Cost of Time
Chapter 1: The Balance of Power

Noia of North Port loved walking through the fish market, down by the docks of her father's county. Some people thought that the mixture of strong smells was unpleasant, but each component of the aromatic mixture reminded her of things she loved about North Port. Whether it was the resin and wood of the fishing boats, the smell of fish sitting overlong in the market or the tang of the salt air... they were all things she loved.

She was supposed to be here shopping for fish for the palace; she was really here to look over the fishing boats and talk to the skippers and the fishermen who went out in them. She talked with the fish sellers and the artisans who lined the outskirts of the fish market; she talked to everyone.

Noia smiled slightly, ignoring the drizzling mist that came down steadily. On better days than this, when she was feeling adventurous, she'd ask one of the captains if she could ride along with him. Now and again, one would say yes, and she would do what she could to help sail the fishing boat, doing whatever she was told.

Her father would be angry with her for about a half finger's-width, berating her for being so foolish, doing things women shouldn't do. Then he'd pepper her with questions for the next palm-width about what she'd seen and learned. Her father might be the Count of North Port, but in his youth he'd gone out on those boats just as she did now. And he'd loved those times as much as she did.

Becoming a Count had spoiled that for him... but he never forgot his love of the sea.

There was no sailing today. It was one thing to go to sea on a warm sunny day when the sky was clear; it was something else again to do it this close to winter. The storms didn't bother people so much ashore, although you had to be careful because large ones could come up unexpectedly. If you were out at sea when a storm came up like that, then you were in a fight for your life. No, she was a warm-weather sailor, mostly.

Noia was sixteen summers and now seventeen winters old. She had three older brothers, who had teased her unmercifully from the time of her earliest memories. They took after their mother, slender and tall, as fair-haired as most Zarthani were.

Noia was short, with brown hair and brown eyes, just like her father. He wasn't a heavy man, but he was solidly built with layers and layers of muscle. He was reputed to be the strongest man in the entire county, and certainly enough men had challenged him every year at Summer Fair to prove it to all but the most thickheaded sailor or farmer.

After she reached puberty, her brothers' teasing had taken a crueler turn. She was built like a tree trunk, with short, solid legs, solid arms and more muscles than most girls of any age. Worse, while she had breasts, they were flat pancakes. Her nipples significantly increased the size of her bosom when she was cold; it was frustrating under the best of circumstances. The continual taunts and jeers from her brothers only made it worse.

Her father could hear no wrong about Alcibydos, his eldest son, and Noia had learned early that to complain about her brother was a futile waste of time.

She shook her head, remembering that her brothers were up there on the hill, far away from the market. She grinned and turned back to the fishmonger, intent on salmon for the night's dinner at the palace.

She finished buying dinner and spent some time talking to a fisherman who did the most intricate carvings she'd ever seen. Thymis was someone she could talk to for many palm-widths and he always had something new and marvelous for her to look at.

They were talking about life as it had been when he was a boy, when a single note sounded from the palace's bell tower. The sound made Noia turn her head to look up the hill, wondering if she'd been imagining things. The bell tolled again and for a moment she was wondering who had made the mistake. The third toll finally drove the message home.

Thymis stretched out his hand and took hers. His skin was like the roughest fish skin, but even at his age, his grip was like iron. "My lady... my heart goes out to you!"

The bell continued to toll, while Noia stood stock still, trying to understand. There was nothing to understand, not really. The bell would only toll as it was if the Count was dead.

She'd seen her father last night at dinner. He was laughing and happy, talking about something one of his dogs had done during winter quarters. He was barely forty summers!

A half dozen people gathered a few feet from her, all too polite to speak. She jerked her head in gratitude, knowing why they were there.

"Lady Noia, please," one of the fishmongers said to her. He was Clemus, the head of the Market. "We would walk with you up the hill."

What had her father said once, when she'd lost her temper over something her brother had done? "There is nothing remarkable about being noble. I may be the strongest man in the county, but I'm slower than molasses running uphill. No one will ever ask me to sing for their wedding."

He'd grinned at her and she'd grinned in exchange. "Nobility, Noia, is about duty. Duty to our people, first and foremost. They don't want to know your gut aches or you're about to puke your lunch. You're a noble! Things like that don't matter! When in doubt about what you should do is to look and act noble!"

So she stiffened her back and bowed at the Market boss. "Thank you, Clemus. I do need to get back."

She ended up at the head of a procession from the town that stood in front of the palace gates. Her brother was there, standing on the top of the steps, his head bowed.

Noia walked forward and went to one knee before him. "Brother?"

He looked over her head to the townspeople and spoke to them. "The Count, my father, walks after breakfast in his gardens. A short time ago, one of his attendants reported that he stopped walking, said something unintelligible, then collapsed. My father, friends, is dead."

Noia felt faint. Worse, she was a person who knew her brother. He sounded neither bereaved nor surprised. Worse, he hadn't looked at her or spoken to her.

She stood straight and walked forward. He made her walk around him, but she did so without demur.

A moment later he turned and returned to the palace, the gates closing behind them.

Alcibydos reached out and took her by the shoulder, jerking Noia around to face him. "If you ever again go to haggle with fishmongers, I'll have you whipped out of the county."

Ten thousand things went through Noia's brain. The one thing she could decide would be best was to stay her tongue.

"Sister, you are an ugly wart. I have talked to Count Mountain Wall. His eldest son was killed in the war; his youngest is only half as ugly as you, but for all of that, one day he will be Count Mountain Wall. A moon from now, we will announce the engagement."

That finally stirred Noia to speak. "I've met the little toad. Never."

Alcibydos drew his arm back and slammed his fist into her face, drawing blood from her lips and nose. "I do not listen to such as you, sister! You listen to me, girl! You listen good! From now on, I rule here! No more of your girlish simpering prattle, no more of those tricks you used on our father. You will do what I tell you to, or I will shut you away!"

"How did our father die?" Noia asked, ignoring him. For that, she got the back of his hand against her cheek.

"He died. That's all you need to know. You will do your duty to your family or you will be shut away."

He looked at her up and down. "I've changed my mind. Marrying you to a noble would be a waste of gold. You do what you are told or I'll slit your throat and feed you to the dogs."

There it was, Noia thought. It was like Alcibydos had drawn a picture for her. He was twenty-two summers. Quite obviously, he'd decided not to wait for the normal course of events to pass.

She stared at her brother, knowing her father was barely cold, feeling a rage like she'd never felt before. Rage or not, though, she'd spent a fair amount of time at her father's knee when he held audiences and even more time when he would reminisce with others.

"As you command, brother, so shall it be," she told him, holding her voice level and mild by main strength of will.

"Remember one thing well, sister mine. You are mine, now. You will do as you are told... or on the morrow, your broken body will be found at the foot of the cliff, where my pampered little sister threw herself off, in sorrow."

He gestured at her. "Go clean yourself up. Don't bleed on my flagstones."

She bowed low once again, turned and walked with her back rigid to her rooms.

It took a finger-width, but she finally managed to throw the last of the spies and sycophants out of her rooms. She barred the door and stood in front of her mirror, breathing hard.

She had twice told her father that Alcibydos was as dumb as a stump; her father had never accepted that, not wanting to see any flaws in his heir. Well, that blindness had killed her father. She felt regret, knowing her father was a better man than her brother. A better man than all of her brothers combined.

She contemplated her other two brothers, then sniffed in derision. An odd, odd thing. Their only hope of personal survival would have to be quick marriages to politically powerful women who could protect them. The death of her father and her quick engagement would tell all the nobles of Zarthan what had really happened. There would be few, if any, candidates for her brothers.

Her brother hammered on her door. "Open this at once!"

"What, I wish to grieve for my departed father! Can I not do so in peace for a finger-width? What do you think I'm going to do -- throw myself off the tower?"

Her rooms were in the highest tower of palace. There were three hundred and fifty steps in the stone staircase that led to her room, sixty-five feet above the flagstones of the main courtyard.

She smiled once again in derision. Her brother had seen those stairs and had caviled, unwilling to make the trip many times a day, even though it meant his despised sister had a loftier room than his.

It was a hard thing, she was thinking. Leaving North Port wouldn't be easy. Leaving behind everything she knew wouldn't be easy. Escaping her brother would be easy enough. Not saying goodbye to her father... that was going to be the hardest of all.

She said a prayer for her father, for she was more sure about one thing than any other: no priest of Dralm would see him before he was interred.

With a quick, abrupt motion, Noia turned and went to her dresser. A moment later she had scissors in her hand, and she went once again before the mirror. She took her time, doing a credible job of turning her long brown locks to something a boy would wear.

She gathered up the hair she'd cut into a bundle and dumped it into the garderobe. She went to her closet and took out a long, narrow winding sheet. With a sigh, she wrapped it around her chest, reducing her minuscule breasts to nonexistence.

She donned a man's tunic, a man's trousers and boots. Once again she presented herself at the mirror. Noia was gone but not dead; long live Noius, the sailor from North Port!

She turned to her door and saluted it. Good luck brother! I know you, I know you very well. You personally will inspect my quarters, trusting no one else to do it. But inspect the garderobe? She laughed at the very thought.

The answer, brother, has been before you since I was little. I use the facilities in the lower castle, not up here.

She grabbed the rope that she had used to leave the tower more times than her brother could ever imagine, and slid down elegantly to the main landing. This time, instead of tying the rope off, she pulled the rope down, and then let it fall further into the palace's true cesspit.

The garderobe wasn't the sweetest way down from the tower, but it was the safest.

She went up two flights of stairs and into the stables. Half a dozen of the stable lads were at one end, talking loudly. The new count had ordered free beer and wine for all those in the county, all they could drink. The stable hands were intent on putting as large a dent into her brother's pocket book as they could.

She had no trouble walking out of the stables unnoticed, then down the main road into town. The guards were as drunk as the stable hands. She shook her head in sadness. Brother, you will reap what you sow! You let your men drink themselves insensible. How will that teach them their duty?

Undoubtedly her brother would clamp down on discipline in a few moon-quarters, if not sooner. A great many of these men will leave your service, then. Of course, that was probably what he wanted, wasn't it?

Intrigue wasn't something people from North Port normally engaged in, but there were enough examples that they could take lessons from the mistakes of others.

It would have been simple, brother! Kill your father and then grieve loudly and publicly. Make no changes, not for several moons. Then make the changes gradually over a year. No one then, brother, would suspect you had our father murdered. But this way, brother, they will all know. And the true people of the realm will never, ever trust you.

Noia/Noius walked into town and found a spot out of the way of most of the traffic, put her foot behind her, as the sailors did, and leaned her head forward, covering her eyes with her sailor's cap.

She could go overland, south, and tell the King of Zarthan what she suspected. Except she had no proof, and if he took her brother's word, she would find herself back here in no time. She would probably be safe... until she was wed to the slug of a son of Count Mountain Wall.

She could go to the harbor and hire onto one of the ships that would be heading south. Odds were she'd be safe enough; no one was likely to recognize her. The question then became, where did she want to go? Again, the King of Zarthan wasn't someone she trusted. That left east and the High King...

She smiled into the gathering dusk. Everyone knew of Noia's fondness for the sea. The docks would be the first place her brother would look for her.

She would go on foot, east. Sixty miles to the east was the Caravan Meet. She could hire on there as a guard. She wasn't great with a sword, but her father had let her fire rifles and pistols. She was, with fireseed weapons, better than average.

There was a soft sound, the faintest breeze. She lifted her head and saw Thymis standing next to her. "My lady," he said in the faintest of whispers.

She laughed, bitter and harsh. "If my disguise is that easy to penetrate, tomorrow I will be nothing at all."

"You came from the palace, my lady. I was looking for someone your size with your hair color, your eye color. So what if you wear trousers? I looked for you, my lady, not the rest."

"My brother had my father killed... if he didn't do it himself. I doubt that, because my brother is pretty much a coward."

The old sailor bobbed his head. His eyes never stopped looking around them, never pausing, not even for a moment.

"When your brother refused to let the priests of Dralm tend to his body, my Lady, all knew the truth of how your father died."

"My brother has a marriage already planned for me."

"My lady has bruised lips. That too, speaks to his plans."

"It is nothing. It was nothing compared to what else my brother has done to hurt me."

"My lady, do you have a knife?"

"Of course. What fisherman leaves home without a knife?"

"My lady, please, may I see it?"

Noia wasn't sure what the old man wanted, but she drew her knife, keeping the point towards him. He grinned, then reached out and took her hand in his. Both of his hands gripped her hand with the knife. His grip was like a vise, she realized an instant later. She was dead.

Instead, he led the knife to his own throat. "My lady, what I have to say will make you angry. Please, I am yours; my life is yours. I beg you to listen to what I have to say, but I will understand if you do not."

"Don't be melodramatic, Thymis. Besides, you're stronger than I am."

"True, my lady, but for some things, the will lags the muscles.

"My lady, I am the High King's chief spy in North Port."

Noia almost dropped the knife, so surprised she was. "What?" she said, incredulous.

"My lady, I believe, as the High King does, in the freedom of men -- and women. I don't hold with slavery and serfdom."

"We have never had those here," Noia reminded him. "They'd run in a heartbeat, no matter what their fate might be, it would be safer than being a slave or serf here."

"True, lady. But until two years ago, that wasn't how things were in most places of the realm."

Since that was true, all she could do was nod.

"My lady has decided to go east, is that not right?"

"It seems to be the best choice," she admitted, still trying to digest that this man was supposed to be her blood enemy.

"My lady can drop the knife from my throat or kill me."

She giggled, unable to avoid it, as she sheathed her knife. "Sorry, Thymis."

"I understand, my lady. Do you understand that this is how I live, every day?"

She contemplated that. It was true; certainly the danger was there, every day.

Thymis pressed a coin into her hand as soon as it was empty. It was obviously heavy, obviously gold.

"Trust me, my lady or not. I swear to you that I am loyal to you, to King Freidal."

"And yet, you're the High King's man?"

"Yes, my lady. If you think about it, so, in a way, is the Queen."

Well, there was that. There had been a lot of grumbling when the King had married a foreigner, someone without a heritage of nobility. Of course, now, coming up two years on, the King's wife already had run up a score of nobles who'd thought to plot against her. They died; she lived.

"What is the coin?"

"It's more a key, my lady. Take it to a man named Solon, who lives in Harphax City. Harphax City, my lady, is the place where the High King is forming his navy."

"What is a navy?"

"His war ships, my lady."

Noia shrugged. "War ships make no sense. I saw my father put a cannon aboard a stout ship. In spite of due care, the cannon sank the ship when it was fired, not its target. And three of the five crewmen died in the water."

"My lady, I tell you a great secret: the High King has ships with forty cannons that do not sink when the cannons are fired. And I mean cannons, not mortars. Some of his ships also mount mortars as large around as the biggest cannon in the county."

"Why don't his ships sink?" Noia asked.

The old man laughed. "I don't know. He is, after all, the High King. What you or I would fail at, he makes work.

"My lady, see Solon in Harphax City. He will see that you are enlisted in the High King's navy."

"As I am or as I appear?"

"That will be for you to decide. Show the coin to my brother Solon. Listen to his advice."

"And this coin is a safe conduct?"

He bobbed his head. "You are very smart, my lady. The High King has special signs that his people look for. This coin is one such. As I said, it is more like a key."

She lofted the coin in her hand. It wasn't possible to look at it, as dark as it was. "And this is a safe conduct? Really?"

"Lady, the common Gold Kalvan has the High King's profile on one side, and the Halberd of Hostigos on the other. The coin you hold has the halberd on both sides."

"Thymis, from here on, address me as 'Noius' the sailor." She deepened her voice and roughened it.

"Of course, my lady." He laughed and spoke again, "Of course, young sir."

A palm-width later she was with a caravan that had already formed up, ready to depart eastwards from North Port at daybreak.

A little before sun-up Noius faced a hatchet-faced man, the caravan master.

"Thymis says you are a sailor, who has run afoul of local politics."

"Yes, Caravan Master."

"And the charge against you?"

She blinked. Then she sighed. "Treason."

The man laughed. "Treason in a little tiny county, up here in the rain country? They have no idea what treason is, here! Will you do as commanded, young man?"

"Yes, sir."

"Will you work honestly as one of my caravan guards?"

"Yes, sir."

"Do you understand that as Caravan Master, I'll have you roasting over a slow Northern Ruthani fire if you're lying to me?"

"I'm not, sir."

"Good! Don't!"

It was not lost on Noia that by pretending to be a man she was lying to him from the outset. Well, she'd offset it a bit, she believed, because she hadn't heard a charge against her... but she knew her brother.

After two days on the trail a party of four soldiers caught up with the caravan and questioned the Caravan Master. Noia had the misfortune to be close to the Caravan Master when they came up.

They told the Caravan Master that they were searching for the runaway sister of Count North Port, a girl of eighteen, with shoulder length light brown hair, who stood so high. So high, being even with the troop sergeant's chest.

It was interesting, Noia thought. She'd aged, shrunk a head, her hair color had lightened and she recognized none of the soldiers.

The Caravan Master had listened to the description without a word. He nodded politely. "There is no woman with this caravan not known to me personally. There are none that young, or that height or that hair color."

"We'll take a look around, anyway."

The Caravan Master shrugged, spreading his arms away from his body. That was the sign she'd been told meant to draw her weapon. She'd been given an old sword that had been long in its sheath. Since then she'd cleaned and polished it thoroughly, knowing full well she'd stop being a caravan guard the instant she showed she didn't take care of her weapon.

Now, she drew her blade along with the other guards.

"I am sorry, soldier, but that isn't possible. I know the Count's guards; I've been coming this way for years. You aren't one of them. You are, I believe, mercenaries I saw gathered at one of the inns near the palace." He pointed at the road back to the west. "I don't want trouble, but you will not search this caravan."

"This will not sit well with Count North Port."

"It will sit even less well with Count Echanistra, whose lands we are now on. Take your leave, Sergeant."

"As I said, I'll tell this to the Count."

"Only if you wish to anger Count Echanistra. Now please, take your leave on your own, or we'll put you on your horses ourselves. You might be wearing considerably less than you are now and facing the wrong way, if that were to happen."

The soldiers left with bad grace, and the caravan pace sped up considerably and by nightfall they were in Echanistra. There was the usual bustle of making camp, and Noia had learned her duties in that, and joined in the work. She was sitting at a fire with some of the other guards when the Caravan Master came up and gestured that he wanted to see her.

When they were a little ways from the fire he was blunt. "You lied to me," he told her.

"I rather assumed you knew that wasn't my true name," she told him, crossing her fingers.

"You said the charge was treason, not running away."

"Do you know Count Echanistra?"

"A little."

"I know him much better than that. If you would care to walk with me to his palace, we can talk to him and you can decide if I told the truth or not."

He stared at her for a long moment. "If I listen to what you tell him, I imagine I will no longer be welcome in North Port."

"One thing the new Count of North Port frequently said was that his father was stupid for not charging road tolls through his lands."

"That would be a violation of the Unification Acts of the King," the Caravan Master told her.

"You'd think so. Or perhaps it would be as the new Count told everyone in North Port that it was time to rethink the Unification Acts in light of the freeing of slaves and serfs and the coming war with the Mexicotal. The King's taxes, the new Count has said, would have to go higher still. Why should those of us in the north have to pay for a war in the south?"

"Aside from the God-King having a lot of very tall pyramids where his priests cut out the hearts of most of the men of the lands he conquers?" the Caravan Master mused. He laughed bitterly. "If the true charge isn't treason now, it will be, won't it?"

She just stared at him. He nodded then. "Wait a moment." He went and fetched a few guards and they set off for Count Echanistra's palace.

The streets of the city were crowded, misting rain or not. There was a hint of fog in the air as well; Echanistra was only one of several of the cities of Zarthan noted for its fogs, but none of them could match it for rain.

Noia had been afraid that there would be a problem getting to see the Count, but she was wrong. The caravan guards were told to politely wait, while she and the Caravan Master were taken to a small presence chamber.

Count Echanistra was nearly sixty, a lean whip of man, now graying. But the graying hadn't affected the brain underneath, and his eyes were alive and alert.

"Lady Noia, I am pleased to see you," the Count said without hesitation the instant he laid eyes on her. "I grieve at the circumstances that have brought you to me."

"Great Uncle, I have some news for your ears."

He waved her to silence. "That your brother is, even now, hiring as many mercenaries as he can buy? That he has suspiciously large amounts of money to do so? That he poisoned your father at breakfast? Using the same poison, I might add, that the priests of Styphon used to kill the King? That, even now, he plots high treason against Zarthan?"

She bowed her head. "Yes, Great Uncle."

"I told my nephew that he should drown the little rat," the Count said roughly. "I am glad you survived, Noia." He looked her up and down. "You look like a boy, girl."

"It was something I had to do."

"No doubt. Your oldest brother is a fool, your two younger brothers are simpering idiots."

The count turned to the Caravan Master. "And right now you are here, as all of your kind, expecting payment for helping my niece?"

"No, your grace!" the man told him. "The lady offered me information as payment, and that will be enough. By the morrow, caravans will be using the Old East Road."

"It is possible that the dirty little rat will try raiding caravans."

"Count, this afternoon, well inside your lands, mercenary soldiers of North Port stopped us and demanded to search the caravan."


The Caravan Master grinned. "There were only four of them, men I did not recognize. We sent them on their way... back south and west."

"For three hundred years we've had peace here in the north of Zarthan. Our only enemies were occasional raids from the Northern Ruthani. We treated such raids harshly, and they were rare.

"A half dozen years ago, the raids started up again. They were carried out by well-armed men, trained in fireseed weapons, using military tactics. At first, we thought it was the High King stirring up trouble, but my spies tell me that they are also raiding the High King's lands as well.

"When we destroyed Styphon two years ago, we found sufficient evidence that they were the ones arming and paying the Northern Ruthani to raid against us.

"Except, there was barely a pause in their attacks. And now North Port..."

He bowed to the Caravan Master. "My head steward will have something for you, Caravan Master. As well as my thanks."

"I sought no reward, sir."

The count chuckled, "But you will, no doubt, accept a gift?"

The Caravan Master smiled. "It would be rude to decline."

The count held out his hand to the Caravan Master and the two men shook hands. The Caravan Master left with his information, an offer of friendship and whatever the count had in mind for a "gift."

"Now, niece, there is the little matter of what to do with you."

Noia held her tongue, keeping her head bowed.

"You know what you have to do eventually, don't you, dear girl?"

"My other brothers support Alcibydos. Yes, I know what has to happen. I take no pleasure in it, I never sought it."

"It is necessary, though. King Freidal has spread word to his most trusted counts about the danger from plots and plotters -- not that most of us needed the warning. We face trouble from the Northern Ruthani; we face a terrible peril from the south.

"Too many of us were displeased at the results of the war with the High King, even less pleased with freeing the slaves and serfs. We here in the north, though, it hurt us less than it did the large towns in the south and the Central Valley of Zarthan.

"I will admit to any who ask, and aye, a few times without being asked, that what has happened since is a special miracle. There is plenty of work to be done and plenty of willing hands to do it. It costs no more to employ a freedman or serf, than it did to maintain them. Such men work harder and better. We here in the north are making a good deal more money than we ever did before, and even the large baronies south of us are doing better than before.

"Xitki Quillan supported the changes, and we all thought he'd lost his mind. But it takes a man without any coppers to rub together not to realize the benefits of the changes.

"But there are these cowardly worms, the crawling maggots nipping at our heels, ready to throw it all away on plots and wars. Insanity! Simple insanity!

"Thus, one day, you will be raised up to rule in North Port."

Noia nodded. "I understand, Great Uncle."

"The problem right now is that while your brother works against us, it hasn't quite risen to the point where the King can bring an army north and squash him. Your brother will quickly realize that his ambitions can best be served by being more discreet and he will give no overt reason to be squashed like the cockroach he is. Not until the plotters reach the point in their plans where they will strike openly.

"Between now and then, we have to do something with you. He will know that if you die, it will mean that the King will have to supplant your family. The King won't want to do that, because it makes his other counts nervous. So, you will be worth significantly more to your brother dead than alive. I and the other counts have taken precautions against him, but it will be much more difficult to do in your case."

"Not only do I look like a boy now, I look more like a boy than a woman at the best of times. I am not pretty to look at either."

"Noia what you say isn't untrue. But there is more to you than your looks. You're clever, levelheaded and lucky, a bit.

"I have a mission that you can undertake. It'll take a year, perhaps two. When you return from the mission, you will be of an age where you can lay claim to your father's county, complaining that your brother set him aside by poison. That is sufficient cause in our law for you to raise an army and go take back your father's patrimony. You would find that your claim would be welcomed by the King and the other counts of the Realm. No man contemplates that sort of treason and murder with anything but distaste. It would suit the Great Council of Nobles quite well if Alcibydos was held up as an example of what happens when you try to take by main force what isn't yours."

Or, Noia realized, what he was saying was that if she was patient, the nobles, and even the King himself, would aid her in overthrowing her brother.

"And the mission?" she asked, curious.

"The High King is building new kinds of ships. Ships that can, for instance, sail against the wind."

Noia frowned. "That isn't possible, not unless you believe he's truly a sorcerer."

"I saw the report from King Freidal's spy. The Queen drew me a diagram on a piece of paper. Moreover, she says that in a few years the High King will be putting the same sorts of engines in ships that now pull the steam wagons, and ships will no longer be dependent on the wind at all."

"That would be..."

"Of huge importance to us, Lady Noia. Huge! I would like you to go east and learn everything that you can about these new ships."

"I had trouble passing as a man for a moon-quarter," she told him. "I don't think I'd make a very good spy."

He chuckled. "Dearest niece, the High King allows King Freidal to send military representatives to serve with his army. You will have a letter from the King, introducing you as his representative with the High King's sea forces.

"The High King, I might add, allows women to enlist in his army; I imagine they would allow women in their ships as well."

Noia contemplated treason and treason. She lifted her eyes up and met Count Echanistra's. "Sire, I know something about this already... what you want me to go and learn."

He frowned. "How could that be, Lady Noia?"

"I have my own spies, Great Uncle," she told him.

He grinned and held out his hand, his thumb pointing upwards. The gesture, her father had told her, had started with the Duke of Mexico, a man whose history remarkably paralleled the High King's. It signified unqualified success.

She looked him in the eye as she spoke. "The High King calls his sea forces a 'navy.' He has ships already that carry as many as forty cannon, plus mortars large enough to send a priest of Styphon to his god with room left over. They are building these ships at a place called Harphax City."

Count Echanistra shook his head in wonder. "And you think you wouldn't make a very good spy! My lady, the work of spying out such things is very dangerous indeed. But merely learning such knowledge is only half the job, because you have to get the information back to those who need it. Typically, those who go back and forth with the knowledge work with many spies. Spy catchers love to catch spies, but more so, they want to catch their masters.

"Because you see, the masters can lead them to many spies. To be a spy is dangerous. To be a spymaster, is very dangerous. I will not ask you more; in fact you told me quite a bit about you at the same time.

"Shortly, we'll see that you get something to eat, and then, I'm afraid you'll be traveling again. My first thought was to send you directly east, but that is simply too dangerous these days, no matter how many soldiers I send along with you as an escort. South... well, a squadron of my guard would be like waving a flag for Alcibydos telling him where you've been and where you are going and why. That wouldn't be good.

"So, you will stay a boy for a while." He stepped towards her and wrapped his arms around Noia and hugged her. "Lady Noia, my heart grieves that we meet like this.

"Now, please, follow my servant. He will take you to a room where you can refresh yourself for a few finger-widths. He will bring you a change of clothes. Then you and I will have a late dinner, and then you'll go for a walk. It'll be foggy tonight, but there are too many eyes about, to move openly in the clear light of day."

He rang a bell and a steward escorted her a short distance to a room with a pan of water to wash her face. Noia wished there was a way to get a bath, but if she was going to be traveling there wouldn't be much point.

A finger-width later the steward was back with a sailor's pants and shirt, plus a leather tunic and pants, like guardsmen wore under their armor. "My lady, put both sets on, if you would, the leathers on the outside," the man said, bowing to her.

She dressed quickly, and then checked herself out in a small mirror. She hoped she looked soldierly enough to fool someone late at night.

Count Echanistra kept the conversation over the simple meal away from events, talking instead about the size of the city's harbor, its layout, and what it would mean to have ships that could sail into the wind.

When she finished, he stood and she joined him.

"What is going to happen, now, is that you will take up that sword you brought with you when you arrived. You will also be given a rifle, two pistols and a fireseed pouch. My guard patrols the city in times like these wearing just the leather jerkin, not bothering with any armor.

"In a moment one of my guard sergeants will join us. He is a particularly loyal man, do you understand?"

She nodded that she understood. "Follow him and do as he says. You will be in a group of men going to relieve the watch. The sergeant will be at the head of the group. He and the man behind you will be the only ones who know where you are going, and other than that, they will never know anything else about the person that marched out of the palace tonight. You'll be the second to last in the troop.

"They will stop at guard posts and the man on duty will take the place of the man who is replacing him, starting from the front of the column. Thus, you will have plenty of time to watch the routine, because you will be left second to last.

"You will be standing guard at the head of a dock, with one ship moored alongside. As soon as you can no longer see the others, simply undo the leathers and put them on the ground and then board the ship."

"And then?"

"Within a few finger-widths the ship will sail on slack water. You will find it -- educational -- to sail in the dark of a foggy night from this harbor. They are smugglers, and used to that sort of thing. The captain of the ship knows only that you are bound for Baytown. Get off there and go to Freidal's palace. Tell the guards you have a message for him from me. Once you see the King, start telling the truth."

"Yes, your grace."

He smiled. "One day, Noia, you and I will be peers. I prefer 'Great Uncle' to anything else." He hugged her tightly again, a gesture he'd never used with her before this day.

"Of course, sir." For a brief moment she hugged him back, glad of the comfort.

Freidal, King of Zarthan, sat down at the council table, next to his wife. The room was empty, the council meeting not due for a palm-width yet. He had recently adopted the new fashion, started by the Duke of Mexico, of going without facial hair and he rubbed his bare cheeks, amazed what a man would do to please his woman.

His wife, Queen Elspeth, was playing with something long and thin, spinning it on the polished tabletop, making a metallic sound that he'd never heard before. She wasn't as tall as he was, but was, if anything, blonder and very nearly as heavy as he was. She wasn't fat, though. Maybe at one time, not so many years ago, his wife hadn't been strong. Wars, battles, and deaths do tend to render people into their finest -- or worst -- components.

She seemed oblivious to him, and after a few seconds he asked, "Elspeth?"

"Sorry, Freidal." She didn't look or sound sorry. She did stand the object up on a flat round base.

"What's that?" he asked, gesturing at it. It appeared to be made of copper or brass, he wasn't sure which.

She smiled slightly at him. "Patience, husband. Knowing your penchant for arriving early and copping a feel from your wife just before all the rich and powerful nobles of the realm arrive, I took the liberty of inviting some others."

He chuckled. "Obviously, someone forgot to tell you that I'm King and you're Queen. You stand politely next to me, let me feel you up when and where I please and generally let me have my way with you."

His tone was light and she was laughing. "You are such a dreamer, you!" she told him.

Xitki Quillan entered, walked across the room and sat down next to Elspeth. He was a lean man in his fifties, not terribly tall, with snow-white hair. He moved as a man twenty years younger. He was the Count of the Central Valley of Zarthan, and the second most powerful man in the realm, after her husband.

Elspeth turned to him. "I've been dying to ask, Count. All of the Zarthani and all of their cousins in the Great Kingdoms have just one name. You have two."

He smiled at her. "My father was a man who had made three Kings, Lady Elspeth. Freidal's father, grandfather and great-grandfather all owed their thrones to him. So, when rather later in life that most men would, he decided to take a Mexicotal woman to wife, and I mean, actually marry her in a formal ceremony before Yritta All-Mother, they couldn't refuse him. My father gave me two names at birth. He told me when I was six that the two names were halves of my heritage." Count Quillan smiled benignly. "Two days later he was sitting at dinner, sipping wine when he started choking. A few heartbeats later, he was dead. I've never felt the least desire to change my name."

Elspeth bowed low.

Two more people, both young, came in and sat at the council table. Alros, Freidal's younger sister, was eighteen. She'd been a tomboy growing up, pleased that she'd never have to rule. Fate had dealt her a different hand though, and she'd ruled briefly as her brother's regent when he lay critically wounded during the war.

During that period, her father was poisoned by the priests of Styphon and she'd ruled with an iron fist. With her was her husband, Denethon. He'd been sent to accompany the Mexicotal God-King's army in the East as it marched on the High King's largest city, Xiphlon. His advice had been ignored by the God-King's Captain-General who commanded the van of the army, a quarter of a million men. As a result, Denethon had a ringside seat when the Captain-General led his army into a trap. Only two men in five survived that day, and after that Denethon had commanded.

Denethon had retreated, trying to save the survivors. Harmakros started in pursuit, an epic pursuit that had lasted four moons and covered more than a thousand miles. In the final stages of that pursuit Denethon's survivors were being chased by three armies, almost a half million men to his forty thousand at that point. One of the armies, one less than a quarter his numbers, had caught them in an ambush and just three days later the pursuit had ended when Denethon had surrendered to the man who was now Duke of Mexico.

Elspeth grinned at Denethon. "General, do you know why you have my confidence?"

He shook his head.

Elspeth smiled. "Because there were so many times you could have legitimately chucked the whole thing and ridden away from the debacle there in the east."

The general leaned close, putting his arm around his wife and kissed her. "That, or another explanation is that I had a treasure beyond measure waiting for me at home. A treasure worth risking everything for."

Elspeth tipped the shiny brass object in front of her down on its side again, and flicked one end with her fingers. It spun in a glittering arc, not moving from the spot where she'd started it spinning.

"Have any of you heard the High King's pistol described, or a description of how it works?" she asked them.

Everyone shook their heads. "How about Duke Tuck's pistol and rifle? Did any of you know that he had two pistols, one he gave to Lady Judy?"

Again there were headshakes. She put her finger out and stopped the shiny golden case from spinning. "My husband has asked about a hundred times, in my hearing, how the High King plans to stop millions of soldiers of the God-King when next they come. I've heard it a few times from Count Quillan as well. While I haven't heard General Denethon's opinion, I doubt if it differs."

"No, it doesn't," the general announced "If they were to obligingly line up, and if we could pick one spot and fight an all-or-nothing battle, we might have a chance if we armed every able-bodied man in the kingdom... and none of the God-King's soldiers shot back.

"A logical change in tactics on their part would be to break down into smaller columns, each as large as our army, and attack in many places. We couldn't anticipate all of the attacks, and once they broke through..." He spread his hands and shrugged.

Elspeth held up the object she'd been playing with. "This, my friends, is the High King's answer to the question. I received this and some others just like it, this morning. Moreover, I have plans for the weapons that will fire it."

"And this is the answer to our prayers?" Freidal asked.

"Pretty much. The rifle will hold six of these shells at a time. They fire as fast as you pull the trigger. All six shots in the time it takes to say "Ready, aim, fire!"

"And how long does it take to reload?" Denethon asked.

"Two or three heartbeats," Elspeth told them.

"Each round, or all six?" Quillan asked, leaning forward intently.

"All six, Count Quillan. Once reloaded the rifle then fires each time you pull the trigger."

She pulled a heavy iron cylinder from her skirts and set it on the table. It was five inches long and five inches in diameter. "This is heavy and bulky," she told them. "At least at first, we'll probably want to arm cavalry and officers with these. Then some specialty units, until finally we have enough for everyone."

She lifted the iron cylinder up, leaving five of the brass tubes, like the one she'd been toying with, standing on the table. She took the cylinder, turned it over and shoved the brass tubes into it. It didn't take very long. "That's it."

She pulled one tube out and handed it to her husband, handed another to Quillan and another to Denethon. "There, on the flat bottom, is a little thing. That's the same sort of primer that fires mortar shells and detonates them."

Quillan put the cartridge down carefully on the table, laying it on its side and looking at it nervously.

Elspeth picked up hers and slapped it, base down, on the table, hard enough to cause an echo from the walls. Everyone jerked in surprise. "The High King has many able men, and they've been working on these. They've found ways to both make them explode more reliably, yet, at the same time, less prone to accidents.

"Weapons like this will fire twelve times to our enemy's once, and actually in practice perhaps as many as eighteen times. Having each of our soldiers able to fire such weapons will go a long way to evening the odds. However, first the weapons must be produced. The rifles, the bullets, the primers, the brass casings and the smokeless fireseed. If we start today, we might, possibly, have our first weapon ready this fall. We would have trouble coming to full production until a year from now, and it will likely take two years after that to fully equip the army," Elspeth reported.

Quillan warily reached out and knocked the cartridge over. "We don't have three years. A year, maybe. Two years? Only if we fight and win many battles."

Elspeth bobbed her head. "True. But if we don't start now, it will never happen. We must pretend that we have the three years."

"Even if this detracts from the other projects?" Freidal asked his wife.

"Freidal, either we play to win, or we'll lose. We can't hope for a tie, can we? We must do the best we can, from day to day, and hope that buys us the time we need.

"And that's the real subject of why we're here, talking. Your father, Freidal, was murdered. Alros was very quick to investigate and render justice to those who did it. While I can find no fault with the emotion, and I certainly understand the necessity of a swift response, I think it was too fast. I think there might have been other plotters, plotters beyond Styphon.

"Even now, we know plots are sprouting everywhere in the kingdom."

It was true, as they all knew.

"Thus, we have to look at these weapons and ammunition in a slightly different light. The High King has sent us full drawings and working models. I propose we announce only the drawings."

"Why is that, Queen Elspeth?" Denethon asked.

"Because, you see, I'm a little concerned about General Khoogra and his activities."

"Besides being a pompous idiot, you mean?" Freidal laughed.

"Husband, I would ask you to think back on your first impressions of me, then reflect more carefully on what you just said."

Freidal chuckled, smiling at her fondly. "How could I forget? You find a way to remind me every day. Sometimes several times a day."

"General Khoogra has three grown sons and a grown daughter. The daughter is the oldest, and was married to Count South March's oldest son before the young man's untimely death in the war. She has a son, and her youngest brother is currently fostering with South March as well.

"Khoogra's eldest son is fostering with Mountain Wall. He and Count Mountain Wall's younger son are inseparable. I assume you've all heard the stories about that young man."

Freidal grimaced, but Xitki actually blushed before he spoke. "Mountain Wall has been a friend since I was a boy. His youngest son can't be trusted near a woman. Any woman. If she's lower class he simply smashes her in the face, knocks her down and has his way with her. Noble women, he's a little more delicate with. He ties them up, gags them and then has his way with them, all the while threatening dire things to the girl's family, friends and retainers if she tells anyone about what happened to her."

The count grinned wolfishly. "One of these days he'll run out of girls without male kin, then he'll learn the error of his ways."

Elspeth banged her hand down hard on the tabletop. "If I ever see that son of Khoogra, he's a dead man, do you understand?"

"I think he understands that, Elspeth," Freidal said, trying to calm her down. "It's why he's never accepted an invitation to court or even Baytown."

Elspeth ignored him. "Oh, and the last bastard son of Khoogra? He was fostering with Count Echanistra, except he ran away at the winter solstice and is now living with the Northern Ruthani, raiding the northern counties."

Freidal laughed. "I assume there's a point to this?"

"Of course," Elspeth told them. "I want to hang the bastard and while I'm at it, hang his sons. Right now we don't have any proof that would allow us to do it. So, I propose we gather that evidence."

Xitki Quillan shook his head. "Lady Elspeth, I respect you, but I won't countenance the use of tactics like the High King's Duke Skranga uses."

Elspeth's grin was wicked. "Count, at home, the police are specifically forbidden to use such tactics. No, I have a different proposition. We will copy the High King's designs, a copy to you, a copy to Denethon, a copy for us. You and Denethon seek to duplicate the results.

"The 'real' copy we'll give to General Khoogra and ask him to research and tell us what we need to do to manufacture the weapons, to insure that they are practical. I don't know who he's plotting with, but if we have arms like this and they don't, they would be at a serious disadvantage. We'll watch him, spy on his contacts, and if any of them start making these rifles and Khoogra says they don't work, why, we'll know for sure, won't we? And it would be proof, sufficient for your nobles, as well."

Freidal nodded. Indeed, it would suffice. Actually, it would go beyond sufficient, to truly damning. There wasn't anyone in the kingdom who didn't understand their desperate straits if the God-King marched millions of soldiers north. Deliberately sabotaging the defense would get a quick verdict.

"We are still half a half palm-width before the meeting starts," Xitki told them. "Is there something else?"

"As a matter of fact there is. The High King is building ships," Elspeth told them.

"I've heard of that," Xitki told her. "The tales seem to grow with each telling. Ships that mount not just one or two guns, but dozens. Ships that can sail into the wind without oars. Some tales are even wilder."

"Like ships that can sail into the wind without sails or oars?" Elspeth asked with a grin.

Xitki nodded, now wary.

"The High King has eleven ships now that mount between thirty and forty cannon and two mortars. You will be pleased to know that those mortars were designed with priests of Styphon in mind; they can accommodate even the fattest priest. The ships use sails, but yes, they can sail into the wind. The High King has a small ship that travels around Harphax City's harbor without sails or oars, using the same sort of engine his steam pullers do. Right now, it's used to pull ships into place along the docks.

"The High King wishes us to send him a trusted, a highly trusted person, familiar with ships, east to him. That person will be taught how to build these ships. That person will be assigned to one of the ships and will learn how to operate them at sea. Then that person will return here and we can start building ships like the High King's."

"A program that will, no doubt, take years," Freidal told them.

"Of course. But there are some things we can do to shorten how long it will take. Teams should be set to cutting suitable timber in the mountains. That timber should be brought to South March."

"Just like that!" Xitki laughed. "Cut in the mountains and hauled to South March!"

"Yes, Count. Cut west and north of your county seat at River City and hauled there. Then floated down to the sea here at Baytown. Then lashed to even larger rafts and moved down the coast to South March."

"That will take many men," Xitki mused.

"Not as many as Lord Tuck's wedding gift to you, my husband."

"I thought I was to count myself lucky I had his blessing and that the war was over."

"That too, but this is something more tangible. What is the most important metal that Zarthan lacks?"

"Iron," Freidal said without hesitation. He frowned. "He knows of a place to mine iron?"

She laughed lightly. "Husband, a place where you can scoop it from the ground with buckets. An upside down mountain."

"The High King was a little careless with his boundary line, Lord Tuck has gotten him to adjust our eastern boundary, north of the Salt Sea. I'll show you the place on the map, after this meeting."

"We would need coal to smelt it," Denethon murmured.

"Coal we have, albeit not very good, southeast of Baytown," Freidal told him.

"One last thing, husband. We have plans for building some of the High King's steam pullers. So far, we have not. That has to change, and at once. Our kingdom is not flat, not most places. But Count Quillan's county would enormously benefit from quick and cheap transportation. There are other places. We need to decide where we should concentrate our efforts. For one thing, the High King is planning on having his steam puller roads at the Muddy River in three years. We'd be remiss not to have a steam road of our own ready, across the river."

Freidal shook his head. "I don't see any advantage to that."

Denethon choked, sputtered and Alros offered him a sip from his wine cup. "Lord King!" Denethon said after he recovered. "I was on the receiving end of what steam pullers can do! I thought we couldn't afford to build the steel rails they require.

"Sire! Captain-General Oaxhan laughed at Harmakros' claim to have fifty thousand soldiers opposing us. The only way, he told us over and over, that Harmakros could have numbers like that was to have called up all of the militia.

"Now we know. Not only had Harmakros called up the militia, but he also assigned those men to protect their homes, because the hundred thousand soldiers he really had were quite enough to do the job! Before Three Hills we heard reports that the High King was to our east, with a hundred thousand men. All of us sniffed at those numbers; sure they were the terrified dreams of scouts, hunted night and day by the Hostigi.

"Imagine the God-King's surprise when he met the High King less than two moon-quarters after Three Hills and found that the High King opposed him with a quarter million men. It's true; the Hostigi flogged half the horses in their realm to death to move their cannon south after Three Hills to reinforce the High King, but it was a cheap price to pay for a victory like that!

"King Freidal, in the time we took to march north from the Big River to Three Hills, the High King mustered his army in the Great Kingdoms, moved them twelve hundred miles to Xiphlon by steam puller, ferried them across the river and then marched them the four hundred and fifty miles to where the armies met. That should have taken the entire campaign season, not two moons.

"Having steam puller roads, Sire, may make the difference whether the realm lives or dies."

Freidal sighed explosively. "All we have to do is start men cutting trees in Mountain Wall, dragging those trees to the sea, then floating them to South March. Start scratching iron from the desert, and, bye-the-bye, send coal from Baytown to support that. While we're at it, build lots of steam puller roads, the pullers themselves and their wagons. I have no idea where the money is going to come from."

There was a gentle knock on a door not far from where they were sitting. Freidal spoke loudly, "Come!"

One of the palace servants appeared. "Sire, the council has gathered, they await your pleasure."

"My pleasure will take a half-finger's width. At that time, just let them in."

"Yes, Sire!" the servant said, bowed and left.

"So, what do we do right now?" the King asked the others.

"Give General Khoogra the rifle plans right after the meeting," Elspeth told her husband.

"You and I will meet this evening, Sire," Xitki told his King. "I know where we can get the men for most of what you want. Of course, it'll cost Styphon for it, though."

"Styphon is dead and gone," Alros said. She knew, after all. She'd seen to it personally.

"True, Alros. But, even so, the Kingdom's coffers have done well selling fireseed. All those revenues accrue now to the Crown. Alas, Echanistra has had plenty of opportunity to shoot off all that we send them. The army consumes great quantities of fireseed as well. The Queen tells us that the High King has told us how to make smokeless fireseed. We can charge a premium for that!"

"For a while," Elspeth warned him. "Then it will be as common as sand and you'll just make a decent profit."

Freidal stood, as did Elspeth, both looking at the main door to the chamber. "They hate me," Elspeth told him quietly.

"Some of our nobles, lady wife. Everyone else loves you. And everyone else includes my soldiers. It is most remarkable, Elspeth, how highly they regard you."

Council meetings were long, boring, filled with petty complaints and jealousies. Freidal hated them and had no idea why his wife came away from them pleased and excited. Not just some of the time, but every time.

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