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Worlds of the Timestream


The Interregnum
Volume 2



The Friends

Richard J. Sutcliffe



Published under license from Arjay Enterprises

Copyright 2001-2003, Richard J. Sutcliffe
Arjay Home
http://www.arjay.bc.ca




All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise without explicit permission from the publisher. Although every precaution has been taken in the preparation of this book, the publisher(s) and author assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. Neither is any liability assumed for damages resulting from the use of the information contained herein.



To Nathan and Joel





Previously Published in this Series:
Volume 1 : The Peace




Table of Contents

Postprologue
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3


Postprologue

We are pleased to offer to the general public this second volume in our narration of the Interregnum.

The first volume, The Peace, covered the King's 1941 deposition and exile, the years he and two cousins spent in Irish North America, the role they and their wives played in ending our version of the Three Worlds' War, the Prairie Chicken incident, the Royals' interference in the accession of Calaghan MacCarthy to Donalship, and the latter's subsequent revenge. Volume one also described the aftermath of the 1977 battle of Glenmorgan from Brian McIlhargey's point of view, his removal of the infant Mara Devereaux from Ireland, and the early years of Lady Mara's life as Meghan McIlhargey up to their departure from Edwardston.

Careful examination of private records and personal interviews of participants allow us to shed further light on events surrounding the battle of Glenmorgan, the origin of the "Friends of the Day", and the lives of Lord Devereaux, Lady Rourke, Lady Meathe, Lady Maguire, and Lady O'Toole. With their cooperation we are able to present never-before-published material on the Royals and several of the Donals.

However, the general editors, though confident of the accuracy of the entire account, specifically disclaim all responsibility for the style of material personally dictated by the first lady.

Readers are also warned that this volume and the one expected to follow detail the most ignominious events between 1955 and 1999, a period sometimes termed Greater Ireland's "Dark Years". Our depiction of perfidy and dishonour will no doubt shock most Orthans. On the other earths, excepting Water World, the pervasive violence will surely be disturbing. Despite these difficulties, or perhaps partly because of them, we present this account in the hope readers learn enough from choices key players made in recent history not to repeat some of them.

We also caution readers unfamiliar with the style that a Hibernian story circle is a Celtic knot. It returns repeatedly to the same events from different perspectives, the intricate puzzles it appears to weave presenting intriguing illusions. No one knew this better than James IV.

All the events described in this second volume take place on Hibernia (Ortho earth per Metan scholars) so the chapter tags mention only the town, not also the planet as in volume one. Readers are reminded that the Hibernian and Gregorian (Tirdian) calendars were identical from 1582 through the fall of 2001.

This second volume could not have been prepared without the assistance of Lady Nellie Hacker, who supplied "Aileen", a new and innovative editing program for the Metalibrary.


Offered in the Name of the High Lord of Heaven
Under the Patronage of the Crown
Dedicated to the Throne of Tara, Mistress of Worlds
by General Editors
Jana Whelan, Ard Seanacha of the Court of Ireland
Walking Buffalo, Academician and Lord Holder of Edwardston
Cameron O'Grady, Lord High Bishop of Tara
Princess Rainbow Buffalo/O'Grady, Seanacha,
and
Richard Kent, Academician and Lord Protector of England
who, with the First Lady, compiled this second volume.

* * * * *

Now listen up, Aileen. There's to be no editing by anybody--including you--on my parts of this book, see? I reckon I went through more pain than anyone in the courts of glorious Tara to get to this point in life in one piece--even if only more or less--and the Professor said I could tell things my way. So, don't you go letting those high-and-mighty academicians "clean up" my grammar or "tone down" my way of putting things, hear? I won't stand for it, nohow. You're no Kilkarney teacher, so you don't have the right. Oh, and another thing. I supply the versions in both Gaelic for our Hibernia and English for Earth Prime, and personally approve the other four. Your translations are correct enough, but too futsy; they lose the proper flavour and idiom so everybody ends up sounding like they all came outa some cookie-cutter academy. Besides, being First Lady (so to speak) oughta mean I can give some orders, even if only to you.

Sure, throw in whatever quotes from the scholars you like about the differences between the Earths, how Ireland came to rule two of them, and then pretty near lost it all whilst I was out of the action, in prison or sleeping away the years. I don't care what else you say. Do what you like with the pieces other people tell you, or with any of the historical stuff from before I was born, but the cut and thrust is that the bits about Katherina-mouse come off the press just the way I tell them to your glassy little silicon ears, or else the Professor and his high-blown academician friends can forget about getting my inside story. Hey, and there's things about times before the nexus only I know, cause they happened to me, see. And don't give me no never-mind about spelling and consistency stuff. Just write it like I say it, hear?

Thing is, if his Donalship, the loyal and proper Sean Reilly, hadn't been so flaming patriotic for the glory of greater Ireland at just the wrong time in our lives, things would've turned out very differently. Maybe I would've gotten into more of the interesting fights. Maybe I wouldn't have spent so much time busting out of prison cells and hospital beds.

What's that, Aileen? Tell it in the order it happened? Why? You sort things right way round. You're good for that at least. After all, Nellie claims you're an intelligent computer program.





England is much the junior partner to Ireland in the United Kingdom of the Emerald Isles. Yet she is governed differently from most of Ortho (Greater Hibernia as they often term their planet). Tara has divided the big island into the districts of London (South), Birmingham (Central), and Leeds (North), with an administrator over each, but under Tara's direct authority. Thus, there are no Domain lords there as in Scotland and Wales. However, the London administrator is received at Tara as first of the three, accorded the courtesy title 'Lord Ambassador, Protector of England', and is allowed to wear the ancient sword of Logres at court. This simultaneous giving and withholding of trust has maintained a stable tension, but it surely provokes reminders that the English are a vanquished people. How long will they put up with second-class citizenship? --from a standard lecture in Federation political history, Babylon executive school, Para Earth.



Chapter 1

Brian and Meghan, London, 1991

When you've just run a priest through and killed him, you need to disappear quickly and rather thoroughly. If you're only fourteen yourself, it's your first serious duel, and you're not even supposed to own a real sword, it hardly matters the priest was false enough to his peace vows that he drew first and tried to kill you. Nor does it help you're already on the run as members of the banished and hunted royal family. By the time anyone at Tara's palace investigated, Meghan and Brian McIlhargey had to be ... well, nowhere would be best.

"Where to, Da?" Meghan asked her father as the two strode briskly along a narrow dirt footpath in the hill country north of the tiny collection of shacks that was the only human habitation for hundreds of Irish miles around. Both took it for granted she could match his rapid pace, for she was fully his height of a staff, though her gaunt frame carried scarcely half the mass.

It was a bright, cloudless morning, and there was a slight hint of salt in the air from a brisk offshore breeze.

"How would you like to learn the sailor's craft?" was Brian's response, thereby settling in her favour their debate over whether to ride the rails east and back to New Tara, then south to Centralia, or instead ship out to the Orient.

Brian and Meghan McIlhargey had flown out of remote Edwardston in their capacity as members of Lord Walking Buffalo's official entourage on an official trip to Los Angeles--one of the few places with the same name as on Prime. At least one plane a week stopped at Edwardston, but Walking Buffalo used his domain's new military jet for the trip. After landing, the two men had a rehearsed public quarrel ending in Brian's resignation, and Walking Buffalo flew home alone. By the time Buffalo returned to his manse, his warriors would noisily discover the false priest's body in an alleyway behind the fellow's favourite pub, and bury him with neither honour nor mourners.

Brian had been Edwardston's only law officer, so no one would conduct an autopsy or mount an investigation. Buried in administrative reports, the news might be noticed at Tara in a few weeks, or when the late Kees VanBuren's effects followed in due course. Even if the palace sent out someone to investigate in person, they might never connect Meghan with VanBuren's death. Unfortunately, dead men tell no tales, and though by his equipment the false priest had been a torturer and executioner for one of the high houses, Brian could not afford to investigate further lest he draw unwanted attention.

Their cash replenished by a generous gift from Walking Buffalo, and feeling more secure now the latter had arranged to cancel their old arrest warrants, the two lived around the edge of Los Angeles village for a few days to check for obvious pursuit. They had broken camp early and were making their way through the dense brush to the coast.

"You'll teach me?" Meghan asked. It didn't occur to her to ask how or when he had learned the trade, or why he knew the local terrain. Brian McIlhargey knew whatever was necessary, whenever he needed it. It gave her a warm feeling to depend on him. She stamped a mental foot, declaring to herself, "He's my father, even if he isn't." She'd never forgotten that awful day when he'd told her Brian McIlhargey had no children, that she was daughter to Jack Devereaux and Katherina Rourke, both tragically killed at Glenmorgan.

So, it was done. They slipped down to a hidden cove where they waited a few days until a small freighter stopped to unload illegal cargo out of sight of the ineffective local customs office. Brian had little difficulty persuading the captain to take on an experienced hand and a neophyte who was unafraid of hard work. Large modern freighters were almost entirely automatic, but these rusty old tramps required a crew of up to a dozen for loading and unloading at the numerous tiny ports of call that lacked robots.

They embarked on a long voyage through the Far East, stopping in China and the Irish East Indies, circling back to Penal City in Australia before going on to India, and thence to South Africa.

The captain, an old soldier himself, saw more than merely a strong deckhand in Brian's massive bulk, military mien, and the sword hanging ominously in a worn scabbard. He habitually hired such men. McIlhargey's impossibly tall girl was too young to fight, but if she could peel potatoes for her keep and otherwise stay out of the crew's way, her presence was a small price for a prime sword hand.

A day out of Penal City, in the sleepy predawn gloom, his precautions proved as prescient as his assessments were premature.

Meghan was dressing in the tiny cabin she shared with her father when she heard a thump, followed by running feet, then a scream. Brian sprang from the bed, instantly alert.

"Pirates," he shouted. "Bring your sword. Stay close."

The two rushed on deck to find the freighter's dozen crew members fighting for their lives. Two low, open boats, each carrying fifteen raiders, had crept up on them from the nearby shore in the fog that had caused them to anchor here the night before. One group must have beaten the other to the prize and boarded on the port side, where a crewman's body lay, his throat cut. Those in the second boat were tossing grapples to follow on the starboard. They had to be stopped, or the ship would be overrun.

Meghan and Brian ran to the rail and slashed at the grapple ropes, causing several pirates to fall back from their climb. Then, some sixth sense warning her, Meghan spun about to encounter a woman rushing her, sword in one hand and bloody knife in the other.

"Ha, girl, surrender or die."

Meghan stood her ground, and the pirate carried on, slashing low toward her legs. She was too slow. In mechanical rehearsal of a standard defensive routine, Meghan jumped over the attack, simultaneously burying her own blade in the other's shoulder.

Her opponent slumped to the deck to bleed away her life, and Meghan whirled to face a man screaming obscenities as he leaped at her from the rail. Too late to change course, he impaled himself on her blade. She withdrew it before he fell, and faced a third opponent, who died an instant after slipping in a pool of blood.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw her father seize a man from the rail and hurl him back. There was a loud cracking sound, rushing water, and screams erupted below. Before the pirate boat's sinking could register, she faced two more men from the first crew. But they failed to fight in tandem, so she was able to turn them, dispatching one with a thrust to the chest, at which the other threw down his blade and surrendered.

Suddenly, it was over. Nineteen pirates were dead on deck and six drowned when their boat capsized. Five were captive. Only two sailors died in addition to the watchman, and none of the others were critically wounded.

The captain looked across to where Brian and Meghan stood among nine bodies, clicked his heels, came to attention, and snapped off a salute to the pair whose attention to the second boat had saved his vessel and his life.

As when she was forced to run VanBuren through, Meghan responded by throwing up, and the three men and one woman she killed populated her nightmares for weeks afterwards. When she spoke of her revulsion, her father shrugged, repeating what he'd said at Edwardston.

"You get used to it."

They had to return to Penal City with the bodies and prisoners, but the subsequent investigating board heard no mention of illegal sword work by a fourteen-year-old, and Meghan was not called to testify. A few days later, both their journey and a semblance of former order were resumed, though crew members, who had previously joked about with Meghan and treated her as a child, were now more careful, addressing her politely as "Mistress McIlhargey," and a couple of times as "My Lady".

At the Cape, she and Brian were paid out, and, after waiting a month for a suitable berth, returned to sea, making their way via African and European ports to the small river port town of London in the southeast of the largest of the Emerald Isles.

As they approached their destination, Meghan excitedly reviewed her history. The big island had for centuries been home to three people groups. To the north were the Scots, who had been one nation with the Irish, sharing a single language and traditional customs for over nine centuries. In convergence with events on Prime, they eventually adopted the original Roman name for Ireland of "Scotia". To the west, the Welsh had been Irish allies nearly as long, though they proudly persisted in keeping alive their own version of Gaelic, their unwieldy names and the customs many Irish found quaint. The largest part of the big island, however, had been home to a diverse group of warring tribes who were not at any time after Arthur able to unite themselves under one rule, though by 1500 all spoke roughly the same tongue.

In 1487, then High King Patrick V of Ireland was conned into hiring Amerigo Vespucci, the fantastic Florentine pickle dealer turned pirate, as a privateer under the Irish flag to patrol the Atlantic against English pirates. When Vespucci instead sailed away on his own adventure and stumbled onto a whole new world that he promptly named after himself, the King was quick to dismiss him and claim the lands for the Irish crown. Patrick's attempt to call the western continent "New Hibernia" came to naught, however, after Vespucci's lecture tour to the courts of Europe resulted in everyone else applying his name.

In eighteen short years the discovery saw greatly expanded trade and made Ireland the leading world power, but brought clashes with other nations wanting to share the spoil. The Spanish established themselves peacefully in the new world's southern hemisphere, but the English tribes' persistence in warring with their neighbours and mounting pirate raids on the very coasts of Ireland and her allies eventually offered sufficient provocation for war to protect the lucrative world trade.

"It all began here," Brian lectured Meghan as they sailed inland through the damp water-hugging fog. "On this very river, in 1505, a peaceful Irish merchantman, stopping over after trading sugar from the new continent for spices picked up in Holland, was boarded by English pirates in broad daylight, her crew murdered, and cargo stolen. What at the time passed for government hereabouts refused to act."

He pointed out a massive monument on their port side.

"The Irish punitive force landed there on the south bank opposite old London, but quickly realized the whole of England must be taken or none could be pacified, much less held. Massive reinforcements followed, and we launched full-scale war. When by 1510 we and our allies conquered the badly-divided warring tribes of England and brought them under Irish rule, we found ourselves addicted to conquest. In the process of extending the new United Irish Kingdom, the English became our finest soldiers and sailors. When Spain, last of the old European powers, fell in 1596, nearly a century of expansion came to an end and Ireland's Peace was worldwide."

Megan enjoyed her Da's history lectures. He made it sound like he'd been there, or interviewed someone who had.

How very differently things turned out in Prime's England, she thought, where the Normans did for England in 1066 what Ireland achieved here centuries later. On both worlds a United Kingdom rose in the isles, but there a unified England gained ascendancy, and Ireland became her slave.

This sleepy port of London served as the administrator's seat, but was a small town of no military importance. It had but a few thousand inhabitants from the look of it. She knew her father had never visited London, and that somehow added to her excitement. She'd be able to learn about the place independently.

As the two walked up a narrow cobbled street from the dock, the fog lifted, revealing the beauty of a bright summer day. Surrounding buildings were uniformly of reddish brick, looking as fresh and new as the day it had been laid, most of it a century earlier, just following the fire that destroyed much of the old wooden town in 1880.

They took lodgings at the Boar's Head Inn and Brian immediately sent a message on the public MT requesting an appointment with Protector Kent to seek a position in his household.

* * * * *

At the appointed time of nine o'clock next morning Brian and Meghan were ushered by a secretary into the second story office of the main government building. They entered a plainly appointed room with a few framed certificates on the wall behind a huge oak desk.

First appearances could be deceiving, and Brian did a double take as he scanned the room and recognized three paintings on other walls as priceless Italian masters. He instinctively supposed them to be originals. So much for one stereotype. The owner of this office was clearly no barbarian, as the Irish often termed the English. If anything, the simple but costly appointments enhanced the already imposing stature of the man who rose to his feet behind the desk at their entry. He was a giant, slightly taller than Brian, and like him the possessor of an enormous muscular frame that bespoke barely suppressed mighty potency.

"Here's a worthy warrior," Brian thought, deciding he liked the fellow at first sight.

Beside him and slightly to the rear on either side stood two lanky young men. He judged the taller to be a couple of years older than Meghan's fourteen, and the shorter to be younger by the same amount.

The giant fixed the new arrivals with a penetrating stare, and announced, "Welcome to London. I am Richard Kent, and these," he waved to the sides, "are my sons, Zack and Jonas."

"My name is Brian McIlhargey, and this is my daughter, Meghan. We are recently of Edwardston, and bring greetings and a recommendation for employment from Domain Lord, Walking Buffalo." He handed Kent a sealed envelope from his former employer.

Kent barely touched the proffered item, letting it fall to his desk without a glance. "What can you do that would be of value to us?" he growled.

"Security systems, programming, troop training, general administration, odd jobs, whatever you like."

"I suppose you'll work for cash and found?" When Brian imperceptibly nodded, Kent continued his questioning with, "Are you on the run?"

"Check the police database. There are no outstanding warrants."

"I did yesterday when your arrival was noted by my dock agents and the Boar's Head Inn manager. More interestingly, the warrants were there six months ago, and are now gone. Why?"

"They were forgeries."

"David Buffalo removed them at his father's request?"

"So I understand."

"My son Zack here," Kent nodded his head in that direction without taking his eyes off Brian, "is already partway through his General Administration Certificate courses, and Jonas starts his this year."

"Meghan's completed hers." Brian countered flatly.

"Last round of exams?"

"Yes."

"She used a pseudonym." It was not a question. "Walking Buffalo and I have known each other for years." Kent seemed distracted as he stared briefly at a point on the wall behind his visitors before resuming in his gruff tone. "A few months ago, Buffalo put through a correction for the mark of 'James Dillworth,' saying he realized one of the problems had been ambiguously stated because of his idiom, and the interpretation by the student in question was, after all, fully correct. Now he agrees with me and the third Academician that Dillworth deserves a perfect score, the first time in history this has happened.

"I have taken the trouble to meet and interview all but this one of the new GAC holders, whom I have been unable to locate despite diligent enquiries. There are not a few other members of the academy board who would like also to know who Dillworth is."

He glanced at Meghan whose red face obviated need of confirmation. Then he shrugged. "But, in any case, I train my own troops, and when they are older, Zack and Jonas will help me administer London."

"Can English officer cadets attend Kilkarney?" The tone of Brian's question was cutting.

Richard Kent's eyes narrowed dangerously, and an eerie silence settled upon the room. Partners though the English might be as coresidents of the Emerald Isles, that they could not attend the best Irish military school was a sore point in relationships.

Brian noticed Meghan's hand creep to the stick at her side, preparing for a possible fight. Zack Kent's did the same.

After several tense moments Richard Kent turned to Jonas with a grim smile and announced. "The McIlhargeys will stay. Prepare the guest suite by the armoury and escort the young lady to the inn to fetch their bags, then show her over the keep."

Brian nodded at the arrangement, and the two departed in silence. Kent waved Brian to a chair, motioned Zack to remain in the room, sat down himself, and launched into terms without further questions. "You'll set up a duplicate of Kilkarney here, assist me to find teachers for the academic subjects and personally supervise the officer-specific curriculum. All training takes place inside the keep, and there'll be no messy questions asked about the cadets' backgrounds or ages."

Brian showed no surprise at the sudden extension of trust. He'd already decided Walking Buffalo's commendation was enough for him, and supposed it was for Kent as well. He guessed the protector knew the role played by "Brian McIlhargey" at Kilkarney. Besides, the proposal fleshed out an idea that had grown in his own mind while at sea. Meghan had to learn to be his weapon somewhere. Why not here?

"I will have full authority to dismiss a cadet as unsuitable at any time. Your sons will have no excuse in being underage if they don't keep up with the rest."

Richard Kent smiled for the first time. "Good. We understand each other." He glanced at Zack. "My boys are very good already for their age. With the right instruction, they will wield the best two blades in England by the time both reach seventeen and can legally wear steel in public."

Brian smiled back. "So they will make good sparring partners for Meghan. She will teach administration and assist with the sword." He saw Richard Kent's eyebrows rise and added, "You'll have to put up with an underage teacher if you want underage cadets attending an unregistered school."

"No one who has not killed an enemy is qualified to instruct the long blade."

"She qualifies on several counts. I would not suggest it otherwise."

"Agreed, then. What else do you want?"

Brian ticked off terms. "Equipment and supplies for the school. Access to an MT whose integrity I can establish. I examine your security systems and you enhance them to my specifications. We teach the Kilkarney curriculum the old way to Meghan and your boys along with others you bring us, provided we find them suited. You give us cash for safe passage away when the job is done. There will be no mention of our names outside these walls."

Kent frowned. "That's all you ask? This is too easy. Why are you willing to do this?"

Brian countered, "Why are you? Is England no longer loyal to Tara?"

"She serves the Tara that was."

Brian said nothing, waiting for the other to elaborate.

Richard Kent leaned forward. "What do you see in me? A big ox of a warrior? a man of action? That's all the palace knows. What do I see? Ollamh Filea Seanacha Kent--musician, scholar of history, sociologist, lover of the beautiful and classic, and an Englishman who fully understands that without Ireland we would all still be savages in our own land. What can either of us see in today's Ireland? Death and destruction spreading over the whole planet." As he said the last words, he pounded a fist on his desk, making a sound like a signal cannon.

Brian was taken aback by his vehemence and started to interrupt, but his new employer gestured for silence and continued, "From the time the eleventh Donal took office, an insidious stain has emanated from Tara. A black hand at the palace is destroys civilization, methodically readying us for dark tyranny." He got up and paced, pounding one meaty fist into his other palm to emphasize his points.

"Good men and women in positions of power meet violent death and are replaced by incompetents. Mindless violence increases. Crime rates are up everywhere. Mysterious agents stir up local revolts and cannot be found when peace troops arrive. Law officers and the army are corrupt. Racism is rampant. I have even heard," he spat out the words, "of false priests.

"Only the bards keep their integrity, and the Lord of Heaven protect us if they become corrupt." His voice a growl, he added, "A brehon was assassinated last month in Manchester. A brehon! Every attempt to control lawlessness merely presages an outbreak elsewhere. People are losing heart, and there will come a time when everything will collapse. If Tara cannot or will not stave off that day, then by the strength the Lord of Heaven gives me, I will die trying to do it in her place." He looked up toward the ceiling, running out of words at the same time as he began to wonder if he had spoken too freely.

"What day? Do you have data?" Brian tried to make his enquiry sound calm, but his heart was beating rapidly.

Richard Kent looked savage. He strode to the wall and pulled down an apparently blank paper chart. "No one has seen this but me and Zack here, not even Jonas. My system is watched, so the two of us plot small portions of our innocent historical hobby on the MT and erase all traces when we have something to transfer here." He spoke to a switch and ultraviolet light illuminated the hitherto blank chart, revealing a series of spidery, multi-coloured lines. He pulled a laser pointer from his pocket and Brian rose to take a closer look.

"All right. Look here and here. See this trend? Crime rate. See this one? Confidence in government. This one? My measure of social breakdown." He pointed out several more. "Look where the lines converge. We are heading for a crisis, friend McIlhargey, in roughly ten years time, and if we cannot stop it, we may none of us survive. Tara will surely not, but seems ready to take us unawares to oblivion." He stopped, shaken to have revealed so much so fast.

Brian stared at the production for some time, then asked quietly, "What do you think will happen, and what do you propose to do?"

"Ten years from now, in 2001, the throne can again be claimed. I expect it will be, and my family, together with those of the first Welsh and Scottish lords have the right to place a man at Tara when it is. Who shall sit on the throne is the single most important decision to be made in our lifetime.

"I will place in that room," his voice became slow and strident, "the most powerful weapons on earth to fight for the restoration of the Peace."

"And those are?"

"Honourable and honest men capable of standing in the front row and either crowning a good ruler or denying a tyrant, as the case may be. I will go myself, and would send both my own, but eventually Zack as the oldest will become Protector, so he must stay here until he has access to court in my place. Meanwhile, there will be others--secretaries, military aides, lords of houses in their own right, palace guards--all pledged to the true throne."

"Does Jonas know you sharpen him for this purpose?"

"He need not. Does the sword know the rattlesnake it kills?"

"He appears to be only thirteen."

"He is twelve. Nonetheless, he will be a world class swordsman before he is fifteen. Zack is close already, and even he is underage."

"The purpose of the school?"

"Kilkarney and her imitators elsewhere are now corrupt, and their graduates unworthy of the king's tartan. If Tara will not train leaders properly, we must do it ourselves. If all else fails, and Tara casts herself on history's ash heap, perhaps England will have the strength and integrity to rise. Some nation must, or we will be barbarians again as the Irish found us, but with the whole planet for company."

"What of the Parans and Metans?"

"The other earths? I see no role for the Parans. What is it to them who runs this end of the Federation of Worlds? The Metans may intervene. Who knows what they think? One possibility is that we face another world-dividing nexus. The last spanned a thousand years, starting with the Christ, and ending at Clontarf in 1014. Now nearly another millennium has passed. Perhaps a new world will come into being, dividing the evil for a time, and giving the Lord's people a chance to drive it back."

Brian shrugged the suggestion off. He was uncomfortable talking theology, but the rest...

Should he point out the errors in Kent's version of the calculations he had himself reviewed numerous times? Should he say openly the correct day for the crisis was near the start of September in the year 2000, fully twelve months before the issue of anyone wearing Tara's crown would arise? Should he tell Kent events on Prime, not Ortho, would trigger the crisis?

Instead, he changed the subject back to the practical. "I too have at least one enemy at Tara."

"That much is obvious."

"He has killed many, and will not hesitate to do so again."

"Perhaps it is the same man who would destroy us all."

"Or men. I suspect both the Donal and Thomas Monde." Brian paused and turned, but Kent's face was a study in stone, and revealed nothing, so he reverted to the earlier topic.

"Integrity is a weapon believers might hope to use against such men," Brian mused slowly, his features taking on a ghastly cynical smile. "It may be a useful one." He paused again. "However, I shall use one of my choosing to the same end."

"And that is?"

"A woman prepared to exact vengeance for her dead." Brian's announcement was flatly unemotional, but as he said it he realized he had been thinking too small. He needed many blades to make a difference, not merely one. Kent's idea was a good one.

"All right," he said. "If we are not found out and forced to leave, we will give you three years, establish the school routines, and see at least our children and others graduate to take steel. Afterwards, you're on your own, and may well see no more of me until Tara's time comes. However, I have more conditions."

"They are?"

"We use Irish rules, and take women cadets on an equal basis with men, as Kilkarney once did."

"Agreed."

* * * * *

Watching them, Zack let out a long, slow breath as his father and this man so like him stood like a couple of bulls, glaring at each other from close range, yet somehow trusting each other for arrangements that could get them all executed as traitors. They'd planned this confrontation for months, ever since hearing from Walking Buffalo, but Zack's misgivings were heightened by how easy it seemed. Who was manipulating whom? If the McIlhargeys could be trusted, why not tell His Lordship they know exactly who he and his daughter were? And why train women in men's business?

Moreover, though he'd helped design the chart, done many of its calculations, and understood his father's conclusions too well, he had a different take on the eventual outcome. "Let corrupt Ireland fall and England rise," he reasoned. "And if this alliance advances England, it suits me."

He noticed neither man required an oath on the agreement. They were cut from old cloth, each trusting the other's word alone. His father claimed formal oaths were for lesser men. Zack rubbed his chin. No oath between them meant their fealty was implied and so didn't bind him, unless they swore before he was seventeen. Perhaps he could use that to his advantage.






The horrors of unrestrained, mechanized, full technology war as it came to be fought in the seventeenth and early part of the eighteenth century led to the banning, first of nuclear devices (1751), of chemical and biological weapons (1801) then of aerial and ship-to-ship warfare (1810), and finally of all explosives and guns (1851). It became doctrine that soldiers fought only with such weapons as they could hold and wield with their own hands. One had to engage an enemy not by proxy, but personally, risking death to deal it. A projectile such as a thrown knife, club, or rock was permitted only for emergency defence against a cowardly attack. Otherwise, warriors are limited to staff, stick, sword, knife, and fists, though the first of these is rarely used except by bards.

Caches of explosives, bows, and guns were kept at Kilkarney and Armagh for training purposes, and until the late 1970s officers were required to be expert with these in the event they one day faced their use in renegade hands. This provision was dropped in the 1980s but re-instituted after the nexus of 2000.

There are, however, other fights than those of the battlefield. The most common is waging techno-war on another's private data store. Once in a long while, someone attempts to gain control of the MT system by exploiting a newly-discovered security hole in the hardware or software. Because it is not face-to-face, such activity is considered as dishonourable as attacking with a projectile or explosive; but the threat of public shame is not always sufficient deterrent--especially when part of the spoils of victory is the ability to redefine the act as heroic. Such were the issues in the attempted coup of 1962. --from A Military History of Ireland by Fred Hallas and Richard Kent



Chapter 2

Katherina, Wales and Glenmorgan 1955-1962

I let the description Jack gave of me in the last book stand when I first read it, Aileen, but enough is enough, and I gotta have my own whack with the stick. He made me sound like a terror running everybody else's life at the Devereaux estate when we were kids. Now, as I recall being eight and him nine, we made Sean Reilly First Lord over our Ireland and I was his Lady. I only made suggestions. Sean issued the orders. The two Jacks (Devereaux and Meathe), Liam Ryan, and yours truly carried them out.

And, while I'm contradicting Jack, it was Lady Ryan who gave me the idea of marrying one of the boys someday--or did she say I shouldn't for some reason and I interpreted her to mean I should? I don't remember too well.

I suppose being Iron Kate's daughter predisposed me to bossiness. She had whole worlds to run; I needed my own creative outlets. Besides, there weren't any other kids my age around Tara's palace except when some of the servants brought theirs to work, and they were too stuffy and proper to be much fun. Glenmorgan, around the Devereaux manse, made a fabulous miniature of Ireland. I'd have loved it forever if the place hadn't become so tragic.

My mother and I weren't close--she was too busy--but I thought I was going to die myself when Father told me she'd been killed. I moped around with all the energy of a limp carrot until after the funeral; then took powerful sick with a fever and such, and was in bed for what seemed like years, but was actually only a few weeks. When I came out of it, father had told off the whole wretched system, quit his job as donal of two worlds, and I found us already gone from Tara and living on the Evans family estate in Wales.

See, when he became donal, he gave up all claim on Rourke's estates, and the house headship went to a cousin. Years later after gambling away everything of value, my cousin was killed in a duel. Then, since he was no longer donal, the title reverted to my father, sort of, though he couldn't hold it officially. Eventually, I became head of Rourke 'cause I was the only one left standing, so I could inherit the name without a fight, though there wasn't anything left to squabble over anyhow. I also got the royal sword, because Father kept it, sword obligations being personal, you understand. But Mother was an Evans, even if not the head of the house, so her kin gave us salt and bread--a good thing, too. There was no place else to go.

I'll tell you something else. I liked living in the first lord's palace quarters, and it burned me up proper that we'd left. I swore one day I'd have the place back and run the show myself, if I had to marry somebody to do it, or--and this was my real secret--if I could somehow be First Lady in my own right--Dona the First, that's how I saw myself, never minding no woman had ruled Tara all the way back to Brian Boru.

Slap me down with my own stick, Aileen, I'm rambling again. Where was I? Oh, yes, Glenmorgan. No, wait. First there was the lovely way the Meathes and Lord Deveraux stiffed that MacCarthy jerk with the job of being donal after my father shoved it down the court's collective throats. When Dad first heard the yarn on the MT news channel, it was the only time I saw him laugh the whole two years after Mother died. It was a grim chuckle, the kind you do when your neighbour's just killed a sheep-stealing coyote, caught a thief, or run a coward through, and you wish you'd been in on the action.

Then came news later the same summer of the raid at Glenmorgan where the Meathes were all killed, and our private court lost one of its finest soldiers. I called Devereaux manse on the MT a few days later fixing to commiserate Jack D., and soon's I saw his mug on the screen, the shock hit me, an' I melted down like ice cream on a griddle. See, you gotta remember they two of us cousins were the twin Jacks--so much alike only Momma Meathe and we friends could tell them apart. Look at one, you couldn't help seeing the other. The memories were too much. I couldn't say a word, which tells you how bad sliced up motormouth me musta been. We two read grim things in each other's vacant stares a couple minutes, then he started to bawl, and I pretty near did, too. I wanted so bad to comfort him, stand beside him, and curse murderers' black hearts with him.

The chance was a long time coming. We kept cautiously in touch, Jack D., Liam, Sean, and I. However, I couldn't get Father to leave the Evans estate. Even disgusting myself by doing some daddy's-little-girl whining got me nowhere. He looked at me like I'd lost my mind and went back to his rose pruning. The Ryans and Reillys visited Evans estate and Glenmorgan, and we four passed messages around on the MT in a secret code we invented, but Father wouldn't budge, and for three years neither would Jack's dad, he was so awful broke up over losing his friends. Finally, I managed to work a deal with my father for the Reillys to pick me up from the Evans' and take me with them to Glenmorgan for a few weeks.

It was nice to get together again, but we were older by now, and what with losing one o' the twin Jacks, most of the magic had drained outa the place, so the four of us spent most of our time sitting in a clearing by the river, jawing each other, and plumb feeling sorry for ourselves, even though it was a fine-looking day as I recollect.

We made plenty sure no one else was around first time we brought up the subject of the raid. I blubbered out I missed the other Jack real bad. Jack D. made a sound like a rabbit choking in a snare, and we all moped about feeling rusted out for a piece.

Then Jack D. spilled hisself pretty good, telling us things he maybe oughta not, and the four of us swore friendship for the first time, though strictly speaking it wasn't binding, 'cause the oldest of us was only fifteen. No more 'bout the raid, Aileen. Someday, our Jack'll spin you the rest of the yarn his ownself an' a lot better'n I could, 'cause he was there, see.

That same afternoon we decided we'd all go to Kilkarney together one day, even if some of us had to wait a year or two till the others got accepted. We all had our GACs by then. Liam, Sean and I were doing medicine for a second certificate. Jack said he was studying history, but when I asked if he was going to be a bard, he got red in the face and narrowed it to military history. Then Sean came to his rescue by reminding me Seanacha was an honourable profession. I got embarrassed, and slice me apart if I didn't start falling in love with the guy even then, though I hid it pretty well--too well as it turned out. I might have been better off as a bubblehead than a cementhead. So would Sean.

I knew Jack D. was hacking computers and studying electrical engineering towards his EEC, but he was a lot quieter than before and no one wanted to press him, so details of his work were sparse unless he'd a gadget to show us. Even then, I think he had no real ambition except to find the raiders and kill them one by one as slowly as possible to get revenge for Jack M. He could be pretty scary sometimes. Hey, I felt the same way.

Father assumed the MacCarthys were behind both Mother's death and the raid at the Meathe cottage. He figured Mom was murdered in order to replace him as donal with a MacCarthy stooge. When Calaghan himself had to give up his name and family to become the donal, it was the worst thing that could have happened to the conspirators, and they did the raid for revenge on the Meathes for making it happen. I hoped when Jack found them out and started feeding buzzards, I could be on hand to serve dessert. It didn't quite turn out so, but it wasn't for any lack of trying.

'Course, that very first reunion at Glenmorgan, we all trooped down to the cottage on the edge of the estate where Seamus and Hannah Meathe once lived with their Jack. The house was boarded up now 'cause Lord Devereaux couldn't stand to have anyone live there. We stood over the Meathe graves and felt sad and loyal and brave and noble and such things, till we got to the heaped up patch labelled "Jack Meathe", which had fresh flowers, so's I guessed Jack D. visited there regular. After all, he'd lost half his ownself to the murdering scoundrels. We stood there bawling our eyes out, promising the departed Jack we'd get even for him if we died doing it, and we only felt really good after we said so, emphasis on "said".

The four of us practised fighting whenever we got a chance, or when we were bored with whatever we were supposed to be studying. We got together a lot after the first hiatus, and what with badgering some instruction out of Jack's dad and mine, and more from Lord O'Toole, who was awful quick for an old duffer, we got pretty good with the wooden sword and stick. Sometimes we had a couple or three more in our group if the O'Toole twins came along with their father. When they did, John Maguire was there too--he hung around them like glue, and we all assumed he'd marry Patsy some day, which of course he did. But mostly, the four of us fought, talked, made extravagant promises, and argued.

We spent more time on verbal sparring than anything else, 'cause we could do preliminary rounds using the MT every night without compromising ourselves, as long as we didn't talk politics--which we reserved for secure areas by our homes. Even then we didn't trust the network, and it turned out to be a good thing, too. Usually it was religion got us going. See, Jack and I were pretty much soured on God those days, and Sean was sceptical even before he promoted hisself to cynic, but Liam believed. Oh, did he have the faith. And oh, how much he wanted us to believe, too.

Hey, I'd trusted Christ as saviour when I was a young kid, but my mother never spoke much about religion, and my father would rather chat with his blessed roses than with people once he quit being donal. Come to think of it, I guess I did do most of the chewing on the religion bone for both Jack and me. Liam would make some crack about the goodness of God, and I'd say "Oh, yeah, how come he let my mother be killed, and how come he allowed the raid here to wipe out a whole family?"

I wouldn't mention the other Jack's name; we didn't very often. The Jack we had left would blink and lower his head. Sean would perk up at the prospect of a good fight, then Liam and I would go at it knife and stick for an hour or two--he claiming I didn't understand God's plans and purposes, and I averring I knowed too well. He'd say wickedness was in the world on account of sin, and I'd ask why good people had to suffer from evil when the people responsible for it prospered. He'd quote from Psalm 73, or Prime author C.S. Lewis, and I'd end up saying I didn't care if everybody else believed--such a God wasn't for me. Then Liam would get all sorrowful and...well, you get the idea.

If he wanted, Liam could always win the argument, or leastways silence the rest of us, on the sheer complexity of creation. Not even Jack and I were going to accept the Prime philosophers' ideas there was no design to life, and it just arose gradual by chance mutations--everyone knows the mathematics and chemistry of cell biology, not to mention the fossil record, show too clearly such notions are plain absurd. But you know what? After stumping us so a couple of times, Liam was too much of a gentleman to use the argument again, and stuck to things we could fight over proper. Much as he wanted us to believe, he enjoyed a good verbal brawl more'n anything.

Those days, I figured if there was a God, he was hard-nosed and cruel. I didn't understand till later I was the tough case, and I only wish I could somehow take back all the sour things I said to Liam over the years, whilst I had the chance. You know, though, he was as quick with his tongue as he was with his hands and feet. I rarely bested him either at sword or words. Guess he had a lot of his big sister Elizabeth in him. Looking back, I can't say I didn't believe in God at all or repudiated my childhood faith total--it was more I was sore at God for letting Jack and my mother be killed--and when I got riled, well, I couldn't see the big picture. I haven't changed much.

You'd think philosophy was safer, but we wrangled over it, too. Sean was with Plato--saw the ideal ruler as a philosopher-king, with duty to the state the highest possible virtue for citizens. Jack cautiously agreed with him for a time but Liam and I were with Aristotle all the way, and held out for loyalty to friends as one virtue demanding more priority under at least some circumstances than did duty to the state. Eventually, we swung Jack to our side, so it was three on one. But Sean wouldn't concede the point, and ho, boy, the trouble and sorrow it caused us years later.

Next summer, after I was fifteen, Jack went to a lot of trouble to collect us all at Glenmorgan for three entire months. He didn't say why, but I knew something important was up. Jack was always deadly-sly when he had big plans going--sorta like his father, only Jack Jr. was a lot less subtle. His father was the really crafty one, but I guess it ran in the family. Our Jack could conspire something fine.

Well, we got there and said the usual dumb things around the adults the first hour or two for appearance sake. It seemed longer'n usual 'cause Liam and Sean also knew Jack was gnawing on something meaty, but we eventually got our butts down to the clearing by the river where we could talk.

Isolation wasn't enough for Jack. He checked every one of the scanners he'd installed to make sure they were working. They were nifty ultrasensitive gadgets he'd made to detect electronic devices or body heat in the area and warn us if anybody was coming. You set them with a password to ignore certain people and their personal electronics, but if anybody else came skulking around, Jack had them dead to rights. Mara built a nice variation on the theme years later, bless her great big heart. Guess talent runs in the family, if you can call it one.

Oh, and you gotta remember 1962 was when that ugly Asian war was going on, the pacifist party was protesting in the streets, and the donal's government looked like it was staggering around on its last legs, but was trying to keep going and prop itself up against the odds. I wasn no pacifist, but cheered them on, half hoping they'd dump Tara's chief rat down the nearest sewer, and half hoping they'd leave him for us friends to dismember someday.

I'm rambling again, aren't I, Aileen? When Jack was finally satisfied no one was listening, he sat us down, and knowing we knew weighty news was coming, said it real quick, "Somebody's trying to take over the whole MT net, and they're no friends of ours."

"Evidence, please," said Liam in his clipped voice, as calm if he was asking for proof of what time of day it was.

"The bounce latency has tripled on all the stationary satellites in orbit over Europe and pretty well all the major ground nodes in the northern hemisphere. One by one it's going up on the others."

It meant nothing much to me, so I shook my head to clear the cobwebs. "So what?" I asked, looking up at the clear blue sky for where his notions had come.

"It means someone's intercepting and copying message traffic," Liam concluded. He was a pretty practical fellow before he met his true love and went all dopey-brained on us.

Sean whistled. Anyone who ran the Metalibrary net could control the whole world. They could read the mail, steal all the family secrets, and know exactly where to send security forces to put down protests before they started. It wouldn't go down well with most people--say what you like about us Irish, but there's nothing we like more than disagreeing, especially with the government. Breaking into network security was impossible, but someone obviously didn't know that. It had to be stopped before the control was absolute, but it wouldn't be easy.

"How say they're no buddies of ours?" I wanted to know.

"I noticed my messages were slow, so I did some testing. If I send from another account, the speed is even worse--I figure if they don't pick my name up at the top they have to scan to the end. If the message headers contain the name of one of the royal families, or any of a dozen keywords I've found so far--mostly relating to Tara, the Asian war, the donal, security, and such things, transmission speeds up--it finds the word it wants on a header, copies, and lets the original go without needing to scan the rest. If a key word's at the end it takes more time than if it's at the start. The software they're using must be examining the messages on the fly before passing them, rather than just keeping copies and looking at them afterwards."

Well, you could have whitewashed my tartan, I was so astonished. First off, we're talking microseconds here. Our Jack didn't happen to notice this anomaly, he went looking for it. Besides, what he said meant he had undocumented accounts of his own--so dear buddy Jack wasn't exactly playing by the rules hisself. 'Course, I picked up loose accounts now and again, too. You never know when you might need them. But this was high stakes business. If whoever was taking over the net found him poking over their shoulder, Jack wouldn't last longer'n a fly on a frog's tongue.

Then he added, "We should be able to pinpoint the culprit with about two weeks' steady work," and I thought to myself, "We?" and when I looked around I could see Sean and Liam were thinking the same thing. Liam swallowed kinda hard like he did when he was real worried. We knew full well if we got involved in this project, we could get our little ol' selves buried awful deep in the ground.

Fools we were, we all agreed out loud to help, not one of us saying a word about what we'd been thinking, and, yeah we were all crazy, but you're only fifteen years old and immortal once, so why not? Well, Sean and Jack were sixteen, but that's a detail.

Jack hauled the MTs from our bedrooms into what had once been a storage area and told Lord Devereaux we were playing crackers and keepers and needed to be able to holler at each other. Then he gave us accounts on machines in China and South Africa--no I didn't ask how he got them--and we went to work hunting four-leaf shamrocks in a hayfield--only we called our target "the spook." And, no, I didn't give the accounts back afterwards, I just added them to my collection.

The thing about this kind of work is not many people know how to read code these days. Apart from minor changes, the operating system and software for the planetary library and the MTs used to access it hadn't changed for near a hundred and fifty years, and still haven't. Read up on it sometime. Computers burst on the scene about 1750 and went through a period of rapid change so long as the leading families competed to produce better ones. But, once a single operating system and software suite became standard, that was it. No more innovation, no more change, creativity was finished. There's an office in Transportation somewhere that's supposed to take bug reports and do routine maintenance on the system, but they have no more'n three employees. I used to drop in when I was palace security. They handle the odd complaint, but spend their time sitting on their fannies playing games. 'Course, the source code for the system is publicly available, in case anybody else wants to help them out, but like I say, hardly anybody knows such details these days.

I'm not sure how Jack got into this stuff, but he had hooked the rest of us the first summer we got back together, so now we all read code just like you would a note from your teacher. We worked hard when we did crackers and keepers. Only now, somebody else had joined the game for serious stakes--the spook wanted to crack the whole net and keep it. That was over the sword.

We pretended to be students or researchers making routine library enquiries on a variety of subjects including none, one, or several of the key words the spook was ambushing for. We routed queries over a variety of paths including ones we thought were clean and others Jack knew were dirty, and timed how long it took to move messages around.

We spent the first day verifying his data, and turned up more key words and phrases, such as "King James," "O'Toole," "Tara," and "MacCarthy"--all of which we ought to have guessed in the beginning.

Jack and I being the most devious, we hooked two machines back-to-back off the network and started looking for back doors to the operating system the spook might be using. We found one hook into the machine language allowing us to remotely view part of its memory, so Jack boldly captured a snapshot of that segment from a machine in Tara he knew was dirty, and calmly set about comparing it to the standard contents. Then he put a monitor on a clean node to watch what happened if it was taken over.

By the end of a week we knew how the spook worked and had duplicated on our own MTs a takeover we'd seen on a Russian node. It went this way, see. When a transmission comes through a node, the system saves a temporary file, fixing to delete it once it puts the message in the outgoing queue. However, the deletion is done by a separate process, which checks to see if the message is in the queue before cremating the temporary. So, if the data packet has already left the output queue for the next node, the transient version never gets removed. Now, these processes are fast enough so this doesn't usually happen, and there's enough major nodes in the system to handle lots of traffic--after all the system has been putting along just fine since before 1800.

However, if you flood a messaging node with millions of transactions, a quirk in the filing system means it gets behind in its deletions, so temporary files pile up. Some long forgotten programmer "solved" the problem by splicing in a routine to run periodically, look things over, compare transaction records and message numbers, then sweep out any mess. But see, if you use several originators at once and are quick enough, you fill up the entire nodal storage before the electronic janitor wakes up and sees the dust. Then the machine crashes and has to rebirth itself. When it fires back up, network protocols come on line before all the security is in place, and if you catch its attention at just the right moment, the newly hatched system chick blinks at you, says "mama," and poof, you're the new node administrator and can do whatever you please. What the spook did was install additional software.

Like I say, Jack hisself had other ways of collecting accounts he never told us about, but there's a big difference between that and setting yourself up as High Lord of the whole network and everybody's files along with it.

It was only a beginning. We still needed to find out who was doing it, and that part was very delicate. We jawed around some time before we wrote a piece of software we could in theory squirrel away in the operating system core to watch for takeovers, then route information back to us, but we hesitated at what we had to do to use it. Two days went by while we tested it again and again whilst arguing over the ethics of going ahead. See, we'd have to out-spook the spook.

Meantime Bridget Mally, the Devereaux maid, supplied trays piled with milk and cookies, asked about the video games we were playing, and mother-henned the lot of us, keeping an eye on things. We scarcely noticed her.

In the end it was wee angelic Liam who broke the deadlock. He duplicated the spook's attack and took over a previously clean messaging node in Rome. He said it was in his family domain anyway, so he had the right to do it in the name of law enforcement.

Then we sat around playing crackers and keepers till we just about exhausted ourselves--we found a couple more ways to open up a node, by the way--and on the fourth day when we could hardly stand the tension any more, our monitoring MT rang in the joyful message we'd been waiting for. The spook had "captured" our Rome system, which meant the trap was sprung, 'cause now we'd get reports of what went through and where message copies got sent.

It took another day to sort things out. As we already knew, the spook installed a program to filter mail and voice traffic, sending the interesting tidbits back to its owner. All we had to do was read our own monitor and we could see traffic coming in, getting dissected by the new daemon, then being sent along its way, copy to the spook of anything it liked. The new code also poked through the machine's files for stored goodies.

Now, not everybody knows this, but you can identify every machine on the net by its hardware--see, they all have to be able to respond to traffic signals in a slightly different way or information packets get delivered to the wrong place. So unique responder codes are installed at the factory.

So we now knew the spook's hardware network number, but where was the actual MT? We had to be pretty careful about looking at manufacturing and shipping records, lest we get caught and tip our hand, but we checked one factory after another and eventually found emerald. The destination machine was registered in the name of one Bria Desmond, and was located in her home on Royal Way in Tara.

Now what? We argued out one proposal after another for two more days, and might be still yakking if the spook hadn't shaken us out of it by trying to nab one of our own machines. Liam's MT suddenly froze, then went down and started the rebirth sequence. We were steps away, but just stared at it happening a few seconds, before Jack reached over and yanked out the network connector. So, Bria wasn't satisfied with mail nodes; she was going after people's personal files. What we'd forgotten is there's no difference between a machine used as an MT and one working as a routing node. All the factories turn out exactly the same thing--it's not as if there's competition, or any reason to change or specialize computers.

In another few seconds, she'd have caught us red handed. We disconnected all our machines, and spook-proofed them by modifying the file system to remove the bug, trap the incoming attack, and redirect it to a random network number.

This couldn't last long. The spook was sure to realize there were immune systems around and catch on that we self-appointed net cops had her fingers caught in the bit bucket. It was time to call in the heavy swords. Patrick O'Toole was visiting manse Devereaux, so we agreed to tell him and Jack's father. Naturally, we appointed Jack, Jr., to do the telling. He just invited the two stripes to our workroom and rang us all in on the informing.

I thought we'd catch it for what we'd done, but it was eerie. They asked questions, and answered a few of ours, but never once raised their voices or got excited. A few minutes into the conference, Colonel O'Toole looked around and asked if the room was secure, and when Jack said it was, he never spoke another word about it, just believed him. They read everything, went over our logbooks and code line by line, and spent hours checking details. Finally, they sat us down to talk serious-like and I thought, "OK, girl, here comes the heavy corrosion."

But Jack's father just winked at O'Toole, so he started things up, and what he said sliced me right off.

"You four deserve your Security Certificates for this job. It's the nicest piece of detective work we've seen in years. Not only so, you've been careful, complete, and discreet, and you came to us--maybe late in the project, but you came. Well done."

I was just starting to bask when Jack's father put in, "Now, cadets, what do you advise?"

There wasn't time to react to the moniker before Liam chimed in with his plan, which was to tell Security at Tara and let them handle it.

Then I butted in and asked what had been gnawing on me ever since we started the operation. "Why do anything? Why not let somebody else take over and knock off the donal first, then show our hand afterwards? That way we get even for the last time but somebody else does the dirty work."

Jack, Jr., weighed in on my side, and I could see Sean was wavering, but oh-so-ethical Liam was indignant. "We turn this Bria woman in to the authorities because she's doing something wrong, that's why. What if the government arresting her is corrupt? The Holy Book tells us to respect the authorities, and despite how he got in to power, the donal is the legitimate head of state, and we have to be good citizens. It's our duty to report her to him."

It was all the argument Sean needed. He was a sucker for talk of loyalty to the state. He looked apologetic at me, and said, "Yeah, I agree with Liam. We may not like the MacCarthys but it's the right thing to do to report this Bria woman."

His Lordship looked at Jack Jr. and he reluctantly agreed, so then everybody was staring my way. "I suppose we have to," I mumbled, after a few moments spent grinding enamel off my teeth.

Then his lordship rubbed his hands together and smiled like a cat might just before chowing down on a mouse, and promptly gave both Liam's idea and the whole discussion a stick in the kidneys by saying, "Bria Desmond is Calaghan MacCarthy's sister, and the First and Second at Security are their cousins."

I saw the sweat appear on Liam's brow, and right away Sean ran his notion through the gauntlet to see if it came out the other side any better'n Liam's. "We get the Transportation Domain network office to change the operating system of all the MTs to eliminate the bug and cut off her access."

It was Jack Jr. who put a sword through the heart of that one by observing, "There's a Davis in charge of Transportation, and they're part of clan MacCarthy, too." Then, he wasted no time tossing out his own notion to see how far it would get hit. "I think we should release what we've found to the MT news channels and let publicity take care of the spook."

Liam objected. "They wouldn't keep our names out of it."

Well, I'd kept my yap shut so far, but that's always a powerful effort, and I could feel myself getting red in the face 'cause Liam and Jack were both looking my way by now, so I upchucked a notion I'd half digested, even if it was only a variation on Jack's. When I ran out of words after a piece, there was a long silence while I waited for someone to say we were both complete idiots, but then O'Toole grinned at Jack's father and said, "She's sneakier than Iron Kate, almost as devious as the trickster himself." Well, I didn't catch the second reference till years later, but the one to my mother sounded kinda flattering. Anyhow, to chop whole chapters of yapping and a bunch of sub-plots down to a sentence--they bought it. They left the implementation details to us.

We four spent another week writing and testing code, making sure it worked on our machines. When we were done, we called in the stripes again, and they went over everything a second time, looked at our new code, tested it themselves, and made a few suggestions. Oh, and before I forget, Bridget Mally--who was no maid if I ever saw one, but that's another story--she got into it too, and some of her ideas also made it to the final cut. See, the whole time Bridget had been popping in with trays of drinks and goodies, looking over our shoulders, and making inane comments, she knew exactly what we were doing and was reporting to his lordship. If we hadn't fessed up when we did, the stripes would've put their staves into the project anyhow.

Well, once the job was done and approved, we installed the monster we'd stitched together on all the manse machines, sat back and waited.

It's like Jack said, there's nothing a spy can do without so much as publicity. So two days later, when the spook attacked Liam's machine and our software rerouted the foray--with some piggyback code--to the main computing facility of every great manse and every MT news channel in Tara, and when nearly a hundred screens turned blue at once and announced the machine had been taken over, said who'd done it, and showed the details of the altered code and who their messages and files were going to... well, let's just say there was some excitement. 'Course, we added a commercial plugging our patch that fixed the bug, complete with code so anybody could check it out--no names, of course.

Anyhow, if you've ever looked up MT news accounts of what they called the attempted coup of 1962, you know the rest. Bria Desmond was arrested and put on trial at Tara. She could hardly do anything but confess, so she lost her honour and got sentenced to two years in prison followed by five years of field labour. Officially, she was disaffected with the donal, and wanted him ousted, but everybody figured he was behind it and was trying to make himself dictator, not just donal. Hey, and no one ever found out it was us till now when I'm telling you. Not bad, eh, Aileen?

So, the realm was safe, and we felt good because it was our first big job together, but bad because nothing really changed at the very top.

Barely two weeks later word came round Donal V had been assassinated, so we celebrated again. Apparently, somebody bribed one of the palace cooks to poison him. The only surprising thing to me was the poison killed him rather than the other way around. Well, so much for promising whoever got to him first would run him through his black heart and save the pieces for the rest of us.

But I'm telling things out of order. After the trial but before the donal took his last bite, so to speak, we seven held a war council in his lordship's study.

O'Toole summed things up. "Jack, the youngsters have done us proud." Then he got down to cases. "No one can know about this but us." He was former head of Tara security, so he had the right to say such things. Well, it's how we wanted it too.

He went on. "However, it seems to me they deserve a reward."

Now, see, the four of us had jawed about this some already, 'cause we sorta thought we did too. I'd bided my tongue earlier, but wasn't going to now. "Swords," I blurted, and when everyone caught their breaths, I pressed. "We're all at least fifteen, and so long as we practice in private, we're allowed steel. We surely have to work with the real thing before we're seventeen." Well, of course we didn't really, because a seventeen-year-old doesn't have anything for someone else to take away from them, so can't really be challenged, and doesn't have to defend. We knew that, but figured if we got swords now, we could get into Kilkarney Cadet School sooner'n otherwise.

I trailed off, and there was more silence. Then Lord Devereaux got the sternest look and asked each of the others in turn if it's what they wanted. They nodded, too scared to break the spell by mumbling anything out loud. "We thought you'd ask for steel," his lordship announced, grinning, "so we checked with your parents last night. They agreed, and said it was about time."

I caught him glance at Bridget, realized she was beaming over us like a proud mother, and guessed she must have instigated the sword notion with their lordships. There was a whole lot more to her than met the eye, and I began figuring she was ex-military, maybe security.

Then O'Toole chimed in with a speech about how we were all from royal families so one day we'd have the responsibility to protect our family sword and use it to defend the throne against usurpers and tyrants. He made us all swear an adult-style oath on our personal honour never to use our sword knowledge except in the defence of righteousness and justice and the true throne, and it was all very solemn and serious, and here was us just busting our belts for the chance to get a real blade in our hands, so we'd put said to anything to make it happen and keep our word like we was already seventeen.

When the ceremonials were done, they three took us along to the armoury. The captain of the manse guard gave us lockers in the gym and fitted us with dulled practice blades and sword-proof hooded shirts--both of which had to stay there, because we couldn't wear anything but white vests and wood out in public, but hey, we were high nobility that day, I'll tell you. We practised till our arms were so sore we could hardly move, but we had real steel in our hands at last, and did it ever feel good. I gave us two years until Liam and I were the legal minimum of seventeen and the others eighteen instead of the usual twenty-two to twenty-five to get us all into Kilkarney. I told the rest what I was thinking that night, and at first they said "no way", but they all got a hard gleam in their eyes, and it was as good as an oath.

The new donal who took over from the former MacCarthy wasn't even related to the high families--an O'Flaherty I think--but a pretty decent sword and a caretaker ruler who lasted about six years till he had a stroke if I remember right, but it didn't matter much 'cause we went though a stack of donals shortly after him--and, hey, Aileen, sure it's time for a piece of somebody else's story, but I'll tell you next time we jaw about how we four got into Kilkarney and what it was like there.





The chief problem with the unlimited access to information the Metalibrary provides is not that government becomes too powerful, but that citizens gain the means to subvert it. There is a constant cat-and-mouse game over network security, and neither government nor the military should ever take for granted they have the upper hand. --from a standard lecture in security and tracking methods, Kilkarney Cadet School.



Chapter 3

Brian and Meghan, Moody, 1994

Meghan would look back on her London school years as the most demanding yet most satisfying of her young life.

Following careful interviews and several heated arguments, they engaged three additional teachers from beyond their immediate families.

Father James Moran was the most contentious choice, for the Kents promoted him vigorously, while Brian objected to having him in a military school. Meghan cast the deciding vote.

"Father Moran isn't just a scholar, but a real priest, a man of God. Look at his family. Listen to the people at Westminster Chapel, where he pastors. I've attended there two Lord's days and heard of their love and esteem. He's the very man we need."

Brian grumbled but gave in. "You were right about VanBuren. Perhaps you understand priests."

After some discussion, Richard Kent travelled to Tara and prevailed on David Buffalo to join their school rather than return to Edwardston at the upcoming end of his duty tour in palace security.

The third was the Professor. An enigmatic individual who went by no other name, he was a thin, somewhat sombre-looking man whom Brian had known years before as an occasional lecturer at Kilkarney. Now appearing middle age, he exercised the right of a pure academician to be noncombatant, so never wore arms. Yet he held forth authoritatively at the front of his classroom as though his students were his own creations to mould and write the stories of their lives as he chose.

In the manner he had of appearing from nowhere, the Professor showed up at the keep without invitation or explanation, asked for office space and an MT, and posted his course syllabi on paper in the hallway. He brought with him a secretary whom he introduced as Nellie Hacker.

Her sandy hair close cropped, Nellie was almost as tall Meghan, and a couple of years older. A wizard with electronic systems, she was a rank beginner with most weapons, but a quick study, and tough as nails. She roomed with Meghan and soon became her close friend and confidante.

Oddly, the Professor never slept in the keep, yet no one saw him coming or going. After Meghan discovered his night absences by accident, she asked Nellie and was told, "Well, he goes home, of course. He's married, you know." It was the last word on the subject, for Nellie wouldn't discuss him further, and Meghan learned no more.

The school took in forty hand-picked cadets each fall with the hope of graduating twenty. The first year, there were twenty eight men and twelve women between the ages of fifteen and twenty-three, besides the three young staffer-students. All were single except First Lieutenants Colin and Daisy Kildare, co-commanders of the London Port garrison, who taught stick, knife, and music, but took sword and advanced administration with the other students, as neither were satisfied with their previous cadet training.

Meghan thought it delightful the couple were so in love, yet could fight each other in the gym as if strangers. When she commented on it to her father, he grunted incomprehensibly and somewhat ominously, "They remind me of Liam and Maria." He got a hard set to his jaw that declared the topic off limits, and subsequently rode the two hard, testing for weaknesses. But after a while, he too was won over by the irrepressibly happy and quietly competent couple, and let them be.

Meghan came to look upon Daisy as an older sister and mentor. She didn't discover the two were among the wealthiest home-isle nobility until just before graduation. When she asked why they hadn't said anything before, Daisy shrugged and replied, in her frank manner, "What are power and money? It's how you serve the Lord of Heaven and the crown that matter. We'll earn our titles in the army, not just by being high family."

At five every morning, the cadets began their studies of art and sociology with Richard Kent, administration with Meghan, military tactics with Brian, Christian doctrine and ethics with Father Moran, science and mathematics with the Professor, computer programming and network security with Nellie and Brian, and policing the Peace with David Buffalo. Daisy Kildare shuffled her duty schedule to instruct in her beloved pipes, and Meghan provided beginner's harp lessons.

There was a one-hour break for lunch after the seven classes, and in the afternoon they ran, swam, or lifted weights for an hour. Following a study break, Richard Kent taught unarmed combat, David Buffalo practical investigative work, and Father Moran returned from his parish to do a class in first aid and emergency response. During the half hour wind-down following, nearly all students participated in voluntary organized sports, the most popular being football with Father Moran.

After supper, they broke into two classes for armed combat. Meghan and Zack, joined by the off-duty Kildares instructed the beginners, while Richard Kent and Brian McIlhargey drilled those who knew the rudiments. James Moran surprised Meghan by being the most expert stick fighter she had seen apart from her father, and he assisted in that instruction. It made sense, she realized. A priest couldn't carry a sword, but had to be able to defend himself. The stick being his natural weapon, he had better be expert.

Colin and Daisy taught knife. In all Meghan's subsequent career, she never saw a small-blade fighter as fast and skilled as Colin Kildare. A week before graduation, she defeated him once in a practice bout, but he took the next four. No other student but Daisy won a match from him, and she only twice. Even her father, master of all weapons, had to admit Colin was slightly his superior.

Daisy was the better sword of the pair, and Meghan once asked who taught her, but Daisy's eyes watered over, and, unable to answer, she turned and walked off. She apologized next morning, but Meghan learned no more until the three years ended, when Daisy told everyone her whole story.

Editors' note: We plan to incorporate this tale into a later volume.

Following ninety minutes with weapons, most students went off to their rooms to study, but advanced classes in sword continued for another hour, and in these, the younger teachers became students. Tutoring in advanced subjects was by arrangement after nine o'clock at night. On Wednesdays, morning was reserved for study, and evening for cultural events, but otherwise the regimen was the same six days a week.

Several students could not maintain the pace, and dropped out, though all but one returned over the following two years and tried again with more success. A few complained about Brian's and Richard's brutally harsh drills, but when they saw Meghan, Zack, and Jonas working harder than anyone else without murmuring, they buckled down to the same routine. Indeed, for Meghan, the pace was scarcely more than what she had been used to for years, only now there was more variety to the curriculum, and she had the stimulus of other students nearly her equal. She loved it, and so did the cautious and reserved Nellie.

Meghan's new friend was brilliant at the academic portion of the curriculum, and started with excellent skills in unarmed combat, but was at a considerable disadvantage otherwise, having not used weapons before. She never caught up to Meghan, but made rapid progress, and was sixth sword upon graduation.

London school wasn't an exact duplicate of old Kilkarney, but it was close. The goal was to produce leaders--whether civilian or military was of no importance--and do it in three years rather than four. The school's slogans were "friends of the day" and "push back the night."

Father Moran conducted a service in the keep early Sunday morning, and students were encouraged to remain near the school other days as well so no comments would be provoked by them being seen about town in large groups.

Meghan worked with Zack and Jonas, and eventually saw both score over 990 on the GAC--tests their father excusing himself from marking on grounds of conflict. She also pursued her electrical engineering certificate, though there was little time for private studies.

For their required public service Meghan, Nellie, Zack, and Jonas became lifeguards at the London community pool, working there a few hours each Saturday. There they were joined by Nigerian Mtebe Azikiwe, the big, bluff young Scot, Gowan Donal, and their diminutive Welsh sidekick Tim Evans, whom the others at first dubbed "Tiny Tim," but later renamed "Flash Evans," in view of his speedy footwork.

Meghan and her father spent many Sunday afternoons huddled with Nellie, exploring the Metalibrary, and looking for traces of his enemies. Using machines they subverted in various parts of the world as proxies, they slowly and carefully explored the accounts in the book Brian had taken from VanBuren at Edwardston. In a stroke of luck, another spy was caught and killed by Scottish Administrator Lady MacAllister, and consequently a similar book was transmitted to their hands. Two years of painstaking work uncovered a shadowy network of MT nodes whose physical locations they could only approximate, and whose files were securely encrypted, but all of which were clearly linked to the dead men.

This put them at a standstill for a while because there is no practical way to break standard Federation encryption. Nellie summed it up this way: "Forty bit encoding is a piece of cake to compromise, but a couple of thousand would take forever."

Nellie also came up with a solution of sorts. She spent several consecutive Sundays experimenting with two terminals after asking one day, "Hey, do all these gonzo machines run the same standard operating system?" When assured they did, and it hadn't changed substantially for nearly two hundred years, she cryptically exclaimed "Holy Macrosoft!" and disappeared to her room without explanation.

Several weeks later she assembled Brian, Meghan, Richard, and the Professor around two MTs. "Watch this," she commanded her audience, sending an e-mail message carrying an attachment from the first machine. On its arrival, the screen of the second burst into a display of fireworks and a voice from the speaker announced in solemn tones, "Slice, slice, you're dead meat."

"You sent a program disguised as a self-extracting file," Brian deduced.

"Right-o. This operating system by default unpacks mail enclosures automatically. I checked more than a hundred MTs and they all have the same factory settings. I doubt anybody's changed one for decades. When one of my little lovelies unstuffs itself, the application that's run is a little more interesting than unpacking a file. The mail software can't tell, because all it does is execute anything claiming to be a self extracting archive. Now," she rubbed her hands together, "what shall we do to this black hat fellow--make his machines mail us his files?"

"We still couldn't decrypt them. Besides, we'd leave a record and put him onto us at once," Meghan said. We're not ready for that."

"I have a better idea," Brian contributed. "I assume you know how to make a sleeper."

"A program that hides in the system and wakes up on command? Of course, only I call it a Trojan Horse. If I make it spread to the other machines he communicates with, then it's a virus."

"Good name," he agreed, and outlined the rest of what he had in mind, concluding with, "what we need is a weapon we can trigger on our own terms and in our own time."

A slow grin spread across Nellie's face as he spoke. When he concluded his explanation, her only response was: "Hey, dude, I like your style. You play to win."

* * * *

Nothing as large as a school for over a hundred students (which is what it became by the third year) can be hidden forever, and by that spring they attracted some unpleasant attention. Another spy was killed trying to penetrate the keep at night, but this one carried no useful information. Several attempts were made to subvert students with money, drink, sex, or games, but they had been well taught, and fended these off. Nellie and Brian crafted security traps on their MTs, and detected three tries at breaking into their machines, adding several more locations to the shadow network they were mapping.

Then one Wednesday evening of their third spring, Meghan recruited Nellie, Zack, Mtebe, and Jonas to join her at London Opera House to see a professional musical adaptation of "Death in the Glen."

Keyed to a fever pitch by the experience of reliving her parent's tragedy at Glenmorgan, Meghan was returning home afterwards through London's quiet streets in an emotional fog, barely aware of her friends' idle banter beside her, when suddenly Zack called a drill.

"Square formation, situation blue."

Taken off guard, Meghan was barely in position with her stick at the ready when eight armed thugs set on them with drawn blades. By this time Mtebe, Nellie and Zack were legally permitted to carry swords, but in deference to their younger companions had gone out armed only as the other two.

Meghan rehearsed her lessons on stick-against-blade as she struggled to fend off the first to reach her, a stocky, bearded man who smelled of fish and rancid wine. "Turn the other's blade, work the angles, don't allow your stick to take a direct chop, wait for an opening, go for the hands, arms and head."

No amount of practice can substitute for the real thing, however, and the fight was protracted and brutal. Meghan took a small cut on her right arm and had to switch to her left, but even as she did, brought the stick's clubbed end up hard enough under the man's chin to knock him from his feet and into another of the street bandits behind.

This was followed by a shout from the shadows, at which their attackers ran off, leaving two of their number on the cobblestones.

"Let's catch them," shouted Jonas, making to run after.

"No," commanded his brother, taking his arm. "It could be a trap. These two are enough."

But both the one Meghan had struck and another Zack had clubbed over the head were dead. A hardwood stick wielded by a strong arm is a deadly weapon.

"What are you weepy-eyed over?" Zack demanded harshly, seeing Meghan's eyes watering. "They deserved it. Too bad we couldn't kill them all."

She fought to keep her stomach from heaving, and didn't reply, but couldn't help thinking, "He's someone's son, maybe someone's father, and I've killed him. Oh, Lord of Heaven, must it always be this way?"

Apart from her own cut and a slice on Nellie's cheek, the fivesome were only shaken up, but that night, following intensive but fruitless investigation, a worried Richard Kent decreed there would be no more outings until the term ended. They began planning for the school's second phase, which called for it to break up into three regional groups taught mostly by the first graduates, and moving from place to place every few months.

First graduation was a grand affair. Twenty-nine survivors of their first class were presented with swords of the finest quality English steel in token of their achievements. All the grads were at least Kilkarney-officer quality, Brian knew, and six he thought would someday stand with the great lords in Tara's front row. Several had already turned seventeen, but delayed "taking steel" until the night they could do it with their classmates. A few others had worn swords for up to two years already, but laid aside the stock-issue school blades, and gladly took up the new ones Richard Kent designed with the graduate's crest emblazoned on the flat. All were commissioned with the regular army rank of third lieutenant, which, as a brigadier-general himself, Richard Kent was entitled to confer. He promoted the Kildares to captain, and commissioned them to duplicate the school during their next assignment, which was to Australia.

Richard and Brian exempted their own three from consideration for the prize, and Colin and Daisy Kildare ruled themselves out, citing graduate student status, so Tim Evans was deemed first cadet and spoke for the class. He was small, wiry, and one of the fastest at unarmed combat, though not strong enough yet to equal the school's best swords. However, his combination of academic achievement and weapons skills placed him and second place Mtebe ahead of all but Meghan, Zack, and the Kildares. Tim spoke with a powerful, deep, almost musical voice that belied his size.

"We pledge before the Lord of Heaven that we shall employ these swords solely to advance his causes--the pursuit of truth, justice and righteousness, and the defence of our land and people from evil acts and persons. The weapons we have earned here are the guarantee of our loyalty to one another, and of our fealty to the Lord of Heaven and the true crown of Tara. Wherever honour is, so shall we be, applying all you have taught us. From this day forward, we who bear this insignia," he pointed to the crest on his sword," are the Friends of Justice and of the Day. In the name of Jesus Christ the Redeemer and Saviour, and for the sake of the true crown of Tara, we offer our lives to push back the night."

As the first and second year students looked on, the graduating class and their teachers, with the exception of the Professor and Father Moran, who remained unarmed, drew swords and pledged agreement with the speech and loyalty to one another.

Meghan looked over the group with satisfaction. Besides several students from the Emerald Isles, there was a scattering from around the globe, including Europe, Africa, South America, and the Orient. It was a beginning, she thought. They only needed time.

After the ceremony, Tim Evans rounded up Jonas and the big Scot, Gowan Donald. The four made a separate pledge to one another as defenders of the big island. Jonas made the salute with a fighting stick, but had long been accepted as an equal by the graduating students--which he was at sword, though it would be two years yet before he legally took steel.

Meghan had known that Daisy's cousin, Gowan, the big bluff Scot, was the oldest son of the late domain lord of his country, but had not realized until now the hitherto unprepossessing Tim was the son of the equally powerful Protector Evans of Wales. That made him a cousin of hers, for her grandmother, Iron Kate, had been the daughter of Welsh as well as Irish nobility. Led by Tim, the three pledged sword loyalty to Tara through Meghan as appropriate representative of the mother island.

Tim Evans was forced to apply his lessons sooner than anyone expected. The next day, as the students dispersed for their homes, two arrived at the keep breathless, telling Richard Kent four students had seen Evans seized by a group of armed men in the street. They had pursued and fought a pitched battle, killing two in rearguard action, but several bandits had escaped, holding Evans. Two had been detailed to follow if they could, the others were reporting.

Quickly commending them, Kent rounded up a party of ten students and teachers, and launched pursuit. The enemy had a considerable head start, and they made several bad turns, but were able to follow the trail with the help of witnesses who had seen the fleeing group and their captive. Fortunately for the pursuers, the party they were after did not take to a groundcar but remained on foot. An hour after the capture, they spotted an armed man running their way who turned out to be the third of their students. He had been sent by the fourth to find help and lead it to a house the pair had staked out about a mile away.

Several more minutes passed before they could reach the indicated place, and when they had, the body of the remaining student told the tale of what had happened there. The several who had been inside must have come out and surprised him before making their escape.

Inside, they found Tim Evans tied to a chair. In the hour he'd been held, he was beaten, tortured, and left barely alive. When Brian and Meghan cut his bonds, Tim's head proudly lifted long enough for him to announce in a halting voice "Lieutenant Evans reporting for duty, sir. I advise I was ... reliable under torture..." He trailed off and slumped into Meghan's arms unconscious.

It was a sombre trio that met in an office beside now quiet halls of the school the next afternoon following lunch.

Richard Kent wasted no time. "Evans is full of regrow nanomachines and on his feet already. He'll be fine in a week or so. We've got the junior cadets well away from the school on their way home. I've kept some of the young officers here to clean up loose ends for a day or two, and will retain two to work with my own noncommissioned troops."

"We were careless and overconfident," Brian accused himself. "We lost a good man, and might have lost more."

"They lost four," Kent grunted unhappily, "but the two we caught later were low thugs who didn't know enough to be useful. At least we have the means to strengthen our troops here. We can remove some of their people by arresting the common criminals around town."

"Other than that, I think we need to divert attention from here," Meghan observed. Father and I need to get as far away as possible, and perhaps you should too."

"What have you in mind?"

"Could you take an administrative tour around the district for a few months?"

"I suppose so. Have a little fanfare, take half the household and be seen doing a lot of innocuous things. But what happens here?"

"Dust," Brian said, cryptically.

"Dust?"

"Yes, lots of it. Scatter it everywhere around the keep. Then, arrange for a security break so one of their people can get in and look around. Make the outside guard sloppy looking without compromising protection, and train troops somewhere else for a year. Keep all the cadets and grads well away from London."

"And you?"

Brian scarcely hesitated. "This school was a good idea. Perhaps I will start more. The night may come, but some will go on with the light afterwards."

"Any idea where?"

"Yes, but..."

"If I don't know, nobody can torture it out of me."

Brian grinned. "I like your grit, Kent. We've not seen the last of each other, I'll aver. Someday, whoever sits at the centre of the cancer in the land will be gone and these youngsters of ours will make a difference." He reached out a hand. "Shall we say friendship, my Lord?"

Richard Kent, who could not legally be called "lord" outside Tara's courtroom, was taken aback at the implication in the title and the offer, but when Brian smiled further encouragement, and Meghan clapped her hands in delight, he agreed. The two stood and formally swore friendship of equals, with Meghan as witness, Kent concluding, "Go with God, my friend."

Meghan found herself wishing she had thought to do the same with Nellie before her friend had left with the Professor, but she had already said her good-byes that morning, so nothing remained but to don her travel sack and leave what had been the best home she'd known thus far.

As they walked through the gates of the manse, two new lieutenants standing guard drew arms and offered smart salutes, which they returned--Meghan with the cut of a fellow officer, and Brian with that of a commander. She wondered where Zack and Jonas had gotten to, as she hadn't seen them all day, but supposed they had business of their father to attend.

"Loosen your sack straps a little, and be ready to draw," her father remarked in a low, casual voice as they walked from the keep across the broad courtyard toward the city street in the bright afternoon sunlight. He gestured around him in the manner of a guide showing sights to a tourist.

"How many are they?" she asked, equally nonchalant.

"About ten so far. I expect we'll see more once we get on the street."

Meghan giggled loudly and took his arm. "Trust my father to make us bait for a trap," she whispered. "Where do we spring it?"

"Middle of the first block, beside the monument. Zack will be waiting," he replied, with an exaggerated chuckle for punctuation. "Back to back and sacks out. Three-person formation until they commit all their people. Then the rest of ours will close in."

They walked along arm in arm around the corner and down the first street. It was uncharacteristically deserted for the time of day. Meghan laughed, gestured, and tossed her head about like a young schoolgirl on a lark, all the while marking the positions of several ruffians along the way, and noting the less-obvious watchers behind shop windows. When they were almost at the great old monument to the unification of the Emerald Isles in the middle of the roadway, they parted arms and walked to either side of the man standing there, looking ever so much the tourist as he stared up at the inscriptions on the stone. He had strolled up the street from the other direction as they approached, pausing before one part of the monument, then another, finally planting himself with his back to their approach. Belying her fear, Meghan winked inconspicuously at Zack as they passed him to stand closer to the statuary.

A second passed and then two. They heard a shout and the sound of running footsteps. Meghan and her father casually shucked their sacks from their backs to their left hands as if planning to rest. "Three, two, one," Brian counted softly. "Now."

The three whirled, drew as one, and Meghan and Brian tossed their packs with their left hands at the feet of the first attackers. This brought down several men, as two tripped and others fell over them, but moments later they found themselves hard pressed by twelve more armed men. The odds were not bad, as the three fought in a close and unmoving triangle, so only one or two attackers at a time could address themselves to each without risking cutting at one another. The monument itself prevented movement toward them on one side, reducing the field of fight for their enemies.

Meghan's head swam with the rush of adrenaline, and she fought automatically, not thinking about the men at whom she slashed. Vaguely, she head a voice calling, "Take them alive, take them alive," but it seemed a long way off.

She led her first opponent to the right, then attacked on the left, piercing his unguarded side. As he fell away, two heavily-scarred swarthy men who could have been brothers rushed into the breach, one to engage her, the other attempting a lunge at Zack while he fought someone else. In a quick, liquid motion, Meghan deflected the one man's thrust upward, pushed forward, trod on his left foot and shoved him sideways into the path of the other's sword, knocking both down. On the periphery of her vision, she saw Zack kick the face of the man she'd pushed. Another replaced him, but was slow initiating, and had Meghan's sword through his arm before he knew what was happening.

Suddenly, there were more running feet, shouts of fear and dismay as their attackers found themselves surrounded, and the fight ended more quickly than it had begun. She felt a hand clasp her shoulder and heard Zack say grimly, "We paid them off smartly for yesterday."

At this, her head abruptly cleared and she stared around, taking in the scene. Six of their attackers lay still, two before each of the trio. Twelve others were on the ground facing away from them, either wounded or surrendered. A semicircle of nine young officers stood grimly about, all with bloodied blades. But for a few moans, there was silence in the square after Zack's remark. None of the school's forces were scratched. In the background, curtains fell to in shop and apartment windows.

Suddenly, as she looked about, she caught a movement behind two of the cadets and saw a flash. "Roll red," she shouted, drawing the knife from her right neck sheath and throwing it in one motion.

The drill, subject of hundreds of practice sessions, was a set piece. Her three classmates in the red sector were on the ground rolling in different directions as her knife cleared leather. It sailed cents over the head of one as he fell, planting itself in the neck of the rising assailant behind, just as his stroke fell between his two now-moving targets. A look of surprise spread briefly over his face as he dropped his sword, and fell heavily to the ground.

Meghan was shocked at what she had done in so automatic a fashion, and had to remind herself that throwing a knife to stop a cowardly attack was perfectly legal.

Brian broke the second ensuing silence with a series of barks. "Good police work, officers, he announced to all who might be listening. It's about time somebody cleaned out these footpads and thugs. Have the ones who can walk carry the rest to the jailhouse by the keep and turn the lot over to Protector Kent. As soon as we clean our swords we'll be on our way."

Meghan, still on automatic, obeyed the implied order, not seeing Mtebe Azikiwe walk over to her until she'd sheathed her sword. Jonas was with him, and both looked shaken. Meghan wondered for a moment about allowing Jonas into the fight, but thought she could hear Protector Kent snarling, "Always send your best." She supposed he hadn't come himself so he wouldn't give the trap away, as his huge frame could never have been mistaken. Still, Jonas shouldn't be wearing a sword in public, and the sooner he got back to the keep with it the better.

"Here's your knife, my Lady. You saved my life." Mtebe extended the blade with trembling hand.

She took and cleaned it, remarking as she did, "We're even. You arrived just in time to save ours."

He grinned. "They didn't have a chance against properly trained officers. Perhaps the streets of London will be safer for a time." He saluted, turned about, and marched off with Zack Kent, the rest of the band, and the captives, leaving the three alone in the street.

Brian was anxious to go lest their enemies pick up the trail again, so good-byes were brief.

"Will I see you again, Meghan?" Jonas asked.

"If the Lord of Heaven wills it," was her reply.

"Amen to that, then. To justice and the Peace." He stepped back and saluted.

"Push back the night," she responded, returning the salute.

Her father came to stand beside her and also exchanged salutes with Jonas. Then the pair retrieved their sacks, turned and continued down the street toward the docks. Meghan, who had several times assured herself she could never be inured to killing people, didn't notice until later that this time, her stomach was calm.

Jonas held salute until the pair were out of sight. As he finally sheathed his sword in preparation for returning home, he murmured quietly but earnestly, "See you at Tara's court, Mara Devereaux."


That's it for the excerpt, folks. You'll have to buy the book to read for the rest.

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