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Theater of Spies

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Theater of Spies

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Author: S. M. Stirling
Publisher: Ace Books, 2019
Series: Black Chamber: Book 2

1. Black Chamber
2. Theater of Spies
3. Shadows of Annihilation

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Alternate History (SF)
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The second novel in an alternate history series where Teddy Roosevelt is president once more right before WWI breaks out, and on his side is the Black Chamber, a secret spy network watching America's back.

After foiling a German plot to devastate America's coastal cities from Boston to Galveston, crack Black Chamber agent Luz O'Malley and budding technical genius Ciara Whelan go to California to recuperate. But their well-deserved rest is cut short by the discovery of a diabolical new weapon that could give the German Imperial Navy command of the North Sea.

Luz and Ciara must go deep undercover and travel across a world at war, and live under false identities in Berlin itself to ferret out the project's secrets. Close on their trail is the dangerous German agent codenamed Imperial Sword, who is determined to get his revenge, and a band of assault-rifle equipped stormtroopers, led by the murderously efficient killer Ernst Röhm. From knife-and-pistol duels on airships to the horrors of the poison-gas factories to harrowing marine battles in the North Sea, the fight continues--with a world as the prize.



Washington, D.C.

Iron House

(Consolidated War Department-Navy Department Headquarters)

Situation and Maps Room

November 6, AD 1916, 1916(b)

(Point of Departure plus Four Years)

President Theodore Roosevelt stood with his feet braced and one hand gripping the lapel of his morning jacket, the other thrust into a pocket and clenched into a fist, looking at the maps that showed the Great War's fronts and alliances and disasters, scowling through his pince-nez with his mustache bristling. It was an expression as formidable as his more famous tooth-baring fighting grin. Officers of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps--and a few from the Coast Guard--bustled quietly amid a clack of keys and murmur of telephones, updating the maps on the walls or directing the WAC girls in their crisp uniforms who used long pool-cue-like sticks to push markers on the big horizontal map-tables that showed the movements of friendly and enemy units and who manned...

Or perhaps staffed is the right word, he thought.

...the coding machines and Teletypes that linked the room to the far-flung legions of the Republic.

The thought came with the relief of a brief moment's whimsy as he gave a fond, proud glance at their patriotic youthful earnestness. And if they were doing soldiers' work, why shouldn't they be in uniform--albeit with skirts a mildly shocking three inches above the ankle--and get the same pay and ranks? He'd plucked Helen Varick Boswell from the Women's Bureau of the Party to organize the Women's Auxiliary Corps for the Army... and anyone who didn't like her being General Boswell now could just go and do that other thing.

Roosevelt and his aides and personal secretary and Secret Service bodyguards attracted a few glances, despite the disciplined intensity of the work. It suddenly occurred to him that the national vote would be tomorrow... and that he hadn't thought about it in days... which must be a first for a president standing for reelection, much less for a unique fourth term.

Fourth if you count taking over for McKinley after the assassination in '01, which I do, since the amiable old duffer had all the backbone of a chocolate éclair and never actually did anything in all his born days, bless him. Not without a push, usually from me.

Against his usual custom, this time he hadn't even ridden a special train from city to city and town to town, giving whistle-stop speeches to impromptu crowds; events had kept him pinned to Washington.

Not that it matters, the result's even more of a foregone conclusion than it was in 1912, and that was never in doubt after poor Taft's heart attack. How long ago that seems!

A horrible thought occurred to him: God have mercy on us, if Taft had lived Woodrow Woodenhead Wilson might be president now and facing this!

He shook his head as if to shed the image, though the news was bad enough to inspire any number of morbid fantasies. God or fate or destiny had spared the United States that at least. He'd swept back into office on an unprecedented wave of support, the strongest mandate since George Washington's, a vote for his plans to seize the dawning century for America and the New Nationalism.

One of the things he'd done since was take the nation by the scruff and make it face up to the fact that it was a dangerous world now and that you had to be prepared.

Getting elected is only important because of what you do once you are. These maps are more important than electioneering.

There were three on the section of wall he was staring at, showing Paris, London, and Bordeaux--where the top echelon of the French government had retreated after the first airborne gas attack on Paris in May, which had seemed so terrible at the time but had only contained conventional phosgene and only killed thousands.

All three maps had broad, shaded marks on them, shaped roughly like an overlapping series of blobby elongated teardrops. That showed where the German super-Zeppelin bombers had dropped fifty to a hundred tons of the Vernichtungsgas on each city.

The enemy were calling it that, Annihilation Gas, though he preferred the popular coinage of horror-gas. The scientists termed it organo-methylphosphonothioate nerve agent X and claimed it wasn't even a gas at normal temperatures, strictly speaking, and more importantly they'd found that a single liter of it--two pints--held a million lethal doses if perfectly distributed. The half-ton canisters of horror-gas had burst at a thousand feet, or sometimes wherever burning airships had exploded under attack by fighting-scout aeroplanes. Then the winds had carried the finely divided aerosol of drops over square miles of city as they settled. Most of the zeppelins had died over their targets or crashed on their way back, but they had taken three cities with them.

Below the maps were slots where estimates from Military Intelligence and the Black Chamber--and the allied governments, or what was left of them, were updated daily. Paris and London each showed over six hundred thousand dead and climbing fast; Bordeaux much less, but if anything a higher proportion of its smaller population. Nobody had any idea how many more civilians had been crippled or driven mad by marginal doses on the fringes of the killing zones; the gas was so persistent, especially in cold weather or sheltered spots or soaked into skin and cloth and hair and wood, that you couldn't go near the contaminated areas except in something like a deep-sea diver's rubber suit.

And nobody has any idea of how many have just run for their lives and are starving in ditches. The Kaiser's plot... or Hindenburg and Ludendorff's plot... cut the heads off two great nations at a stroke, he thought with throttled rage. And came within a hair of wrecking us, if the Chamber hadn't stopped it. When we win this war, everyone involved will hang.

One of his military aides cleared his throat and took a brief glance at his newfangled wristwatch. Roosevelt nodded brusquely and followed horse-faced young Bradley's jug ears down an arch-roofed corridor toward the meeting room. Two motionless Marine guards with Thompson guns on assault slings across their bellies and faces like carved wood under their turtle-shaped steel helmets flanked the door, snapping to attention for an instant and then returning to their watchfulness.

The president walked past them and sat at the head of the big oval table, nodding to the respectful greetings and salutes. There was a general rustle as files were opened and pads made ready. There were maps here too, set up on easels or hanging before the walls, mostly of Europe and North Africa, some of Asia.

And none showing things I wanted to see.

With the Chiefs of Staff was Director Wilkie, head of the Secret Service and more importantly of the--until recently--officially nonexistent subsection that had grown to utterly overshadow it, the Black Chamber. Whose motto was Ex umbris, acies: From the shadows, steel.

Though they think I don't know that the unofficial Chamber motto is Non Theodorum parvis concitares ne perturbatus sit, which means "Don't bother Teddy with the details, it'll just upset him"!

"Right, gentlemen. We're here to appraise the general situation and make sure we're all... reading from the same page, as it were."

That phrase was his own coinage, and he thought it was rather pithy.

"And there are some political developments... integrating Canada, for instance... that will give you enough extra work to keep you from the temptations of idleness and dissipation."

He grinned at that, and there were tired chuckles; none of the men in the room looked as if they were getting enough sleep, and he knew he wasn't. He could barely squeeze in an hour or two a day swimming and wrestling and working the punching bag.

"Tell me some bad news, Leonard," Roosevelt said to the head of the General Staff. "Start with the bad, at least, and work your way up to the unthinkably terrible. We can do a world tour; it's a world war now that we're officially in it at last."

"Mr. President, other resources may be short, but of bad news in all flavors we can give you any amount," Leonard Wood said in his soft New England accent.

His long craggy Yankee face was professionally impassive and his voice calm, but they'd been friends for decades and had commanded the Rough Riders together. Roosevelt could tell grimness when it spoke.

"Apart from the fact that the Mexican Protectorate is finally quiet... fairly quiet... bad news is about all we have on the menu."

Roosevelt's lips tightened beneath his bushy mustache as he listened to the catalog of disasters that followed. The United States had been forced into a war where Germany stood triumphant. From the ruins and chaos of Russia, through the mass flight of the French to North Africa and on to the desperate heroism of the British rearguards, dying where they stood under hammer-storms of steel and poisoned fire to shelter the improvised evacuation from Dunkirk and Calais. That was an epic that might breed a legend for the future, but right now it was another defeat.

It wasn't war as he'd known it as colonel of the Rough Riders or dreamed of even in nightmares... nobody had but H. G. Wells, whose The War in the Air was starting to look horribly prophetic in this day of the breaking of nations... but there was no denying that it worked. His only consolation was that this time, for once in the history of the United States, he'd ensured that America was more or less ready for a fight at the start of a conflict. Against the Germans there wasn't much margin for error or time to learn on the job.

When the litany of blood and destruction was finished, Roosevelt set his palms on the reddish-brown Cuban mahogany of the table and spoke:

"Thank you, General Wood. There you have it, gentlemen. Our course is clear for the immediate future. There remains one matter of very serious import, which Director Wilkie and Admiral Sims will now outline."

Wilkie of the Black Chamber took his cue. "The Imperial German Navy is making serious preparations to sortie sometime in the next few months; we have that by the reports of agents who saw Wilhelmshaven in person, and it's confirmed by our cryptographic work and that of the Royal Navy. Which makes no sense, which means we're all missing something. Something crucial, something that could bite us on... in a sensitive place."

Admiral Sims stroked his short-clipped white-shot beard. "Naval Intelligence agrees. We and the Royal Navy together have overwhelming superiority, and the short days and bad weather at this time of year mean that such an action would be a close-in slugging match, which adds to our advantage of numbers and weight of metal... and they can do the arithmetic too. They have some ace up their sleeve. A surprise."

"The world has lost far too much to far too many German surprises already," Roosevelt agreed. "Director Wilkie, finding out what they have planned is now your absolute priority. If we lose control of the North Sea, Britain goes with it, and Berlin will rule everything from Ireland to the Urals. God may know how we'd come back from that, but I do not."

"Mr. President, we're on it."

The Black Chamber's director looked quietly confident. Everyone else in the room was looking at him with respect at the least, shading up into hero worship from some of the younger officers.

The details were deeply secret, but it was generally known that the Germans had tried to wreck the main American port cities on the Atlantic with horror-gas attacks from specially built U-boats even before the declaration of war. That would have slaughtered millions... and killed any chance of thwarting the mad dream of a German-dominated world.

But the Black Chamber had thoroughly thwarted it--only the one in Savannah had struck, and there had been enough warning that the city had been evacuated first.

"I'm putting my best field operatives on it, Mr. President," Wilkie said.

Their eyes met. Roosevelt knew who he meant... and what the cost might be to someone who'd romped as a child with his own sons and daughters, whose father had gone up San Juan Hill with him, and whom he'd held as she wept over her murdered parents. His own four sons were in the Army, even young Quentin who was only a lad of nineteen and heedlessly eager to be a man. All the boys were in fighting units--including the new Air Corps--by their own wish and doing well by their own merits. He feared for them every day, but it would have broken his heart if any of them had tried to avoid front-line service.

Black Chamber operative Luz O'Malley and that charming, eccentric young Boston girl Ciara Whelan had saved the nation from the German horror-gas plot with cold cunning and high courage... but a great nation needed a great deal of saving in this terrible new age, and they were willing and ready to run the risks again, risks worse than going over the top in the face of Maxim guns and mustard gas.

We do not exist for ourselves alone, none of us do. That's why I went to Cuba even though Edith was so very sick and our children so young, though I felt as if I were torn in two. We are the tools of something greater than any of us, and if the tool breaks beneath the strain... then another steps forward and the greater purpose goes on. The lines of blood. And beyond that, the nation that is the embodiment and bloodline of all our people.

Roosevelt nodded to the Black Chamber's director, a slight crisp gesture to affirm his choice. Wilkie returned it and went on:

"My very best operatives, Mr. President--and there aren't any better in the world."

Chapter One

Casa de los Amantes,

Santa Barbara, California

November 17, 1916(b)

"Now that was a strange and lovely dinner, my darling, and fine people," Ciara Whelan said dreamily from behind the wheel of the auto. "Though it's good to be home, too."

"Glad you enjoyed yourself, querida," Black Chamber operative Luz O'Malley Aróstegui said over her shoulder as she swung the wrought-iron gates closed behind them and shot the bolt with a clank.

And speaking of joy, it's finally here, she thought as she fished a small package out of the mailbox built into the thickness of the wall beside the gate and slipped it into the pocket of her skirt.

"I had fun too," she added sincerely.

Warmed sake was insidious, but neither of them was more than slightly elevated, and very pleasantly satisfied but not full. Their hosts had laid on the full seven-course splendor of a kaiseki-ryori, but Japanese cooking at that level hewed to an austere and elegant restraint. The Taguchis couldn't have afforded a feast like that back in Hiroshima Prefecture--Mrs. Taguchi had learned the art working as an assistant cook at a ryokan inn, and her husband had been the fourth son on a little peasant farm--but they'd done very well for themselves here with their nursery-gardening-landscaping business after years of toil and grit and thrift.

"And the hair glued across the lock wasn't broken?" Ciara asked.

"Intact!" Luz said.

She'd set three; at the gate, at the front door, and on the light switch just inside it, and she'd been conscious of the FN automatic in her jacket and the six-inch navaja; her folding knife, in its special pocket in her skirt as she checked the marker just now. The likelihood of some surviving Mexican revolucionario or an inquisitive Abteilung IIIb agent finding out where a Black Chamber operative lived was quite low... but low wasn't zero and she didn't intend to die of stupid.

"If they're all still in place, it's pretty certain no one came through the gate or the front door," she continued. "Two intact would be suspicious. One would be very suspicious, and three gone definitely means enemy action."

Ciara nodded. She was picking up tradecraft on the job the way most in the Chamber did, though she'd torn through the manuals with ferocious concentration; there were regular training courses now, but still not enough time to put everyone through them first. She'd already noted how all the exterior doors and windows in Luz's home could be fasted from the inside with unpickable bolts.

"But you've got to be careful with the spirit gum or it's obvious," Luz went on. "Just a touch on your pinkie from the tinfoil tube when you apply it, or better still draw the hair through it. The main problem is that even a... hair-fine... hair is visible on a pale surface, and mine's black so it shows up worse even in low light. Sometimes I carry a spool of light-colored thread... or I could just pull out one of yours, now, I suppose, sweetie."

"Warn me first, so I don't give us away by shrieking!" Ciara chuckled.

Then she frowned. It was the expression Luz had come to know meant she was deep in something technical and about to display the fruits of natural talent and a lifelong project of self-education, though that life had seen barely twenty-one years so far.

Witness her happy squeals going through Papá's old project plans. Every time she says: Oh, Luz, this is so clever or Your da did this so elegantly! that makes me feel proud of Papá... and her... all over again.

"You know, I could do a... a hidden counting system... adapting a factory punch clock, maybe... for all the gates and doors and windows," Ciara said. "And a master switch to set it all going when you left."

"Excelente!" Luz said. "Hmmm... probably we could get the Chamber to pay for it, too. And the design would look good in your record jacket, Junior Field Operative Whelan! Very... progressive!"

She leaned into the driver's side for a brief soft kiss that tasted of sake and ginger-infused pear, walked around the hood, laid a hand on the side, and swung into the passenger seat with a lithe hop. The low-slung, open-top Cole 4-40 roadster slid forward with a burble of throttled-down engine and a pop and crunch of gravel beneath the wheels. The electric headlamps cut two yellow tunnels in the darkness, showing white crushed stone, and now and then the flutter of a pink tiger moth or a glimpse through groves and gardens.

"And how kind it was of the Taguchis to invite us both to dinner!" Ciara added.

"I thought it was about time to introduce you to some family friends, mi amor. And the Taguchis are about the oldest friends my parents had here in Santa Barbara."

She thought Ciara's nod and smile in return had an element of relief. They'd been together just long enough to start thinking seriously about the future, and being madly in love didn't mean you completely knew someone--not when they'd only met in September. If you were smart you realized that, and while Ciara was naïve in some ways and had no natural talent for dealing with people...

She is as smart as they come. And I'm relieved she's relieved.

Luz let her head fall against the back of her seat and the pleasantly cool wind of Southern California's November night play through her bobbed raven-black hair as they drove, looking up at the bright Pacific stars flickering through the leaves of the live oaks that lined the long curving driveway. The air carried the scent of cut grass, flowers, and the sea, and the hiss of surf on the beach southward was just audible.

It took a little time to reach the Casa de los Amantes, as the yellow stucco walls and Roman-tile roof loomed through the trees. It wasn't particularly large by the standards of Montecito, as this neighborhood was known, but the grounds were big, with small groves of oranges and olives, figs and peaches, and a little vineyard around a big kitchen garden as well as lawns and flower beds between winding paths, live oak and poplar and cypress, and scattered tall palms. Her father had taken this land as payment for his first big local commission; here she'd played and roamed as a girl, amid brightly colored dreams of adventure and formless longings for she-knew-not-what.

Enjoy every moment, Luz thought, with a mixture of pleasure and sadness. The Great War isn't going to leave us alone forever.

She was a little surprised the Director had waited this long to throw them back into the stewpot...

Which means I can't wait any longer to say what I'm planning on saying. But am I reluctant for scruples' sake... she is very young... or is it sheer cowardice that's giving me palpitations? Scruples were never something I was afflicted with before, any more than I was with pimples, but I've never been in love before either, not like this.

"It's been a while since I went to a family dinner party," Ciara added.

And then in a voice less happy as her hands clenched on the wheel:

"Not since I let that foolish wicked man Sean McDuffy talk me into going to Germany for him like a fool myself, and believed him when he said that it was for Ireland."

Ciara had wanted to do something dreadful to the British to avenge the brother who'd died on the barricades in Dublin in the Easter Rising... though not enough to go along when she realized how dreadful the plan was, or that it was meant for America too.

"I'm glad you did go to Germany, or we'd never have met!" Luz said.

And it was revenge on Villa and his men for my mima and papá that sent me into the Chamber.

Aloud she went on: "Also I'd have been dead without you to confirm my cover to Colonel Nicolai and warn me about his alarm system before I went into crack his files. Dead and very lonely, if that makes any sense! Everyone makes mistakes; it's turning them around that's important, and you certainly did that."

Ciara laughed, and Luz could see her shoulders relax in the dim light. She brought the two-seat roadster to a halt in the converted carriage house with skilled panache, hardly needing to use the brake at all, though she'd never even been a passenger in an auto before she left Boston a few months ago as a clandestine courier for the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

Going straight from the violently illegal IRB to the Black Chamber--jocularly known in government and Party circles as "el jefe's brass knucks"--was a first, too. But then the Chamber prided itself on putting function ahead of formality, and its ever-growing rolls were full of adventurers, eccentrics, buccaneering soldiers of fortune, genteel university-educated thugs, old cowboy Rough Riders, the odd Indian, and the just plain odd... like one Luz O'Malley Aróstegui.

Sometimes the borderline mad, like the head of the Technical Section, Nicolai Tesla.

Hot metal ticked in the engine as they picked up the coats they might have needed on a Santa Barbara November night but hadn't, and walked back to the house hand in hand and up the four semicircular steps of white limestone to the front door, breathing in the scent of the banks of purple-blossomed Mexicali Rose planted around the cream-stucco walls.

Then she unlocked the solid outer doors, twin arched leaves of carved oak set with pyramidal iron studs, and checked that the hair was in place across the inward-swinging inner ones of wrought iron and hammered brass in the shape of peacocks. They had the sixteen-room building to themselves; Luz hadn't kept any live-in staff since she pensioned off the last old retainers when she went into the Chamber. A cleaning and maintenance service did well enough, when she was away so much, and was easy to get in this area of vacation homes. Taguchi Gardens saw to the grounds.

"And the front door and light-switch markers are intact too," she said, swinging the doors shut behind them, locking them and turning on the lights; the chandelier high overhead glowed, turning cavernous gloom to brightness.

"¡Ay! That flower scent always takes me back to my childhood. Mima planted those right after Papá built the first part of this house for her, the south wing. They reminded her of her home in Cuba."

Though hopefully not of how her own father tried to have them both killed the night they eloped, she added to herself; she'd told Ciara about that, but few others.

Ciara nodded, then returned to her thought: "I didn't know if... well, if we could do that. You know, visit with people... together."

"As a couple? With discretion, yes, and depending on the circles you move in," Luz said. "More discretion with some people than others, of course, and absolute discretion with many, alas for the world's idiocy. But even people who disapprove in theory will often make an exception for you in practice if they know and like you as an individual... consistency is for fanatics, after all. Your aunties did well enough in South Boston, didn't they?"

"Well, yes, bless them!"

Bless them indeed, Luz thought.

Not for the first time, either. Without Ciara's aunt Colleen and her life-companion, honorary Auntie Treinel, and their good example, things would have been...

Much more complicated.

"Yes, they're very well-liked in the neighborhood, for that they've always been ready to lend a hand when there's bad luck or strong need--marketing done or a meal cooked for someone who has to sit up with a sick child, letters written or accounts cast up for those who haven't the knack, help at a wedding or funeral, things like that. So there's a smile and nod and many a stop to pass on gossip when they pass by, but nobody knew that they were--"

Ciara stopped, thought for a moment, then went on:

"No, I think... looking back, and knowing what I know now... I think a lot of people did know about Auntie Colleen and Auntie Treinel, or suspected, but they just didn't say anything where I could hear it. So I didn't realize it myself until I started thinking about how I felt about you and it all went click in my head, even though they raised me and Colm nearly as much as Da did. To be sure, someone said Boston marriage once... but that's..."

"Ambiguous," Luz said. "Though not as ambiguous as it was in our parents' time. Still, it's not what people know is true that's usually important, it's what they'll pretend to believe is true by unspoken mutual consent because it's easier all 'round."

"Did the Taguchis... ummm..." Ciara said.

"Know we were lovers? Well, nothing was said aloud on either side, but I'm pretty sure they did. I'm absolutely sure that Fumiko and Midori did. We were like sisters as little girls and we're still very good friends and keep in touch, and from the smiles and nods and thumbs-up they gave when nobody was looking I know they thoroughly liked you. They'd have been polite to you even if they hadn't, but..."

And I appreciate the gesture, Luz thought fondly as Ciara gave her a glowing grin that lit her turquoise eyes and snub-nosed, freckled round face for a moment. The whole Taguchi family always did have exquisite manners, Dios los bendiga.

Luz grinned herself and trailed her fingers on the balustrade as they linked hands and walked slowly up the curving stairs to the second-story landing, their footsteps going click on the iron-hard, black-streaked maroon curupay wood of the risers, louder for the silence of the house.

"When I was a little girl I used to love to slide down the banister here. Mima scolded me... ¡Ay, mi nena, pero que chamaca mas traviesa eres! she'd say... but her heart wasn't in it, and Papá smiled. Sometimes he'd do it himself, with me in his lap! He always liked it when I did things like that, or climbed trees or rode my pony fast."

"It's quite the tomboy you were, then! And you so... so smooth and elegant a lady now!"

"No reason you can't like both. It depends on the circumstances. Once when I was eight and Tommy Deveraux yanked on my pigtails from behind in class hard enough to make my eyes show tears... and not for the first time, I might add--"

"The miserable bully!" Ciara said sympathetically; there weren't many schoolgirls who hadn't had that experience. "I hope someone gave him a taste of his own medicine someday!"

Luz grinned. "One Luz O'Malley turned around and gave him a black eye then and there, and he punched me back and we went tumbling around the floor knocking things over and screeching and bellowing. Well, I screeched; he tried to bellow and he was built like a little blond bullock, but at eight..."

Ciara stopped and clapped her hands in delight. "And how did that end?"

"With me sitting on his chest barking my knuckles on his face and screaming like a banshee while he bawled for mercy and his mother, until the teacher pushed through and pulled me off and carried me bodily out of the room in a hissing fury, wiggling and kicking like a mad ferret, and then they sent for my father. This was back right after the war with Spain started, just before he left for the Rough Rider camp in Texas with a telegram from Uncle Teddy in his hand telling him to make haste if he wanted a commission."

Ciara winced. "Oh, I hope he wasn't too angry!"

Luz shook her head, a fond expression on her face. "Papá? He came into the principal's office with the teacher pouring the tale of it in his ear, and saw me sitting and pouting with my blouse ripped, my hair like a haystack, and my face like a thundercloud, and Tommy whimpering through a cloth full of ice on the other side of the room..."

"I can see it as if I were there! He wasn't angry?"

"He laughed and said: Well, and here's the tail end of a shindy I'd have paid good money to see, and no mistake, eh?"

"And your father wouldn't by any chance have had the blood of Erin's warriors in his veins, would he, Miss O'Malley?"

"Oh, perhaps solo un poco."

"More! Tell me what happened next!"

Luz chuckled; they were still at the stage where they were trying to swallow each other's pasts at a gulp. She marshaled her memories:

"He came over and felt my hands gently; they were all bloody, and skinned in places, and the left one had started to swell. I winced a bit because I'd popped a knuckle... you can feel it, here, see, the second on the left hand, it's still a little bit bigger..."

"Oh, you poor thing!" Ciara said, and kissed it. "That must have hurt!"

Luz chuckled agreement and touched the finger to Ciara's snub nose.

"By then? It hurt like it was dipped in fire, and the memory's yet green! Papá's eyebrows went up as he felt it--he knew brawler's injuries. Well, he'd been bossing countryside construction projects for years."

"Rough men?"

"Rough men, away from home, many with no family and good reason to keep moving from job to job. And a love of the jug. So that meant thumping beefy quarrelsome drunks now and then to teach them respect, or helping patch up enough of them on Sunday morning to get the project going again come dawn on Monday. And he said:

"We'll need some ice over here too, please, and I think a strip of bandage and a sling... does it hurt when I touch the knuckle here, a stóirín, my darling little treasure?"

Luz smiled at the memory of his face. "I said: A bit, Papá, just since I stopped."

"It didn't hurt right away?" Ciara asked curiously.

"No... no, when you're in a fight you're... transported, changed, taken beyond the everyday, so things like that don't matter. It's like sharing love, or like flying in dreams. Or at least it is for me, sometimes. And he whistled and said:

"You kept right on punching him hard as you could with that, didn't you, my little Miss Spitfire O'Malley?

"To which I replied: It didn't hurt when I was hitting him, Papá, I was too busy."

Ciara snorted at that, and Luz squeezed her hand as she continued: "Then he whistled again and shook his head when he put my hands down--gently--and said, as if to himself or to Mima:

"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph but we've bred us a wild one, Luciana darling!

"And then to me: Your mother will have a word or two to say when she sees you!"

"And what did you have to say to that?" Ciara asked. "It would have had me quaking, I'll tell you!"

"I said with a smugness only an eight-year-old could muster that Tommy's mother would cry, when she saw him."

"Did she?"

"Like a gardener's watering can... only much louder. Papá looked over and they'd just taken down the cloth with the ice so the nurse could have a look at Tommy--she was clucking, but luckily not finding anything that wouldn't heal--and he whistled again and said:

"Faith! His face looks like the beefsteak he'll be putting on that fine shiner you gave him! and I smiled... though that hurt too; I had a split lip dribbling down my chin onto my blouse... and I said:

"Well, that'll teach him to pull on an O'Malley's braids!"

Ciara gave a peal of delighted laughter.

"Good for you! And good for your da!" she said. "A fine man he was! And was it all worth the switching you got from the principal?"

"Absolutely worth sitting down carefully for a while. Doubly so when Tommy got the cane too for starting it and he walked out of the principal's office blubbing and I didn't."

"Oh, foolish of him! Knowing children..."

Luz's catlike expression was one Tommy Devereaux would have recognized and flinched from.

"The other boys would go boooo-hoooo at him on the playground and the girls whispered behind their hands and giggled and he'd turn red as a boiled beet every time. It was wonderful... and he never pulled another girl's braids."

"That sounds like you, my heart!" Ciara said. "Now, sneaking out of bed to read at night was my naughtiness, if I couldn't bear to stop where I was in the story."

Luz smiled and leaned over to kiss the top of her head. "Why am I not surprised? Raised in a bookstore, Ciara Whelan was, the sorrow and pity of it... oh, don't throw me in the briar patch, Br'er Fox! So you burned the midnight oil, eh?"

Ciara stuck out her tongue before she continued: "Downstairs in the shop where the streetlamp came through the window, and I'd sit wrapped in the quilt in the big armchair. Da said I'd ruin my eyes and stunt my growth when he caught me at it or saw me yawning too much at breakfast, but never gave me more than a little smack on the fanny, and sometimes he'd come read me a bit until I fell asleep, The Field of Boliauns or The Children of Lir. He never did take the belt to Colm much, either, for all that he was wild enough as a boy. I think he saw our ma in us. From her picture she looked a little like me, and I inherited her hair--"

She touched her piled locks, a yellow halfway to copper-red.

"--Da's was brown."

She sighed; her mother had died of childbed fever not long after she was born. Then her white, slightly irregular teeth showed in a broad grin full of crackling energy as they came to the top of the stairs. She tugged at Luz's hand and said:

"Let's go swim!"

That was another thing Ciara had never had much chance to do in Boston and had taken to with enormous enthusiasm here. They helped each other unhook their semiformal afternoon dresses when they reached the master bedroom--you didn't do an evening gown for a small family dinner party, not at the O'Malley-Taguchi level of society and not in these more casual modern times. It was a much less complicated process than it would have been a few years ago. As well as being...

Luz leaned forward and whispered in Ciara's ear: "It's Christmas early this year, and I'm unwrapping the world's most beautiful present."

Then she kissed her between the shoulder blades.

A happy: "Oh, you!" in reply came with a poke in the ribs. And: "These dresses! They're so comfortable!"

Women's clothing had changed drastically even in the five years since she was Ciara's age, and in ways she heartily approved; Coco Chanel's latest continued the trend.

But hobble skirts... hobble skirts were an evil plot against half the human race.

They hung the clothes and tossed the underthings in a hamper in the walk-in cupboard. Then Luz stretched on tiptoe with her fingers linked above her head before going down on one knee to light the paper-and-kindling fire set beneath stacked driftwood ready in the bedroom's hearth.

We'll want this blazing when we're through in the pool, even if my love is part polar bear.

She felt Ciara's eyes on her as she tossed the splint into the flames, and winked.

"It's not fair!" Ciara laughed, putting her hands on her hips. "You can put me to the blush so much more easily than I can you!"

That was true enough even discounting experience, since Luz's complexion was a clear olive that tanned readily to a warm light honey-golden-brown; she took after her mother that way, along with full lips and high cheekbones, though the narrow blue streaks near the pupils of her dark eyes were her father's, and so was her long-limbed build. Hair the almost iridescent black of a raven's wing could have been from either. By contrast Ciara's skin had a translucent paleness that showed blue traceries of vein and didn't take the sun at all. She was also fuller-figured than Luz's leopardess build, two inches shorter at five-four but weighing about the same.

She did blush now at Luz's frank appreciation, a flush spreading down from face to bosom.

"So, swim!" she said, extending a hand.

Half an hour later Luz was glad of the loose djellabas of striped wool she and Ciara were both wearing as they climbed back to the terrace outside the bedchamber. A friend had brought a dozen of them back from a mission in Oran in French North Africa and given them to her last Christmas, and they were amazingly, softly comfortable, one-size-fits-all, and just warm enough.

I'm glad I got Julie something nice for this Christmas, Luz thought, distracted for an instant--or perhaps taking refuge in an irrelevant thought. She and Bob will love those matching Purdey .338 side-by-sides. And there won't be any more, since Purdey & Sons had their shop right in Mayfair.

Ciara didn't notice cold nearly as much, but then this was fine June weather, by Massachusetts standards. Perhaps she felt the chill in Luz's fingers.

"There's that lovely alpaca-skin rug before the fire," she said as they came to the top of the stairs, her voice sweet with promise. "That would be all toasty by now for my delicate hibiscus-blossom beloved..."

"Una inspiración maravillosa, but wait just a moment, my heart, mi amor," Luz said.

And my goose bumps aren't all from the chill, she thought before continuing aloud:

"There's something worth seeing from here."

They stood by the railing, arms around each other's waists and Ciara's head on her shoulder. Luz leaned her own cheek against her lover's damp locks, looking out from the terrace toward the blue-black line of the ocean just west of due south from here. The sky was cloudless and a blaze of stars from horizon to horizon; she'd switched off the exterior lights, and Santa Barbara was neither close enough nor large enough nor bright enough at nearly midnight to wash out the sky. The Milky Way reared in an arch of white diamond dust above them.

Gibbous and hugely yellow-gold, the moon hung over the waters to the south and east. A long path glittered from it over the foam-flecked waves, leading beyond the world.

Ciara made a wordless sighing sound, and her arm tightened on Luz's waist.

"Oh, thank you, my darling!" she said watching the moon hang over the Pacific. "That is... marvelous!"

Luz swallowed; her throat was a little dry and tight. She turned and faced Ciara. The younger woman's eyes searched hers gravely, matching the sudden seriousness she sensed.

"Mi amor... mi corazón... these weeks together have been the happiest in my life. Not just fun, but... happy."

So happy I feel very slightly guilty, feeling so absolutely happy amid the wreck of the world... but life goes on for people. It has to, and it would do nobody good to sit and mope po-faced.

"For me too, my darling one," Ciara said earnestly. "I love you so much, and I want more of this... more than anything. I want you, for my very own, always."

"And I you, beloved," Luz said.

She reached into the pocket of her robe, and her fingers closed around the little box that had arrived while they were out.

"If it weren't for the war, I'd... I might have waited a little, for your sake, my heart, so that we could have gotten to know each other better, more deeply. But we don't have all the time in the world before the world visits us again."

And quite possibly kills us, she thought, and knew the thought was shared. Probably, even.

Ciara smiled a little. "If it weren't for the war, we wouldn't have met at all! I know how it says hurry. So don't keep me in suspense!"

Luz braced herself and opened the box, setting it on the balustrade railing between them. Ciara gave a soft gasp. Within the velvet padding were two Claddagh, Irish pledge rings with bezels in the shape of two linked hands clasping across a crowned heart, done in gold, silver, diamonds and ruby chips that glittered softly by the light of moon and stars. The form had been used among the Gael for centuries, in pledging loyalty or troth.

"Ciara... will you stay with me, and be my love?" Luz said, taking up one ring. "Shall we be comrades and partners through life?"

A tear glistened at the corner of one of Ciara's turquoise-green eyes.

"I... yes, Luz. Oh, yes."

Copyright © 2019 by S. M. Stirling


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