The Bonds of Friendship

By Eric Oppen

©2019, Eric Oppen

This is a work of Fiction. It is based in part on the Alternate History World known as “Dies the Fire,” written and copyrighted by S.M. Stirling in 2004. The author agrees to abide by the Stirling Fan Fiction site disclaimer. This work is copyrighted by the Eric Oppen, in 2019, except for those parts derived from “Dies the Fire,” and its sequels, which are copyrighted by S. M. Stirling and used here by permission. All characters in this fiction are, in fact, fictional, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental, except where it is intentional and has the knowledge and consent of the named persons, who already know who they are and are mentally ready for the nasty things done to their namesakes.

Castle Todenangst

Portland Protective Association, Montival

Change Year 46/2044 AD

Queen Matilda Arminger Mackenzie, Dowager Queen of Montival, Protector of Portland, and regent for her daughter, did not feel very queenly at the moment. At the moment, she was no different from any other mother whose child had gone missing.

Oh, Órlaith, where are you? Why did you have to go haring off into the wilderness on a crazy quest for a magical sword?

The Queen leaned her forehead against a window, looking down into the main courtyard of Todenangst. Far below her, people went to and fro, unaware of their monarch’s scrutiny. When she straightened, she found herself looking at a formal portrait of her mother, done during Lady Sandra’s tenure as Protector.

The expression on her mother’s face was rather sardonic, to Matilda’s eyes. In her mind, she heard her mother’s voice: So, now you know how I felt. Karma takes a long time sometimes, but eventually it comes home, doesn’t it, darling?

Mary, Mother of God, look down on my parents with mercy! Make their time of penance as short as it can be! The prayer crossed her mind without thought. Unlike her mother, Matilda had always been a believing Catholic, and had had visions that confirmed her in her faith.

Unlike her husband and daughter, for most of her life Lady Sandra Arminger had been a cheerful unbeliever. She’d gone along with her husband’s mania for the glory days of the Normans to the extent of conforming outwardly, going to church, hearing Mass and performing all the duties of a good Catholic. However, certain experiences had convinced her of the reality of her religion, and she had become a sincere Catholic. Matilda crossed herself, hoping that her prayers and the masses she had commissioned were helping her mother. She knew that her father was in Purgatory, and she feared that her mother had joined him there. While much of what they had done could be justified by the realities of the immediate post-Change world, they had enjoyed themselves more than could be excused. Or easily forgiven.

A knock sounded on the door. “Enter,” she said. While she could snatch private moments where she could be a woman here and there, the work of ruling never stopped.

A page entered. Bowing, he said “Your Majesty, the Ambassador from Iowa craves admittance to your presence.”

“You may show him in.” Matilda had known Ambassador Nick Cleveland for years, ever since he had first come West during the CUTter War. He had been sent out partly to look Montival over. He had done excellent work in Montival helping hammer out the treaties of alliance and friendship. She had heard that he had also served very honorably with the Iowan army after rejoining them. He had returned home, coming back out to Montival after ten years to join the diplomatic delegation from Iowa. He was now Ambassador, and thanks partly to him, relations between Montival and Iowa were smooth.

The Ambassador came in, his campaign hat in one hand and a sheaf of papers in the other. For all that he was over sixty, the only things that betrayed his age were his silver hair and side-whiskers, and his lined face with its sharp, heavy-lidded grey eyes. She thought he resembled an old, fierce bird of prey. He was lean and wiry, thanks to an hour’s hard practice a day in the salle d’armes, an hour on horseback, and an hour’s practice with his compound bow and arrows. Matilda knew that he was still a good shot with a bow, and a deadly fighter with the gunto sword he carried. He also traveled over much of Montival when his duties allowed, visiting the Bearkillers, the Mackenzies, the McClintocks, and the demesnes of the PPA.

Over his yellow-trimmed green Iowan cavalry officer’s uniform, he wore the red-white-and-blue sash that denoted his office. In the middle of it was a small purple badge: purpure, a cross of Calatrava, in chief a crown, within in bordure a laurel wreath or. That indicated that Ambassador Cleveland had been in the Society before the Change, and had served in the Republic’s army afterward. While SCA influence was not as strong in Iowa as in Portland, it did exist, particularly in their army.

“Your Majesty.” Ambassador Cleveland inclined his head, as befit the representative of a power equal to Montival. “I thank you for the gift of your time.” The last time they had met had been at King Artos’ state funeral, where the ambassador had expressed formal condolences on behalf of the Republic of Iowa, and his own personal condolences as well.

“We always have time for Our royal duties, Mr. Ambassador.What brings you here today?”

“I have received communications from my government for the attention of the Crown of Montival. The Governor and Legislature are willing to accede to the terms you have proposed for the new trade agreement between us.” Ambassador Cleveland handed her a paper.

“Excellent. Have you any other business with Us?”

“Yes, Your Majesty. I have to report that some of our traders on a coastwise voyage were caught by what appear to be Haida raiders. I would humbly beg the Crown of Montival to see to it that they are found and freed. If a ransom is involved, we can reimburse you.” The ambassador grinned a rather wolfish grin. “This is not the first time these pests have interfered with Iowan trade. I would respectfully suggest that securing the Haidas’ home ports would be an excellent idea. Pirates cannot operate without safe ports.”

“No doubt it would be, Mr. Ambassador. Unfortunately, We have many claims on our military strength. The Haida are excellent sailors, and hold much of the northern coast from the northern part of Vancouver Island up to the site of Anchorage-that-was. That whole area is a maze of fjords, islands and reefs. We’d need twenty times the ships we have to make a start at controlling that area. Chasing them up there is like grasping water in your hand.”

“I see. However, sooner or later, something will have to be done about those people.” The Ambassador cleared his throat. “I also regret to report that some Iowans are currently being held by the Portland city authorities.There was a brawl in a drinking establishment, and they, along with others, were taken into custody. I would beg the Crown’s clemency for them.” He smiled again, very grimly. “I think I can teach them a memorable lesson, and they can’t complain of foreign injustice if I do.”

“We will take this under consideration.” This was a recurring problem. Groups of young men from different regions would often brawl with each other at the drop of a hat. Matilda sighed. She’d have to talk to the city guard, find out the facts of the matter. She knew that Ambassador Cleveland would do all he legally could to get his people out of the hands of the local authorities, even if he fully intended to rip strips off them the second he had them safely back at the embassy. He took his job very seriously.

“I thank you.” Ambassador Cleveland bowed his head again, and then took off his sash. Matilda raised an eyebrow. When Cleveland was wearing his sash, he was speaking in his capacity as Ambassador; almost as an embodiment of his homeland. With the sash off, he was a man like any other. “May I speak freely, Your Majesty?”

“Of course, Colonel Cleveland. You’ve been a friend of my family since before I was born.” Cleveland had made friends with Sandra Arminger, or Lady Aliénor, as she had been known in the Society, at the last two Pennsic Wars held before the Change. Their unexpected reunion when Cleveland had been sent west had been something that nobody had anticipated. Matilda privately suspected that was part of the reason why Cleveland had been tapped for the diplomatic service. He’d proven that he was capable of doing valuable work for his home government, and his personal connection to the Montivalan royal family had not been overlooked.

She remembered her mother’s funeral. Ambassador Cleveland had attended, at the head of the Iowan diplomatic delegation, and offered formal condolences on behalf of the Governor and people of Iowa. She had noticed that he looked white and drawn. Afterward, she had heard sobbing from an unused apse. Peeking in, she had seen Cleveland slumped in a pew, weeping his heart out as his wife, Melinda, tried to comfort him. “He isn’t just mourning his friend, your highness,” Melinda had explained later. “He is grieving for the whole old world. Your mother was a link to those days, and now she is gone.” Even through her own grief, Matilda had felt a stab of sorrow.

“I should tell you—I knew that something was up. I wasn’t sure what it was, or I’d have definitely notified you. My informers knew that something or other was in the air, and that it apparently involved the Japanese.”

“You knew?” Matilda wasn’t surprised. Nick Cleveland was very smart, and had taken to diplomatic service like a duck to a downpour. He had his ear to the ground, and was seldom surprised by anything that had happened. It took something coming clear out of left field, such as the advent of the Japanese and their Korean enemies, to surprise him.

“I had no clear proof of anything. Just insubstantial reports.” Cleveland’s eyes were haunted, looking at something far away that only he could see. Matilda had seen that look before on others who were old enough to remember the pre-Change world, and the Change. “I didn’t want to annoy you with rumors at that time without clear proof. I know what grief is like.”

“I know you would have told me if you’d found anything substantive. You needn’t blame yourself. My children and their friends were very clever indeed.” The Queen smiled at him. “Your informers do good work, to pick up as much as they did.” Nick bowed, clearly pleased at the praise.

“Oh—one last thing, Your Majesty.” Matilda raised an eyebrow. “If I had found out what they were doing, and I’d been the man I was during the CUTter Wars… heck, if I had been the man I was ten years ago, I’d have resigned my ambassadorship and begged your son and daughter to grant me the privilege of riding with them.”

This was unexpected. Nick Cleveland was always devoted to his duty, whether as a Deputy Sheriff in Iowa, an envoy, a soldier, or a diplomat. For him to speak of walking away from duty was unprecedented. “Why would you wish to do that, Colonel? You don’t know either Órlaith or John well.”

“That I do not,” Cleveland answered. With one part of her mind, Matilda reflected that the Iowan Ambassador had been spending time with the Mackenzies again; he always sounded a bit more “Irish” when he had. “But I did know your mother. And she would want me to go along and look out for her grandchildren, to see that they were safe.”

“Why would you, though?”

“Because your mother, may she rest in peace, was my friend. And I look out for my friends. And their progeny. Had I been aware of your presence when you crossed Iowa on your way to Nantucket, I’d have resigned my deputy’s office and asked to ride with you.” Cleveland bowed, since he was speaking as a private citizen, not as ambassador. “May I beg Your Majesty’s permission to withdraw?”

“Yes, you may go, Colonel.” After the Iowan had left, Matilda sat down in a chair, her mind in a whirl. She looked up at the portrait of her mother. “Mother, you did better than you knew when you made friends with that man, back before the Change.”

The portrait smiled down on her, but this time, the smile seemed warmer, and not sardonic at all.

❀ ❁ ❀

❀ ❁ ❀ finis ❀ ❁ ❀