S. M. Stirling presents the stunning and epic conclusion to the New York Times bestselling Change series, now in paperback. Many years ago, when advanced technology failed and humanity found itself in a turbulent, postapocalyptic world, extraordinary men and women birthed a new society from the ashes.
Two generations after the Change, Crown Princess "rlaith struggles to preserve the hard-won peace her father brought to Montival—the former western North America. But the Change opened many doors, and through them Powers strong and strange and terrible came, to walk once more among humankind.
With her fire-forged friend and ally, Japanese Empress Reiko, "rlaith must take up her sword to stop the spread of the mad malignancy behind the Yellow Raja, who has imprisoned her brother Prince John. And from the emerging superpower of Mongolia, the Sky-Blue Wolves of the High Steppe ride once more beneath the banner of Genghis Khan—the thunder of their hooves resounding across a world in turmoil.
About the Author
S. M. Stirling is the author of many science fiction and fantasy novels. A former lawyer and an amateur historian, he lives with his wife, Jan.
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Aupuni o Hawaii
(Kingdom of Hawaii)
Change Year 46/2044 AD
Órlaith Arminger Mackenzie felt the massive frame of the frigate Sea-Leopard quiver beneath her feet as the fourteen-shot broadside cut loose, the catapults on the gun-deck below shaking the thick Douglas fir and Garry-oak structure of the warship as it sailed parallel to the coastline and across the land-breeze with a slow rocking-horse motion. The three masts and their stripped minimal shapes of battle-sail towered above her, and the other five frigates of the Montivallan Navy squadron traced a line behind her that might have been drawn with a ruler, white wakes against the cerulean blue of the ocean.
A little farther out from shore were the smaller, less drilled ships of the allied fleets, the navies of Hawai'i and Dai-Nippon, and the transports and barges that bore the troops who would storm ashore to put right the sneak attack and invasion. It was the task of the warships to soften their way.
Bolts and eighteen-pound roundshot arched out, a near-flicker as they left the launching troughs, arching away into invisibility with distance. That drew a merciful veil over what would be happening on shore as they slashed into the massed ranks of the Korean invasion forces, the dense black mass on the white beach, sparkling here and there with edged metal. They raised their square shields in a futile gesture against missiles designed to shatter the thick timber frames of warships or the stone of fortress walls.
What was it Da said? Órlaith thought grimly. Yes, that it's a great pity that fighting evil starts with killing evil's conscripted farmers.
Odors of tarred rope and wood, hot canvas and sweat and metal oiled with canola gone slightly rancid in the mild warmth overwhelmed the scented breeze off the land, that itself was tainted with the smoke of burning homesteads where the invaders from the east had harried among the Hawaiian workshops and settlements around Pearl Harbor. Behind the Montivallan ships some smoke still rose from the ocean itself, where the enemy fleet had met its fate five days ago and was now mainly drifting wreckage . . . and bloated bodies feeding the gulls. Sweat ran down Órlaith's flanks into the padded arming jacket and trews beneath her suit of plate, light and flexible though that titanium-alloy marvel of smithcraft was, but this wasn't nearly as bad as some desert summers she'd worn it through back home.
Still, when she took a dipper of water from the scuttlebutt with a murmur of thanks to the sailor, it slid down like the pure product of a mountain spring, stale and warm and tanged with the chemicals that kept it safe as it was. You had to be careful about things like that, though: it occurred to her that if she made a casual joke and asked if there wasn't cold beer instead, some officious twit might run around in a panic trying to find actual cold beer and getting in everyone's way.
While she was off looking for the Grasscutter Sword with Reiko-and dodging the people her mother the High Queen had sent to drag her back if they could-she'd gotten used to being around only her core of followers who knew her well and were friends as well as vassals. It was irritating to readjust to people who saw only the rank, though she couldn't really blame them, since that was all they could know.
"Time to get closer," Admiral Naysmith commanded quietly, standing at ease in her white linen tropical-service uniform jacket and gold-braided epaulettes and fore-and-aft cocked hat. "Apparently they use all their artillery as dual-purpose, and they didn't have time to dismount any from their fleet. Which they didn't expect to lose, of course. Unwise to be so specialized."
Empress Reiko of Dai-Nippon spoke . . . in her own language, though her originally indescribable and purely book-learned English was reasonably understandable now after most of a year of dogged effort:
"The jinnikukaburi navy is built for landing raiding troops and taking them off again. Fighting at sea is secondary for them."
Órlaith translated, since she had perfect modern Nihonjin courtesy of the Sword of the Lady she bore, though she tactfully gave post-Change coinage of jinnikukaburi as the enemy.
The literal rendering was something on the order of human-flesh cockroach or possibly cannibal bug monsters.
Considering what her folk's scant survivors had suffered since the Change from the reavers who came across the Sea of Japan, Reiko's attitude was understandable, and she had a mild case compared to most of her countrymen. Particularly since the enemy did eat the flesh of those they killed . . . and one another, when they were really hungry or someone was being punished. They didn't always kill you first, either.
But Montival wanted to keep it plain they were fighting Korea's demon-ridden sorcerer tyrants, not the land or the people, however much they'd been corrupted by that tyranny and however theoretical the distinction most of the time. Distance made that easier. Reiko had admitted the usefulness of the distinction, but rather grudgingly; most of her subjects simply wanted to kill them all.
Naysmith gave a respectful salute.
"Thank you, Your Majesty, that explains a good deal," she said to Reiko, and added: "Domo arigato," with a pronunciation Órlaith's ear caught as just as bad as Reiko's English had been when they first met.
Then the Royal Navy commander went back to watching the beach through a leveled telescope, her square blocky face calm beneath the small blue brand-scar of the Bearkiller A-List between her brows. Only the observers in the tops or held aloft by great man-bearing kites cabled to the sterns of the repeater frigates had a better view. If the enemy troops pulled back from the beach the allied assault could come ashore uncontested beneath its shelter . . . but if they didn't, they had to stand under the hammer.
As Órlaith's mother had said to her once, battle was always a set of choices, and the mark of a really good commander was to present the other side with a series of choices that all amounted to: damned if you do, damned if you don't, each set worse than the last until they ended up with no alternatives between surrender and die.
And Da had laughed and marked out some maneuvers he'd seen on the table with crusts and saltshakers and gravy boats and wineglasses and added:
And never, never give them the gift of time to recover from a mistake.
His finger had stirred the improvised markers; she remembered the big long-fingered hands vividly, the scars and nicks and battered look of them and the way the red-gold hairs stood out against the weathered tan and the thick swordsman's wrists that hardly dimpled in at all from the forearm.
Looks easy here, does it not, my darling girl, here when we're cool and collected and can see it all? And you say, How could this captain or that have blundered so? But ah, when your heart is pounding and there's dust in your eyes and much depends on the next decision and everyone's screaming at you for this or that . . . then it's hard, hard. Any fool can hit, timing is much less common, so it is. The same punch can break your knuckles or his face, depending on when you throw it. And waiting because you can't decide . . . that's a decision too, and always a bad one.
Naysmith went on: "Switch to napalm shell. Open up the fleet and tack in succession, conforming to Sea-Leopard. All ships keep full lookouts on each other. Minimal sail, dead slow, just enough to keep steerage way, prepare to strike sail and drop anchor on the word of command. Captain Edwards, you will take this ship in about another three hundred yards closer to shore for our next pass to establish the bombardment line."
"Aye-aye, Admiral," he replied.
She'd just made a vote of confidence in his ship-handling skills and those of the other frigate-captains, since it was the sort of maneuver that looked easy and stately . . . unless it ended in disaster. The local pilots their new ally King Kalakaua had supplied were a help, but the Montivallan frigates were also deeper-keeled than anything they were used to. And since there was no time to do their own surveys they'd just have to hope the charts were accurate, which so far they had been.
"Then make it so."
The Sea-Leopard's captain echoed the command, and signal flags relayed it to the rest of the allied fleet. The ship came about as the four hands at the helm spun the fore-and-aft paired wheels, the view past the distant bowsprit circling with ponderous certainty, land and then sea again as the third officer pointed with his cane and called:
"Thus . . . thus . . . very well, thus!"
A volley of commands via speaking-trumpet ran upward as the sails were adjusted by the crew aloft, and deck-teams hauled away and cursed the men-at-arms of the Protector's Guard and the kilted ranks of the High Queen's Archers who crowded into their working-space.
Órlaith could look down from the quarterdeck through a hatchway and into a part of the ordered confusion of sweating backs heaving at the levers of the hydraulic pumps that cocked the massive springs of the throwing weapons. Now they rushed to the other broadside as if the shrill twittering of the bosun's pipe were playing directly on their nervous systems, adding to the slight canting of the deck. Behind them the portside catapult-ports slammed shut like so many doors, sending the gundeck into darkness for an instant before the ones on the starboard snapped open and threw their shafts of light into the gloom.
The catapult-captains were gingerly laying the fireballs in the troughs of their machines with swift cautious motions, using tools like a giant version of kitchen-tongs to lift globes of ceramic or thick glass filled with a sticky mixture that would cling and burn inextinguishably. Each was wrapped in skeins of cord soaked in the same to act as fuses, and the shells were carried up from the metal-lined magazines below the waterline in sets of four, encased in rectangular steel boxes that could be slammed airtight-shut.
Napalm shells on wooden ships made everyone safety-conscious. The hulls of the Montivallan vessels had salvaged sheet aluminum covering to protect against fire on the outside, but within it was just timber.
A uniform fourteen-fold touch from fire sticks set the wrapping around the shells afire, flickering yellow and trails of black smoke, and the gunners gripped the lanyards as the last adjustments were made to the elevation and traverse wheels. They watched as the officer at the ladder in the rear sounded his whistle and slashed his cane down.
TUUNNNNGGG, as the springs-salvaged from the suspensions of pre-Change mining trucks-drove the paired throwing-arms forward whap! into the rubber-padded stops, so fast that there was no apparent time between the release and the stop, just here and then there. The frames slammed backward violently, slowed and then stopped by the hydraulic recoil cylinders that recovered the energy for the cocking mechanism, and then the pumpers were at their violent labor again. The whole was as choreographed as a ballet, and had to be, when forces of that strength were unleashed around vulnerable human flesh.
The ship shuddered again, and this time the broadside's missiles trailed smoke and fire all the way to the shore hundreds of yards away. Some burst too soon and left arcs of yellow fire in the air, but more cracked open just over the enemy's ranks and sent spraying gouts of liquid flame into their faces. More still ploughed into them and shattered and scattered burning gobbets that clung and ran down beneath armor to turn men into torches that ran and screamed and then fell to smolder and stink.
The enemy formation heaved and split, then settled down again with an almost inhuman discipline.
Or supernatural, Órlaith thought. This is not just a contention of kings, or tribes fighting over borders like wolf packs over their hunting-runs.
Excerpted from "The Sky-Blue Wolves"
Copyright © 2018 S.M. Stirling.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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