Tara's Court is the lever of Hibernian society, the focus of its decision making, the driver of its institutions. Yet at most times the citizens of the capital have seemed indifferent to who held that lever, uncaring whether good or evil controlled the throne, not necessarily sure what the two were. But the city lost her innocence in 2000, grew up, seized responsibility for herself.
First she exercised the muscle of the commons to assist County Dublin in adopting the Mer for their heroic actions at the Dublin docks, forcing the court to declare them human, despite opposition from powerful lords. Later that year, and faced with the certainty of a tyranny that had already proven recklessly careless of life, her civilians accepted leadership from the Corps of Royal Army Engineers as they and local reservists allied with Palace Security and Lady Meathe's Friends of the Day to thwart a MacCarthy-led coup in a coordinated set of street battles. In so doing, they not only saved the planet from would-be despots, they preserved the beloved city they had rebuilt together.
The city's new maturity paved the way to meet the far worse threat requiring an even more heroic response late that year. McLatchies is proud of the role played by its own employees and CRAE friends on the latter occasions. We salute the dead as heroes and heroines and offer our continuing support and prayers for Tara's crown troops in the ongoing civil war.
--from a March 2001 McLatchies of Tara brochure.
Mara, Tara of Hibernia, Wednesday September 6, 2000
In the still of the early evening one might be lulled into thinking the capital was peaceful. But if the four squads of soldiers visible along Royal Avenue to her west and the two more the opposite way toward Old Town, didn't put the lie to any illusion of normalcy, the hired guards visible in every shop doorway surely would.
Tears sprang to Mara's eyes as she remembered the fallen. Only two full days had passed since Palace Security, the Home Guard, and Friends loyal to her had paid in blood to quell the "MacCarthy Uprising" as Tara News now termed it.
She shook her head sadly. They'd be piping a different tune had Michael Malone and his men succeeded in gassing the thousands who lived and worked in the palace, then seized the reins of government for his clan. If Roger Hyland and his Corps of Royal Army Engineers hadn't entered the fray with the merchants and street people...
At least the locals had stood by the Crown. Mara stopped by a flower memorial opposite the Palace gate to read a hastily erected placard. Two shop owners and five of their employees had died here in support of her troops. She clenched her teeth. Now effectively Domain Lady of the city, she must prove worthy of their support by protecting them from more such violence. But how? It was deadly clear that the MacCarthys controlled more troops than did she or the Court, and had no regard for the Covenant of the Living. Worse, some of the nobles now railed on at Court as though the bloodshed in Tara's streets were her fault.
Moreover, she was the only surviving member of family Devereaux, and the last but one of Rourke. Not that her invalid mother could be of any assistance. Katherina still lay comatose in the Palace infirmary, oblivious to both Thomas Monde's latest attempt to kill her in the night, and the abortive gas attack by his allies the next day. Mara almost spat at the recollection of how Monde had nearly fooled her into supporting him. However, his true history had come out, thanks to his own boastful mouth and her friend Nellie Hacker's electronic sleuthing, both here and on alternate-Earth Tirdia, Nellie's home.
The former Lord Monde, like the MacCarthys, had overreached himself, challenging Catherine Ryan for her position on her majority day, losing to her champion, then being unmasked as a cheat. He'd fled, disgraced, denying Mara and Nellie the satisfaction of executing justice on him with a sharp sword. She owed Catherine, too, for doubting her and favouring Monde, not to mention her foolish jealousy over Jonas Kent having sworn the younger woman personal fealty at the height of the crisis, when it appeared the Donal was dead and Catherine Ryan might have to assume First.
She glanced along toward Misfire at McLatchies window, noting a light still on at the factor's desk. None of the tourist support firm's guides or street children employees worked at this hour, but their armed escorts would be busy ushering clients to their seats in local restaurants. Later they would return to take them back to the edge of the pedestrian-only zone and ensure their safety aboard a groundcar keyed to their hotels or homes.
Commerce goes on as usual, she thought, while the dead silently scream for justice.
"Crown for your thoughts, O quiet one."
Mara blinked, stopped in her tracks, turned to him. She'd become so preoccupied she'd lost touch with reality, all but forgotten they were on their way to dinner at McTavish's in Old Town.
"I'm sorry Jonas. Being here in the street reminded me, that's all." She shivered, then gestured to the area beneath their feet as they crossed Royal Avenue from the Palace gates. "Roger Hyland and I killed ten men on this spot." They took four more steps. "Sven Johanson killed ten more, his men another thirty--all within a few staves. That's fifty dead by our hands alone, men with mothers, brothers, sisters, wives, children who'll never see them again. More died by civilian hands across the street, more still in Old Town."
"Men who believed the MacCarthy racist propaganda and went along with their treachery to attempt mass murder," he pointed out.
"True, but dead men nonetheless."
"As are some of your Friends."
She nodded. He didn't say "our". As head of Security, and thus not permitted loyalties except to the Court, Jonas couldn't openly acknowledge his own training in Mara's organization, even though his father, Lord Kent of London, and Protector of England, had begun the Friends of the Day, dedicated to ensuring no tyrant would claim Tara's throne when the ban on kings expired the next year.
"And some of your Security forces," she added, as they stopped at the end of the street before the line of empty shops. For his service to the Court, Jonas had been made Lord Kent of Tara, and charged with security for the whole of home island. But here in the city, he reported to her, as did Alice Graham, Commander of the Home Guard. Now, she had to prove herself worthy by protecting those dependent on her from harm. She pursed her lips. Would the Lord of Heaven lend her strength to do so, or would it be his will that she die in the attempt? The MacCarthys had made it clear by their actions that they aimed to take control of Hibernia by whatever means. Open civil war was now inevitable.
"Mara." His hand on her arm turned her toward him. He hesitated, licked his lips, seemed about to say something important, but when they made eye contact, he stalled. They stood, staring at each other for long seconds, and a flush slowly crept over both their faces. Mara inadvertently fingered her belt pouch, thinking about the emerald she had there. Was this the time to offer it? No, Jonas should be the one to make the first move.
Suddenly, there was a shuffling movement from the direction they'd intended to go. Her peripheral vision picked out a double shadow as it moved between gloomy doorways. She tongued on her PIEA and sent a pict of two running men to Jonas' node. His focus shifted ever so subtly as he read his eye camera and digested the warning they were being accosted. She glanced to the west and a possible line of escape. Several more shadows detached themselves from doorways. Back to Jonas, whose gaze flickered from the palace across the street and back to her with a slight frown. They were surrounded. Mara gestured with her eyes. They'd back up against the shop wall and fight it out.
A rush of feet, a nod, a whirl, and a heartbeat later they were in a defensive triangle with the building.
Then a laugh, a shout, and, "You needn't draw on us, Mara dear." The two approaching resolved into Bridget Mally and Patrick O'Toole. The latter gestured down the street, then across. The others paused. Three waved, two saluted, then all sheathed their swords. One detached herself from the others and came to stand with Patrick and Bridget.
"Hi, Mara," Catherine Ryan offered.
Mara grinned back and nodded. Patrick and Catherine had ensured the night guards would protect her and Jonas. Likely every McLatchies guard on the street was an off duty security officer.
"Had us going there for a moment," Jonas admitted, dropping his blade back into the scabbard.
"You oughtn't sneak up on us," chided Mara, as she did likewise. She turned to Bridget and gestured at her scabbard. "I didn't know you wore a sword."
"Used to be security, dear." The old woman grinned back mischievously.
Mara nodded, suddenly puzzled. Bridget stood upright, seemingly well in control of her ancient body, not leaning on her cousin for support, and almost as tall as he. Then Mara remembered having dropped into Bridget's pawn and museum the day of the street riots after the nexus and having seen a sword on the counter. Ah, she suddenly realized, Mistress Mally is not quite the defenceless old crone she plays, any more than Patrick is the harmless younger man he pretends. What a couple of foxes. She felt pride in the two. After all, they were kin, cousins a couple of generations removed, but now the closest family she had left apart from her invalid mother. 'Course, Roger Hyland and his Engineers, along with his McLatchie Travel allies really turned the tide in the street fight.
Bridget grinned at her, seemingly reading her mood, then subjected Jonas to a searching examination that made him squirm.
Mara was about to chuckle over his discomfort when Patrick broke the silence.
"Getting along well professionally with our Mara, are you, lad?"
Obviously taken aback, Jonas replied cautiously, picking his words over carefully. "Family Kent, like Devereaux, holds the duty to protect the throne from incompetents and usurpers. My understanding is that we hold it for Alfred Dennison as rightful heir."
Patrick grunted. "What about you personally?"
"As Head of Security, I am obligated to obey the court, whoever has authority..."
Bridget interrupted "'Personally', he said."
Mara saw Jonas' face redden, and felt her own do likewise. She started to say something, but Bridget waved her to silence.
Jonas licked his lips nervously. "The night the Donal disappeared, I swore to Catherine as acting First."
Catherine looked from Patrick to Jonas, then to Mara. "Is that all that's holding you back? I release you from that oath, Jonas. You're Lord Kent of Tara in your own right now, and it no longer binds you. I have other protectors."
Another voice chimed in from behind her. "Listen to me, lad. I once knew a love-sick young puppy who waited too long to offer his emerald. He lost her for over fifteen years, then when he still hesitated, for another eight. It was false pride, lad. Don't make the same mistake. I'll rectify mine once I can."
Mara turned sharply and her mouth dropped open. The Donal? With Richard Kent? Both in civilian clothes?
Now Jonas hesitantly tried to respond, so she turned back to him, confused. What was going on here?
Then from the Donal again, "Do you think it not obvious you have the stone burning in your pouch, my lad? You look at her like a lost dog every few minutes and touch your hand to it. Do it, lad. You never know what...what the author of your life...may bring to your plot."
Head swimming, Mara seized on the Donal's odd expression. Another man would say "The Lord of Heaven". Then she remembered Jonas relate the Donal's telling him of his strange superstition--that his life was written out in a series of chapters that had not yet concluded. He wasn't scheduled to die just yet, so he'd fully expected Jonas to rescue him after being captured by Don Morgan.
Then, as if not wanting to concede too much softheartedness, Donal added, more briskly, "besides which, if you had a brain in your head you could see she's got a stone in her pouch waiting for you to speak first on the matter."
"So, we're all here on business," Richard Kent added.
"Yes, as closest kin, we need to discuss terms and conditions," Patrick observed, to Mara's growing befuddlement.
"She can't very well allow her clan name to extinguish, so will have to keep hers."
"No other way in this case," Richard replied. "And a Kent may not give up his under England's laws."
"He's got no estate because your Zack's the oldest."
"She's got none either, so that's all there is to that."
"He's a hereditary Lord now."
"She can use any of Devereaux, Rourke or Meathe, but there isn't much to any of them. She does have a royal sword, though."
"That's good enough. Sounds like they're even," Bridget was impatient to end the negotiations.
Suddenly realizing the import of the words, Mara put her hands on her hips and glared at her former landlady. Bridget grinned back, hugely enjoying herself. Then Mara became aware of shuffling feet on all sides, and felt a circle of people close in. She caught peripheral glances of uniforms and New School pocket flashes. She didn't care. She had eyes only for Jonas.
"Does Jonas, Lord Kent of Tara, have a token of value for an oath?" Patrick asked, barely able to suppress his own laughter, and to a murmur of chuckles.
There must be a hundred people watching, Mara thought.
"All right, son, say your piece," Richard said.
Jonas fumbled at his pouch and held something out.
"I Jonas Kent of Tara, do hereby offer this stone as hostage to my oath for marriage to Mara Meathe, formerly Rourke and Devereaux." He dropped the length of chain, and Mara saw the double-hearted emerald hanging from it.
Afraid to take her eyes from him for an instant, and barely hearing Kent enquire whether she also had a token, Mara pulled the matching emerald piece from her pouch and let it hang beside the other. Trembling like leaves, the pair placed the chains around each other's necks.
Patrick laughed uproariously, and was quickly joined by hoots and scabbard slapping from all around. "Looks like they came out to their dinner party pretty well prepared," Dan Duchaine's voice supplied.
"All right kids," gushed Richard Kent, "out with your swords and swear up, so we can get the formalities over with and all go join you for dinner. We rented the whole of McTavish's upstairs dining hall for the engagement party."
The shouting and celebrating was so loud Jonas and Mara could scarcely hear each other as Richard Kent and Patrick O'Toole led her and Jonas through the betrothal oaths. It wasn't until they were nearly done that she realized the witness hands on her own shoulders belonged to Catherine Ryan and Sheana O'Toole, and that Jonas was flanked by old friends Tim Evans and Gowan Donald.
She was peripherally aware of other familiar faces as she and Jonas leaned in for their first kiss to seal the engagement. More like two hundred, some automatic thought postscripted, as she lost herself in her man's embrace while the street noise became deafening.
* * * * *
Mara, Tara of Hibernia, 1100 Thursday September 7, 2000
She still tingled all over from the previous night's late and raucous festivities as she stood in the now-shortened front row of the court. To her left was Jonas at third. She felt warm just knowing he was there, now they'd promised before all those witnesses to stand by each other forever.
To her right was Graham, who had yielded fourth position when she was named and initially given fifth. The next three in the row--Donahue, Shea, and Hennessy--weren't Friends, and Mara didn't fully trust any of them. Dennison stood at ninth, followed by Tim Evans, Gowan Donald, and Fred Hallas--all Friends of the Day. The remaining standings would be filled when the next test of strength was held. She grinned, satisfied she now held the reins of power here. Alfred Dennison couldn't claim the throne for nearly another year, but he was surely secure, as was the Donal.
If she also held lands, a manse and the liege-fealty of troops for her Friends to officer, her personal position would be even better. She fingered the emerald she wore under her shirt, then shook her head to clear the mental cobwebs from a surfeit of satisfaction. Ireland's civil war had only begun. It was too soon to relax. A wedding would have to wait.
"If the Home Office is sufficiently awake..." The Donal's sarcasm cut into her reverie, and she shook herself back to the present. While she'd been pea gathering, the startup rituals had concluded.
"He wants a report on the MacCarthy and Monde," Jonas whispered.
"Certainly, my Lord Donal, lords and ladies," Mara began, as smoothly as if she'd been listening. She took control of the court's display screens through her PIEA and led them through a parade of information.
"Upon their confiscation by the crown, the manses and offices of families Monde, Jones, Davis, and Malone have been examined and their data files and networks secured and tested by a team of forensic auditors acting under the direction of Colonel Hacker and Dugold Dunnegan, with reports to SpecialOps and Home Office.
"With respect to the nameless fugitive once known as Thomas, Lord Monde, we determined that he maintained a private network independent of the main system on which he stored information concerning his personal activities. From that we have thus far learned that he leased from family MacCarthy the building adjacent to Old Town wherein he operated a brothel and gambling parlour, that he ordered the kidnapping of Sheila Desmond, Gwen MacCarthy, and Vaughn MacCarthy, the latter two under-age, and that he personally established and operated the previously discovered illegal genetic and chemical research facilities in the St. Charles Islands and the Mergui. He developed the Doeg, and the young Mer. He also sold the anthrax spores to the Indian government for its attack on Afghanistan.
"There are indications of involvement in other projects not as yet revealed. SpecialOps and Home Office recommend all Monde holdings and Science domain systems be placed under forensic review.
"With respect to clan MacCarthy, the investigative team has discovered a second shadow network connecting a number of unregistered nodes belonging to families Jones, Davis, and Malone, with one node in the manse of High Bishop Philip Desmond, the MacCarthy Mor. We have as yet no evidence Bishop Desmond was directly involved in the MacCarthy conspiracy to kill members of this court, but we note that the bishop has departed Tara and is believed to be currently residing in his southern counties. Moreover, he has neither responded to requests for an interview nor contacted other family in the capital."
She was summarizing a lot of material here, some enlightening, some no more than rust flakes. Apparently Desmond no longer cared about his daughter Sheila's whereabouts, so the latter continued to stay with Selma, and the cousins were becoming fast friends. All the details of the MacCarthy conspiracy had been present on several clan computers, excepting the bishop's.
By contrast, Nellie got almost nothing from a search of Monde's manse, neither were any of his nodes connected to those of Clan MacCarthy, though they did constitute most of the smaller of the two shadow networks she and Nellie had long known of. What she'd told the court about Monde so far had been learned from confederates, customers, and interviews with his servants. Monde's files at Science appeared more promising, and O'Toole, on appointment from Donal, had already begun investigating the domain's budget allocations and expenses over the last several years. It would be a huge task.
She went on for some time, illustrating the details on the large MT screens scattered about the room.
"Very well," the Donal ordered, when she finally wound to a stop, and after consulting the court's mood, "Court orders a forensic audit of Science, and of all relevant suppliers, contractors, and business partners, Home Office and SpecialOps to continue leading the investigation."
Lord Chamberlain chimed in with a perfunctory "So let it be said, so let it be done."
The Donal was just readying for the next item, an allocation to bring the Home Guard up to full strength, when Mara felt the tingle of the Timestream in use nearby. The First Lord must have noticed too, for he turned from his MT and looked abruptly to his left, just as the Metans' strange sled-like apparatus appeared in the courtroom, as it had before the Nexus.
There was a buzz of excitement, but the court was more subdued this time when Heman of Meta stepped away from what Mara knew was merely a prop.
Not so the news hounds upstairs, who twittered rapidly into their microphones, and shifted their cameras to gain a better angle on their off-planet visitor.
Donal stood and bowed at the visitor. "If the Court indulges, we will hear from Lord Heman of Meta."
Heman returned the courtesy. Mara thought he looked grim. "First as to business. Meta advises the Court of Tara as follows: The nexus that began this past early Monday morning your time is incomplete. The two versions of Tirdia have not completely separated and are holding in a temporarily stable entangled pattern." He turned slightly and smiled at Catherine Ryan, so she accepted the implied invitation and came to stand beside him. He handed her a data cube.
"We have measured the Timestream energies carefully, and though we are unable to travel to the Tirdian universe, or universes, as the case may be, we can supply temporary coordinates that will allow travel to the others, at least until such time as the nexus completes. Council dispatched me here as soon as we generated the data."
"Do you have an estimate?" Donal asked. Mara thought him more polite than she'd ever heard--which in his case was either very good, or very dangerous.
"I'm afraid not," Heman replied. "The situation is similar to that which prevailed after your earth began to split from Tirdia in 29AD. That situation progressed slowly until 1014, when the then Builder found a way to travel to Tirdia and initiated a stabilization sequence."
A low buzz went around the room at this casual, but oh-so significant remark, and Mara felt the hair rise at the back of her neck. Everyone knew that the distinguishing event that completed the long nexus was Clontorf, or more accurately, its aftermath. In one world, Cormac had prevented Brian Boru's assassination. In the other he had not. Her mind swirled, considering the possibilities. Was Cormac the Builder, or had he only been influenced by him?
Heman resumed. "We currently lack the ability to enter Tirdia's universe, so the Builder's location is unknown. This is all we have." He stopped.
"Regarding your mission of mercy, my lord." Donal then waved at Catherine, urging her to respond, even as Heman glanced about anxiously.
Catherine took his arm, and Heman first winced, apparently expecting the worst, then calmed suddenly and turned to Catherine looking surprised.
She used the shape sense to do that, Mara concluded, as Catherine began her speaking.
"My lord, Hibernia is pleased to advise that your son Ruel's body made a remarkable and dramatic recovery. He is ambulatory, physically fit and able."
Heman had turned to Catherine as she began speaking, and Mara was able to see his face go from transcendent joy, then back to deep concern as her carefully exact words sunk in.
"But his mind..."
"...is locked in trauma and confusion," she finished. "He lacks medium or long term memory, and requires constant guidance with daily functions."
"I see." Heman straightened in palpable disappointment.
"Lord Ruel is currently undergoing testing in the infirmary," Catherine added, "that will be finished in another hour. We had planned a brain scan, but it might be better if you take him home in the hopes his memories will return in a familiar context. We will of course provide copies of all medical data our staff has gathered."
Except whatever Monde did to him, Mara privately amended. Catherine had told the court of Monde's unauthorized presence in the boy's room, and presumed interference, but the medical staff had been unable to put a blade on anything specific.
Court recessed shortly thereafter, so Heman followed Catherine and Mara to the Palace infirmary. There he spoke to his son, but got only vacant stares.
"We gave him a language tape, so he speaks Gaelic. You may have to do likewise," Catherine suggested.
Heman shook his head sadly. "You've grown him a face I know not, his wits are gone, and he cannot speak his native language. Yes, I'll take him to Meta and see if home makes a difference." At that, the two vanished from the infirmary consulting room. Mara shamelessly followed, having no difficulty noting the little twist in the Timestream that got them to out-of-phase Meta. She mentally filed the information for later use and returned to Catherine, who looked at her oddly, but made no comment.
* * * * *
Mara, Tara of Hibernia, the evening of Saturday September 9, 2000
"Enjoying the music, Mara?"
"Ah, Jonas, the palace gardens are so lovely." She held his arm more tightly and turned to him as they made their way around the promenade. "I could spend hours here."
"Not with anyone else, I hope."
She blushed slightly and gave his arm another squeeze. "Not a chance, intended one."
But moments later, she felt him withdraw slightly, then subvocalize a few quick comments. She grimaced. Security business was never slack.
"I know. You have to see about a security problem, but you'll be right back." She pulled off to the side slightly to let others pass, and gave him a look of mock exasperation. "Well, I'll wait right here for half an hour, and if you're not back, I'll return to my quarters. Perhaps I'll find someone else to walk with after all."
Jonas grinned and nodded toward a bench set in a bower off the path. "I won't be long."
Mara chuckled as she sat, for she'd already called up a PIEA screen in her eyepiece, set a half hour timer, and was reviewing the last of the day's New School reports. We're two of a kind, all right.
"Lady Mara, how good to see you here. You're just the person I want to talk to." Mara focused on the woman standing in the bower entrance, waving a lace handkerchief in her direction. She stood. It seemed some time had passed, but the timer still had twenty minutes.
"Lady Quigly." She bowed slightly. Gladys Quigly was an old-money commerceman's widow who stood unarmed at court among the hereditary nobility, and relied on hired bodyguards. She was in cosmetics distribution, an industry Mara personally found distasteful.
"Oh, call me Gladys."
"And I am Mara." No return bow, though. Doesn't know or doesn't care.
Quigly turned to her companions, the Donahues. "I'll catch up with you later, Delia dear."
"Care to join me?" Mara indicated the bench.
"Oh, yes of course. Isn't the music just lovely tonight, dear?"
Mara had thought so until now, but Lady Quigly's high, whining voice robbed much of the pleasure from the evening. She'd heard the woman in the Great Hall, regaling her sycophants with stories and gripes about Court business, other noble families, the weather, and her own dire, though unapparent health problems. More, she'd joined St. Patrick's during the renovations, and spoken to business meetings at length of her preferences for tile, paint, exterior finish, who to give the contracts, and any other issue at hand. When that project finished, she'd started in on how the Sunday lunches ought to be run. If there'd ever been a born complainer, she was it.
"Well, what a to-do about the MacCarthys and the Mondes, don't you think?"
Replies seemed neither in order nor possible, so Mara kept silent as she ranted on.
"But I do think the Donal has been very high handed in all this--pronouncing judgements without any proper trial. Surely, if the other side had a chance to tell their story, the outcome would be quite different, yes.
"Did I ever tell you how the Donal wronged me and my daughter? No, probably not."
Mara had overheard snippets of the story as told to others four or five times, but had to be honest, "No, can't say you have."
Doubtless it would have made no difference.
"Well, my daughter Glorie-May was nominated to be the Troll Queen, and wouldn't you know, he vetoed it. Told the Troll Day committee she'd failed her drama exams and wasn't qualified. As if it was any of his business. That little snip Shaylah O'Mahoney became queen instead. Now if I were in the front row, or sitting on the Donal's chair..."
"Have you ever spoken to him about this matter directly, as the Holy Books require?"
"Well, yes, and he 'expressed his regrets' but..."
"And did you forgive him, as a Christian is required by our Lord in Mattias five?"
"Well, yes, I said I forgave him, but really, he should never have done such a thing. And wouldn't you know that one time I happened on him while he was talking to some general, and he snapped at me that I 'wasn't ever to interrupt him again' and..."
"Are you aware that lives could have been in balance for a quick decision and your interference may have meant someone died on a battlefield?"
"Well, I supported him when he became Donal, and he ought to remember who his friends are. And do you know what Delia told me about him and that Karina woman who's his contract wife?"
Mara's patience was already wearing thin, but she wasn't going to allow her mother to be impugned by this woman.
"How long ago did these things happen?"
"Not even ten years back. I'll never forget..."
"So at least once you said you forgave him, yet you've not only gone back on your word, but held an angry grudge and engaged in malicious gossip all this time? Given the passages in Mattias five, first Corinthians thirteen, first John, and James, it seems to me you can hardly mount a credible claim to be walking in obedience to Christ. Have you never read that some of the Corinthians died because they came to the Lord's Table unworthily? Yet you flaunt the scriptures and still partake of the bread and cup every Lord's Day? You invite judgement on yourself and God's church because of your behaviour. You need to repent."
By the time she finished her retort, Mara was as irritated at herself for her own harsh words as she was at Gladys Quigly's.
But the other woman took no notice, just carried on. "And I should think you'd be as upset as I at the man's high handed behaviour. That business of the fish people, and I've heard about all the nasty missions he's sent you on. Now I think Lord Donahue would make a much better..."
A more welcome voice interrupted. "Ah Lady Meathe, I'm so glad you waited for me. Shall we resume the promenade?"
"You will excuse me Lady Quigly." She quickly rose, and turned away. "I have a prior engagement with Lord Kent of Tara."
"Ah, the new lord." She sniffed disdainfully. "If you ask me..."
"No one has." Mara beat a hasty retreat from the arbour, and hurried Jonas away.
When they were well out of her hearing, he chuckled. "Did she get to the part where she invited you to a meeting at her manse to discuss 'what can be done about getting rid of this nasty Donal'?"
"You mean she talks sedition all the time?"
"Security keeps an eye on her, and on who comes and goes from her house, but so far, it's all magpie talk."
Mara calmed. "You'll help me forget about her, then?"
"If you'll let me."
* * * * *
Mara, Tara of Hibernia, 1300 Sunday September 10, 2000
The following Sunday afternoon, in response to a request from Selma, Mara visited St. Patrick's in Old Town to meet her and Cam. Selma left the children with Rainbow, and the three walked together from the rectory into the church through one of the small postern doors. It wasn't worthwhile for routine entry to open the massive main ones--they were used only for state ceremonies, and none had been held here for a very long time, recent governments preferring venues such as the courtroom, Tara Music Hall, or the cathedral uptown.
Mara felt at peace in the cool quiet of the ancient church with its high arches above freshly-cleaned stained glass depictions of scenes from the Holy Books, and doubly so now the Friends had won a major battle in their war for the Day. She breathed a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord of Heaven, then pleaded that a more normal life might soon be possible. Looking around at the ever fresh wonders, she scarcely noticed the low conversation between Cam and Selma as the three drifted toward an ornate old altar where priests had in pre-reform days offered intricate pageantries designed to represent the sacrifice of Christ. The Holy Books were central now, and the elaborate traditions that centuries of churchmen had overlaid on God's Word had been stripped away, so such altars were only retained for their antiquary value. This one was studded with assorted gemstones embedded in gold plating--by very existence a tribute to the honour of the many who passed it by without attempting to pry a stone loose.
Mara was suddenly aware that the other two were silent. She abandoned her rubbernecking in time to see Selma pull a chain out from under her shirt and finger a large ornament on the end.
"Have you ever seen one of these, Mara?"
"I can't say that I have," she replied, baffled.
"It's a will key."
Mara's mouth made an "oh". A will key was a little known but diabolical device from the early days of electronics--designed to keep the deepest secrets securely hidden. Once tuned to the wearer, it sensed both proximity and emotional states. If removed by even a sword length before being used to release its corresponding lock it would either explode or emit a deadly gas, depending on the type. If employed when the owner was unwilling, it would do likewise. In either case, the key and its secret were destroyed, and there was a good chance the wearer and anyone close by would be seriously injured or killed.
Will keys were matched to a lock that was itself booby-trapped with explosives. If the key was used properly by a willing wearer, the trap and key were both disarmed. An attempt to force the lock or any action that caused the destruction of the will key within range set off the explosive attached to the lock. The idea was to annihilate the contents of the vault where one's secrets were stored and possibly kill those who tried to gain illicit access simultaneously. Donning a will key or forcing one on someone created a living hostage for the safety of the vault's contents, but those had to be extremely valuable to justify such measures. There was also a risk to the wearer. Will keys had occasionally malfunctioned and killed the hostage. There were famous historical accounts of their use and misuse, mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but Mara couldn't recall a recent case.
Selma casually twirled the heavy pendant on the chain about her neck. "I knew from research I had done for him there was something hidden in one of the two big churches--something my uncle Philip wanted very badly. When I actually found it after examining many old documents, I made this up and will-locked it back in so he couldn't get at it. I have worn it ever since--more than five years now. As far as I know, he never did discover the location--not that it would have done him any good while I had this." She stopped the twirling and held the large locket in her palm, then placed her fingernails beneath the gem on top and pinched upward. She pushed down on something inside, and there was a loud "pop" under the altar.
Mara could see that a small door had just swung ajar, and guessed what might be inside. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"What, give the sword to Father Cam? Of course. He's entitled to it now that he's the bishop, and once he has it, I can absolve myself of further responsibility."
Once Philip Desmond was gone, the job of High Bishop had been forced on Cam by the other parish priests of Tara, and only agreed to when he got permission to move the seat to St. Patrick's and bring James Moran from London to turn the gaudy cathedral on Royal Avenue into a proper working parish.
Mara blinked a couple of times. "But, Father Cam isn't a MacCarthy."
Selma looked back at her, puzzled. "You thought it was sword MacCarthy my uncle wanted from me?"
Cam, meanwhile, had reached into the hidden cupboard and pulled out a long wrapped bundle. "It's a sword, all right," he declared, beginning to remove the oil cloths.
"I had it out once," Selma told them, "just to verify what it was. I'm not an expert but I am sure it must be...
Suddenly Cam freed it, then held the ornate blade that lacked a proper edge before them and finished her sentence "...the sword of the Church."
All three looked at the magnificently jewelled ornamental blade for a few moments, then Selma said, "Well, that's it--your responsibility now. As long as my uncle was high bishop, he could use this sword to help him install a king of his own choosing, but since he is no longer, it does him no good, as it can only be used with the Church's permission."
The other two stared at it as she continued. "It has been here for over two hundred years, and has not seen the court since the last dynasty of kings began ruling. The Bards have one like it hidden away somewhere, and also have the equal right with all the other swords to use it to enthrone or deny a king."
Mara remembered the day the Bards had made her their sword bearer. That meant she had to take their direction for it when the day came. She laughed. "And here I thought all along you had MacCarthy."
Selma was grim. "No, both Sheila and I could claim it, I suppose, if we knew where it was, but either Uncle Philip has it hidden away, or lacks knowledge of its whereabouts." She reflected, then added, "He thought he had one other, I'm sure. When you came to court and presented Devereaux, he was enraged. I concluded he must have a fake, then realized then he must have been planning to claim the throne. Sheila agrees."
"Do you know where your uncle is now?" Mara asked
"If not Castle Desmond, north of Kinsale, County Cork, or the old Desmond house in Kinsale, then another MacCarthy clan manse or a monastery. Some of the abbots are MacCarthys."
Mara nodded. She had no direct evidence tying Desmond to what the other MacCarthy lords had done, so couldn't issue a warrant for his arrest, not that the clan would yield him from their territory anyway.
Cam spoke for the first time. "I do not like having the power this trinket represents, but will hide it in a safe place until it's needed."
"Yes, well don't tell either of us," Mara hastily advised. "If we don't know, the location can't be tortured out of us."