Chapter Six

Pip started; she and John shared a glance, with each other and with Deor and Thora, and Toa cursed under his breath again.

Mathilda looked at the note and frowned. “It’s listed in the archive as a book of fanciful tales by a man called Chambers, who wrote a century before the Change,” she said. “There are three other copies. But the head librarian, Lady Bruissende de Chehalis… she was a junior there at the time… handled the records when the gift bundle was made up and she says… and wrote at the time… that it was a play. And bound in strange gray leather, not like a pre-Change book at all or like the written record describing the binding. Her notes list it as having the figure of a masked man in yellow robes on the cover, and no author’s name at all.”

Silence fell. The four adventurers looked at one another again. John spoke:

“When we were… wherever we were… we heard a play of that name mentioned. Reading it always led to madness and death, and the King in Yellow mentioned in it… and the Pallid Mask, and Carcosa… they were there in Baru Denpasar. In the waking world, not in Shadow.”

Ignatius kissed his crucifix and murmured a Latin prayer. “I think, Your Majesty, that we should ban this play… or the book of tales that can apparently turn into the play that’s mentioned in the tales….”

“Turn into… mentioned in… my head hurts,” John said under his breath.

Pip nodded in sympathy; that was far too self-recursive for comfort and gave a queasy feeling of unreality to everything.

As if the world is spinning in circles and might disappear up its own arse with a wet plopping sound at any moment.

Mathilda frowned. “I don’t think we can ban it, under the Great Charter,” she said. “The Cardinal-Archbishop can certainly put it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum here in the Association territories, and I’ll ask him to—and urge him to—write to the Holy Father in Badia that the Church as a whole do the same, and we’ll forward our reports on the matter to them, and to friendly governments generally. And the head of your Order can do the same in Mount Angel. But the other member-realms of the High Kingdom… I certainly can’t do that on my own authority as High Queen under the Great Charter.”

“Mackenzies don’t hold with banning books of any sort,” Juniper said. “And raising a great stink about it will arouse curiosity, so it will.”

“Yes, Lady Juniper,” Ignatius said. “That is a real risk. But I think this is more than a book… or a play. Or at least it is in the world that the Change has given us.”

Deor had been lost in thought. “I think…. You know of that insect in the southern deserts, the one that digs a pit that is just too steep to climb out of?”

“Ant-lions,” Pip supplied. “We’ve… they’ve got them in Australia too. It’s the larvae that do it. Manky little things, if you imagine yourself the size of the ant that’s scrabbling to get out of the pit and knowing what’s down at the bottom.”

Deor nodded. “We had them in Mist Hills too; sometimes I lay and watched them on summer afternoons, as a boy. And I think that this book… this play… this thing, is like that. It is a digging through the wall of the world, or perhaps in the floor of the world would be a better way to put it. It lies in wait for human-kind….”

“For men’s souls,” Ignatius said.

Deor made a gesture of assent. “And if one falls into the trap… through ill-luck or a… an attunement of the self… then you become just such a trap for others. So it spreads and grows, in growing circles of madness and chaos, where all things become mingled… good and ill, life and death themselves. It is a Power of black evil, but not the same one behind our other foes. We have seen good takes many forms; why not the other?”

Mathilda frowned. “But the book of tales with the same name?” she said.

“That was written before the Change, when the walls between the worlds were thicker, stronger, when things were… flatter,” Deor said. “It was a reaching-through by the King, but into the most gossamer and elusive of things, a mind. He placed images into an imagination already attuned to the strange. Now, the walls thin, they grow weak, and the… the trap… becomes more itself. And seeks to warp all around it, to absorb all and become all.”

John leaned an elbow on the table and put his palm to his forehead. “That makes an unpleasant amount of sense after what we went through.”

Juniper Mackenzie looked at Deor, her head tilted to one side. “It’s a joy of a teacher’s life when her pupils surpass her,” she said. “I would be wishing that the occasion itself was a happier one.”

“We have to live in a world where such things are,” Mathilda said.

With a bitter smile: “I thought that when Rudi first drew the Sword of the Lady, on Nantucket. I didn’t know the half of it then. Now we need miracles.”

Ignatius smiled at her. “Remember, my daughter, that miracles don’t do the work for us. They open a possibility in the world, no more.”

Mathilda nodded assent and turned to her son: “Órlaith won a victory in Hawaiʻi… you know that?”

He nodded, and Pip did too; the news had been all over Astoria, just in via a naval courier, an odd-looking vessel of pre-Blackout…

Pre-Change, she reminded herself.

… pre-Change materials unearthly light and strong, a catamaran with sails of a fine hemp weave that mimicked some of the properties of the ancient sails and included a balloon spinnaker that she wouldn’t have believed possible if she hadn’t seen it. She wouldn’t have believed the speed, either, if she hadn’t seen similar vessels working the Gulf north of Darwin, and off Cairns and Townsville. Mostly they were toys for the rich, but they had their uses for commercial or government or military couriers, where the cargo was information and speed was all-important.

“Good for her, and Montival, and God speed the right,” John added.

“Amen,” his mother said. “But she says they’re going to need substantial reinforcements to tackle Korea itself. The war’s going to be bigger and cost more and take longer than we thought.”

Lady d’Ath chuckled like light bones and feathers rustling in a box. “Oh, and that’s such a surprise, since it’s never happened before in all the history of wars. Which is to say, all of history.”

Delia sighed. “I wish they’d never come up with that stupid Lady Death nickname, darling,” she complained. “Honestly, sometimes I think you’re trying to live up to it. At least you haven’t taken to cradling a Persian cat and giving evil laughs, the way Sandra did when they called her the Spider of the Silver Tower.”

John put his hands up in that don’t-blame-me gesture he’d used in the elevator again; Pip hadn’t seen it before then, but she realized she’d be seeing it again, as long as her mother-in-law lived.

“I have to go, Mother,” he said. “I’m a knight, I’m the right age, I’m of House Artos, I can’t not go, the nobility here in our PPA fiefs would never respect me again if I didn’t.”

“No, you must,” Mathilda said, obviously unwillingly, and obviously too smart and too conscientious to let her emotions matter. “Whatever other weaknesses the Associates have, tolerating shirking in battle isn’t one of them. I think that’s why my father accepted Mike Havel’s challenge to single combat, back when I was a child—because the lion eyes he’d created and trained himself were on him, and he couldn’t do otherwise.”

Watch out for this one, Pip, the new Princess told herself. Watch yourself around her, always. She’s the most ruthless sort of all—driven by duty.

“That’s precisely right,” Thora Garwood said. “And the Bear Lord knew it and was counting on it.”

Then the High Queen smiled, a slightly evil expression. “But you won’t be going anytime soon, John. If it’s going to need more mobilization, which will take some time…”

She glanced at the Grand Marshal.

“Oh, it will, Mattie. The victory will help keep people enthusiastic… but there’s the logistics. We’ve got hulls building on every slipway from Vancouver Island to Newport and new yards just coming up, but that takes time; fitting out and working up and training crew. And it would be better if we waited until after the winter wheat harvest is in, too, and threshed and a lot of it baked into field biscuit; we’re already salting down and smoking and canning a lot of meat and fish and drying vegetables and whatnot, and shipping remounts and equipment and fodder pellets and the like across the ocean. That will give more time for troop-training… especially large-scale maneuvers… and accumulating weapons and gear, as well. Say… September.”

“Which means there’s no reason Órlaith shouldn’t come back in the interim,” Mathilda said.

D’Ath’s thin pale brows went up. “Is there a reason she should? Admiral Naysmith and General Thurston are both good, but unity and continuity of command are important. Especially as other heads of state are involved. They need someone they won’t be too insulted to take orders from.”

“Yes, there is a reason, and it’s political. I intend to abdicate as High Queen in her favor, and we need to hold the ceremony at Lost Lake. Preferably a crowning at Dun na Síochána too.”

John gave her a stricken look, and there was a rustle as everyone else looked at her too.

She chuckled: “I said as High Queen, boy. I’m only High Queen by marriage to your father; Órlaith inherits automatically anyway when she turns twenty-six, which isn’t that far off. I’m Lady Protector of the Association by right of birth, so you needn’t look as if I was going to expect you to do that one just yet.”

“But you’re a fine High Queen, Mattie!” Delia said. “And you were Rudi’s right hand and other half, ever since the war! Well, since the Prophet’s War, I suppose we should say it that way now.”

“I can help my daughter, too,” Mathilda said. “She’ll be abroad at first anyway. But we need a High Queen who’s not an Associate on the throne now; the Association is just too disliked and feared in many quarters, and that would get in the way of prosecuting the war—someone would be sure to say it was a plot, and people will always believe the worst of those they fear. And a High Queen who’s not a Catholic and who wears a kilt and sounds like a Mackenzie doesn’t hurt either, though it pains me to say it. Unlike the Association, Mackenzies are popular nearly everywhere because they’re not a threat.”

“Well, I like that!” Juniper said. “And the fact that we don’t go about attacking people has nothing to do with it?”

“That’s a matter of perspective, Juniper. But it’s a fact that we need to keep the houppelandes and coats-of-arms in the background as much as we can.”

She steepled her fingers and rested her chin on the tips. “I’m reasonably popular but I’m also Norman Arminger’s daughter and I’m an Associate. And now you’re back, John, with a bride, and you’re very much an Associate… and young and newly married with an heir on the way.”

“I don’t…. Wait a minute. Mother, that’s why you had me come here to Todenangst, rather than the capital, isn’t it? To avoid reminding people that I might, God forbid it, become High King if Órlaith falls without an heir?”

“See, you can think when you try, boy. If you became High King you might reign for forty or fifty years and pass the throne on to children and grandchildren who were Catholics and Associates too.”

“Mother, if there’s one thing I want less than being Lord Protector of the PPA, it’s being High King of Montival!”

“Yes, and I believe you. If only because you’re lazy and you know how much work it is.”

John made a gargling sound and she smiled and patted him on the shoulder before going on, all seriousness once more:

“Too many won’t believe it. Too much of the realm remembers the old wars, and we can’t afford to make it look as if the Association has won by birth now what it couldn’t take by sword and lance then. I pray for Órlaith’s life every day as a mother, but also as a monarch. I don’t know if the High Kingdom could stand an Associate monarch by right of birth.”

“Ah,” d’Ath said. “You always were better at the politics, Mattie. And with a war on, the Association will bulk larger anyway, our nobility are fighters, when they’re not drinking and hunting and fornicating. And I’m an Associate too, and in wartime the Grand Marshal actually gives people orders a lot; it’s a nice quiet behind-the-scenes planning job in peacetime.”

Mathilda sighed. “I only wish… God and His Mother and Saint Michael protect her, but we have to think of the Kingdom… if only Órlaith could leave an heir of her body coming before she went back to war….”

D’Ath raised a brow. “Your Majesty, it just doesn’t work that way. The foam-born Cyprian knows I’ve tried….”

“Tiph!” Lady Delia said indignantly in a half-screech, before dissolving into giggles.

Even Mathilda laughed this time, though a little reluctantly; only Ignatius cleared his throat and looked away.

“Yes, this is wisdom,” he said then.

He rose for a moment and bowed deeply.

“My most profound respect, Your Majesty. Yes, this is a good plan and best for the Kingdom. As Lady Juniper said, it is a joy to a teacher to see a pupil excel.”

Mathilda’s smile was fond, but with an underlying hardness.

“Father Ignatius, I had my mother to teach me politics as well; I learned much from you, but I think of you as the one who trained my conscience as much as my wits. Take credit, if you will, for making me someone who doesn’t convince themselves that keeping power in their own hands is always their duty.”

He smiled. “And that tempts me to the sin of pride as well, my daughter. Though if I know the Crown Princess, she won’t like your inspiration a bit.”

Mathilda nodded decisively, and spoke to her secretary: “Lady Bricet, draft a report for the Crown Princess incorporating our information from Prince John and his companions, and summoning her home for… call it consultation. I’ll read and annotate your first draft tonight.”

“And we can tell her she needs to get a grip on the second wave troops,” d’Ath said. “That’ll actually be useful, because it’s true and she’ll know it.”

Mathilda signed agreement with the comment:

“Be polite, Bricet, but make it plain I will brook no disobedience… and yes, another to Empress Reiko, inviting her to consulttoo. Lady d’Ath, have your office draft a report for forwarding to the Crown Princess with the same dispatches, outlining your plans for further mobilization—emphasize that Órlaith’s needed for that, too. My Lord Chancellor, I’ll want one from your office as well for Órlaith’s eyes, outlining the costs of what we’re doing. And the three of us will consult the next few days over the necessary moves with the Congress of Realms and then fill her in on the politics.”

She was silent for a moment, then went on thoughtfully: “We can use this to push as many as possible of the Realms on the King in Yellow matter too. Make it plain that it’s not a matter of banning a book because we Catholics find it blasphemous, but that it’s an active threat to human life and the Realm in wartime.”

Juniper sighed. “I’ll add my voice to that. Reluctantly.”

“Wooosh,” Pip murmured under her breath.

John cocked an eye at her. Told you, it seemed to say; but she didn’t know if he saw quite how formidable his mother was. He didn’t have her perspective….

The High Queen’s brown eyes turned on her. “And Pip, I’m giving you into Lady Delia’s hands. She’s been my Mistress of Ceremonies for… great God, Delia, is it a quarter century now?”

“And a bit, Mattie.”

“Well, Pip, she is Mistress of Ceremonies, and this right here is a very ceremonial part of the world. And Delia’s one of our arbiters of fashion.”

“Not so much anymore, Mattie. That’s a younger woman’s position and I’m a matron now, not a reigning beauty.”

“But you’ve still got your finger on the pulse of it. Also she’s the mother of four, all of whom turned out very well, and you’re going to need someone to fill in for your mother about that and I’m going to be too busy… I understand your own mother has passed on?”

“Yes… Mattie.”

There was no need to add that Lady Julianne Balwyn-Abercrombie had had about as much maternal instinct as a hungry dingo, or possibly a salt-water crocodile, which was part of the explanation of why she hadn’t married until late in life and why Pip was that rare modern phenomenon, an only child. They’d gotten on splendidly, but only after Pip was able to walk, talk and control her own bodily functions. Until then she’d been in the hands of servants.

“Lady Delia will be very useful to you in that respect too, then… and there’s nobody in the realm better informed on the decisions you’ll have to make in establishing your own Household, now that John’s not a bachelor anymore… and of course we’ll need an affirmation ceremony to placate all those people who have their noses out of joint they didn’t get to attend the wedding of the generation.”

John smiled with relief. “I’m glad you’re not worried about their rage at not having their prize heifers… pardon me, their beloved daughters… married off to the prize bull… pardon me, me.”

Everyone laughed at that except d’Ath; even Ignatius chuckled.

The Chancellor spoke: “Call it an equality of dissatisfaction, Your Highness.”

“Just so,” Mathilda added. “None of them get the prize, but none of them are enraged to see a rival get it either; that was giving me nightmares. And as a matter of principle, I’m not eager to encourage arranged marriages. And her personal qualities aside—I trust you on that, John, and frankly you’re the one who has to live with her, and vice versa—Pip’s perfect for the future Lord Protector’s consort. Catholic, granddaughter of a sovereign with another as a patron, excellent blood on her mother’s side too, that even gives us a link with the King-Emperors in Greater Britain, young, healthy, intelligent…”

Mooooooo,” Pip said, imitating a heifer.

She kept her own expression deadpan, but this time even d’Ath laughed. When it had died down, Mathilda finished briskly:

“Órlaith belongs to the whole High Kingdom, but Pip’s going to be the Lord Protector’s lady eventually, and it’s the Association you need to know first, from the ground up. Delia is perfect for that.”

“I’ll be glad of the advice, Mathilda,” Pip said, very carefully. “And I’m looking forward to working with you, Lady Delia.”

Delia and the High Queen both looked at her with knowing smiles.

“Meaning you’ll listen to advice, which is worth its weight in gold, and then make your own decisions,” Delia said in a pleased tone. “Good for you, my girl!”


“Your mother’s quite something,” Pip said thoughtfully as she combed out her hair.

They’d both switched into lounging robes of thin fine wool, green for her and dark blue for him. The heating system kept the place at the locally comfortable sixty degrees or a little more, and there was a psychologically cheering fire crackling in the hearth. The bedroom rug did its best to imitate an Impressionist version of a flowering meadow in spring over pretty but chilly tile, and the walls were mostly oak paneling, which helped to make you forget you were in a piece of monolithic cast concrete.

John had been a bit startled when they were shown to a suite that was not the one he’d used as the…

Bachelor Pad of the Dreamboat, and probably Tomcat, Troubadour Prince, Pip thought with a slight smile.

More of Mathilda’s tact, or possibly Lady Delia’s. I think I’m going to like her, and she’ll certainly be very, very useful. And do not be in the least fooled by Delia’s bouncy-beauty-fashionista thing. It may have had some truth when she was eighteen and setting her cap for the dashing young knight. Now there’s a very experienced mind there and this is her environment, not yours.

John’s valet-cum-bodyguard Messer Evrouin had come on ahead posthaste from Astoria and had been on hand to help him out of his court dress, assure him that his gear had been moved up here, set out the nibbles and drinkables, and discreetly fade out. Somehow a set of clothes in her size had mysteriously appeared as well, complete with riding and hunting outfits that for some reason closely resembled what (male) samurai wore: short kimono and broad hakama trousers like a divided skirt.

“Darling?” John asked as she chuckled.

“It’s… just that I’m having trouble convincing the underneath-part of my mind that I’m not traveling anymore. I’ve arrived. Time to mentally unpack.”

For a while, at least. But I’ll be popping out the heir long before Johnnie goes off to war… from the way they were talking about bringing Órlaith home and waiting until after the next harvest is here, roughly September… and we’ll see if I have more maternal instinct than Mummy did. I doubt it, somehow.

This suite was obviously designed for a couple, with changing rooms flanking the bedroom with its four-poster, a bath arrangement of which she thoroughly approved—large sunken marble tubs were a Balwyn weakness, and the shower setup with its multiple nozzles and sliding walls of cast glass etched in designs of waterfowl and reeds had definite possibilities. There were sitting and reception rooms and two generously sized study-libraries, and a balcony the size of a small room itself, made of cast aluminum terminating in eagles with interlinked wings, which would be very pleasant when it wasn’t cold and, as now, pitch-black outside except for the lights of the castle-town and the fainter glow of nearby villages.

Just the place for an alfresco tea or whatever.

Speaking tubes and bellpulls would fetch anything you wanted.

It’s a bit like a luxury hotel. Possibly because a lot of the features were looted from luxury hotels and spas, she thought.

Of course, Todenangst had been built before modern crafts were up to the job and salvage was cheap here, because several of the large pre-Change cities like Seattle and Vancouver and Eugene were actually under government control and could be outright and systematically mined, rather than be the target of hit-and-run raids from a distance by small bands of adventurers, the way it was back in Oz.

Then she looked at the walls; there were a couple of actual pre-Raphaelite paintings including The Prioress’ Tale and Veronica Veronese, which John had said he’d gotten for his sixteenth birthday because it was about musical composition; the rich greens and velvety textures were incomparably different from even the best pre-Change photograph.

And a clunky-looking chair on a pedestal in a corner incredibly enough was a genuine William Morris, with his panel The Arming of a Knight on the seat-back; nobody would be putting their bum on that ancient English oak anytime soon. And not just because it looked magnificently uncomfortable in that wonderfully arrogant damn-your-eyes Victorian British way that expected you to sacrifice your buttocks gladly in the cause of Art with no insolent back talk to your betters.

Make that like living in a luxury hotel crossed with a museum.

“Unpack and start acting as if this was home? I know what you mean,” he said. “Though we were always traveling when I was younger—as my father liked to say, if your government’s going to culminate in a person, people have to get to see him sometimes. Saint Christopher, but we got dragged everywhere! In tents, a lot of the time, and to places where they’d lost the habit of washing.”

“You won’t have to tour that much?”

“No, thank God. And here in the Protectorate, we have the City palace in Portland, and manors and hunting lodges. And sometimes Mother keeps over-mighty nobles under control by visiting them.”

Pip raised a brow. “That works how?”

“Expense. It’s an honor to get a Royal visitation—no matter how much of the Court follows along and how ruinous it is to put on the fiestas and feasts and tiger-hunts and tournaments and whatnot. None of them can resist trying to out-splendorific their rivals; and then Mother sends in accountants to make sure they don’t try to up the squeeze on their vassals.”

Pip laughed. “That’s… diabolical!” she said. “I like your mother.”

“I think she likes you.” He said more seriously: “I’d have defied her if she didn’t, Pip. But frankly I’m glad I don’t have to live up to that resolution after all.”

Pip laid down the hairbrush and smiled, looking at him out of the corners of her eyes.

“And now that we’re not traveling in cramped, uncomfortable, no-privacy ships anymore… is this the honeymoon?”

John rose and made a sweeping bow that ended with him sweeping the robe off and tossing it aside.

“My lady… shall we essay the experiment?”


Copyright © 2018 by S.M. Stirling