I’m giving you the next two (Actually four but two are non-consecutive) chapters. Mostly because the headache is still killing me, and I’m having trouble finishing the story, as my fingers do the weirdest exchanges.
You asked for it. Ignore “magic.” When it manifested it was the only word this lost colony had for what they did. This will worry Skippy A LOT.
You guys want to know why I’m diffident? THIS is why I’m diffident:
The King Is Dead
As he’d feared, the cries and screams echoed, even up in the guarded family wing, at the top of the ancient palace.
Eerlen Troz had rushed up five flights of stairs, the screams and baying of grief accompanying him every step of the way, as he rushed up and up and up. Sometimes a fresh note broke in, and he could almost follow the progression of the news through the various parts of the building. “The king is dead,” was spoken, and the screaming started. Visiting dignitaries in the guest quarters, traders and ambassadors, also in the guest quarters, some muffled sounds that might be from the guard quarters, and he surely hoped the military commanders staying in the palace weren’t howling like peasants who’d lost a child. Up and up and up, rushing and breathless, nodding to the guard at the bottom of each flight of steps, ignoring their pointed look of enquiry, Troz held up his long, ceremonial tunic so as not to trip on it and cursed that he’d not come prepared for this. He’d not been prepared for any of this. He’d expected nothing more than a dinner with Myrrir and the commanders, a discussion of forces and shield holders. And then a quiet night. Maker’s womb, this was the last thing he’d expected. But he must get to the child before someone else did. And it wasn’t even because the child was young and the shock would be great. There were far worse outcomes possible, when the heir to the throne was only fifteen.
By the time he reached the top floor, where the royal family slept, he knew the child – his sireling – would be awake. He was also out of breath, panting, cursing that he was too old for this. Much too old for this. And that it had been far too long a time since he’d crossed Erradi with his bed roll, hunting for his keep.
He opened the door to Brundar’s room, and rushed in, freeing his arm from the guard’s hand which had gone so far as to clutch his forearm. The guard couldn’t think he meant the child harm. It was curiosity. Mere curiosity.
The child was awake and sitting in the middle of the bed that was still too big for him, even when he was close to adult height. He sat, his eyes wide open, staring at the door, giving every impression he expected an attack. Which meant his instincts were good at least.
He was tall, but not yet filled out, a sketch of an adult without the shading, his eyes too large in a too thin and pale face. Those green-blue eyes turned towards Eerlen. Surrounded by the child’s disheveled blond locks with their bare tingeing of bronze, the face had something not quite real, or at least not quite tame. It was a face one expected to see peeking from the shadows of trees in the deep forest, a face that disappeared as soon as seen. The mouth worked. “The screams…. The…” Brundar said, his voice too thin, as though he were much younger. “Was there a breakthrough? Is—”
Oh. That. Well. When there were tapestries and paintings of that catastrophe all over, how could the child not think of that? Eerlen shook his head, more hoping than sure that it was reassuring. His breath had almost steadied. He took a big swallow of frigid air. These walls didn’t keep the heat in, no matter how big the fire in the ornate fireplace. The palace might be a confection of something they no longer had a name for, in shapes stone could not copy. But whoever the ancients were, they were more resistant to cold than Erradians or had something other than fire to keep them warm. He was grateful for the air’s coolness at any rate. And for the need to do something, to keep the horrible after effects of the death of a ruler going, before he could stop and think he’d lost his lover, also, and break down and cry like a nomad at a funeral.
But I am a nomad. At least at heart. And this is a funeral. Or a wake, he thought, but didn’t say. Instead he stepped towards the bed, and knelt so as not to tower over the child. Stretching his hands, he took hold of Brundar’s hands, and held them in his. “Brundar,” he said and hesitated for a moment. “Your parent came home…. Was brought home. He was wounded. He has … he has died. You are the ruler of Eles.”
He meant to swear his fealty then and there, but he should have known better.
It is not like he doesn’t come by his wildness naturally.
When that thought came, it was already too late, and the child had leapt from the bed, running on bare feet, wearing only a knee-length nightshirt.
Eerlen got up and followed. He didn’t waste his breath in calling. Brundar was running like a scared colt. And he’d been running towards what scared him since he’d learned to run. Perhaps not the best survival strategy, but he came by that naturally too.
He knew where to go, of course. It wasn’t the first time that Myrrir had been carried in wounded. Warrior king. Eerlen could have spit. He had tried to argue for moderation. In vain. Given the age of the one heir, given the multitude of others who could have claimed the throne sideways, by right of siring, and given that some of those had troops in their following Myrrir should have had more care for his life. For the sake of the child, Eerlen had begged. And been told, He’s my child. He’ll survive.
Yeah, well. He thought, as Brundar, far faster, vanished around the last turn of the last flight of stairs, and onto the ground floor receiving room that had too often served as an infirmary. The guards on the last three flights of stairs had been crying. The news spread.
The bottom floor was a bedlam of people crying, and wiping noses to sleeves and hems of tunics. Eerlen ran past them without even really looking, registering only that there were groups and couples, and people standing alone, pale and crying. Crazy, brave, heedless, and often far too willful. But loved. Myrrir had been loved.
Tears prickled behind his eyes, and he shook his head, as he hurried. No time. Not now. He could always howl later.
He noted without pausing that the yelling in the death chamber – the heated argument that had seen drawn swords – stopped dead as Brundar ran in, and lifted a short prayer to the Maker that the child not be run through by those swords, thereby clearing the way to the more ambitious of the arguing people.
By then he was mere steps behind and erupted into the room in time to see the five adults in the room standing, frozen in the poses they’d obviously held when Brundar ran in.
Khare Sarda of Karrash, his sword still drawn, his dark eyes flashing and Parel Haethlem of Erradi, wearing his blood-stained tunic, his face almost as pale as his pale hair, standing beside him, while facing them were Guinar Ter of Lirridar and Kalal Ad Leed of Brinar. Lords of the four subdomains of Eles, and two of them Brundar’s cross-siblings and used to ruling. All of them either with drawn swords or about to draw them. But worse in that respect was the person by the bed, muscular and somber, the biggest person in the room, his battle leathers stained with blood – how much of it Myrrir’s Eerlen couldn’t guess – his lips clamped firmly together. That would be Lendre Almar, commander of the royal guard and the army of Eles, at least the second after Myrrir. The child of the last commander. And Myrrir’s sireling. Who had always seemed to loathe Eerlen and therefore Brundar, for reasons not quite clear.
You couldn’t have arranged things more disastrously if you’d meant to, lover, Eerlen though, looking to the hasty pile of cushions and furs on which Myrirr had been lain, and which had become his death bed.
Myrrir had never been beautiful. Too many Erradians in his ancestry. A jaw too square, a mouth too strong, and the uncompromisingly direct glance that had flashed from beneath those too-straight eyebrows. Of course, let him get talking and moving, and everyone forgot that. But he’d talk and move no more. Someone had closed his eyes. His hair was still bound for battle. He still wore his battle-leathers, slashed and soaked in blood. They said the dead looked like they were sleeping. Myrrir didn’t. He looked dead.
Nothing too horrible, though his lips had contorted and remained in a final twist of pain, refusing to cry out. And he was pale. Deathly pale. But most of all, it wasn’t Myrrir. The shape might be the same, but something had left. Something was not the same. What was on the bed might be the same form, but it wasn’t Eerlen’s lover. Perhaps because Myrrir had never been able to stand completely still, even when asleep.
There was blood – a pool of it – under the body on the furs. Some of it dripped from the edge of the furs onto the floor, but sluggishly, starting to congeal. The child should not have seen that. The child—
Brundar stood very still. A statue in the shape of an adolescent on the edge of maturity. Arrested where he’d stopped in his flight, one hand forward, as though to touch Myrrir and wake him – if anything could! – one foot advanced, bare against the age-darkened oak, his nightshirt looking flimsy and far too short, even his hair seeming to have frozen in place, a mass of curls thrown back by his flight. He was so still he might not have been breathing.
And the other five watched him, their eyes intent. Eerlen would feel better if he could swear the look was not that of a wolf staring at a rabbit.
He didn’t dare touch Brundar. Almost afraid to break the moment, which would break, inevitably, the minute the child started to wail, Eerlen reached under the hem of his tunic for his ankle knives, one worn on each ankle, and that against etiquette and risking Myrrir’s laughter – Are you afraid a snow leopard will jump you in the palace, or a Drahal, sweetling? – and fuck the settled habit of not carrying swords except in battle. He was a fool to have complied even minimally and outwardly. Now he wished for his sword, his lance and his bow. And all too little. He had a feeling the minute Brundar wailed, the tableau would break and minutes later the child would be dead, leaving the throne of Eles to be fought over by the three half-siblings remaining in that room. Eerlen bet on Lendre who outmassed both Sarda and Ter. And was more battle hardened than mere governors. But it wouldn’t matter to him, because he’d be dead before they cut down his sireling, his daggers broken against those swords.
Brundar took a deep shaky breath. It sounded too loud in the absolute silence of the room. He wheeled around, standing, square shouldered and crossing his arms on his chest, looking much like Lendre Almar probably without knowing it.
The voice that came out was controlled and even, with an edge of offense. “Why wasn’t I informed before it came to this? Why wasn’t I called before the news went out?” The two questions flew like slaps at Lendre whose eyes opened wide, startled, and then Brundar turned to the four across the death bed. “And what is this? Why are swords out in a death chamber? Is this the behavior of the Lords of Eles?”
For a moment it hung in the balance. Eerlen didn’t know but could suspect how fast the child had thought and judged the reactions of those in the room, and taken advantage of his moment of absolute quietness to plan. It probably wouldn’t work, but if he had one chance it was that: sound as much as possible like Myrrir, assume authority and carry it through on that. Myrrir had been loved. For all his faults, for all his errors, he had been loved. And three of the adults in this room were his sirelings. And vassals of the new king. If they’d own it.
Eerlen became aware his heart was thudding so fast he felt dizzy. And he hardly dared breathe. The daggers felt cold as he gripped them, one in each hand.
Lendre broke first. The look of surprise passed. For a second something like laughter fled behind his eyes, and then his face was impassive again, and he fell to his knees without grace, the sound of his knees hitting the floor resounding on the wood. “King of Eles,” he said, turning to Brundar. “Defender of the lands, Lord of the people, receive my fealty.”
If Brundar was surprised, he didn’t show it. He nodded and waved at Lendre. “Stand, Almar. Commander of my guard.” The off hand acknowledgement and confirmation of post might have been done by Myrrir himself. He then looked enquiringly at the four governors. He said nothing.
Eerlen, weak with relief they had Almar and his sword, and by extension the armies behind Brundar, swallowed hard, because he would not cry, not even with relief. He caught the edge of a glance from Almar, a minimal lift of the corner of the commander’s lips and wondered if he was being mocked, but it didn’t matter. He wiped his sleeve across his face, to hide his expression. Nothing mattered as much as Brundar’s survival.
Ter tried a protest. He would. He was the oldest of Myrrir’s sirelings, rising thirty, and he had thought himself the heir to the throne for half that time. “Almar, you cannot be serious,” he said. “Brundar Mahar is a child. His sire who will reign behind the throne is an ice nomad, barely broken to civilization! Unless you mean to rule behind the throne yourself.”
Lendre knew better than to answer, and Brundar snapped, “No one will reign behind the throne, Ter.” It was said in the tone of an adult correcting a child. No real anger, though plain irritation. And no defensiveness.
Sarda put away his sword, in measured gestures, and Haethlem slid his into the sheathe at his waist. Sarda fell to his knees first, and pledged his fealty and his domain of Karrash to Brundar. Haethlem pledged fealty and Erradi – for what that was worth with war raging and invaders at its core and Haethlem’s own household more often on the run than not – and then Ad Leed pledged. Leaving Ter standing, looking sullen. To be fair, he always looked sullen. The force of Myrrir’s features had been softened in the Lirridarian, but he compensated for it by scowling.
“Ter,” Brundar said, once more the adult in the room. “We do not have the time or resources for a civil war, while the enemy has broken through into Erradi.” Just that. Not so much a threat as a statement.
Ter let out his breath in a sort of sigh of impatience, and shoved his sword, with force, into its sheathe, so hard that the clang of guard hitting metal trim rang like a bell, raising echoes from the high ceilings. He knelt measuredly, and said his oath like spitting.
Brundar looked at Eerlen then. “Archmagician?” he said. And for the first time in the whole wretched evening, Eerlen remembered he was more than Eerlen Troz, out-of-practice-ice-nomad-and-fur-trader, and the sire of the … of the new king of Eles. He felt the weight of chain around his neck and the ancient jewel it held, the red jewel of the Archmagician, the chief of the Magicians of Eles. The one who must remove its complement from Myrrir’s dead finger and slip it onto Brundar’s, before he was de facto as well as de jure king of Eles.
He bowed, slipped his knives back into their sheaths, noting Lendre’s amused look at that – he really was mocking Eerlen! — and, bowing, stepped past his sireling, now his king, to the royal corpse. It helped to think of it as the royal corpse, and not Myrrir’s remains.
He had to remove the blood-darkened, worn leather gauntlet from Myrrir’s left hand to get at the ring, at the ruby of kingship.
Unbidden, in his mind, he remembered sixteen years ago, being the newly minted Archmagician, the ruby of office shining on his chest, his mind still muddled from receiving at one go the muddled memories of his predecessors, making his bow to Myrrir, king of Eles.
It would have been easier to do this in battle, where Myrrir would be dressed in leathers and look much like the other commanders. But of course, he’d had to do it at the palace, in formal reception.
He could see himself, just seventeen, wearing his nomad furs: tunic and pants of white fur, his best but hand sewn and crude, his magician’s blue cloak still new. He’d been initiated less than a year before that. He could feel the stares of the dignitaries and courtiers, and hear that one person – he’d never figured out who, either – laughing in the corner.
And Myrrir, in silk with gold embroidery, a long, formal tunic and court slippers, that kept tapping impatiently beneath the hem, even as he sat on his ancestors’ gilded throne, looked impatient and bored.
Had Eerlen not noticed the king’s diadem lay askew on his hair, and that the hair was bound at the back, like a warrior’s, as though the king had rushed in from battle, gotten hastily dressed, and dropped the diadem on his own head as he ran down the stairs – which was exactly what had happened, with an added swear word at the need to meet the new Archmagician – Eerlen might never have found his voice.
But he’d found it and whispered his oath about laying his magicians: healers, illusion spinners, spell makers, porters and shield bearers and all at the king’s disposal.
And Myrrir had looked amused and also as though he were thinking the words that he had whispered into Eerlen’s ear much later after the celebratory banquet and obligatory music. “Never mind the magicians and healers. Can one lay the Archmagician?”
Remembering Eerlen swallowed hard. Smooth, really smooth, my love, he thought as he pulled the ring from the stiffening finger.
He turned and knelt before slipping it onto Brundar’s finger. Brundar instinctively curled his finger. Later a goldsmith would have to be engaged to make an insert to conform it to the new king’s finger. Stupid to cut it to size before Brundar stopped growing.
Eerlen bowed his head, “I, Archmagician of Eles, swear its brotherhood of Magicians and its functions, its healers, shield weavers and judicial magicians and all weavers of spells to the command of Brundar Mahar, kind of Eles.”
For the first time it occurred to him to think that Brundar was an odd name. Who called his child Vegeance? The child would grow to ask the same question.
But Myrrir had done it, and Eerlen was honor bound to answer the question when it came. Not that Myrrir’s name – Blood Oath – was any better. The Mahars were strange people. And kings for thirty unbroken generations. One more. Let there be one more. No, two more. Barren of a line-child himself, Eerlen wanted to see his sireling’s children.
“You may leave,” Brundar said, waving his hand at the four governors. “Almar, keep watch at the door please.”
Eerlen turned to leave. He could do with some kind of privacy. Tears were going to overwhelm him any second, and he’d promised himself a good howling.
But Brundar said, “Stay, Troz.” Calling him by his line name for the first time in his life. And Eerlen stayed. He heard the door close, by Lendre Almar’s hand, softly, as though he feared disturbing the dead.
Brundar turned a desolate face to Eerlen and opened his mouth as though to speak, but before Eerlen could so much as move, he turned away, took the remaining steps to the bed, lay his face on Myrrir’s shoulder and shook.
Well, at least he isn’t howling. Nothing that can be heard outside.
At length he heard the word Brundar whispered, “Enar.” It was the baby word for parent. And there, in the silent death chamber where the fate of the whole world had just been decided by the child on his knees by the bed, it made Eerlen Troz’s hair rise at the back of his head.
Because it was Murder
It was the morning after Myrrir’s death, and Eerlen Troz had felt better. He was almost sure he’d slept, for at least a couple of hours, or at least lost consciousness for a couple of hours, after the good howling he’d promised himself and indulged in. It hadn’t been very satisfying, as it had happened in his room, in the palace, a small chamber adjacent to the royal chamber and with his face pressed on the pillow to deaden the sound.
The chamber and the bed felt strange to him, and the royal apartment next door too empty, too cold. In the bac of his mind he kept waiting for the sound of footsteps, for Myrrir’s voice calling, “Len.” No more. Not even the revolting pet name which might have been appropriate when Eerlen was very young but certainly wasn’t now.
This room had once been used by a valet or a body-servant, but it had been changed into his own room, at least for the times when his presence wasn’t required elsewhere.
It was narrow, long and sparsely furnished, with a single bed, two large trunks for his clothes and a writing desk with colors and brushes enough for a business letter, or a complex dispatch. There was in fact one of those started, which he’d been working on when summoned by Myrrir’s mind touch saying he’d been wounded and was being carried into the palace.
It was a business letter and opened with “Greetings and salutations to Kalal Ad Leed, lord of Brinar—” It had been meant as a request for cloth for the army, and it fell under “doing Myrrir’s work for him.” Because Myrrir couldn’t be everywhere, and he trusted Eerlen like his own self.
With a pang Eerlen realized he didn’t know if he’d ever take on those duties for Brundar, if Brundar realized those duties even existed, and that he would probably have to find another room within the palace, if Brundar should want him to stay and not decide that Eerlen should, instead, return to his nomad route in frozen Erradi, hunting fur bearing animals, sleeping in ice caves. Not that Eerlen would mind. In many ways it would be better to escape the palace and the settled life of a courtier, not to mention the constant reminders of Myrrir. He’d never been suited to the palace. And he kept expecting Myrrir’s voice.
His eyes were drawn towards the only ornament in the room, the only thing not strictly utilitarian. It was a lifesize portrait of himself and Myrrir, painted a couple of years before Brundar’s birth. It was a copy of the one in Myrrir’s workroom on the other side of the royal bedroom. It had been painted in one of the chambers that Myrrir used as a work room: a vast room, with a vaulted ceiling and soft rugs and vast floor-cushions which Myrrir preferred to chairs or sofas.
Myrrir was dressed in a dark blue silk tunic, ending just above the knee, and court slippers in dark blue leather engraved in some kind of floral motif. He wore the swearing belt Eerlen had given him: composed of heavy squares of silver, engraved with passages from Missa’s Confession. It was quite the most elaborate and expensive thing that Eerlen had ever commissioned the making of – two bear pelts. Enough for a small house — and utterly inappropriate to Myrrir, who probably would have preferred red leather tooled with Eerlen’s name. But Eerlen had been young and over-impressed with the idea that the king would accept his swearing. Myrrir’s dark blond hair, the color of ripened wheat, was pulled back on one side and fell over the other shoulder, straight and smooth. It had been Myrrir’s despair that his hair shed ties and binds, so he had to work double hard at it to keep it out of the way in battle. He’d once cut it short when he as very young, and the story was still a scandal at court.
By Myrrir’s side, Eerlen looked – to his own eyes – insignificant and much too young. He was about Myrrir’s height, and as with Myrrir there was too much Erradian and too much Drahal in his ancestry for him to ever be pretty much less beautiful. But there the resemblance ended. To Myrrir’s laughing green eyes, his counterposed a dull grey. And where Myrrir’s features gave the impression of mobility and inner joy, as though he were about to burst in laughter, Eerlen looked grave as though he were pondering some deep matter. In fact, in those days, he’d lived with a near crippling fear of saying the wrong thing. But it could pass as deep thought in some lights.
He wore – against Myrrir’s protests, he remembered – a dull-white silk tunic. Silk had been Myrrir’s insistence, but the white had been Eerlen’s. And Myrrir had been right that it washed out Eerlen’s pale skin and hair, till the whole looked like a shadow, except for the ruby, which Eerlen had cupped in his left hand for the portrait. It hadn’t even been on purpose, to showcase his status, but he’d put the hand up and the painter had liked the gesture and told him to hold.
His other hand was forward, almost meeting but not quite, Myrrir’s hand that reached back. He too, at Myrrir’s insistence, wore his swearing belt, a thing of gold and diamonds, with Mahar spelled out in garnets in the middle of it.
Eerlen remembered being uncomfortable and feeling out of place and stupid when the portrait was painted. Right now, he’d trade all his self assurance, all the knowledge that sixteen years had earned him to be there again, when the portrait was painted. To reach fully forward, to feel Myrrir’s warm battle-calloused hand engulf his. To have Myrrir look back, laughter in his eyes. To know he had years ahead with Myrrir.
He’d endure everything – the still births over the years, the blighted hopes for his own line – Myrrir’s voice, on a rare sad note Too much Drahal on both sides, sweetling — the comedy of errors of learning how the court worked, the days of missing the ice and solitude so much he felt he’d die, the weeks of holding the magical shield over the battle against the might of the enemy with barely any time to eat or sleep – he’d endure all of it for sixteen years more with Myrrir. Truth be told for sixteen days with Myrrir. Or sixteen hours.
He sat up. For one, because if he knew he could have kept Myrrir from being murdered.
The word in his mind shocked him and he shook his head. War deaths weren’t murder. Not that way.
He dragged himself to standing His eyes felt gritty, perhaps from crying, perhaps from not having cried enough.
He’d got so far as to think he must get clothes and bathe, when there was a knock on his door.
“Come,” he said, while ready to reach for his dagger under the pillow. No, it shouldn’t be anyone hostile, not when they’d have to get past guards, but who knew? Technically as the king’s sire he had no power and no status – certainly far less than the king’s sworn lover and helper — but someone might decide Brundar loved Eerlen too well, and Eerlen must be removed.
But the person who came in would know all about the guards. Which wasn’t to say he was tame or safe. Lendre Almar stood just inside the door, his bulk projecting a strange echo of Myrrir’s more gracile form, his serious eyes a shadow of Myrrir’s laughing ones, and said, “Troz.”
“Almar.” What followed, Eerlen guessed, could be anything from a request to vacate the premises to a request to accompany him to a tidy cell, to—No, there was no good outcome here, not when Almar was frowning thunderously, an expression that made him look like Myrrir in his worst moods.
“I need help and the king is asleep. I don’t want to wake him, and the Archmagician should have authority in this, because it is judicial.”
Eerlen started. This was not at all what he expected. His hand flew to the ruby as it did when he wasn’t sure. “The Archmagician? My authority?”
Almar took three steps into the room, and stopped, his hand extended towards Eerlen but just short of touching him, a plea, lifted, half-folded, palm up. “Milord,” he said. “As a fourth circle, I beg you to stop my sir—to stop Myrrir Mahar’s preparation for burial until a quorum of the circle can examine the corpse.” He paused a breath. “If you don’t, he will be washed and dressed and the traces will be gone.” Another pause. “I’d say you do the examination yourself, but you’d still need a quorum of fourths before it were taken as official, begging your pardon, milord. But your being his sworn, you’d need corroboration.”
“Yes,” Eerlen said, curtly. Of course Almar was a fourth circle magician. A justice bringer; an examiner of scenes of death; a determiner of guilt. Ridiculous to have almost forgotten in the mess yesterday that Almar was under his control. He could have brought him to heel with– No. He could not. Almar was Myrrir’s and Myrrir’s sirelings were as stuborn as their sire. He couldn’t have made Almar do anything short of breaking him, and that’s not what the Archmagician did. But Almar was a fourth, as Myrrir had been, of all things, a third circle – a healer – as Brundar would likely be when fully grown. Fourth circles were judicial magicians, judgers of guilt and foul play.
“But the traces of what?” he asked confused.
Almar bit his lower lip, not so much in frustration as in surprise. He looked at Eerlen in utter surprise. “Of my sire’s murder.”
He could prevent Myrrir from being murdered, ran through Eerlen’s mind, in recollection of his earlier unbidden thought. Had he picked up something from the scene? From Myrrir’s mind touch. “It was a death in battle,” he said aloud. “Those aren’t murder.”
“It feels like murder” Almar insisted. “I could feel it in the room last night. The murderer was there too.” And then his eyes widened, apparently in shock at Eerlen’s long and fluent cursing. It surprised Eerlen too. He’d never been profane, certainly where anyone could hear him.
In difficult situations; faced with recalcitrant traders, or a shortage of food for the army, or a new binding by the enemy, he’d been known to say “Rotten ice” but that was it. In fact, servants and secretaries knew that very mild swearing was a sign of extreme displeasure.
He stopped in shock the third time he mentioned the Maker’s balls and the Maker’s Empty Womb, and sighed. “I will try it first? Then call a quorum?”
“Milord your being the Archmagician—” Almar didn’t quite say that given his command of power, its strength and his experience and abilities, Eerlen could create traces of murder or erase them, even if there had been the opposite. But he made it clear.
Eerlen almost swore again. “Fine,” he said, almost with venom. “Is the chamber guarded?”
“I left two of my best with instructions to let no one through.”
“Very well. Go and wait there,” Eerlen said, as he put out a call for all fourth circles within reach of Eles city, and why.
Then he rushed through bathing – he remembered when the ever-running warm water pools of Eles palace had been a sybaritic delight, but that day he rushed through dipping and soaping and rinsing, half dried his hair and braided it still half wet. He slipped on undyed linen pantaloons and short tunic, Eles peasant attire, pulling the ruby to sit over the tunic. He owned better clothes and as the Archmagician, he was entitled to better clothes, had often worn them, for effect. And as the king’s sworn– He heard Myrrir in his mind saying, “Oh, please, Eerlen. Stop trying to pretend I seduced some hapless illiterate! Put on something the court won’t gawk at.”
He frowned at Myrrir in memory. Myrrir wasn’t good at treading the very fine line of palace politics. He’d been born the child of a royal parent, after his full-grown sibling had died childless, and had known himself a ruler from the time he was born. He’d never needed to dissemble and excuse, to apologize or beg. He’d always been at the pinnacle of society, either destined to become ruler, or the ruler.
But Eerlen sensed his position, precarious, like a floorboard that turns under your foot.
Yes, he was the Archmagician. Yes, he’d lived in the palace for 20 years, and been the king’s sworn for eighteen. But it was important just now not to give the impression that he was important, that he still had a role in the palace. It would give rise to the idea he was controlling Brundar, and would rule behind the throne.
Because he knew he stood on fraught ground, he eschewed palace slippers for his own moccasins with the rough soles: better for running.
He ran out of his chamber and down the five flights of stairs.
To his surprise Brundar, looking ill awakened and too young in a long tunic of heavy dark fabric, was waiting outside the door. “They won’t let me in,” he said, his voice less the king’s and more the bereft child’s. “They say they’re examining my parent.”
As though on cue, the door opened, and Almar, pale and strained, stood in the doorway. “You must come in, Archmagician,” he said. His eyes flickered to Brundar. “And you my lord. Distasteful as it is both of you must come in.”
Brundar looked scared but didn’t hesitate. He stepped into the death chamber ahead of Eerlen.
Myrrir had been stripped and turned on his stomach. There was a sheet covering him to the small of his back, where the marks of several dagger stabs were visible.
“He has wounds in the front too,” Lendre said. “More grievous perhaps, though these…” He paused. “These were poisoned. And came from the back, where only his trusted stood.”
“Ter, Sarda. My half siblings. Their seconds in command. They were the ones behind my sire. I was… I was further back and only rushed forward when I saw him fall. I have witnesses. The dagger stabbed him in the back, several times, making it impossible for him to back away when the shields failed and he was slashed from the front. But even so, he’d have survived, only the dagger was poisoned. Plant poison, probably from gern. We can’t tell for sure, but though it was slow due to small dosage, it was the poison that killed him.”
“Only a fool poisons a dagger,” Eerlen said. “The danger of stabbing yourself—”
“So the murderer wasn’t a professional,” Lendre said. “But the king was still murdered.”
“Why?” Brundar asked, startling Eerlen who’d forgotten his sireling was in the room. “Why would anyone murder my parent? While he was fighting to defend Erradi and all of us?”
And suddenly, with a feeling that his world had sunk beneath him, Eerlen thought that they should never have done this. They should have kept it secret.
…. But then would they not try to kill Brundar? If they thought they’d got away with murder, unpunished?
AND NOT CONTINUOUS, THE TWO CHAPTERS OF SKIP’S TRAINING FOR BEING A DIPLOMAT:
It is not true that the engraved plaque you see when you come into the IDS buildings devoted to the training of future diplomats says Abandon all hope ye who enter here.
I do understand why that has become widely believed, and to be fair it could be that. But my guess is that it would be too much blunt truth-telling for the IDS.
What the plaque, a fine sheet of silver, or perhaps a glassteel imitation of silver says, in raised golden letters – it is also not true that the IDS has ever had any aesthetics – is: You Can Never Know Enough.
This was certainly true for me. Through the year of my initial training I was often grateful that the initial problems, first contacts and negotiations were virtual, done in mersi chamber, and with species, worlds and issues created from whole cloth by instructors. This is good, because no matter how much I studied on the upcoming situation, learned all the trigger words I should never use, the relationships I shouldn’t mention, implied we’d consider their just cause – even if their just cause was wanting to eat their neighbors raw – or whatever I did, it ended with food thrown at me, elaborate insults offered to me, or me running out of the mersi room with a virtual lynch mob at my heels. Fortunately they evaporated on the threshold. Unfortunately, after a year of this, I started thinking whatever I was suited for it was not being a diplomat.
I might have said that failing wasn’t an option. Not for my Mother, at least. But at almost nineteen, I was starting to get a feeling Mother’s view of reality might be unrealistic.
So I ignored the card she sent me to congratulate me on finishing my first year of training with flying colors – what kind of bilge were the instructors selling her? Oh, yeah, under no circumstances is the IDS truthful – and tell me she was proud of me. I set it on the table, looked at me in the blue uniform of a diplomat trainee – why did I always end up in blue uniforms? – and thought well, it was time to find something else to do with my life. Which was a pity because the small room with its single bed, its reader and its music system had been a refuge of sorts. Since I didn’t use my title here and went by Skip Hayden, no one seemed to know me. Out there, or on the estate, I’d have to become the viscount Webson, and – yes – the prodigy war hero.
But one thing my father had told me is that many people spent their lives in pursuit of careers they weren’t suited for and that it was a waste. He was speaking of a particularly thick-headed student at the Academy, but considering my performance here, I was sure he would say it applied to me and diplomacy.
I walked out of my room, stepping crisply. That was one of those things they’d told me to change – among the other hundred things. My walk was apparently too crisp and “military.” Which since I’d lived in a military academy for most of my life, should be no surprise for anyone. But one of the many mottos that the IDS threw around was: A Diplomat Always Looks Relaxed.
Well, I wasn’t going to be a diplomat, and I didn’t feel particularly diplomatic, I didn’t try to correct my walk, which at any rate meant that instructors told me I was walking like a sick duck, and just left the dormitory floor, in search of the first instructor whose face I knew. I was going to ask for a resignation form and then I was—
Well, probably going to go back to the estate and figure out what to do with the next 100 years. The impulse to become a diplomat had probably been stupid, anyway.
Of course the instructor I ran into was Matt Crowe, who was walking out of the mersi room with his own crisp step, probably just having set up hell for the next patsy to step in for a simulated diplomatic interaction.
Crowe or Mr. Crowe – though none of the instructors had less than a doctorate, mind – as he preferred to be called, was one of the youngest instructors. He was about forty, had dark hair, grey-blue-green eyes which could assume a laser-point intensity if he thought I was being particularly stupid, always kept close-shaved and looked like a military academy graduate, as I should very well know. Which meant I was always tempted to salute and call him “sir.”
I controlled with an effort of will, as I came to a stop in front of him, and of course, predictably, what came out of my mouth was a weak and wandering, “Er…. Mr. Crowe?”
“Hayden?” he said. As though it were a big surprise to find a student wandering the halls of the instruction wing.
“Yes, sir,” I said, and there must have been something to my voice because he didn’t correct me. “I wonder if I could have a few minutes of your time, sir? Or do I need to make an appointment?”
He frowned at me. “Is it vital that you see me right now?” he asked.
“Yes, sir. We could wait, but it would be a waste of both our times.”
His frown got more thunderous and I swear he’d had someone install laser light behind his eyes. That kind of look, with a glow should hurt. Him, I mean. It did hurt me. Or at least made me sound like an idiot.
He nodded once, pivoted on his heels and said, “Come.”
I followed. We walked past the mersi room, past the study rooms where we had to read over the records that we weren’t trusted to take to our private rooms, and past a rowdy group of just-enrolled trainees making jokes about their last mersi experience.
We stopped by a row of doors at the back, in front of the one that read Matt Crowe. Like most things at the Academy, they were low tech wood doors – I guess they didn’t want to get us used to unnecessary gadgets – and he pushed the door open and gestured for me to go in.
Inside it had the look-feel of an interrogation chamber, with a battered wooden desk, and two chairs one on each side. I took the one in front of the desk, and looked around to make sure there was no glaring interrogation light to point at my eyes. Crowe took his seat behind the desk, looked at me, as if that would tell him anything, and then leaned back – I guess a diplomat must strive to look relaxed, or something – and said, “What is wrong Hayden? How may I help you?”
All my instincts from Academy days reared up. When an instructor asked how he could help you, you inevitably found out he wished to help you improve your attention to detail by making you hand sew a whole new uniform between night and the morning, or perhaps clean all the restrooms in the building in two hours, given only a small sponge and a bottle of breath freshener.
But I took a deep breath, told myself I was being an idiot, and said, “I would like to resign, sir.”
He looked…. I wasn’t sure how he looked. It wasn’t exactly surprised. But it was…. Okay, I was a failing diplomat, but I’d lived with humans before. If I weren’t talking to an instructor, I’d think he was angry.
I cleared my throat, “I signed up for instruction voluntarily, and it is my right to—”
He nodded, once. And then he did the most bizarre thing.
He took something out of his pocket, got on a chair and, reaching to what looked like a completely featureless piece of ceiling, stuck the something on it. From my perspective, it looked like a round, colored paper dot. Green dot.
Then he stepped down from the chair, walked to the door, and locked it. He took his chair back behind the desk, and sat on it. Then he leaned across the desk, “Please, don’t.”
I blinked, looked up at the dot, back at the door, and then at Crowe, wondering which of us had taken leave of his senses.
He smiled, but it was a weird, restrained smile. “I suspected that’s what you wanted to do. Which is why I brought you to my office, instead of to one of the learning rooms, which is more common for this sort of interview. You see, for whatever reason video pickups just don’t work in my office, and the audio becomes oddly random and choppy, even when I’m not here. They’re used to this, so I doubt it will be noticed.”
“Sir? Is this an exercise?”
The smile became rueful, “In a way. Something you’ll learn, Hayden, is that at the IDS nothing is ever simple. Or at least that’s what I’m learning. Look, I looked at your file. You’re Viscount Webson, right? And your mom is a countess who is sixth cousin to the queen or something?”
I blinked again. “Something like that.”
“Then what I suggest is that you tell your mother someone is trying to make you wash out of the training. And tell her to have the Queen send word she would like you to graduate as soon as possible.”
I was about to say that my mother wasn’t in that kind of relationship with the Queen. And it was true. Although there was a blood relation, Queen Eleanor might be a cousin – a lot closer than sixth and probably on three sides, because Father despite being a mere commoner, had some royal bastard blood – but I didn’t think that Mother had the sort of friendship where she could ask a favor of the queen. Mother didn’t have that sort of friendship with anyone.
On the other hand, it occurred to me that I might. Well, not that sort of friendship, but that sort of reach. After all I was a war hero. Things being done against a war hero would be bad news for the monarchy’s image. I had a feeling – though I’d never paid much attention to politics – that the Queen wouldn’t like this.
I sat up straight. “Tell me exactly what’s been happening, besides my rather unspectacular performance.”
He made a face. “They have been ordering you to be put through 3rd year mersis. The ones given to the men who have done two three months rotation in the field.”
“Frankly the fact you have lasted almost the full simulations is a sign of enormous talent. Which is why I’d prefer you don’t resign. Queen Harmonia left us in a hell of a mess. To clean it up we need real talent. Which is why I was brought in, from the Space Force, having finished a doctorate in diplomacy while deployed. And why I am an instructor despite my having no title, amid all you noblemen, instructors and students alike.”
I narrowed my eyes as the picture formed. Crowe had been given a sponge and a bottle of breath freshener. “You’re on cleanup duty?”
“But why would anyone put me on third year—” I stopped. “Did they misjudge my ability?”
He snorted. “Oh, no. I can’t find the details, on account of not being a director.”
Really, a small sponge and a tiny bottle of breath freshener. “But?”
“But it bothered me that they were ordering this course of action, and I poked around enough and spied at doors enough—”
“Sometimes good diplomats listen at doors,” I said, piously, another plaque in another room of the complex.
He made a face. “Anyway, I get the impression that one or more of the directors were…. We won’t say bribed but something very like. There would be a donation coming, sort of thing if you were made to wash out.” He opened his hands on the desk. “Nothing I can prove, or take to her Majesty. Not with the directors all being noblemen at the highest levels. And I very much suspect the bribe was less tangible than money changing hands.”
I sat back. Well. That could have come from anyone, though my main suspect would be Mother, complete with the card complimenting me on finishing out the year. It was just the sort of thing she would do, since she would much prefer I go back to the estate, and learn to do estate things, not to mention marry and set about producing a long line of heirs. Though the marrying might be optional. I had no idea if she knew my proclivities, but even without, I suspected she’d be absolutely happy with my having a lab contracted for children which would be wholly hers to raise, while I managed the estate, or perhaps went back to the space force.
For the first time I wondered if Father had stayed so long in the force for a reason.
But if Mother was behind this, I obviously couldn’t go to her. And if Mother was behind this I definitely didn’t want to expose her. Our relationship was fraught enough.
I looked up. Crowe was looking at me, eyebrows slightly raised, as though trying to divine my calculations.
“Look,” I said. “It’s a very long gambit, but I can send a note to Queen Eleanor through some contacts.” From what I understood, my great uncle, the Judge, took tea with her majesty fairly regularly. “I need a half day pass. But I warn you, it might not work.”
He made a face. “Very well. I will, at the same time, pass a message through my contacts. It is all a very long shot, but I’d prefer the diplomatic service of the Star Empire not lose you, Viscount Webson.”
“Just… Skip Hayden,” I said, and offered him my hand. Yes, I knew this might all be some complex lie, but somehow it didn’t feel like one.
He nodded and got a disposit pad from his drawer. He set it on an away pass, and signed it with his gen-print, then handed it over. It was a little thing, smaller than my palm. I slipped it into a pocket.
Yes, that did mean I had to endure tea with Great Uncle Zimon. And yes, the tea in his ornate office, with a footman behind each of us –making sure we didn’t drop crumbs or threw the cups on the floor, I guess? – felt unaccustomed and oppressive, though I’d done this once a month when I’d been in the Academy.
Great Uncle Zimon had a completely different idea of who and what was causing my issues at the Academy. He was fairly sure it was that the directors themselves were jealous of me, and afraid the Queen would appoint me to the board. Which would make perfect sense, of course, if I had a doctorate, which I didn’t.
But my – paternal – uncle thought the Haydens were the most illustrious and brilliant line in all the Star Empire, and all the other lines conspired to bring it down. Pretty much constantly. It was a pet paranoia which I suspected he only admitted to other Haydens, that is to me, otherwise someone would have locked him up long since.
But the end result is that he took my note to the Queen and I returned to training at the IDS, not expecting much of anything to result from that afternoon. I’d planned that if nothing changed, I’d resign in a week.
However, things changed.
The first thing that changed was that I did indeed receive stellar grades for my first year, each of the exercises being graded on a curve, for being far above my ability, and therefore the portion completed counting as more than enough.
The other change is that the mersi experiences became more…. Related to how much I had studied and how much I concentrated.
This is not to say they became easy.
Valhalla is for Heroes
I was on the third week of my mission in Valhalla when I realized I was going to die.
And it was only partly because I’d been sent on a mission half-briefed. Though to be fair, my superiors had tried to talk me out of it.
So, in Valhalla men are tall and blond and muscular, and women are tall and blond and buxom. The last one was, to my purpose, nothing of course, but the first was enough to keep me having to calm down the caveman at the back of my brain because I was not, certainly, going to try to read the body language and whatever the social hints were in his society. Partly because, alas, Valhalla as a world and as a society was completely, screamingly insane.
Also, vital to the star empire and to humanity at large.
You see, part of the issue is that the universe in which the Star Empire subsisted was a very complex one. Okay, I might be understating things a little.
Father was – as my name should testify – enamored of Roman History. I could almost understand that. All those far-flung lands the Romans conquered, all those strange cultures. All I had to do is make them planets, star systems and alliances of worlds, and it all made sense. Almost. I mean there were limited models of humanity and social organization back then, while we’d opened up the pandora box of biological experimentation and planet transformation and–
To start at the beginning what made no sense whatsoever was the history of the late 21st century, with a lot of different nations, packed cheek to jowl in a planet where transportation had shrunk the distances between different cultures, at the same time that technology and wealth made the dysfunction of royal families throughout the ages available for every citizen, at least in the more wealthy countries. Truly, some of the ideas that animated the age were truly bizarre.
One of my instructors at the Academy said that the 21st was a struggle between globalism and localism, communalism and individualism. And then he had to explain one of the ideas on Earth at that time was world government.
Some of the boneheads in the class had thought that was a good idea, but I ask you! I mean, this was some six or seven billion people – billion with b. The fact they didn’t and couldn’t know precisely how many is a complex issue tied in to other dysfunction – belonging to hundreds of cultures with different languages and histories going back thousands of years on a particular place. Who can govern all of that that closely? Or even understand it?
Sure, the Star Empire has many worlds that are under a single government. My mother’s domain, for instance. But that world was a single colony, started less than two thousand years ago – by the colony’s timing – and if we toped five hundred million people I’d be very surprised. Not that I’d looked at stats recently, or indeed at all.
And in fact, though yeah, the star Empire is an Empire on paper, commanding over many different worlds, it’s more of a commonwealth with some hard and fast rules considered absolutely necessary to civilization, and the rest held very loosely indeed.
Trying to govern a world – or an empire – with a hundred different cultures and make them all fall the same rules, and– Well, it’s kind of like the Nirians and it all ends in slavery repression and shit, while you have to take over more and more worlds into your dysfunctional tyranny just so you can plunder them and minimally feed the worlds you already have.
This wasn’t available to the Earth at the time because that they knew – they were obviously wrong – there were no polities outside Earth they could plunder to feed their one-Earth-polity should they ever achieve that. Which they fortunately didn’t. The people who wanted it just turned the entire world into “sack stuffed with rabid rats” instead meaning the areas of calm and sanity were rare and far between.
So you take the Earth of the 21st century, and we probably shouldn’t be surprised that people packed into the colony ships as soon as they became available.
Even though the ships quickly became nicknamed “Schrodingers” because half of them just disappeared mid-translation.
Men and women by the hundreds of thousands packed into ships that had a reputation for reaching their intended destination about 50% of the time.
My instructors said it was because the entire period was psychotic.
I thought it was because sometimes you just have to get away. Or perhaps you want to try your really whacky idea.
My ancestors’s whacky idea was perhaps not insane. They had collected a population that wanted to live in an anglophonic world, ruled – to some extent and loosely – by a constitutional monarchy which harked back to some idealized version of the culture of Great Britain – a nation on Earth for those outside the Star Empire – somewhere between what my father judged as be the Tudor age and the Victorian age.
We had a constitutional monarchy, a strong common law that protected individual freedoms – at least on paper – and a culture of exploration and alliance-making. Or at least that’s what the instructors said.
Anyway, it took almost a thousand years – Earth time keeping, because this is where things become complicated – for people to realize all those colonies that had gone to Earth orbit and entered the Bardell-Vicari-Broz gate were not only effecting a translation in space – virtually instantaneous as a highly sophisticated AI simply relocated the mass from one point to the other, — and don’t ask me how, I never understood the physics but they had something to do with a holographic theory of the universe – but also translating the ship in time what appeared to be a random number of years. Or hundreds of years. Or thousands of years. Or possibly even millions, though we never found one of those, even if some ruins we found seem suggestive.
I don’t want to give the impression all these time-transitions were to the past. It wasn’t common, but it is not unheard of, to discover a newly arrived colony, aghast and upset at the idea that they’d jumped – Earth Time – five thousand years into the future. Or confused at the profusion of humanity all over the inhabitable worlds.
What might not be readily understood, at least if you didn’t study history, is that for the free worlds, of which the Empire was one of the main alliances – the other being Earth’s Commonwealth – the most important resource were people. Oh, habitable worlds, too. But particularly people.
You see, a lot of the strange ideas that had gone to space and been lost for thousands of years had evolved into totalitarian horrors, reaching ever outward to subjugate more and more worlds. The Quan Empire, for instance, was rumored to not even be composed of people anymore, having replaced all their wretched subjects with cyborgs: brains inhabiting specially designed machines. And the Nirians started out with the idea that they’d all be closely bonded and equal together and–
Father said the estimated number of people in mass graves there were around a million over three hundred years, and that was not counting chronic starvation and death from overwork.
So to anyone ethical or anyone who wants human freedom to survive, finding the smaller lost colonies and bringing them into the sphere of the Empire is absolutely necessary. As fast as possible. And also they might help us out, because—
Okay, so when I said our greatest resource was people…. It wasn’t precisely a metaphor. What we’ve found is that many colonies had developed…. Special abilities, like that place in Proxima where they had taken gen-geniering to the next level. Or the people themselves had evolved changed.
Like the fact that the natives of Valhalla were the only ones capable – granted with the use of a powerful drug — of mind-linking the schrodinger machines and forcing them to recognize time as a variable. Apparently it takes a human brain to “see” time. And unlike the Qan we don’t take the brains out of the humans before attaching them to the machine.
It has made Valhalla—started as a lost colony, and therefore very inbred, besides being in a world with very few resources – the most disputed world humans ever colonized. Both the Star Empire and the Earth Alliance have tried to lock them into exclusive contracts, which would make the rest of us subject to the other for forever. Even for free humans that’s bad. But then consider what would happen if the Qan Empire captured Valhalla…. Millions of cloned brains serving in machines
So we desperately want others with the same capacities, or others who can find a way around the problem with the schrodingers. Bonus if they don’t need the drug that allows the interface, but which kills most Valhallian men who do this in their mid thirties.
The problem is that many colonies started out strange, and evolved weirder.
So that motto of You Can Never Know Enough is actually true. But you can know close to enough. Particularly with the help of various technologies.
It starts with linguistic nano translators. Don’t ask me how it works, I have no idea. As far as I’m concerned they’re virus-sized computers that contain within them the entirety of human linguistic knowledge from the time humans recorded languages – and some shrewd guesses before that – which colonize your brain and allow you to understand and speak everything after being exposed to it for a few minutes. But I am science-illiterate, and when I explained it this way to an acquaintance of Father’s who was a scientist, he’d looked at me with wide open eyes, and then laughed so hard he turned purple and Mother wanted to call the medtechs.
Whatever they are and whatever they do, it’s like having a linguistic computer between your ears that scans everything you hear, and can assemble a linguistic model within a few minutes, and start feeding it to your lips without your even being aware of it, so that you answer in the language you’re spoken to.
I imagine what it was like to be a diplomat in old Earth. Or rather I don’t. A lot of them – from the rare bio that survived – seemed to go from country to country. How did they learn all those languages so well? Or did they make egregious mistakes? None of this was revealed in our lessons, and a lot of things we know from the 20th and 21st century are fragmentary.
After the language, there are tomes and recordings, and virtual training sessions, so you know the history and cultural touch points, and be trained so your body language doesn’t present weird.
You can learn enough to prevent having to run out of rooms with people on your heels.
My first assignment was to Novo Mundo, an amazing place which had been re-discovered after being lost for what for them was about five hundred years. But honestly they hadn’t made much of an effort to be found, and hadn’t cared much about it. They came from a place called Brazil in old Earth had had devoted those five hundred years to developing newer and stranger foods, and much much more interesting dances than I’d ever seen. Other than an incident where I’d drunk some liquor distilled from algie which they assured me was non-alcoholic and– The mission went well. I was only junior observer, anyway, and I got top marks.
The second one, and the graduating determinant was more serious. I was sent to Valhalla to persuade them not to sign on an exclusive treaty with Earth, which would require them to send their sons possessed of the ability to communicate with the schrodingers to earth only.
I wondered at the time what they were doing sending a barely minted diplomat, on a provisional license — since I had to accomplish the objective to graduate — to Valhalla to secure a vital treaty.
Failure had such strong implications for the Star Empire’s ability to travel at all.
And it was hard. Really hard. It took me two weeks of listening to and responding cogently to official speeches and objections; being polite when I wanted to tell them to take a hike and eating a lot of feigleire. I understand the translation of this from the weird native language means “mud chicken.” It was neither chicken nor… Well, I guess it is a mamal of some sort which borrows into the muds of swamps in a world where most of dry land was either swamps or deserts, since they had a single continent and a vast one. I’m told that there should not be nothing particularly objectionable about the feigleire, except for looking like a hairless six legged rabbit. But in fact there was a lot objectionable about the feigleire. As in, the Valhallians processed the meat by a process which worlds of more civilized Scandinavian ancestry reserve for fish and which produces Lutefisk.
Let’s say I never want to see or smell with feigleire or Lutefisk again, if I live to be a thousand. And I cursed whatever accident of parallel evolution made every alien creature so far discovered have the same DNA structure as Earth life and be compatible enough to be eaten.
So while in Valhalla I was in danger of starving through being served Feigleire until the mere smell of it made me want to vomit. I was also in danger of starving because, well, before letting us eat at all, the family that was hosting me made us sit through a recital of all their dead in Hel who were invited to partake the…. Ah spirit of the Feigleire we were about to eat. One of the names of that least by the way, for the family hosting me was Rhyatt Nyheizor. Yes, the lost prince of Denarcia. Which led me to wonder whether the natives were a lot more cosmopolite and clued in than they appeared to be.
Which to be fair Mr. Crowe had warned me about before I went to Valhalla.
He’d met me outside the training facilities, at a little café in a backroad of Imperial city, where mostly working people and locals ate. Over sandwiches and coffee he said, “Look, Skip, the training videos won’t tell you this, because our intelligence sucks, and we tend to take cultures at face value of what they tell us they are, but the first thing you need to be aware of is that Valhalla is not barbaric.”
I raised my eyebrows at him. Any culture who was willing to sell their superfluous sons – for some reason only men, and not all of them, had the ability to connect to the machines — to a richer culture because during the brief life they’d have after that they would make enough money to make the mother-world rich was barbaric.
“Yes, I know. You think that their sending their sons to brief, if glorious indenture on other worlds is barbaric. But you’re missing the culture. And that’s what I have to explain to you. Valhalla is also not like other Scandinavian colonies, which were planned and went out and many of which – including the Nirians, by the way, were experiments in egalitarianism.”
I arched my eyebrows again. I’d come to know Mr. Crowe. Liked him even. But the thing about him is that when he was in lecture mode, and particularly if he thought training had left me without much clue, he could go on with very little interaction on my part.
He sighed. “The name of the planet should be a clue. We don’t actually know how it ended up that way. We have names of the crew of the ship that got sent not just backward in time, but somehow sideways in coordinates to Valhalla. They were a mixed crew. Not even all Scandinavian in origin. The ship, by the way, was a scientific expedition, not a colonizing ship. They were lucky it was a massive scientific expedition, designed to study several worlds in a row. But you know, they were mostly eggheads from all over Europe and a bit of North America. And they seemed to be normal for 21st century Earth.”
“Which is to say completely insane.”
“Well, yes. But part of it, or perhaps the whole of it is that one of the crew – one of the scientists – a physicist — on the crew – was obsessed with … ah…. Not Vikings but the idea of Vikings. What Vikings had become in the literature and culture of the 21st century Earth. And not by reputable historians, more by the mythmakers. This gentleman, David Burkhead, was a neo pagan and interested in Norse Gods. But possibly what he actually did to shape the culture was bring aboard this Role Playing Game—” He stopped abruptly and gave me weather eye. I knew he was sometimes wary of my background which, no doubt, he knew as well as I did or perhaps better, since they did intelligence work on every prospective diplomat before allowing us to graduate. “Not that kind of role playing game.”
I laughed. “No. RPG. I know. Dice and rules books, and a lot of imagination. I had a group in the Academy.”
“Ah. Weird, how that particular form of socialization has survived from the 21st.”
I agreed it was, and he went on. “Anyway, this David Burkhead had a rulebook, which no longer exists but was still there when Valhalla was recovered. It was for a game called The Way of the One Eye, and it was I suppose self conscious, campy fun for the time, because Vikings were not the historical Vikings, but the creatures of myth and legend. Horned helmets and capes, honor in combat, a short glorious life downing flagons of liquor. And being created in the twentieth century it was equal opportunity for the sexes. I think some historian is attempting to recreate it, by the way, and our time would probably enjoy it as much.”
He shrugged. “The thing is, crashed on the world, once their entertainment systems and mersis stopped working and power was best used for things like making sure they survived and got crops in, while they could have power, The Way of The One Eye became their main form of entertainment and you know what they way, Literature—”
“Literature when done in a certain way becomes culture and sometimes even religion,” I said. Another of the little aphorisms we were taught. “Yes sir.”
“So Valhalla is…. RPG Vikings. Or at least that’s its underlying culture developed over the five thousand years they were lost. But they were discovered in the 23rd century. And they have had intensive trade – lucrative trade – with the rest of the human worlds for two hundred years. They’re not primitives. Still, things remain. That thing with indenturing their sons? Well, the culture of honor and familial obligation means they’d have trouble keeping the sons from indenturing themselves. For the glory and prosperity of Valhalla and all that.”
I gave him a dubious eye. He gave me a collection of syllables that sounded like “Ogshi boshgi babalet!” And grinned. “That’s their drinking oath. It means Valhalla is for heroes.”
“So you’re telling me the culture is very masculine and full of daring do and sacrifice for the tribe, and that’s not… barbaric.”
He laughed, “No more than we are, but—” He paused. “Skip, the thing is they present their oddity up front. They would wear horned helmets if they thought you’d buy it for one second. What they’ll present to you is not exactly what they are, remember that. And I don’t think there’s any chance they’ll sign an exclusive with Earth, by the way. By playing Earth and the Star Empire against each other, they get to make the best bargain for the sons they do send away. And, by the way, they’re not nearly as poor as they seem to be. Most space benders send most of their earnings to Valhalla. Over two hundred years that adds up. Don’t go in thinking you’re dealing with hicks.”
Which I really tried to remember.
But things were made worse by the fact that the Earth representative was there at the same time, and that we were being hosted by one of the Twelve Houses.
I know that sounds more lunatic than it should, but remember the society was based off an RPG, okay? They didn’t have a king, or a parliament, but were ruled by The Twelve Houses.
The houses were noblemen – noblemen being defined by “owns a lot of land, and has sufficient industry on it”, so you know “rich” would also apply – who were elected to their position in ten years chunks.
I could get into the rest of their organization and society, but honestly it would just give you a headache. It gave me one.
The house hosting us was house Braxladen. They had twin sons, the first born – a blond giant named Alexander – was the heir. I never could quite get a read on him too, and ignoring what seemed sometimes to be clear signals kept me on edge.
His younger by some minutes brother was serving as a space bender on Earth.
So, you’d think this inclined things towards the Earth representative, right? Well, so did he. Which led to a certain smug certainty, while I was being kept on my toes.
But all I had to do to have the mission be considered successful was to get a contract with the Twelve Houses. It didn’t have to be an exclusive contract, just one that ensured that we also would get Valhalla’s sons to serve in our spaceships and Earth would not have an exclusive contract.
My attempts at discussing this with Alexander, who was my designated …. Well, auditor would be a translation, though I always got the feeling what it meant was “poor sap who has to put up with insane foreigner” were diverted into pursuits that had nothing to do with it.
We rode horses to the shore, which was a feat given the spongy ground. We watched some kind of violent wrestling, where– never mind.
We went sailing in a ship filled with 200 people who needed instruction and help.
I helped build a wall to divert a flood that threatened their land. I was asked for opinions on how better to build a factory producing steelglass on Braxladen lands. We discussed how best to fairly compensate workers and keep them happy and productive.
We went hunting the Kalispen Boar. And if you don’t know what the Kalispen Boar is, you are really really really fortunate and should give thanks fasting, because the creature isn’t even mamal. It is an arachnid. I’m told it tastes nice, but it fights like the devil incarnate, and has the cunning of your average Earth coyote, which I hunted once, with dad. They say the Kalispen tastes like earth lobster. But honestly, by the time they roasted the three we’d brought in, I didn’t want to eat or do much of anything except go to bed where I lay groaning and bleeding while my bruises turned interesting colors.
And all of this, by the way, made me really grateful that I’d had the training I’d had at Dad’s instigation. Because otherwise I’d have died two days in. But still, by the third week, I was sure I was going to die, and accomplish nothing.
If it hadn’t been for Mr. Crowe’s reassurance that Valhalla didn’t want an exclusive with Earth I’d have been sure all was lost.
And then there was a banquet and Alexander told me to attend and what to wear, which was weird because he’d never done that before, and because what to attend was “something formal and yet functional and practical to move around in.”
I’d defaulted to my uniform as a diplomat, which looked kind of retro, with dark blue tight pants, boots, a white shirt and a dark blue Elizabethan doublet, but was made of fabrics that kept the body temperature right, and allowed you to move freely.
The Earth Ambassador, about my age but smaller and starting to bald, which took effort in our day and age, wore something more ornate in black and gold, but I suspected with the same properties.
It soon became obvious the entirety of the Twelve Houses, male and female was in attendance. Reading the list of invited dead took forever, but at least the food ran to large roast indeterminate beast, and I didn’t care what it was so long as I didn’t have to hunt it. Tasted like beef, and cannibalism was not a Valhalla custom.
And then, after the meal, while we were all full and sleepy, the Earth representative and I were handed swords. A space was cleared in front of the fireplace, and we were told to fight for it.
To my surprise my counterpart from Earth knew sword fighting. But he hadn’t been trained by dad. And he seemed to be playing by some rules I didn’t even know.
I was angry, tired of Valhalla, and wanted to graduate and get back to Imperial city. I fought like a demon.
Fortunately they didn’t require I kill him. Which is a good thing. Because honestly, the diplomatic repercussions would have been amazing. I disarmed him twice, got first blood once, and the treaty was signed.
It will give a flavor of Valhalla that in the aftermath I was offered my choice of any of the daughters of the Twelve Houses for the night. I had no idea if they were for real, or, if – having figured my predilections – they were winding me up.
I had no idea until I met Alexander’s highly amused eyes as I made a careful speech refusing it.
So, he knew. What he thought he was doing was none of my business. I’d had enough of Valhalla and Vallahallians to last me a life time.
I went home in triumph and ready to graduate.
I got the very strange impression that no one expected me to succeed. It was little things, like the fact that my name wasn’t on the graduation list. And no one had taken care to make sure I was given the formal robes for graduation.
Which caused a bit of a scramble in the final weeks, but which I considered a mere slip up, until much, much later.
For a surprise, Mother come and cried over me at graduation, and told me she was “so proud.”
And then it was off to my first assignment.