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Worlds of the Timestream


The Interregnum
Volume 4



The General


Richard J. Sutcliffe



Published under license from Arjay Enterprises

Copyright 2004, 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 Nellie





Previously Published in this Series:
Volume 1 : The Peace
Volume 2 : The Friends
Volume 3 : The Exile




Table of Contents

Postprologue
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3


Postprologue


The work you hold is the fourth volume in the editors' history of the interregnum, the years following the deposition of James IV in 1941. Its events are but a few years old, but exceedingly complex, spanning as they do one of the last and most eventful years of the protectorate that nominally ruled in place of Tara's kings those sixty years. Here for the first time in print the reader will find an explanation of the riots and terror attacks of 1998, events during and after the China floods that same year, and the origin of the two new houses created in the aftermath.

The overall work has grown larger than the editors originally thought, so it will be necessary to postpone accounts of the restoration to a later volume than anticipated, one Lord Lucas, Lady Nellie and Lady Mara have graciously agreed to compile. Meanwhile, we are at work on a fifth book that will advance our history to the nexus of 2000. We intend also to circulate an independent account of the nexus in a separate work entitled The Builder.

These volumes could not have been completed without the assistance of Lady Mara, Lady Cath, Lady Maeve, and Lord Lucas, whose detailed recitations and notes have made the insights offered here possible.

The editors are especially grateful to Lord General O'Connor for supplying a copy of his personal memoirs, which shed considerable light both on the portions of this story that took place on Tirdia, and on the great court trial of 1998 presided over by Senchus O'Kelly.

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


Richard Kent, Academician and Lord Protector of England

Walking Buffalo, Academician and Lord Holder of Edwardston

Cameron O'Grady, Lord High Bishop of Tara

and

High Ollamh Rhiannon, who compiled this fourth volume.







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

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

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

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

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


Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today, her stomach painfully begrudging its share in her poverty, still not recovered from Frank Haggerty's poison, aching over the loss of her father, Mara felt more kin to Hibernia's Federation partners than to her fellow nobility. Her old tartan of the common pattern, scuffed military boots, threadbare kilt, and homemade shirt contrasted starkly with the brightly coloured tartans and ornate vests to her right by which the wearers proudly proclaimed Irish houses or regional domains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"My lady?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She passed the lesser nobles, the row where bards and bishops stood, the high nobles, and the senior officers before arriving at the large circle of coloured tiles. Sheana bowed again, left Mara in there, and returned the way she had come. It could be a long wait, so Mara scrutinized the room more carefully. Before her was the dais with the state chair left of centre filled by the Donal's bulk. He pointedly ignored her. Farther back and to her right was the raised jade chair--the throne of Ireland, vacant since the nobles deposed James IV in 1941 and established the protectorate. Mara grunted to herself. Quite apart from her family agenda of revenge, protecting that chair's integrity was why she'd come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There, thought Mara. I've been named. Will any object?

Donal, appearing to pay scant attention, took the sword from him, barely glancing at it before returning it to Mara, then adopted his harshest tone yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Come," he ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"How about becoming a brehon?"

Mara suppressed a grin. The reply was too ready.

"Why?"

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

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

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

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

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

"What level is your sword now?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"When does he return?"

"Any time. Within the month, surely."

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He whirled to the left.

"MT on. Connect to the chief herald."

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

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

"As your lordship wishes."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Show me."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

Jonas said nothing, but was clearly unhappy with her reply, as he departed for his shift. Mara went two more rounds with the fighting robot, and also left. Keyed up emotionally, she found herself in a whimsical and light-headed mood when she arrived at her suite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Seamus?" enquired Mara.

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

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

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

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

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

"Before?" Mara blinked, taken off guard.

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

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

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

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

"What, here in Tara?"

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

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

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

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

"Whatever I can."

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

"You don't want to?"

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

"So tell." Mara smiled encouragement.

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

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

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

Sheana's blush was answer enough.

"Do you have your GAC?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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











The demise of O'Kelly as a royal house illustrates the unforgiving nature of Hibernia's political system. When Edward O'Kelly, holder of the royal arms and Lord of West Meathe, died in 1890, his heir was seven-year-old John. The then MacCarthy Mor seized the opportunity to reduce the number of royal houses by insisting that John O'Kelly become a ward of the crown, that his sword go to the royal museum, and that Athlone fall under Tara's direct administration. When the boy reached his majority, the MacCarthy-influenced court denied his petition for the return of rights, so the royal grant extinguished. O'Kelly, still the third most common Irish surname after Meathe and Murphy, has since that time given her country numerous soldiers, bards (such as Head Bard Murdoch O'Kelly), scholars, and churchmen. However, for more than a century, none stood as lord at the court. With no lord to represent her there, West Meathe joined neighbour Offaly (lordless since 1792) as part of the home island's forgotten interior.

--from "The Rise And Fall Of Hibernia's Royal Houses", by Ollamh Rhiannon


Chapter 2


Tadgh O'Kelly, On Hibernia's home island, Fall 1987

Tadgh O'Kelly, Kilkarney's first cadet, class of 1987, had the clover by its stem. Tall, tough, confident, talented, his name on the King's Plate as cadet-sergeant of the winning Blue Army, five certificates and already Ollamh twice over, he placed no limits on where ambition might take him. He'd gain high military honours, be an acclaimed bard, restore the ancient glory of his family name, stand at Tara to make demands of the other lords. The world was at his feet.

So he thought until his two months' orientation to his new posting concluded and he visited his home town of Athlone for a short leave prior to a tour of duty at Luna City that was to commence September first.

"Emily, why not? I've never wanted to marry anyone else, and I'd be a good husband to you." The hand holding the tiny emerald at the end of a simple gold chain sagged, losing strength in the face of her rejection. It was a small stone, but he'd blown all his savings buying it.

"I'm sure you would, Tad. That's not the issue."

"But a year ago...." He was confused. When he'd been home from school the previous summer for the first time in three years, he'd found his once gawky tomboy friend grown up, gorgeous, and an acclaimed harpist, at least as good as he. Tad and the lovely Emily O'Shea played public duets that summer that brought audiences to their feet. They'd also taken many private walks along the shore of the lough. The memory of those days remained with him throughout his last and most successful Kilkarney year. He'd been confident Emily felt about him as he did about her.

What if some insisted "swords and strings are different things"? He was far more than a soldier and administrator. Following his renowned father, he was also a bard. They could make music together their whole lives, between his military assignments. Hadn't the local news channel's critic enthused, "this exquisite pairing of the great and keyed harps is a musical match made in heaven, a delight for discriminating tastes. Here's a hometown couple with unlimited potential to capture public acclaim, the performing sensation of the decade"?

Moreover, courtesy of Tara's School of History, Emily was now Seanacha as well as Filea. She could record his battlefield exploits firsthand without concern for her own safety. The whole of Ireland would turn against anyone who dared harm a non-combatant bard.

"Much happens in a year, Tad."

He cut her off before she could explain. "There's someone else, then. I should have asked you last summer."

"Ah, Tad, I'm so sorry. No there's no one else. There never has been." She blushed and smiled. The combination melted him. Emily was sunshine personified, more beautiful now than when he'd first begun falling in love with her a year earlier. Her waist-length reddish-blonde tresses framed a face and a figure beyond comparison, her musical talent was worthy of joining the traditional (though impoverished) first family of Ui Maine, and her happy disposition captivated him with the simplicity of her complexity. He could lose himself in admiration of this perfect woman.

"Tad, I do care for you more than anyone, and I had saved myself for you, but...." She looked out over the peaceful waters of the lough and breathed deeply, hesitating over her words.

"What?" Tad was incredulous, but not angry. He couldn't conceive of raising his voice to Emily. He'd tried it once last summer over a frog she'd put down the neck of his shirt, but his wrath had melted before her innocent smile, one that, if anything, was deeper, more peaceful, more, more...substantial than ever.

"Is it because the O'Kellys have only past glories to live on and boast no property or titles? Emily, I'll be a senior officer one day, with the pay to match. We'll give concerts together that people will pay a fortune to view on the net for years after. You'll have no lack with me at your side. Perhaps we can build a manse with the proceeds, buy some land and become lord and lady O'Kelly." He stopped, aware that he had nearly said too much of his plans. "You can be my seanacha."

She took several strands of her hair in her hand and began nervously twirling them about her finger. Then she turned to face him, and her countenance became serious.

"Tad, I wrote you in January that I'd given my heart to Jesus Christ at Christmas."

Tad brightened. He took her by the shoulders and drew her closer. "Is that all? There'd be no conflict over religion. I'd be delighted to attend church with you."

There was a long silence. She tilted her head to look him in the eye, a hint of moisture in her own. "There's more to a relationship with Jesus than going to church, Tad. I can't marry someone who hasn't given his heart to Christ, who hasn't yet received the free gift of his salvation and resolved to live for him."

Tad knew the issues. He'd heard the gospel often enough from his father, from the local priest, from innumerable army chaplains at Kilkarney, from friends. "I don't feel like a sinner who needs to repent, Emily."

"We all are, Tad. If we're not perfect, which is impossible unless you are Christ himself, everyone is a sinner in need of God's grace."

Again the gospel message he'd heard so many times failed to resonate. Tad felt himself a good man. Surely that was all God wanted. This business of humiliating oneself in a public display of self guilt seemed so unnecessary, so demeaning.

Their discussions stretched through three more frustrating days, until Tad had to leave for his first posting, police service in Luna City. His head was in a whirl, no closer to persuading her than at the start. He didn't understand this religious fervour she'd taken to, nor why it was so important he share it. He was a good man, and she knew it, so why did he need to repent? Why did he have to "do the religion thing" any more than he did already?

True to both their natures, they parted amicably, he pressing the emerald and chain on her as a keepsake and telling her she could wear it any time she changed her mind, she assuring him she would pray for him daily, and think of him constantly. He couldn't kiss her, he knew that. It wouldn't become a gentleman of honour to act so to one who could not promise to him. So in the end, they hid their mutual disappointments, and postponed their tears to a private time, agreeing only to friendly correspondence.

The following day, and pursuant to his orders from BuPers, Tad boarded the rocket that was to take him non-stop from Tara airport to East Africa and the Kilimanjaro space elevator centre for the trip to near Earth orbit, the first stage of his scheduled ride to the moon. An experienced traveller, Tad replaced his boots with a pair of comfortable slippers, settled into the acceleration couch, buckled up, and closed his eyes. He'd have time to rest, to think, to restore his confidence, to analyse his conversation with Emily for the slightest scrap of hope.

She had said no, and to the last tried to return his emerald. He'd made her to keep it as a memento, but they both knew she could never wear it openly, that it was over between them.

He sighed. Surely the army was still his oyster. Moon duty was exciting in itself, a plum appointment, one that proclaimed him as a man marked by the senior stripes, someone on his way up.

A chime rang softly in his ear. Without opening his eyes, Tad subvocalized the command to activate his PIEA. Unlike most cadets who hadn't arranged to be born wealthy, Tad had been able to parley his musical talent into sufficient cash to have the complete set of eye, throat, and ear implants to interface his belt PIEA. Every competitive advantage mattered.

The screen in the corner of his eye cleared, and he expanded it to fill his field of vision. A text message appeared over a background crest. He'd just begun to think it odd, because most calls were announced by a synthesized voice asking if the user wanted to receive the call. Then he took in the army version of the royal crest and the words in the text. He sat bolt upright, as though coming to attention, even though his caller was nowhere near, nor was there a camera feed.

"Priority call from the Royal Hibernian Army Bureau of Personnel," his PIEA announced, "overriding acceptance option in three seconds, two, one."

Tad swallowed. He'd never received such a call, hadn't known privacy circuits contained a military override. Before he could react, the counter timed out, the screen cleared again, and a raptor-faced officer's visage appeared. No sleeve stripes were visible, but the automatic matcher displayed "Colonel John Davidson." His rank was irrelevant. BuPers reported to and took its authority directly from the general staff, the army's first lords. It embodied the authority of life and death over every soldier, from private to general.

Recovering his poise, Tad triggered a pict he'd stored for quick answers to military calls. Another edge. You couldn't have too many.

"Third Lieutenant Tadgh O'Kelly acknowledging, Sir," the pict announced, showing him saluting.

"Location?" The other was clipped, precise.

"Aboard flight five-oh-two for East Africa as ordered, Sir. Takeoff scheduled in ten minutes." He had to subvocalize the details.

"Report back to the terminal at once, Lieutenant."

"My orders?" Tad protested.

"Are about to be changed. Move."

Tad didn't wait to change his slippers. As it was, he managed to scramble down the boarding ramp, carry sack in one hand, boots in the other, mere seconds before the rocket door closed.

Still on edge, he wiped his brow over the narrow window of obedience, then consoled himself by reasoning that the change in orders must be pretty important to pull him off the flight. BuPers must have an even more significant assignment. After all, wasn't he Kilkarney's first cadet?

"O'Kelly reporting from ground at Tara departure terminal, Sir." He was now grinning like an idiot in anticipation, but there was no camera on his face, so who cared?

"Good." The BuPers colonel had kept the connection alive. "No point in you going south. You've been bumped from your Kilimanjaro seat by a new physician we're sending out to provide health relief. You're rebooked one month from today. Meanwhile," he shuffled through several of the paper files only the military still seemed to use, rejected several by dropping them casually on his desk, opened one in a careless manner, scanned it disinterestedly, made a notation, and concluded, "Ah, here's a one month job." He turned back to his camera, his hawklike features protruding from the screen as if to devour Tad. "You will proceed at once by groundcar to Edenderry, County Offaly, where you will provide thirty days grief relief to the local police constable."

"Acknowledged, Sir," Tad snapped back, but as the connection died, he sagged, his grin morphed to a grimace. An assignment important enough to take him off the moon flight? He ought to have known better. He was a plug-in army spare part being tossed into a local situation, not because either he or it mattered to the army, but because he happened to be available for the right amount of time. He shrugged. He'd buck up and make the best of what was sure to be a dull affair. After all, he still had the moon to look forward to, and it was only a month. What could happen in a sleepy backwater town in that time?

Moments later, after instructing the groundcar, he called up his military atlas and scanned the meagre information on his destination. Then he felt even worse. Edenderry was so small a civilian auxiliary officer normally sufficed to police both the town and its surrounding area. They could have done without any replacement for all the difference Tad was likely to make.

* * * * *

That same day at Tara

Colonel John Davidson, director of BuPers, turned about in his chair, and made to rise. Though annoyed at their intrusion he presented a much different face to the two men sitting behind him than he had to the green young third lieutenant. He'd only met the first lord of the army once before, and had never previously spoken with the other man. He'd been impressed by him many times on the news channel, but the MT screen somehow failed to convey those deep, dull, grey, sombre eyes that appeared to absorb everything but to give nothing back.

General Graham waved him down. "No need to be formal, John." Graham leaned back in his own chair, relaxing now that the rush to get this assignment started had borne fruit.

"We owe you an explanation, John", he began.

"I assure you, Sirs--"

"On the contrary, Davidson, you've every right to resent us barging in here and telling you how to run BuPers. You ought to file a formal complaint with the other members of the general staff against us both. It is your right. Perhaps it is your duty. Hear us out first."

Davidson felt his face heart up, then calmed. "I had wondered, my lords."

Graham turned to the third man, who took over. "Security is investigating a case involving a number of missing women."

"Ah, yes," Davidson agreed. "I'd heard about the case from a cousin in the capital. A half dozen prostitutes from the streets of Tara?"

"Nearly sixty women over five years that we know of, the majority from ten urban centres, others scattered among several locations. Two-thirds are prostitutes. We've fifteen officers working full time on the case so far. O'Kelly makes sixteen."

Davidson whistled. "Sixty! If news of that got out...."

"...there could be anti-government riots in the streets. Exactly."

"The situation in Edenderry is connected, how?"

"The local constable, whom you just sent Tadgh O'Kelly to replace, had her young daughter vanish two days ago. Ostensibly, it's a runaway case, and we didn't want to scare anyone off by sending in stripes bearing too loud a message."

Graham took over. "We already had our eye on young Tad for SpecialOps and, given the post there is a constable's, he's the highest ranking soldier we dare make excuses to send. Nice job of misdirection, by the way. We'd rather he reacted fresh to everything than know what he's facing, though he's certain to tumble to the truth in short order. It'll be a good exercise to see how long he takes."

The grey lord chuckled grimly. "I've wagered Graham a month's kitchen duty Tad will be asking us about missing persons within forty-eight hours. He figures it'll take him a week."

"Actually?" the Colonel asked.

The last vestige of humour left the grey man. "Actually, we pulled the charred remains of the girl's body from the river near Waterford this morning. Davidson, this one's a code red, and we've invoked the secrets act. You are the fifth person to know besides we two, the forensic scientist who ran the DNA, and General Docherty."

"The Fox?" Davidson looked puzzled. "What has Kilkarney's commander to do with this?"

There was a brief silence into which the other seemed unable to speak. Graham replied for both. "The girl's mother is Docherty's niece, and grew up his ward. He has no children of his own, and doted on her child. I had to promise him our best people to delay him going up there and personally rendering the town to chaff looking for her kidnappers. I've ordered him not to tell his niece, but the way she's reacted, she knows."

"Young O'Kelly is a promising officer, and his forensics speciality might help the investigation, but sending him blind and alone...."

"...is a piece of foolishness," the grey-eyed man completed, "because when he does get a sniff, the kidnappers will try to kill him. Exactly." He pulled a data cube from his pouch. "We're not telling anyone else, so you're going to put your second in charge here and come along to help keep an eye on him. I've sublet a house from a friend of mine at Edenderry where you and Graham can stay. If either of you venture into the public eye it can be as a wool trader and a shoe salesmen. Meanwhile, use your BuPers override to place this tracking and lifeline software on Tad's PIEA. The two of you must monitor him night and day."

He grinned humourlessly at Davidson's reaction. Using such software to track a man, even a soldier under orders, was illegal, a violation of the covenant, unless the man ordering it....

The grey eyed man saw him suddenly jump to the expected conclusion and nodded curtly. "You'll get a second signal from this unit, which already has the patch." He held up his own PIEA. "But you're not to go within ten staves of either Tad or me unless there's an emergency. This one we have to win, Colonel."

"You will be?"

"Suitably disguised."

* * * * *

Tadgh O'Kelly, Edenderry, Fall 1987

Tad gazed despondently about the small town after disembarking from the ground car and telling it to return to Tara Central.

Typical of Ireland's forgotten interior, there wasn't much there, and probably hadn't been since the great population declines caused by the eighteenth century's biogenetic wars. Offaly was even less populated than neighbouring West Meath, and Edenderry wasn't much of a town. The pervasive, damp, slightly pungent smell was an ever-present reminder that the town was built beside a bog. Tad's spirits sagged further. He tried to buoy them by telling himself he was in charge of law enforcement here--the King's man for this town until the constable recovered. However, such thoughts were meagre consolation for delaying his prized moon assignment.

He looked around, assessing the place carefully. The many now-shuttered stalls in the distance marked Edenderry as the district market town, which didn't say much for the regions' lesser villages. A sign down an industrial side street to his right advertised the Alesbury Furniture Factory, which he'd certainly heard of, but others opposite flagged a shoe manufacturer and a brewery whose fame were purely local. A second glance revealed the latter building sported broken windows and a door hanging by one hinge. Abandoned.

Beyond those were several lots filled with ancient brick rubble that was apparently worth no one's while to cart away. To his left was a cheerier lane lined by rowans and oaks, that appeared to end in a hedge. He could see a gate in the hedge, but the ornamented sign atop it couldn't be made out at this distance.

West, along the main street and surrounding the market square, a run-down town hall, a small school, and an even smaller church unenthusiastically revealed themselves via their dismal canonical architecture. East and West of where he stood, along both sides of what appeared to be the only commercial street, were about twenty businesses in varying states of uncleanliness and disrepair, each having low class tenements above. In the miasmic late afternoon, even the shops were closed.

In the distance, two noncombatant women strolled slowly past the church, but no one else was in sight saving a thin, towheaded child of vaguely eleven years dressed in a patched kilt of the common tartan who suddenly appeared from around an old brownstone building. Tad catalogued the child's wide-peaked cap, hair queue tied with string rather than ribbon, low boots, and plain, unfrilled shirt. A young lad, he concluded, and of the poorest class. The urchin grew nearer, staring down, lazily brandishing a gnarled stick, which at intervals was desultorily slapped at the dirt.

Tad tried to shrug away his chagrin. Edenderry was a comatose backwater indeed.

"Say, young lad," he called.

The child started, looked up from inspecting the dust, and on perceiving a stranger, made to turn heel and run. Then one eye caught Tad's sleeve.

"Yer a soldier?" he demanded, in a voice edged with suspicion one that rose to an squeak.

"I'm Lieutenant O'Kelly, young Master," Tad replied politely, with a slight bow, hoping to put him at ease. "What is your name?"

"We doan get soldiers 'bout here. Yer not a banshee come to snatch me?"

Tad was taken aback. "Do I look like a banshee?"

"I s'pose not," the youngster replied, considering the matter at length while pulling a strand of his hair. "They're in white and yer shirt's green." The child cocked a tow head to one side to ponder affairs further, then admitted, "Name's Darcy."

"Do you have a family name, Darcy?" Tad needn't know it, but hoped to extract other information, and getting him talking was a start.

"At's me first name an' me family name." Darcy grinned broadly. "Darcy Darcy. Me Ma says it saves time havin' one name do fer both."

Tad crouched down. "Well now, Darcy squared does seem economical. Say, could a smart lad like you tell me where the town administrator would be at this hour? I need to speak with him."

"O, hisself is in Birmingham's with the fathers 'n them."

Tad almost enquired who the "fathers" were, then remembered that was what smaller towns sometimes called their elected councillors or other local authorities. He looked around, but saw no sign. Apparently the pub didn't need advertising.

"Could you show me there?"

Darcy pasted on a sly expression, not immediately responding.

"Seems to me," added Tad, reflectively, "I once heard of a king's officer who needed directions being helped by a bright young lad in a town much like this," He looked about to underscore his point, "and in return being generous with a quarter crown."

Darcy displayed mild interest. "If the orficer in the town like this one wuz stayin' a few days he might use bein' showed round and done errands fer the rest of the selfsame crown."

"If the officer were somewhat lacking in smaller change, and knew the lad in question were honourable, he might offer the whole crown in advance, and another each week following, since he was planning to be around for a month."

"Gar! Wouldye?" Before the words fairly escaped, the silver coin Tad sent spinning had been snatched from the air.

Minutes later Tad walked into Birmingham's pub. Darcy would have followed, but Tad insisted such a place was scarcely fit for young children to wait outside, much less enter.

When his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he saw a group of some twenty roughly-dressed men sitting around several scarred old tables, drinking beer and talking noisily. The wall decorations and bar appeared even more ancient, and the hardwood floor was so deeply grimy no amount of sanding could restore it. This lowbrow dump could be intimidating, but he was the king's man, wasn't he? They'd respect his authority. He strode confidently forward.

One after another fell quiet, until no sound remained save for the stickball game on the large wall-mounted MT screen. Someone turned to it and said "off, now", and silence reigned.

"My honour, gentlemen," Tad bowed slightly, addressing no one in particular, "I need speech with the town administrator, and understand he's here."

Another silence, then a burly man rose unsteadily from the nearest table, planted himself between Tad and the rest, took a swig from his mug, tossed it idly on the table, then placed his hands on his hips, conspicuously near his sword and stick.

"Oh, do ye, now?" he sneered. "An' what be your business with the gentlemen in question?"

"I'm the temporary replacement for Edenderry's Officer Carrick," Tad replied, portraying an unflappable and polite self he scarcely felt. Something was seriously wrong with this place, he decided, tensing for action. He wished he had his blue army corporals, Pete O'Donnel and Dan Duchaine flanking him.

The other laughed uproariously, and several of his companions joined in. Tad stood, unmoving, waiting, projecting a bland, harmless front. He knew what they saw--a handsome but boyish face framed below wavy brown hair that made him appear almost effeminate. A young, untried boy. The look suited Tad. It made good camouflage. People missed the heavily muscled frame around his full staff's height until much too late.

The one confronting him found his mirth running down, and dismissed Tad derisively.

"Gwa back to Tara, scraw young dandy." His vaguely threatening words drifted on alcoholic mist. "We'll take care of the law fer Martha Carrick ourselves, won't we boys? You get yerself a posting guarding a high lady's cats." He chuckled at the ancient putdown, and several others laughed drunkenly.

"My orders appoint me to the position for a period of one month, starting at eighteen hundred today," Tad replied briskly. He glanced at a wall timepiece. "That is in precisely two minutes. If you would be so good as to direct me to the town administrator...."

The other's grin turned nasty. "I'll direct you smart enough, right back to yer fancy ladyship mother's lap." With a roar, he sprang at Tad, quickly followed by two more bearing drawn swords. The blood lust of the others was palpable, as they all stood, no doubt expecting him to be bloodily thrashed.

Seconds later, all three townsmen were on the floor, the first from a hip throw, the second unconscious from having his jaw meet the knob of Tad's stick, the third gasping for breath where the same stick struck him in the breadbasket on the completion. Tad glanced quickly behind to ensure the first man wasn't making a new attack, but he was face down and immobile, the broken crescent of a metal half heel dangling from one boot nail like a miniature sign swinging over an empty building.

Tad had neither drawn his own blade, moved his feet a cent from their initial position, nor disarrayed a hair of his own. He still held his travel sack in his left hand, and his stick was already back on its belt hook. Apart from the strewn bodies, nothing might have happened. After all, an officer used only sufficient force, never more. He restrained the temptation to grin. No use rubbing their faces in his superiority.

"The town administrator," he suggested.

His lesson wasn't lost on the pub's remaining patrons, who parted against the walls like mown grass, revealing a thin, almost wizened man of perhaps fifty years sitting at the bar. He half turned.

Tad bowed slightly. "Lieutenant Tadgh O'Kelly at your service, Sir."

"Finian Colley, Edenderry Administrator," replied the other, his words sharp, his expression oozing what could be distaste, fear, or a mixture. He pulled a keycard from his pouch. "You'll be needing the key to the police office and lockup. There's living quarters behind, though Martha stays at home and don't use them." He shied the card across the room. Tad snared and pocketed it without taking his eyes from the man. Colley waved at the three Tad had downed. "You'll have two cells to spare," he observed. "You can drop by my office in the hall tomorrow morning to swear the assault charges." He started to turn toward his drink, looking for all the world like a whipped dog.

"That is unnecessary." Tad grinned. "After all, aren't there witnesses to swear no one laid a hand on a king's officer?"

At this, several burst into hollow laughter and helped their three companions to their feet. The big man who'd first confronted him, slapped a meaty paw on his sword hilt by way of greeting. "Keith Delaney," he introduced himself, "an' I hope there's no hard feelings for me and the boys tryin' you on."

"Not at all," Tad offered, lightly tapping his own hilt. It was acknowledgement, but not respect.

"Will ye hoist a few wi' us now?"

"Thank you, no, Master Delaney." Tad glanced pointedly at the timepiece. "On duty, you know."

Delaney nodded and turned away, not openly hostile. Still, no one offered a welcome or volunteered to show him to his new office. Tad turned his back and left the way he'd come in, alert for another rush, just in case.

On the way, he passed an enormous, fantastically costumed man sitting at a corner table behind at least eight empty mugs. As the fellow lifted another to his lips, Tad recognized him from a Tara Music Hall performance some years before. What hard times could Rujub the juggler have fallen upon that he would be seen in a place like this?

Back at the street, Tad turned to his guide. "Now, young Darcy, does Mistress Martha Carrick live nearby?"

Darcy peered at him curiously before responding, as if deciding whether to allow the extraction of so dark a secret. "The constable?" this in a slow, cautious voice, "She sure do. Right over there." Darcy pointed at a row of identical tall, narrow houses to their left. Then, as the two walked in the indicated direction, "Kin yer show me to fight like ye did yon?" A jerk of the thumb indicated the pub. Clearly Darcy had crept closer to the action than Tad had commanded.

"Anyone can learn how to fight properly," Tad advised, "but you need to be a certain size and strength to make it all work. I could show you a few things, and when you're older and bigger, the army could teach you more. However you must obey an officer at all times, even if you don't agree with his orders."

"Aw right!"

It was a response only to the first part, thought Tad. At least something could rouse enthusiasm in this town.

The woman who answered the row house door appeared at first to be in her early forties. There was no porch, so Tad stood a step below, yet still looked down on her. Unarmed, out of uniform, and wearing the black and white shirt of a mourning noncombatant, the haunted, insubstantial woman appeared anything but a police constable. She glanced at Darcy, seeming to sneer slightly, but when she turned to Tad, her expression went dead.

Her facial lines weren't deep, her complexion was still smooth. Tad revised his estimate of her age to early thirties and further concluded she'd once been a merry, fine-looking woman, whom life had issued a dull sword indeed.

"Constable Martha Carrick?"

"Yes?" Red eyes shifted to a point over his shoulder. She scarcely seemed to realize Tad was there.

"Lieutenant Tadgh O'Kelly, Ma'am. Army BuPers sent me to replace you temporarily. They told me it was grief leave, so I suppose someone in your family has died. I'm sorry for you Ma'am, but they've given me no more. Have you the time to brief me on the local situation?"

The woman took a couple of gasping breaths and fought to process what he'd said. Colour rose in her washed-out face, she shuddered violently, and her eyes flickered in and out of focus attempting to fix on him. She wasn't just grief stricken, Tad decided. She was also terrified. The combination projected utter hopelessness.

Carrick gasped once more, seemed to pull herself together, then leaned forward, reached up for a handful of his shirt, and through clenched teeth declared, "If you have ought but porridge between yer ears youngster, ye'll leave town immediately."

However, at the same moment, his PIEA chimed on the command channel, one employed only for short range working communications under battle conditions. For security reasons, the setup could only be instituted at close quarters, but once established had a range of about two miles. Like all officers' units Tad's was set to handshake via high grade encryption and answer automatically. So even as he and the woman stood in frozen, awkward tableau, he was receiving a data stream no civilian should be able to send.

"Play along. Many watchers. I got too close. They took my daughter. She's dead." Her arm shook, and he sensed her stifle a sob.

Tad had no time to react to Carrick having an expensive PIEA unit the equal of his own, especially one that included a military subunit. She certainly didn't fit her profile. "Who?" He picted the answer from a stock dictionary rather than subvocalizing. The latter was too slow.

"Local gang, hired killers. You. Only hope. Take command. Go to lockup. Will call after dark, talk more." Tad replied with an officer's command request, she accepted, and their PIEAs locked on the new private network. At that, she dropped her hand, whirled, and slammed the door behind her.

"Whew!" Tad wiped one hand across his brow, turned, and walked down the steps. "Wonder what got into her?" The charade took some effort.

"Banshees, them's whut," Darcy offered.

That was the boy's second use of the term. Perhaps it was time he paid attention. Certainly, this wasn't looking like the boring assignment he'd expected.

"Who or what are these 'banshees'?" Tad asked. He had little use for any of the supernatural, but decided there must be more to the boy's fears than mere ghosts.

"They're whut comes to take people they doan like. Them's they take never comes back, they goes to the dead."

As Darcy led him farther along the deserted street, Tad considered the answer before asking more. "People that who doesn't like?"

Darcy seemed about to reply, then noticed a man by the doorway opposite. The boy stopped, raised his chin belligerently and loudly proclaimed, "Ere's yer precious lockup. I'll be along now." With that, he dashed off, leaving Tad alone before a dirty red brick building that bore a small brass plate proclaiming "Edenderry Constabulary, RA".

Surely this was the least of the Royal Army's establishments, he thought. The lots on either side were vacant, the town itself appearing to have pulled away from the law. Tad shrugged, walked up the stairs, keyed open the lock, and stepped inside. All the while he sensed eyes focused upon him, watching, measuring.

Tad spent the evening on a thorough search of the lockup, the adjacent living quarters, and the constabulary files. It didn't take long to locate the five microphones and three cameras, all of which he left untouched for the time being. He also noted the cameras were visible light models, not infrared. His respect for Carrick rose. She knew to wait until he was in bed with the lights out, lest they reveal traces of a clandestine communication. There was no one in lockup, so he had the one story building to himself.

Guessing the MT was tapped as well, Tad spent no more time on missing persons' reports than on any other files, skimming everything as would be expected of a bored and disinterested substitute, but calling on the same bardic training that had stood him in such good stead at Kilkarney to memorize details as he flipped from case to case. He could sift it mentally later.

In the initial pass, he noted nearly a dozen runaway and other missing persons cases in the last six months, all marked unsolved. More mundane cases involving fights, drunk and disorderly calls, domestic violence, and a few thefts were all labelled "closed", excepting a report of several bolts of linen stolen from a sew-to-order clothing shop the previous day.

There was no point looking for food at this time of night, so Tad ate a late meal of military rations from his pack, made a show of yawning and stretching, then headed for the back bedroom, extinguishing lights as he went. He stripped to his shorts, lay on the bed and spoke the room lights off.

A few minutes later, and after moving to a more secure location, Tad used his implants to trigger his PIEA, uplinked to the satellite system on a secure channel that would bypass the office MT, and ordered a review of recent missing person cases across Ireland.

Almost immediately a message appeared, "Access Denied. Security ID and Password required." Tad was about to give up when it occurred to him that as a registered officer of the local peace, he might have new clearances, so he triggered release of his army identification number and password. As expected, he received, "This query has been logged by Tara Security. Please wait." There followed a blind interview with a security officer to whom he provided personal information known only to him and BuPers, at the end of which he was informed his request would be forwarded.

Tad was about to close the channel when the previously blank screen cleared and he found himself facing another message.

"Requested information is covered under the Official Secrets Act, amended 1982. It can only be accessed using your personal encryption key for pictorial transmission and no local copies made. As an officer of the crown you are personally responsible for items obtained under a top security certificate. Do you accept clearance on these terms?"

Tad almost spoke his surprise aloud. Not only was this a high security clearance case, but the same was being offered to a mere third lieutenant fresh from school? He considered the wording. "Personally responsible" was military speak for "You could be dismissed from the service for a careless breach of security, executed if it were deliberate." But he was confident of his abilities to handle the investigation. "Yes", he had his PIEA send, under his encryption key.

"We show no video. What model MT are you using?"

"Standard military grade PIEA with implants. No camera. Situation insecure," Tad replied, intrigued. This last message surely wasn't automatically generated. Who was on the other end this time of night?

There was a brief pause, then, "Secure access and password approved. Thanks. You're a day ahead of schedule." That oddity was astonishing enough, but minutes later, Tad nearly whistled aloud as he worked through the requested records, examined the investigative summaries, and ran his own correlations on the remote hardware. He was especially upset at noting the connection between Carrick and Kilkarney's General Docherty, a man for whom he had the highest respect, not the least because he had long ago determined his former commander was also Sergeant Doran, Kilkarney's much feared drill master. On reflection, Tad wouldn't put it past the general to be somewhere about town making his own investigations. Perhaps he had just talked to him.

Was there a way to find out? Before signing off, he recalled a question he'd once asked the Professor at Kilkarney. "If by the warrior's code a junior officer cannot be sent into battle but must always be led by the decision maker, does that imply that he or she is entitled to know the name and location of the senior officer in charge of any assignment that has the potential for action, in case the superior must be called upon to lead it?"

"Absolutely," the Professor had answered, "even in a clandestine operation."

So Tad made another query, "Return operation category, authorization heads and their current locations".

The reply was immediate, though not at all what he expected. "Operation Fox Trap is top security, category red. Heads are BuPers Colonel John Davidson, General Jack Graham, and Commander in Chief The High Lord Donal. Locations: Edenderry, Offaly (3)."

It was not a warm night, but Tad broke into a profuse sweat. Code red authorized unlimited deadly force in war zones or in pursuit of covenant violators and traitors, but was used only in the most extreme cases. He was in the middle of one, the most junior officer in the army apart from his fellow graduates, who only ranked lower because he'd been first cadet. Moreover, he was under the direct command of Ireland's two highest ranking officials and the director of BuPers. Why them, why him, and why here?

Briefly, it occurred to him that this might be an elaborate simulation, a post-graduate test to determine his suitability for security assignments. After all, they had apparently wanted him to discover this information himself. Then he dismissed the thought. The very town had a deadly air to it. Then a far worse notion occurred to him, and his stomach turned. Surely not. The more he thought about it.... He switched off his PIEA and waited, restless, turning over in his mind what he had read and cataloguing the implications.

By another hour, when his PIEA silently came alive on the command channel, he was certain there was no other explanation. As Tirdian writer Doyle once said, "When all else has been eliminated, that which remains, however improbable, must be the truth." He put that line of thought firmly aside.

The constable wasted no time. "You're not using the bedroom are you?"

"I left it as soon as I killed the lights. I'm on a corner cell cot, a couple of trip wires rigged to warn me if someone enters."

"Good. The real missing persons' case files are in paper form taped under the bottom right desk drawer. Don't take them out in the light. I slipped up once and was seen writing. That's when they took my Maisie."

"How do you know she's dead?"

There was a long pause, then, "I'm her mother. I know. She died long and hard. I nearly did, too." She made a low noise, like a feral groan. "Since you're here, I'll help you." She paused, then added, "If I also die, I die."

"What of your husband, Maisie's father?"

"I was eighteen when I met the worm, and wouldn't listen to my uncle-guardian."

General Docherty, translated Tad to himself, but sending nothing of his conclusion.

She went on. "He wanted a contract marriage, and I agreed, thinking I could make it a love match. After the third year, he didn't renew. I found out when I tried to pay for groceries and our account was zeroed. He already had another woman up in Mayo. Later, he left her, too. She hunted him down and killed him, then herself. I understood perfectly.

"With a child to look after, most schools were out of the question, and I wouldn't sub my sword to another's house, so I took auxiliary police training, and have been here now six years. Right from the beginning there were unexplained mysteries, but the banshees didn't operate openly until two years ago."

Tad nodded to himself. Most houses would insist on a fealty oath, and it would bind her daughter. She'd wanted the girl to remain independent, but had now lost her altogether. He reviewed his military protocol. A civilian appointee to the army was normally out of line, so rank was irrelevant, but in joint operations she was a courtesy lieutenant, above enlisted troopers, but taking orders even from a lowly third such as he, because his rank was regular.

"Why haven't you reported the situation?"

"I did. His lordship replied that I had offered 'insufficient evidence of culpable malfeasance' for him to take action."

Tad needed more. "Who is this local lord?" Perhaps he was in on it and had ignored her purposefully.

"Martin Blundell, but he's never at Blundell Castle. He owns a lot of property hereabouts, including the pub, which he got from his wife Louise, last of the Birminghams in these parts. The two never got on too well but when she died of cancer a couple of years back there was no one else to inherit. Shortly afterward, he was made Lord High Advocate at Tara, and hasn't been around Offaly much in recent years. He seemed annoyed by my call."

Tad considered this. He wouldn't share his secret ambition with a stranger, but he had interests of his own in Tara politics that implied keeping apprised of the function and holder of every high office.

Lord High Advocate represented those with no natural delegate of their own at Tara, including ethnic, political, and religious minorities, as well as individuals who believed they were victims of injustice at the hands of their domain lord or the executive. Because the office was originally created to represent religious minorities, the Advocate stood in Tara's second row next to the Lord High Bishop, ranking behind Lord Chamberlain and the Ard Seanacha, whose places were on the dais with the first lord, but ahead of other bards or bishops who might present at court. Advocate and Chamberlain were the only appointed non-Executive noble positions and both offices required and wielded powerful influence.

Unlike Lord Chamberlain, High Advocate had to be a brehon, so was by definition incorruptible. No brehon had been executed for deliberate legal malpractice since the Three Worlds' War and the high advocate's office hadn't seen a scandal in the two centuries it had existed. Tad dismissed Blundell as a possible suspect and followed another line.

"Who are these 'banshees'?"

"A local gang that started as a protection racket gouging merchants. They branched into killing and kidnapping to enforce their demands and to keep people from talking to me, because I was getting close. They dress up in white sheets and make wolf howls to signal one another. But there've been abductions that make no sense in the racketeering context, so I've concluded they've entered the custom slavery trade, and are kidnapping to order."

"Slavery, here?" Tad was shocked. I thought there were only slaves in....

"...the eastern lands?" Her interruption was sharp. "Of course there's slavery here in Ireland. Monied holders buy servants, second wives, skilled crafters, even prostitutes for brothels. It may be unofficial, but it's very real. In some houses everyone including the lady is virtually a slave. I know full well that a contract wife might as well be a slave. Are you so naive?"

Tad swallowed back a half formed reply, and returned to business. "Have you any leads?"

"Few. They must have a secure means of shipping their captives, and that implies a large infrastructure with plenty of potential leaks, but I've found nothing definite. All I know is that no one kidnapped here has been seen again in the area, dead or alive."

"Elsewhere, then?" Tad knew, but wondered how much she did.

"A friend of mine on the Tara police force had me identify a body. It was a girl who'd disappeared from a family just outside town. She'd been working there as a prostitute and tried to run away from her crime lords. They tracked her down and cut her to pieces as a warning. No one was charged."

The conversation continued for another hour as they sifted through Carrick's tentative ideas. Afterwards Tad lay awake a long time confirming his earlier conclusions and working up his nerve for what he'd decided he must do. The presence in town of the top army brass could only mean one thing, so his course of action seemed obvious, yet.... He considered calling Carrick back, but decided against. She was on leave, and he ought not endanger her. Besides, what she didn't know she couldn't use to inadvertently betray him. Apart from his shadowy superiors, he was apparently on his own. And to them, he was bait.











Prime's version of High King Brian Boru, who, like ours, seized power in 1002, died along with his heir at his battle of Clontarf in 1014. Consequently, he never forged the great alliance among the Norman colony, the Irish north, and the south that would see Ireland prosper so. Our Brian Boru, already aged, and also without an heir, called the great conference of nobles once mourning for the fallen had concluded. The result was the marriage of the grandniece of a northern ruler Boru had deposed, one Catherine O'Niall of Ulster, to the man who had saved Boru's life after the battle, one Cormac O'Malachy, relative of a minor king from Meath.

To satisfy other nobles' demands that the new throne be free of influence from the old factions, the couple's name was changed to Meathe, and a new family founded, a practice common during the time Boru was persuading Ireland to use surnames. Apparently neither of the youngsters were asked for their view of the marriage, but Cormac was a superb ruler and the throne endured.

Today, so many are surnamed Meathe it is synonymous with the commons. Other related royal clans of Boru's day rebuilt and re-established Tara as the High Kings' capital, and ten of those families have held the throne at one time or another over the centuries. When interfamily rivalries became intense in the late eighteenth century, and Meta intervened, the subsequent king gave up his surname on assuming the throne, and records were deliberately destroyed. All that can be said today is he was one of Devereaux, O'Conor, or Meathe, for he and his descendents possessed all three blades. But for practical purposes we may assume the royal Meathe line vanished two centuries ago

A second critical turning point in our history was the battle of London. Tirdia's English King Harold was, like ours, killed at Hastings some months before. However, their Lord Kent made peace with the invaders. His act secured Norman power in England and saw her consolidated once more into a single kingdom, from which vantage she first dominated the Isles, then became a great world power. On our planet, the Kent of the day raised the English standard anew, defeating and killing William the Luckless in the battle of London later in the year and taking that city for his base. Content with his vengeance, he went no farther, and his England remained fragmented as numerous warring kingdoms for two more centuries. Many of the defeated Norman troops later settled in and were absorbed peacefully by Ireland, so the strengths flowing from the melding of the two peoples came to us, not to England as on Prime.

--from The History of the United Irish Kingdom, by Richard Kent


Chapter 3


Mara, at Tara's court, June 22, 1997

Sunday came, and Mara found herself reluctant to face Father Cam while still harbouring the burning desire for vengeance in her heart, so she went instead with Jonas to the great cathedral at the end of Royal Avenue farthest from Old Town.

She came away from the service and Lord Bishop Desmond's sermon dissatisfied. She wasn't keen on being in church at all these days, but Desmond sounded insincere in his sophistication, and Mara resolved not to return. The bishop reminded her of the false priest, Kees VanBuren, whom she'd slain at Edwardston. No, if she went to church, it would have to be St. Patrick's. She was not in a position to rent a groundcar to go elsewhere, and no other churches were within walking distance.

She had lunch with Jonas in the King's Kitchen, then he went on duty. She studied law a while, but couldn't concentrate. Her heart still ached for her father. Thus, mid-afternoon found her wandering aimlessly about the palace complex, learning her way around, feeling vaguely lonely, unsettled. There were few people about except a scattering of guards, and Jonas would work downstairs until late that night. She spent some time watching the fountain and water clock in the great hall, drifted up the broad central staircase that wound above it, then ambled restlessly along the long upper east hall, past the court chambers gallery entrance and into bardic territory. As she walked, she noted a lighted painting in a niche, and stepped back to the shadows on the other side of the hall to admire it.

After a few moments, a man came striding toward her from the direction she had been going. She recognized him as an aide to one of the domain executives, but didn't know his name. When he was almost opposite her position, a door on the other side of the hallway opened and a second man dressed in a bard's tabard walked into view. She was about to greet him when the first man rudely brushed the bard aside with a swipe of his hand across the face, saying, "Out of the way, fellow."

In an instant, the aggressor found himself lifted from the floor by his collar in a grip of iron, a balled fist under his chin, and Mara's furious countenance within cents of his.

"If you ever again lay hands on a bard or any other non-combatant, little man, you'll pay for it with your life. Now, if I let you go," she said to the transgressor, glancing at the bard's rank, "you'll get down on your knees before the good Ollamh and beg for his forgiveness and for your miserable life. Is that clear?"

Her now-terrified prisoner made an attempt at a nod, so she threw him sprawling to the floor. He scrambled to his knees and did the required obeisance under Mara's watchful eye, then, when released, made away from the pair as fast as his legs would carry him.

"Do you need medical attention, good Ollamh?" Mara enquired.

"No, I shall have a bruise on the side of my face, but no more. To whom do I owe thanks for defending the honour of my profession?"

"My name is Mara Meathe."

"Ah, the new arrival at court. I should have realized, but I did not get a good look at you the other day. My name is Murdoch O'Kelly."

"Ard Filea O'Kelly, the High Bard? Had I known, I would have killed the fellow for treating you so." Mara drew her sword, saluted him as a superior, and bowed deeply.

"Not everyone at the court these days has the traditional regard for the bardic orders, I'm afraid. There are several of these ruffians around, and this is not the first incident." He touched a hand to his face and grimaced.

"Can you not hire bodyguards?"

"We could afford it, if that is what you mean. Unfortunately, we have not been able to find anyone who will take up our cause."

"How many do you need?"

"It might take twelve or so."

"They will be available tomorrow." Mara knew there would be little difficulty in getting Friends among the guards to work extra off-duty shifts until more could be brought in for this specific task. There were plenty of unattached officers, and she'd been waiting for a chance to bring some here. She fingered her PIEA and placed a call. "In the meantime...." She sent a pict or two and got a reply he could not hear, "...a temporary guard will arrive in ten minutes."

Murdoch O'Kelly bowed. "My thanks, Lady Mara. The bardic orders owe you a service. Will you come along to our common room and enjoy some poetry and music this fine Lord's Day afternoon?"

"I would be delighted." She fingered a follow-up message with their destination. A few minutes later, O'Kelly ushered her into a richly decorated sitting room. One end had a dais raised a step and boasted a collection of harps, including an antique keyed she thought must be worth a fortune. The other end had a collection of paper books, more than Mara had ever seen in one place. A group of comfortable chairs were arranged near the dais.

Several others joined them until there were eleven Filea and a Seanacha, about half the contingent who worked and lived at the palace. All shared from their latest work and readings, and as Mara heard their histories and family lines, and listened to their compositions, she felt great peace steal over her. It was the first time Mara had been able to relax since the attack on her father.

At one point, she retired to a corner with Jana Whelan, the Ard Seanacha, or chief historian who was also secretary to the court and council, where she spent an hour sketching her own story while others recited. She had no hesitation in doing this, for historical reminiscences given to a Seanacha under bond were inviolable by both custom and strict law.

Afterwards, she sat with the others as they sharing their music and talked. She listened with polite concern to their frustration that the bardic orders were ignored at the court. They still had their ancient right to hospitality, but their services were seldom called upon. As a result young people didn't see the importance of what they did, so few entered the order.

"What you need," Mara observed, "is what the warriors needed--a school where you can instill in dedicated students the pride and traditions of your order." She thought of the huge former barracks in Old Town. "I think I know a place, if I can find who controls it. Enough of business. Is there more music for our souls?"

There was--much more. The highlight was a rendition by Murdoch himself of several works of Tirdia's great seventeenth century blind harpist Turlough O'Carolan, her own favourite. When O'Kelly was done, she looked longingly at his great harp.

He smiled. "We have played and sung for you, my lady. Do you also play?"

"I have done only the fifth grade, Ollamh O'Kelly, and it has been a long time since I have held the harp. My heart is a bard's, but my fingers and my calling, I am afraid, are a warrior's."

O'Kelly insisted, so Mara finally took his seat, bent the magnificent instrument to her hands and began strumming lightly, taking its tone, making the sound hers. Playing almost as in a dream, she did two of her own O'Carolan renditions, following up with an old Irish hymn before falling silent.

No one spoke or moved for a few moments. Then the Ard Filea asked, gently, "Where did you hear the second of these arrangements?"

"It was something I created myself a few years ago when I was in fourth level and have added to since," Mara said, not thinking what she was saying. "In fact, I enjoyed playing it once with your son Tadgh, when he commanded at Toronto and I was a visiting student."

Murdoch O'Kelly exchanged glances with two others, then remarked, "The Lord of Heaven has offered you sufficient talent that you could be Ollamh Filea yourself in a few years if you wished."

"You are kind to a clumsy amateur," Mara responded, feeling suddenly very tired. "However, I have too many other duties. Besides, the first lord would have me enter the bardic order as a brehon rather than a musician. He says there aren't enough among the high nobility who know the law, and would make a judge of me."

She sighed and rose. Duty called. She would return to her studies. "My thanks in the name of the Lord of Heaven for a blessed afternoon." She bowed to the seven men and five women and made to leave, though not before Murdoch invited her to join them every Lord's Day afternoon if she wished.

When she reached the door, she ushered in the pair of dangerous looking young men standing guard outside.

"The dark-haired gentleman is Black Crow, and he will be your personal bodyguard tonight, Ard Filea O'Kelly. The light-haired gentleman on your left is Sven Johanson. He has volunteered to organize security arrangements for the bards on an ongoing basis. I will send someone by tomorrow to discuss your security systems."

Before she left, Murdoch greeted the two, and they bowed and saluted in return. Sven summarized their reason for being there, seeming to relish his blunt and brutal words, "Ollamh O'Kelly, we have been assigned to guard your persons. On instructions from Lady Mara, we are to kill anyone who molests a bard."

* * * * *

Mara, at Tara's court, June 23, 1997

Mara was still thinking about the weekend's events when Monday morning found her on the way to another interminable court session. Just outside the doorway, she saw a familiar figure.

"Lord Dennison," she said, coming up behind Alfred as he finished speaking with Master of Swords. "You are recovered." The last time she'd seen Alfred was when he was carried from the games arena more dead than alive, after the robotic sword training machine's programming had been altered to kill him.

"Lady Meathe," Alfred bowed, then added with an uncharacteristic grin. "It will be interesting to see what reaction eventuates when reports of my demise prove slightly exaggerated."

"You are completely healed?"

"Quite." He flexed his arm as if to prove it to himself. A new arm, courtesy of regrow, and I have it well trained already. The mind remembers, even when the muscles are new."

"What steps have you taken to protect yourself?" Mara attempted to think like a royal security officer, in the tradition of grandfather Meathe.

"My father bought a house in the Highlands, and we've staffed it with Friends, six of whom escort me here, where I am safe enough for now."

Mara nodded. Regional domain holders were not ranked at Tara and could not be challenged there, only in their home courts. Once he moved to the front row, it would be different.

"What brings you to court now?" she asked.

"My father decided it was time to represent New Tara here for the first time since Dennison was commissioned as a house. There has always been a place reserved for us." He gestured at the last of those straggling through the ornate chamber doors. "Shall we enter? Master of Swords has taken my credentials and the secretary has assigned me a place."

Court was shortly underway again. When Mara turned from her position in the third row, she could see Alfred as he stood ramrod straight two rows behind among other regional lords.

After the opening ceremony, Mara watched the front rows carefully as Alfred was announced. Several turned around to assess the newcomer. Was it her imagination, or did Malone and Jones, who didn't turn, stiffen slightly? It was the only clue, and they were too far away for her to be sure.

Preoccupied, she only vaguely heard the big doors at the rear open and close. She didn't notice the newcomer until he came into view stalking down the centre aisle. He turned at the front, and was heading for his place at the end of the row when Mara suddenly recognized him.

"Are there any other announcements," Donal called out as usual, scowling in annoyance at the latecomer.

"On a matter of honour, Lord Donal." Mara was so filled with rage her own voice seemed to be another's.

"Matters of honour take precedence over business," Donal intoned, dully. "What say ye, Lady Meathe?" He sat down, looking bored, but Mara thought there was a flash of excitement in his eye. Then she remembered their earlier conversation. He wanted her to kill Haggerty. Why? Her father had always assumed the two were allies.

No matter. She left her place and strode briskly to the front. Frank Haggerty turned, and his face paled when he saw her. She returned a combination grin and snarl. Yes, she ought to be dead. Instead, more alert and alive than she'd been in months, Mara noted him look in Michael Malone's direction, and the latter respond almost with a smirk. Did he have enemies even among his own clan lords?

Haggerty looked back at her. She knew she still looked half dead, and saw the expression on his face change, fear turn to hope. He fingered his sword PIEA, probably checking the database for information about her. He'd find she still had only a military certificate registered, not even a GAC.

Mara reached the front and glared at him with pure hatred. "My lords and ladies. This vile son of dirt has at least twice tried to kill me in cowardly ways without offering me steel and honour. I say he is unfit to stand in this house." She challenged more for her own sake than for her father's, though he'd had his own enemies in the house of Haggerty.

Donal looked at Frank Haggerty. "What say ye to these charges, Lord Haggerty?" he called down from the dais, without rising.

"This woman is a no-account camp follower and disrupter of the Peace," Haggerty responded, scornfully. "Her accusations are beneath notice of a noble family." There was a gasp from the members of the court, as he started to turn away toward his place. Such an answer bordered on an admission of cowardice.

"Not so fast, Frank Haggerty, you white devil." Mara shook with anger. "I challenge you for your standing and position." She made as if to draw, but he turned back to her with a smile and an ostentatious sigh, "Very well, girl, if you must. However, as you have challenged me, I may select the initial test of skill."

Mara winced. She wanted a fight. She'd forgotten the test of skill. If either contestant outscored the other by enough in that part of the competition, the challenge was declared won without swordplay.

Haggerty smiled. "You could withdraw the challenge," he suggested. "After all, if you lose, you earn either a grave or a place of service in my house."

"Not a chance, son of dirt," Mara replied. "Make your selection."

"I select administration," he replied, confidently.

Mara reviewed what she knew of his credentials. Frank Haggerty prided himself on the 950 he had received on the GAC when he was only twenty years old. Since then, he'd risen to general in the army, then served as Clan MacCarthy's chief administrator, meanwhile assembling a vast personal electronics manufacturing empire. He was also reputed to be the world's wealthiest man.

Haggerty seemed to mistake her mental review for second thoughts.

"It's too late to withdraw," he said, glancing at the Donal in triumph.

The first lord agreed. "Lady Meathe must select an economic realm or subject area in administration, or the palace computer will assign one at random."

"Very well," Mara said, looking daggers at her enemy. "I select electronics manufacturing and distribution, worldwide scope, and furthermore I'll play you at 'crackers and keepers' if you have the stomach for it, Frank Haggerty. I notice you make no claim of help from the Lord of Heaven, though."

Frank Haggerty flinched in obvious surprise. There were gasps and murmurs around the room. Everyone knew he was the leading specialist in the field. Mara suppressed a grin. She knew better than any how widespread were his holdings. Moreover, the rules she proposed would make Haggerty the heavy favourite. All he had to do was defend his information against her attempts to break security, and he would win. She heard people nearby placing heavy bets at long odds against her.

"I accept," Haggerty snapped contemptuously, bypassing his own opportunity to change topics.

Donal briefly reviewed rules and conditions. "If one contestant is ahead by twenty points after thirty minutes of the test of skill, the contest is decided, and there will be no test of strength. Otherwise, we proceed to the second part, and you duel to thirty minutes again, or until death, or a twenty point advantage. Are the rules understood by both parties?" When there was no response, he turned to Lord Chamberlain. The latter thumped his mace and declared, "Court is recessed for the resolution of a test."

Mara acknowledged several messages of encouragement on the Friends' channel while they waited for equipment to be set up.

"The odds are ten to one," Sven advised, "but I'm suggesting the Friends not be too greedy."

The contestants drew their swords and placed them on the cradles in front of their respective MT's so they would have access to more than one set of controls, and at a signal from Lord Chamberlain, a scoreboard and several overhead screens lit up. The contest was underway.

Her father and Nellie Hacker had taught Mara well over the years. In barely five minutes, she opened up Frank Haggerty's South African system and was displaying files on his smuggling operations on that continent, gaining her ten points. Two programs were battering away at other installations, though with each unsuccessful try, Haggerty received fractional points. With him distracted, she began more processes. Then she used passwords she already knew to display files on the factory computer at Moody, showing raw materials and shipments not accounted for, and gained again. Haggerty ran stronger security routines and began encrypting files, then ordered several storage devices to shut down.

At the twenty minute mark, Mara played a video of Frank Haggerty being marched down the streets of Lagos with stripes on his face and back, accompanied by printouts of the names of people he had imprisoned, and the household account book of the Lagos government manse while he had been there, side by side with her analysis of the mismanagement and diversion of funds. She was careful not to openly accuse him of murder, but heard a few growls as some in the audience drew their own conclusions from the data.

There was a swelling chorus of admiration from the few who had backed her and noisy chagrin from those who had bet against. Moments later, she put up a picture taken of herself at Moody, her face and upper body cut and burned almost beyond recognition, her throat slit, and the caption "Mara Meathe as a prisoner of Frank Haggerty." There were gasps of outrage, and three women cried out in horror. She followed this a few seconds later with another picture taken in Afghanistan labelled "Mara Meathe beaten by Frank Haggerty's clients."

Haggerty glanced at the screen and grimaced. Apparently rattled, he was slow to react to a new thrust, and she got into another of his factories. Then the worms she sent out at the beginning started reporting back. She had his manse system. She restored the power for several devices. All she needed to do was display.

She glanced at the scoreboard. Her margin was seventeen points with under five minutes to go. If she completed what she was doing, she would win, but with no opportunity to kill him at swords. She hesitated, and he gained a few points. She increased the pressure with a flurry of overt attempts on Monde's factories, and opened by the front door. She posted a list of people Frank had bribed or intimidated while building his electronics monopoly.

As the new information became public, there were deep growls of disapproval and anger around the room, but Mara still hesitated. What should she do? On the one hand, she ought to expose everything, ruining not just him but his entire empire and his allies. Nothing was more shameful than breach of public trust. On the other, she wanted to fight and kill the man for personal revenge.

She looked at Haggerty and saw him sweat. He knew he was finished. There was a minute left. She saw him reach for his pocket, and felt a buzzing in her head. He had triggered the trap he'd planted in her back in Moody. She grinned death at him, and put up a prepared display of the nanomachine he had injected, a summary of its program, and showed how it had been rendered harmless. She saw him turn pale and drop his hands from the controls. Suddenly, Frank Haggerty was pathetic--not worth revenge. Let him live for the brehons to hang, if the few days of disgrace he'd have could be called living.

In a final flurry of activity, she showed Haggerty's consolidated books from his manse computer. It was all there--bribes, kickback schemes, misallocation of court funds, several additional smuggling operations, illicit use of a timestream vehicle to trade goods to Tirdia and Babylon, evasion of taxes, lists of children he had molested or killed, and much more. The material scrolled right through the buzzer announcing the end of the time, and kept going several more minutes.

Frank Haggerty looked around at the suddenly hostile faces and gave way completely. He broke and ran from the room. Otherwise, someone might have killed him out of hand.

No one was watching when the scoreboard screen cleared, then displayed the final result as one hundred fifty to sixty five.

Some shouted after Haggerty, and several people thumped their scabbards enthusiastically. Others greeted Mara's exhibition with polite but unenthusiastic applause. A flurry of messages from Friends informed her several nobles had lost large sums to their juniors and assistants, and were disgruntled. Some had been partners with the Haggertys, and in the redistribution of his subdomain responsibilities would surely lose face and influence. Some of those named in his files would lose even more. Others had their own scams going, and knew security would have to be tightened. Their systems could never survive such an onslaught as they had just witnessed. Mara Meathe was no longer someone to be ignored. She was to be feared.

Mara took it all in impassively, surprised that Frank Haggerty suddenly no longer mattered. As the House reconvened, Liam Ryan took her by the arm and escorted her to her new place, the fifteenth position at the end of the front row, where Haggerty had been going until she interrupted.

Court reconvened, but Michael Malone immediately stepped forward on a matter of privilege.

"First speaker yields to Lord Malone," Donal snapped.

"Lady Meathe has given us an interesting display of security technique, but it has been our custom to reserve the front row for those with three academy certificates. Do you now say, my lords," He bowed to Liam Ryan, then to the Donal, "that this skilled but unschooled young woman should be exempt from established practice?" He stepped back into his place. Donal nodded at Liam Ryan, who was openly grinning his enjoyment, and the latter responded on her behalf.

"No, she is not exempt. First of all, Lord Malone, she wears a major's stripes on her sleeve. Second, she took her EEC under the name of Alice Thurber." It took a moment for this to sink in, and there was a round of polite sword thumping. The name was well known to the court, as almost all wore the new sword PIEAs described in the paper she'd written under that alias for her EEC.

Mara felt a rising unease. She thought Liam Ryan would next reveal her medical certificate and wasn't sure that was a good idea just yet. Ignorance of it was part of her weapon against whoever was still providing her the virus antidote. Let him think she was in his power when he revealed himself, she thought.

Suddenly, a voice came from the second row, where bishops and bards stand. "I claim the right to speak."

Donal looked to see who it was, and responded, "The Head Bard may advise the crown before all others." He sat down. It was not common these days, but by old Irish tradition bards could not be denied the right to offer advice to the court. They were "nobles by right of office", along with bishops and army officers at or above the rank of major.

"The bards claim Lady Meathe as one of their own," Murdoch stated. "Her variation on a classical composition won a prize years ago we have never been able to award as it was done under a pseudonym. We recognized the piece when she played it for us yesterday and judged it to be at least fifth level. We have elected Lady Meathe to the post of 'Protector of the Bardic Society,' and claim a position in the front row for her on that basis. She will wield the sword of the bards."

"It is a right of the bards," Lord Chamberlain observed, not bothering to consult his protocol.

Donal sighed and stood again. There was clearly a consensus in favour, and he was about to announce this when a stray thought seemed to cross his mind. "Just for the record, Ard Filea O'Kelly, under what name was the prize composition submitted?"

"James Dillworth, my lord. We have already corrected the records."

The Donal threw all protocol to the winds. "Dillworth!" he shouted in astonishment. "I marked that GAC paper." Then he burst out laughing. As he did, he fingered his PIEA, and a rendition of a tapestry on a huge screen behind and above the dais cleared and became a document. Mara blushed as she recognized as the first page of her old GAC final exam from when she lived in Edwardston.

"Normally," Donal began, after several minutes' pause during which there was a surprised buzzing around the room, and some sharper laughter from a few who had already recognized the name, "The GAC examiners would assess a penalty to a candidate who wrote under an assumed identity." He waved at the exam on the screen. "I have just consulted with the other two examiners in this case and they waive the penalty on the grounds the candidate's life and safety was at risk at the time. Mara Meathe, is this your work?"

"It is." She sent him the coded registration number and password allowing him to open the file.

"Very well. As you have done the court an administrative service in the matter of Frank Haggerty, I also exercise my right as the third examiner and allow the original mark to stand, on condition a fourth certificate in another discipline or Ollamh in one of these three be registered in your current name within nine months."

Mara winced at his blatant manipulation, and determined to finish the brehon's credentials he wanted from her in plenty of time, so as not to reveal her MC as a short way out. He applied the codes she had sent and the summary page appeared, with the perfect score. As they watched, the name "James Dillworth" was changed to "Mara Rourke/Devereaux/Meathe." This time the applause was sustained.

In the back row, Driscol Derry, the civilian Chief of Security, nudged his young second and whispered. "What does all this mean?"

"It means," Jonas Kent replied, "the former Lord Haggerty went up against the best ever. He had no chance."

There was further excitement the next morning when Frank Haggerty was discovered in the shower of his manse, dead of a knife wound to the heart. After a cursory investigation, the death was ruled suicide. Haggerty Enterprises was finished, its separate assets confiscated to the court, and the MacCarthy clan holdings and responsibilities given to others. The younger clan member who took over the Haggerty lordship got the title, personal accounts, a manse, and a standing at the far end of the last row of hereditary nobles, but would fight an uphill battle for influence. Family Haggerty was out of Tara's power equation, perhaps for generations.

When court ended that day, Mara found herself at the centre of a circle of cautious well-wishers. She was no more than politely gracious to these sudden admirers. One, an outrageously garish magpie who introduced herself as Lady Donahue, chattered nonsensically at her about clothes, dinners, and social standing for several minutes until her husband Bernard walked over from his front row standing to lead her off. Another, Gladys Quigly, who bore no sword of her own, but whose clothes and manner suggested an old money power broker, sounded her out briefly about business opportunities. Apparently satisfied that Mara was as impecunious as she appeared, she soon left, trailing three hired bodyguards.

Through all this, several Friends hovered nearby looking slightly menacing. She acknowledged their congratulations on the private channel. By prior agreement, the Friends didn't wish to be seen talking in public. They'd offer their true sentiments by stick and blade later in the gym.

When the last melted away, Lord O'Toole presented himself.

"My lady." O'Toole bowed stiffly, thin wisps of white flying about his head. Mara looked at him carefully for the first time, seeing a man who appeared about seventy, yet was hale and fit as one much younger. He "wore the colour" as an active combatant, though Mara wondered how he could retain his sword at an age when most would have taken white and passed it to a relative.

"Lord O'Toole." She bowed as to an equal, wondering what might be his business.

"You may not have known, Lady Meathe, but Lord Haggerty was 'Executive without Domain', with certain minor court duties. With his standing, you also took his Executive position and responsibilities, at least until the Donal's next test and reorganization. The Donal and the Secretary request me, as Chief Herald, to introduce you to your tasks."

O'Toole was starchily formal, but Mara decided he seemed harmless, and felt at ease. Adrenaline level subsiding, she smiled a hearty thanks, and the two strolled together from chambers to the great hall, crossing it diagonally to the elevators.

"Your specific charge is termed the 'Home Office'," he continued. "This involves representing the court in various capacities in the capital herself--duties I might add that Haggerty and several of his predecessors thought beneath them." O'Toole sniffed disdainfully.

"Otherwise, you are to be available for assignments from any of the other Executive, including the Donal. You will receive the nominal minimum personal allowance of a thousand shamrocks for Executive responsibilities. The office has its own budget, but expenses while on assignment are covered by the domain tasking you. I believe Lord Donal plans several projects. Court Secretary Jana Whelan can explain further if I miss any details."

"This thousand shamrocks a year. What must I spend it on?" A shamrock was the standard day's wage for a trained crafter. Mara had never possessed more than ten such coins at a time in her life.

O'Toole stopped in his tracks and looked at Mara, astonished. "It is your personal stipend to spend as you will. You saw the balance sheets from Haggerty's business. He moved tens of millions about the world. This allowance was trivial to him. I doubt he claimed it. Ask your clerk. If he didn't, his back allowances belong to you by right of conquest, as they are not part of his family holdings. Moreover, the thousand is per month. Of domain holders and executive, only the Donal receives less."

O'Toole resumed his pace, guiding Mara one level down on the elevator, then along a maze of ever narrowing hallways. She took note of passing the lower security office where Jonas worked between making plans for ways to spend the money.

After ten minutes they reached an isolated part of the lower floor where a glass door proclaimed "Home Office" in faded lettering. Superimposing in her mind the maps she'd studied earlier, she realized the place fronted one of the king's private tunnel entrances. Very interesting.

Inside, O'Toole introduced her to the Home Office clerk and only employee, a slight, middle-aged man named Charles O'Connell, who was just leaving for the day. Mara asked him what time he would next be in and, when O'Connell placed himself at her service, said she would see him at ten o'clock the following morning. He raised his eyebrows, but departed without further comment.

After he left, Mara explored the place under O'Toole's watchful eye. There was a meticulously kept outer clerk's office, a large storage room full of ancient paper files, racks of old tapes and boxes of disks from before data cube days, two smaller vacant rooms to the other side, and a door at the rear leading to an inner office. She tugged on this several times before it yielded with a loud grate of rusty hinges. Inside were rosewood panelled walls and a bare desk, nothing else--not even a chair. Everything was covered with dust and smelled of disuse. She glanced to one side. The wall decorations were identical to those in the king's study.

She looked a question at O'Toole. He shrugged. "I showed Joe Haggerty this office twenty years ago, but doubt he ever returned to it. Frank may not have known of it."

"Disgraceful," Mara commented. "There was honourable work here under the Lord of Heaven and Tara's superintendence, and they shirked it."

"The least of the man's sins, my lady", O'Toole observed wryly, "from what you showed us upstairs."

Mara leaned against desk and smiled frankly at him. She liked the man, but there was something more than mere formality in the stiff way he spoke. "Tell me, Lord O'Toole. Your manner around me is odd. Do you disapprove?"

He flushed slightly, but didn't answer directly. Instead, after slight hesitation, he asked, "Do you know what you have bound yourself to by presenting a royal blade?"

"Ah," Mara answered, "You are Chief Herald. You know about such things. Yes, of course. I am bound to defend the throne for a monarch of integrity and honour, to die rather than let one of evil intentions take it. Being here commences the fulfilment of a lifelong goal. I believe, my lord, you are bound by the same oath for your house blade, as are Liam Ryan, the Donal himself, Thomas Monde, and as were my parents."

"Katherina Rourke and Jack Devereaux."

"Yes."

"Why did you take the name of Meathe? Because you had the sword?"

Ah, the scanner had told him which blade it was. "Do you have a theory?" Mara smiled. She was almost ready to trust this kindly but formal man.

"How old do you think I am?"

Puzzled at the abrupt change of subject, Mara stated the guess she had made earlier. "You could be anywhere between fifty and seventy."

"When I returned to court two decades ago after some years away, I gave out to some I was taking over my father's standing as Patrick O'Toole Jr. It can be useful to let people believe one secret, while concealing a deeper. In fact, my heir was...gone, as I believe are all the O'Tooles."

Mara noted his hesitation before "gone" but decided not to probe sensitive areas.

"I will have my eighty-first birthday in a week," he concluded, to her astonishment. "People who know young Patrick's age can accept me for a decrepit fifty-one, but I let them see what they want to see."

Mara shook her head. O'Toole was lightly pretending to be a fifteen or twenty years older than a supposed fifty, but deeply pretending thirty years fewer than he actually was. Here was a trickster indeed.

O'Toole looked searchingly at her, and when he continued, Mara thought his words very carefully picked over.

"I was first here when James III was king. He was an O'Toole cousin and his younger son James was a close family friend. There were four of us cousins, all evenly matched in skill. We attended school and church together, worked for security, went on assignments together, fenced, schemed and boasted to each other, as young bucks will do.

"When James III was killed, there was a big shake-up in Security. Since I was the oldest of our group, then Second Lord Donel Tobin made me Chief. Young James was in North America fighting in the war. He returned for a time, but there was nothing we could do when the other nobility decided to keep him from his crown. My father, the O'Toole at the time, resisted, and was killed. His sword went first to my older brother and years later, when he also died, it came to me." Patrick O'Toole trailed off, seemingly overcome with emotion.

"So," she concluded, "you saw Donal Tobin became Donal I. How is it you are such an age, yet appear much younger?"

O'Toole's words became more cautious, and Mara wondered if he was concealing something. "My father pioneered work on medical repair nanomachines, and I was one of the first to be treated. Perhaps regrow modifies DNA replication to prolong life--at least with some."

He had trusted her enough. Though certain O'Toole was not giving her the entire truth, he had revealed much, and it was Mara's turn. "Was one of the four Seamus Meathe?" she asked, heart in her throat, her excitement transparent.

O'Toole's eyes widened and his voice became husky. "All these years, I have hoped against hope, prayed to the Lord of Heaven scarcely believing. I wondered when you came to Bridget's. You did not merely present sword Meathe...." He trailed off.

"I am Meathe, yes." Mara asserted. "Seamus Meathe was my true grandfather. After he, his wife Hannah, and Jack Devereaux were killed, their Jack took his place at Manse Devereaux and later became my father." It was not something she'd tell anyone else, but he'd given her risky secrets, so she would return the trust.

Tears filled Patrick O'Toole's eyes. "My aunt, Jane O'Toole, was Solomon Transky's wife, Hannah's mother," he said, when he regained control. Your grandmother Hannah is my cousin. Their marriage was Tara's high society scandal of the day, for Solomon was but a court servant and she a great lady.

He reached for his sword, and Mara realized from his finger positioning he was about to begin an oath. She forestalled it by throwing her arms around the old man, and embracing him fervently. Strange how big he was, she thought, the size of the Donal, though he didn't look it.

"I would swear..." he began.

"There need be no oaths between kin," Mara insisted.

He broke the embrace and held her by the shoulders to look at her again. "Family O'Toole have never approved of women being allowed the sword or entering court, but..." he began. Mara chuckled despite the emotion she felt. He was every cent the old traditionalist.

"You'll make an exception for me?" she asked, grinning.

"I did for Maria Ryan and earlier for her aunt Elizabeth, and my cousins' wives," he admitted. "My own wife Colleen also took the sword, though none of the women of that generation of royals presented at court. I suppose," he added, glancing at her school insignia and grinning, "judging by the number of young ladies among you youngsters who wear a crest of justice crowned with the sun over three royal lions, I shall have to make many more."

Mara smiled. The chief herald, of all people, would know the meaning of the crests. Wearing one amounted to taking an oath to defend the crown. She followed up. "What was Seamus Meathe like?"

O'Toole produced an envelope from his pouch and extracted a photograph. "I had this taken of the good ship Mary Rose when she sailed for America nearly sixty years ago. Jack Devereaux, Sr., is on the right, James Dennison in the middle, and the man on the left leaning forward on the railing is your grandfather Seamus. In later years I visited them many times, and we four had marvellous adventures together. I'll tell you the stories someday." His voice caught, and he stopped.

Mara examined the picture. From the weight it dated to the latter days of chemical cameras--a technology no longer used. "May I keep this," she asked, "or is it your only copy?"

"It was taken on assignment for Donal Tobin. There were four copies, including one for him that I assume the current Donal still has. Another I left in the Security office file when I lost that job at the time your grandmother, Iron Kate Rourke, was assassinated and her husband Matthew resigned as Donal IV. The file was well hidden and I assume is there still. I kept the third for myself, and retained this one to give to... well, to you."

"You knew of me?" Mara asked.

"I saw you as a baby at Devereaux, but thought you had died in the fire. When I discovered otherwise...." He trailed off vaguely.

Mara stared at the photograph, absently noting his tacit admission that he'd already known she was Meathe rather than Devereaux. She'd have to ask about it later. She put the picture away and glanced at the wood panelling and its design. "What did the King use this office for?"

O'Toole smiled more broadly than ever. "You have used Meathe to open the safe."

"Yes, and know about the passageways and tunnels, as I assume you must also."

"Of course. We four cousins were in it together. We knew what would come and prepared. We made the data cube, praying the Lord of Heaven would send someone with the strength to use it."

"You are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, then."

"Surely, as are you from your remarks in court."

"Weren't you afraid someone else might open the safe?"

"Once we closed the safe, even we could not retrieve the data cube without using a three-swords' blade."

"Which the King ensured were scattered. You took a chance revealing your age to me."

"I have to trust someone. When you presented that sword, and the Donal made out it was Devereaux, whoever thought he had taken Devereaux from the manse after Glenmorgan must suddenly have realized it's a fake."

Mara raised her eyebrows slightly. She'd guessed there were fake swords involved in the King's deposition, so this wasn't startling. What was surprising was that O'Toole assumed she knew.

He continued. "Had your sword been named Meathe instead, whoever took the fake Meathe from...." Here, his voice became strained, "...from Seamus and Hannah would also know. So, your sword will now be much sought after, as is mine already. There have been several attempts to get it, and today, the last of my office staff resigned, isolating me entirely.

"Mara, I could take most men singly even now, though I have chosen to stay out of the front row. However I can no longer fight four or five at once, and he has made me a man alone."

Mara seated herself on the desk again and became all business. "Who has?" she demanded.

"I cannot be certain. Someone with a sword of his own and wanting two more to claim the throne, I suppose. Not Liam Ryan. I trust him, and no one will compromise his blade while either he or Maria lives."

"That leaves only the Donal and Thomas Monde with royal swords at court."

O'Toole nodded. "Donal still has Reilly, the one thing he didn't give up to become First. Monde has the one originally called Carroll, which was renamed for his family when they took it in his great-grandfather's time. The O'Kelly in the Royal Museum is genuine. Someone has the fake Meathe and the fake Devereaux. Someone," he looked at her speculatively, "has the real Devereaux, and Rourke."

Mara, who had placed Devereaux on the wall of the pawn shop in the building where he lived, and who knew Frank Hallas held Rourke for her, declined to enlighten him. Unnecessary knowledge was too dangerous. "Does Donal know about the fakes?"

"He does now. He deduced the truth once you presented a sword he knew by weight wasn't Devereaux. He had me scan the holograms in the hallway outside chambers. I pretended shock at discovering the fake O'Conor. I was scarcely going to tell him I myself forged it sixty years ago."

Mara stared a moment at the cobwebbed panelling. "Could you fake your own sword now?"

"I did it then. May I store the real O'Toole in your safe?"

Mara nodded, overcome by his trust. "I assume," she added, completing her mental inventory, "the King has the real O'Conor."

"The King?" O'Toole looked at her oddly.

"Yes, Alfred Dennison. He is the only living descendent of James, who obviously became the original Dennison, and is therefore rightfully king." She took his look for scepticism, and provided her own information. "My father knew the Dennisons had a royal sword. O'Conor is the only one it could be."

O'Toole nodded slowly. "I suppose it must be at that," he slowly assented.

Mara mentally went over the list. "That accounts for all the extant swords."

"Not exactly. The engravings say there were twelve, though only ten are known today. The history books claim, and most people believe, that the list included Meathe, the sword of Ireland. It was engraved at the same time the others were forged."

"There were instead twelve in addition to Meathe?"

"That's the way I understand the engravings. Meathe is Ard over twelve, not among twelve."

"What was the other?"

"My research indicates family MacCarthy had a sword engraved 'first of twelve'. Of the rest, O'Niall, O'Brien, and Kildare have not been seen here in generations. They may be lost, or in the hands of one who will attempt the throne. Colin Kildare may have his hidden. It may be better not to know."

"Where is sword MacCarthy?"

"I don't know. Clan MacCarthy has always had a lot of churchmen, and some of their leading lords were bishops as well, so their sword could not have been presented at many coronations."

"Who is the present MacCarthy Mor?"

"High Bishop Philip Desmond."

"Who is on the Executive, but cannot wield a sword or stand in the front row."

"Exactly. The Church also has a ceremonial sword like the one the bards have delegated you, and he could do likewise, though MacCarthy itself must be presented by a clan member. Discounting Bishop Desmond, who cannot, the likeliest is Lord Michael Malone. Moreover, churchman though he may be, Desmond is another potential enemy. I have heard evil things rumoured of him, though no proof."

Mara nodded. That topic exhausted, she moved to another. "How many staff should a chief herald have?"

"Ten, as this office is also entitled. James and his predecessors administered the business of the city from here partly in order to control public works, and with it the tunnels, but that task has fallen to a series of Haggerty-appointed administrators and the police chief, who neglect most of it. Tara city administration runs on its own momentum these days."

Mara determined to message the Friends advertising twenty positions, and mentally pictured them taking over the entire palace complex by fractions. She glanced around, and pictured the place cleaned, the wood panelling restored. This remote office might serve her purposes well. Tomorrow's project.

"I'll see what I can do," she said. "What say we leave this dusty old place for now and you join me for a meal at the King's Kitchen?"

"Gladly," he replied. "Did the Donal inform you of your obligation to serve there?"

"I've done a shift already and love it," she answered.

"What say we pray first?"


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

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