After the wedding party
The wreckage still smoldered in the wan dawn light, sending a column of grayish- white smoke spiraling into the misty sky above Niejwein. Two mounted men surveyed it from a vantage point be
side the palace gate house.
"What a mess."
"Unavoidable, I think. The best laid plans . . . have they found his majesty yet, your grace?"
The first speaker shrugged. His horse shuffled, blowing out noisily: the smell of smoke, or possibly the bodies, was making it nervous. "If he was inside the great hall we might never find identifiable remains. That could be a problem: I believe the blast must have far exceeded the plotters’ intent. The soldiers found the Idiot, though—what was left of him. Near chopped in half by the rebels’ guns."
It was not a cold morning, and the second speaker wore a heavy riding coat: nevertheless, he shivered. "If these are the spells the witch families play with, then I think we may conclude that his presumptive majesty struck not a moment too soon. The tinkers have become too accustomed to having the Crown at their convenience. This could well be our best opportunity to break their grip before they bring damnation to us all."
The first speaker stroked his beard. "That is the direction of my thoughts." He looked pensive. "I think it behooves us to offer our condolences and our support in his hour of need to his majesty; a little bird tells me that he is of like mind. Then we should look to our own security. His lordship of Greifhalt has a most efficient levy which I think will prove sufficient to our immediate needs, and for the honor of his grandfather he has to come to our aid. We can count on Lyssa, too, and Sudtmann. For your part ...?"
"Count me among your party, your grace. I think I can contribute—" He paused, thinking. "—two hundred? Yes, two hundred of horse certainly, and perhaps more once I’ve seen to the borders."
"That will be helpful, Otto. The more you can send, the better—as long as you do not neglect the essentials. We cannot afford to feed the scavengers, of whichever kind." The first speaker shook his head again, looking at the smoking rubble. Stooped figures picked their way through it, inspecting the battlefield for identifiable bodies, their movements as jerky as carrion birds. "But first, an appropriate demonstration of our loyalty is called for."
The Duke of Innsford nudged his horse forward; his companion, Otto, Baron Neuhalle, followed, and behind him—at a discreet distance—the duke’s personal company followed suit. The scale of destruction only became apparent as Innsford rode down the slope towards what had been the Summer Palace of Niejwein. "It really does appear to have been visited by a dragon," he commented, keeping Neuhalle in view. "I can see why that story is spreading..."
"Oh yes. And it came to dinner with his late majesty and half the witch families’ heads of house hold at his table for the feast," Neuhalle agreed. "They’ll draw the right conclusion. But what a mess." He gestured at the wreckage. "Rebuilding the palace will take years, once the immediate task of ensuring that his majesty’s reign is long and untroubled by tinkers and demon- traffickers is completed. And I do not believe that will be easy. The old fox will move fast—"
Neuhalle broke off, composing his face in an expression of attentive politeness as he reined in his horse. "Otto Neuhalle, to pay his respects to his majesty," he called.
"Advance and be recognized." Neuhalle nudged his horse forward towards the guards officer supervising the salvage attempt. "Ah, my lord. If you would care to dismount, I will escort you to the royal party at once."
"Certainly." Neuhalle bowed his head and climbed heavily down, handing the reins to his secretary. "I have the honor of accompanying his grace, the Duke of Inns-ford. By your leave...?"
The guards officer—a hetman, from his livery— looked past him, his eyes widening. "Your grace! Please accept my most humble apologies for the poor state of our hospitality." He bowed as elaborately as any courtier, his expression guarded as a merchant in the company of thieves: clearly he understood the political implications of a visit from the duke. "I shall request an audience at once."
"That will be satisfactory," Innsford agreed, condescending to grace the earth with his boot heels. "I trust the work proceeds apace?"
"Indeed." A lance of royal life guards came to attention behind the hetman, at the barked order of their sergeant: " ’Tis a grim business, though. If you would care to follow me?"
"Yes," said Innsford.
Neuhalle followed his patron and the hetman, ignoring the soldiers who walked to either side of him as if they were ghosts. "His majesty—the former prince, I mean—I trust he is well?"
"Yes, indeed." The hetman seemed disinclined to give much away.
"And is there any announcement of the blame for this outrage?" asked Innsford.
"Oh, yes." The hetman glanced over his shoulder nervously, as if trying to judge how much he could disclose. "His majesty is most certain of their identity."
Neuhalle’s pulse raced. "We came to assure his majesty of our complete loyalty to his cause." Innsford cast him a fishy glance, but did not contradict him. "He can rely on our support in the face of this atrocious treason." Although the question of whose treason had flattened the palace was an interesting one, it was nothing like as interesting to Neuhalle as the question of whom the former crown prince was going to blame for it—for the explosion that had killed his father. After all, he couldn’t admit to having done it himself, could he?
They rounded the walls of the west wing—still standing in the morning light, although the roof of the Queen’s Ballroom had fallen in behind it—and passed a small huddle of Life Guards bearing imported repeating pistols at their belts. A white campaign pavilion squatted like a puffball on the lawn next to the wreckage of the west wing kitchens, and more soldiers marched around it in small groups or worked feverishly on a timber frame that was going up beside it. "Please, I beg you, wait here a while."
Innsford paused, leaning on his cane as if tired: Neuhalle moved closer to him, continuing the pretense that their escorts were as transparent as air while the hetman hurried towards the big tent, his progress punctuated interminably as he was passed from sentry to sentry. The guards were clearly taking no chances with their new monarch’s life. "A bad night for the kingdom," he remarked quietly. "Long live the king."
"Indeed." Innsford looked almost amused. "And may his reign be long and peaceful." It was the right thing to say under the circumstances, indeed the only thing to say— their escort looked remarkably twitchy, in the shadow of the ruined palace—but Neuhalle had to force himself not to wince. The chances that King Egon’s reign would be peaceful were slim, at best.
They didn’t have long to reflect on the new order in peace. The guards hetman came loping back across the turf: "His grace the duke of Niejwein awaits you and bids me say that his majesty is in conference right now, but will see you presently," he managed, a long speech by his standards. "Come this way."
The big pavilion was set up for the prince’s guests: royal companions and master of hounds at one side, and smaller rooms for the royal functions at the other. The middle was given over to an open space. The duke of Niejwein sat on a plain camp stool in the middle of the open area, surrounded by an ever- changing swarm of attendants: a thin- faced man of early middle years, he was, as Innsford might have remarked, one of us—a scion of the old nobility, the first fifty families whose longships had cleaved the Atlantic waves four centuries ago to stake their claims to the wild forested hills of the western lands. He was no friend of the merchant princes, the tinker nobles with their vast wealth and strange fashions, who over the past century had spread across the social map of the Gruinmarkt like a fungal blight across the bark of an ancient beech tree. Neuhalle felt a surge of optimism as he set eyes on the duke. "Your grace." He bowed, while his patron nodded and clasped hands with his peer.
"Be welcome, your grace. I had hoped to see you here. Rise, Otto. You are both welcome in this time of sorrow. I trust you have been apprised of the situation?" Niejwein’s left eyebrow levered itself painfully upwards.
"In outline," Innsford conceded. "Otto was entertaining me in Oestgate when the courier reached us. We came at once." They had ridden since an hour before dawn from thirty miles down the coast, nearly killing half a dozen mounts with their urgency. "Gunpowder and treason." His lips quirked. "I scarcely credited it until I saw the wreckage."
"His majesty blames the tinkers for bringing this down upon our heads," Niejwein said bluntly.
"A falling out among thieves, perhaps?" Otto offered hopefully.
"Something like that." Niejwein nodded, a secretive expression on his face. "His Majesty is most keen to inquire of the surviving tinkers the reason why they slew his father using such vile tools. Indeed, he views it as a matter of overwhelming urgency to purge the body of the kingdom of their witchery."
"How many of the tinkers survived?" asked Innsford.
"Oh, most of them. Details are still emerging. But beside the death of his majesty’s father and his majesty’s younger brother—" Otto started at that point. "—it appears that his majesty is the only surviving heir for the time being." Niejwein nodded to himself. "The queen mother is missing. Of the tinkers, the heads of three of their families were present, some eighteen nobles in total, including the bitch they planned to whelp by the Idiot—" Otto startled again, then contained himself. "—and sixty sundry gentles of other houses. The tinkers not being without allies."
"But the main company of those families are untouched," Innsford stated.
"For the time being." Niejwein’s cheek twitched. Has he the palsy? Otto wondered. "As I said, his majesty—" Niejwein stopped and rose to his feet, turning to face one of the side panels. A moment later he dropped to one knee: Otto scrambled to follow suit.
"Rise, gentlemen." Otto allowed himself to look up at his new monarch. The Pervert—no, forget you ever heard that name, on pain of your neck, he told himself—was every inch a prince: tall, hale of limb, fair of face, with a regal bearing and a knowing gleam in his eye. Otto, Baron Neuhalle, had known Egon since he was barely crawling. And he was absolutely terrified of him.
"Sire." Innsford looked suitably grave. "I came as soon as I heard the news, to pledge myself to you anew and offer what ever aid you desire in your time of need." Not grief, Otto noted.
Prince Egon—no, King Egon—smiled. "We appreciate the thought, and we thank your grace for your thoughtfulness. Your inclination to avoid any little misunderstandings is most creditable."
"Sire." Innsford nodded, suppressing any sign of unease.
Egon turned to Niejwein. "Is there any word of that jumped-up horse thief Lofstrom?" he asked offhandedly. Neuhalle kept his face still: to talk of Angbard, Duke Lofstrom, so crudely meant that the wind was blowing in exactly the direction Innsford had predicted. But then, it wasn’t hard to guess that the new monarch—who had hated his grandmother and never seen eye- to- eye with his father—would react viciously towards the single biggest threat to his authority over the kingdom.
"No word as yet, sire." Niejwein paused. "I have sent out couriers," he added. "As soon as he is located he will be invited to present an explanation to you."
"And of my somewhat- absent chief of intelligence?"
"Nor him, sire. He was leading the party of the tinkers at the past evening’s reception, though. I believe he may still be around here."
"Find proof of his death." Egon’s tone was uncompromising. "Bring it to me, or bring him. And the same for the rest of the upstarts. I want them all rounded up and brought to the capital."
"Sire. If they resist ...?"
Egon glanced at Innsford. "Let us speak bluntly. The tinker vermin are as rich a target as they are a tough one, but they are not invulnerable and I will cut them down to size. Through magic and conspiracy, and by taking advantage of the good will of my forefathers, they’ve grown like a canker in my father’s kingdom. But I intend to put a stop to them. One tenth of theirs, your grace, will be yours if you serve me well. Another tenth for our good servant Niejwein here. The rest to be apportioned appropriately, between the Crown and its honest servants. Who will of course want to summon their families to attend the forthcoming coronation, and to take advantage of the security provided for them by the Royal Life Guards in this time of crisis."
Neuhalle shrank inwardly, aghast. He wants hostages of us? He found himself nodding involuntarily. To do aught else would be to brand himself as a rebel, and it seemed that Egon had no intention of being the bluntest scythe in the royal barn: but to start a reign with such an unambiguous display of mistrust boded ill for the future.
"We are your obedient servants," Innsford assured him.
"Good!" Egon smiled broadly. "I look forward to seeing your lady wife in the next week or two, before the campaign begins."
"Campaign—" Neuhalle bit his tongue, but the prince’s eyes had already turned to him. And the prince was smiling prettily, as if all the fires of Hel didn’t burn in the imagination concealed by that golden boy’s face.
"Why, certainly there shall be a campaign," Egon assured him, beaming widely. "There will be no room for sedition in our reign! We shall raise the nobility to its traditional status again, reasserting those values that have run thin in the blood of recent years." He winked. "And to rid the kingdom of the proliferation of witches that have corrupted it is but one part of that program." He gestured idly at the wooden framework taking place on the lawn outside the pavilion. "It’ll make for a good show at the coronation, eh?"
Neuhalle stared. What he had thought to be the framework of a temporary palace was, when seen from this angle, the platform and scaffold of a gallows scaled to hang at least a dozen at a time. "I’m sure your coronation will be a great day, sire," he murmured. "Absolutely, a day to remember."
A damp alleyway at night. Refuse in the gutters, the sickly- sweet stench of rotting potatoes overlaying a much nastier aroma of festering sewage. Stone walls, encrusted in lichen. The chink of metal on cobblestones, and a woman’s high, clear voice echoing over it: "I don’t believe this. Shit! Ouch."
The woman had stumbled out of the shadows mere seconds ago, shaking her head and tucking away a small personal item. She wore a stained greatcoat over a black dress of rich fabric, intricate enough to belong on a stage play or in a royal court, but not here in a dank dead end: as she looked around, her forehead wrinkled in frustration, or pain, or both. "I could go back," she muttered to herself, then took a deep breath: "or not." She glanced up and down the alley apprehensively.
Another chink of metal on stone, and a cracked chuckle: "Well, lookee here! And what’s a fine girl like you doing in a place like this?"
The woman turned to stare into the darkness where the voice had spoken from, clutching her coat around her.
Another chuckle. "Let’s ask her, why don’t we?"
The woman—Countess Helge voh Thorold d’Hjorth, to her vast and squabbling extended family, plain Miriam Beckstein to herself—took a step backwards then stopped, brought up against the crumbling brick wall. Figures solidified out of the shadows beyond the flickering gaslight glow from the end of the alleyway. Her gaze darted across them as she fumbled with the pockets of her coat.
"Heya, pretty lady, what have you got for a growing boy?"
"Show us your tits!"
Miriam counted three of them as her eyes adapted to the darkness. It helped that she’d just stepped over, across a gap thinner than an atom—or greater than 101028 meters, depending how you measured it—from a lawn outside a burning palace, the night punctuated by the roar of cannon and the staccato cracking of the guards’ pistols. Three of them, she realized, a sick tension in the pit of her stomach, one of them’s on the ground, crouching, or...?
The standing figure came closer and she saw that he was skinny and short, not much more than a boy, bowlegged, his clothing ragged. At five foot six Miriam didn’t think of herself as tall, but she could almost look down on the top of his head. Unfortunately this also gave her a good view of the knife clutched in his right hand.
Desperation and a silvery edge of suppressed rage broke her paralysis. "Fuck off!" She stepped forward, away from the wall, hands balling into fists in her black velvet gloves. "Right, that’s it. I’ve had enough!"
The evening had started badly. She was already under house arrest in Niejwein, with a suspended sentence of death hanging over her head, and Miriam’s great-uncle had casually informed her that she was to be married off to the king’s youngest son—damaged goods, brain-damaged goods at that—and the betrothal would be announced that evening. Then, at the very court reception where she was due to be bought and sold like a prize heifer, something had gone so very badly off the rails that she still could barely believe it. There’d been blood flowing in rivers on the marble- floored corridors, brutal figures moving through the palace with guns in their hands: and she’d cut and run, only to find herself here: facing a back-alley mugging or worse on the streets of New London, shadowy ragmen lurching out of the muck and stench to menace her with their demands—
The man with the knife looked surprised for a moment. Then he darted forward, as if to punch her. Miriam felt a light blow across her ribs as he danced back. "Oof!" He was skinny, and short, and she outreached him, and his face was a frozen picture of surprise as she grabbed his arm, yanked him closer, stomped down on his foot, and then jerked her knee up inside his thigh. Just like teacher said, she thought, remembering the self- defense class she’d taken—what, two years? three years?—ago. Her assailant made a short, whimpering gasp, then dropped like a log, rolling on the ground in pain. Miriam looked past him, hunting for his friends.
The one standing behind him took one look at her as if he’d seen a ghost, then turned tail and fled. "Doan’ leave me!" wailed the third in a thick accent, waving spidery arms at the ground: there was a rattling noise. Miriam stared. He’s got no legs she realized as he pawed at the ground with hands like oars, scooting away on a crude cart. Why did the other one run—she put a hand to her chest. There was a rip in her stolen coat. That’s funny. She frowned, stuck a finger through the hole, and felt the matching rip in the outer fabric of her dress where the knife had slid across the boned front. "Damn!" She looked down. The little guy with the knife lay at her feet, twitching and gasping for breath. The knife lay beside him in the gutter: the blade was about three inches long and wickedly sharp. "You little shit!" She hauled up her skirts and kicked him in the ribs with all her might. Then she knelt down and took the knife.
The red haze of fury began to clear. She looked at the moaning figure on the cobblestones and shuddered, then stepped round him and quickly walked to the end of the alleyway. Cold sweat slicked her spine, and her heart pounded so hard it seemed about to burst. I could have been killed, she thought dizzily, tugging her coat into place with jerky motions, her hands shaking with the adrenaline aftershock. It wasn’t the first time, but it never failed to horrify her afterwards. She moved unconsciously towards the street lights, panicky- tense and alert for any sign that knife- boy’s friends had stopped running and were coming back for her. He tried to stab me! She felt sick to the pit of her stomach, and her usual post-world- walking headache had intensified unbearably, thumping in time with her pulse. I’ve got to get help, she realized. Got to find Erasmus.
Miriam had grown up in Boston, in the United States of America, in a world where things made sense. Random spavined beggars in alleyways didn’t try to gut you like a fish. There was no king- emperor in New York— New London, as they called it over here, in this world— no zeppelins, either. She’d had a job as an investigative journalist working for a leading tech business magazine, and a mother who she knew had adopted her when she was a baby, and a solid sense of her own identity. But it had all gone out of the window nine months ago, when she’d discovered that she was a long- lost relative of the Clan, a tight- knit body of world- walkers from another, far more primitive world.
The Medicis of their timeline, the Clan traded between worlds, parallel universes Miriam had heard them called. Which was bad news because the Gruinmarkt, where they came from, hadn’t progressed much past a high-medieval civilization of marcher kingdoms up and down the eastern seaboard; in the world of the United States, the Clan was the main heroin connection for New En gland. Miriam’s ingrained habit of sticking her nose into any business that took her interest—especially when it was explicitly forbidden—had landed her in a metric shitload of trouble with the Clan. And things had gotten even worse with the shockingly unexpected fight at the Summer Palace in Niejwein. Miriam had ducked out (with the aid of a furtively acquired world- walking locket) and ended up here, in New London. In another world that made little sense to her—but where she did, at least, speak the language passably well.
I’ve got to find Erasmus, she told herself, holding onto the thought as if it was a charm to ward off panic. The twisting road at the end of the alleyway was at least lit by rusting gas lamps. There was nobody in sight, so she put on a burst of speed, until she rounded a curve to see a main road ahead, more lights, closed shop fronts, a passing streetcar grinding its wheels on the corner with a shower of sparks from the overhead pickups. Whoa. She slowed, eyebrows furrowed, shoulders tensing as if there was a target pasted right above her spine at the base of her neck. I can’t go anywhere like this ... !
She stopped at the end of the side street, panting as she took stock. I’ve got no money, she realized. Which was not good, but there was worse: I’m dressed like ... like what? Clothing wasn’t cheap in New Britain; that had been a surprise for her the first time she came here. People didn’t wear fancy dress or strange countercultural outfits, or rags—unless they could afford no better. If she’d had the right locket to reach New York, her own world, she might have passed for an opera buff or a refugee from a Goth nightclub: but here in New London she’d stick out like a sore thumb. And she did not want to stand out. To mark herself out for special attention might attract the attention of the police, and the word had a different (and much more sinister) meaning here. I need somewhere to blend in quick, or get a change. Contact Erasmus. But Erasmus was what, two hundred miles away, in Boston? What was that place he mentioned? She racked her brains. Woman called Bishop. Some place, satirist, Ho garth, that’s it. Hogarth House, Hogarth—
A cab was clattering along the nearly- empty high street. Miriam took a step forward and extended her right hand, trying to hold it steadily. The cabbie reined in his horse and peered down at her. "Yuss?"
Miriam drew herself up. "I want to go to Hogarth, Ho garth Villas," she said. "Immediately."
The cabby’s reaction wasn’t what she expected: a low chuckle. "Oh yuss indeedy, your ladyship. Hop right in and I’ll take you right there in a jiffy, I will!" Huh? Miriam almost hesitated for a moment. But he obviously knew the place. What’s so funny about it? She nodded, then grabbed hold of the rail and pulled herself up. The cabbie made no move to help her in, other than to look down at her incuriously. But if he had any opinion of her odd outfit he kept it to himself, for which she was grateful. As soon as she was on the foot plate, he twitched the reins.
I’m going to have to pay him, Miriam thought, furiously racking her brains for ideas as the cab rattled across the stone pavements. What with? She fumbled in her great-coat’s pockets. One of them disgorged a foul- smelling cheesecloth bag full of loose tobacco. The other contained nothing but a loose button. Oh, great. They were turning past Highgate now, down in what corresponded to the East Village in her world. Not an upmarket neighborhood in New London, but there were worse places to be—like inside a thief- taker’s lockup for trying to cheat a cabbie of his fare. What was the woman’s name, Bishop? Margaret Bishop? I’m going to have to ask her to pay for me. Miriam tensed up. Or I could world- walk back to the other side, wait a couple of hours, and—but her headache was already telling her no. If she crossed back to the Gruinmarkt she’d be good for nothing for at least three hours, and knowing her luck she’d come out somewhere much worse than an alley full of muggers. For the time being, returning to the other side was unthinkable. Damn it, why did James have to give me the wrong locket?
The journey seemed interminable, divided into a million segments by the plodding clatter of hooves. Probably a yellow cab in her own familiar New York would have gotten across town no faster—there was less traffic here— but her growing sense of unease was driving her frantic, and the lack of acceleration made her grind her teeth. That’s what’s wrong with this world, she realized, there’s no acceleration. You can go fast by train or airship, but you never get that surging sense of purpose—
The traffic thickened, steam cars rattling and chuffing past the cab. The lights were brighter, some of the street lights running on electricity now: and then there was a wide curving boulevard and a big row of town houses with iron railings out front, and a busy rank of cabs outside it, and people bustling around. "Hogarth Villas coming up, mam, Gin Lane on your left, Beer Alley to your right." The cabbie bent down and leered at her between his legs. "That’ll be sixpence ha’penny."
"The doorman will pay," Miriam said tensely, mentally crossing her fingers.
"Is that so?" The leer vanished, replaced by an expression of contempt. "Tell it to the rozzers!" He straightened up: "I know your type." A rattle of chain and a leather weather shield began to unroll over the front of the cab, blocking off escape. "I’ll get me fee out of you one way or the other, it’s up to you how you pays."
"Hey!" Miriam waved at a caped figure standing by the gate, pushing the side of the leather screen aside. "You! I need to see Lady Bishop! Now!"
The caped figure turned towards her and stepped up towards the cab. The cabbie up top swore: "Bugger off!"
"What did you say?" Miriam quailed. The man in the cape was about six feet six tall, built like a brick outhouse, and his eyes were warm as bullets.
"I need to see Lady Bishop," Miriam repeated, trying to keep a deadly quaver out of her voice. "I have no money and it’s urgent," she hissed. "I was told she was here."
"I see." Bullet- eyes tracked upwards towards the cabbie. "How much?"
"Sixpence, guv, that’s all I need," the cabbie whined.
Bullet- eyes considered for a moment. Then a hand with fingers as thick as a baby’s forearm extended upwards. A flash of silver. "You. Come with me."
The weather screen was yanked upwards: Miriam lost no time clambering down hastily. Bullet- eyes gestured towards a set of steps leading down one side of the nearest town house. "That way."
"That—" Miriam was already halfway to the steps before several other details of the row of houses sank in. Lights on and laughter and music coming from the ground- floor windows: lights out and nothing audible coming from upstairs. The front doors gaped wide open. Men on the pavement outside, dressed for a good time by New London styles. Women visible through the open French doors in outfits that bared their knees—oh, she thought, feeling herself flush. So that’s what’s going on. Damn Erasmus for not telling me! Halfway down the steps, which led to a cellar window and a narrower, grubbier, doorway, another thought struck her: a brothel would be a good place for Erasmus’s friends to meet up. Lots of people could come and go at all hours and nobody would think it strange if they took measures to avoid being identified.
Even her current fancy dress probably wasn’t exceptional. Erasmus Burgeson, almost the first person she’d met on her arrival in New Britain, was connected to the Leveler underground, radical democrats in a country that had never had an American revolution, where the divine right of kings was still the unquestionable way the world was run. Which meant—
The door was snatched open in front of her. Miriam looked round. Bullet-eyes was right behind her, not threatening, but impossible to avoid. "I need to see—"
"Shut it." He was implacable. "Go in." It was a scullery, stone sinks full of dishwater and a couple of maids up to their elbows in it, a primitive clanking dishwasher hissing ominously and belching steam in the background: "through there, that way." He steered her towards a door at the back that opened onto a narrow, gloomy servant’s corridor and a spiral staircase. "Upstairs."
Another passage. Miriam registered the distant sound of creaking bedsprings and groaning, chatter and laughter and a piano banging away on the other side of a thin plasterboard wall. Her chest was tight: it felt hard to breathe in here. "Is it much further?" she asked.
"Stop." Bullet-eyes grabbed a door handle and shoved, glanced inside. "You can wait here. Tell me again what you came for."
Miriam tensed and looked at him. She’d seen dozens of men like this before, hard men, self- disciplined, capable of just about anything—her heart sagged. "Erasmus Burgeson told me I should come here and talk to Lady Bishop next time I was in town," she managed to explain. "I wasn’t planning on being here quite this early, without warning." She sagged against the door- frame, abruptly exhausted. "I’m in trouble."
"Has it followed you?" His voice was even, quiet, and it made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end as if someone had stepped over her open grave.
"No," she managed, "not here. I lost it on the way."
"Inside. I’ll be back." She stumbled into the room. He flicked a switch and a dim incandescent bulb glimmered into light. "I may be some time." The door closed behind her. The room was a servant’s bedroom, barely longer than the narrow bed that occupied half of it. There was a window, but it opened onto a shaft of brickwork, another darkened window barely visible opposite. Click. Miriam spun round, a fraction of a second too late to see the lock mechanism latch home.
"Shit," she moaned quietly, "shit!" She sat down on the bed and rested her head in her hands, her energy and will to resist fading frighteningly fast. It had been a long and terrible day, and even standing up felt like a battle. What have I done? Erasmus was nuts, or playing a sick joke on her, sending her to a brothel to talk to the madam: although, on further thought, it didn’t seem particularly strange compared to the rest of this eventful day. She’d been dragged out of her house arrest, shanghaied into a forced wedding, just missed being blown up by a bomb, seen the king and the prince she’d been engaged to gunned down (and who knew what the hell was going to happen in the Gruinmarkt now?) and run into an old heartthrob (and what the hell was he doing there, working for the DEA?). Then she’d fled for her life, been attacked by muggers, menaced by a cabbie who thought she was a prostitute, and finally locked up in another goddamned prison cell, this time in a brothel. I’m going to go mad, she thought dizzily, lying down on the lumpy mattress. I can’t take much more of this. But instead, she fell asleep. And that was how they found her when they came for her, an hour after midnight.
It was shaping up to be a night to remember for all the wrong reasons, Mike decided. The flat metallic banging of musketry outside blended with the screams of wounded men and the sullen roar of the burning palace to form a hideous cacophony, punctuated by the occasional crack of modern smokeless- powder firearms and shouted orders. This is worse than that mess down in Colombia, that mountain village. What was it called?
He inched carefully out from behind the broken wall. The stench of burnt gunpowder and charred wood lent an acrid taste to the nighttime air. About four meters from the wall, the indistinct shapes of a row of trees loomed out of the darkness. He turned his head, looking around cautiously.
That nameless village on a forested mountainside in Colombia: he’d been there as part of a DEA training team, working with the Colombian army to weed out cocaine plantations in the hilly back country. What he hadn’t realized at first was that the cocaine plantations belonged to the other government—the Maoist guerrillas working to overthrow the authorities controlled vast swathes of territory, had battalions of expressionless men in green with machine guns and rifles. It wasn’t a police raid, it was more like an army spearhead advancing into hostile territory. And then the shooting started...
He twitched back into focus, scanning the area for threats. The palace behind him was burning merrily, flames reaching through holes in the steeply pitched roof. Doors and windows had been blown out: some were half-blocked by improvised barricades where the defenders were trying to hold out. It was full dark, and they were trying to fight a battle against attackers who were shooting from outside the circle of light. The noises were getting louder, Mike noted. More banging of muskets, the hollow shotgun- like thump of a blunderbuss, then yells and a distant drumming of hooves, the sound of many horses running. He turned to face the darkness, closed his eyes for ten long seconds to let them adjust, then rose to a crouch and dashed towards the tree line, zigzagging madly and praying he’d make it without putting a foot in a rabbit hole or catching a tree root.
At least I got Miriam out of there. He dived past a tree, ducked under a low branch, and crouched down again to scan for watchers. Wonder if she’ll call. It was just too weird: he’d known she’d be here, hell, that was the whole reason they’d inserted him, to see if he could make contact—but actually seeing her in the midst of all this weird medieval squalor, dolled up like an extra from a historical drama, brought it all home to him. She was part of the Clan: she was a world-walker, one of the narcoterrorist dynasty that was running drugs up and down the eastern seaboard. And she wanted out!
But he’d blown it. You’re going to make her an offer she can’t refuse, said the colonel, and instead he’d come out with the truth, limp-dicked and apologetic, and as good as told her to go to ground. Phone me in a week or so, he’d told her. Yeah, right. And all because he’d seen it coming, like a slow- motion train wreck: Miriam was about as unlikely to cooperate with Smith as anyone he could imagine. And he couldn’t stomach the idea of them turning her into a mule, like the guy in the cellar with the collar-bomb and the handcuffs, terrified that Mike was going to execute him.
Something moved in the brush behind him. Mike spun round, gun raised.
"Sir!" The hissed voice was familiar: Mike lowered his pistol immediately.
"That you, Hastert?"
The shadow in front of him nodded. "O’Neil’s twenty yards that way. Go to him now." Bulky night-vision goggles half-covered Hastert’s face, in surreal contrast to his baggy trousers and chain mail vest. He’d acquired a gun from somewhere, some kind of machine pistol with a bulky silencer attached.
"Okay, I’m going, I’m going." Mike scuttled away, his pulse hammering with the adrenaline aftershock. Hastert and O’Neil were part of the forward support team in Zone Blue, specialists yanked out of Delta Force to handle the sharp end of the Family Trade Organization’s intel operation on the ground in the parallel universe the criminals came from. Dangerous men, but it was their job to get him out of this alive. I could have told her to come with me, he told himself. Could have lied, offered her witness protection. Hell, she asked for it! We could have gotten her out.
But Miriam’s potential value to Colonel Smith lay in her connection to the Clan hierarchy; and everything had gone to pieces. "They’ve got my mom," she’d said conversationally, right after he’d shot the soldier who was trying to murder her. And the royal they’d been trying to marry her off to against her wishes was dead—what the hell was going on? "O’Neil?" he whispered.
"Over here, sir. Keep down."
O’Neil was crouched behind a deadfall. "What’s going on?"
"Looks like they’re making whoopee." His grin was a ghostly crescent in the darkness. "Don’t you worry, we’ll get you out of here."
A moment of rustling and crunching, and Sergeant Hastert appeared. "Sitrep, Pete."
"Sam’s on point." O’Neil gestured farther into the trees, where the ground fell away from the low hill on which the palace had stood. "He’s seen no sign of anybody in the woods. Bad news is, the aggressor faction have got sentries out and they’re covering the approaches from the road. There’s maybe thirty of them and they’ve got riders—we’re cut off."
"Get him back here, then."
O’Neil vanished into the darkness. "How bad is it?" asked Mike.
"Could be worse: nobody’s shooting at us." Hastert turned to look at him. "But we’d better be out of here by dawn. Did you get what you wanted?"
"Yes and no." Mike hunkered down. "Everything we thought we knew about what was going on here is out of date. I got to talk to my contact, but she’s in deep shit herself—didn’t have much time, they were trying to kill her—"
A noise like a door the size of a mountain slamming shut a hundred meters away rocked Mike back on his heels.
"Down!" Hastert lurched against him, shoving Mike’s face down on a matted bed of branches. Moments later, debris thudded off the branches above their heads, spattering down on the summer-dry soil. "Get moving, we’re too close."
The next hour passed in a nightmarish crawl through the dark forest, heading always away from the boom and crash of gunfire and the shouts of the combatants. The royal palace, although nominally within the city of Niejwein, was surrounded by a walled garden the size of a large park—large enough that the palace itself was out of easy gunshot range of its neighbors. But in the chaos of the apparent coup, the shooters seemed to be inside the compound. Stray shots periodically came tearing through the treetops, so that Mike needed no urging to keep his head close to the dirt.
After an interminable crawl, Hastert tapped him on the shoulder. "Stop here, wait till I get back." He vanished into the darkness as silently as a ghost. Mike shivered violently. Trouble? he wondered. There was nothing he could do; on this part of the mission he was baggage, as much as Miriam would have been if he’d tried to extract her from what ever the hell that weird scene back at the palace had been about. I can’t believe I shot that guy without warning.
Mike reran the scene in his mind’s eye; the perp—even now, he couldn’t drop the law enforcement outlook—with the knife, trying to stab the woman in the black gown, the stink of burning wood, snarling fear, taking the time to aim carefully, waiting for a clear shot as the woman shoved back hard against her assailant . . . then the shock of recognition. It’s her! Despite the longer, intricately coiled hair, the drawn expression, the bruise on her cheek, and the rich Victorian widow’s weeds, it was like nothing had changed since that ambiguous last dinner at Wang’s, just off Kendall Square. The shock of recognition was still with him: the realization that, all along, the world he moved in was smaller than he’d realized, that during the whole fruitless search for the east coast phantom network he’d been dating a woman who could have—if she herself had known what she was— put him right on top of it. If. Getting involved hadn’t been good for her. They’ve got Mom. And something about an arranged marriage. The smell of raw sewage running through the gutters in the middle of the unpaved road—
"Wake up." A hand touched his shoulder.
"I’m awake." Mike looked round. Hastert crouched beside him.
"There’s an open area about fifty yards wide before the wall, which is eight feet high. Just the other side of the wall there’s a road. O’Neil’s setting up a distraction. We have"—Hastert glanced at his watch—"six minutes to get to the edge of the apron and wait. Then we have thirty seconds to get over the wall and across the road. Take the second alley on the left, proceed down it for twenty yards then take the right turn, fourth door on the left is transit house gamma. You ready?"
Mike nodded. "Guess so."
"Then let’s get going."
"Shit. He didn’t."
"I’m afraid so."
(Sigh.) "That means we’re down by what, two? Three? Seats on the council. And the king. This is an absolute disaster. Who else have we lost?"
(Pause.) "Of our party, most of them. The dowager Hildegarde is yammering her head off, but she survived, as did her daughter. James Lee, we rescued. He’s concussed but will live—"
"Small mercies. Damn her for—damn her!"
"It’s not your fault, your grace, or hers, that this had to happen at the worst time." (Sigh.) "Continue." "We lost Wilem, Maris, Erik, three juniors of Hjorth- Arnesen’s cadet branch, and four others of middling rank.
Excerpted from The Merchants’ War by Charles Stross
Copyright © 2007 by Charles Stross
Published in October 2007 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.