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Worlds of the Timestream: The Interregnum Series, Book 4: The General by Richard J. Sutcliffe (Christian Irish/Fantasy)

Worlds of the Timestream: The Interregnum Series, Book 4: The General by Richard J. Sutcliffe (Christian Irish/Fantasy)
 
(3 reviews)  

The General is alternate-history Irish-flavoured Christian science fiction and is the sequel to The Peace, The Friends, and The Exile (Volumes One to Three of The Interregnum).

The General recounts Tadgh O'Kelly's life from his 1987 graduation as Kilkarney's top cadet to his career as an army forensic investigator. As the years go by, he gradually knits the threads of evidence from numerous kidnappings of women and children into a noose, but finding the guilty neck to tie it around takes all his skill, and not a little help.

A second arc of the story cycle follows Mara Meathe from her arrival at Tara's court...

The third arc takes place on Tirdia, near the BC Fraser Valley's Chilliwack. Nellie goes to Tirdia to assist Day MacAllister with some court appointed espionage...

Events of The General play out on Hibernia at Tara, Edenderry, Luna City, Toronto, South Africa, India, Afghanistan, Centralia, West China, and Japan of Hibernia as well as in Chilliwack and Aldergrove on the West Coast of British Columbia, Canada (Tirdia). --- Volume 4 of The Interregnum.

Print:
ISBN/EAN13: 1921314990 / 9781921314995
Page Count: 696
Trim Size: 5" x 8"

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3 Most useful customer reviews (see all reviews):
Unknown
an amazingly broad and well-conceived undertaking...a lot of depth and details
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Michael Burkley (Pastor, Niagara Presbyterian Church Niagara Falls, NY)
It's always a treat to read well-written Science Fiction, but the four volumes (so far) of Rick Sutcliffe's series "The World's of the Timestream: The Interegnum" go beyond that. Along with a good story he provides the reader with a work that examines the problem of evil - both in the world and in humanity, the unity of knowledge, the strengths of friendship, and the call of Christian discipleship in the modern society. Reading them has encouraged me both in my faith and my scholarship.

Well-suited for both adults and teens, these books are not "preachy" or trite. They draw the reader in with a good story and encourage them to examine themselves in the light of the trials of the main characters. The story only improves with the re-reading. I know. I've read them twice!"
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Steven Weyhrich Apple II History
A very enjoyable read! As before, I can't wait for the next volumes to appear. I find the stories as deep and wide as Tolkein or C.S. Lewis
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Sample Chapter

On heavily populated Tirdia (called Prime by some scholars and Terra by her inhabitants) Ireland was for centuries enslaved by the English, and the ancient city of Tara is a rural ruin.

What a contrast to Tara of Hibernia, our glorious modern capital, with her broad processionals, stately old buildings, and the downtown core that is the commercial, academic, spiritual, and political hub of two earths.

As we turn into Royal Avenue past the new cathedral, the vista of the Royal Preserve opens up to your right, and Tara's palace, the jewel of Hibernia, once again dominates your view. This magnificent complex hosts court and council, where Hibernia's domain lords and Babylon's executives meet in joint session to govern our two planets.

By special arrangement with the Master of Swords, McLatchies will shortly take you to the public galleries to view a portion of today's session before returning to our offices to complete our circle tour that began with Old Town. You are cautioned to give no offence while in the buildings. After all, we wouldn't want to lose another tour member to a duel. Now the first tower on your right....

--from a spiel used in 1997 by guides for McLatchies of Tara, provider of tourist services to the capital.

Chapter One

Mara, at Tara's court, June 13, 1997

"All stand for First Lord Donal twelfth." Lord Chamberlain, spoke from the left of the dais in the corner of court chambers opposite Mara Devereaux-Rourke whose arrival coincided with the start of the daily session.

Mara stared wide-eyed and unnoticed from the ornate doorway at the rear. Viewing court sessions on the MT didn't prepare a person for the scale of the place, she reflected. This was the focus of splendour and power, where Tara of the Emerald Isles and her nobility ruled Greater Hibernia. Mara had became part of it, albeit a broken one, when the Master of Swords allowed her passage into the room seconds before on the strength of the sword she'd presented.

Far overhead, the domed ceiling bore tiled depictions of incidents from Irish history--Brian Boru and Tadgh O'Kelly crowning Cormac Meathe king, the pact of the swords, the battle of Seville, the Covenant of the Living, the weeping bishops, and other events real and imagined. Around the walls were statues of various figures, some with little claim to historicity, others who had been at the heart of modern Ireland's triumphs.

The assembled members on the right side of the central aisle "stood" by shuffling to the precise positions to which their rank entitled them. To her left were a scattering of Babylonian technicians and assistants. Most of that area, including all but one position in the first row, was empty. It was spring session, when the two bodies making up the Federation government met separately, sending only nominal observers to each other. Recalling archived recordings, Mara pictured a group of executives sitting about a table in their capital, also called Babylon, for their spring board meeting.

In the fall joint session, Tara's left front row would be occupied by those same executives, who ruled their world with authority similar to that of Hibernia's domain lords, though in a corporate rather than clan structure. The left back rows would then contain the same type of hangers-on and support staff as the Hibernian section on her right. Today, only the Babylonian ambassador-executive and his staffers attended.

Competition to be a corporate executive was as cutthroat as to take a lord's position, but the Babylonians' weapons were economic and political. Indeed, apart from peace officers, they bore no sidearms. They also wore drab one-piece clothing, individuals distinguishable only by two coloured insignia near their shoulders--one coding rank or position, the other the corporation currently holding their contract. For both reasons, many Hibernians despised them.

Today, her stomach still not recovered from Frank Haggerty's poison, her mind aching over the loss of her father, Mara felt more kin to Hibernia's Federation partners than to her fellow nobility. Her old tartan of the common pattern, scuffed military boots, threadbare kilt, and homemade shirt contrasted starkly with the brightly coloured tartans and ornate vests to her right by which the wearers proudly proclaimed Irish houses or regional domains. Moreover, the small pastries she'd eaten on the way here had already fallen off the shelf, and she was hungry again.

Weary, gaunt from illness and grief, nearly starved from lack of money to buy food, Mara was very unlike the sleek, well-fed nobles and executives. Even her shirt, decorated in Devereaux and Rourke patterns for this very occasion, but illegal to wear at court for the twenty years before today, hung loosely on her scare-raven form.

Always conscious of her tall gawkiness, she surveyed for other heads that might stand above the crowd. Catherine Ryan wasn't present, for she was underage. Besides the Donal, only one man was her height of a full staff. He stood at the back and also wore common tartan. The pattern and his place marked him as a servant of the court, or "Lord for the Day", as invited palace staff were termed. He turned slightly and caught her staring. He didn't react overtly, but Mara concluded he must be Dugold Dunnegan, the equally tall Metan agent John Dominic once mentioned.

She turned her attention to the dais. Donal XII, resplendent in his ornate shirt and official fur mantle, had just taken his seat. There was a general relaxation as the others mentally "sat" as well. Mara had watched the proceedings on the MT political channel many times and knew the routines, though it was very different in person. For one thing, in his state furs, the Donal looked even more enormous than when she'd fought him to a draw in the games. Perhaps he held his position by intimidation as much as skill.

There was more ceremony. Lord Chamberlain declared the fortieth day of the session open, then intoned, "Who speaks first?"

Donal stood imperiously, signalled the secretary his intention to speak, and growled, "First Lord Donal speaks. Does anyone challenge?" None did, so business began with him listing a series of documents that were ready to be delivered "if other potential speakers would extend the courtesy of the house". No one commented, he sat again, and reports began. By custom, these thereby became part of the first lord's speaking, and the servants who delivered them could not be interrupted until each was finished. Questions ensued, and the officials, who were normally ordered about rather gruffly, were addressed as "my lord", and "my lady", maintaining the polite fiction that only the noble trod this floor, despite practicality dictating otherwise.

Once Donal sat, one of the four pages left her station below the dais near the secretary, walked along the left wall, then across the back. Still rubbernecking, Mara was startled when the page spoke.

"My lady?"

She turned and saw a smartly dressed well-armed young woman of perhaps seventeen, barely of age to be in the room, even to carry a sword, though her uniform stripe proclaimed her a third lieutenant. The girl was sandy haired, of average height, and appeared to be in superb condition.

Like all servants of the court, she wore the common tartan. Her house crest was that of Kildare, allied to Clan Donald, through Daisy MacAllister-Kildare. Below the crest was Mara's own New School patch. Only house, military, and academy insignia were permitted at court. Jewellery was forbidden. The page grinned up at her, and Mara smiled broadly. A first Friend, and one she recognized. Things were looking better. If only she could get something to eat.... Mara put the thought firmly away.

"Sheana A'Kildare at your service, my lady."

"I remember you. You were among the new grads the Kildares loaned to the East Afghan Expeditionary force a few months back."

Sheana grinned and bowed. "The Secretary wishes to know your business, my lady major."

"I am a petitioner," Mara responded, bowing back to observe formalities, though the girl would know why she was here.

"If you will follow me, my lady." Sheana walked proudly before her along the centre aisle.

Mara allowed herself to be escorted to the petitioners' circle between the two third rows, an area also used for witnesses when trials were held at court. Some of the loosely-ranked minor nobles glanced at her, then away. Dressed in a worn common tartan, her other clothes plain and overlarge, she'd be taken for a representative of some minor family or a remote domain, perhaps bearing a tale of border violations, economic hardship, or wrong needing redress.

Two women near the middle stared longer, perhaps momentarily astonished by her height, then appeared to dismiss her. Mara thought some might have known her from the arena, then realized that in her present emaciated condition, it was unlikely. One minor lord looked more closely, took in the tartan patterns on her shirt, started violently, then stared in open disbelief.

After passing the lesser hereditary nobles, the domain holders, ranked lords, and the protectors, she halted at the tiled circle opposite the military lords. A few bards, bishops, and front row nobles turned slightly to see who was there, then ignored her. Sheana bowed again, left Mara there, and returned the way she had come. It could be a long wait, so Mara scrutinized the room more carefully. Before her was the dais with the state chair left of centre filled by the Donal's bulk. He pointedly ignored her. Farther back and to her right was the raised jade chair--the throne of Ireland, vacant since the nobles deposed James IV in 1941 and established the protectorate. Mara grunted to herself. Quite apart from her family agenda of revenge, protecting that chair's integrity was why she'd come.

On the aisle end of the front row, no more than two staves away, were Liam and Maria Ryan, joint holders of second and of medicine. She knew them from Rome. She named off others in the front row from memory, stopping briefly at Jack Graham. He stood sixth, and was also Domain Executive for Transportation.

As if sensing her scrutiny, Lord Graham turned to gaze at her. He'd fought beside her and the Donal four nights ago, killing several of her father's old enemies, and later found her father's body. Pain of remembrance filled her, and she felt faint. Graham nodded vague acknowledgment, looked at her oddly, then grinned, shrugged, and faced the dais. The session droned on. Mara wondered how long she would have to await the first lord's pleasure.

A last servant finished answering questions, and the Donal stood. "Right, that's it for reports. Any announcements?" He sat, and Jack Graham stepped forward. Everything else, it seemed, took precedence over a petition. Mara thought Lord Graham looked strained when he glanced again at her.

"It pleases house Graham to announce it will host the monthly dinner of the court next Friday." Graham stepped back.

Immediately, loud sword thumping began, along with cheers, a few hoots, and much raucous laughter. Donal grinned widely. Mara concluded that offering to be dinner host meant Graham had lost some kind of bet, but she was otherwise baffled. Evidently much byplay here was edited out of MT news accounts.

Once the jolly noise subsided, Donal stood again, still looking pleased with himself. "It seems we have a petitioner today." He fixed Mara with an unfriendly scowl. "Who are you, and what do you want?"

She ignored his snappish discourtesy, did not bother to comment that he knew her full well, and answered briskly, "I am Mara Devereaux Rourke. The ban on Devereaux and Rourke having expired, I claim the right of high nobility to be present in this court and to participate in its decisions for my families."

As she said the names, there were low gasps and sharp exclamations, then a few disbelieving chuckles as all eyes turned to her. She had claimed family names banned for the twenty years since the battle of Glenmorgan, and a given name everyone knew belonged to a child long dead. She heard someone whisper, "She has both tartans on her shirt, but can't be...." A quiet whisper replied nearby, "Another romantic pretender. I've met four who claimed to be Mara Devereaux. Everybody knows she's dead."

"The lifting of the ban was said yesterday," Donal confirmed casually, acknowledging her houses were no longer outlawed from court. "Yet, apart from your shirt you wear the tartan of neither family you claim to represent." His voice was sharp, hostile.

"I represent neither," Mara announced, and thought a sly look stole over him. "The honour of my parents' houses is a high one, and they defended it well, as I will if either name is defamed. Know, oh court, that my father Jack Devereaux wore the common tartan in the years of his ban with pride, as I do today. In that time, he became part of the commons, and so I remain. Devereaux had his vengeance on Tara's streets four days ago. Let his house die with him." She said nothing about her father having been adopted into Devereaux. They needn't know that. This time the murmuring was prolonged.

She saw Jack Graham turn and smile enigmatically over some private matter, and Donal himself looked puzzled.

"If you stand here neither for Devereaux nor for Rourke, for what house stand you?" he demanded.

"For the house of the commons," Mara answered, confounding him further. "I stand before the court and the Lord of Heaven in the name of Meathe."

Donal started, then grimaced. "Meathe has been extinct for centuries except as a vulgar name," he observed acidly. "The sword has departed from its house." There was more tittering and one person laughed aloud. The same whisperer announced tartly, "I told you so."

Mara grit her teeth, determined. So what if the hidebound traditionalist court didn't understand? Surely they had to go along with it. Mara would be Lady Meathe, and she didn't care if court members thought it all buffoonery.

The Donal scowled at Mara, then thundered, "So Meathe returns to the court. What does Meathe want?"

Mara momentarily wondered if she should back down and leave in the face of his bullying. Yet if she did, there'd be nothing for her but the work of a security guard or perhaps a bouncer for some low tavern as an alternative to begging money from her allies to get away from Tara. Besides, what point would there be in resuming training Friends of the Day, if she were not at court to lead them? She would concede not a cent. Besides, Donal knew. He was taking her seriously, even if he was hostile.

"Meathe, Devereaux, and Rourke have rights at Tara, and I claim them," she responded, more boldly than she felt.

"You claim the royal grant in the name of Meathe? What proof offer you?"

"This sword was my father's, and is now mine." She cross drew with her left hand, Meathe singing from the scabbard to a salute. All whispering abruptly ended. The house became oppressively silent as she turned it about so the crest could be seen. It was too small to make out at any distance, but they must know. She had named herself Devereaux and Rourke before claiming the commons, so she must be presenting one of the famous weapons--not just any crested blade, but a royal one. The first Donal had scorned those blades nearly sixty years before, but with the ban on the throne soon to expire, they were again incredibly valuable.

"This blade is my credential. I need none other to take a place and a name of my own choosing among court and council." It was bold, and Mara was unsure exactly what she claimed, besides a place to stand in a warm room. She was merely doing as her father had instructed. The royal grant had better include meals, she thought, or it wouldn't be worth much.

"The petitioner will present sword Devereaux for verification," Donal announced, taking his seat. Mara was about to correct him, but decided it didn't matter which sword he named, so long as the blade was genuine.

Donal called Chief Herald Lord O'Toole to confer with Lord Chamberlain over the sword. Mara handed it over to the latter and the two checked it with a scanner. O'Toole said something she couldn't hear, then marched back to his place. Lord Chamberlain looked at the blade as if disbelieving the Chief Herald, then gave Mara a searching stare before declaring carefully, "This is indeed a hereditary royal sword. Lady Mara Meathe's claim on a royal grant is valid."

She'd been named. Would any object?

Donal, appearing to pay scant attention, accepted the sword from Lord Chamberlain, barely glancing at it before returning it to Mara.

"Your father was a gambler and a drunken sot, like everyone in his family for two hundred years," he observed, with peevish harshness.

"I have touched neither bottle nor games, nor, the Lord of Heaven helping me, shall I ever," she replied truthfully and without rancour. What he said about her father was all too true, and she didn't doubt it ran in the family. It would stop with her, that she would guarantee.

"Will you swear fealty to this house?" Donal demanded.

"I do say my fealty to Tara's throne," she responded, saluting, and using the words of loyalty every Hibernian child knows.

She watched the Donal as he surveyed the gathered lords and ladies. Perhaps some might have balked at her being named Mara Devereaux, but surely "Lady Meathe" meant nothing. She'd been told she resembled her mother Katherina Rourke and her grandmother Iron Kate, but the days when either had influence here were long past. Still, she was nervous as the Donal sought the necessary consensus.

His lips thinned in evident distaste as he finally announced, "We say that Meathe, having sworn fealty to Tara, may claim a place in this chamber. Tara names Lady Mara Meathe, also known as Devereaux and Rourke, heir of her family's rights, including a court grant. Does anyone object?" There was silence again, so he nodded to Lord Chamberlain, who thumped his mace on the floor and intoned, "So let it be said, so let it be done."

Donal glared at Mara again, and said sharply, "Take your place, Meathe. The court has business to attend."

She turned, but suddenly realized she had no idea where to go. Almost at once, she felt a hand on her arm, turned partly back and found herself looking into Maria Ryan's friendly face. Smiling encouragingly, Maria escorted her to the third row and a position on the farthest end from the aisle, past two generals, a colonel and another major.

This row was reserved for senior officers who chose to present at court. Her rank entitled her to standing there even without the noble status conferred by the sword. Behind her were the three holders from the big island, any protectors who might be present, and others who bore royal swords. Her old friends Colin and Daisy Kildare both could stand in that row or the one she was in, but seldom did.

Still others who could claim court rights by birth or who held lesser crested swords, but lacked the skill or strength to take a better place closer to the front, stood a couple of rows back, behind the major domain holders. Glancing around, she noted behind her the same white-haired man who had examined her sword for authenticity. She thought a moment, playing back the incident in her mind, and caught his name.

"Lord O'Toole," she whispered, turning and bowing. He must be the holder of the royal sword by that same name. Then she recognized him as the man she'd seen several times at Bridget Mally's, and recalled her host mentioning she was related to the O'Toole family.

"My lady Meathe." He coolly matched her bow, saying nothing more, so she turned her attention to the dais.

She had already endured well over three hours before her hearing, but stood two more while the session droned on. She idly wondered if it would be possible to eat the ancient rights she had inherited, or if she'd need to go out and raid restaurant garbage bins again.

At the session's eventual conclusion, Donal stalked off the dais to the sound of Lord Chamberlain thumping his mace in dismissal. The crowd milled about for a few minutes, then dispersed. The Ryans were busy, but several guards and other Friends greeted Mara unobtrusively. Several of the nobility strolled by, briefly considered her gaunt frame and worn uniform, then departed the room with open disinterest or disdain, apparently writing her off as either potential ally or foe. Thus, Mara was soon left alone, uncertain what to do. Suddenly Donal strode around the side of the dais, his furs shed in some back room.

"Come," he ordered.

He took her across the hall, past an elaborate water clock and fountain, to the King's Kitchen, an enormous, nearly empty dining area where servants took their orders from a large and varied menu. There, Mara ate what tasted like the best meal of her life. The featured main course was her favourite steak and pasta plate, a master chef's creation. Dessert was a thick fruit concoction in the Westlands style called porridge pudding or Cork pudding. She remembered how, as a child, she had spelled out messages to her father by picking out raisins and arranging them in her bowl.

While devouring twice as much food as she, Donal informed her, "Anybody who works or lives in this museum may eat here freely. Among the highborn, only the penniless like you and I do so regularly, the price of which is at least one shift a week as server. Report to Table Master Clemson after breakfast tomorrow." He waved a fork at her. "Inform him you'll cover my next two shifts in return for my showing you the ropes. The other high families have their own manses and kitchen help, so you'll work beside palace servants and their families who have quarters here."

She shrugged. She'd been aware a Donal must surrender his possessions when assuming office, though the part about serving tables was new data. A low price indeed for regular meals. Things were looking up.

Exchanging scarcely a word more, they finished their meal. Donal led her back to the hallway, through the grand foyer, past the water clock, along to the Kings' Way, and left to its end. There, he stopped before a door and had her palm the entry plate. "This door will open to your print and DNA until you die or leave of your own accord," he gruffly observed. "Inside this suite may be the only place in the entire complex you'll be safe." She preceded him through the door. He toured her through two floors, many rooms and facilities, then asked, "Any questions?"

Could she extract information without revealing anything important? She glanced at the crest over the inside of the door. It was the royal arms, similar to those on the sword she had presented earlier. Perhaps if she feigned ignorance....

Donal saw her look. "You had better hang that thing in here," he casually advised, indicating her royal blade with a slight gesture. "It's an antique and you don't want it stolen. I'll have the Master of Swords issue you a PIEA model and get the Master of Computing to arrange for your instruction in its use."

Mara smiled, and drew her other blade, turning the hilt so he could see she already had a sword PIEA installed. "I did my EEC under the name of Alice Thurber," she said quietly.

Donal raised an eyebrow slightly. "You invented the toy that's all the rage around court? Full of surprises, aren't we? Well, you need three certificates to stand in the front row, not just one. Best get busy."

She held up her sleeve with the insignia of a major, not mentioning her GAC and MC.

"All right, you have military too. One more, then."

"What do you suggest, my lord?" she asked, neutrally. Every senior officer would have a GAC, so he had to assume she'd earned it also under another name, but since he seemed to have an agenda in mind, she'd play along. It might be profitable. After all, the Donal was also Hibernia's chief academician.

"How about becoming a brehon?"

Mara suppressed a grin. The reply was too ready.

"Why?"

"Most of those court nincompoops know burrs about the laws they pass, and won't listen to Ard Brehon O'Connell. We need qualified judges among the so-called nobility."

"Law it is then." Mara enjoyed a challenge. She had three of the requisite eight courses from her GAC, and thought she could read law in a year or less. It would give her something to do besides work at her weapons and recover her strength.

"Besides serving meals, how do I earn my keep?" Mara asked.

Donal studied her spare frame. "You been sick?" he demanded, abruptly changing the subject.

"Frank Haggerty tried to poison me." She offered no detail.

"What level is your sword now?"

"No more than seventy." Why hadn't Donal reacted to her statement? Was poisoning common? Surely not. Conclusion: He knew about the incident. He had spies in Old Town hospital, did he? Interesting. What else did he know?

"Well, you were better than those low ruffians we took on at the Red Lion the other night."

He paused, and Mara's stomach rebelled. Graham and Donal had helped fight off the enemies her father lured into the open at the cost of his own life, but she didn't need reminders. It was too raw. Moreover, it seemed but a game to the high lord, a casual exercise of his skill, no more important than taking her on at the games.

"Too bad." He shrugged nonchalantly. "Haggerty's over eighty."

"What has he to do with a job?" Mara was angry now. She hated Frank Haggerty.

"Kill him. You'd get his front row standing."

Mara felt heat on her face. It was inappropriate for a child of God to lust after vengeance, but couldn't help herself.

She temporized. "I thought his uncle had their court standing."

"Frank shared it. He claimed it for himself once Graham ran Joe through, but is away just now."

"When does he return?"

"Any time. Within the month, surely."

Encouraged by his rapid fire answers, Mara tried to trap Donal into answering what he earlier evaded. "What is the significance of the crest on my sword being the same as the one in above the fireplace?" She faked a sappy smile.

He wasn't fooled. "This is a guest suite." He waved around him. "You can stay in it until we know what to do with you. Your sword and name give you this right, but that's true of anyone who shows up with a crested sword, not just the royal families. Perhaps you'll have to share the place. Know this, though," he lectured sternly, "Meathe has no claim on anything but the court grant--a place to live, and bare necessities. No lands, servants, position, or monies. Nothing else--and without these, you have no power or influence. All your family names have been forgotten here. Will you accept the court grant, or will you depart and make your own way as your ancestors did?"

Grimacing at his tone, Mara knew she had little choice. The alternatives were too unpleasant to contemplate. "Yes. I...ah...accept." It was barely more than a whisper. When he glared back, she added, hesitatingly, "Meathe thanks the court for its grant." Her father's name and sword had gotten her this much. She would win more.

Donal grimaced. "Time will tell if anything good can come of Meathe," he snapped, and abruptly left, forestalling further questions.

When the door closed behind him, Mara sighed, then hung the sword of Meathe on the wall rack by the exit to the hallway. It would have to do. At least she wouldn't starve. Besides, this suite was enormous. Two floors and nearly twenty rooms was far more than she could use. What had it been, and why was it standing empty? She fished from her pouch grandmother Hannah's jade pendant and looked around. Where could she hide it?

* * * * *

The former Sean Reilly, Donal XII, at Tara's court, June 13, 1997

Returning to his quarters, Donal went at once to the safe. Opening it, he rummaged for a well-worn file, spread it out over his vast solid oak desk, and began to turn pages he'd studied many times, as had other donals. They spelled out the original Donal's 1941 plan to depose the King but to keep him and his descendents protected until potential assassins gave up, or the full three generations passed. None of this had been entered on an MT--even then the only secure storage medium was paper.

The idea had been to give Donal Tobin's choice of the new Irish North American domains to the King, using the other domain to establish a new house. Swords Devereaux and O'Conor had been reserved for the purpose, the former going to Jack Devereaux, the latter to James Holdom, both cousins of the King. However, Dennison had been substituted at the last minute for the second house. There was no explanation, but Donal supposed Holdom (or the King, if it were he) had not cooperated, and Tobin determined to humiliate him further.

Meathe, the third of the King's swords, was to have been given in trust to a security agent who would take its name in exchange for the perpetual family duty of protecting the monarch and his heirs. Donal thought his predecessor must have been mad to have so casually handed away such priceless treasures, especially Meathe, the sword of Ireland.

Officially, O'Conor had passed to the museum when the King vanished without accepting a sword. Devereaux and Meathe supposedly disappeared with the later deaths of their holders, but from the numerous notes in the file, none but the first Donal believed matters were as simple as that.

Besides, the moment he touched the sword Mara presented in court, he knew it to be different from his own, and thus not one of the latter-day blades--they had been made identical to one another. This had borne a genuine royal crest but no register marks, and was heavier, so the sword could only be Meathe, not Devereaux as he'd mistakenly named it. How had Mara gotten it? Did she have another? Did she even know what she held? He hadn't corrected the naming aloud, and would say nothing to her. Mara was playing a deep game, but perhaps it was worth his while to cooperate.

He turned over a photograph of three men at the rail of the ship Mary Rose, one taken shortly after the deposition. It was clearly labelled: "Seamus Meathe, James Dennison, Jack Devereaux." There was a separate picture of the King, taken days before at a state banquet. Of the three, James Dennison looked most like the King, but Jack Devereaux had the same size and build, so James could have been either. Donal also knew James IV had been called "Jack" in private.

The security agent, Seamus Meathe, was bent over the rail. He appeared to be a small, sly, self-effacing, man, and there was no information on his family or background. Donal had researched "Seamus Meathe" and gotten nowhere, except to learn he was ostensibly a more distant cousin and had once been registered as the King's executioner. The name was obviously a pseudonym. "Typical Security lord," he mumbled aloud, "just like Katherina. Get into the post and the first thing they do is erase all traces of themselves from the system." That Meathe hadn't been regular security but worked directly as the King's agent was apparent. What had the man been or known? The fellow could answer no questions now. Seamus Meathe had been killed shortly after returning home from Irish North America with the Devereaux family.

Mara's presentation of the sword got Donal thinking about this picture. The script called for her to present Devereaux, the way he announced it, not Meathe. What had Jack done with his sword? Had something entirely different happened at the deposition? Had the surviving one of the two Jacks in the next generation owned both swords? Did Mara know who she was?

Donal stared at the photographs. The first and most obvious level of indirection was that the King became Holdom/Dennison and took sword Meathe. If so, how would Mara get it? He dismissed the scenario as too obvious.

The second level was that the King became Devereaux, keeping Meathe, and giving sword Devereaux to Dennison. That was sneaky enough to explain why Mara didn't have Devereaux, but didn't account for her having Meathe. He grunted as he realized he now assumed King James had controlled the swords despite the first Donal's plans.

He tapped a finger on the pile of papers as he tried to put himself in the king's position. James must have fooled Donal Tobin and everyone since, so the reality must have appeared to be Tobin's plan. Hence he'd arranged for both new houses to have a sword and also given one to the agent to ensure his perpetual loyalty. Surely the second scenario was wrong and Devereaux received the sword by that name.

He knew where O'Conor was--in the Royal Museum with O'Kelly. Would the King as Dennison have given Meathe to the agent, and left himself without a claim on the throne? Surely not, no one could be trusted that much. The King must have been more devious. He'd outfoxed everybody.

Donal stared at the images again. Suddenly he had it. There was only one possibility....

He whirled to the left.

"MT on. Connect to the chief herald."

Almost at once Patrick O'Toole's face appeared. "My lord Donal?"

"Forget the formality, O'Toole. Meet me in five minutes on the main hallway by the Master of Swords' post, and bring that sword scanner of yours. Come alone."

"As your lordship wishes."

Donal tossed the file back in his safe and locked it. Three minutes later he stood before the display case outside the chambers looking at the display holograms of O'Kelly and O'Conor, the two royal swords held by the Royal Museum down the street. He sensed rather than heard O'Toole coming up behind him, so without turning, addressed him as soon as the man was close. He liked doing that. It kept people off balance.

"Listen, O'Toole. Your scanner reads an encoded inscription worked into the design of the crest, doesn't it?" He didn't wait for an answer. "These holograms surely have sufficient resolution to pick out the byte coding from here without troubling the curator. What I want you to do is scan the hologram of O'Kelly and read me the encoded message you use to verify its authenticity."

O'Toole face showed some irritation, but he complied by holding the scanner to the hologram. There was a momentary pause, then he read, "By the royal armouries, the sword of O'Kelly, engraved the tenth of twelve." It is genuine.

"Good," Donal said. That was as it should be. "The girl's sword this afternoon?" When O'Toole hesitated, he turned to him. "Look here, O'Toole. That the swords have some secret inscription to authenticate and tell them apart is now obvious. I knew Mara's sword wasn't Devereaux the moment I touched it. The weight is different from mine. Besides, it has no register marks on the crest."

Patrick O'Toole sighed, and Donal spared him a knowing grin. Best everyone knew it was hard to hide anything from him.

"It bore the signature, 'The sword of Ireland and of Meathe, engraved Ard of the twelve'," O'Toole said. "It is a different alloy and is slightly longer and heavier than the others. By one account, it was made at Tara's original armoury in the fifth century and was a symbol of royal power in the hands of various kings of Tara. It is said it was later given to the first Meathe by Brian Boru himself. Others claim Cormac Meathe hammered it out for himself before he was crowned king. The monogram was added when the others were forged for the pact of the swords in 1751."

"Yes, yes, I know all that," Donal impatiently brushed off the history lesson. "Now scan the second hologram, and stay calm." He looked around to see if anyone was watching.

There was a longer pause, and it was a good thing he'd warned O'Toole, for the latter sputtered indignantly, "I don't believe it," checked again, and finally whispered, "It's a fake."

"Show me."

O'Toole passed him the scanner and Donal read the message on its screen. "Sorry, Donal old friend, but I needed O'Conor and you weren't going to give her to me. This is a decent enough replica."

"Who did this?" O'Toole sounded indignant.

"The King was far more clever than he was given credit for, it seems. Listen O'Toole, this fake fooled Donal Tobin and everybody for almost sixty years. It can go on doing so a while longer. I'm putting a top secret classification on this. No one is to know but the two of us. Understood?"

"As you wish. However, if the real O'Conor is presented, the truth will be out. Moreover, Lord Chamberlain read the scan and knows Lady Mara has Meathe."

"Of course," Donal replied, almost absently, for he'd suddenly realized that one replica surely implied three. Thus, perhaps two people who thought they owned Devereaux would now be very upset, as would whoever owned the fake Meathe should he learn Mara actually owned the genuine Meathe. And, where was the genuine O'Conor? The King's complex old conspiracy might suddenly prove useful. He must have his agents watch for undue interest in royal swords. Aloud, he only commented, "I will discuss the matter of secrecy with Lord Chamberlain. You need to keep that scanner securely locked up. Your own sword, too."

There could be several people wanting such blades badly by now, Donal thought, as he returned to his quarters. O'Toole would have to be careful, but surely could take care of himself. The facade of the stringy white hair didn't fool him. He knew full well this Patrick was indeed the younger, for reasons of his own giving out he was his deceased father, Patrick Sr. He snorted aloud. "Everyone's a liar, including me."

Yet, all in all, he realized, as he prepared for bed later that night, it had been a more useful day than he'd expected when he bet Graham a dinner hosting Mara would present today, despite her grief and sickness. He considered the gaunt, spare woman she'd become since the games a few months before, and swore quietly. That was a setback, though not as bad as if she'd died. At a sword rating of only seventy, she needed help, though not much. He resolved to stall Haggerty's return to court for a while.

He didn't know how Mara would defeat the man, but the shape of the situation insisted she would. He mentally pencilled her in at Haggerty's place, began planning her assignments, and speculated on how many others she might bring down with the vile lout. It was wonderful having someone else to fight his personal war with Clan MacCarthy. She'd just have to kill him a few days later than he'd planned.

* * * * *

Mara, at Tara's court, June 20, 1997

Over the next several days, Mara did a lot of the eating she had promised herself and much more. She attended sessions of the court, mostly shorter than on the day she arrived, but merely watched and listened. Otherwise, she returned to a school regimen, working out early with a run, studying law on the MT in her own name for several hours, then spending time with Swordmaster Mahoney or one of the Friends in the gym, trying to regain her lost skill and strength with stick and sword.

Periodically, she openly took one of the small red pills she no longer needed--and was her own counterfeit anyway--but no one commented. The pills that arrived regularly through the post system she analysed, then discarded. Let the sender think her still dependent on his antidote to Frank Haggerty's poison.

After a week, Jonas Kent told her he thought her sword was close to an eighty now, but it would be months before she would be near his own level again at her present rate. "You destroyed too much muscle tissue," he said bluntly. "Even regrow can't recover it that fast. It would come back quicker if you'd had an arm amputated and grew it from scratch than trying to replicate it from withered tissue."

"Thanks Jonas. I needed an honest assessment. I'll still kill him."

Jonas departed for his shift without further comment, but was clearly unhappy with her reply. Mara went two more rounds with the fighting robot, and also left. Keyed up emotionally, she found herself in a whimsical and light-headed mood when she arrived at her suite.

She hung her own sword by the door, then on a fancy took Meathe from where she had originally hung it, and held it up against the wall in several other places, gaily talking away to herself. "Would you prefer it here, Master Jonas, or would the decoration look better over there?" Whirling, chattering, and dancing about in a most undignified manner, she made her way around the outside of the outer room and into the study area, where she knew more work awaited.

Suddenly she found herself in front of a panelled wall bearing a large coat of arms on a shield, around the outside of which were faint indentations where hooks had been removed and the wood filled with wax. There were faint shadows on the wall that looked like....

She held Meathe up again and suddenly realized with a shock, "It hung there. This was the King's own suite, and his three swords were right here." She held the blade up against the shield with the hilt to the left and the point to the right, then the opposite way around. "One on each diagonal." She placed Meathe straight up and down over the crest, held it there, and started to say, "The sword of Ireland, perhaps, in the middle." Her voice echoed in the empty suite.

A soft click sounded behind the shield. Mara didn't hesitate, but set Meathe on the desk behind and began trying to move the shield. It swung readily about on a swivel to reveal a safe with its door slightly ajar. Evidently the lock had been triggered by the presence of the sword in its proper position. She reached in and pulled out the only item inside--a data cube in a holder connected to a triggering mechanism on the door. She speculatively tossed it in the air a few times while she scanned the room for bugs, pulled the network connection on the MT for absolute privacy, then dropped the cube into the desk reader.

The screen lit up with printed text. "You have opened the safe with Meathe. Please verify your descent from Meathe by holding the pendant before the camera."

Mara dashed to the place where she had hidden Hannah's jade behind a loose moulding, got it out, held it in front of the lens, and allowed it to turn so as to permit the recognition software to do its work. She supposed the other swords would have triggered a different sequence to verify the holder, and either failure to produce the item requested within a certain time or an attempt to force the safe open in the first place would have erased the cube.

The text cleared and a picture took its place. More text scrolled across the bottom. "Greetings, holder of Meathe. Know that whether you are descended from Seamus and Hannah or not, carrying their sword into this room binds you to its duties of protecting the throne. The purpose of this collection of information is to assist you in that task."

Hibernia rules! Mara thought. James keyed the safe and the data to the people who would have his swords.

It was the beginning of a long session. Mara thought of the cube afterwards as a palace survival manual. There were passwords, the regular combination to the safe, maps, code books, lists of names and contacts, financial information, and a guide to an elaborate system of tunnels and secret passageways--both those used by security, and others known only to the King and his agents, of whom there had been three.

She learned the royal suite itself was built bombproof and screened from radio-based bugs. She'd already tried her PIEA, and discovered it didn't work there, so the old protections were apparently still active. There was also a white noise machine and several other devices to make it as secure as possible in the day it was built. The controls and their overrides were clearly mapped out. The wall circuits had hidden isolators so work such as she was now doing could not be monitored, though traffic to the outside couldn't be guaranteed to be safe. Mara had already installed her own measures, including several of her father's scanners in case anyone brought bugs to the room. She had no staff to subvert, and the place was cleaned by robots, but she was now much more confident in her security.

There was a sketchy set of notes on the plan to depose the King, along with some cryptic comments concerning the swords, but this section was apparently hastily dictated and wasn't as complete as the rest. Mara concluded whatever had been done with the swords, it was a last minute addition to the King's own plans. All she could get out of it was that one or more "cousins" were involved. It was not clear whether these latter were people or referred to the swords themselves.

There were repeated references to a King's agent named Seamus. These intrigued Mara, for he was surely none other than her own blood grandfather Seamus Meathe. However, all she could make out was he was to have been entrusted with one of the King's swords in order to guard him in North America. It meant the King was either her adoptive grandfather Jack Devereaux, or.... Yes, it made sense. Mara rubbed her hands together with satisfaction. She had inherited the guarding of the throne for a man she now knew to be tested and true. Alfred Dennison was surely the true heir.

She finished her perusal of the materials and reviewed the security information once more, then reset the safe combination with a new series of numbers, disabled the sword-lock circuit, and deposited the data cube, Hannah's pendant, and some of her own gear inside. Noting it was deep enough to take the sword, she placed Meathe there as well and re-locked it.

Now, to try out the tunnel system. Buckling on her own sword just in case, she moved several wooden panels in the prescribed order, popped open the wall, and entered the passage behind. The left branch led to an exit near the main, or lower, security office, and out to the pastry shop where she'd met Jonas on her way here the first day. She turned right and down instead, entered a service tunnel running under the sidewalk in front of the park, and began what she knew would be a long passage at an officer's pace--walk, run, walk, run. When she was stronger, she'd run the whole way.

As she went, lights came on automatically. The tunnel was clean and dry. According to the map, there were many street entrances to the main tunnel located above her for servicing the pipes and wires running through it. There was also a larger, parallel tunnel running between the barracks of the new palace and a building in Old Tara. Several times she passed cleaning robots that appeared still functional. The place might not have been used for many years, but it was kept up.

After several minutes she came to a turn in the tunnel, triggered a lock on a hidden door and went up a flight of stairs. The leg to the right, she knew, carried on to a point beneath Old Town, where it entered an office. Now, if all was correct....

She looked through a peephole into an unoccupied but clean and elegantly furnished apartment. No one was inside, so she triggered the latch, checked that the re-entry combination worked, and stepped out. She went at once to a window and looked out onto the street. She was in a suite sandwiched between the Red Lion and the pawn shop. Her old apartment, the one she had shared with her father and Rainbow until just days before, was immediately on the other side of this wall. There was a door, but the notes told her it had been locked from the other side. Well, she could fix that. She walked softly downstairs. When she rounded the corner of the staircase, she found herself in a security control room with screens showing the tunnel. As she had expected, this end was monitored by a king's agent.

The woman seated there did not at first hear her, but some small sound must have caught her ear, for she suddenly turned.

"Greetings to you, Landswoman Mally," Mara said, as casually as if she had dropped in from a stroll in the park. "I see you have tasks more important than polishing antique swords and watches."

Bridget Mally, her recent landlady, was unsurprised. She had obviously seen her coming on the screens. She smiled back. "It's so pleased I am you've been the first to use the tunnel in all these years since the King left."

"What was your task here, Landswoman Mally, if I may ask?" To herself she wondered what would have happened to that task if the elderly lady had died.

"Ensure the robots kept the tunnel clean, keep it fair secret, wait till someone used it, then 'lend all assistance'," she replied, grinning her pleasure at Mara.

"Why is there a tunnel to here?" Mara wondered.

Bridget rose slowly from the chair before the control panel, took her cane from the back of the chair and allowed Mara to help her hobble to a couch before replying.

"This building was Tara's original palace before the new complex was built on Royal Avenue. The kings retained ownership, renting the front to the pub, and operating the back as pawn shop so they could have a bolt-hole when needed. When I was first here, only the King and his agent used the tunnel."

"Seamus?" enquired Mara.

"Yes, Seamus." Bridget's quiet voice cracked slightly.

They talked a while longer, then Mara unlocked the hidden door between the two suites at Bridget's, explored the rest of the tunnel system at both ends, and returned to her palace suite. The King may have known he'd never return, but had laid much groundwork for his grandson, Alfred Dennison, to do so. Mara embraced her future with joy. Her duty was plainer than ever. She would help crown Alfred I King of Hibernia.

She no sooner returned than her front door chime sounded. Mara thumbed the security camera channel and saw Sheana A'Kildare, the court page who'd escorted her to the petitioners' circle when she'd arrived at court. The hall cameras showed no one else nearby, so Mara let her in and invited her to the sitting room.

"What can I do for a Friend, Lieutenant A'Kildare?" Mara glanced pointedly at Sheana's New School crest.

Sheana grinned broadly. "You remembered my name from Afghanistan even though we only talked once, but what about before that?"

"Before?" Mara blinked, taken off guard.

"When I was Tiger's cub and you were Meghan, Lion's cub."

Suddenly reverting to a little girl, Mara shrieked, sprang to her feet and seized Sheana in a great hug. "You're that Sheana? The little bards' servant girl who spent the summer with us at Edwardston, let me think, eight years ago? I would never have recognized you. Oh, this is too wonderful."

Sheana looked up admiringly at her once and still big sister. "You and Rainbow are my blood. I've never forgotten you, Meghan."

"Oh, that was the best summer of my life, too, Sheana. We had such good times together. Did you know Rainbow is here?"

"What, here in Tara?"

"Yes, she came to see me when I was sick, but stayed on and is now quite interested in Father Cam, the priest at St. Patrick's." She chuckled. It was a problem well solved. Father Cam had been much too interested in her. Rainbow would make him a far better wife.

"Oh, that's too much." Sheana giggled. "We must visit her and remember old times together."

The two laughed and chattered for several minutes, then Sheana grew serious.

"Actually Mara, I came to ask a favour."

"Whatever I can."

"My term as page ends next week with the conclusion of spring session, and according to the rules, I'm supposed to return home to Penal City."

"You don't want to?"

Sheana reverted to the earlier subject. "When we met at Edwardston, I was just the bards' helper girl. I never told you anything about myself."

"So tell." Mara smiled encouragement.

"I was orphaned shortly after birth in a shipping accident off the coast of Australia. As a young child I was raised until I was five by the woman I think of as 'Mother'. Then, she was arrested and imprisoned. Over the next few years, I spent a lot of time on Penal City streets, fighting for survival. I worked a few years as Lady Bria's maid, and she was the one who led me to trust in Jesus as my Saviour. When she died, I ended up back on the street.

The Kildares and the Friends took me in four years ago, made me A'Kildare, trained me, and commissioned me lieutenant. This past spring, I tied the all-Australia contest to be court page for a year." She stopped for breath. When she resumed, her voice was strained. "Now, I'm expected to return, and in September, the one who tied me, Tim Leary, comes to serve his half of the position for the fall session, and...." Her flood of words ran down, and a tear glistened in her eye.

Mara looked Sheana over carefully, and concluded, "You don't want to go back because of this Tim Leary?"

Sheana's blush was answer enough.

"Do you have your GAC?"

"Yes, my lady, and well beyond, nearly Ollamh. I've my lieutenant's commission, as you know, and some..." she hesitated, "...informal training in security techniques."

"You know how to pick locks and break into computers."

"Lady Bria taught me." Her voice became pleading. "My lady, I've prayed to the Lord of Heaven to allow me to stay with Tim. Maybe you're my answer. I'll work at any job you can find me, from bodyguard to secretary, if only I can stay. The Friends in Penal city are good people and I love the Kildares, but I can do more here, and Tim...." She trailed off.

Mara was unsure what she could do for Sheana without any money. Temporizing, she asked, "Do you have any links to your past, any clues to your birth identity?" Sheana had never discussed her past at Edwardston.

Sheana pulled a small packet from her pouch and unwrapped a ring from a scrap or worn cloth. "When I was four, Mother gave me this. I think she knew she would be arrested. She said it was given to her by my birth mother, whose name she either didn't know or wouldn't tell me. I have kept it since."

Mara examined the ring carefully. It was a signet in the form of a shield circled by emeralds, but now had the lower part broken away. She recognized the crest as identical to the one on her sword, but it had not been over three lions. Rather, there was a corner of something else. Not enough remained to tell. It made her think of her mother's ring that Donal had given her after the games, and for a moment she almost showed it to Sheana, but stopped herself. It was a silly notion. She handed Sheana's ring back, her heart touched by the story, and she smiled warmly. "I will find you something. Give me until next week."

"Thank-you, Mara. You won't regret it."

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