That the members of Hibernia's hereditary nobility have for centuries acted as guardians of her throne at Tara is well known to anyone who paid attention to Irish history lessons in third grade. That they reserve the throne exclusively for themselves is less obvious--many a talented, strapping lad has gone to court thinking he could claim it, only to be thwarted by the surprising development of the normally fractious nobility cooperating against him. Because the ruling monarchs have since 1791 surrendered their clan names, it is not always obvious that the green chair has been occupied by a single family ever since the Federation of Worlds was founded. It may be that this "gentle agreement" was reached solely to avoid the embarrassment of the nobility killing itself off entirely with its notorious infighting.
Such matters are only politely discussed privately among the high lords and ladies, or here at Kilkarney, where their best and brightest are sent, ostensibly to train as military officers. Get used to being candid for four years, for at Kilkarney you are on sacred ground. You may say anything to each other, but are not permitted to kill students or staff. After you graduate, it is the other way around, for none of us are under any illusions that the "noble" among you have actually come to prepare for the polite but much more deadly power games your families play with each other. Or have the lessons of 1941 been lost on you?
--selected from the commander's commencement address to the entering class of 1964, Kilkarney cadet school.
Tara's palace, Ireland, September 1941 (Hibernia)
"The time for kings has passed." Donal Tobin began his seditious speech to the other lords quietly, carefully mixing patriotic rhetoric and history lessons in a mind-dulling recipe. "From the establishment in 1014 to 1792, ten different families ruled Ireland. Yes, the current dynasty has occupied the green throne for a century and a half, but a change now would generate a mere footnote in Ireland's rich and glorious history. And, I assure you that when our ancestors established the Peace of Ireland following the great European wars, they scarcely imagined Tara's rulers would ascend to world dominion, mastering two earths and accumulating interests on three others. They did not set out to invest a monarchy with such concentrated power, enormous influence, and potential for corruption."
The conspirator sat in his study, "scarcely fifty staves from the court chambers, as the buzzards fly", he was fond of saying. The court scene unfolded in one part of his MT wall screen, as he scrolled a text window beside it. "Following the script, are you, friend Donal? Good. Let's keep the lies predictable, shall we?"
Ending the Irish monarchy was neither a pleasant nor a safe prospect, but better than any alternative. He could easily die in his coup, but there was no going back now.
"Oh, Lord of Heaven," he gazed toward the ceiling in appeal, "People will say I've prolonged our own version of the Three Worlds' War, even betrayed the realm. But you know I've not my own interests at heart, only Ireland's. I'm in your hands, for life or death. Lord, I may have done wrong manipulating Donal, but he'll merely get the power he wants."
"It has been," Donal Tobin's voice droned at the periphery of his attention, "one hundred fifty-two years since the elusive Metans gave us the technical ability to travel among five of the six earths, excepting only Meta herself. The Federation of Ortho and Para, under the rule of our glorious capital here at Tara, is almost as old. It's time a fresh breeze blew through these ancient halls, time to set aside the rule of despots, incompetents, and drunkards, time to take the reins of power into our own hands for the good of all Hibernia. Henceforth, let this house reign collectively." He swept his arm about to include his audience.
"The fighting in Europe and Asia has dragged on far too long. Ireland needs fresh initiatives, fresh leadership, fresh vision to put an end to this interminable war."
"Ah, yes, the war," mused the conspirator to his empty office. "Some argue we Irish merely play our favourite game." He wagged his finger at Tobin's image. "You and your MacCarthy allies believe Ireland lacks the will to fight hard enough. You forget the savage conflict on the earth next to ours, how, like all great events, it leaks through the Timestream to adjacent worlds, also producing a war much like ours on Water World, the other side of Tirdia."
A group of junior officers had agreed too enthusiastically with his argument, and he'd had to stop the hotheads from assassinating Tirdia's Hitler and Hirohito.
Perhaps, he thought, we could have achieved the side effect of an earlier end to our war if we'd stopped Tirdia's fighting. But the last thing Hibernia needed was a failed intervention resulting in Tirdia discovering the other worlds. "We could all be overwhelmed by the multitudes of a planet whose people apparently have nothing to do but breed," he reflected. "Perhaps that's one reason the Metans call the place Prime. It has more people than four other earths combined."
The conspirator spoke toward a microphone. "MT, open new window, public file James Fourth." He ignored Donal Tobin's speech, to review for perhaps the hundredth time his carefully assembled dossier on the young king whom the nobles were about to dethrone.
"James, second son of James, son of Conn. Born 1917, fostered out to Barry and Millicent Devereaux of New Tara. Entered Kilkarney 1934 on a full scholarship, graduated 1938 as first cadet. Returned to Irish North America in the king's service, promoted to captain 1940, and to major, 1941."
Little else than well-known and well-polished facts, the conspirator thought. Access to a palace network node and skills few would advertise were required to reduce a reigning monarch's personal information to such bare bones. He'd also been responsible for most of the lies in Donal Tobin's somewhat larger file on the King. "But it's not what Donal Tobin thinks he knows that could get people killed today," the conspirator mused. "It's what is not in this file..."
* * * * *
James, April 1941, Irish North America
"Going somewhere, Major?"
James whirled from packing his backsack. His hand was halfway to his sword at the unexpected interruption when he suddenly realized who his visitor was. "Your Highness, I..."
"Cut the guff, James. Brace my arm instead. It wasn't too jolly when you found out, but I've rather enjoyed having another brother. You never knew Conn," reflected his visitor, suddenly pensive, but moving the conversation along rapidly. "He died at four. Matthew has his heart set on bardic orders. Daisy is still too young to know what she wants besides her own horse. But we two are the family warriors. There need be no formality between us."
James relented, and the two locked right arms, testing each others' strength. As they relaxed, William casually observed, "You're more like Dad than ever. Why not become King instead of me?"
James started in surprise, and William added, "If you weren't Dad's secret insurance policy, I'd trade places in a heartbeat. Tara's palace is a dreary place compared to an army camp. This is where Hibernia's true heart beats."
James forced himself to relax before the force of William's good humour. Fostering out a second son to have him raised in obscurity wasn't merely custom, but a necessary security measure in fractious Ireland. Even when his foster parents were killed in a riot during his second year at Kilkarney, the elder and younger James were never together. William was instead informed of the relationship, and dispatched to the school bearing the news. He had visited many times since, becoming a friend as well as a brother, though James had been but to Tara for several years.
James shook himself. "What brings you, William?"
"The high command needed to send a ceremonial bigshot. Dad's managing risk by working out of the country estate. His actor only stands in for routine ribbon cuttings, so I volunteered to chuck palace life for a week."
James raised his eyebrows. "Have there been enemy threats?"
"Nothing so tangible, and he wouldn't worry about the Germans or Japanese. No, he's staying out of circulation till he's ruined the latest domestic plot."
James nodded grimly. Ireland's "loyal" nobles were notorious for such schemes. He reverted to William's initial greeting. "Just as well you spend some time on the field, but you've forgotten I'm only a captain, not a major."
"Not to the high command. You and ten soldiers standing off three hundred Apache at the Alamo until the rest of the army got there made interesting reading from General Ryan's dispatches." William fished a small box from his pouch. "They sent this trinket along with your new stripes. Presentation's tomorrow." He held it out with a grin, and flipped the lid open.
James gasped, then shook his head. "The Medal of Honour. I can't accept that." Ireland's highest award hadn't been given for nearly two decades.
"Thought you'd say that." William laughed, and took a seat on a canvas chair. "Two nights ago Tara News editorialized, and I quote, 'Not content with ranking first sword of the army, James Devereaux has now taken his place in the ranks of Ireland's great heroes.' Meanwhile, the high command thinks you've single-handedly turned around the North American theatre. The way things are elsewhere, Ireland needs her heroes. I'm here to ensure she gets one, and no argument."
"None of it matters." James turned bleakly to the sack he'd been packing.
"Why not?" William's smile faded.
"Got a report from one of my sergeants that an entire Cree village is dead," James held out a photo. "I need samples, but it looks like smallpox."
William gasped. "Only the great houses have access..."
"Exactly. One of Ireland's lords schemes to shorten the war by wiping out the North American natives."
"But we can't win dishonourably. Our allies would turn against us. Hibernia would fall apart." William paused briefly, then pocketed the jewel box. "Got an extra isolation suit?" That James planned to intervene was a given. That William would accompany him was scarcely less so.
* * * * *
Two hours later, James trudged back up the hill where he'd left William on guard. The village of Jumping Pond and its dead were two hundred staves behind and below. He stopped for William to hose him down with disinfectant, stepped from the isolation suit, tossed it onto the fire, accepted another spray on his bare skin, dried himself, then donned his clothes and hefted the sample box.
"Almost certainly smallpox," he announced grimly, as the two walked to the crest, "but genetically engineered to be fast acting. Some died walking down the street or in the midst of a meal. I'll wager it spreads over the whole continent in days."
James glanced at the box in his hand. "By the book, we send these to Tara for analysis."
"By the time they could act," William observed quietly, "tens of thousands will be dead and the whole world will know. The political fallout..."
James gripped William's arm. "Running Bear's daughter was here visiting her aunt."
His brother whistled. "When the Stoney chief finds out, he and our few North American allies will desert. We'll have to pull troops from Europe to contain the mess."
"What have you in mind?"
"I've prayed about it, William. In what wisdom the Lord of Heaven gives, I believe there's only one way to get an antidote into the field in time."
"We both have our MCs." He waited for William to draw his own conclusion.
"Cut Tara Medical out of the picture and re-engineer the virus ourselves? Messing with pathogens without a vote of the lords means breaking the covenant, brother of mine."
"You don't have to join me, William, but surely if banned techniques are employed to do good, or to stop evil, they're legitimately from God, and must be used, despite the law. There's little choice but to act at once."
Just then, they crested the hill, and James saw five bodies lying in a tangle of swords and blood. He turned to William, astonished.
"Low thugs." William waved his dismissal. "Walked into the clearing chatting about ambushing you. I killed them all, unfortunately. No papers, but all European." His manner was almost casual, but James detected a quaver in his brother's voice. An honourable man disliked killing, even when it was necessary.
"Do we leave them?"
"Might as well keep whoever sent them guessing. Look. I've pulled rank on a few calls I made while you were below. The ceremonies are postponed. I've booked New Tara hospital's synthesizer. An air car picks us up between here and the camp in ten minutes and takes us directly there. Security will guard this place till we're done, then burn it."
James looked at William in awe. "I didn't need to persuade you."
William shrugged. "We're family. We think alike."
"We kill alike, too."
* * * * *
Tara's palace, September 1941
And, thought the conspirator, drumming his fingers on the richly-polished desk, the royal brothers won the gamble few would ever know they had taken. They built a virus-vectored countermeasure, then arranged for its distribution throughout the continent with secret cooperation from enemy chiefs. Doing it compromised Irish security, but stopped the plague with only three communities lost.
Within weeks, a quiet telegraph had spread the news of their involvement, and though the reason was never spoken aloud to Europeans, the North American rebellion suddenly collapsed, all twenty nations of the enemy Blackfoot coalition re-entering the Peace on terms negotiated between them and the Stoney chief who headed the allied nations. The document was signed by William for the crown. Whoever stole the smallpox samples from the national lab and altered them would know how the plague was stopped, but not by whom.
"Family Monde started this," mused the conspirator. "I know it but I'll never prove it."
But fortune had not smiled so kindly on the royals two months later.
* * * * *
James, June 1941, Irish North America and Tara
"Sir, General Ryan to see you." The sergeant was in a near panic, and no wonder. Generals summoned majors; they didn't visit them unless the news was extraordinary, and even the merely unusual would get soldiers killed.
"General." James snapped a salute as his commander entered the tent, receiving one in return.
"Sergeant, see we're not disturbed. Stand easy, Major." Ryan activated a white noise generator.
Good, thought James, relaxing. It's military business, after all. Perhaps, as others already, he was being transferred to the European front.
"I take it," began Ryan, picking over his words gingerly, "you haven't had the news from Tara."
"No." James was baffled. Was the war over? But if so, why this? He willed the general to get to the point.
"I'm family," observed Ryan, taking him by the shoulders and looking his young officer squarely in the eye.
James started. "You know?"
"That you were fostered at birth to my sister-in-law's brother-in-law Barry Devereaux, but are by birth the king's son, and my wife Carole's nephew? I was your godfather. You came to New Tara in my arms." Suddenly, the general's eyes brimmed over with tears, and he no longer needed speech.
"It's the King," James suddenly concluded. "What happened?"
Ryan bowed his head, forcing his words. "A force of two hundred invaded the palace early this morning. High King James III died defending your mother, then they killed her. Apart from two kitchen servants, there were no survivors. None of the invaders were taken alive."
"Matthew and Daisy?"
"I'm sorry, lad."
His voice became a squeak. "Then William is King."
"William slept in the palace after a late-night meeting with the King. He took fifteen with him, but he is gone, too."
There was a long silence while James stood immobile with shock and the general gathered his thoughts. "I hate to do this to you, James, but you have duties. Patrick O'Toole advises that Calaghan MacCarthy and Gerald Monde will proclaim the dynasty's end, then send in the court's name to the high armoury for the means to 'end the war once and for all,' as they put it."
"They would use atomics? Ireland would be dishonoured forever." Shaken back to a measure of rationality, James observed, "Only the King may enter the high armoury. Doing so requires a DNA match and codes known only to the high command."
"There is an override provision, requiring a second code set assembled from among the bards, the church, and Lord Chamberlain. It will take them a day to arrange, no more." Reilly held out a black pouch. "The military lords sent their passcodes. Your DNA was registered at birth."
"You want me to..."
"The general staff agrees the war must not end so. An orbital shuttle arrives in ten minutes. I will pilot. Once you get us into the satellite, we remove a hatch from a class MX device, extract one of the two plutonium canisters and the trigger detonator..."
James finished for him. "...and set a timer to blow apart the protective casing after we leave, contaminating the armoury with radioactive material. It would be years before robots could be built to recover weapons or new ones made, and by that time..."
"...honest soldiers should have won the war honourably," Ryan finished. "Will you do it, James?"
James nodded his head slowly. He would grieve later. "I will."
"I told the other generals we could count on you."
"And, when we return?"
"You will have other duties."
* * * * *
Two days later, James stood at court in the row reserved for senior officers. Any with the rank of Major or higher were entitled, when at Tara, to participate in governance with the hereditary and political nobility. As high churchmen and bards, they were "lords by position". All but one of Ireland's colonels and generals were present, as were four of his own rank.
James looked around at the court chambers, built on the lawn of the second palace forty years earlier when the court had outgrown its previous quarters. On the dais stood the celebrated emerald throne, a chair carved, despite its name, from a solid block of jade. Tears came to his eyes, and he looked away.
Surrounding him were the nobility of Greater Hibernia, hereditary and domain peers, military and bardic lords, and three bishops. Court servants occupied lesser places at the back and rear. The other side of the aisle was empty, for today's session concerned Ortho alone, not her Federation partner Para.
He watched and listened as the front row and other lords drifted to their places in anticipation of the day's opening. Tara was awash with rumour. Secret sessions had authorized a mission to high orbit, but it had returned empty handed, and high-level shouting matches behind closed doors had followed. Some suggested civil war was in the offing. Others had darker forecasts.
"All stand for the First Lords."
Quiet shuffling followed Lord Chamberlain's announcement, then a long pause. Wearing matching scowls, Calaghan MacCarthy and Gerald Monde walked in front of the first row, up two steps of the dais, turned as one, and faced the house, thus claiming equal status as overdomain lords.
Lord Chamberlain thumped his mace on the floor. "Recess is over, and the house is back in session. Who speaks first?"
Lord MacCarthy opened his mouth to say, "We do," but was cut off by First Military Lord General Reilly. "Ireland is at war. The high king and commander-in-chief is dead. The army claims the right to speak on a matter touching its honour."
"Such is the custom of the house," intoned Lord Chamberlain, so Ryan, Reilly and their fellow officers strode to the front, ranging themselves on the dais behind MacCarthy and Monde.
"My lords and ladies," began Reilly. "King James III has departed us to join the High Lord of Heaven. Were he here, he would disapprove of your intentions for prosecuting the war."
Tensions grew as many concluded Reilly was about to announce a military coup. But he surprised them. "Moreover, we believe Ireland ill served in that this house has not yet announced a state funeral. The army will not interfere with political decisions, but the general staff hereby announces its own warrior's parade and military wake for James III and his family, beginning 0900 day after tomorrow at the palace armoury. Thank you."
Following a brief stunned silence, the dignitaries broke out in applause, thumping fists on their scabbards in approval. Gerald Monde looked around as the tumult died, and nodded at the generals, clearly expecting their party would now vacate the platform.
"There's one thing more," Reilly added, as if in afterthought, waving the house to silence.
James looked from their midst, taking note of the several dozen officers now filing in around the perimeter of the room. Cameras swivelled to cover the breaking events, and he could see reporters in the gallery speaking frantically into their throat microphones for audiences around the world. General Reilly had broken the tension. Now...
Reilly began anew. "William is dead, and so are other children of King James and Queen Maeve. However," He waved at an MT screen, where a birth certificate, school records and military honours were suddenly displayed. "Not many know that in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred sixteen, King James and Queen Maeve gave birth to a second son while in Austria. That son was fostered out and raised abroad as James Devereaux, ostensibly a nephew to the king's brother-in-law. As you can see, DNA and other records prove his blood. I am pleased to present an officer and gentleman, a hero of Ireland's wars, the army's youngest ever first sword, a man worthy of his father."
The group of officers parted. Red faced, James sat on the throne as Reilly concluded. "James III is dead. Long live High King James IV."
Callaghan MacCarthy's hand went to his side, but halted when the screen displayed a sword rating for James of one hundred five, ten points higher than his own. As he and Monde hesitated, James spoke to their backs in the ensuing silence. "My lords Monde and MacCarthy, we do not permit you to face the house or to share the dais. You may return to your places and speak in your turns." He hid a grin. Whatever else, the pair had lost enough face to prevent them from attempting another run at first any time soon.
* * * * *
Later, after a gruelling session dominated by reversals of the previous two days' initiatives, James had the king's suite re-keyed to his own DNA and codes, and retired behind a guard of loyal officers to quarters he'd only visited twice and never expected to be his. On his entry, a man in palace livery bowed deeply.
"Your Majesty, I have the honour of being your steward, Patrick O'Dwyer. My fathers have served yours for six generations."
"Your father was the previous steward, and perished here?"
"Yes, my lord, though he killed three first."
"You also are a master sword?"
"Of course, my lord, an eighty-five rating."
"There were survivors."
"Cook and a scullery girl. Beneath their notice, my lord."
"Not beneath mine. Escort me to the kitchen, would you please, Master O'Dwyer." Using title and family name together confirmed the man in his post.
"Right away, my lord, if you will follow me." The approval in O'Dwyer's tone spoke volumes. "I will engage a new staff at your pleasure, of course. But at the moment, we are only three."
When James entered the kitchen, a sumptuous dinner, no doubt his own, was laid out on a tray under the warming lights by one oven. Across the room were the makings of a fresh batch of bread. He'd seen the cook only once. She was Molly Byrne, a broad woman whose sharp tongue diminished her formidable skills. She set down her mixing bowl, and went to her knees at once. At her side, a flour-covered ragamuffin of a girl stared at James like he was an apparition from another world, then dropped the plate containing her own supper to the floor, where it shattered into a hundred pieces.
"James," she whispered, eyes wide.
"Be quiet, girl," the cook snapped, "and get down." She cuffed the child to her knees, and bent her head.
There was a long, silent moment, then James carefully announced, using only her title, "We take note of your service during a harsh time, Mistress Cook." He turned to his steward. "Master O'Dwyer, kindly authorize two months' wages as her bonus." He glared disapprovingly at the girl. "Once this careless child cleans up her mess, send her upstairs for discipline." He stalked out, followed by the steward.
* * * * *
Minutes later, James stood behind his study desk, facing the royal shield and three crossed swords of O'Connor, Devereaux, and Meathe. He sighed deeply. These were the symbols of his family's power and authority, the three blades Conn I had won to take the throne in 1792. Could he wield them, or would they devour him?
Behind him, the door opened. He turned to find Patrick O'Dwyer ushering the child into the room.
"The scullery child as ordered, Sire." O'Dwyer set the dinner tray on the table, bowed, then winked. He knew.
"Thank you, Master O'Dwyer. You may go."
The door no sooner closed behind her than the nine-year-old let out a yelp, ran to James, and threw herself into his arms. The two wept copiously.
"Oh, Jimmy, it was so awful, so wicked. Afterwards, I prayed to the Lord of Heaven you would come and rescue me, but I didn't know how you could, or if you knew I was here. Today they told us to get ready for a new master, but not who, and..."
James looked down with great tenderness. "How did you do it, Daisy? How did you fool everyone?"
"I was running to the kitchen, and stumbled on the body of Patsy, the scullery girl. It was only her third day here, Jimmy, and she was so innocent, so harmless, but she was dead, her neck all twisted and broken. The men were upstairs fighting, and I knew there were too many, so I took her smock, ran inside the kitchen, mussed myself with flour, then hid in the closet and prayed. Afterwards, when security found me, I screamed and screamed, but I didn't tell who I was. When Cook Byrne came back from visiting her mother's place the next day, she didn't know, 'cause she'd never met Patsy. She didn't even see me, not really. You can't trust her, Jimmy. She says nasty things about Dad." Daisy's voice caught.
"I'll find her a new posting. But you can't stay here, Daisy."
"How will you get me out?"
"I've made cousin Patrick O'Toole chief of security. He'll send agent Seamus to escort you." James sounded amused.
Daisy blinked her dark lashes at him, relaxing slightly. "Agent Seamus is nice, but where will he take me?"
"The safest place is with Chief Running Bear and the Stoney west of Edwardston. His daughter died in the war, so you can be his new princess. You've your grandmother's dark features, and no one will know you're not a native."
She chuckled, and the terror in her eyes faded. "Will I ride a horse and live in a teepee?"
He answered in reverse order. "The Stoney have permanent towns, but Running Bear will surely give you one of my ponies."
"Will I see you often?"
"No, little sister. It's too dangerous." He hugged her close. "And, you'll have to go tonight."
"What will happen to you, Jimmy?"
He looked around, his expression dark. "I don't know yet, Daisy. But this has become an evil place."
And, more evil there was, too, for when James next appeared in court two days later, he was pale and haggard. One rumour claimed he'd been poisoned, another that he'd drunk too much at the wake for his parents. Easily believing the latter story, several churchmen quietly let it be known they were withdrawing their support, and several military officers wondered aloud about a man who couldn't hold his liquor. Hearing them, the jackals gathered their version of courage once more.