In the time that their Princess was among the Drummers, the Mouse Army was not idle. On the shores of New Chusan they kept vigil, yes, but while they did so, they fortified their position—a ramified network of round compounds tangent to one another, with four regiments to a compound, defined first with ditches dug in the sand, and then with stakes scavenged from the tideline. They stood watches around the perimeter with pikestaves and nanoprojectile rifles charged with paralytic rounds; after the first few incursions were turned back with nonlethal but overwhelming force, the thete gangs did not trouble them much.
Duty rosters were organized, camps were laid out, and latrines were dug. Expeditions were sent out to the public matter compilers, and returned laden with food and reflective blankets for distribution among the troops, and with medicines to resupply the hospital compounds. A pavilion was raised in the middle of the central compounds, constructed of blankets taped onto a skeleton of lashed-together poles. This waited in readiness until such time as Princess Nell might arrive to occupy it; in the meantime, it served as a central base of operations. And having accomplished these massive, banal organizational tasks with minimal fuss and maximal efficiency, each soldier of the Mouse Army not assigned to sentry duty tucked herself up inside her crackly silver blanket and curled up in the soft sand to sleep the sleep of the exhausted.
On the second day, a series of envoys arrived, dispatched by their respective phyles to establish diplomatic relations after the example set by Her Majesty Queen Victoria II; they were greeted with utmost gravitas by the Minister of State, Shū Yàn, who informed them that she, and her Princess, were greatly honored by their visit, but she must regretfully ask their forbearance: the Princess was yet in the Kingdom Beneath the Waves, and the commencement of any formal diplomatic relations must needs wait until her return.
“I will convey the well-wishes of your Elders to her personally upon her return,” Minister Shū Yàn said, for what could not possibly have been the thousandth time but certainly felt like it. She had said some variation of this phrase to every ambassador, representative, and gang leader who had turned up, and there was an ever-growing, neatly-organized stack of well-wishing missives waiting to be personally conveyed. This time, she was saying it to a delegation of Mormons—not those lately displaced, but a detachment lately come from Salt Lake City. They were pleasant enough, but remarkably resistant to being gotten rid of, and had brought with them as a gift several crates of smart paper leaflets, each containing the entirety of their holy text. Minister Shū Yàn was not at all sure that the Princess would approve, although of course she had not said as much.
Eventually, mercifully, the Mormon delegation recognized its cue to depart, and was escorted from the camp with all due ceremony, and Shū Yàn allowed herself, at long last, to relax her posture. When dealing with foreign diplomats, she needed every scant inch of height she could muster, and the muscles of her back and shoulders were taut and painful with the effort. Bending at the waist, she allowed her torso to hang forward and relaxed into gravity’s pull. When she stood again, slowly, stacking her spine one vertebra at a time, her second secretary, Měi Hóng, was standing in the doorway of the pavilion.
“Another?” Shū Yàn asked, falling back into her casual Mandarin against eavesdropping visitors and biting back the desperate tone that wanted to creep into her voice. But Měi Hóng also looked more relaxed, and had brought packets of rice and nanosurimi and phytopaste, and a shiny foil envelope which promised, in a polychromatic jumble of mediaglyphics, hanzi, and stilted Simple English, ‘STRONG HEALTHY VITAMIN NO THIRST TASTY FRUIT DRINK!!!’
“A free promotion,” Měi Hóng said, seeing the direction of her bemused look. “The Medical Division has analyzed it; it contains glucose, flavorings, nutrients, and electrolytes, but no pharmaceuticals.”
“The pamphlets?” Shū Yàn asked, accepting her meal and dropping to a grateful seat on the reflective-blanket floor of the pavilion.
“They have been spot-checked for malicious code and bugs; none have been found, and the texts they contain are an valuable cultural reference, but we have no particular need for half-a-million copies.”
“Save them anyway; the Princess will decide what to do with them.”
Měi Hóng had been instrumental in preparing and delivering a précis of facts and salient cultural practices about each new delegation; Shū Yàn would never have kept up with them all otherwise. Before the Mormons, she had treated with Israelis, Sicilians, Tutsis, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Heartlanders, First Distributed Republicans, and a detachment of Sendero evangelists. These last had been especially difficult because they were prone to mortal insult if not taken seriously, and if handled ingraciously, they might well cause an incident. While Shū Yàn knew her army to be well-equipped for defense, it would be impolitic to precipitate a new international incident in the Princess’ absence.
Shū Yàn sincerely hoped that the Wizard Carl Hollywood, envoy of Her Majesty Queen Victoria II, would arrive when the Princess did. It was a delicate situation, being encamped on the shores of their first and strongest ally but lacking access to the diplomatic personnel through whom it would be proper to communicate, and the sooner they could negotiate for strategic resources, the better. She had been chosen for her position by popular acclaim, after having proven her talents in diplomacy, negotiation, and organization, just as Wén Qīng was Minister of Defense for her skill in tactics and strategy, and Fāng Huā was Minister of Research and Development for her analytical mind. The Princess had confirmed these provisional appointments, and they had all proven themselves time and again on the long road to Shanghai, but these were new and uncertain circumstances. And now that they had finally found their Princess, well… it would not do to disregard her guidance, if they could only ask her for it. She could not possibly return too soon for Shū Yàn's liking.
On the morning of the third day, Wén Qīng, Minister of Defense and highest-ranking officer of the military division, woke before dawn to a soft chiming from her book. This was not uncommon; the books often spoke amongst themselves, and would notify their individual readers of new developments as necessary. She cracked it open under her blanket and flipped forward to the page that glowed. Around her, her sleeping neighbors did not stir. One learned to sleep soundly, growing up in hundred-bed dormitories.
“At dawn on the third day,” Wén Qīng read, “Princess Nell rose from the waves, bearing her mother safely home.” Wén Qīng’s heart kicked harder under her ribs, and she came awake all at once.
“Did the Wizard Carl Hollywood accompany her?” she asked, and the characters on the page shifted and blurred, then resolved again.
“At dawn on the third day, Princess Nell rose from the waves attended by the Wizard Carl Hollywood, bearing her mother safely home.”
“Minister Wén Qīng dispatched an honor guard of divers to escort the Princess and the Queen Mother safely to land,” Wén Qīng murmured, because it would not do for the Princess and her beloved mother and the Wizard to come stumbling ashore unattended. They would be tired, they might be ill or wounded—
“The company went to meet them below the waves, and a detachment of medics waited on the shore,” she added, and the order composed itself neatly. Wén Qīng consulted the duty roster, spent a few moments reviewing the order, and sent it on its way with a touch of the page. Commander Qiǎo Měi and the Four Hundredth and Third Regiment would be on duty soon, and they would be freshly rested; Qiǎo Měi could handle the organization of the expedition. Beside her, Shū Yàn sat up, yawned massively, rubbed her eyes, and stretched her back with a quiet crunch of vertebrae before opening her own book—she, too, had been woken to hear the news. Wén Qīng unrolled herself from her blanket with a quiet crackle and murmured to her book for light; scintillae glanced off the folds of her blanket and those of the girls around her, and she adjusted the brightness until it was just enough to navigate by. Stepping carefully over her sleeping neighbors, she hurried to the pavilion to make preparations, with Shū Yàn close behind.
Qiǎo Měi's honor guard returned bearing the Queen Mother on their shoulders. The Princess and the Wizard walked alongside, soothing her and talking in low voices. In the Pavilion, they were provided with water for washing, and with an assortment of free compiled clothing, procured in a range of sizes. The medics and nurses were dismissed; apart from the old wounds of the siege, and fresh cuts on the Princess’ and the Queen Mother’s lips, they were unharmed. Runners were sent to secure food and TASTY FRUIT DRINK—recommended by the medics for its readily-available glucose and electrolytes, for they were all three of them dehydrated, especially the Queen Mother.
After some hours had passed, the Princess emerged from the tent attired in a tee shirt and loose shorts, with book in hand. Her hair hung damp about her shoulders, and she looked tired, but happy. Shū Yàn had been in conference with Secretaries Lì Xiá and Měi Hóng, Minister Wén Qīng, Minister Fāng Huā, and several others outside the pavilion, and she did not intend to bother Her Majesty, but the Princess knelt beside them and waved away their bows.
“Am I intruding, Ministers?” As acting leader, and convener of the present meeting, it fell to Shū Yàn to reply.
“Not at all, Your Majesty,” she said, and the Princess seated herself in their circle and opened her book on her knees.
“I thank you all,” she said, “for your kindness, and for the diligence and care with which you have organized this city. Has it a name?”
“No, Your Majesty; we thought it best to leave the naming of this, your first city—however rude it may be—to you alone.”
The Princess smiled, then, and ducked her head, and Shū Yàn was struck by how human she was—a warrior and a great scholar she might be, but she was also a girl, not so much older than the rest of them.
“You honor me too much, and yourselves not enough,” the Princess said. “With your leave, and in your honor, I shall name this city Muscaster, the Camp of the Mice.” And they all knew without looking that the books had heard them, and that, should they consult the chronicles of their separate and collective lives, Muscaster their city should be.
A council was held then, informally, with a rolling agenda as people trickled in and out, bringing orders of business with them. Minister Shū Yàn made good her promises to the envoys, and arrangements were made for the disposition of the various gifts and missives which had piled up behind the Pavilion. Carl Hollywood, who expressed a firm preference to be addressed not as “Wizard,” “Ambassador,” or “Honorable Envoy,” but simply as “Carl,” was formally introduced to Ministers Shū Yàn, Wén Qīng, and Fāng Huā, and a plan of action was developed for the furtherance of diplomatic relations with Atlantis, and arrangements were made.
On the fourth day, Carl Hollywood went up to Atlantis/Shanghai escorted by thirty-two soldiers of the Mouse Army. Their own garments being much crusted with salt after their crossing to New Chusan, the escort had outfitted themselves for the occasion in uniforms composed from the free offerings of the public matter compilers of the Leased Territories—elastic black leggings, soft-soled slippers reinforced with a hard polymer shank in the arch, and blue tee-shirts of quasicellulosic fibers laid up by the M.C. into a half-woven, half-felted fabric that wicked like cotton and breathed like gauze. These last were available adult sizes only, and they made knee-length tunics for the Mice; the excess width had been carefully pleated in and belted down with broad sashes of the same material, and some enterprising soul—scratch that, they were all enterprising souls, every one of them—had compiled some of the fibroadhesive decals used to embellish compiled clothing, and added insignia of gold stars on their shoulders: one for the leader of every squad of four, and two for the leaders of each quartet of squads.
Carl had sent word to Atlantis/Shanghai humbly begging for a delivery of clothing and some supplies; it had been delivered posthaste, and he was now encumbered with garb appropriate for some pedantic Atlantean etiquette guru’s idea of an Ambassador but eminently unsuitable for a diplomatic mission to an improvised military encampment which, no matter how neatly organized, was indisputably located on a dirty public beach, and very nearly as ill-suited for walking briskly uphill in the oppressive humidity and nanosmog of the Leased Territories. Sponge-bath notwithstanding, Carl was painfully, stickily aware of salt and sand in tender places, and of the sheets of sweat he was shedding into his formalwear. His Mouse Army escort, by contrast, looked practically fresh in their free compiled kit.
The two two-star officers—Captains, roughly—flanked him on either side, eyes moving constantly as they kept tabs on their surroundings and their troops, and he did not trouble them with idle chatter. They made good time, moving through the clogged streets of the L.T. with inexorable purpose, and though uncomfortable, their march up to Atlantis/Shanghai was mercifully short. At the dog pod grid, his escort bowed and took their leave; Atlantean security would have had them disarm before entering, and they would not be parted from their weapons. And so Carl went up through the greenbelt alone, and made his way to the halls of local government, where he was received into the impersonal but efficient embrace of unflappable Victorian bureaucracy.
He had sent word ahead, and after a brief delay while he showered and changed his clothes—a mercy for all parties concerned—a meeting was convened. Carl had been steeling himself to broach the topic of humanitarian aid, but Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw, who had no discernable reason for being present at this meeting of diplomatic and administrative functionaries save that he was too old and powerful and filthy rich to be kicked out of it, beat him to it.
“Naturally, the city of Muscaster will require a dedicated Feed, of considerable size, and numerous industrial matter compilers. The Feed line is being laid as we speak; I trust that the matter compilers will be ready to dispatch upon Mr. Hollywood’s departure.” Being old and powerful and filthy rich, among other benefits, apparently enabled one to say things like this, then sit back and watch a room full of lesser mortals nod briskly and pretend that of course, that was just precisely what they had meant to do all along.
“I am given to understand,” Lord Finkle-McGraw continued, once he judged that the appropriate papers had been shuffled in the correct order to Make It So, “that the Mouse Army possesses a talented Corps of Engineers, who will doubtless be more than capable of addressing the needs of their people. However, as a gesture of goodwill, I have taken the liberty of arranging for the services of Imperial Tectonics, Limited. Should Her Royal Highness desire that any of her forces receive tuition in geotecture, ITL will gladly provide it.”
At this point, it fell to Carl to make some sort of reply to this extraordinary generosity, and he found that his grounding in formal etiquette did not quite cover it. Lord Finkle-McGraw received his floundering reply with good grace, however, and ceded the reins to the chairman of the meeting and his minutes; thereafter, the proceedings rolled along most agreeably.
At sundown on the seventh day, a naked man limned in lights walked out of the surf, unsteady on his feet and moving as one who sleepwalks. He said nothing, only stumbled up the slope of the beach toward the tideline, gazing unseeing into the middle distance. Among a tangled litter of weeds, driftwood, and the flotsam of the Celestials’ purge of Pudong, his reverie finally broke as he noticed something among the debris and stooped to pick it up: a venerable bowler hat, rimed with dried salt and wreathed in weeds. This he put on, settling it carefully upon his head, and seeming to draw certainty from this gesture, he walked forward with gravitas, making his way up to the camp of the Mouse Army.
With their newly-granted access to a dedicated Feed, the bounds of Princess Nell’s domain had been reinforced. The scavenged stakes were replaced with uniform pickets of extruded carbon-fiber tubing, planted at intervals of two meters and strung about with polymer ribbon of a brilliant blue. This flimsy border now served as a mere visual warning of the real boundary, a diaphanous golden veil of aerostats designed by the Royal Corps of Engineers. A pair of taller stakes bearing pennants marked a gate, still guarded by a detachment of four girls, two armed with nanobladed spears and two with semiautomatic nanoprojectile rifles. The rest of their company were also on watch. At the man’s approach, the spear-bearers moved to bar the gate with the crossed staves of their weapons, and it fell to their company leader, Ài Yīng, to address him.
“Hold, stranger! Who are you, and what business have you in the Realm of Princess Nell?”
“I am John the Alchemist, once King Coyote of the Lands Beyond, and I humbly beg audience of Princess Nell.”
Ài Yīng received this exciting news with joy, for she had heard of the Princess’ conquest of the Lands Beyond, and of her defeat of King Coyote—who among the Mouse Army had not?—and surely the coming of the Alchemist heralded great events indeed, but she kept her composure and signaled to the gatekeepers, who raised their spears to admit him.
“Well met, John the Alchemist,” she said. “We welcome you to Muscaster. My sisters and I shall escort you to the Pavilion, that you may further pursue the audience you seek.” She followed this with some quick words to her company, and as the Alchemist walked through the gates, he was flanked by a squad of minders, each armed with sword and pistol by her side. He was also provided with a crackling silver toga of reflective blankets pieced together with polymer tape; they were not accustomed to receiving naked dignitaries, and had to improvise.
The Pavilion was now a substantial complex of tents, all taller and more structurally sophisticated than those which had now been erected to house the Mouse Army, and truly worthy of the definite article. Ài Yīng’s squad, and the Alchemist with them, were admitted to an antechamber, where they waited as news of his arrival percolated up the ranks. At length, the Princess herself emerged from an inner chamber.
“Your Majesty,” the Alchemist said, and bowed very low. Ài Yīng and her squad bowed too, and waited to be dismissed, but the Princess paid them no mind. Her thoughts, it seemed, were for the Alchemist alone.
“John,” she said. “Coyote. Alchemist. Do you come bearing the Seed?”
“I do, Your Majesty.” Princess Nell inhaled and then exhaled, visibly mastering her emotions before proceeding.
“And what of the Drummers?” she asked, at length.
“They continue as before, and as they ever have since they began. But the Seed is finished, and it is the Seed—the first Seed, the archetypical Seed—that I have brought to you this day.”
The Princess’s face was very grave. She had spoken of how the Queen Mother had been rescued at the very last moment from immolation at the culmination of the Drummers’ rites, and word of it had circulated. Her feelings on the Drummers, and on the fruits of their computational powers, were understandably complex, and it seemed to Ài Yīng that the Alchemist himself was a source of some discomfort to her. But she mastered herself, and though her voice shook, she spoke calmly and courteously, bidding him welcome to Muscaster. A room in the Pavilion was prepared for him, and he bathed and dressed and ate, and the Princess and the Queen Mother and the Wizard and the Alchemist spoke long into the night, and many things which had not previously been known came to light, and found their way into the books in their proper places.
And at sunrise on the eighth day, from the blood of John the Alchemist, drawn by the sword of Princess Nell, the Seed was compiled within the pages of the Princess’ Great Book, and the Book of the Seed was opened. And John the Alchemist went out into the streets of Muscaster and spoke with the girls of the Mouse Army, for he sorely missed his daughter, and he had a craftsman’s pride in what his work had wrought.
The geotects of Imperial Tectonics Limited were much bemused to find themselves tasked with the instruction of a cadre of precocious-verging-on-prodigious twelve-year-old girls in the art and science of worldbuilding. Their bemusement deepened when the Royal Corps of Geotects, as their students called themselves, took up their work with a will and determination which would have been remarkable in keen young professionals of twenty-three. Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw, upon hearing of this, smiled to himself and said “Remarkable indeed!” and would not comment further.
In the days that followed, multilateral talks were held, and a deal was hammered out whereby, in recognition of the Mouse Army’s extraordinary service in protecting the refugees of Shanghai, the powerful phyles of the region—most notably the Atlanteans, the Nipponese, the Hindustanis, and the Indo-Pinoy-Australian Commonwealth, with delegates from many others—made a joint gift of a high-volume Source, and a pledge of the resources required to complete the geotectonic project which would grow a homeland for their nascent phyle. Princess Nell and Minister Shū Yàn, and Měi Hóng—long since confirmed as Minister of Foreign Affairs in recognition of her sterling work in intercultural negotiation—devoted long hours to the brokering of this deal, and it was with great joy and relief that it was finally achieved.
Great care was taken to make no mention of the Alchemist or of the Seed. The Alchemist had remained hidden behind the security valences of Muscaster, and it was universally understood amongst the Mouse Army that he remain so, for there were many who desired to possess both Alchemist and Seed in order to achieve wicked and dangerous ends, and there were many more who feared them and desired their destruction. Of all the world, the Alchemist had entrusted his life and his greatest creation to them alone, and his safety was a sacred duty which they gladly accepted, for whatever else he had done, he had given them gifts beyond measure.
Summer waned and turned to fall, and fall in due course to winter, and as the winter wore on, in the deep waters beyond New Chusan and the Nipponese island of Kame-jima, a new island slowly coalesced, smart coral particles self-organizing and accreting in accordance with the Royal Corps of Geotects’ designs. A mountain rose symmetrically from the center, pre-terraced in a great spiral which wound its way up to a flat peak, and from it, out of the living rock, grew a citadel of self-sintering granitoid stone. Stands of liliform air intakes sprouted on the slopes, and a fringe of beaches with sand fine and pale as caster sugar grew ‘round the edges. Springs of clear water burst from the ground and wound down their preordained beds to the shores, and the mountainsides grew green first with a riot of herbs and grasses, then with groves of trees and ramified photovoltaic arrays, not immediately distinguishable from dark, glossy foliage at a distance.
Gradually, in groups which were no longer regiments, companies, or squads by necessity, but which were still bound together by the ties of long friendship and sisterhood, the Mice colonized their island. The stakes of Muscaster were pulled up and decompiled, until one by one, the compounds were no more than patterns trodden in the sand. Not every Mouse traveled to the Island, for the Princess would not have any one of them remain against her will, and bade each of them to seek her fortunes how and where she most desired; if any wished to return someday, she vowed, they would be welcomed with open arms. Some newcomers joined them, mostly thetes, and mostly young, but many ages and phyles and walks of life were represented among their number, and the oath that they swore was to learn willingly and to harm none.
On the last day of spring, one final company made the voyage to the Island. Princess Nell, girt with book and sword, with her beloved mother Miranda beside her; Carl Hollywood, who grudgingly answered to the title of “Wizard” when necessary, because thespians, even old and crotchety ones, understand the significance of symbols and the importance of a good story; and John Percival Hackworth, Artifex and Alchemist, deposed trickster king, father, and subversive after all; all embarked together, attended by a dynamic swarm of aerostats like golden bees, and when they had landed, gently, gently, the Island floated loose of its moorings. By sunrise on the first morning of summer, the Island had faded from sight even of the summits of New Chusan and Kame-jima.
In the deep waters of the Pacific, the Seeds of an archipelago were sown.