In his Novels of the Change, New York Times bestselling author S.M. Stirling presents “a devastated, mystical world that will appeal to fans of traditional fantasy as well as post-apocalyptic SF” (Publishers Weekly, starred review). Continuing their quest that began in The Golden Princess, two future rulers of a world without technology risk their lives seeking a fabled blade…
Reiko, Empress of Japan, has allied herself with Princess Órlaith, heir to the High Kingdom of Montival, to find the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, the Grass-Cutting Sword, a legendary treasure of an ancient dynasty that confers valor and victory to its bearer. Órlaith understands all too well the power it signifies. Her own inherited blade, the Sword of the Lady, was both a burden and a danger to her father, Rudi Mackenzie, as it failed to save the king from being assassinated.
But the fabled sword lies deep within the Valley of Death, and the search will be far from easy. And war is building, in Montival and far beyond.
As Órlaith and Reiko encounter danger and wonder, Órlaith’s mother, Queen Mathilda, believes her daughter’s alliance and quest have endangered the entire realm. There are factions both within and without Montival whose loyalty died with the king, and whispers of treachery and war grow ever louder.
And the Malevolence that underlies the enemy will bend all its forces to destroy them.
Release date: September 1, 2015
Print pages: 432
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The Desert and the Blade
S. M. Stirling
(Formerly San Francisco Bay)
Change Year 46/Fifth Age 46/Shohei 1/2044 AD
Crown Princess Órlaith Arminger Mackenzie put her right hand to a stay and shaded her eyes with her left, looking landward as the fog-shrouded Golden Gate loomed before the Tarshish Queen's bow. Behind her the booms of the big merchant schooner's three gaff mainsails swung out to starboard, with a thump and twang she could feel as a shiver through her feet as well as her fingers when the travelers reached the end of their play and the foot of the forestaysail swept by overhead. They were beating back and forth until the fogbank lifted enough for the tricky passage into the Bay.
Her father had died there beyond the bridge, on the northern shore of the great inland water, at the hands of men who'd come this very path not three months gone.
Don't remember his death every moment, she told herself.
Which was wise, but hard, hard to do. Grandmother Juniper had once said to her that if wisdom was easy any fool would be able to do it. Then she'd thumped down the beater on her big loom with fingers age-gnarled but still deft and Órlaith had pinched out the lamp-wicks and both of them laughed. They'd been laughing still as they went down the stairs to sit by the hearth in the hall below, to watch winter cider simmering on the hob and listen to Aunt Fiorbhinn patiently leading her latest apprentice through a piece on the harp and breathe in the strong fir-sap scent of the Yule Tree.
It wasn't as funny now, though she probably understood it a lot better than she had at seventeen. Perhaps when she too was past seventy she'd be able to laugh at the thought again.
Though I'm not likely to see threescore and ten either. The ending completes our lives, it doesn't undo them, whenever it comes. Da died as he lived, as a warrior and a father and a King. As an enemy of the enemies of human kind.
He'd died because he put himself between her and a blade, a sneak attack by a prisoner with a pair of holdout throwing knives. After the battle was supposedly over, no time for anything but pure action without thought of consequence...She didn't feel guilty about it, or doubt for an instant that he'd have done exactly the same thing with a week to ponder it. Rudi Mackenzie would have been the first to say that it was the way of nature for a parent to fall defending his child-and then he'd have laughed and advised her to leave guilt to the Christians.
No, what she felt was loss, sorrow sharp as steel biting her flesh. Not just at his death, the ache that would have followed whenever he went to the Guardians of the Western Gate, but at the time and manner of it. A gripping bitterness that she'd never see him as an old man sitting in the sun and watching children play with a mug near his elbow and a cat curled in his lap and a smile on his face. That he would never spin tales of his wars and his wanderings and the wonders he'd seen and done with her children around him before the hearth with their faces rapt, or have them there to close his eyes and keen him to the pyre. Tired and ready for his rest, this life drained to the dregs and welcoming the shadow of the raven wings like cooling shade.
And she felt rage at those who had denied him that. Rage enough to boil the blood, rage that came back to choke her when she was halfway through a swallow of food or admiring a spray of flowers against a whitewashed wall or letting her eyelids drift downward after a hard day's ride.
Revenge you will take, but don't brood on it; that's a sharp knife you have to grasp by the blade-the tales are full of it warping even heroes. Da walked to the Dark Mother smiling, with open eyes, meeting the King's fate unflinching. Your fate too, one day. For the lord and the land and the folk are one, and we of the Royal kin are the sacrifice that gives itself, dying that our people may live. Even when you were a little lass, he never hid from you that death comes for us all. Think of his life instead.
She remembered when her first dog, Maccon, had been very old and the great shaggy beast had taken his last sickness, growing gaunt and thin and trembling, groaning sometimes in his basket at the foot of her bed. Until the healers shook their heads at her demands, Princess or no, and told her that things could only grow worse, and that quickly. Soon the pain would be more than the drugs could keep at bay.
Hold his head in your lap, so he can't see the knife, Rudi Mackenzie had said gently. Maccon cannot know the why of things, but he knows the what well enough.
The shade of the tree fell across them both and the bees hummed in the blossoms, that week after Beltane and the season of beginnings. This cherry tree had been the spot she and her dog had liked best to halt when they rambled through the woods about Dun Juniper in the summer season. She would lie and doze and dream with her head on his flank as she watched the west wind move across the valley below, cloud shadow across the rippling fields of gold like a tale told from far away. Until Maccon absently reached around and began to groom her head and she laughed and a single summer stretched out forever alike for both of them....
Da had carried him there for this in his arms, at her asking, and a shovel he'd matter-of-factly had her bring leaned against the gnarled bark; she'd been still young enough that it was fitting for him to help.
Maccon had whimpered and feebly licked her as she stroked his ears and ruff, seeking to comfort the grief that he sensed in her even then, heedless of its cause. Da had smiled sadly at the sight, and said:
Of all the Kindreds, only we of the human-kind see time as a thing apart from us. And in it see always our own mortality, walking a step towards us with every dawn. That is our special burden, to live with the shadow of the Crow Goddess' wings always before our eyes. Maccon is spared that. Just a little sting, and he will sleep without fear or hurt.
Will we meet again, Da? she'd asked, as she obeyed through her tears.
She took the dirk in her right hand while she cradled the big dog's gruesome graying muzzle against her with her left. Her father's voice had been warmly kind, but implacable:
Of course, pulse of my heart: we pass through the Western Gate, and rest in the Land of Summer once again with those dear to us, before the forgetting and the return. But dying still hurts, and grief is hard for those left behind. Maccon doesn't know that an ending and a parting comes now. Just that you who are his friend and his lord are with him, as you have been since the both of you were pups. Let that be his last memory here. He will roam those blessed hills where no sorrow comes in gladness, and greet you once more.
Why does he have to die? she'd said, choking back a shout that might have frightened the ailing beast. Why does anyone have to die?
That we don't know, darling girl, any more than Maccon knows why you cannot heal his hurt. As the Lord and the Lady are to us, so are you to him, and we can no more know the mind of the Goddess in its fullness than he can yours. But we do know that the Powers mean us to know of joy and loyalty and love: and the dog-kind they gave into our hands to show us how to take and give those precious things without stinting, in wholeness of heart.
She blinked at the light on the waves, in two times at once. "And how to bear grief, Da," she whispered. "That too."
A gentle kiss on the forehead, and: Now a swift end to pain is the last gift you can give Maccon for his long loving service, mo chroí, until we all meet again. Place the point so. Now, call upon the Mother and bid him farewell.
"Bear it, and do what must be done."
His big battered long-fingered hand had closed around hers on the bone hilt of the razor-edged knife with a terrifying restrained strength, and then-
The ship heeled until the deck slanted like a shallow roof, and she blinked, feeling him gone once more. Water purled and chuckled in twin curves, throwing rooster-tails of spray as the bowsprit dipped and rose, the sharp prow digging rhythmically into the blue swell and leaving a taste of salt on her lips as the cool droplets struck, like the taste of tears. It was only a few hours past the early summer dawn, and the light on the water was bright as they turned towards the rising sun, shining over and through the fogbanks ahead. Strands of her long yellow hair wavered across her face, blown forward by the steady breeze from the northeast and following the white curve of the sails like golden serpents.
From the quarterdeck the captain spoke crisply:
"Mr. Mate, stand by to strike sail, topsails only, on the fore, on the main."
"Aye aye, Cap'n."
"Then make it so, Mr. Mate."
The first mate's voice boomed out through a speaking-trumpet in a volley of musically accented nauticalese ending with:
"Lay aloft and furl!"
The ratlines thrummed as sailors ran up them to the spars of the square topsails on the fore and main and out along the manropes, fisting the canvas up and tying it off with the gaskets sewn into the sails as the deck crew hauled on the buntlines to help them. For the work ahead, precision was more important than speed. The shanty rang out as the teams on the ropes gripped and bent and threw their weight back in rhythmic unison:
"O wake her, O shake her,
O shake that girl
O Johnny come to Hilo;
The slant of the deck eased slightly as pressure came off the top of the masts, and the wind seemed to pick up as the ship slowed. That cool moving air smelled only of a third of a planet of clean ocean behind them, crisp enough even in high summer and even this far south to make the padded arming doublet of fleece-stuffed canvas she wore under the back-and-breast welcome, but somehow she thought she could detect the brackish scent of the Bay ahead and the huge tidal flats and wetlands about it. Off to the south the ruined towers of lost San Francisco reared on their hills, rust-red and stained-concrete brown above the mass of honeysuckle and scrub and renascent forest between and around them, or the stark white where the sand-dunes had emerged once more from under the works and plantings of human-kind.
Her liege knight Heuradys d'Ath came up behind her, walking so lightly that the sound of her rubber-tread boots on the deck was lost in the rattle and snap, creak and thutter and groan of a ship under sail, a symphony of wood and cordage and canvas dancing with the vast forces of the winds and the Mother Ocean.
No cheap commonplace hobnails for milady d'Ath! Órlaith thought. A relief for the bosun. She grinds her teeth every time some man-at-arms puts gouges in her deck planking.
"That hair looks untidy in this breeze, Orrey," the knight said, the staccato accents of the north in her voice.
Órlaith smiled affectionately. She knew Heuradys had given her a space to be alone, which was a difficult thing to find on a crowded ship where even the leaders were bunking four to a cabin, and would be even harder after today when they picked up the rest of their party who'd come overland to join them here. Then with beautiful timing she'd come up to the bow to keep her liege from turning her alone time into another inward replay of her father's death. The enemy ships had come along this very path, chasing Reiko's party on the end of a pursuit that had begun in the Sea of Japan, to meet what had been a routine, enjoyable progress by the High King and his heir through the new settlements on this southern frontier.
Her tone was deliberately light when she replied in the soft Mackenzie lilt; if a close friend was going to take the trouble to cheer you up, you should at least try to help.
"Oh, sure and I was just giving Johnnie a nice romantic image, the princess with her golden hair floatin' about her face as she stands in the bow, brooding deep and melancholy."
"Yet stern and noble as well. So put a foot up on the rail too, for Apollon's sake! Head up...left hand on the hilt of the Sword...do it right! Your little brother needs you to fulfill his artistic destiny, woman!"
Órlaith did as she bid for a moment, chuckling. "I think he's already working on a chanson about this whole thing-the 'Song of Órlaith,' maybe? Though really it should be 'The Song of Reiko,' since it's her ancestral sword we're after seeking, the wonder and amazement of the world. Fair breaking out all over, it is!"
She laid her palm on the moon-crystal hilt of the Sword of the Lady where it rode in the buckled blade-sling of her arming belt.
"Though I haven't heard if they've found Excalibur off in Greater Britain," she added sardonically. "Or if they have, the King-Emperor in Winchester is keeping it secret the now."
Heuradys grinned. "Arthur chucked his sacred snickersnee back to the watery tart when he went to snooze in Avalon against the hour of Britain's need...."
"And he didn't wake up at the Change? Deep sleeper," Órlaith said.
"Well, maybe it disabled his alarm clock's bell. Or maybe he was the one inspiring Mad King Charles?" Heuradys said.
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