Dispatch Riders

By Eric Oppen

©2011, 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 Eric Oppen in 2011, 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.

July 20, 2023 (Change Year 25)

Portland Protective Association, County of Tillamook

“We’ve got to check these and make sure they’re authentic,” the Lidless Eye troop commander said. “Normally, things are looser, but what with the war…” He held out a hand for the sealed leather dispatch bags Nick Cleveland was holding. Each one was emblazoned with the Lidless Eye of the Portland Protective Association, and sealed with wax seals tied in place with complicated knots in several colors of cord.

“And you’re ‘a man under authority,’ as a certain book says. Go on, do what you need to. These are authentic, but I know you have to check. Here’s our credentials, as well.” Nick had taken the opportunity to dismount, and his two companions had done so as well. They’d been riding along Highway 6 to Tillamook Castle when a patrol of Lidless Eye troops had intercepted them, politely but firmly escorting the three Iowans to Fairview Castle.

“Feels good to get out of the saddle,” muttered Melinda, Nick’s wife. She rubbed her rear. “You do know the joke about the cavalry memoir, don’t you?”

Thirty Years in the Horse Cavalry, by Major Red Arseburns? That joke would be less funny if it weren’t so true.” Melinda gave her husband a rueful grin, brushing a lock of her thick black hair out of her face. Taking her canteen from her belt, she swigged heartily.

“Don’t drink too much, Melinda. We’re not there yet.” That was Nick’s apprentice, Selene Lieber. She pulled off her coal-scuttle helmet, and ran her fingers through her sweaty white-blonde mane. She was looking around her with big silvery-grey eyes, taking everything in.

The Lidless Eye commander was conferring with another man, this one in a black robe over traveling clothes. Nick strained to hear what they were saying, without being too obvious…

“…the knots and seals on these are correct, my son. Better to not question the Lady Regent’s needs. They are who they say they are, it seems.” The black-robe looked at Nick and his companions curiously. “I must say, I never expected to see Iowans this far west…”

He looked back at the commander and smiled. “I’ll gladly accompany them up Sollie to the castle.”

Nick grinned to himself. Ever since the army of the Provisional Republic of Iowa, had come west to help deal with the Cutters and their allies in Boise, they had excited great curiosity from everybody they met. Since the Change, almost nobody had come so far across the continent; to the Changelings, Iowa was a half-mythical land far to the east. Just like Oregon… er, sorry, Montival… is to our youngsters! he thought sardonically. He remembered when the Montivallans had come across Iowa; they hadn’t crossed through Hardee County, but he knew people who had met them. Just to have done a quarter of what they had done filled him with pride.

The Lidless Eye commander came over and bowed. “I beg your pardon, Deputy Cleveland, but our orders are very clear. However, your bona fides do check out, so you and your companions may go on your way.” He handed back the dispatch cases and Nick’s identification papers. Nick accepted them, returning the trooper’s bow. Unobtrusively, he patted the hidden pocket in his clothes, where a certain leather envelope resided. If all else had failed, he had an ace-in-the-hole, at least in Portland territory.

The black-robe came over too. “My son, my daughters, I am headed for Castle Tillamook myself. Would you permit me to accompany you? We can take Sollie; it’s a shorter route than Highway 6 by about four miles, and we’ll get there sooner.”

“It’d be our pleasure; I appreciate having a local guide who knows the roads. I’m Nick Cleveland, Deputy Sheriff, Hardee County, Provisional Republic of Iowa,” Nick answered, before gesturing to Melinda and Selene. “My wife, Melinda Yang Cleveland, and my apprentice, Selene Lieber.”

“I am Deodatus Nguyen, a priest of God and a brother in the order of St. Benedict.”

At this, Nick’s eyes went wide. “From Mt. Angel?” When the priest nodded, he smiled. “The fame of your order, Father, precedes you. I was very impressed with them.” Melinda nodded her agreement, and Selene gave Father Deodatus a wide-eyed smile.

“Shall we ride?” Shortly afterward, the foursome were trotting out of the gate of Fairview Castle, down the switchbacks to Sollie Road. The Tillamook Valley opened up before them, with summer sunlight beating down. All of them reined in for a second, taking in the lovely scenery ahead. Far off in the distance, Nick could see a huge building on top of some hills. To his eye, it looked distinctly post-Change, and he nodded to himself.

“Wow.” Melinda smiled. “This is beautiful country!” Nick agreed, and Selene nodded.

Selene spoke up. “’Come to County Tillamook for a Tourney and Faire, for that it is Summer.’” She was quoting the notice boards that Nick and his companions had seen up in the surrounding towns.

“It’ll be… interesting… if nothing else,” Nick commented. “There should be people from all over Oregon… er, excuse me, Father, Montival… there.”

“The Coast Tournament’s quite an occasion,” Father Deodatus said. “Many people find it useful as an occasion to meet folk they don’t normally get to see. There’s a carnival and all sorts of entertainers come.”

“Sounds like a State Fair back home,” Melinda commented. “Do they have livestock shows?”

“Of course! If you can show that your stock took a ribbon at Tillamook, that increases their value!” At this, Melinda’s eyes went wide. She loved livestock shows, and always looked forward to the Hardee County and Iowa State Fairs.

Nick grinned. “Guess this assignment’s going to be more fun than I’d thought, when they gave us it back at Todenangst.” He broke into song: “If you want a sore… rump… join the cavalry, join the cavalry, join the cavalry!”

Selene and Melinda joined the song: “If you want to sleep on rocks, if you want to shovel horse-balls, if you want to die young, join the cavalry!”

Seeing Father Deodatus’ puzzled reaction, Nick explained: “That’s a parody of an old song from the Civil War, before the Change. The old lyrics began ‘If you want to have a good time, join the cavalry,’ but we thought this was more appropriate.”

Selene piped up: “We like being truthful, Father.” Father Deodatus gave her a long, considering look, and she gave him a sunny smile.

As they rode along, Nick took note of everything he saw; it had been his habit for many years as a Deputy Sheriff, since shortly after the Change. He also felt more comfortable out of the mountains and on the coastal flatlands. To him, mountains meant perfect ambush country.

He was generally very pleased with what he saw. The crops were well-tended, if often unfamiliar, the people he saw seemed to be well-fed and well-clothed, and nobody acted particularly frightened. Curious, yes… he noticed many people giving him and his companions long looks as they rode by, but he was used to that. The farther he got from Iowa, the more he and his companions differed from local people. Their gear, their clothes, the way they rode… everything was different.

When they got close to Castle Tillamook, up on its hills, Nick’s eyes went wide and he gave a soft whistle. Talk about ‘Childe Roland to the dark tower came!’ he thought. While it couldn’t compare with Todenangst, it was probably the second-strongest fortress he had seen. Within an outer wall, Nick could see an inner stronghold with eight towers. Communication walls led to two squat round towers atop nearby hillsides. From all the towers, colorful banners fluttered in the breeze.

He glanced at Selene. While his apprentice was quiet as usual, he could tell that she was taking everything in, and would be able to describe it exactly later… when he wrote up his report for the Provisional Republic’s high command. One of his tasks on this journey was to discreetly evaluate and report on everything he saw. His apprentice’s observant ways and eidetic memory were invaluable.

The closer he came, up the hillside, the more impressed Nick was. I don’t think I’d want to try besieging this place without a really good siege train… and a lot of time! About the only way to take it would be to let General Hunger do my work for me! They were riding up a switchback, then across a drawbridge to a gatehouse with a portcullis. In front of the open portcullis, Nick could see several soldiers wearing the grey-and-green livery of Tillamook, with mail shirts and helmets.

“Halt! Who goes there?” came the challenge. The soldiers clearly weren’t sure what to make of Nick and his companions.

“Dispatches from Todenangst for the Countess Anne, and a priest.”

“Father Deodatus, what is the sign today?” Father Deodatus came forward, dismounted and whispered in the guard commander’s ear. The commander nodded. “That’s correct. Now… who are these people?”

“They’re dispatch riders… from Iowa, originally, but they bear dispatches from Todenangst. I’ve checked them.”

“Come forward, please.” Nick guided his horse closer, and handed over the dispatch cases. On top of them, there was a Letter of Passage, with seals on it bearing the Lidless Eye. The commander read it carefully. “You are Deputy Sheriff Nicholas Cleveland, of Hardee County, Iowa?”

Nick nodded. “That’s me. And my wife, Melinda, and my apprentice, Miss Selene Lieber.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out his identification papers in their protective case. The guard commander read Nick’s identification, looked carefully at the seals and colored cords, and nodded, handing the cases back.

The soldiers parted, the guard commander gestured them forward, and Nick found himself riding through an artificial tunnel. He looked up, and wasn’t a bit surprised to see murder-holes and arrow-slits in the ceiling, twenty feet above his head.

Once through the gatehouse, they were in an outer courtyard, facing the inner gate. A squad of Tillamook foot-soldiers were drilling with pikes. When they saw the riders, they stopped and came to attention; Nick returned their salutes as more soldiers met them and escorted them forward, through another gatehouse. When they were through that, they found themselves in an inner courtyard, with apartments on one side, a smithy, stable and barracks on another, a lovely formal garden and a well in a corner. Melinda and Selene were both looking around, taking the scene in. The contrast to the bare, utilitarian outer courtyard was welcome.

Several deferential men in green-and-gray livery came forward. “My lord… my ladies… may we see to your horses?” Nick nodded and swung down from the saddle, with Melinda and Selene right behind him. The horses were led off toward the stables, and Nick made a mental note to check on them later. Then they were led by a steward in a roll-brimmed cap into a large room, which Nick recognized as a Great Hall. There was an inviting reception area, with comfortable chairs, a sofa and a coffee table, off to the right, and at another end what looked at first to Nick like a stage. Nick and his companions were led toward the reception area, and sank gratefully into the chairs. The steward went off in search of his mistress.

A man in local-style finery who’d been playing what looked like solitaire got up and strutted toward the Iowans. “You have the dispatches from Todenangst?” he asked.

“We do.”

“The Countess is… unavailable. I’ll take those. You need to get back to Todenangst.” He reached out for the dispatch bags. Nick moved away, putting the bags out of the newcomer’s reach. He could see that this was a PPA Associate, but clearly not Countess Anne.

“Sorry… my lord?… but my orders are quite clear.” The associate’s face darkened with rage, and he clapped his hand to his sword hilt.

“You lowborn dog, you dare disobey me? I’ll have you flogged for this!” Nick’s eyes narrowed, and he glanced at his companions. Melinda was smiling a very ominous smile, and Selene was watching the newcomer very closely. Someone who didn’t know Selene might think she was taken with him; he was quite handsome.

Nick did know Selene, though, and he knew that one wrong move on this stranger’s part would result in instant violence; he could feel it coiling inside her, awaiting release. Selene had been his apprentice for seven years, and was, in his estimation, fully capable of dealing with anything she was likely to have to face. He hoped it didn’t come to that; they were a long way from Iowa and he wasn’t sure just how far his authority extended, dispatch cases or no.

About then, a young woman wearing a riding habit came striding up, with several others, men and women, in her wake. “Sir Grigori… what are you doing, and who are these people?”

“My lady! These churls were unendurably insolent to me! They wouldn’t give me those dispatch cases!”

The young woman’s blue eyes narrowed. “You say they have dispatches?”

“We do, ma’am,” Nick spoke up and stood up, along with his companions. “The Lady Regent gave me very particular orders. These are to go to the Countess Anne of Tillamook, and no other.”

“Then you may give them to me.” She held out her hand.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but my orders are quite clear. The Countess Anne, and no other. No servant, no matter how trusted…”

Just then, the steward, who had followed the young woman into the hall, cleared his throat. “May I present… the Lady Anne, Countess of Tillamook.” Nick’s eyes went very wide.

“My lady! Forgive me, please!” He went to one knee and swept off his coal-scuttle helmet. “I wasn’t given a description, and I was expecting someone… well… a little older…” He gave her a confused look. “I wasn’t expecting someone young enough to be my daughter!” Melinda and Selene knelt beside him.

Countess Anne smiled. “You’re forgiven. Please, get up. You say you have dispatches for me from Todenangst?” Nick stood and handed her the leather cases. She saw the seals and complex knots of multi-colored cords that sealed them shut, and her eyes went wide. “And, my gallant lord… who or what are you and your companions? I’ve never seen gear like yours.”

“I’m Nicholas Cleveland, a Deputy Sheriff from Iowa, and this is my wife, Melinda,” Melinda stepped forward, doffed her helmet and gave the Countess a bow, “and my apprentice, Miss Selene Lieber.” Selene cocked her head to one side and gave Anne a long, considering look, before unhelmeting and bowing in her turn. Nick offered the Countess his identification papers and letter of introduction from the Lady Regent.

Anne was obviously flabbergasted. “From Iowa? You have come a long way! Please, let us offer you refreshments. Just a bite, to hold you till supper. I’d be shamed to have Castle Tillamook hospitality not come up to Todenangst standards!” She clapped her hands, and servants appeared. “Just sit over here, and food will be here shortly. I need to go over these.”

As she turned to go, she speared Sir Grigori with a look that should have had him lying on the floor with a smoking hole where his chest had been. “And, Sir Grigori … I cannot condone your behavior in this matter. Please try to moderate your conduct in future.” Her eyes were like chips of blue stone, and her voice dripped with icicles. “I am the mistress of this castle, and you are not. I would remind you of your place in the scheme of things.” She smiled… or, at least, she showed her teeth. Nick shivered; he was uncomfortably reminded of a shark movie he’d seen before the Change. “I wonder just what the Lady Regent would say about you attempting to intercept her dispatches to me?”

“Forgive me, my lady! I meant no disrespect!” Sir Grigori went to his knees. “I beg my lady’s pardon!”

Countess Anne looked at him consideringly. “We’ll say no more of it, since no harm was done… this time. Get up.”

Sir Grigori bowed. Nick watched him carefully, and, for a second, he saw something in the knight’s eyes. Something other than arrogance and certainty of right by birth. Something malicious and hungry, biding its time. Nick noticed Countess Anne’s look of recognition… and then saw her exchanging a significant glance with his apprentice, who had gasped slightly when he saw whatever it was he had seen.

Nick decided that he would keep a very close eye on Sir Grigori until he and his were well away from Castle Tillamook.

❀ ❁ ❀

In her private office, Countess Anne cut the threads and opened the dispatch cases. She could see that they were genuine; the papers within were all watermarked with the Lidless Eye of Portland.

The first one was addressed to her personally, from Jehane Jones. She was the amanuensis to the Lady Regent, and one of Anne’s good friends. She opened it, and her eyes went wide. It was in a code they used; one that told her that this was very serious business.

When she finished the decoding, she sat back and thought. Then she summoned her steward.

“I believe we’ve some rooms in reserve, despite the influx for the tourney?”

Her steward bowed. “We do, my lady. In the northwest tower. You gave orders for them to be held back. Is this about the dispatch riders?”

“Yes. They’re to stay here through the tourney. Please make the rooms ready for them.” After he left, Anne went over the letter again.

Jehane Jones greets her friend, the Countess Anne of Tillamook, and hopes that this finds her in good health.

Anne, please find room for these people in the castle. My Lady Regent needs them stashed away for now. They need to feel that they are honored guests. I know — you’re holding the Coast Tournament and it’s a nightmare, but I did warn you to have some extra rooms set aside in my last letter. They have semi-ambassadorial status from the Republic of Iowa, and have been involved in certain negotiations between the High Kingdom and Iowa.

In addition, I am instructed to tell you that the reward for good work is more work, and the excellent results My Lady has seen from you in the matter of Daniels and rescuing the County and your care of the nobles’ daughter has put you on the front line for more of the same. Thus, your petition is denied and you are expected to cope and deal. You have My Lady Regent’s support for any and all actions you feel are needed to control the situation.

Yours in God’s Grace, Jehane Jones.

Anne shook her head. She had sent a letter to Todenangst in strictest secrecy, outlining her suspicions, but had not expected help to come in this exotic form. Trust the Lady Regent… if there was a way to deal with a problem, she would find it.

❀ ❁ ❀

Meanwhile, down in the Great Hall, Nick and his companions were being served a tasty snack. Nick felt his mouth begin to water as he caught sight of the food; roast-beef sandwiches dripping with juices, thick French-fried potatoes, and steins full of dark, strong-tasting beer. He fell to with good appetite, and Melinda and Selene followed his example eagerly.

The knight they had met earlier, Sir Grigori, was still hanging around. He seemed to be honestly curious about them. “So… you’re from Iowa? That’s a long way from here!” He sat down on the bench beside Selene, without waiting for an invitation.

Tell us about it!” Nick took a big bite of his sandwich. “We rode it… every saddle-sore mile of it!” He speared some French fries on his fork, and chewed them, enjoying every bit. He had last eaten that morning, and he was hungry. “All the way from our rallying point in Des Moines, up to Sioux City, across the plains and the mountains… and here we are!”

“Nicholas,” Selene spoke up, “do you think we can go see the ocean tomorrow? I never thought I’d get a chance to, and now that we’re so close…”

“Can’t see why not, sweetie,” Nick answered. “We can set out after breakfast tomorrow.”

“Are you staying for the tourney?” Sir Grigori leaned closer. “It’d be a pity to come so far, and not see the action.” His tone turned sarcastic. “Of course, you’d be welcome to ride in the tourney, if you cared to risk it. I’d be willing to face off with you in a friendly bout. That is, if you’re not afraid…”

Nick raised an eyebrow. “That sounds like fun, my lord. We don’t have tourneys, as such, in Iowa, but I think I can hold my own.” He didn’t care for the knight’s tone, but decided not to make an issue of it. He and his companions had all been in actual combat, but didn’t like to speak of it to people who had never done so.

“No tourneys?” Sir Grigori’s tone turned mockingly sorrowful. “What a bleak, desolate life you must live there. No tourneys, no knighthood, no deeds of high renown… it sounds like a gray, mundane sort of place.”

We like it,” Melinda said. Her tip-tilted black eyes narrowed as she considered Sir Grigori. “We were luckier than a lot of places. Of course, our soldiers needed a deal of toughening before they were really fit for battle, in many cases. Lucky we had that long march; we got ‘em whipped into shape.”

“Remember how some of the big Farmers’ sons reacted when they found they’d been demoted?” Nick grinned. “They squealed like pigs on butchering day. ‘How dare you, my daddy’s a big Farmer, he’ll have your guts for garters…’ And then, when we had to arrest them, they howled twice as loud.” He snorted. “I will say, a spell digging latrines, picking up horse-balls, and doing scut-work often knocked some sense into them.”

“That, or a session of ‘thump therapy’ with one of our old professional sergeants,” Melinda commented. She explained: “Our National Guard was mostly intact after the Change, and some of it’s still in service. Those guys have more experience than almost anybody in Iowa. When we expanded the army so much, they got promoted to sergeancies, those who weren’t already there.”

“Some of the Farmers’ scions got their rank back, particularly if they showed well in the fighting.” Selene spoke up for the first time. “And, Sir Grigori, I would rather you took your hand off my leg.”

Nick and Melinda both bristled. “Sir Grigori, leave my apprentice alone.” Sir Grigori slid along the bench, away from Selene, and gave Nick a glare. For the second time, he thought he saw something else in the knight’s eyes… something he really didn’t like.

“Are you all right, Selene?” asked Melinda.

Selene nodded. “He just had his hand on my thigh. It didn’t hurt, but I’d rather he didn’t do those things.” Sir Grigori got up and stalked out of the Great Hall, reminding Nick of a cat whose dignity had been damaged.

“I’ll have a talk with the Countess. There’s no reason for you to have to put up with that sort of treatment,” Nick growled.

“No, Nicholas. Please.” Selene put a placating hand on Nick’s arm. “No harm was done, and I don’t think he’ll do it again. Not after you called him on it in front of all of us.”

“I’ll still keep an eye on that guy,” Nick muttered.

❀ ❁ ❀

That evening, the Iowans found themselves guests of honor, seated at the High Table next to Countess Anne herself.

The rumble of talk, and the tweetle of music from the jongleurs who were entertaining the crowd, was loud enough that Nick could speak with Anne in relative privacy. Like her people, she was curious about these visitors from so far away.

“I notice you’re accompanied by your apprentice, my lord Deputy. Do you not have children of your own?”

“Oh, we do. A son and a daughter. Twins, born a year or so after the Change. And our daughter’s along.” Nick hauled out a tintype photograph, and showed it to Anne. It portrayed Nick and Melinda, with a young man and woman who tended after their mother; they had her black Chinese hair, tip-tilted eyes and high cheekbones, but their noses, curly hair and the shape of their faces were all their father’s.

“Your daughter? Why isn’t she with you?” Nick could see envy in the Countess’ eyes; he had been briefed on her and knew that she had yet to be married. Of course, in Nick’s own unbiassed, impartial opinion, anybody would envy him having such wonderful children.

“She’s back with the main Iowa army. We weren’t keen on her coming, but she’s always been one for her own way. As a child, she was ‘Little Miss Bossyboots’ to her brother and all the other children she knew.”

Melinda paused in her eating to join the conversation. “Well, not any more. She’s now Doctor Bossyboots, M.D., and heaven help anybody… particularly a mere pathetic father… who forgets it!”

Nick smiled, proud as a peacock. “Top of her class at the University of Iowa medical school, no less!”

“The way she acts, you’d think that ‘M.D.’ meant ‘Major Deity,’ or something like that,” Melinda continued the topic. “She’s with the army partly to help pay for her schooling… the Iowa government has a deal where people wanting some kinds of education can pay for it by working for the state for a while… and partly because she wants to heal the whole world. If she’s in charge, the patients will get well, or she’ll know just why not!”

“We weren’t planning to bring Selene along,” Nick reminisced, “but when we got back from Goldfield, the county seat, with our marching orders, we found Selene busily packing our gear, and her gear as well. She’d saddled up her horse already.”

“She said that we’d taken care of her ever since she was ten years old, and now she’d be coming along, to take care of us,” Melinda said.

Nick grinned ruefully. “Next thing I knew, Melinda and Selene were crying and hugging each other, and I knew I was outvoted.”

“We weren’t quite sure what to do with her, so we made her a galloper… she delivers messages on the battlefield. You should see her, riding hell-for-leather through an arrow-storm!” Melinda gave Selene a fond look. “I’ve never figured out just how she does it!”

Selene gave them all a wide-eyed look. “Oh, it’s not so difficult. All you have to do is not be where the arrows are, and it’s perfectly safe. I don’t know why you insist on making such a fuss of it.” Her tone was utterly matter-of-fact. “I’m not brave enough to be a coward. I can see the consequences of that too clearly!” Everybody at the high table looked at her, as she went back to eating, and then exchanged glances. Nick gave a “whatta-ya-gonna-do” shrug.

Sir Grigori stopped drinking… he’d been punishing the wine pretty heavily, and Nick noticed that he was now into something that looked suspiciously like white liquor. He looked up toward the Iowans, and Nick gasped at the expression of pure hatred that flashed across the knight’s face for a second.

“Tell me about Sir Grigori, my lady,” Nick said, trying to conceal the shiver of unease that came over him. “I think he’s taken against us, and I’d like to know more about him.”

“Sir Grigori Stavarov is a drunken, conceited, entitled, lecherous, bigoted fool who thinks that his noble birth gives him droit du seigneur over any woman he fancies, particularly those of lesser birth,” Anne answered, her even voice dripping icy disdain. “In other words, a fairly typical Stavarov. I’ve known a few good ones, but not many.”

Nick’s eyes went wide. “Any kin to Sir Constantine Stavarov?” At Anne’s nod, Nick shook his head in reluctant respect. “Sir Constantine’s one of the craziest fighters I’ve ever seen in my life! Sheesh!”

“He’s got the manners of a pig, darling, but when I saw him on the battlefield, I was just very glad he was on our side,” Melinda put in. “You should have seen him, my lady. He was throwing himself into the thickest fighting he could find, that war-hammer of his going twenty-to-the-dozen, and I swear he was laughing!”

“Yes, that’s our Sir Constantine,” Anne said, her tone reminiscent. “Saying he’s got the manners of a pig, Mrs. Cleveland, is an insult to any well-brought-up pig, but he’s a terror on the battlefield.”

“Speaking of battlefields,” Nick asked, “why is this Grigori person here, and not out with the rest of the army, covering himself with glory?”

“He was sent here by the Lady Regent. We shall speak of this later.” With that, Anne applied herself to her food, and the Iowans followed her example.

❀ ❁ ❀

That evening, Selene came in as Nick and Melinda were preparing for bed. Unselfconsciously, she took the comb from Melinda’s hand and began combing Melinda’s waist-length black hair out. “Nicholas, Melinda… I have a bad feeling about this place.”

Do you now?” Nick had long since learned to respect and trust Selene’s hunches and feelings. “Anything specific, or just a general feeling?”

“That knight… Sir Grigori. Most of the people feel all right, but he’s got something wrong about him. It’s like something else is in him, looking out through his eyes when he thinks nobody’s looking.” She finished combing out Melinda’s hair and began to arrange it in a night-braid, her hands working with practiced skill, just as if they were still in Iowa. “I think the Countess sees it, too.”

Melinda sighed. “Thank you, sweetie. We’ll keep an eye on him. You just be careful around this place.” She turned and looked deep into Selene’s big silvery-grey eyes and ruffled the girl’s mop of white-blonde hair. “And I think it’s time you were in bed, apprentice.”

“You’re right. I just wanted to tell you what I felt. Good night, Nicholas, Melinda.” She kissed both of them and headed for the door.

“Selene,” Nick said. She stopped and looked at him. “When you go to bed… be sure to bar your door tightly. We’ll be doing the same thing.” She nodded, and slipped out to her own little room next door.

Nick shook his head as he touched the leather envelope with its Lidless Eye emblem. He wished they were back at Todenangst, or, better still, back with the Iowan army.

❀ ❁ ❀


The next morning dawned clear and bright, and Nick felt much better after a good night’s sleep. He roused Melinda and Selene, and the three of them headed down to the Great Hall for breakfast. The cooks were already up, and they soon were seated in front of plates piled high with omelets, fried potatoes, ham, and other goodies.

“Enjoying your meal?” Nick turned to find Countess Anne standing behind him. “We noticed you weren’t at Mass, and wondered if you weren’t feeling well.”

“We’re not Catholic, my lady. If we gave offense, I do apologize; it wasn’t intentional. I’m not sure whether we’d be welcome at your Mass.”

“Of course you’d be welcome, Deputy Cleveland,” said Father Deodatus, who was just behind Countess Anne. “Do you follow what the Mackenzies call the ‘Old Religion?’ Or are you Mormons, like the Deseret folk?”

“No, but we’ve got Mormons, and Wiccans, and Catholics, and all sorts of others, in Iowa,” Melinda explained. “If we’re anything, we’re Protestants, like most Iowans, but we aren’t anything like pious. We live a ways off from any churches, and Sundays are days of work for us.”

“Yeah, mainly hauling drunks back home,” Nick mumbled around a mouthful of omelet. “Quite a few Vakis… you’d call them peasants, I guess… use Saturday night as a night for wild revelry, and Sunday finds them passed out all over.”

“Not to mention townspeople, and more than a few Farmers and their kin,” Melinda growled. “You would not believe the number of times I’ve been puked on!”

“We were thinking about riding out to see the ocean.” Nick changed the subject. “Would there be any problem with that? Tillamook Bay’s not far away…”

Countess Anne looked thoughtful. “Well… Tillamook Bay’s not all that inviting, up close. I’m going up the coast to Rockaway by rail car today. Would you like to come along? The place I’m going is right on the sea coast, and there’s a beach. The sea’s too cold to swim in, but you can wade on in and splash about.”

“That sounds like a wonderful idea!” Nick smiled broadly. “We’d be honored to accompany you, my lady!”

She gave him an unreadable look. “The pleasure would be all mine. Believe me.”

❀ ❁ ❀

A few hours later, Nick got out of the pedal-car. He breathed in deeply, savoring the salt tang in the air. Off to the West, the Pacific Ocean stretched to the horizon, blue reflecting the summer sky.

Nick stared out to sea. “I never thought I’d see the ocean again in this life…” he muttered. “God damn the Change and whatever caused it!”

“I never thought I’d see it at all,” Selene piped up. She pointed. “Look! There’s a path down to the beach!” She bounced up and down with excitement. “And look at that arched rock!”

“Blimey! It is arched!” Nick turned. “What’s it called?”

“Dragon Rock,” said one of the retainers, who’d come up behind them.

“Not a bad name,” Melinda commented.

Soon, all three Iowans were walking along the edge of the water, and then wading out into it. Selene grinned impishly and splashed Melinda, who squealed “Selene, you brat! You asked for it!” All three of them got into an almighty splash-fight, and only stopped when they were all drenched. The beach was shallow, and they didn’t go in above knee-level. When they were done, all three Iowans ceremoniously filled metal flasks with ocean water. Nick intended to take them back and keep them, as souvenirs.

Countess Anne was talking with the people building a new Martello tower; Nick had heard enough on the trip over to know that it would be part of a heliographic network. He had heard that the local people had had trouble with sea-borne raiders, and could see why they'd want to have early warning of any more raiding. Apparently some of the local nobility liked staying there, in the old hotel buildings from before the Change, and didn’t want to be taken unawares. At least that’s one thing we don’t have to worry about! No seacoasts with hostile people on the other side in Iowa!

When Nick and his companions got tired of splashing each other, they waded ashore, to find that a picnic had been set up. Besides Countess Anne, they had been accompanied by several servants, ladies-in-waiting and men-at-arms, and they had been busy. A folding table and chairs had been set up, and Nick could smell barbecuing meat. He was suddenly reminded of just how hungry he was; he’d eaten heartily at breakfast, but pedaling a car for several hours over track exercised muscles he normally didn’t use much, and he was hungry again.

When Countess Anne came down, she smiled to see that the food was ready. She took her place at the head of the table. “Please, everybody, sit down.” When she noticed that Nick and his companions had taken places at the foot of the table, she raised an eyebrow. “You are our guests, Deputy. Please come on up. There’s places here meant for you.”

“Thank you, my lady,” Nick said, complying. “It’s in the Bible somewhere, isn’t it, Father? When invited, take the lowest place, so that your host may say ‘Friend, come up higher.’”

Father Deodatus beamed. “You’re quite correct, Deputy. That’s Luke, 14:10. I never expected to hear that from you!”

Melinda grinned mischeviously. “Oh, my Nick has lots of hidden depths. He reads all sorts of things, and remembers most of what he reads.”

“We do have traveling preachers in Iowa,” Selene explained, cocking her head on one side, for all the world like a little owl. “Some of them have stayed with us, when winter weather caught them on their travels. I thought they were quite nice.”

“They’re like other folks,” Nick commented. “Some of them are very good people, and I respect them highly. Their work’s not the easiest thing to do in the world. Others…” He looked grim, as memories crowded into his mind. “Others… aren’t.”

Father Deodatus pronounced the blessing, and everybody fell to eating. For a while, conversation was mundane… the Iowans were asked about crops and agriculture in their home, and soon people were deep in comparison with conditions in Montival. Nick took note of what was said about these things, and he knew that Selene would remember anything he didn’t.

The Iowans’ descriptions of typical winter weather horrified their hosts. “My God! That sounds nearly as bad as it gets up in the mountains! How do you stand it?” asked Countess Anne.

“How do we stand it?” Nick smiled. “Well… one way is by respecting it. Nobody goes far from shelter when a blizzard’s clearly on the way. No matter how tough you may be, the blizzard’s far tougher than you are.”

“We have been caught unawares, a few times, haven’t we, Nicholas?” asked Selene. She gave her mentor a sunny smile. “Even the most weather-wise can be caught when a ground blizzard whips up!”

“We sure have, sweetie,” Nick answered. Seeing the Tillamookers’ horrified looks, he explained: “A ground blizzard happens when the wind picks up loose snow on the ground and blows it along hard. It can lead to what we call ‘white-out’… where you literally can’t see anything ten feet away for blowing snow.” He went on, into the sudden silence: “We survive by keeping aware of where we are at all times, and knowing where shelter is. An abandoned outbuilding’s perfectly adequate shelter, with two of us, two warm horses, and the gear we always pack along in winter. Those storms don’t last more than a day or so, and then we can ride for home.”

“Where I’m sitting waiting, wondering if you’re alive,” Melinda growled.

“Oh, sometimes you’ve been along, haven’t you?” Nick answered. Noticing the questioning looks he was getting, he elaborated: “When I go out on my patrols, I take either Selene or Melinda with me, as a rule. I like the company, and they’re useful. They see things I don’t… and women will often talk to them where they won’t to me.”

“Oh! That makes sense!” Countess Anne exchanged glances with Melinda, and some sort of unspoken message passed between them. Nick raised an eyebrow, but forebore to ask.

The meal ended with some of the excellent local cheese. Nick made a mental note to find out how it was made; Iowa cheeses were good, but he knew people who’d be very happy to get the recipe for what he was served. He was also planning to try to get some of Brannigan’s recipes for the brewers in Iowa; he didn’t think that would create competition for customers, given the great distances involved.

When the meal was done, Nick and his companions set to helping clear the picnic up, to the servants’ obvious surprise. “I’d like to thank you for inviting us along, my lady,” Nick said, bowing slightly to Countess Anne. “We had a very nice time, didn’t we, Melinda, Selene?” His wife and apprentice nodded their agreement.

“Oh, the pleasure was all mine,” Countess Anne answered. In a low voice, she said: “With you along, I had a good excuse not to ask Sir Grigori to accompany us. He’d been angling for an invitation, and turning him down without a good reason could have caused trouble.” An expression of distaste crossed her face. “Of course, if he’d come along, there’d have been trouble of a different sort.”

❀ ❁ ❀

For the next few days, Nick and his companions watched the preparations for the tournament and fair. Itinerant entertainers were setting up, some with surprisingly elaborate rides, others with games. Nick hoped that Countess Anne’s people were on top of things; he knew all too well how deceptive some of those games could be. Some of the games’ proprietors set off his mental alarms; he’d have figured they might have wants or warrants out for them, had he been in Iowa.

He took a close interest in the livestock barns; although he privately thought that Iowa stock was equal to any, that didn’t mean that he was indifferent to the possibility that something he found out here wouldn’t improve the breeds at home. Melinda and Selene enjoyed the livestock, too. “Do you think we could take some home with us, Nicholas?” Selene asked.

“Don’t know, sweetie. It’s an awfully long way, you know.” Nick began to think about the possiblities. Once the war was over, travel between Montival and Iowa would be more do-able… and having samples of the local stock would be of interest to the Iowan authorities.

Over on the tourney field, they watched the knights practicing. Some of them rode at quintains, while others practiced spearing hanging rings on the ends of their lances.

“That looks like fun, Nicholas. Do you think they’d let us try?” Selene gave Nick an appealing look, her eyes even bigger than usual.

“Don’t know, sweetie. Shall we ask?” Sir Juhel was supervising things, and the Iowans walked over to talk to him.

“Of course you may! We’d be pleased to accommodate you!” Sir Juhel smiled down at Selene; he was clearly taken with her in a fatherly way. Nick hid a smile to see his little apprentice winding the knight around her finger so effortlessly.

A few minutes later, they were saddled up, and riding out to the tourney field. The knights and squires looked at them curiously; they had heard of the Iowans, but for many of them, this was the first sight of the exotic visitors.

“Good morrow, my gentle lords!” Nick called, waving. “We’d like to try our skill, if that pleases you!”

“It’d be our pleasure! Do you prefer the quintain or the rings?”

“We’ll do both. Our horses need exercise, and so do we.” Out of the corner of his eye, Nick saw Sir Grigori talking with some other knights. He strained to hear.

“ …ten silver dollars says that the outlanders will make fools of themselves,” Sir Grigori was saying. One of the other knights shook his hand, taking the bet. Nick felt a sudden rush of anger.

Damn him! We never did anything to him! He’s been a pain in our arses ever since we got here! With that, he made a silent vow to make sure that Sir Grigori lost his bet. Leaning close to Selene and Melinda, he muttered: “Do your absolute best out there, both of you. That Sir Grigori’s got ten silver cartwheels riding on us screwing this up!”

Selene nodded, expressionless as usual. Melinda gave her husband a conspiratorial smile, and then winked. All three of them looked toward where Sir Grigori was standing, and Nick and Melinda both smiled evilly.

Nick rode out first, taking a practice lance from the rack that had been set up. He hefted it experimentally, and nodded to himself; it was about the same weight and length that he was used to. He looked down the lists, and saw that the quintain had been set up.

At the signal, he urged his horse forward, faster and faster, until he was flying forward in a full gallop. His world narrowed to the lance point, and the rapidly-approaching quintain. To his delight, he hit the shield-target squarely in the center, sending the quintain spinning, its counterweight flying over his back as he ducked low, pulling his horse back into a trot. The watching knights set up a cheer.

“Not bad, m’lord Deputy!” one of them called. Nick didn’t bother to correct him. He looked over at Sir Grigori for a second. Sir Grigori looked like he’d found half a worm in an apple he’d just bitten into. Nick smiled to himself. Here’s hoping you’re ten dollars poorer soon! Several squires ran out and stopped the quintain, setting it up for the next rider.

“Next up, Melinda!” he called. Down at the other end of the lists, Melinda nodded. She kicked her horse into a trot, which rapidly became an all-out gallop. She’d always been a fearless rider, and regularly competed at the county-fair level in Iowa; more than once, she’d gone to Des Moines to compete in the State Fair. Her lance lowered, and she nailed the quintain on one edge of the target. It spun around, but not quite quickly enough to hit her as she thundered past.

This impressed the knights; female knights were not unknown in the PPA, but were by no means the rule. “Fair lady!” one of them called out. “Would you permit me to compose an ode in your honor?” He held up a lute. “I’ll sing it at the tournament; they’ve got a contest for the best original song!”

Melinda rode over and gave him a smile. “Of course, my lord. It’d be my pleasure to accept such praise from such a gallant knight!” He bowed, and she bowed back in the saddle. Nick beamed. He knew he could trust Melinda implicitly, and was not bothered when other men expressed admiration for her. Just shows they’ve got good taste, was his phrase for those occasions.

Down at the other end of the field, Selene was accepting a lance in her turn. Nick couldn’t see for sure, but he knew that her poker-face was firmly in place. She made her horse rear, yelled Hardee County’s war-cry: “We don’t fear the reaper!” and charged down toward the quintain.

Nick and Melinda both watched carefully. Selene’s lance-point struck the quintain’s target-shield squarely, but unlike theirs, it snapped in two, and the counterweight spun erratically, catching Selene in the side hard. She swayed in the saddle, and nearly fell out before she rode over to where Nick and Melinda were running to her.

“Come here, sweetie! How bad does it hurt?” Selene grimaced slightly as she was helped down out of her saddle, which told Nick that she was hurting badly. Normally, she almost never showed much emotion. He raised his voice: “Medic! Medic!”

A man in a white tabard with a Red Cross on it came running over. “Please, my lady, let me examine you!” Selene nodded, her lips tightly pursed; she gave a soft hiss when he pulled her shirt up. Nick sucked in breath when he saw the angry red spot, which would be a bruise the next day, forming on his apprentice’s side. The medic palpated her, muttering “No broken ribs, at least,” then narrowed his eyes. “I’ll want to see that lance she was using. Those lances aren’t supposed to break like that!”

A page brought the pieces of Selene’s lance over, and the medic looked at them carefully. “This was no accident! Look you…” He held the lance out, and Nick could see that it had been carefully weakened. “Whoever did this intended for someone to be hurt using it! Who gave this to you, my lady?”

“One of the squires.” A few minutes later, the squires had been rounded up, and were standing before the Iowans, ringed all around by grim knights. Selene pointed. “It was that one… the blonde one with the snub nose.” The young man she pointed out paled under his sunburn and raised his hands defensively.

“Somebody handed me that lance and told me to see to it that one of the Iowa people got it! I didn’t know that there was anything wrong with it!” He looked around desperately, hoping to find somebody who looked sympathetic. “Why would I want to hurt you? I’ve never had anything to do with you till today!”

“I don’t suppose you remember just who handed you that lance?” At the squire’s frantic headshake, Nick smiled grimly, drawing his accustomed authority around him like a cloak. The squire turned white as a sheet, and would have collapsed if he hadn’t been being held firmly. “I have no authority to punish you, and I don’t want you to die for having trusted someone you shouldn’t. Sir Juhel… could you see to this, please?”

“It’d be my pleasure, my lord. A long spell helping shovel out the stables and byres might be just the medicine for young Vyacheslav.” Vyacheslav fell to his knees, kissing Nick and Melinda’s hands before the other squires dragged him off. Nick looked around, his eyes narrowing, but Sir Grigori Stavarov was nowhere to be seen.

“I think, that in light of circumstances, all bets should be declared… off.” Grunts of agreement greeted this pronouncement. “Melinda… would you help me help our apprentice back up to the castle?”

Sir Juhel came over. “Please, my lord Deputy, my ladies, allow me to help. Deputy, I have to thank you for showing mercy to that young fool. You could have ordered him held for the Countess’ justice… and she’s not as forgiving as people think a young woman should be.”

Nick quirked a sardonic eyebrow. “If I went around killing all the fools I met, I’d never get anything else done.” He made a mental note to look more closely at young Vyacheslav. His private instructions from the Lady Regent had been clear…

❀ ❁ ❀

That evening was the last one before the Faire and Tourney officially opened. After dinner, a group of people gathered in the Great Hall, and a deck of cards appeared. Nick hadn’t been able to prove to anybody’s satisfaction that Sir Grigori had been around when Selene had been given the booby-trapped lance, so he had to put up with the knight’s continued presence, despite some smirks that betrayed guilt.

“Five-card draw, jokers wild. One silver dollar to ante, please.” Sir Juhel shuffled the cards and dealt. Nick looked at his cards. He felt fairly confident, so he stayed in… he had two tens, and a joker. Three-of-a-kind, particularly with cards that high, was not bad to be going on with. He sipped from a glass of sweet cider; he never drank anything at all alcoholic when he was gambling with real money.

Not everybody else followed that rule, though. Many of the locals were swigging wine, or stronger stuff; Sir Grigori, down at the other end of the table, was knocking back white liquor again. Nick took two cards… and got another ten! With that, he was sure he had the hand all but won, but made sure to act as though he wasn’t really sure he should stay in. He felt that anybody who sat down at a poker table had agreed to lose their money.

Sure enough, he hauled in the pot; four-of-a-kind beat anything else that the others who’d stayed in had. As winner, he dealt the next hand. This time, he had two jacks. He wasn’t sure he should stay in, but decided to risk it.

Several hands later, Nick was one of several overall winners. Sir Grigori, on the other hand, hadn’t done well at all; he had lost a good deal of money, and had put up his second-best rouncey only to lose that, too. Nick privately thought that anybody fool enough to drink so heavily while gambling deserved to lose. He didn’t mind helping relieve the knight of the crushing weight of his wealth, either. He was a long way from home, and quite conscious of it. He had also seen some things that he wanted to buy in the booths being set up for the Faire. The rouncey would be a nice present for Selene…

Sir Grigori was grumbling, staring at his cards as if they weren’t quite in focus. He snarled and threw the cards across the table. “There’s cheating going on,” he slurred. “Someone’s cheating at this table, and I want to know who it is!” He gave Nick a very pointed stare.

Everybody bristled; an accusation of cheating at cards was very serious business both in Iowa and Montival. Sir Juhel spat: “Ante up or get out, but don’t complain about the heat or blame others for your bad play!” Everybody else at the table growled agreement.

“Not until I get my money and horse back… you dirty foreign cheat!” Sir Grigori lunged across the table toward Nick; Nick stood up, facing the angry knight. He was getting good and angry on his own account; the endless series of provocations he’d had to suffer since arriving at Castle Tillamook had done nothing at all for his disposition.

“Where I come from, my lord, that sort of thing is usually the prelude to a fight. Are you man enough to back your words, or is your alligator mouth running up a bill your canary arse can’t cover?” Nick sneered. “If I had a dollar for every fool who thinks he’s a hero when he’s drunk… no, wait!” He looked down at his winnings, “I believe I do have a dollar for every such fool!” He grinned. “Or, should I say, from such a fool?”

Sir Grigori shrieked in rage, clawing at his belt where his sword normally hung. “You insolent foreign scum, I’ll have your liver and lights out for this…” Just then, Countess Anne, who’d been watching the game while keeping an eye on the servants, was between them.

“Stop this! Stop this! Stop this right now!” Young as she was, she radiated all the authority of her position, and both Nick and Sir Grigori backed off. “Sir Grigori, there’s no need for this! Nobody was cheating! Don’t play if you can’t pay!”

“I say that he was cheating… and I demand satisfaction!” Sir Grigori drew out one of his gauntlets and made as if to throw it on the ground, only to have it snatched from his hand. He glared at Sir Juhel, who now held his gauntlet.

“My lord… if you challenge him, you won’t be able to face him at the tourney, will you?” The Portland Protective Association frowned heavily on tourneys becoming real duels. They’d lost too many valuable people that way.

“So… so I won’t. Very well, m’lord Deputy. We shall meet in the lists!” Nose in the air, Sir Grigori stalked off, the effect rather spoiled by the way he staggered.

Nick looked after him thoughtfully. “I look forward to it… more than you know.”

❀ ❁ ❀

The first day of the Coast Tourney dawned clear and cloudless, and the merchants opened their booths with smiles, anticipating good business. With his wife and apprentice, Nick wandered through the Faire, sampling the food sold at the food booths and trying their hands at some of the games.

Selene won a stuffed bear at one booth, and clutched it tightly, beaming. Nick felt himself smiling back; his apprentice’s happiness was contagious. Melinda also smiled, and patted the girl’s white-blonde mane affectionately.

They got a fair amount of attention just by being who they were; Nick ended up sitting at a stool in a food booth, fielding endless questions about Iowa and the countries between Iowa and the new High Kingdom. Melinda and Selene knew more about womens’ business than he did, and ended up in the middle of a crowd of women talking shop. The tintype of Nick and Melinda’s children was produced, to general approval.

At one point, Nick noticed Sir Grigori walking… no, strutting… by, arrogant and resplendent in his finery. The knight ignored his existence as completely as though he was nothing more than the dirt beneath his feet, which suited Nick very well. He really didn’t want to get into a fight before the actual tourney.

That evening, there was a dance at the castle. Nick had made sure that he and his had packed along their formal clothes; they’d been forewarned that it would be expected of them. When he made his entrance in his Deputy Sheriff’s uniform, with Melinda on one arm in an Iowa-style dress and high heels, and Selene on his other arm in a simpler version of his uniform, all eyes were on them.

“I love this feeling,” Nick murmured, too low for anybody but his companions to hear. “Nothing’s more fun than knowing that every man in the room hates my guts for being the man escorting you two!” Melinda giggled, and Selene just smiled slightly.

He danced with Melinda, and then with Selene, and then found himself with Countess Anne. “My lord… I didn’t know you could dance,” she remarked.

Nick raised an eyebrow. “Before the Change, I was in demand as a dance partner, when we covered ballroom dancing in gymnasium class in school,” he said. “The girls liked me because I could keep the rhythm, led well, didn’t spend all my time trying to stare down their shirt-fronts, and didn’t think it was just an excuse for a free feel. I also learned basic dancing in the Society, back then.”

Countess Anne’s eyes went wide. “You were in the Society?”

“Oh, yes; I grew up in a college town that had a branch. It wasn’t as big an influence after the Change as it was here, but there’s signs to be seen. A lot of Iowa Army songs and lore come from the old SCA days… like referring to the eagle on the Iowa flag as a falcon.” At her puzzled look, Nick explained: “Iowa was part of Calontir… the Falcon Kingdom, in the SCA… before the Change.”

“Did you know the Lady Regent?”

Nick nodded. “Well… I met her, at the last couple of Pennsic Wars before the Change.” For a second, he felt a rush of sadness, as his memories of the old world rushed up. He tamped that feeling down firmly, not wanting to depress his partner. “She recognized me when I turned up at Todenangst, and was very happy to see me.” Nick grinned reminiscently. “I spent a good deal of the last Pennsic War half-seriously flirting with her, while her husband was out tearing things up on the battlefield. She didn’t let it get anywhere… I was just sixteen, and much younger than she was… but she enjoyed it. I’ve found that it’s hard to make an enemy by telling a woman that she’s beautiful, no matter how happily married she is. She accused me of flattery, and I countered by accusing myself of understatement.”

Suddenly, Countess Anne’s blue eyes became intense. “Deputy… am I beautiful?” She leaned slightly closer. “Tell me the truth. I command it!”

“My lady, you’re quite attractive, and whoever you deign to marry should consider himself enormously fortunate. Not only are you good-looking, but you are obviously intelligent. You run your demesne well, you can carry on an intelligent conversation on a variety of subjects, and I’ve heard nothing but good reports of you.” Nick smiled at her. “That said, you’re also just about my daughter’s age, and I’m a happily married man. So you’ll have to be content with me admiring you from afar. Melinda doesn’t mind that, any more than I mind other men admiring her. One of your knights said he’d compose an ode in her honor after seeing her tilting at the quintain.”

“I heard about that. That knight’s got a good reputation as a poet; if he weren’t who he is, he might have studied at Dun Juniper to be a bard.” Countess Anne smiled. “Next time I talk to Melinda, I’ll tell her how very lucky she is.”

“It’s me that’s lucky. Not just in having Melinda as my wife. Did you hear about what happened when we were at Todenangst?”

“No! I had no idea you were anywhere near here until you turned up at my gates. What happened at Todenangst?” Anne grinned impishly. “Was it a scandal? Preferably a nice juicy one?”

“No, nothing like that. I was presenting my credentials to the Lady Regent, with Melinda and Selene with me. Among the other people in the room was someone I’ve heard called something like ‘Lady Death.’ I didn’t notice her myself… I was catching up on old times with Lady Sandra… but Selene did. Nothing much ever gets past that girl.”

“’Lady Death?’ You mean Tiphaine d’Ath?” Anne’s eyes went wide, and she paled.

“That’s the one. Selene saw her, and immediately sensed that she’s a stone killer. Unobtrusively… I didn’t know about this till Melinda told me, when we were away from there and it was safe… she gave Lady d’Ath stare-for-stare, moved between her and me, and hitched her sword belt around so that she could draw her saber a little more easily, should she need to.” Nick smiled. “She was protecting me.”

“Awww!” Countess Anne’s eyes went wide.

“Well, of course, nothing really happened, but Melinda had noticed the byplay, and told me once we were out of that fortress and safely on the road away.” Nick looked reminscent. “I asked around discreetly about who this Lady d’Ath is, and apparently she has a terrifying reputation. Selene was exactly right about what she is.”

“Very few people don’t fear her,” Anne finally managed to say. She gulped convulsively. “I’ve met her a few times, and every time’s been a shivery experience. Miss Lieber must be absolutely fearless.” The music came to a stop, and they drifted over to a wall. “Please, stay with me; Sir Grigori’s looking for a partner, and he’s been drinking again.”

“’Instant idiot, just add alcohol,’” Nick quoted with a sardonic grin. “As for my apprentice… she knows what fear is; she’s just made a decision that she is mistress of her fears. When she considers it necessary, she goes ahead and does what she thinks needs doing.” Nick shrugged eloquently. “She’s also extremely perceptive, has what I think may be a real eidetic memory, and I’ve never known her to lie, even about little things. She thinks lying’s silly. When she’s a Deputy or Sheriff in her own right, she’ll be the stuff of legend.”

“And she loves you. Unconditionally.” Nick noticed that Countess Anne’s eyes were suspiciously bright. “That’s a rare gift indeed… someone who loves you for yourself, not for what you can give them or do for them!”

Nick suddenly felt sorry for Countess Anne, and wouldn’t have swapped positions with her for anything. What it must be, to be besieged by every bad case of the ‘gimmees’ in the area! Who’d want to live like that?

❀ ❁ ❀

Finally, the day of the jousting came. This was what the knights and A-listers had come for; the bleachers were packed with spectators, many of them waving banners to show their support for one or the other jouster. The smell of food drifted through the air; the snack sellers were doing a roaring business.

In their box of honor, not far from the Countess and her retinue, Nick watched attentively, paying attention to the rules enforced. As a Portland knight and Bearkiller A-lister staggered together off the field, having unhorsed each other, he nodded. I should be able to hold my own, at least.

In what was almost a conditioned reflex, Nick and Melinda had cultivated acquaintances among the servants, and they had proved quite informative. Sir Grigori was feared and despised below-stairs, but nobody discounted his prowess on the tourney field. If he had a fault there, it was his arrogant overconfidence. I may be able to use that against him, particularly since he does think of me as a “churl.” I just wish he hadn’t seen us out at the practice yard…

Finally, the time came near for his “friendly” bout. Nick went down and changed into his armor: a leather-and-steel coat-of-plates, arm bracers, curiesses, gauntlets and a gorget to protect his neck, and, finally, his coal-scuttle helmet with the detachable bar visor firmly in place. Shaking hands with the squires who’d helped him arm, he strode out. After the relative dimness of the arming tent, the bright sunshine dazzled him for a second, before his eyes adjusted.

The herald was announcing: “And now, my lords and ladies, and honored guests of all stations, we have a surprise. A friendly tilt between Sir Grigori Stavarov, of the Chehallis Stavarovs…” Mixed in the applause and cheers, Nick could hear a few boos; either Sir Grigori himself or the Stavarovs were apparently not universally popular. “And one of our honored guests from the great Provisional Republic of Iowa, clear across the continent, the Lord Deputy Nicholas Cleveland!” This time the applause was mixed with a real buzz of curiosity.

As Nick rode onto the field, Sir Grigori appeared at the other end. Nick studied him carefully. The Portlander knight was the picture of chivalry, in beautifully-made plate armor, cap-a-pie. He made his horse rear, to fresh applause from the crowd, before riding over to in front of the Countess Anne and bowing in the saddle. Countess Anne nodded in response, and waved him off. As Nick came forward to pay his respects to his hostess, he noticed that Sir Grigori seemed affronted, somehow. That might just be useful…

He bowed in the saddle in his turn, then looked up. Countess Anne smiled down at him, and waved one of her younger ladies forward onto the field. “Please, Deputy… my lady bade me give you this, to wear in this tourney as her favor.” She handed Nick an embroidered scarf, with the arms of Tillamook on it. Nick’s eyes went very wide as he accepted it. This was a great honor. And a pointed slap at Sir Grigori. No wonder he looks like he’s angry! Nick grinned to himself.

“My lady Countess, you do me too much honor, but being allowed to wear the favor of one such as yourself is something I shall remember for as long as I live.” However long that is… He bowed very low in the saddle again, and tied the favor to his belt, alongside Melinda’s tear-stained handkerchief and Selene’s sock. The minute the women in his life had heard about the custom of giving “favors” to knights, they had taken to the idea avidly. He treasured them, but less than the memory of the hugs they had given him before he went off to arm up.

He rode to his assigned end of the field; the field was set up so that no combatant would find the sun in his eyes, oriented north-to-south. When the trumpets blew, he kicked his horse into gear, trotting forward, faster and faster.

Sir Grigori had exploded out of his end like a bat out of Hell, pounding down toward Nick at full gallop, his lance coming down. Nick watched the lance as he thundered forward, guiding his own lance just so…

The knight’s lance was longer than Nick’s, and Nick was able to parry it enough to make it miss him, while sending his own lance straight into Sir Grigori’s breastplate. He had braced himself for the impact, and he sent Sir Grigori sailing backward, over his horse’s crupper, to land on his back on the field as Nick galloped past. The crowd exploded in yells and cheers.

Reining in at the far end of the field, Nick looked back. Unfortunately, Sir Grigori had, like every other knight, fallen from horses many times, and knew how to land. He was already climbing back to his feet, and drew his sword, waving it around in challenge. Nick could hear his shout: “Caitiff coward! Come down here and fight me! I’m not done with you yet!”

What’ll you do, bite my kneecaps? The classical quote ran through Nick’s mind as he reined his horse to a stop and jumped off. His lance had been broken in two, and he kept the end that he’d been holding, as he stepped forward. He held up his hand for quiet, and, miraculously, the bloodthirsty crowd went still. In the sudden silence, Nick filled his lungs and shouted in his own turn: “I’ll not win by taking unfair advantage!” This won him a storm of applause, and Nick could see many ladies waving their kerchiefs at him in approval; the ones sitting near Melinda and Selene were turning to them, clearly eager to ask questions about him.

Nick forgot about byplay in the stands as he stalked forward to meet his enemy. As far as he was concerned, Sir Grigori had been nothing but an unmitigated pain in the arse ever since they had met, and he looked forward to giving the knight the shipment of “whoop-ass” he had coming.

Sir Grigori’s shield, with the proud arms of Chehallis, had gone and he hadn’t bothered to retrieve it, counting on his better armor. He stood waiting, carving little figure-eights in the air with his sword. “Well, scum, come on and take the punishment you have coming for meddling with your betters!” he shouted.

Your ‘betters,’ my lord, include the human race, most animals, and quite a few vegetables. Being better than you is about as exclusive as a rain-storm!” The taunt infuriated Sir Grigori. Nick had figured that it would; he had noticed from the minute they met that the knight had a very exalted opinion of himself and his place in the world. With a strangled cry of rage, Sir Grigori charged forward, slashing wildly at Nick.

Unfortunately for Sir Grigori, what Nick held was, in its essence, the equivalent of a seasoned oak quarterstaff, and Nick knew very well how to use it. He’d practiced with such things regularly under his Sheriff’s unforgiving eye and sardonic tongue, and used his skills breaking up bar-fights and domestic disputes many times. Nick’s staff-end darted out, quick as thought, and caught the knight right in his visor. Sir Grigori reeled back, but much to Nick’s disappointment, he didn’t fall over. Nick followed up his blow with a series of blows and parries, catching Sir Grigori’s sword arm several times with his staff and deflecting swings that would have cut him nearly in two.

After a few minutes, Sir Grigori was visibly fading, and Nick could hear his hoarse breathing. He had heard via the servant grapevine that Sir Grigori had been up late last night, drinking and toasting his future victory. Well, well, my lord, is our nasty old hangover getting in our way? Awww, too bad! Dodging yet another wild blow, Nick decided it was time to end this thing, once and for all. He changed his grip on his staff and delivered a real roundhouse swing to the side of Sir Grigori’s helmet. That’s what it feels like to be a home run, jackass! he thought, as Sir Grigori went down onto the turf. Rang his bell good and hard, and scared the bats out of his belfry! Before he could get up, Nick’s foot was on his back and Nick was prodding his head down with his staff.

“Do you yield?”

A stream of what Nick recognized as Russian profanity answered him, so Nick jabbed down hard with his staff again. “Do… you… yield? Or do I have to try out this misericord my apprentice gave me for my last birthday?” The thin stiletto rode in Nick’s belt, and he was quite prepared to use it.

At last, Nick heard a choked “I… I yield. You win.” Nick stepped back and raised his hand to the crowd, which went wild. He took off his helmet, relishing the feel of the fresh, if slightly horsey-smelling, breeze flowing through his sweat-soaked hair, and raised both hands to the howling crowd, gesturing for quiet.

In the sudden hush, Nick shouted: “I dedicate this victory to its inspirations: the Countess Anne of Tillamook, a great lady in all senses of the word, and my lady wife, the superior nine-tenths of our marriage!” Meanwhile, behind him, some Tillamook medics were seeing to Sir Grigori. The crowd was going nuts, and Nick wished he could see what was going on at the bookies’ booths; he had heard that the odds were heavily on Sir Grigori. Pity I didn’t think to tell Melinda or Selene to put a bet down on me… we could be richer from this!

Shouts from behind alerted him that something was wrong. Whirling, he found himself confronting Sir Grigori. The knight’s visor was up, and his expression was like nothing Nick had ever seen. He had seen eyes like that before, on a mad dog he’d had to deal with. This wasn’t anything else inside of him; this was the real Sir Grigori coming out. His mouth working, foam flying from his lips, Sir Grigori screamed incoherent Russian obscenities. He charged forward, waving a bloody dagger. Behind him, the medics sprawled, one of them rubbing at what looked like the beginnings of a spectacular black eye.

Oh, bugger! Nick had just enough time to yank his katana from its sheath before the mad knight was on him. Madness lent Sir Grigori strength, and they grappled for a second before Nick threw him with a judo hold that his Sheriff had patiently taught him. Once he was free of the mad knight, Nick waded in with his katana, slashing at the weak spots in Sir Grigori’s armor. He knew where they were, from his Society time so long ago, and from briefings given him more recently on the long trip from Iowa.

The crowd was screaming, and people were running onto the field, but nobody could get there for at least a minute. Sir Grigori was obviously clear off his rocker, and fought like a madman, but had apparently forgotten all his earlier skill. Nick saw an opening, and thrust for the knight’s face; Sir Grigori still hadn’t closed his visor…

His thrust succeeded, far better than he had thought it would. His blade bit deep. A fountain of blood poured out, and Sir Grigori’s eyes opened very wide. Before they rolled back in his head and he collapsed, Nick could see comprehension and terror there, instead of madness, or the… other thing… he and Selene had seen sometimes.

Tillamook men-at-arms were there suddenly. One of them knelt over Sir Grigori, misericord in hand, but didn’t use it. Instead, he turned and slowly shook his head, so that the people in the stands could clearly see it. A priest came up and knelt over Sir Grigori, as helpful hands led Nick away, helping him wipe his katana and sheathe it. People were trying to speak to him, but the roaring in his ears drowned them out. Why am I so tired, all of a sudden? Am I getting old?

When Nick next began to note where he was, he was sitting in one of the arming tents, with a page pouring wine and the shadows of Tillamook men-at-arms on the walls. Nick grabbed the wine cup and drained it, and felt some strength come back. It was very good wine; most of the wine available in Iowa wasn’t very good and he’d never really developed a taste for the stuff.

“Am I… am I under arrest?”

“Under arrest? No, my lord! Those men-at-arms are guarding you from admirers!” The page gave him a worshipful look. “You’re one of the best jousters I’ve ever seen! I heard one of the Bearkiller A-listers say that if you’d stay out here, you could be on their A-list any time if this is a sample of what you normally do!” Leaning forward, the page’s young face betrayed curiosity. “If I may… I was told that you do not have these sports in your country. So how did you learn?”

Teaching instinct rose up in Nick; he’d been teaching almost continuously for seven years, ever since acquiring an apprentice, and by now it was second nature. “Well, young fellow, just because we don’t play at this sport doesn’t mean for a second we can’t use lances. I ride out after sounders of feral pigs many times in a year, and pig-sticking’s excellent lance-practice. We also ride at tent-pegs… that means, we set tent-pegs in the ground and ride down at them at full gallop, trying to break them off with our lance tips.” He grinned a haggard grin. “If you don’t do it just right, well, you can get knocked right back out of your saddle. And feral pigs are more dangerous than many people are.”

Just then, a minor altercation arose outside the tent, and then Nick found himself swarmed by his wife and his apprentice. Melinda wrapped her arms around him so tightly that he was grateful he hadn’t taken his armor off, and howled into his shoulder. Selene was slightly more restrained, but clambered onto his lap and clung to him like a limpet. Nick raised his eyebrows at the wonder-struck page, and jerked his head toward the door. The boy was no fool, and made himself scarce.

When Melinda was calmed down enough to use words, she wasn’t terribly coherent at first. She sobbed: “I’ve never been so scared… that evil man… I wish I’d killed him myself… you bloody fool, risking yourself… just like a man…” Nick knew the signs, and just patted her and murmured wordlessly, soothing her gradually, like a spooked horse. Melinda was always cool and calm during action, but tended to break down afterward.

When Melinda finally ran down and contented herself with hugging Nick, Selene spoke up. In her calm voice, she said: “At the very last there, whatever was in him left. I could feel it. I’m very glad you’re alive, Nicholas.” A single tear ran down her cheek, but her expression was as serene as usual.

Nick reached out, wiping the tears from Melinda’s and Selene’s faces. “Please don’t cry like that. Such beautiful faces shouldn’t be marred with tear-tracks. I’m all right.” They both hugged him tighter, Melinda sniffling loudly.

“My lord Deputy… may I congratulate you?” Nick looked up to see Countess Anne standing nearby, with a group of her women and men-at-arms behind her. For a second, he felt rage rip through him: Can’t these people leave me alone with my dear ones? Then he put on his company manners.

“My lady! Forgive me! I hadn’t noticed you come in!” Levering himself to his feet, he pried Melinda’s and Selene’s arms off him. As he painfully knelt, he noticed Melinda giving Countess Anne the sort of glare that promised trouble ahead, soon. “Melinda. Stand down. She doesn’t mean any harm.” Turning to the Countess, he apologized: “I do beg your pardon for her. She found watching me out there more upsetting than she had thought it would be.”

“Oh, my dear, I’m sorry!” Countess Anne came forward and took Melinda in her arms. “I didn’t think of that! Please, forgive me!” Melinda was unable to keep her temper up in the face of the obviously sincere apology, and as her anger receded, her earlier emotional storm seemed to resurge and soon she was crying in Countess Anne’s embrace.

The Countess patted her gently, letting her cry. “There, there, dear. Sometimes it’s good to cry.” As Melinda sobbed even louder, Countess Anne continued: “Deputy Cleveland, I have medics outside who’d like to look at you. Will you allow it?”

“Of course.” Countess Anne and her ladies swept on out, as several men and women wearing Red Cross tabards came in. Along with them came a page, who began helping Nick out of his armor; he was suddenly very tired again and it was all he could do to sit up straight. Then he remembered something…

“Melinda? Selene? They’re probably going to be getting me down to my skivvies, at least. Would you like to leave?”

“I’m not letting you out of my sight.” Melinda planted herself in a chair, her body language radiating determination. Selene just nodded agreement with Melinda and sat down on a stool beside her, taking Melinda’s hand.

“But they’re going to be undressing me…” By now, Nick was out of his armor, and being helped out of his padded gambeson.

“Nothing we haven’t seen before. Besides, people with no common sense need to be watched.” Several of the medics snickered at this observation, and Nick felt himself smiling.

“Maybe that’s why I can’t take my eyes off you. Both of you.” Against her own will, Melinda smiled, and Selene gave Nick a wink.

❀ ❁ ❀

That evening was the last one of the Tourney and Faire, and there was a great feast to celebrate. At the high table, Nick was the hero of the hour, with toast after toast drunk to his health and victory. Nick didn’t feel much like eating, and just sipped lightly at the weakest wine or mead he could find.

“Deputy… are you well?” Countess Anne noticed; Nick had already seen that there were no flies on the young noblewoman when it came to noticing things. “Were you hurt?”

“No, not really. However, I’m awfully low on energy, and don’t feel much like eating. I’m probably going to turn in early.” True to his word, Nick went up to his bed as soon as he could, with Melinda and Selene fluttering around to make sure he didn’t slip on the steps.

Melinda went off to sleep the second her head hit the pillow, but Nick couldn’t sleep, although he was bone-weary. Again and again and again, he saw it in his mind’s eye: the look of terror and dawning comprehension in the young knight’s eyes as his sword bit through Sir Grigori’s neck and ended his life.

Finally, around midnight, Nick quietly got up and got into some clothes. Carefully, making sure not to make noise, he went downstairs. He nodded when he saw a cross on the door he had reached.

❀ ❁ ❀

Father Deodatus was clearly very surprised to find who had knocked on his door. “My son… is someone sick in the castle? Is there an emergency?”

“No, Father. Everybody’s all right as far as I know. Can we talk?” Nick’s eyes flickered to a corner, where a prie-dieu stood before a small altar with a picture of a saint on it below a cross, and several candles burning. “Pardon me, but are you at your devotions? I can come back some other time…”

“I always have time for a troubled soul. My devotions can wait.” Father Deodatus showed Nick to a chair, then sat down across from him. “My son… pardon my curiosity, but you said you aren’t Catholic. Are you thinking of converting?”

“No, Father. You’re a priest, and I’ve heard and seen nothing but good of you since we met. I’ve got something eating at me inside, and I need to talk to someone about it. My wife and apprentice wouldn’t understand.” He gave Father Deodatus an appraising look. “This isn’t confession, but could I ask you to keep what I tell you behind your teeth, Father?”

“Of course, my son. My lips are sealed. Even outside of confession, we priests hear many things that we must stay silent about.” Father Deodatus leaned forward intently. “What’s troubling you, my son? You’ve seemed cheerful enough, until today. Is it that you had to kill poor Sir Grigori?”

“Killing him, no. I was willing enough to spare his life, but he attacked me after yielding. Sir Juhel, and the other knights here, say they’d have killed him themselves if I hadn’t, for unchivalrous and treacherous behavior. And I have… had… permission…” Nick closed his eyes and shook his head. “Even so… I can’t help but feel what grief I’ve brought on his poor parents.” Looking up, he cried: “That man was young enough to be my son, Father! And I killed him!” He wiped tears from his face. “I have children about his age! My daughter’s a doctor out here with our army! It would kill me if something happened to her, or my son back in Iowa! What have I done?” He shook his head. “I’m a Deputy Sheriff! My job’s to bring criminals in alive! I’m not supposed to be judge, jury and executioner all-in-one! I wanted to get him to confess what he was up to; he was apparently playing footsie with the CUT, or something similar. Now he’s dead and we don’t know who he was working with.”

After a few minutes, Nick went on, in a low voice: “He’s not the first person I’ve had to kill by a long shot. I started out not long after the Change, when we had hunger-mad refugees from Illinois trying to swarm into Iowa. Since then, there’ve been wild men, criminals, and more than a few CUT and Boise soldiers.” He gave the priest a haggard grin. “By the bye… did you ever hear the battle call we use in the Iowa army when we’re facing off with Boiseans?” At Father Deodatus’ puzzled headshake, he went on: “I’m familiar with the classics from before the Change, so I came up with this: ‘Boiseani, ite domum!’” Father Deodatus’ eyes went very wide; as a priest, he knew Latin, but hadn’t expected it in such a context. “I mean… they look so much like Roman legionaries, a little Latin’s just what they need, isn’t it?”

“’People called Boiseans, they go, the house?’” Nick’s eyes went wide in their turn. He was used to Changelings not getting pre-Change jokes. This was a surprise. “My son, in our seminary there were many priests old enough to remember Monty Python, and they all loved that skit. Our Latin teacher used to lament that he couldn’t use that centurion’s methods.” Father Deodatus smiled reminiscently. “Do you have one for the CUTters? You needn’t answer if you don’t want to; I’m just curious.”

“Oh yes. We do have SCA influence, although not as strong as here, and a good few people do know Latin. For them, it’s ‘Sethaz, ad malem crucem!’”

“’Crucify Sethaz?’ You do have some learned folk!” Father Deodatus smiled approvingly. “I may ask my superiors for permission to travel to Iowa one day.”

“You’d be welcome, Father… but you might like it so much you’d forget to leave.” Nick wrenched himself back to his reason for his visit. “But I’m not here to trade jokes. What does it mean, this guilt I feel?”

“It means that you’re a fundamentally good person, my son. I’m very pleased with you, but not surprised. You and your companions have behaved beautifully ever since we met back at Castle Fairvew.” An idea visibly struck the priest. “If you feel you must atone, here’s an idea…”

❀ ❁ ❀

When Nick climbed back to his little tower room, he found that Melinda had awakened, and was working herself into a fine tizzy over his being gone.

“Where in Hell were you? Have you started sleepwalking?” She sat him down in a chair and started looking him over carefully, holding a candle close for better light. “Did you go to a doctor? Are you feeling all right?”

“I’m feeling better, love-of-my-life. And it wasn’t a doctor I went to.” Nick got up and headed for the bed, pulling off his shirt. “At least, not a doctor for my body. That’s all right.” He dropped his trousers. “As you can see.” Melinda gave a very unladylike snort.

“Then who… ?” Melinda was clearly eaten up with curiosity. Nick considered teasing her for a while before telling her, but decided that it wasn’t worth it. His wife loved him, and really had been worried; she was no actress.

“I went to see Father Deodatus, Melinda. To talk to him.”

“Father Deodatus? But you’re no more a Catholic than Juniper Mackenzie!” Melinda’s tip-tilted eyes went wide, then narrowed. “Nicholas Cleveland, if you don’t tell me what you were up to, I’ll… I’ll tickle you so much you won’t know if it’s Tuesday or breakfast!”

“No! Mercy! Anything but that!” Nick was ticklish, and when she’d found that out, Melinda used that fact ruthlessly. “I couldn’t stop thinking about Sir Grigori’s parents, and how they’ll feel when they find out what happened.” He looked her straight in the eyes. “He was no older than our two!”

Melinda’s eyes went wide in horror. “Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh, those poor people! I can see why you were upset, darling! What did Father Deodatus do?”

“What priests are trained for. He listened to me, drew me out, and put my mind more at ease, Melinda. By the time we were done talking, I felt a lot better. He told me something I can do to make myself feel better about that.” Nick gave a huge yawn. “And now, I feel like I’m about to fall asleep sitting up. Can we continue this conversation in the morning, love-of-my-life?”

“Of course. The man I love has had an awful day, and like a fool I wasn’t able to see that he was hurting. Let’s go to bed.” As soon as the candle was out and they were both in bed, Melinda clung tight to Nick, pillowing her head on his chest. “This is so you don’t go a-wandering again. I meant what I said about people with no common sense. Those stairs are treacherous.” With that, they both went off to sleep.

❀ ❁ ❀

A few days later, the Iowans were getting ready to leave. They were packing their possessions in their bags when a knock came on the door. When Nick opened it, he found himself facing Countess Anne, with Sir Juhel behind her. “Oh! My lady! Sir Juhel! Come in, please! We’re just packing now.”

Countess Anne swept in, elegant in a formal cote-hardie. “I came up to talk privately before you leave. Sir Juhel’s quite discreet.” At her signal, Sir Juhel shut the door. “I hope you don’t get into trouble with the Lady Regent or the royal couple for having killed Sir Grigori. He was the apple of the Count of Chehallis’ eye and I’ve heard that his family’s already beginning to make a stink.”

Nick choked back his first thought, which was to respond: And so is Sir Grigori! He sensed that Countess Anne wouldn’t really appreciate his sense of humor, which was sometimes quite macabre. Once on the road and away from this place, he decided, I’ll tell that to Melinda and Selene. They’ll both get it and laugh!

“I don’t anticipate trouble with the Lady Regent, my lady,” Nick said. At her upraised eyebrow, he reached into his tunic, producing a leather envelope that he had been wearing over one shoulder and under his arm. Opening it, he pulled out a sheet of paper with an ornate seal on it, and passed it to the Countess.

Countess Anne’s eyes went wide. Nick imagined her reaction to the words penned there, in the Lady Regent’s elegant, unmistakable hand:

The bearer has done what has been done by my authority, and for the good of the State.


Sandra Arminger, Lady Regent of the Portland Protective Association, holder of the Crown’s rights in ward for the Princess Mathilda Arminger.

When she had scanned the lettre de cachet, Sir Juhel reading it over her shoulder, Countess Anne handed it back to Nick, who replaced it very carefully in its leather holder. She gaped at Nick like a gaffed fish for a couple of second, before visibly gathering herself. “They… they must trust you very deeply, Deputy.”

“Apparently so. This assignment was quite a surprise. We were originally sent to Todenangst as part of the Iowan delegation, and I know that files on us came along. I remember that my Sheriff had written Des Moines a long letter about me, and I think that was in there. I don’t know just what he said, but even for Deputies, I’ve been given a lot of independent assignments. That letter, plus her remembering me fondly from before the Change, may have tipped the scale. She called us in… Melinda insisted on coming along, and Selene feels her duty is to go where I go… and asked us if we were up for a rather ticklish assignment.”

Melinda took up the tale. “She’d found that Sir Grigori was intriguing with the CUT; they apparently promised him Chehallis when they’ve won… the God-damned fool! And, my lady, I use ‘God-damned’ in its theological sense.”

“I sensed something evil in him from the second I saw him,” Selene put in; she’d been watching events in her usual wide-eyed, serene silence. “The Lady Regent found out that I’m apparently able to sense whatever those entities the CUT uses are, and that may well have influenced her decision.”

Young as she was, Countess Anne was no sheltered innocent. Even so, this was something new. “But she has people on her staff who can handle these jobs…” She knew that for a fact.

“True, my lady. But they’re all very busy. She had us to hand, and apparently felt that I could do this job for her.” He shrugged his shoulders. “And I did. I feel bad for Sir Grigori’s parents, but I don’t regret killing him one bit, particularly after what Selene told me.”

“Nick was troubled for a while, but he talked to Father Deodatus… which we expect you to keep quiet about,” Melinda said. “He suggested some things to make him feel better, which we’ve done.”

Nick gave his wife a look, but decided not to pursue the matter. He shrugged his shoulders, and confessed: “There’s a fund for people who’ve been hurt by the war. The Lady Regent and The Mackenzie started it together. You’ll find that fund richer by some money, and one rather nice rouncey.”

“The money and horse you won from Sir Grigori?” Countess Anne nodded. “Yes, that’s a very nice gesture. Donated in whose name?”

“The horse is in Sir Grigori’s name, and the money, anonymously. I do hope I can trust you to keep your silence on this matter?” Nick gave the noblewoman and knight a steady look.

“Of course! Our words of honor on it!”

“And now, the open road, and Castle Todenangst, call us. If nothing else, I’d better get this letter back to the Lady Regent. If I lose track of it, she’ll skin me alive.” With that, Nick got up, along with his wife and apprentice. They all bowed respectfully to the Countess, and left.

❀ ❁ ❀ finis ❀ ❁ ❀