forty-odd years. Perforce he’d left his broad-bladed seven-foot spear on the baggage rack above their heads, but he got to keep his personal ironmongery.

Pip smiled thinly. He hadn’t objected to wearing more than a breechclout in this climate, but his comments had been memorable when they’d offered him a getup like John’s—she’d taken a very quick lesson in the local terminology, courtesy of the Guild of Seamstresses—of skintight particolored hose, puffy-sleeved Robin Hood shirt with a drawstring neck, high-collared jerkin and a houppelande coat with wide dagged sleeves and a chaperon hat with a liripipe. Particularly at the sight of the shoes with upturned toes topped with silver bells; he was in a plainer version of Thora’s clothes now.

John looks scrumptious in that outfit, I admit, even with the jerkin and coat hiding his delectable bum.

“It snows five or six times a year this far north,” Deor laughed. “Much more than we have down in Mist Hills barony in Westria, where I come from; we see the white feathers once every few years.”

California, Pip thought.

Mist Hills was an odd little survivor’s colony tucked away just far enough north of the Bay that good luck and good leadership had brought it through the Change, and like many of those everywhere it had been founded by the extremely eccentric—it had been a time of madness, which gave the mad an advantage. She’d always thought of herself as an Anglo-Saxon with Norman antecedents, but Deor’s folk (a word they were extremely fond of) took the Saxon part very literally indeed, looking down on people like Harold Godwinson and Alfred the Great as mere deracinated cosmopolitan modernists.

North of where San Francisco used to be. They’ve got bad Biter… Eater… infestations there but my God, think of the salvage! Pete and Fifi would piss themselves at the thought of it.

“There is rain there in winter, but sun and fine spring-like days too, much of the time. Just enough frost now and then that we can grow good apples, and every other goodly fruit, as well as have fine vineyards. This is cold compared to where I was born… but Thora and I have seen Norrheim—”


“What they called northernmost Maine in the old world.”

Pip remembered maps and blenched at the latitude.

“Why’s it called that now? Apart from being very… northern.”

It turned out to be a bunch of Odin-worshippers washing down the moose-meat and potatoes with mead and ale.

“And we’ve been to England… and Iceland… and we spent a winter on the Trondheimsfjorden once. And it’s mild here compared to those.”

“Hela’s realm is mild compared to Norrheim in February, and the Icelanders eat rotten shark and mutton they call wind-cured because there isn’t anything else, but Norway was fun,” Thora said affectionately. “Once your body temperature dropped eight degrees and you learned to cross-country ski and you grew fur like a polar bear. I learned why the sagas have so much feasting on roast pork—you need the fuel!”

Thora and Deor had been mates in the Australian sense of the term since they were younger than her current twenty years, and as close to the other meaning as was allowed by the fact that they both preferred the company of men in bed; Deor’s lover, Ruan Chu Mackenzie, had temporarily parted company with them, off to someplace a little south to tell his family he’d be moving out. Together they’d literally been around the world; it made her recent adventures seem…

Well, not tame. But smaller-scale, and they were there for that as well.

Pip was reluctantly resigned to the fact that Thora was pregnant too, and from the same source—it had happened before John and she met.

The thirsty bastard. Well, it makes us a good match; it’s not as if shagging wasn’t a hobby of mine too.

She’d ruthlessly detached him, without much resistance, and suspected Thora had gotten precisely what she wanted out of it, and allshe wanted.

Still, I’m glad we all agreed to pretend it’s not so.

Thora went on complacently: “Now, Larsdalen, where I grew up down in the Willamette in the Bearkiller Outfit’s territory, is a perfect compromise—yes, we get the Black Months and nice crisp weather perfect for a good muddy boar-hunt and enough snow to be interesting. The summers are lovely and warm, but not too hot. Still”—

she glanced at Deor and smiled

—“Mist Hills will do. Good place to raise kids. And horses, on that land your elder brother gave us.”

“There are much warmer spots close to my home,” Deor said, taking mercy on her. “I’m sure Órlaith will give you and John an estate from the Crown lands in Napa to winter on, with olive trees and orange groves. There’s even eucalyptus trees. Some Associates have already settled there, along with Mackenzies and Corvallans and folk from Deseret and Boise.”

“That sounds… nice,” Pip said, a little grudgingly.

It did. Rather like, say, the Republic of Goorangoola in the Hunter Valley, which she’d visited with a friend from Rockhampton Grammar School for Girls in her teens.

None of them except she and John seemed upset at the prospect of meeting his mother, High Queen Mathilda Arminger Mackenzie. Objectively, Pip knew that New Mum wasn’t going to start screaming “Off with their heads!” though apparently John’s granddad on that side had been very given to that sort of thing, being a tyrant’s tyrant whose name still made people shudder. His grandmother Sandra had been if anything worse than her ghastly spouse, being considerably smarter as witnessed by the fact that he perished by the sword only ten years after the Change, while she died old, rich, powerful and universally honored and respected… or feared, as if there was a difference… and in bed of natural causes. And that people still glanced both ways and checked behind the curtains when they mentioned her name.

Objectively I know it’s going to be socially stressful at most. My emotions aren’t as convinced.

Then the train turned a long curve and Castle Todenangst showed ahead, rearing on its great mound with a few villages huddled about at discreet distances, and a road thronged with traffic even in the winter wet leading up to a massive gatehouse that was a fortress in itself. That helped to snap it all into scale for her; the people and wagons were like ants under the cyclopean bulk.

Bloody hell!” Pip blurted.

It wasn’t just that it was huge. She’d seen a few bigger buildings, but only as empty ruins of the ancient world, and this had been built since and was very much in use.

It was the fact that it had been built since the Change, a building the size of a town, that was a town as well as a fortress-palace; a great crenelated wall studded with machicolated towers topped with witch-hat roofs, and above that the towering curtain wall of the inner keep…

I’m thinking the word towering a lot, her mind gibbered.

… eighty feet and looking like more because it crowned a shaved-down hill and with more towers yet in its circuit, and above it all the two real towers…

There’s that word again.

… that made the others seem small—one of shining black tipped with gold, and the other gleaming silver. Banners flew from the roofs and from poles above tower and gate, and edged steel glittered wetly on the battlements. She could imagine the catapults and crossbowmen crouching behind the narrow slit windows….

Hardout fa!” Toa exclaimed obscurely; occasionally he reminded you he hadn’t grown up in the former Queensland, though the time he’d spent there had rubbed off on his accent.

Then he continued with a quotation: “Towers and battlements, tall as hills, founded upon a mighty mountain-throne above immeasurable pits; great courts and dungeons, eyeless prisons sheer as cliffs, and gaping gates of steel and adamant.”

At the surprised glances he went on: “Pip’s mum lent me the book.”

John sighed. “I think that was exactly what my mother’s father had in mind; hence the Lidless Eye as the Arminger arms. And the name of the castle.”

Pip didn’t speak any German, which was more or less a dead language in the modern world; the Change had hit very hard there. She did have enough to know that Castle Todenangst meant Fortress of Death-anguish.

John went on: “I never knew him, of course…. He and my other grandfather killed each other in single combat when my parents were still about ten. But my grandmother Sandra told me once he picked out the location and had this place planned even before the Change.”

With a grin that made her heart turn over: “It’s concrete and cargo containers underneath. The black marble sheathing on the Dark Tower and the white on the Silver Tower mostly came from some banks in Seattle. Granddad Norman laired there in the Enormous Black Phallic Thing… where else? And he was indeed a gigantic dick, to use an old-fashioned term, but it’s full of bureaucrats now, and parts of my grandmother Sandra’s art collection.”

“She collected?” Pip said; it seemed an unlikely occupation for Madame Tyrant.

“Yes, she…” John began.

“Plundered,” Thora cut in.

“Looted,” Deor supplied.

“Stole,” they said in slightly overlapping tones.

John cleared his throat. “Not stole, exactly. The owners were mostly already dead from the Change. Sometimes her expeditions had to fight the people who ate the previous owners. She was a fanatic about it, though, and carried off everything she could grab for decades.”

“The thing is bloody huge, though,” she said. “How could anyone have built this right after the Blackout… I mean, the Change?”

An embarrassed silence fell; embarrassed on the part of John, she thought, and more in the nature of tactful from Deor and Thora.

“My grandfather Norman… really wasn’t a very nice man,” John said at last. “Great, terrible, a genius with a deep vision, a devil in battle and a fine swordsman personally and cunning to a fault, but… not very nice.”

Or in translation, Pip thought, Norman was a murderous lunatic and built this with hordes of starving slaves dying under the whip and his architect probably sweated blood while he was making his reports and cried and grabbed a bottle and got totally legless afterwards. Oz was lucky, comparatively speaking.

And Darwin luckiest of all.

King Birmo just sort of talked people into helping themselves. And Mummy and Fifi and Pete got rich helping him do it.

Although, she would admit, the kukri blades her mother had bequeathed her did some fast talking in those days too.

The big State capitals like Sydney and Melbourne, and the areas within a couple of day’s walk of them, had died hard and gruesomely, but it was over quickly except for the degenerate gangs of Biters who haunted them to this day. Most of the outback and the smaller centers like her home in Townsville had pulled through without much strain, protected by sheer distance.

Townsville, home to a huge army base, and the center of the cattle industry, had skated through. Food and discipline, the magic totems to ward off any apocalypse.

And some places, Tasmania or the South Island of New Zealand, for example, hadn’t even gone particularly hungry, not having big cities to drain off the fruits of their agricultural hinterlands anymore, so that even drastically reduced production was more than enough.

There were more sheep than people in the outback of Oz. And more kangaroos than both combined. It was good eating meat of the roo, as long you spiced it up and didn’t dry the steaks out. Between the old farmers and the tribes, there had been plenty of lore to draw on about how to live well on bush tucker.

You just had to develop a taste for grubs and roots, was all.

Unless you were Lady Julianne Balwyn, of course.

My mother was on an airplane over the Great Barrier Reef when the Blackout hit! She survived the crash, the overland trek, a dustup with gang of “bikers” and not once, did she ever ever eat a bloody witchetty grub.

Pip glowed quietly with pride at the thought that her mother would approve of all that she’d achieved….

Lady Jules had been on the Reef partly as a tourist, but really as an extended vacation from England after a series of unfortunate financial misunderstandings between the authorities and her father.

We Balwyns can survive anything!

She mentioned the airplane, though not the fraud, and Thora grinned.

“So was Johnnie’s spear-side grandfather Mike Havel, the first Bear Lord of my folk, the Outfit,” she said. “He was piloting a small flying machine over the Bitterroot Mountains. That was a thousand miles away; we Bearkillers have epics about their trek west.”

One look at the walls of Todenangst told you they’d gone through a much rougher patch here after the Change than in her homeland. Trumpets blared as they passed through the thickness of the outer wall; it was a dedicated railway entrance, but when they rolled into the tunnel-darkness, if you squinted a bit you could see where massive steel slabs hung ready to slam down, probably stronger than the walls themselves and doubtless with various forms of lethal ingenuity of the boiling-oil and red-hot sand variety ready to shower on anyone trapped between them.

“Home. And back to living over the shop,” John said.

That surprised a chuckle out of her, and reminded her of why she’d fallen for him in the first place—besides the broad shoulders and narrow waist and long legs and flat stomach and dreamy brownish-hazel eyes and lovely shoulder-length brown hair and regular features and beautiful singing voice and very, very sensitive hands.

Pip found herself taking a deep breath and relaxing. Granted, it wasn’t quite the relaxation you’d expect before meeting friendly in-laws, and more the feeling she’d had on the quarterdeck of the Silver Surfer as they came coasting into catapult range of a proa full of unfriendly buggers waving blowguns and kris-knives, but at least she felt her self-control snapping back.

The train came out of the tunnel, up an incline that had the horses laboring and the gearing of the hippomotive whining on a deeper note, and rumbled to a stop. John rose, she saw him consider slinging on his lute and decide not to be the Troubadour Prince just now, leaving it for the staff to bring, and extended an arm to her instead.

“My Princess?” he said, after a brief kiss.

Pip laid her hand on his, and touched the jeweled fillet and net that bound her wimple to make sure it was still on straight. The people in Astoria had offered to find her a lady’s maid, or what they called a lady-in-waiting—in fact, they’d been politely at daggers-drawn with one another over the privilege.

And I can see that a wardrobe like this means you need help. But…

She’d equally politely declined and hinted mendaciously that Sovereign Mum-in-Law had reserved the choice, sensing that the post was an important bit of patronage, and one in which she’d need someone she could trust. Which she couldn’t from her present state of utter ignorance and clueless baffled alien strangerhood.

The wimple covered most of her tawny sun-streaked hair except for an artfully arranged fringe at the front, and enclosed the sides of her head and her throat, and fell down her back in a narrowing tail to almost waist-length. She’d thought it was silk at first, and it was… but very, very fine white silk lace rather than cloth, in a pattern of minute ovals with a narrow band of red and black embroidery along the edge. Like the rest of the clothing it at least had the advantage of keeping out drafts.

“How do I look?” she muttered to John.

He grinned. “Almost as dashing as I do,” he said, giving his sword-belt a hitch. “And together… we’ll knock their hose right off their legs!”

“That stuff does flatter a man’s nethers,” she admitted.

His knit hose were skintight, and showed off his long legs to perfection, leanly muscled but not thick. She’d been told that his looks favored his mother’s side of the family, and that he strongly resembled his grandfather Norman except that his face was longer. If so, Granddad must have been a handsome devil… in more senses of the word than one.

The door of the railroad car opened, sliding sideways on internal tracks, and a deafeningly loud Tarr-ta-ta-ta-rah! of trumpets just outside followed by multiple echoes made her blink and John sigh. The two-score of trumpeters on either side of the strip of red carpet were blowing long instruments with flags hanging from them, all very much in the playing-card style, as were their heraldic tabards.

The train had evidently gone under the outer donjon of the immense castle, with its barracks and workshops and armories and granaries and bakeries and whatnot built against the inside of the curtain wall, and right into the inner court. They stepped down, and there was a massive chunk as lines of guardsmen in black plate-armor slammed the butts of nine-foot glaives—like spears except with a head the shape of a long butcher knife with a curved hook on the rear—down on the flagstone paving.

A great arched roof supported by slender pillars on the outer side covered the spot where tracks stopped; a huge rain-swept open court flanked it on that side, paved with varicolored stone and spotted with clipped topiaries, leafless trees or trained cedars, and planters and great pots that probably had colorful flowers in season.

On the western and eastern sides of the court were the bases of the Silver and Dark Towers, each surrounded by three-quarter circles of stairs leading up to massive doors, and a series of great buildings with point-arched windows and doors and engaged columns and statues in niches. There was a smell of cold wet stone, wet wool from the crowds, and the faint tang of a piped biogas system; all the windows lit as they stepped down, and exterior globes on cast-iron stands that gripped them with the mouths of hawks or dragons; there must be some sort of clockwork ignition system, since nobody was running around with a Firestarter on the end of a pole. The yellow lights gleamed through the thin streams of rain, catching in wavering patches on edged metal or gilding or bright tile and brighter clothes.

It would be bloody inky here without those on an overcast night, she thought; she’d been in cities without lighting systems, and it was like being inside a closet with the added joy of running into hard eye-pokey things and stepping in wet, smelly disgusting things. Hurrah for technology.

The buildings included a cathedral—her mind filled in Flamboyant Gothic, courtesy of Rockhampton Grammar School for Girls and its art-history courses and her parents’ libraries in the town house and the country place. Then she noted it was an enlarged version of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, a fond pre-Change teenage memory of her mother’s who had collected equally pre-Change picture books that included several studies of it. The walls were a slender tracery of uprights dividing far larger vertical panels of stained glass and a giant rose window at one end, glowing like a jewel box in rainbow shapes right now with the interior lighting.

Though I think the solid parts of the walls are reinforced concrete covered in stucco and glazed tile. Doesn’t really matter, I suppose. Very nice!

She blinked again, doing a quick cost estimate on the great church structure; even allowing for the ease of salvage back then, and how much cement and rebar must have been lying around…

“How did you do the stained glass?” she murmured to John.

“In pieces over the years, as the workshops built up,” he said. “The last of it was finished in time for my confirmation, when I was about twelve.”

That was impressive, not least the determination involved. Either they were very religious here, or just very persistent, or both. An archbishop and a full train—including incense-swinging acolytes—were standing under the overhang at the tall doors covered in low-relief bronze, singing and generally projecting blessings at her. They’d probably be closer if it wasn’t raining.

John had warned her they’d probably have to have another ceremony there to mark the marriage and give the panjandrums of the Portland Protective Association a chance to attend, though nobody would dispute the one they’d had was ecclesiastically correct. Pip was an Anglican Rite Catholic, of course, and they were Roman Rite there, but both styles worked for the same boss off in the hills of Umbria these days.

And after what we saw in Baru Denpasar… and off in that weird evil whatever-it-was Deor took us through to get to Johnnie’s indubitably separated… soul, I suppose… I’m going to treat it all a bit more seriously. In the world as it is, a girl needs help from On High. The other side certainly seems to get it Down Low from their spiritual patrons! Though there’s all the manky mind-enslavement and degradation and living-death eternal suffering botheration they go through too.

If the weather had been better the greeting would probably have been in the courtyard, for the maximum audience—there were at least a couple of thousand people there anyway, braving the drizzle and the gathering darkness. More, those with higher rank or pull, lined the arched way to the semicircular steps at the base of the Silver Tower, kept back by the glaivesmen, and well-disciplined enough that the men-at-arms didn’t need to put the shafts level and push.

Pip blinked again; as they passed all the men except the guards went to one knee—the right—and uncovered and bowed their heads, and the women sank into deep almost-kneeling skirt-spreading curtseys with eyes downcast.

I suppose I could get used to this, she thought, and almost burst out laughing when she imagined trying to get the inhabitants of Darwin to perform in such a fashion. You were likely to get a pie chucked at your head.

It certainly wasn’t much like home. Even in staid Townsville ordinary people tended to be aggressively self-assertive, and in freewheeling Darwin… Jeez. It didn’t bear thinking about.

But I’m not absolutely sure I want to get used to it. It’s amazing how easygoing Johnnie is, if he grew up with this! It makes the sunny self-confidence more understandable, but it’s reassuring he didn’t turn out spoiled and arrogant.

John seemed to pick up on the thought; he was good at that.

“Don’t worry,” he said, hardly moving his lips at all and keeping up an occasional nod to either side. “This is much more formal than usual.”

They went up the steps between more of the motionless black-armored guards, looking disturbingly mechanical with their visors down and their shields blazoned with the creepy flame-wreathed Lidless Eye. This set had their longswords sloped over one shoulder, and as the couple went by they snapped them up before their faces in salute as they passed and then back to the slope, in a rippling motion as regular as if done by gears.

High Queen Mathilda Arminger Mackenzie stood waiting for her within a great room that spanned the entire ground floor of the Silver Tower, under an embroidered canopy with a clutch of ladies-in-waiting in the background, and officials lay and ecclesiastical. She glittered darkly in her cotte-hardie, but the face was ordinary until you saw the eyes in the wimple-framed face; middle-aged, slightly stout, a little darker than John and with the marks of recent grief and care.

John went to one knee and kissed the extended hand—which was incongruously roughened and bore old scars and nicks.

“My mother, my Queen, and my liege,” he said. “I have returned; forgive the prodigal, as Our Lord said in the parable.”

“Rise, my beloved son, in whom We are well-pleased,” Mathilda said warmly despite the formal language, and gave him an embrace and kiss on both cheeks. “No forgiveness is necessary on this happy, happy day!”

Then she covertly tweaked his ear sharply, prompting a well-stifled yelp and twitch.

“And that’s for running off with your sister and scaring me half to death!” she added in a non-carrying tone. “And getting yourself blown to God-knows-where and menaced by demons and evil magicians! There are some family traditions it’s better to let drop!”

Cheers broke out in the huge room and echoed off the carved plaster of the groin-arched ceiling high above. There was a subdued fumph! of flash-powder as photographers for magazines and newspapers did their business, providing material for the mezzotints and woodblocks that would grace posters and newssheets and papers and magazines all over Montival.

Pip sank into the deep curtsey that she’d been given a quick course in—not much different from the one they used in Winchester, at that; left leg forward, right back, heels in line, toes out, sink down with the torso upright, then incline forward as you used both hands to extend the skirt until you were almost touching the rear knee to the ground. Then she did the hand-kiss thing, which required a bit of juggling.

Thank God for Rockhampton Grammar.

“And rise, my newest daughter!” the High Queen said warmly, giving her a kiss on both cheeks too; she wore some mild flowery scent. “Greetings and welcome to the High Kingdom, and twice welcome to the House of Artos, Princess Philippa.”

Stone the crows and bugger the ducks, I am a Princess now!

More cheers, and then a quick address to the crowd: “. . . I ask your pardon, Gentles, as a mother who feared for her son that this evening be private and not an affair of State…” followed by cheers that made the roof ring.

Despite the plea, a little more bullock poop followed before they could get going, and Pip quickly filed the names—it was a useful talent and she’d worked hard on it.

There was a working elevator enclosed in a framework of gilded brass with accordion-pleat doors drawn aside by pages, and they all paced over to it between crimson ropes looped on stands and more guardsmen, through a cheering, bowing-and-curtseying (and photograph-taking) mob. It was the first she’d ever ridden in and it took a bit of an effort to be blasé as they lifted smoothly upward; it wasn’t crowded with the seven of them—the five who’d arrived, the High Queen, and a quiet but extremely clever-looking woman about a decade younger who was evidently her confidential secretary, or amanuensis as they said here, and stayed resolutely in the background but missed nothing and had a notepad ready to take dictation.

The cage went up smoothly; at her glance Thora pointed down: “Convicts in a giant hamster-wheel in the dungeons. Usually there’s music.”

“I had the carillon disconnected for the occasion, Mistress Garwood,” Mathilda said dryly.

Apart from Toa and Pip, everyone here seemed to be old acquaintances at least.

And Queen Mum is stuck with me. I hope… think, actually… she’s more than smart enough to realize that getting off on the right foot is her best option.

John held up his hands defensively as the High Queen turned to him. “I couldn’t help it, Mother! You know Órlaith can talk anyone into doing anything!”

Mathilda chuckled grimly and nodded.

“Well, she’s her father’s daughter… and you’re not so bad at it either. All’s well, John. And apparently, you’re presenting me with my first grandchild, too, for which I will forgive you a good deal.”

“Umm… yes, we are, Your Highness,” Pip said.

“Though it’s a minor miracle it didn’t happen earlier, and without the sacrament.”

Pip choked back a nervous laugh. Apparently, the Queen Mum had no illusions about her darling boy, and that remark was…

Too right, she thought. We didn’t know we were serious when the impregnation came along. I hadn’t noticed myself, Deor just picked up on it with that spooky thing he does.

“It…” she began.

Don’t tell me it ‘just sort of happened,’ child,” Mathilda said.

Pip clenched her teeth; she hadn’t intended to be quite that inane about it, but that was the gist of anything she could have said.

“I have five of my own, one not weaned yet, and I’m fully aware of how it happens. And in close company, style me Mathilda, I think. Or Mattie, if you like. Perhaps it’s a little soon for Mother, though I hope that’ll seem natural in time.”

“Pip, then… since we’re family… Mattie. Whether we like it or not….”

“So we’d better like it, shouldn’t we?”

Pip snorted, and met a raised brow that echoed the sentiment exactly. She liked this woman already… and the more so because she recognized exactly how she’d been manipulated into it, and how she’d been shoved slightly off-balance at the same time.

Then the High Queen gave Thora a fleeting glance that convinced Pip she was entirely aware of their arrangement about the unacknowledged second…

First, really. Month farther along than I am. Fertile little bastard, my Johnnie!

… pregnancy and very willing to keep it confidential.

The elevator went high enough that when it opened the windows at the ends of the cruciform corridors dividing the tower were actual windows rather than arrow-slits, though widely spaced; no practical siege tower or ladder could reach anything this high, even a first-class modern steel one driven by hydraulic rams. The guard-captain here was in half-armor, with a livery badge pinned to the front of his roll-edged chaperon hat, a blond good-looking man in his thirties who saluted and bowed smoothly. His second-in-command looked almost identical, except that he was shorter, darker and had slanted eyes.

“Ah, Lioncel,” Mathilda said to him. “Glad to see you back from the wilds of the Palouse. How’s my lord Count your father? And your good lady and the children?”

“My father’s still the pattern of knighthood and a bit of a fashion plate, Your Majesty,” he said. “But champing to be off overseas and most displeased that you won’t let him go. Azalaïs and the children are busy preparing Castle Campscapell for the Twelve Nights.”

“And you, Huon. My goodness, you look more like Odard all the time.”

They were presented as Viscount Lioncel de Stafford of Campscapell and heir to the County of that name, and to the Barony of Forest Grove; his second in command was Baron Huon Liu de Gervais.

God, these names! It’s like a historical novel…. Wait a minute, the names are mostly from actual historical novels. Though that was their parents and grandparents; I suppose to them it’s just their names. And what they’re wearing…. It’s not costume anymore, to them it’s just their clothes.

Lioncel added: “An honor to make your acquaintance, Your Highness,” to Pip, with Huon murmuring the same.

For a moment she blanked, her mind not translating Your Highness into me, and was panic-stricken at how exactly to respond. Then she copied John’s friendly nod to him and his second. Their attitude to John was respectful, but…

But they saw him growing up as a spotty adolescent and don’t subconsciously really regard him as an adult, she thought. Hmmmm. And he notices it.

“The Lord Chancellor, the Grand Marshal and my lady mother and the others await you in the Lesser Presence Hall, Your Majesty,” Lioncel said to Mathilda; Huon walked ahead to open the door and bow them in.

The ceiling of the corridors was high, fifteen or sixteen feet and covered in ancient-looking carved wood coffering, and the walls were smooth pearl-gray marble flecked with green. Glass doors at the end of one corridor led onto a broad balcony that must have spectacular views in good weather, but they were closed now and streaked with rain, beyond which was blackness like a velvet curtain.

Above their heads were bronze light-standards with softly hissing gaslights in frosted-glass globes, and there were niches between the widely-spaced doors along all four corridors. Those held an eye-catching assortment of art, pictures or small statues or things less describable. At first she was too tight-wound to more than let her eyes flick over them and note that they’d make this a fantastic place to loot…

Pardon me, salvage.

… but gradually they began to sink in as they passed. Darwin and Townsville held a good many treasures garnered from the lost cities by salvagers like her mother and friends, but nothing approaching this.

“Good God, that looks as if it was really as old as it looks,” Pip said, halting almost involuntarily before one for a moment.

It held a Madonna and Child done in an almost-Byzantine style, in egg tempura on wood with a gold-leaf background, but softer in outline, the play of light and dark colors revealing the figures underneath the heavy drapery in rounded three-dimensional life, with an inviting warmth that felt somehow compassionate. Swatches of precious fabric and jewels had been incorporated into the work, and it glittered softly.

“It was done about seven hundred and fifty years ago, in Sienna in Tuscany, by Duccio di Buoninsegna,” Mathilda said.

“How did it end up here?” Pip said, unable to keep a little awe out of her tone, and then added: “Mattie.”

“My mother Lady Sandra sent an expedition to Hearst Castle… that was a wealthy man’s palace in California before the Change, what’s Westria now… to salvage the artwork there, a few years after the Change. More than one expedition, actually, and she said to me once that she regretted not doing more, and earlier. And she swept up more from museums and galleries in the dead cities, and in abandoned mansions… paintings, books, statues, tapestries, the ceiling up above us here…. There are still warehouses full of it in Portland and the Crown castles, not counting what she gave out as gifts to nobles and the Church and the guilds…. I suppose she should have concentrated on saving people alone. But these things matter too.”

She gently touched the wall below another niche, this one a statuette of a warrior in a fantastic rayed feather headdress and jade earplugs, carrying a decorated shield.

“These things are people,” Pip said, carried away by the grandeur of it all.

Everyone looked at her. Curious. She blushed, but she was sure of this. It was something her mother had taught her, and something she had long felt.

“People come and go. We will all of us go back to the dust sooner or later. But this”—she waved a hand to take in the magnificent collection—“this is the legacy of the human race. It cannot perish from the earth.”

Her skin dimpled with gooseflesh and she saw a smile tug at the corners of Mattie’s lips. Blushing, she hurried on.

“It was why my mother, my uncle and aunt, why they took Royal Warrants of Salvage into the fallen cities. Not just for fortune and glory, but because it was the right thing to do.”

Mattie’s smile broke like a new dawn on her face.

“Oh, Sandra would have loved you. You’re going to do just fine here.”

She turned and waved her hand at another piece.

“This is Mayan—from Campeche, originally, and about twelve hundred years old. The jade in the next is a Guanyin, the Han Goddess of Mercy… not that Mother wasn’t a great patron of our modern artists and makers, too.”


Copyright © 2018 by S.M. Stirling