CHAPTER ONE – TAKING THE WHITE
I can do this, Tamril tried to persuade himself, as the shift bell rang and his fellow workers started to down tools and talk amongst themselves. I must. All around him, the conscripts of the early shift filed in the direction of the citadel gates, on the way to their barracks, while the late shift workers came in the opposite direction, the young serfs and lesser freemen looking fairly sanguine, on the whole, while the petty lordlings looked miserable, surly, and humiliated. Or, in my case, on the verge of conniptions. Maybe this isn’t such a good–
“Worker 679? Lady Caethlyn?” called out a voice from behind him, causing him to wince. It was not a harsh or cruel voice, though cold, as the Fair Folks’ voices always were, yet with a hint of concern. That damn name, though … One of the best things about indentured labour, not that Tamril dared confess it to anyone, was that during his shifts in the citadel he hardly ever heard his baptismal name, and frankly, I’d sooner hear ‘Worker 679’ any day, although she means well, I suppose. Forcing his composure, he turned to face the overseer. She was a brown-skinned Fay woman, with large dark eyes; a smooth, hairless scalp; and simple, pale clothing including a tight jerkin and stitched leggings that showed off the lines of her lithe, strong figure. Her accessories were equally no-nonsense: calf-high boots of studded leather, and a matching belt from which her dagger and her phylactery were hung. Her expression was as cold and neutral as her voice, but there was a slight, curious tilt to her head as she continued to question Tamril. “The work bell has sounded. Why do you remain? I know that you are dedicated, but you have been on shift for nine hours and are now in sub-optimal condition for labour. If you have some issue to raise, then you should do so with your shift section leader. This is contrary to procedure.”
“I apologise, My La–” Tamril attempted to reply, with the utmost care and respect, but she interrupted him curtly.
“My rank will suffice, 679. I am a staff sergeant, not one of your highborn marchionesses. I will even accept my name, if it will expedite this matter.”
“I’m sorry, Staff Lilka,” mumbled Tamril, feeling more ill at ease with each word. “For any other matter I would have … but this is not an issue I dare raise with one of my own people. Only the Fair Folk might understand it.”
“Very well. Commence,” she invited him, her clipped tone suggesting that he would do well to get to the point, terrifying though it was for him. He heaved a sigh before replying:
“I would like … like to be placed on the list for integration … if it please you.”
“It does,” declared Lilka, dispassionately. “Were integration compulsory, I would have picked you myself, 679 … or Trooper Caethlyn, as you will henceforth be known,” she corrected herself, while Tamril suppressed a grimace. “You have shown yourself to be a diligent worker, as well as eager to learn, and raise your mind above your primitive social context. However, you could have raised this subject with your section leader. We have a logical chain of command, and we expect all personnel to adhere to it. You will have to do better than this when you are one of us.”
“I understand, Staff, and I will, I swear … but there is more to it,” he confessed, and paused for a moment to ensure that it was alright to continue. Lilka merely treated him to a blank, silent stare, so he swallowed his nerves and proceeded. “If I understand rightly … Fay souls are contained in the phylacteries … as mine will be,” he added, glancing towards a rack of small, grey metal cylinders, some of which he had assembled himself, “and Fay bodies … or hardware platforms, I ought to say,” he corrected himself, determined to apply the knowledge he had picked up during his labours in the citadel, however poorly he understood it. But I will not think or talk like a primitive anymore. I will be free in every way. “Those are lifeless shells without a phylactery?”
“That is a broadly accurate summary of our function. What of it?”
That was your cue, so just spit it out, for Adala’s sake.
“It’s just that … when you create my hardware platform … does it have to be an exact copy? Because I don’t see any reason why it needs to be. I mean, if I preferred … preferred to have a man’s body … would that be a problem, Staff?”
“No,” answered Lilka, her bland tone very faintly enlivened by a note of confusion, as if the very idea that it would have been a problem was quite beyond her reasoning. Tamril breathed again, with the relief of a man just exhumed from his own live burial. “I will make a note of that on your integration order, although in the context of our culture you will find that it makes little practical difference, neither to your duties nor to your clothing. Still, I have no objection, if masculine identity is conducive to your mental well-being. I would suggest, however, that instead of using some random appearance, we ascertain what your appearance would have become had you been male at birth. That will help to minimise any feelings of dissociation.”
“You can do that?”
“Easily, in theory. We can extrapolate from your DNA sample merely by altering the variables and running a computer simulation of your ageing process. Do you comprehend?”
“I … think so,” Tamril answered, less than confidently, though his fear of losing approval proved unfounded, as Lilka replied in a tone of patience, almost sympathetically:
“You will understand more clearly, soon. Your mind will be like ours, focused and logical, and able to process information more quickly and more effectively than any organic construct. You have chosen wisely, albeit for unorthodox reasons, but we are content to accept them. Would such reasoning hold sway with any others you know of, Trooper? Other highborn conscripts on your shift or in your social milieu, perhaps, who may be even more reticent about coming forward?”
Oh, where to begin? Sir Emric’s son … daughter, I mean. She’d make a lovely Fay, and if nothing else it’s got to beat being shipped off to some wretched monastery. Then there’s Irina, and that niece of Lady Kolberre. At least here they can be together sometimes, without fear of reproach. As soon as the war ends, they’ll be separated, married off, or given to the Ecclesium to have the ‘demons’ beaten out of them. Yes, I think I can safely name a few other possible recruits …
“Yes, Staff. There are others … like me, or with similar, err, problems. I can talk with them about this, if you–”
“A list of names will suffice, then we will contact them ourselves. Time is of the essence. Although the integration rate in general has been adequate, the CO is displeased at the lack of uptake among the highborn conscripts. In fact, you are the only one to come forward, as yet.”
“Most of those lordlings have more to go back to, I expect. To me, this place was liberating.” Doing the same work as everyone else; wearing the same no-nonsense clothes; hardly ever hearing my birth name; learning about so much more than embroidery, etiquette, and the damn scriptures; finally being able to cut my hair short, even. “I’ve dreaded going back home, almost hoped that the war would drag on forever, that the Iron Golems might even send reinforcements, and force the marchlords to keep supporting the Alliance, even if that means letting their own second sons and daughters continue to labour for the Fair Folk. I’d have been content with that, but I should think most of the others had an easier life of it, and they’re not used to being treated the same as the peasants. They see this as humiliation.”
“Their logic is poor, then. We are manifestly superior beings,” declared Lilka, matter-of-factly rather than arrogantly, although Tamril still wondered with some anxiety whether his own humility would survive the transition. The Fair Folk don’t excel in modesty, it has to be said. “We are effectively immortal, stronger, more intelligent, and culturally more advanced in every way. Furthermore, war production is required for all our good. A minor show of effort and loyalty is all that we ask before accepting recruits for integration, and to consider petty degrees of socio-economic superiority as a greater honour than what we can provide is irrational in the extreme. I am pleased, Trooper, that you have shown more sense. Return to your living quarters and write that list for me, then I order you to go on home leave,” she commanded, causing Tamril’s face to fall again. “The cave-in at the western mine workings has delayed production, so unfortunately there is no hardware currently available to allocate to you. It will be some days before production and integration are back on schedule, so in the meantime it would best serve us if you took advantage of the delay to ride back to Fordeval and make your farewells with your family. Though Lord and Lady Palomar have scarcely been our friends or advocates, it would be better for the sake of the Alliance if they cannot argue this integration was anything other than your choice.”
“Oh … yes. Of course,” said Tamril, dutifully but with a grim, hopeless tone and a lowered expression that were not lost on Lilka.
“As of today, you are a Movellan soldier,” she reminded him, sternly. “I will expect you to treat all illogical objections with proper dismissal, regardless of their source. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Staff,” he answered, forcing a resolve into his tone which he only wished he felt. It seemed to satisfy Lilka, who nodded approvingly before replying:
“Good. I doubt that your parents will dare to do more than cavil – they are not fools – but in the event of them trying to detain you by force, you may contact the citadel. You know how to use this?” she asked, handing him a small object, smooth and white, like a regularly-shaped pebble with small, rose-tinted lights shining and blinking on its surface. A scrying-stone … No, damn it. A transceiver. You can’t be one of the Fair Folk and gibber like some superstitious old cleric.
“Yes, Staff. I just … press the big light on the front and talk into the tiny hole … right?”
“Correct, but make sure to activate the ultrasonic booster: that is the third switch down, on the left side. Purely electromagnetic transmission is too unreliable at present. Dismissed, Trooper Caeth– … I suppose you will also be requiring a change of name,” she added, thoughtfully. “Do you have one in mind, or do you need time to consider?”
“No, Staff. I … I already know my name,” he replied, and for once his hesitancy was born of exhilaration, and not of anxiety. “It’s Tamril.”
“Fact recorded. Dismissed, Trooper Tamril. I will order the quartermaster to return you your horse, your clothing, and your personal effects,” she declared, instantly dampening his exhilaration. She’s right, though. It’s my responsibility to break this to my folks. A Fay … a Movellan, I mean, would not shy from his responsibilities, and logic is on my side … although at this point I wouldn’t say no to divine intervention, if Adala’s got nothing better to do today.
The distance from the Fay citadel to Fordeval was nothing great on horseback: a little over five miles’ easy riding, and much easier for the fact that one rarely saw Iron Golems east of the Tarsys Ridge these days. The route did, unfortunately, cut through the southern arm of Malacki Woods, through which it had long been standard procedure for nobles to traverse only in the company of an ordained cleric, and even then only at speed, in full daylight. Dusk was still a good few hours’ away when Tamril traversed the forest, to his relief, although that very relief caused him embarrassment. What is there to fear? Angry tree spirits, or being dragged to the Profound Darkness by the Dun Shie? Pathetic superstitions. I have put all of that behind me … not to mention where would I have gotten an exorcist in the citadel anyway? I can see the appeal, though, he admitted to himself, while urging his palfrey to a non-frantic but a decidedly nervous canter. Mercifully, he was less than half an hour beneath the gnarled, purple-grey shroud of a canopy before the twisted trees thinned out again and he emerged into well-known farmlands, dotted with occasional hamlets, small tabernacles, beacon towers, and the tall, hexagonal main keep of Fordeval dominating the scene from less than half a mile ahead. Not that I was hugely keen on seeing it, he reflected, slowing his horse’s pace to an easy trot. I might as well give myself time to think about what I’m going to say when I get there, as if it’s going to make any difference.
Inspiration was sadly lacking, and even as he rode through the gate of the outer curtain wall, followed by bemused scrutiny of various elderly retainers and pages – those who age or youth had exempted them from conscription – he was no closer to having rehearsed his awkward revelation. As he approached the stables, where a group of servants awaited to tend his palfrey, he saw Lord Palomar emerge from the keep: a tall, thin man; grey-haired; clad in simple but good quality wool, leather, and ringmail; and already looking grim and confused, rather than pleased at this unplanned visit. Hello, Dad … Damn, this won’t be easy. Looks as if he suspects something already. Tamril attempted a wan smile as his father drew closer, but it was not returned, and the sceptical frown remained in place even as Lord Palomar extended a hand and helped his son to dismount.
“Caethlyn,” he greeted him, predictably if irritatingly, and not at all warmly. “You didn’t send word that you were coming back.”
“I’m sorry, Father, but I didn’t have any opportunity to,” he answered, while his horse was led away. “It was all very … impromptu. The overseer just granted me a few days’ leave this afternoon. I had no time to send word.”
“Hmm. That’s a first,” pointed out Lord Palomar, resentfully. “Why would they do that?”
“Err … good conduct … I guess,” Tamril deflected, while inwardly cursing his own cowardice. Bravo me, already making a cowardly mess of my first mission.
“I see,” replied Lord Palomar, with a sniff. “I’m a little surprised you took the offer, though. I was under the impression that you preferred it there.”
“It’s … interesting, I don’t deny,” he answered, with awkward diplomacy. “I do like being able to help the war effort, and to learn about things I’d never have learned elsewhere,” and to just be myself, of course. “That doesn’t mean I never want to see my family again, though. I thought you’d be pleased to see me.”
“It’s rather ill-timed … but perhaps just as well. We’ll talk later, Caethlyn. Let the servants take you through to the hall, for now. Your quarters will need cleaning and heating, but there’s fresh roast venison in the kitchens, and mulled wine, so you might as well take the opportunity to eat and rest. I daresay after your ride … not to mention your labours,” he added, bitterly, “you’re in sore need of both.”
“Thank you, Father, but I’m alright,” he answered, graciously. “They do feed us: quite plainly, I’ll admit, but more than adequately. I’d sooner just see Mother, if that’s–”
“Don’t contradict me, child,” snapped Lord Palomar, his sternness undercut by a strange note of urgency. “Your mother … doesn’t wish to be disturbed.”
“Is she ill?” asked Tamril, with both concern and guilt. What a time I picked to be a harbinger of terrible news … “Please, if I could just see her for a moment, I promise I won’t–”
“For Adala’s sake, girl, don’t argue. She’s perfectly fine. Just … very tired,” he settled for, his air of desperate improvisation causing Tamril all manner of anxiety. Dad always was a rotten liar, but what in creation’s name is going on here? “We all are. Is that to be wondered at, considering the humiliations we’ve been put through? You more than any of us, if only you had the slightest respect for your station.”
“Is it humiliation to honour our oaths?” asked Tamril, defensively. “Without the Fair Folk and their tech– … their magic, we would have fallen to our enemies, you know that. In return for their help, they only ask that we work together as equals, as they do. They are a different people,” a better people, “and to them, our ways are strange,” and primitive, and stupid. “Anyway, I don’t feel humiliated. I’d feel more humiliated to be sitting in a warm, comfy solar doing needlepoint while other people were toiling and dying to keep me safe.”
“A fine spirit of sacrifice, indeed,” quipped Lord Palomar, sarcastically. “I didn’t know I’d raised such a martyr in you. Perhaps I ought to give up on finding a decent match for such a paragon, and just let the Ecclesium have you for a holy sister. Not such a bad plan, actually. At least then I can make sure that if you’ve no intention of ever conferring honour upon our name, you don’t end up heaping shame upon it.” Irony-laced though the suggestion was, Tamril did not find it flippant enough to dismiss as an idle threat. I think that was your second opening, and don’t you dare funk it this time, or you may actually end up spending your life in a wretched veil. He swallowed, took a breath, and answered solemnly:
“Actually, Father, I don’t think that’s going to be an issue. I’ve … made my own decision about my future.”
“You’ve done what?” asked the marchlord, his eyes narrowing and his posture stiffening, while his hands curled into tense-looking half-fists. He looked as dangerous as he had ever done off a battlefield, if not more, but there was no going back now.
“Yes, Father. I’ve … I’ve put my name down for integration, and been accepted. The Fair Folk are allowing me to join them for real, and as myself … as the man I am. I–”
“I don’t want to hear it!” interrupted Lord Palomar, halfway between fury and despair. “For mercy’s sake, child, we’re not dredging up that nonsense again on top of all the rest of this folly. Not that I nor your poor mother are in any danger of forgetting you dressing up as a bloody page boy and trying to insinuate yourself into the master-at-arms’ training classes, but we all agreed to lay that embarrassment to rest.”
“Did we? I don’t think I ever–”
“And I’ve heard all I want to from you now. At least this tells me why the Fair Folk sent you back: to taunt me, to make me think that I’ve no control even over what they do with my own flesh and blood.”
“It’s nothing like that. I asked for this, Father. I consider it an honour.”
“And what would you know of honour, girl? Pah,” he added, scornfully, with a dismissive hand wave. “I suppose this is only my just payment for having been too indulgent with you, but that all ends today.”
“Well … I’m sorry you feel like that, but it’s too late,” declared Tamril, sadly but defiantly. “Staff Lilka said I was already one of them, as far as she was concerned: a Movellan soldier. If you try to keep me here, how do you think they’ll react?”
“So, my own daughter threatens me with the Fair Folk … but don’t count on it. Maybe they’re not giving you much of the latest news in that cursed citadel, but I’m by no means the only marchlord in Mondever who’s had it up to here with the Alliance, and with your precious Fay.”
“You can’t dissolve the Alliance, though,” said Tamril, though with an air of dread uncertainty. He had often wondered how long it would be before the lords decided that they could no longer trade their cherished, albeit stupid ancestral pride for the sake of security. “Without the aid of the Fair Folk, our enemies will surely crush us.”
“‘Enemies,’ Caethlyn? What damn enemies? When did you last see an Iron Golem, or when did any of us, come to that? For all their magical arts, your oh-so-clever Fay friends certainly have a knack for drawing out this war.”
“We all know the Golems have been driven back, but doesn’t that just prove the Alliance is a success? Anyway, back in the days when you were riding out against Lord Sarko’s uprising or the Discorders’ Revolt, I don’t recall you stopping early and giving them time to regroup. You fought until you were sure they’d been totally defeated. Don’t tell me you’re going soft.”
“You dare to … ? I’m done debating with you, child. Get to the hall and I’ll talk some sense into you later, but as far as I’m concerned the Iron Golems are defeated. Your Fair Folk are just in no hurry to cut off the hand that feeds them, but we’ll see about that.”
“You can’t possibly know that.”
“Can’t I? Just … get on your way,” he snapped, in a surly and awkward manner that gave him an air of embarrassment, as if he had said more than he intended. “Take her to the hall, Pascall,” he ordered one of the retainers, who responded with a low, if slow and stiff bow. “Look after her, but make damn sure she doesn’t show her face in the solar until I send for her,” he concluded, then turned and marched back towards the stairway that led to the upper keep, throwing what he probably supposed to be a quick and inconspicuous glance out into the courtyard as he did so. Tamril allowed his own eyes to drift in that direction, but what he saw elicited little interest. Near the well there was a tall crate, loosely draped in canvas, around which barrels and smaller boxes had been piled up in a disorganised and hasty-looking fashion. Well, Dad certainly doesn’t like a mess, and that’s bound to get in the way of the stablehands and kitchen staff. I’m surprised he didn’t order it cleared up. Maybe he really is getting– but before Tamril could complete the thought, a breeze lifted a corner of the canvas, allowing him to make out some of the details of the large, covered crate. Blue, old wood, recessed panels. ‘Free for use of public?’ ‘Pull to open?’ What in Adala’s name … ? Before he could form a clear picture of the thing, the old servant’s hand descended upon his shoulder, and he was gently but insistently guided in the direction of the keep’s lower entrance, through which the hall and reception areas were located.
In spite of the animosity of his greeting, he was, as promised, comfortably received with a warm fire, wine, and food that he had to admit was far easier on the tongue than the bland, synthetic rations he mostly received in the citadel. Unfortunately, his troubled thoughts left him with little appetite for anything other than solitude, so as soon as he deemed it discreet enough he excused himself and withdrew to the garderobe. Doing his best to ignore the smell of the cesspit that wafted up through the chute – none of those fancy ‘magic’ chemicals and decontamination fields here – he took out his transceiver and stared at it gloomily for several seconds before breathing deeply and pressing the booster and call buttons. A few more seconds passed, during which it emitted nothing more than a low buzz, even fainter than that of the flies performing aerobatics around the privy. Soon, however, a weak, distorted, but comprehensible voice came through:
“Citadel here. Commodore’s office. Report please, Trooper Tamril.”
“My Lady? I … I need to ask a question,” he declared, forcing his resolve but feeling awestruck and nervous. The Fay Queen herself … or the CO, as I should start thinking of her. That won’t make asking this any the easier. I need to know, though. I owe my parents that much.
“Go ahead,” replied Commodore Akylah, and although there was no obvious change of cadence in her voice, Tamril would not help but think that he heard just a faint note of caution or disapproval. Hoping that he was imagining it, he pressed on:
“My father: he says that there are no Iron Golems … no Daleks, I mean, left in Mondever, neither here nor even over the Tarsys Ridge. Is that true?”
“You wish for the truth? We do not know. We know that they withdrew to their landfall site out on the steppes and we expected them to mount their defence from there until they could be reinforced, but our scouts have lost track of them, and we have intercepted no communications for days. No launches were detected, although they may have taken off in stealth, or they may have simply changed their base site. Whatever the case, it is most unwise to underestimate the Daleks, Tamril. Many have come to grief that way.”
“I suppose … but that must mean there are very few of them left, compared to our forces.”
“Probably, but they are not known for accepting defeat.”
“Very well, but in the meantime we’re still making weapons and hardware for you, mining for resources … dying for you,” he pointed out, with a irrepressible flash of resentment, as he remembered the news of the recent collapse at the western ore mine, and the thirty-two conscripts who had been buried alive. “If the Daleks are almost defeated, how can that be justified?”
“As I said, it does not do to underestimate them. Single Daleks have been known to instigate massacres if left to their own devices. Your people were doomed before our timely arrival, Trooper, I can assure you of that. Millions would be dead rather than hundreds, and your culture ruthlessly suppressed … not that this in itself would have been such a regrettable development. On that note, perhaps it is as well that you know I have just met with your friend, Lady Rosela.”
“My … who, sorry?” asked Tamril, with utter incomprehension.
“Sir Emric’s daughter,” clarified Akylah, giving him a pang of shame. Esquire Raynor, of course. I can’t believe I never asked him … asked her if she had another name. “When I told her of the possibilities of integration along the lines you discussed with Staff Sergeant Lilka, she was interested … very interested. Your friend Irina and her lover, too. I fully expect that many more highborn conscripts will volunteer if I redraft our recruitment messages to reflect this … this spirit of inclusiveness, shall we say? If the Alliance should collapse now, however … What future do you suppose awaits those friends of yours should the old ways be reinstated tomorrow? A rewarding one? A pleasant one? Or, in some cases, necessarily a long one? I understand that the Ecclesium’s official punishment for what they would term ‘heretical deviancy’ would put the Daleks themselves to shame for inventive sadism.”
“I … don’t ...” was the best Tamril could manage, feeling weak and torn, and weighted down under the grim inevitability that lives depended on him however he now chose. No doubt sensing his weakness, Akylah was quick to press her advantage:
“This war presents an opportunity for your people, Tamril. Perhaps the only one you and your friends will ever have. For at least twenty generations, to the best of my research, Mondever has been culturally and scientifically stagnant, if not actively decaying. Whatever knowledge your ancestors brought here from Old Earth has been lost or suppressed, and people like you have suffered for it, and been forced into accepting the traditions and prejudices of your founders, or killed for being unable to accept them. Indeed, few of you are even aware that you are almost as much aliens here as we are. Michel Verne’s primitivist cult has grown into quite an institution of control and deception, and it is worse still for those who are not freeborn. The status of the peasantry is little better than that of cattle.”
“My father has always been the most just of masters,” except to me, Tamril mentally added, but he still felt defensive on his family’s behalf. Indeed, the vast majority of Lord Palomar’s vassals considered themselves very fortunate in their service. “He treats his serfs almost like his family,” or even less oppressively, in the case of one family member … “He never–”
“Your logic is faulty, Trooper Tamril. Serfdom is injustice, and here it is more unjust still. Let me tell you how the class system on your world evolved: there were three grades of passengers on the ark that brought your ancestors here. The highest grade were the leaders of the cult and their families, who still form the core of your aristocracy. You yourself are a great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grand-nephew of Captain Verne himself. The mid-grade passengers were paying sponsors of the expedition, whose descendants constitute your free citizens, knights, clerics, etcetera: a lesser class, but still with substantial power. The lowest grade were supporters of the cult who could not afford to pay upfront, so they indentured themselves in servitude to the founding families to buy their passage. I have seen the contract they signed, downloaded from Terran archives. It was never agreed their indenture would be permanent. No more was it agreed that it would be extended to their children, for all generations to come. Do you think the lords and the Ecclesium were justified in reinterpreting it?”
“No … definitely not,” answered Tamril, his tone downbeat but at least certain. “You’re right, My Lady … ma’am. I’m sorry. This all needs to end. I swear, I will not question your wisdom again.” If Mondever was all built on lies, what matter if it falls by them?
“I am pleased to have your loyalty, Trooper,” declared Akylah, blandly but graciously. “Was that the only reason you called?”
“No, ma’am,” he answered, with new-found grit in his voice. “You need to send a patrol out here, now. I can let them into Fordeval keep without a struggle, but they’d best be quick. My father is hiding something … or someone.”