Argo Weaver stood in the doorway of the bedroom and pointed the pistol at his stepfather. The two-shot horse pistol, with its long twin barrels and two hammers, was heavy, but his hand was steady and his aim did not falter. Argo Weaver's stepfather snored softly. To say that his mother slept next to the man was an exaggeration. She slept in the same bed, as she had done since Argo's father had been confirmed killed, but she was turned away from the man, as far from him as was physically possible to be and still remain under the same covers. When Argo fired, she would wake screaming. She would be terrified. She might even be spattered by her loveless husband's blood. The effect on his mother, as Argo could picture all too clearly, would be devastating. He had imagined the scene he was now acting out a hundred times since the man called Herman Kretch had come to their house. He would cock both of the pistol's hammers. He would slowly squeeze the first of the triggers, and, in the flash and report, payback would be exacted for all the cruelties large and small that Kretch had inflicted on Argo, his mother, and his sisters. Over and above the personal, to murder Kretch while he slept would also serve as a just punishment for the crime of being a collaborator.
With his left hand, Argo eased back the first of the hammers. The double click-click wasloud in the night, and the tone of his stepfather's breathing changed for a moment. He shifted position slightly, but did not wake. Argo waited for a few moments, just to make sure, and then slowly cocked the second hammer. The pistol had been made by George and James Bolton of Jamestown. That information was engraved on the left-hand barrel, and it was dated according to the old Mother Goddess calendar, the use of which had been forbidden since the Mosul occupation and the coming of the men from the Ministry of Virtue. According to his stepfather, it was a type of small-bore, double-barreled pistol known as a "cuckold's special." Although, as far as Argo knew, Kretch had never used the gun since he came to their house, he liked ostentatiously to clean it, sipping 'shine and acting the big man. As he ran a strip of oiled rag down one of the barrels and tightened the dual spring mechanisms with a small screwdriver, he had explained to Argo why the weapon had been given such a name. "You shoot her, and then you shoot him, and then, if you feel like it, you reload and shoot yourself
." But Herman Kretch was not the kind to shoot himself. He held his miserable life in far too high regard.
With the pistol cocked, Argo again took aim, but his finger did not immediately go to a trigger. This was the point beyond which his imagination was increasingly less clear. After the shot, he knew he would run, but what of his mother and two sisters? Herman Kretch was their sole support. The large, raw-boned man with the pot belly, red face, and muttonchop side-whiskers might be a bully, a braggart, and an occasional drunkard, but, for the three women Argo would have to leave behind, life would become close to impossible without him. The Mosul, the Ministry men, and the collaborators who ran things in the occupied territories showed no kindness to the widows and orphans of their defeated enemies and had scant tolerance for those who did. Herman Kretch might be a swine as far as Argo was concerned, but he was not a liar. He had made it very clear when he had proposed marriage to Argo's mother that it was not to be a union of love or even affection. He wanted a strong woman to cook and clean for him, to fetch and carry, and to warm his bed. That she was good-looking only made it an added plus, and that she came to him with three children presented no real problem. Argo, Mathilde, and Gwennie were of an age to be useful, and it made them a source of unpaid labor in these dark times when the conquered worked from morning to night and, even so, barely survived. They were three pairs of extra hands to be exploited in the fields, to help with the livestock, and clean up in the workshop where Herman Kretch repaired boots, shoes, and other leather goods for the Army of Occupation. Argo's stepfather not only kissed the boots of the Mosul, but he mended and shined them, too, along with their saddles and harnesses. He was equally pragmatic and open about his collaboration. "Hassan IX and his Mosul will take it all in the end. Carolina has gone, and the Virginia Freestate, too. Albany can't hold for long on its own. We may not like it, but Hassan is the future, and we better buckle down and get used to it
Without even Kretch to protect them, his mother and sisters could all too easily become three more refugees in the woods and wild places, wandering aimlessly without papers until they starved or worse. Although the worst of the atrocities that had occurred in the direct wake of defeat had been mitigated, the woods were still full of deserters, fugitives, the displaced, and the migrant crazy, as well as the regular Mosul patrols (who fired first and rarely bothered to ask questions), the Indians, who moved like ghosts, and the ghosts themselves. Under Mosul rule, women on their own were vulnerable from every side. Without even the meager rights accorded to the males among subject peoples in the Empire of Hassan IX, carpetbaggers and scallywags could seize their homes and property. The young and comely might simply disappear to serve as an officer's concubine or in the bordellos, cribs, and joyhouses of Savannah and Newport. The old would find themselves driven out to die in the rain. Rape was still a popular pastime among the Mogul grunts, the Mamaluke troopers, and Teuton uhlans
, although they were now restrained by their captains from the pillage and razing of all but the occasional village or small town. Worst of all, any woman could be fingered as a witch on the most flimsy pretext and hanged if they were lucky, or put to torture and then burned alive if they were not.
The entire chain of events that had led to Argo Weaver standing over his stepfather with a loaded gun and a murderous if wavering resolve had started when, earlier that day, the Ministry men and priests of the Zhaithan had burned Gaila Ford for heresy. The execution by fire of Gaila Ford was by no means the first witch-burning in the village of Thakenham. Even with a population of less than three hundred, the place had still apparently harbored a major complement of women who were deemed by the Zhaithan Ministry of Virtue to constitute a threat and abomination to the Twin Deities, Ignir and Aksura. The burning of Gaila Ford, however, had been invested with a certain significance. The villagers had talked of nothing else for the two weeks since she had been taken, denounced with full ritual by the Masked Informer, and arrested by the Ministry men backed by a squad of Mosul soldiers from the garrison at Bridgehampton. The collaborators expressed a general opinion that it was a miracle she had survived for so long. Those, like Argo, who had as little to do with the Mosul as they could, held their silence and contained their anger. Argo had known Gaila Ford well. How could he not? Her husband, Henry, and Argo's father, Jackvance Weaver, had gone to the war together. They had enlisted in the same company of the 9th Virginia Freestate Volunteers and had by all accounts died together in the final doomed attempt to hold the Mosul horde at Richmond. Ford had been what was called a handsome woman. She was too mature to be taken as brothel fodder to Savannah, but even Argo, at just fourteen, was well aware that she turned the heads of many men and set them to wondering what she did in her cottage of an evening, all alone, widowed and childless but still obviously in her prime. That alone might have been enough to get her denounced, but worse still, she made it clear to all, in deed if not in word, that she still considered herself a freewoman of the Americas and not a second-class subject of the Mosul Empire.
A number of men had proposed marriage to her just as Herman Kretch had made his overtures to Argo's mother. Without children to consider, she had dismissed these offers out of hand. Apparently she wanted nothing to do with the cowards, gimps, and snivelers who, for their own reasons, had avoided the call to serve. Argo suspected that she might have wed either Jed Pett or Struther Broad, the only two men to return to the village alive, but seemingly neither of the shattered survivors had asked her to take them. Gaila Ford had been well liked by most. She rarely complained, seemed capable of remaining cheerful in impossible situations, and had proved a tower of strength during the winter sickness a year and some earlier. Any one of these qualities would have brought her to the attention of the Ministry of Virtue, and the entire list was more than enough to bring her finally to the flame. Argo loathed to agree with the collaborators, but it really was a miracle she had remained alive and free, at least in her own mind, for as long as she had.
The wood of her pyre had been piled at the north end of the village square, in front of where the church of the Mother Goddess had once stood, and where the Mosul now had their fire tower. The priests of Zhaithan were great believers in lessons taught by example, and the entire village would be assembled in the square, by force if necessary, to witness the prolonged and agonizing death. The only exceptions would be the children and teenagers under fifteen. This was not because the priests or the Ministry men sought to preserve any childhood innocence. They had simply learned by experience in their two centuries of conquest that children were too unpredictable and could be a potential for disruption of the solemnity of the ritual putting-to-death. The younger teenagers were excluded for similar if slightly different reasons. The priests also knew that the boys and girls already passing through the confused rage of puberty were one of the deepest repositories of resentment against the occupation, and if any futile protest was to occur, it would be the young who triggered it. Too full of life fully to grasp the true and absolute reality of death, they were less easily deterred by the muskets and bayonets of the soldiers.
Not that the young of the village could really be prevented from watching the burning of Gaila Ford. It was just that they would not be standing with the adults. Instead, they would be peering through gaps in the shuttered upper-floor windows of the houses around the square. They would be squatting precariously on the thatch or tile of the higher roofs or wedged between trunk and bough of the taller trees. Argo was among the latter. He had hidden himself, along with Will Steed and Jason Halfacre, in the big oak at the other end of the village street from where the flame would be lit. The three of them were in place well before the villagers began to gather and the collaborators checked the parish rolls and the lists of residents to see that none were deliberately staying away. The checking was hardly needed, however, since the morbid attraction of the brutal spectacle was more than enough to overcome any principled and dangerous boycott of the execution. Even those whom Gaila Ford had nursed through the two great bouts of winter sickness would stare transfixed as she died.
Argo's stepfather had specifically forbidden him to go anywhere near the square or the burning. "The rules are the rules, boy, and, while I personally think it might be an education to you to see the Ford woman get what's coming to her, the rules come first
." Accordingly, Argo had been dispatched with a shovel and a rake to clear the dead leaves that were clogging the ditch at the north end of the top field. In a charade of obedience, Argo had headed for the top field with the designated implements, but only remained by the neglected ditch long enough to hide the tools in the long grass before heading for the village to where he had arranged to meet Will and Jason. He took the long way round so he would not accidentally meet his father along the shorter route. He considered going to watch the burning as an act of open rebellion, but he was still doing all he could not to be caught. Under normal circumstances, Herman Kretch would not have given a damn whether Argo watched the execution or not, but ever since Gaila Ford had been denounced, his behavior had been tense and strange. He had seemed more angry and impatient than usual, and Argo had wondered about this. Herman Kretch was not one to be unduly upset by anything like a witch-burning that did not affect him directly, and Argo could only suppose it was nothing more than coincidence. Then, just two days earlier, he had overheard two women gossiping as they waited on the interminable line for their weekly flour ration. A story was apparently circulating that his stepfather had been the Masked Informer who had denounced Gaila Ford, and he had done it because she had rebuffed his advances when he had gone to Ford's cottage one 'shine-drunk night, looking for an alternative bed partner to Argo's mother. Argo hated his stepfather but still found this hard to believe. And how could these women know? The identity of the Masked Informer, with hidden face and in the shapeless robe that dragged along the ground and disguised physical build and even gender, was supposed to be known only to the priests. Argo tried to listen longer, but the women had seen him and lowered their voices.
The tree that the three boys had selected was a tall and venerable oak on which village lovers had, in happier times, made it a practice to carve their linked initials. It was at the opposite end of the square from where the execution would take place, and it afforded them a better view than that of many of the adults on the ground. Argo, Will, and Jason had arranged to be in position early, well before the majority of the villagers had arrived, so they would not be spotted clambering into the high branches. They had lain and stared through the late summer foliage as the square rapidly filled with drab and ragged people who seemed to carry their air of defeat around with them like a collective shroud. As the crowd entered the square, the men went to the right and the women to the left. He saw his mother and stepfather dividing and going their separate ways. The onlookers were strictly divided by sex, and even couples had to separate until the burning was over. This segregation was enforced at all Zhaithan gatherings and assemblies. Argo had never understood why this had to happen, and no one older had ever been able to give him a reason, but many things ordered by the Mosul conquerors had no discernable reason except maybe to degrade and humiliate those under their rule. The women in the square far outnumbered the men, but that was the way of it in the wake of the terrible slaughter that had come with the Mosul invaders. The Mosul also tended to take their time where subject peoples were concerned, and, by Argo's estimate, the crowd had been kept standing in silence for at least a half hour before Gaila Ford was finally brought out from the two-storey building on the northwest corner of the square that, in the old days, had been the constable's station and the village lock-up but was now draped with the black flags and the red flame insignia of Hassan IX and served the local office of the Ministry of Virtue.
Many who had been held by the Ministry men for a full two weeks had to be carried to their deaths, but Gaila Ford emerged walking, wearing the paper shift and headdress of the condemned heretic. She had undoubtedly been repeatedly tortured during her imprisonment, but, although plainly weak and unsteady, she seemed determined to go out standing tall. A red-robed priest kept pace on either side of her, and two lines of soldiers flanked her as she was led to where the wood was stacked around the base of the iron A-frame and the metal ramp that led up to it.
* * *Abomination
* * *
For a moment she faltered. One of the priests gripped her arm to steady her, but she shook free. With what had to be the very last of her strength, Gaila Ford was plainly demonstrating to them all, including her anonymous betrayer, that she had not been broken, even by the Ministry torturers. Argo could feel tears welling up in his eyes, but he quickly wiped them away before either Jason or Will noticed. She mounted the ramp that led to the hideous scaffold of blackened metal, and then stood in front of the instrument of her destruction, motionless, with her back to the chanting crowd. The two priests followed Gaila Ford up the ramp. One quickly turned her around while the other beckoned to a pair of already-designated Mosul soldiers to come and secure the chains at her wrists, waist, and ankles that would hold her in place for the consuming fire. Her arms were stretched above her head and her legs pulled apart so her body conformed to the up-pointing triangle of the scaffold. Gaila Ford neither resisted nor made any further protest. She had gone to her end with all the dignity that she could summon, and now she seemed resigned. Once her chains were locked, a third soldier moved forward with a red-painted can of kerosene. He thoroughly doused the wood at Gaila's feet and then splashed the last of the flammable liquid down the front of her body. As it soaked into the heretic's shift, the paper became close to transparent. She was plainly naked beneath the ritual garment, and the crowd fell silent at the sight until the Ministry man signaled curtly for the second phase of the death chant as the priests and soldiers moved back from the pyre and left Gaila Ford alone with her fate.
* * *Burn the witch
!Burn the witch
* * *
The chant was hesitant at first, but, under the grim gaze of the priests and soldiers, it grew in baleful intensity, as though the villagers were being forced to beg for their own oppression.
* * *Burn the witch
!Burn the witch
!Burn the witch
!Burn the witch
!Burn the witch
* * *
The first fire was taken directly from the Zhaithan sacred flame. While a prayer was offered up to Ignir and Aksura, a bundle of oil-soaked rags on the end of a Mosul pike was thrust into the hemispherical bowl mounted on the tall, tapering pylon. When the rags were thoroughly ignited, the pike was carried to the pyre and applied to the wood. Rumor had it that, now and again, a merciful executioner would rapidly strangle the victim before they burned. Either that was a lie, or no mercy had been shown in Gaila's case. The kerosene caught with an explosive sigh and a first eager fireball, and then, as it took a fuller hold, Argo had his last glimpse of Gaila contorting against the chains that held her, before her helpless figure was hidden by the conflagration. The flames burned orange, and the black smoke rose to stain the already-grey sky. A capricious wind suddenly swirled a loose smoke vortex down and directly into the square, filling the village with the stench of kerosene and burned flesh. The assembled villagers coughed, and some actually gagged, but the Ministry men refused to dismiss them. At that moment, Argo Weaver knew he could no longer stay in this place. He knew he had to run, he had to go north, he had to try and make it across the now-stalled-and-static battle lines where Car-lyle of Albany was still managing to hold back the Mosul advance. Argo was as aware as any fourteen-year-old could be aware that the odds were probably against him making it. More likely he would be picked up by a patrol or lose himself in the wilderness, but at fourteen he didn't play the odds, and even if he did, what did he really have to lose? With a teenager's optimism he pictured himself finding one of the secret ways through the Mosul lines which, according to rumor and hearsay, would bring him to the free territory of the Kingdom of Albany. He saw himself, brave and dashing in the uniform of the Albany Royal Guard, in the vanguard of the long-awaited advance that would put Hassan IX to total rout and push him and his unholy legions back into the Northern Ocean, or perhaps, somewhere in the woods or wilderness, he would make contact with the partisans, the guerrillas of the resistance, the ones whom the Mosul called bandits. On a sudden impulse, he began swinging down out of the branches of the old oak. He did not care if he was seen; he just wanted to be away from the smoke and the stench, the cringing villagers. Will called after him in surprise. "Hey, Argo, where you going?"
Argo looked up and realized that he was never going to see Will Steed again. "I'm going north, Will. I'm going north."
Will wanted to know what he meant, but Argo was already on the ground and slipping away between two buildings. Once clear of the village, he hurried, heading for home, but when the house and barn were in sight, he remembered that his stepfather would not be back from the village, and Argo did not want to be there when Herman Kretch returned from the burning. If he had not been drinking already, he would undoubtedly start. Argo changed direction and began walking more slowly in the direction of what the boys called Hunchback Hill. The high ground provided him with a view of both the village and his home, and as he squatted down on the short grass, settling himself to wait, an unbidden but very clear and absolute feeling came over him. He was looking at the two places, really the only two places that he had ever known, aside from the journeys in the old days to market at Bridgehampton, and he was looking at them for the last time in this prelude to his departure.
The Ministry men must have finally dismissed the villagers, because Argo saw a small swarm of dark figures moving away from the cluster of houses and other buildings that constituted the center of Thakenham. With the strange insight that seemed to have overtaken him, Argo realized that he truly hated the people among whom he had been born and raised. He hated their submission and their willingness to surrender, and the way they could watch, so ragged, drab, and unmoving, a horror like the burning of Gaila Ford without doing or saying anything except coughing and grimacing when the smoke billowed too thick or the stench of death became too gaggingly unbearable. With the natural intolerance of youth, he could feel nothing but contempt for the way that the villagers would endure anything, even slavery in all but the name, in order to survive, and how they lacked the courage to stand up to their oppressors and die with some degree of dignity and while shreds of honor still remained.
The Mosul had come soon after Argo's eleventh birthday. The invasion force had landed near Savannah on July 5th '96 by the old and now-forbidden Mother Goddess calendar, and, on that hot summer day, the world had changed forever. The Mosul had immediately established multiple beachheads and then fanned out to cut through the courageous but disorganized forces of the Southland Alliance in a matter of days. Within a month, Atlanta had fallen, and, with Florida cut off and the infamous treaty concluded with George Jebb and his gang of traitors in St. Petersburg, Hassan
IX had turned his attention and his armed might to the north, in the direction of the rich lands between the Appalachians and the ocean. The Southland Alliance, although doomed, had bought time for the Republic of the Carolinas and the Virginia Freestate to marshal their troops and to mount a more concerted defense. For seven bloody months, battle after battle had raged, and at the height of the terrible Winter Campaign of '97 it had actually seemed as though the Mosul would be pushed back, but an armada of troopships, under steam and sail, continued to bring what appeared to be limitless divisions of battle-hardened men and inexhaustible supplies of munitions. The ships of the Flame Banner shuttled back and forth across the Northern Ocean from Cadiz and Lisbon and other ports in conquered Hispania, protected from the privateers of the Norse Union, the small but effective Royal Albany Navy, and the pirates up from the Caribbean by formidable escorts of ironclads. It appeared that all of Southern Europe, if not North Africa and Asia Minor, was being stripped of men and machines to feed Hassan IX's megalomaniac conquest of the Americas.
The outcome was probably inevitable. Volunteer farmers, miners, and merchants, a few mountain men, hunters, and traders, and their mostly amateur and inexperienced officers, were no match for Hassan's highly disciplined and religiously motivated blitzkrieg. The men of Virginia might be brave and strong, they might be crack shots, and, one on one, as they had so often and proudly boasted in the early days of the conflict, worth any ten Mosul, but they had gone to war with a fatally imprecise idea of what manner of foe they faced. Two hundred years of carnage might have come and gone since the Mosul, originally tribal nomads from an area to the east of the Black Sea, had advanced into Europe with fire and sword and formed their unassailable alliance with the Teutons of Germany and the Mamaluke warlords in North Africa to subjugate the land of the Franks, the city states of Italia, and all of the Hispanic Peninsula. Somehow the people of the Americas had felt immune to the danger. They had become too safe in their supposed isolation and too confident of the broad protection of the ocean. Many of the American settlers' parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents might have crossed the seas as a direct result of the Mosul terror, but even that had not equipped them to face down the most murderous and implacable war machine the world had ever had the misfortune to see, or to defeat the Mosul's iron discipline, fanatic religious motivation, and honed battle tactics. Through the spring of '98, the tide of conflict had turned against the defenders, until, fighting little more than desperate rearguard actions, and constantly regrouping as their numbers were decimated, they had fallen back on Richmond for the last battle of a war that seemed to have taken on the towering melancholy of a grand and tragic opera. On May 10th, all hope for Virginia and the Carolinas had gone with the wind as the last stand had collapsed to relentless shot and shell followed by butchery and fire.
In Thakenham, the war had seemed to happen in a number of phases. At first, life had seemed strangely routine and eerily close to normal. The majority of the men might have gone off to the September start of the war, boasting that they would be home well before Solsticetide, but the cows still had to be milked, the eggs collected, the hogs slopped, the bread baked, and the beer brewed. Dogs still barked, babies still cried, roofs leaked when it rained, and eleven-year-old boys roamed the woods and fields playing soldier and wishing they were men already, so they could go off gloriously campaigning like their fathers. In the beginning all had been optimism. The headlines of the broadsheets and the wireless broadcasts had always trumpeted imminent victory and continued to promote the happy certainty that the Mosul would be driven into the sea by the end of the year, but some of the volunteers' letters home were less sure. They had hinted that the fighting was far more grim and a lot less decisive than the official reports wanted it to be. By October, the first casualty lists had been posted on the public notice board in the village square, but, since none of those listed were Thakenham men, no one paid them too much mind. As the days grew shorter, and the lists of the dead and missing grew longer, however, the atmosphere changed. The official reports now stressed the heroic rather than the victorious, and those, like Argo's mother, who were capable of reading between the lines of the propaganda, knew that which was already bad was rapidly turning worse.
Even blind optimism had to cease when the casualty lists were no longer posted, the broadsheets were no longer distributed beyond the confines of Richmond and Lynchburg, and the wireless played music more than the repetitively grim war news. Although the fighting never passed through their village, the residents of Thakenham had heard the sound of the guns in the distance, at first from the south, but then moving up and past them, and finally booming from the north. Exhausted soldiers, in small groups, squads, and companies, had trudged up the Bridgehampton Road on their way to whatever place had been selected for their next attempt to contain the invaders. Argo had stood beside his mother with a hand on her shoulder as the ragged lines of retreating men had tramped through the village. He had looked for his father among the walking wounded, but his father had never come. At the start of the retreat, the columns were still organized by regiment. Argo could tell that by their uniforms and collar tabs, but, as the enemy front rolled deeper and deeper into Virginia, and company after company, and battalion after battalion, were wiped out by the iron Teuton land-crawlers, the savage Mamaluke cavalry, the jogging columns of implacable Mosul foot soldiers, and the Dark Things that no one dared name, the squads became cobbled together from all the survivors who could be rounded up and sent back to the lines. Now old men and boys only a couple of years older than Argo were being sent to face the foreign invaders.
One late afternoon, a group of about forty men had passed through town, and Argo had recognized that some were wearing the patches of the 9th Virginia. He ran up and grabbed one of them by the torn sleeve of his tunic. "Hey Mister, do you know Jackvance Weaver?"
The soldier had looked at him with a blank, ghost-haunted stare. "I don't know no one no more, kid."
"He was in the 9th Virginia."
The soldier quickened his pace, wanting to get away from Argo and his questions. "I told you, kid. I don't know no one."
"He's my father."
The man halted and looked down at Argo. He sighed and shook his head. "Kid, we've got good men scattered all the way from here to hell, and most of them are either dead or on their way to Richmond, which is the next best thing. My best advice to you is to stop hoping. It's maybe the dead who should be grateful."
Around the time of this encounter, the people of Virginia had started looking for a miracle. To the north was the Kingdom of Albany, with supposedly large and quite formidable forces massed on the banks of the Potomac River. In the snug and smokey inns, in parish meeting rooms, and around the home fires the same question was asked over and over. "Why doesn't Albany come
?" It was asked the loudest by the cowards and slackers, the ones like Herman Kretch, who had remained safe at home while others like Jackvance Weaver did the fighting and the dying. "Why doesn't Albany come
?" What Herman Kretch did not know, or anyone else in Thakenham, and only a very few in all of the lands that were under threat or had already fallen, was that Albany was not going to come. General James Dean, known simply as the Old Man, who, after a long and distinguished career exploring and mapping the interior, had taken command of the Army of Richmond, had met in secret with King Carlyle II and his staff and had come to a logical if desperate decision. Even with a fresh army from Albany added to Dean's battle-weary troops, Richmond could not stand. "Why doesn't Albany come
?" Because at best they might turn a futile final battle into a few more weeks of equally futile final siege. In the long run, such a move could only increase the numbers of the dead. Richmond could not be rescued, and Carlyle would save his strength for an attempt to stop Hassan at the Potomac.
The night that Richmond fell, church bells all through Virginia had rung for an hour, in an eerie peal, and then stopped. It was like a signal. No more
. All motion ceased for about five days, as though the world was holding its breath. In that last terrible month, the last time they were allowed to call it May, even spring itself seemed to pause and wait while a steady and unrelenting late-winter rain had fallen. And then the first Mamaluke column had ridden into the village. Thakenham had been lucky. The previous night they had sacked and burned Coster's Mill, indulging to the full in all the rape and murder for which they had become notorious. Swarthy and stone-faced, the hard horsemen with their spiked helmets and eagle-beak noses were seemingly sated and too hungover to engage in yet another orgy, and they had simply posted the orders of occupation and moved on. A few days later the priests had come, along with their retinue of Mosul soldiers and the men from the Zhaithan Ministry of Virtue, to begin setting up the frightening network of spies and informers that maintained the political and philosophical Mosul armlock on their subject peoples.
Suddenly more columns of men were on the move, details of chained prisoners, guarded by detachments of armed and whip-wielding troops, going in both directions, some headed north to perform slave labor under the direction of Teuton engineers digging trenches and bunkers on the Mosul side of the Potomac, while others were driven south to Savannah to work on the construction of the citadel that would be Hassan IX's capital in the new world. And it was from one of these starved and wretched prisoners that the first word had come that both Jackvance Weaver and Hank Ford had been blown to pieces by Mosul cannon as they had taken part in the final stand before the gates of Richmond. Then and only then had his mother cried, and only in private, away from the spying eyes of the other villagers.
As Argo sat on Hunchback Hill, reflecting on all that had gone before, a half-formed vision came to him, unbidden, for no reason he could fathom. The face of a girl appeared to his inner sight, a girl with red hair and the kind of skin that freckled when it was too long in the sun. Argo did not know the girl, but she was not exactly a stranger. She had the familiarity of a dream dreamed more than once, or some glimpse of encounters and adventures to come. Argo set no store by stuff like prescience and prophecy, but he simply recognized, with the most certain and matter-of-fact intuition, that he would see the red-haired girl again, either in dream or reality. Kretch and his mother had now been home for some time, and smoke was rising from the chimney of the house, but Argo continued to sit, clasping his knees and thinking. He decided it would be better to wait until well after dark before he went back inside. If his stepfather was drinking 'shine, the possibility existed that he would have drunk himself unconscious if Argo delayed his return. Thus Argo continued to sit until the moon rose, and only then did he slowly descend the hill. Unfortunately, he had failed to delay long enough. The moment his weight caused the porch to creak, his stepfather was snarling in the doorway. "Defy me, would you, you little bastard? Get in here."
The razor strop lay in full view on the kitchen table, right beside the lamp. The message was plain. Somehow Herman Kretch had found out that Argo had been to the execution instead of cleaning out the ditch by the top field, and now a beating was inevitable. The razor strop was his stepfather's favorite instrument of discipline, and when he swung it at Argo's bared buttocks it hurt like hell and left welts like the mark of a brand. Argo inhaled deeply and took comfort in the fact that it would be the last thrashing that Kretch ever inflicted on him. Without a word, he turned on his heel and started back for the door, but his stepfather immediately wanted to know what he was doing. "Where are you going"
Argo looked back, slack-faced and sullen, failing to understand. Surely it was obvious? "To the root cellar, sir."
Usually his stepfather conducted this kind of punishment down in the root cellar in comparative privacy, but it appeared that tonight he had a greater humiliation in mind. Maybe unpleasantly inflamed by the execution and the 'shine he had put away in the aftermath, he had added cruelty on his mind. "Right here, boy. You'll take your medicine right here."
Argo could hardly believe what he was hearing. The beating was going to be carried out right there in the family kitchen, in front of the big stone hearth and in full view of his mother and sisters? "No!"
"What did you say, boy?"
Argo saw the looks of horror on the faces of the women and shook his head. "Not here."
Argo's mother got to her feet. "I'm taking the girls outside."
Kretch glared at her. "The hell you are. You sit right back down there, or it'll go worse for the boy."
His mother summoned a nervous defiance. "You can make me sit here, but the girls don't need to watch this."
"They'll learn what to expect when they're bigger and maybe decide they can defy me."
Argo's mother gestured to Mathilde and Gwennie. "Outside, girls."
"You want me to have his papers revoked? You want them to see their precious brother marched off in chains to a labor camp?" Kretch's threat was no idle one. Argo only remained in the comparative safety of Thakenham because Kretch had used his collaborator's clout with the Ministry of Virtue to ensure that Argo was not sent off to forced labor in Savannah or set to digging trenches beside the Potomac. Argo's mother sat back down again with a face like stone and gathered the girls to her. Content with his victory, Kretch turned his attention to Argo. "Shuck those britches, boy, and grab your ankles."
Argo did as he was told, trying to think of nothing, trying to forget that his mother and sisters were right there to witness his exposed humiliation. He stared straight into the fire as Kretch slapped the strop into his palm as though testing it, even though, after all the other times he had used it, no testing was needed. Argo was determined to give the man as little satisfaction as possible, even if it prolonged the punishment, but he could not help but gasp as the first blow seared his taut skin. As blow followed blow, to Argo's blurred and tear-distorted vision, the flames of the log fire leapt with each searing cut of the leather and each wide-burning strip. The flames danced before him just as they had danced around the chained form of Gaila Ford before they had consumed her. After what seemed like an eternity, his stepfather finally tossed the strop onto the table. "Pull up your pants, boy. That's your medicine for tonight. Remember it the next time you get an urge to ignore what I tell you."
The fabric was rough on his throbbing flesh, but Argo again tried to hide the hurt. His mother was on her feet, bustling the girls out of the room. As Argo buckled his belt, Kretch jerked a dismissive thumb. "Now thank me and get out of here."
Argo stared at the floor, unable to look his stepfather in the face, but he stubbornly shook his head. "No."
Kretch actually laughed and poured himself a drink. "Well, you've got some stones and no mistake. You want the same all over again?"
"So thank me and get to your bed."
"I knew Gaila Ford."
"We all knew Gaila Ford, boy. We knew her, and now she's scattered ashes, and good riddance as far as I'm concerned. She wasn't the first, and she won't be the last. Now thank me for your beating or get those breeks down for a double dose. It's your choice."
Argo wished he had the strength to endure a second thrashing just to show the bastard he couldn't be intimidated. But he knew a second time around, Kretch would whip him bloody. With the taste of gall in his mouth, he spoke to the wood of the floor in a monotone. "Thank you, sir. Thank you for my beating."
As he fled from the room, Kretch crowed after him. "You can't win, boy. You know that, don't you? You can't win."
Argo lay for the longest time in his narrow bed, blanket thrown back despite an early autumn chill, his flesh throbbing but a cold resolve hardening to the point that it couldn't be denied. This was the night that he would not only run from Thakenham, but kill Herman Kretch in his bed while he slept. He only slipped from his bed when the house was silent, and Argo was certain the rest of the family slumbered. He took the big canvas satchel that he had used for his schoolbooks before the Mosul had come and closed the school, and moved silently through the house, gathering what he thought he needed to survive in the wild: spare shirts and socks, beef jerky and hard crackers, a slab of cheese, the old water bottle that had belonged to his father, a lighter and spare flints. Finally he had taken the pistol and all of Kretch's ammunition from the hiding place in back of the linen press. Leaving his boots and bundle by the door, and moving silently in his stockinged feet, he had slowly climbed the stairs and gone to the bedroom where Kretch and his mother slept.
From the doorway he pointed the pistol. He cocked both hammers, but before pulling either trigger he had paused. In theory it had all seemed so easy. A hundred times, Argo had pictured himself standing over his stepfather with the twin barrels pointed true and unwavering as he slowly squeezed the trigger. Except he simply could not pull even the first of the twin triggers. So many factors crowded in: the womenfolk alone, the hue and cry that would follow him as a murderer rather than just a boy runaway, the very fact that perhaps he was not ready to take the life of another human being. He knew he was not, in the end, going to shoot Herman Ketch. He might feel like a traitor to his own anger, but he knew he could run but not yet kill. He lowered the pistol and carefully released one hammer and then the second. He hurried down the stairs, stepped into his boots, shrugged into his jacket, hooked the satchel over his shoulder. His last move was to stick the pistol in his belt. He might not be able to kill Kretch, but he would steal his gun, the gun that meant so much to the drunken bastard. Argo Weaver opened the door and stepped out into the night. A dog barked in the distance. CORDELIA
Lady Cordelia Blakeney had paid a seamstress a full forty shillings for the alterations to her new uniform. If judged according to the most stringent interpretation of the dress regulations of the Royal Women's Auxiliary, it fitted a little too snugly to the most crucial parts of her body, but RWA officers like Cordelia, assigned to permanent posts in the capital, either at the War Office or the Headquarters of the General Staff, were permitted some considerable laxity in matters like dress regulations and overnight passes. The Kingdom of Albany might be at war, but that did not mean the social waltz and romantic entanglements in and around Albany Castle and the court of Carlyle II had been completely discontinued. Indeed, they had actually taken on an increased sense of immediate urgency. In wartime, the sense of living for and in the moment was a kind of heightened reality that came with the knowledge that, without reason or warning, death might snatch the moment away and leave nothing but grief on one side of the affair and oblivion on the other. The young men came and went with dizzying if delicious rapidity, moving on a five-stage circuit between the royal castle at Albany, to the field headquarters at Frederick, the great port of Manhattan, the equally crucial base at Baltimore, and the front itself. Only a week earlier she had been consoling her cousin Daphne, who was devastated to the point of hysteria after her current lover, a captain in the Intelligence Corps, had been lost on a mission across the Potomac. This week, Daphne was sufficiently recovered to be pursuing a major in one of the newly formed tank regiments.
Cordelia checked herself in the full-length mirror in the ladies room on the second floor of the War Office building. The delegation from the Norse Union had arrived, and First Lieutenant the Lady Cordelia Blakeney wanted to look her best. Although field green was not the most flattering of colors, it was the best that could be done in wartime, and it did not do a total disservice to her red hair and pale skin. Unfortunately, her stint as driver for Colonel Blackwood had put her a little too much in the late-summer sun, and, even now that her duties put her back inside the castle and the War Office, a dusting of freckles still covered her nose. She knew some men found freckles cute, but she would have preferred her complexion to be a flawless porcelain. That, however, was not possible. The rules of the RWA might be fairly lax, but the use of excess makeup was frowned upon among junior officers, no matter how highborn. All in all, though, Cordelia was fairly pleased with herself. Her buttons and insignia gleamed, her epaulets hung just right, her tunic nipped in her waist to perfection, and the tighter-than-regulation pencil skirt left only a minimum to the imagination of any Norse naval commander or Air Corps major. She twisted around for a glimpse of the backs of her legs. Silk stockings were scarce, and she wanted to be assured that the seams of the ones she had were straight. She hoped that at least one of the Norse officers had enough unscrupulous practicality to bring a supply with him, along with the good Scotch whiskey they usually handed out as gifts. The Norse were rapidly emerging as the possible saviors of Albany, perhaps of all the Americas, in much more than just Scotch and silk stockings. Although in Europe they maintained an uneasy peace with the Mosul Empire, with the English Channel as the dividing line between their conflicting spheres of influence, the Norse were moving closer and closer to an open alliance with Albany to halt Hassan IX's invasion of the New World.
The Norse were far fewer in number than the Mosul, and controlled a great deal less territory, but they had technology and heavy industry, and that gave them an increasing edge. The Mosul, strangled by the constraining coils of their disgusting religion, failed to progress. The Zhaithan priests were hard-pressed to tell a scientist from a heretic, and that completely stifled all research and innovation. The foundries of Damascus and the Ruhr turned out cannon and musket twenty-four hours a day, but they produced only crude quantity, and nothing to compare with the sophistication of the repeating rifles being developed in Birmingham and Stockholm or the keels of the submarines being laid in the shipyards along the Clyde. The courtship between Albany and the Norse was a slow one, but progress was definitely being made. Already the prefabricated parts of Norse gasoline-powered tanks were being delivered to the port of Manhattan by cargo ship and assembled in a huge, roaring factory complex in the city of Brooklyn. Norse Air Corps instructors were training the crews of Albany's first small squadron of airships, and cadres of officers from Albany were attending advanced command schools in London and Stockholm, learning to apply the use of these new weapons on the battlefield and in naval tactics on the high seas. The wedding of Albany and the NU was inevitable. Their people came from the same stock, and shared culture and customs. Many spoke an approximation of the same language, and the two nations could only move closer together in the face of the common threat. On a personal level, Cordelia only hoped the process would be considerably faster.
She emerged from the ladies' room into a busy second-floor corridor and
ran straight into Coral Metcalfe. Cordelia and Coral had been friends since they had been little girls. The two had gone to different schools and been separated, except at holiday times, through their teen years, but now their war work caused them once again to move in the same circles. Metcalfe was a chronic gossip and something of a ladylike slut, although Cordelia, with her record of conquests, was hardly one to judge. On this particular morning, Coral seemed especially excited. "Have you seen them yet?"
Cordelia did not have to ask whom. She was well aware that Coral was talking about the newly arrived Norse delegation. Coral was very taken with everything Norse, particularly young English-speaking officers. "No, not yet. Have you?"
Coral Metcalfe nodded enthusiastically. "I managed to tag along with the reception committee, and, oh, my dear, there are a couple of real dolls among their number."
Cordelia smiled. "I'll be there later when they meet with the king and Jack Kennedy."
"Lucky you, you'll get to speak to them."
Cordelia nodded. "Or die trying."
Coral looked at her watch. "Got to go, darling. I'm in trouble already."
With that, Coral Metcalfe hurried away. The girl always seemed to be late for something. She had been late all her life. She also reminded Cordelia that she, too, was supposed to be somewhere and had better not linger. The morning promised to be deary. It would be spent filling manpower reports and approving supply requisitions, but by noon she would be on her way to the castle for the start of the vital conference between the Norse Union delegates led by Vice President Ingmar Ericksen and the king and his ministers. Cordelia had wangled things so she was one of the squad of RWA girls who'd be there to fetch things, organize the distribution of papers and the spreading of maps, but, above all, to look decorative and put the Norse officers in the most pleasant of moods. The king wanted a consignment of the highly secret Norse rocket bombs, while the girls of the RWA, with the possible exception of that little prig and professional virgin Pamela Stanley, simply wanted the Norse.
Leaving nothing to chance, Cordelia signed out of her office at eleven forty-five and took the public tram the five blocks to the castle. The war had brought a considerable social leveling to the Kingdom of Albany. In the old days she would rather have walked than take the trolley, but now she grabbed one of the brass rails and swung herself onto the rattling, clanging, slow-moving conveyance as though she'd been doing it all her life. With their backs to the wall, the people of Albany faced a grim reality, and no room remained for the putting on of airs. As the trolley car rattled up Mason Street, the sky was overcast and promised rain. Cordelia had neglected to bring a raincoat, but she did not let that dampen her spirits. Even if the skies opened, some officer would undoubtedly be gallant enough to drape his trench coat over her shoulders to protect her from the weather. Nothing was more attractive than a damsel distressed by a downpour. As she rode the trolley and anticipated the afternoon and evening to come, Cordelia stared at the passing streets and reflected on how one could never mistake Albany for anything but a city at war. The high percentage of uniforms on the sidewalks, the army trucks and the drab green military steamers that jammed the streets, the recruiting posters and patriotic billboards that had replaced most commercial advertising, all told of a people in a high order of military readiness. But Albany was also a city with a certain optimism. In the dark days after the Battle of Richmond and the fall of Virginia and the Carolinas, a desperation had been in the air, a sense that it was only a matter of time before the Mosul rolled on over Albany. But then the enemy had been halted at the Potomac, and everyone had breathed again. Two years of stalemate had not been easy. Albany threw everything it had into the war effort, galvanized by the knowledge that the Mosul attack could come at any time, but with the domestic military buildup and the tacit support of the NU, a feeling had spread that, when the Mosul came, as, without doubt, they sooner or later would, Albany would be in a position to repulse their assault, and the essential spine of their invasion could be broken. If that happened, it would only be a matter of effort and resolution to push the invaders back the way they had come, down through Virginia and the Carolinas and ultimately into the sea.
Cordelia dropped off the trolley in front of the Calder Street gate of the castle and showed her pass and identity card to one of the military policemen standing guard. Before the invasion, before the war, she, her family, and the other highborn of Albany, had thought of Calder Street, with its iron portcullis guarding the dark and narrow tunnel through the high stone wall, as the tradesmen's and servants' entrance, its use somewhat beneath their aristocratic dignity. But that was definitely no longer the case. During the panic over the possibility of Mosul suicide attacks that had swept the capital in the first months after the landings in Savannah, it had been decided that the Grand Gate, flanked by its statues and carved lions, was too open and vulnerable, and it had been closed and sealed for the duration. All who had business in the castle, even visiting dignitaries and the king himself, had, from then on, come and gone through Calder Street.
Like so many of the dire imaginings in those early days, the anticipated suicide attacks had never materialized, but the custom of using the tunnel had remained, as had the squads of MPs, the hastily erected sandbagged gun emplacements, and the twin multibarreled Bergman guns that were capable of sweeping the entire length of Calder Street with a deadly and sustained hail of one-inch cannister shot. Rumor also insisted that land mines had been laid beneath the flagstones that could seal this single public access in a chain of massive explosions, and each and every time Cordelia passed though the dark space, she could not help wondering if she really was walking over a ton or more of explosives, nor recalling that the fact that she, just like everyone else, was now using the same route to enter and leave a Castle that was foremost among the last solid symbols of freedom and equality in the Americas.
Before the war, Cordelia had been little more than a child, a spoiled aristocrat brat with a title and a self-centered petulance who believed she had a right to anything and everything she might demand. Before the danger had brought its sobering dose of hard reality, she had lived on whim, caprice, and an overbearing belief in the complete and unquestionable superiority of her class. The horrors of those early days, especially the fall of Atlanta and the example of the hideous fate that had befallen that unfortunate city's ruling class, had been a lesson in survival that had mercifully been quickly learned by lady and servant alike. The Mosul atrocities had made it painfully clear to Lady Cordelia Blakeney, her friends, relatives, and all of those like her, that their airs, graces, and hereditary lineage would not save them from the shot and shell, nor from the rape, pillage, and fire that would inevitably follow. As the tales of the hanged, the burned, and the gruesomely impaled were carried north to Albany, the whole of the nation's social structure saw, with a terrible clarity, that to continue as they were would be to court as sure and certain a doom as had destroyed all the lands to the south.
With a weird irony, the arrival of the Mosul hordes had saved the Kingdom of Albany from itself. Without the external threat of foreign invasion to unite them, the country had been tottering closer and closer to the edge of revolution with the reeling determination of a self-destructive drunkard, and Carlyle I, the father of their present king, was perhaps the self-destructive drunkard in question. In the early part of his reign, he had been sufficiently dashing that his self-indulgent extravagance and narrow autocratic perspectives had been dismissed as nothing more than youthful swagger, but as he grew to full maturity, it had become clear that neither his attitudes nor his behavior were going to change. Even the aristocracy knew in their hearts that the elder Carlyle was a stupid man, only concerned with the maintenance of his own power and position, although to voice such knowledge was to court charges of treason and sedition. Queen Diana, with her good works, worthy causes, and apparent consideration and compassion for the poor and needy, had, for a long time, been able to mitigate the spreading dislike of her husband, but, after her death, after the well-liked Diana had been one of the hundreds of victims of the influenza epidemic of '84, nothing remained to prevent the inevitable headon clash between Carlyle I and his subjects. The elder Carlyle had been a strange combination of stubbornness and fear. On one hand, he believed that his place on the throne was a divine gift from the Goddess, and that none had the right to question his actions or to challenge or question his decisions, but, on the other, he lived in constant terror that his own people would force him into exile or worse, in the same way the people of Virginia had overthrown their monarchy more than half a century earlier. He was never able to see that, at best, he held power by an unwritten compromise and unspoken transaction that a king could only lead, and the people would only follow, if all were assured that the direction taken was ultimately for the good of the country as a whole.
When in '88 he had attempted to dissolve the Common Parliament after his call for and their rejection of a massive increase in the general taxation, it had seemed that the only way out would be open revolution. In that crisis, moderation had managed to prevail, but only by a near miracle, and the country had staggered on for another four years with Parliament and the king at loggerheads. In the winter of '93, the poor had marched in the streets, and only the cool resolve of then-Colonel Virgil Dunbar had prevented bloodshed on Regent Square. The traditional but rapidly waning loyalty of the army had kept Carlyle I in power, but even then it had looked like little more than a matter of time before Albany became a republic or a military dictatorship. Through '94 and '95, the situation had continued to deteriorate, and Cordelia could clearly remember how she had overheard her father admit to her mother, late one night when Cordelia should have been asleep, how he had made discreet enquiries as to what kind of reception the Blakeney family might expect in either London or Oslo should they decided to abandon Albany and relocate in the Norse Union. Then Dunbar and a number of other popular army officers had been arrested. Whether they had in fact been planning a move against the king, or whether it had been the product of the elder Carlyle's fevered imagination, was still a subject of debate. Either way, everyone was aware that the moment of truth had come, and for days the capital had seemed to wait, strangely quiet, hanging in the balance, as though to see where and when the first crack would expand into an irreparable fissure and the first move of open revolt would be made. Would the die of change and upheaval be cast by the revolutionary workers on the streets, the rank and file of the army, or some conspiracy of the Commons and the officer corps? But then Hassan IX's troops had hit the beaches, and everything had changed.
Everyone in Albany knew the outcome of what had come to be known as the Midnight Meeting, although few who had not actually been present were sure of the exact details, beyond that the historic encounter between the king, the leaders of the Commons, and the army had taken place very late at night, and the end result had been that Carlyle I had abdicated in favor of his son, Carlyle II, who was perceived by the vast majority of the nation to have inherited the popularity, wit, and intelligence of his mother and only the bold good looks of his father. Virgil Dunbar was promoted to full general and placed in command of the projected Army of the Potomac that would attempt the halt the Mosul northern advance at that already formidable natural barrier. A war cabinet headed by Prime Minister Jack Kennedy was formed that not only included members of the already elected Common Parliament, but also the radicals, seditionaries, and revolutionaries who had previously been considered enemies of the state. By the end of the extraordinary and singularly uncompromising meeting, Albany had entered a new, dangerous, but thoroughly modern world and was as ready as it would ever be to steel itself for the conflict to come. In the fearful but also headily energetic days that followed, the older Carlyle had departed for exile in a country house outside Stockholm, and men and women from the entire spectrum of political beliefs had rallied to the colors, and even the previously privileged and titled young, like Cordelia and her friends, had abandoned much of their former frivolity and put on the admittedly fashionable new uniforms. A king was still in the castle, but now all, him included, entered by the dark, arched tunnel from Calder Street that had once been the servants' access, and all were well aware that this new Carlyle would only remain in the castle as long as the Mosul were held at bay.
Cordelia emerged from the dark into the light of the Quadrangle, the wide central courtyard that was the architectural heart around which the rest of the walls, blocks, and towers of Albany Castle were constructed. The leaves of the two great and spreading oak trees in the center of the Quadrangle were rapidly turning on brown and gold on the sides of the trees most exposed to the prevailing chill winds from the north. Winter was already beginning to make itself felt in Albany, and everyone to whom Cordelia spoke seemed certain that the winter would also bring the first Mosul assault on the Potomac line. High and low, throughout the city, everyone was certain the two-year stalemate would come to an end before the first snow, and the defenses of Albany, so far to the south, would be put to
the test. The Great Oaks in the Quadrangle were a definite symbol of Albany and its freedom. Their roots extended deep into the foundations, into the earth that surrounded the masonry of cellars and dungeons and the secret tunnels that were supposed to honeycomb the subterranean depths of Albany Castle, and their passive presence in all the historic events of the kingdom, both good and bad, was a given factor in the nation's folklore. Out in the countryside, other trees were showing even greater signs of the coming of winter. Leaves were already turning rust red, and all too soon a strong wind would strip branches to the lacy skeletons of autumn.
Cordelia's destination was the West Tower. The meeting with the delegates from the Norse Union was to be held in the impressive circular reception room on the second floor. Before the war, the Round Room had been the scene of balls, banquets, and, earlier still, prior to the death of Queen Diana, lavish masques. The unique domed ceiling with its radiating beams that had once rung to the sound of music and laughter now only felt the terrible tension of statesmanship and the grim debate of war councils. Cordelia's orders were to report to Colonel Grace Patton, a stocky career soldier who had been in the peacetime RWA and was rumored to be a discreet but determined lesbian under her ramrod-stiff professional exterior. Patton was the price that the young RWA officers had to pay for being close to the center of events, proximity to the king, his ministers, and, last but far from least, the stunning array of young officers who passed through the castle as part of their duties. As Cordelia started up the steps that led to the arched entrance of the West Tower, Lacy Davenport, another lieutenant with approximately the same duties, and definitely the same desires, as Cordelia, hurried to catch up with her. "Are we late?"
Cordelia half turned but did not stop. "Not quite."
"With Patton, not quite doesn't make it."
Cordelia raised both eyebrows in acknowledgment of the fact. "I'm well aware of that. She arrives early and expects you to be there before her."
"Have you seen any of these young men from the NU?"
"Not yet, but I ran into Coral Metcalfe at the War Office. She was with the welcoming committee, and she said"--Cordelia thought for a moment--"there were a couple of 'real dolls.'"
"'Real dolls'? She said that?"
"Don't be a snob, Davenport. There's a war on, and we're all equal now. Coral has very good taste, even though she might express it in a somewhat shopgirl vernacular."
At the top of the steps the two women had to pass through a second security check. Normally, these internal checkpoints were fairly perfunctory for anyone already in uniform, but this one was of an intensity that made it clear the Guards of the Household Regiment were taking no chances that a bomber or assassin might slip into a meeting at which not only the king, the prime minister, and most of the War Cabinet would be present, but also the party from the NU and that nation's vice president. Should a Mosul suicide squad manage to kill only half of those present, the Albany military machine would be headless and effectively crippled. Cordelia raised her arms and allowed herself to be patted down by a Household Guard corporal who at least had the good grace not to openly show how much he was enjoying this part of his homefront duty assignment. In the old days, the Household Regiment had been dressed up like toy soldiers or the cast of a bad operetta in red coats and white buckskin breeches and festooned with more gold braid than a Solstice tree. On ceremonial occasions they had added mirror-polished breastplates and plumed helmets and clanked around rattling their sabers in a way that had looked quite formidable to the little Cordelia and her schoolfriends, but now seemed patently absurd. The outbreak of real hostilities had swept away all the pomp and foolishness. Now the Household Regiment wore the same olive drab and matte black insignia as every other Albany squaddie, and the sabers had been replaced by coveted Norse repeating rifles acquired under the lease-lend deal between Albany and the NU that everyone hoped would be extended and expanded at the upcoming meeting, and perhaps even broadened into a full alliance, with the Norse openly joining with Albany and formally declaring war on the empire of Hassan IX.
The corporal took a final look at Cordelia's and Lacy's passes and checked one more time that their faces matched the sepia photographs on their identity cards before he waved them through. Now Cordelia really was late. She hadn't factored in the time consumed by the increased security, and, as she and Lacy hurriedly climbed the regal and sweeping staircase that spiraled up the outside wall of the West Tower to the Round Room, she hoped to the Goddess that Patton was not her usual extrapunctual and ultrapunctilious self. As they entered one of the antechambers that led to the Round Room, she saw to her dismay that not only had Patton arrived, but she had a dozen other young RWA officers already formed up for inspection, standing in a dressed line at full attention. The colonel turned and looked bleakly at Cordelia and Lacy. "I'm delighted that you ladies could join us. You are too generous with your time."
"I'm sorry, ma'am. Getting past the security took longer than we anticipated."
Colonel Patton gestured to the inspection line. "These officers seem to have managed the calculation."
Both Cordelia and Lacy nodded, looking suitably chastened. "Yes, Colonel."
"It is incumbent on all officers to expect the unexpected and plan accordingly."
"I suggest you reflect on that during the week you spend confined to your quarters."
Cordelia cursed silently. Damn Patton. There went all hope of close and private fraternization with the Norse officers. "Yes, ma'am. Thank you, ma'am." And damn you to hell.
"Now get in line, and don't waste any more of my time."
Cordelia and Lacy quickly joined the others. Patton turned and walked down the line, looking hard at each junior officer in turn, apparently assuring herself that each met her exacting standards of dress and decorum and was suitably turned out to be present at such a vital and august assembly. Finally she halted and nodded as though marginally satisfied. "I suppose you'll do. Stand at ease."
The lieutenants relaxed from attention, but not by much. Patton flicked an invisible piece of lint from her immaculate uniform and addressed them as a group. "Now that Blakeney and Davenport have graced the party, I have a reminder for you all. I'm well aware that you have basically been assigned here as decorative adjuncts at what will still be, despite the gender enlightenment of the times, a predominately male gathering, but I'm warning you now. Don't get carried away. You also have a job to do, and I expect you to do it with speed and efficiency. If one of the delegates wants something, you get it for them, and you get it for them quickly. If you are needed to take notes or provide any other assistance, you do it. There will be points when the meeting breaks for refreshments, and you may make conversation during those breaks, but you don't speak unless spoken to." The Colonel paused to let all this sink in. "And let me warn you in no uncertain terms that any girl trying to become the center of attention will find herself winding bandages in the mud beside the Potomac so fast she won't believe it. War is neither a dinner party nor a society ball, and I don't want to see it being treated as such." She paused again, looking sternly from face to face. "Do you ladies have any questions? Is there any part of what I've said that anyone doesn't understand?"
When Patton delivered a speech of this kind, it was her habit to finish by asking for questions, but that did not mean she actually wanted any, and the rank of girls knew better than to ask unless they truly foresaw a problem. Seemingly no one did, because no one spoke. Again the colonel nodded. "Very well. Dismissed. Proceed into the Round Room and try not to make bloody fools of yourselves."
As the women turned to leave the anteroom, Patton's hard blue eyes fixed on Cordelia. "Blakeney."
Cordelia halted and stiffened to attention. More trouble? "Yes, Colonel?"
"If that uniform of yours was a little less formfitting, you might be able to move a little faster."
"I would suggest you have your dressmaker let out a little."
Cordelia did her best to keep her expression formally blank, but her jaw stiffened at the contempt that Patton put into the word "dressmaker." "Yes, Colonel."
"You're coming perilously close to the limits of what is acceptable, Blakeney."
"And I think you might go a little lighter on the lipstick."
Furious at being confined to quarters when the NU boys were in town, and convinced that Patton had it in for her and the other aristocrats who had received their commissions through family contacts at court while the Colonel had come up the hard way and faced all the tribulations and frustrations of a lowborn woman attempting to succeed as a career soldier under the former peacetime regime, Cordelia entered the Round Room fuming. But she was quickly distracted by the changes that had been made in the huge interior space since the last time she had been there. The centerpiece was a wide, circular table. Although gleaming and immaculately finished, it was obviously of recent construction and perhaps purpose-built for the conference. A clear symbolism of the equality of all those attending the
conference must have been part of the design, and it reminded Cordelia of the childhood tales of the mythic court of Utha the Dragon King and his knights, where no one hero was elevated above another. She didn't think this nod to ancient fable was any accident. Utha the Dragon King was a piece of folklore common to both Albany and the Norse. According to legend, it had been Utha who had forged the thousand-year alliance between the Scandinavian Vikings and the English of the islands that had, in turn, led to the very first seafaring settlements in the Americas. The room was already fairly crowded, even though the primary participants had yet to make their entrances. Beneath the flags and banners that streamed from the rafters, decorated with the heraldic symbols of both nations, the Crowned Bear of Albany and the North Star of the NU hanging side by side, a large and well-armed contingent of the Household Regiment was positioned round the walls, while parliamentary private secretaries, civil servants, and aides from the War Office and the General Staff shuffled papers and held low-voiced conversations. Castle servants were laying out a bar and buffet that would come into play when the conference decided to adjourn for refreshments, and the smell of percolating coffee--quite a rarity now that the enemy occupied the lands to the south--and the sight of food and drink reminded Cordelia that in her hurry to reach the War Office and then the castle, she had neglected to eat yet that day.
The level of conversation suddenly dropped away as the principals began to file into the room. They made their entrances in what some, Cordelia included, might have described as a reverse pecking order. The politicians came first: seated members of the Common Parliament and representatives of the labor unions and trade guilds, including Vincent Corleone, the leader of the United Workers Party, whose dark Sicilian eyes and melancholy good looks had always caused a stir in Cordelia's otherwise aristocratic heart. They were followed by the religious leaders of the kingdom, Archbishop Belfast, Rabbi Stern, the Shaman Grey Wolf, and the Lady Gretchen, High Priestess of the Mother Goddess. In tune with the tenor of both the meeting and the times, the religious leaders wore no ceremonial robes. The men were in dark frock coats, and the Lady Gretchen wore a floor-length burgundy robe with a pushed-back cowl that allowed her thick grey hair to fall free, almost to her waist. The Reverend Bearclaw Manson was not a religious leader, but he walked in just behind them. "Reverend" was little more than a nickname, but the small man with his buckskins and unkempt hair tied back in a pon Continues...
Excerpted from Kindling by Farren, Mick Copyright © 2006 by Farren, Mick. Excerpted by permission.
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