Before the Year 74-75: 7th Thunderhead Year 47
A multitude of well-wishers had gathered on the hill slopes, to witness Her Majesty’s death.
“Ooh!” Princess Celeste squealed. “That was the biggest bump yet!”
“It’s almost like,” Princess Rona added, “the cart has triangular wheels.”
We rattled to the tower in a horse-drawn wagon, built to convey supplies, rather than people. The soldier at the reins had been apologetic – although I’m sure she’d done her utmost to ensure as smooth a ride as possible. Possibilities didn’t favour her endeavours. Our way was over rutted ground.
“You’ve listened, sis,” Princess Alice said, almost accusingly, “to Miss Lightfoot talking geometry in our direction.”
“I know that a triangle has sharper corners than a square, if that’s what you mean.”
“It’s the sort of knowledge,” Princess Emma quipped, “that she doesn’t kick about with a light foot.”
At the time, I served as War Minister, and was clearly popular with the troops. In an age of peace, prominent ladies had suggested that we might disband the army. My conviction has been steadfast – that it would be the most terrible blasphemy against the martial goddesses to waste what was, I am convinced – and remains – the finest force the world has ever seen. So, I’d instigated a programme of training to equip our brave girls to deal with such calamities as landslip and flood. Heavy storms the previous winter had shown the wisdom of my precautions, and how much we still needed our soldiers.
“I was up in Scotia Major last winter,” the driver had informed me. “Never seen such weather.”
“I’m sorry,” I replied, “you were sent there, but…”
“Don’t you apologise, Minister. We’re here to serve. It shut up the Peace Party’s chattering tongues good and proper – may the goddesses of war take the old blasphemers.”
The Peace Party comprised the group of Deputies, and their supporters, who envisaged that we no longer required an army or navy. As a daughter of a cavalry colonel, I’d never been of such a persuasion – but many otherwise sensible people had supposed that this wretched view would eventually carry the day. Of course, it was possible that our explorers, probing ever deeper into the wilderness, would sooner or later light upon an enemy worthy of our brave girls. As the years passed, this seemed decreasingly likely. The nearest to have been discovered were the rude tom-men beyond the western ocean: a dangerous quarry for the lone huntswoman, but scarcely meriting the deployment of military might.
It seemed entirely possible that the cavalry charge we were about to witness would be the last such engagement in the history of the world.
“I wonder,” the driver’s mate had said, “whether we’ll ever again see the likes of this day’s battle.”
“I’d rather we didn’t,” the driver replied. “Any day of the year, I’d take rescuing those poor souls in Scotia Major over campaigning against Their Majesties’ enemies.”
“Not that you’ve ever…”
“Of course not, the wars were over before I was born. I was knee high to a nazehound when our brave girls put down the Year Twenty-Seven rebellions. All the same, I’ve spoken to enough old soldiers…”
“Wasn’t your mum…?”
“Yeah, she served with the Buffs, and isn’t she proud of it?”
“It’s a fine regiment. Who wouldn’t be proud?”
That day’s battle was the, in some ways, fortunate outcome of two unwelcome developments. In the spring of that year, a couple of dozen members of the old families, under the direction of Dolphin Tigerfang, had fomented rebellion. Although their treason had posed no real threat to the Empire, Miss Justice Swallow had regarded it as sufficiently serious to condemn the plotters to death.
The other unwelcome development lay in the aging and infirmity of Berenice, our beloved first Empress. Learned theologians argue that death is the last and finest gift the goddesses bestow upon us – and certainly we must all die. There was, perhaps, some comfort in that reflection. Another source for solace was that Berenice had the wisdom, years before, to install her daughter and granddaughter as coregents. Her succession clearly established, we could expect to pass into a new age without dynastic dispute or further rebellion.
Even so, there had been, a few months before, the stirring of rebellion under Dolphin Tigerfang. Perhaps that had, in part, been prompted by an awareness of Berenice the First’s failing health. It had seemed, I suppose, a circumstance in which members of old families might assert their ancient claims. Waiting for the moment of the Empress’ death to hatch their treason would surely have been inadmissible. Her Majesty’s passage from our world was as though every woman’s genny, if not her mother, had died. Amid the resultant mourning there was room only for loyalty. Releasing their plot while Berenice still had months to live gave the traitors an opportunity to hope that they might win the day. Fortunately, through the Empress’ wisdom, and the goddesses’ bounty, no army officers were prepared to lend their support to a coup. Dolphin’s cousin, Lance Colonel Justine Tigerfang, rather than join the wickedness, had exposed the conspiracy.
As I’ve already intimated, Berenice the First’s last illness and Dolphin Tigerfang’s rebellion, taken together, resulted in an example of the serendipity with which the goddesses bless us on occasion.
In her youth, our Empress distinguished herself as a cavalry commander without peer. From this firm basis, she had moved into politics and eventually secured the throne. Now, with life ebbing from her body, Her Majesty aspired to a good death. For her, at least, the finest way to die could only be in the saddle, leading a cavalry charge. In our age of peace, there was no enemy to meet her wrath – or none until Miss Tigerfang and her friends presented themselves as suitable foes. Condemned to death, it remained to determine how they should die. How better than upon the field of blood with warhorses between their thighs?
Presented with a choice between such a glorious passage from our world, and a drowsy demise by poison, Dolphin and her rebels had consented to form the loyal enemy our beloved Empress required. A consideration that surely entered into at least some of their calculations was that cavalry engagements seldom, if ever, kill all of the participants on the losing side. Those who fought bravely, but survived, would have been spared by the goddesses and, as such, in effect pardoned. A further consideration may have been the possible support of martial goddesses’ angels in roaring at the divine tribunal. It is better to roar than to whimper. Thus it was that they agreed to train for a cavalrywoman’s role in so far as the brief time available permitted. Whilst the best of them remained far inferior to the least of force they must face, the traitors had acquired some fine martial skills with remarkable speed.
“Do you think, mummy,” Princess Alice asked her mother, “that many of the traitors could still be alive tonight?”
“Some of them will, sweetheart,” Princess Victoria replied, “I’m pretty sure. Which of them, and how many is up to the goddesses.”
“It might be up to granny and her sword, too, mummy.”
“A bit, of course, darling, but the goddesses will decide who they favour, and who they don’t.”
“Will they favour granny?”
“In their way, I think they will, although it might not be in the way you expect.”
Berenice the First’s medical advice indicated that her heart would be unequal to the skirmish. It shouldn’t, physicians assured the Empress, take a rebel’s sword to propel Her Majesty into the company of the martial deities she’d followed – in deed, if not in devotion – these many years.
For me, a complicating factor in my view of the cavalry engagement was that Colonel Modesty Clay, my adored genny, had agreed to ride as Her Majesty’s lieutenant. Whilst this was clearly a great honour, and something my genny desired above all else, I couldn’t avoid some misgivings. Berenice the First was ill, and had recently passed her eighty-seventh birthday. Modesty was at least a decade younger and, so far I knew, in good health. The phrase at least a decade younger masks the truth that nobody, not even my mother, Lisa-Louise, appeared to know exactly how old my genny was. Her mid seventies was the best approximation I could glean. An unanswerable question refused to be banished from my thoughts: was my genny’s heart any more able than the Empress’ to take the strain of the charge?
“Do you think my genny…?” I asked Passibelle, unable to force the tail end of the question from my mouth.
“I think she’ll be fine, Daisy. Even if she isn’t, the goddesses…” She, too, seemed unable to complete her sentence.
With whatever misgivings and mixed feelings, the entire population of the city of Berenice – or very nearly so – had gathered on the hill slopes bounding the valley set aside as the field of blood. A rope running between stout posts marked the limit of where the crowd might stand. All, evidently, respected this boundary. Their loyalty, no doubt, would have permitted nothing else. In addition, a place too close to the coming slaughter would have risked trampling under the hooves of warhorses. The mood, as well as I could gather, was almost festive: anticipating the glorious spectacle, perhaps, mingled with satisfaction that Her Majesty should meet so good a death. Food vendors passed amongst the throng. Each shouted the merits of her comestibles. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of faithful hands waved miniature Imperial flags – black double headed eagles on yellow fields. This was no day for the quietest rebellious whisper.
“Sausages in buns!” a vendor called. “As good as you’d find at the station!”
“Garn!” a woman replied, “they’re not the same without the smoke.”
“I didn’t say,” the seller defended herself, “that they were the same…”
Tall wooden towers rose above the crowd: platforms raised on stilts and braced with crosspieces. My place on one of these had not been secured by my status as War Minister. Apart from members of the Imperial family, those allocated so fine a view of the cavalry charge bore a responsibility to record, for posterity, the manner of Her Majesty’s death. Our number included photographers, painters and writers. It was in the last named capacity that I rode in a military freight wagon so that I might witness, from a good vantage point, the hour of blood.
My nine companions on that bumpy ride along the prospective field of combat comprised six members of the Imperial family, a painter and two photographers. Amongst them was the daughter of Her Majesty’s womb, Princess Victoria. She and I had first met more than twenty years before, during my training as an explorer. The princess, disliking fuss and formality, had from the first insisted that I call her Vicky. Her passions were for riding and the outdoor life, and her tutors were mine – tough former soldiers who had served with the commandos and special troops. Accompanying Vicky was her partner Trudy, otherwise Plentitude Saraband, and their four daughters: Alice, Emma, Rona and Celeste. The adults shared, I judged, a mingling of gladness, that Vicky’s mother would receive the death she desired, and grief that she would be taken from us. This latter emotion appeared all but absent from the four little princesses, aged between eight and twelve. Perhaps they didn’t fully realise that they were about to lose their granny.
The painter was a former slave named Passibelle. Like many during the bad old days of the Democracy, and beyond in the wicked kingdoms, she had – essentially – been enslaved for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. During the wars, before the days of the Empire, armies had been apt to seize such civilians as they were able. A little more than thirty-nine years before, in Glarehaze of Year Eight, Passibelle had given birth to Penelope, one of Her Majesty’s many daughters. In doing so, she had passed from slavery not merely to personage, but to eaquellety. She had served as one of my teachers at the Belle House School, and we had since become firm friends.
By contrast, the photographers were both strangers to me. A blonde haired woman, who can’t have been taller than five foot two was, I gathered, Iris Jones. Her companion, fully eight inches taller, had startlingly red tresses falling half way down her back. She was, evidently, Fiona Carlisle. Together, they made an odd-looking pair. Their conversation mingled photographic technicalities with comments on women whose acquaintance I lacked. Some of their remarks struck me as oddly juxtaposed.
“On a bright day like this,” Iris said, “we could try a soft filter on a fourteen-sixteen lens.”
“Yeah, it was soft filtering on a day like this,” Fiona replied, “that led to Miriam making her move on Carla.”
“Now, there’s a girl who called for a wide angle shot, if there ever was one.”
“Which is what we’ll need today if we’re to properly capture any of the action. The cavalry girls…”
“…would definitely be to Carla’s taste.”
“Wouldn’t they just! Do you think a fish eye lens would be too weird?”
It occurred to me that this bizarre-seeming conversation might be useful for a later work, if unsuited to an official account of Her Majesty’s last cavalry charge. I took a notebook and pencil from my shoulder bag, and began to write the curious exchange down as well as I could remember it. Perhaps, I thought, I should ask whether I correctly recalled the lenses they’d mentioned. No, I decided, that would seem rude. Their remarks had not been addressed to me, still less to whatever readership I would in future time engage. A further question entered my head: If I thought it ill-mannered to ask them to confirm what they’d said, how come it seemed less so to present, without the photographers’ permission, the overheard words to the reading public? No plausible answer suggested itself.
“You look very serious about what you’re writing,” Passibelle said.
“Yeah,” I replied, “I’m not sure whether it’s right.”
“Something you’ve forgotten?”
“No. Well, maybe I have, a bit – but that’s not what I meant. The question is, whether or not I can recall it exactly, should I write it down?”
“Without reading what you’ve put, how could I answer that question? Of course, if it was treason or blasphemy you shouldn’t even think it. But…”
“Are you…” The driver sounded angry. “…calling Miss Diamond a blasphemer or a traitor? Because, if you are…”
“Not at all,” Passibelle denied. “Daisy’s a dear friend, and doesn’t have a blasphemous or disloyal atom in her body. I was just trying to say that she can safely put down anything she’s likely to write.”
“That’s all right, then. Well, here we are.”
Her final three words were, of necessity, true. Wherever we may be, that place is always, at that moment, here. In spite of the seeming tautology, the driver had conveyed some useful information. As she spoke, she reined in the horses, and our cart halted at the foot of a great ladder propped against a tower. Her here was our destination. Far above our heads, a wooden platform was raised up on stilts braced by x-shaped crosspieces. Nearer to ground level, the tall posts served to support the rope holding back the crowd.
I heard a woman behind the cordon say: “Well blow me.” A small Imperial flag fluttered in her grasp. “If these ain’t some of the princesses, I’ll be a pole vaulter’s auntie.”
Vicky, sliding from the wagon, embraced the speaker, kissing her on the cheek. “Princess Victoria,” she introduced herself. “No need for your nieces to pole vault. And these…” She gestured to her daughters. “…are Alice, Emma, Rona and Celeste.”
“Well, may the goddesses bless you.”
“And you. And my mother, this day.”
“May the goddesses take her to their bosoms. We’ll miss the old Empress, but…” Unable to complete her sentence, she started to cry.
“May the goddesses bless us all,” Trudy added.
Arms snaked from the crowd, obviously hungry to touch Vicky and Trudy. The princess and her partner squeezed and kissed hands. Their daughters waited a pace or two behind, seemingly uncertain as to how they should react. Passibelle laid her hands on the shoulders of the youngest two: Rona and Celeste. Our wagon now empty of passengers, it described a semicircle and headed back the way we had come – toward the Palace Imperial. The driver and her mate waved at us. I reciprocated their friendly gesture. Vicky turned, for a moment, to look at me.
“Daisy,” she said, “can you do us a favour?”
“Anything in my power,” I answered. Then, realising that this wasn’t strictly true, I corrected myself: “or almost anything.”
“Don’t worry – it isn’t treason or blasphemy. Can you take the little princesses up to the platform? Trudy and I should stay a bit longer down here with the loyal ladies.”
“Of course.” Then, to my artist friend: “Passibelle, sweetheart, can you help?”
“Is the high priestess holy? Are Their Majesties just?”
Having posed her rhetorical questions, Passibelle ushered Rona and Celeste to the ladder. The children gazed up at its length and steepness with doubt in their eyes. I took Alice and Emma by their hands, leading them to the rungs. They, too, hesitated to climb. It was certainly a long way up to the summit. Iris and Fiona, by contrast, had almost gained the platform – anxious, I thought, to attend to their cameras.
“It’s jolly high,” Princess Alice observed.
“I’ll climb up after you and Emma,” I offered, “then I can catch you if you slip – not that you will.”
“And I’ll do the same for you, Rona and Celeste,” Passibelle added.
“If I climb up behind Alice,” Emma objected, “and she falls, it’ll be on to me, not you, Daisy.”
“How about,” I suggested, “I go up behind Alice…”
“What about me?” Emma asked.
“I’ll come back down for you.”
“Yes,” Passibelle said, “it may be better to do this in a couple of trips.”
“Or three trips,” I amended the plan. “I’ll take Alice up, while you wait down here with the other three princesses. I’ll come down for Emma, and then for Rona. You can bring up Celeste.”
“Then you’d have to climb the ladder three times, Daisy.”
“I’m a big girl now, Passibelle. I think I can manage.”
Although Passibelle’s exact age was not a piece of information that I ever discovered, I must have been around thirty years her junior. While she was in her late sixties or early seventies, I approached my thirty-ninth birthday. That being so, my companion advanced no argument against my scaling the ladder thrice. Thus it was. By the time we had all four young princesses safely installed on the platform, I found myself more puffed than I cared to admit. Iris and Fiona busied themselves removing photographic plates from stout wooden boxes and slotting them into four cameras mounted on tripods. An artist’s easel nearby had doubtlessly been provided for Passibelle’s painterly use. None of these provisions having been stowed on the army wagon, they must have been placed here before our arrival. The little girls leaned over a stout balustrade, shrieking and evidently marvelling at the view. Passibelle was the only person present who appeared to notice me.
“Are you all right, Daisy?” she asked. “You look a bit…”
“I’m fine,” I replied, making a valiant effort to control my breath. Then, to change the subject, I addressed the photographers: “There seem to be quite a lot of boxes. Are all of them full of your equipment?”
“No,” Fiona answered monosyllabically, without looking up from her work.
“There’s sandwiches, drinks, cups, warm tunics and waterproofs,” Iris added more helpfully, but little less distractedly.
“The zephyr’s refreshing,” Passibelle said, “not at all chilly. I can’t see that we’ll want warm clothes or waterproofs on a day like this.”
She was correct. On this high summer’s day, Thunderhead had yet to live up to its name. Storms are more typical of the latter part of the month. This was the seventh. A few fluffy white clouds dotted the sky, their progress across the heavens fanned by a gentle breeze. Presumably, the Palace Imperial official responsible for our provisions had wished to cater for, as nearly as possible, every eventuality. Princess Celeste turned on the ball of her foot, clearly focused on another part of the inventory.
“Did you say drinks, blonde lady?” she asked Iris.
“Yes, Your Highness,” the photographer replied, still without looking up from her work. “Third box from the left – drinks and cups, both.” Then, obviously to Fiona: “This is a twenty-seven sixty-three plate. It’d be better suited to a zoomed close up when the cavalry are good and near.”
“Yeah,” Fiona agreed. “There are plenty of seventy-four thirty-nine plates – all with a little blue dot on the frame.”
“I know how they’re marked. I was just saying…”
My life partner, Sally, has looked at this text in draft. As a photographer of no mean accomplishment, she assures me that the words I’ve attributed to Iris and Fiona make little, if any, sense. Thus far, I understood her remarks. When it came to correcting me on these technicalities, she might as well have been delivering a lecture on gynogenesis science. On reflection, I’ve decided to allow my evident nonsense to stand. Any readers who follow such abstruse matters should be able to adjust the text to their own satisfaction, and enjoy a chuckle at my expense. Those who are unversed in these mysteries may nod wisely before continuing to more readily comprehensible stuff.
“Are you thirsty, Celeste?” Passibelle asked.
“Not really parched,” she answered, “I just thought it might be nice to…”
“It might be best, little sister,” Alice said, “to leave the drinks until we really need them. There’s no toilet up here.”
“In any case,” Emma added, “The people on the other side of the valley can probably see what we’re doing.”
Celeste began: “What are we going to…?”
“The blonde lady said,” Rona recalled, “there are waterproofs and warm tunics in one of the boxes. Maybe we could rig up some kind of toilet tent.”
“What,” Princess Alice asked, “would happen to the wee?”
“It might,” Rona replied, “soak into the planks.”
“Or it might dribble between them onto the heads of the crowd below. They’ve come here because they love our granny, and I don’t think that Imperial princesses should…”
“Perhaps we could lay out one of the waterproofs.”
“Then it would dribble over the edge. It doesn’t seem much of a solution.”
“Alice is perfectly right,” I said. “Imperial princesses shouldn’t wee onto the heads of the loyal crowd below.”
“Imperial princesses shouldn’t,” Emma repeated. “Would it be all right for you, or Passibelle, or the photography ladies?”
“No, it wouldn’t, Emma. It was very silly of the Palace Imperial officials to think of rain – which we’re obviously not going to get – but to ignore the entirely foreseeable wee.”
Passibelle suggested: “Maybe we could use a waterproof to collect the piss.”
“But, like I said,” Princess Alice objected, “it would dribble over the edge.”
“Not if we emptied one of the boxes, and used a waterproof to line it.”
“That’s a good idea, Passibelle,” I agreed. “If we pushed a box right into one corner of the platform, we could drape waterproofs or tunics over the railing, which would make two sides of a toilet tent.”
“What about the other two sides?” Emma asked.
“Maybe,” I suggested, “if two or three of us stood with our backs to the person who was using the toilet, we could hold tunics or waterproofs.”
“So,” Emma took up my idea, “the person having a wee would be quite hidden. That should work, Daisy. You’re clever – no wonder my granny made you her War Minister.”
“It wasn’t exactly your granny who did that.”
“Who was it then?”
“Tessa Openshaw, the First Minister, although I suppose your granny agreed to my appointment. In any case, if you’re praising people’s cleverness, Emma, you shouldn’t forget Passibelle. It was her idea to line one of the boxes with a waterproof.”
“Yes,” Emma agreed, “Passibelle’s clever, too.”
“Seeing as how we have a clever idea,” Princess Alice said, “let’s do it.” She attempted to shove one of the boxes. It failed to move. “It seems to be stuck. Perhaps it’s nailed down.”
“I hope not,” I replied. “Maybe it’s just heavy. In any case, we’ll need to empty the toilet box – and it would be better to do that before we shift it into a corner.”
Passibelle lifted the hinged lid of the box that Alice had attempted to push. It contained what was obviously photographic equipment. My friend shut that one, and tried another. This time, she encountered the warm tunics and waterproofs: dull bluish grey objects, I saw, most certainly army issue. None of them appeared to carry badges. I hurried to help empty the container; attempting to pile the garments neatly, as I did so. Little princesses also scurried to aid the proceedings but, in reality, provided more obstruction than genuine assistance. Once we’d emptied the box, Passibelle and I pushed it experimentally. While the object didn’t shift easily, it had clearly not been nailed to the platform. Shoving first one way, then another, we managed to manoeuvre it into a corner, with the lid hinging in a suitable direction. A little more effort lined it with a waterproof and draped others over the balustrade. The result, it seemed to me, was an entirely credible toilet.
“That,” Passibelle replied, “would please Diqui Drainsetter herself.”
“And Barguin Bathlayer, too,” I added, in deference to Diqui’s partner – both personal and in their engineering endeavours.
“In reality,” Passibelle corrected herself, “I’m pretty sure that it’d please Barguin a great deal more than Diqui. As Barguin is always the first to admit, Diqui’s the real hydraulic engineer.”
“That’s true,” I agreed. “If Diqui made an improvised toilet, I expect it’d drain into the sewers, not into a waterproof.”
“And I shouldn’t wonder if it was provided with hot running water so that we could wash our hands.”
Iris sounded impressed by the tendency of our remarks: “Do you know Diqui Drainsetter and Barguin Bathlayer?”
“Yes,” I replied, “they were amongst the warriors of love who fought with my mother and my genny.”
“Are they here?” Iris continued. “Miss Drainsetter and Miss Bathlayer, I mean.”
“I’d say not,” I said. “Their home, these last ten years, has been in the south – near Bridnessport in Louise’s Land.”
“The climate down there seems to suit them,” Passibelle added, “although – from all I hear – it’d be too hot for me.”
“I suppose,” I reflected, “in some ways, it’s a shame that they’re not likely to be here. They saw to the water supply and drainage for Berenice the First’s coronation. There’d be a pleasing symmetry in their witnessing the end of her reign as well.”
“As I understand things,” Passibelle said, “the plan is to embalm Her Majesty’s body, to tour the Empire. So Diqui and Barguin should be able to pay their last respects.”
“I’d heard much the same,” Iris assented, “about the embalming and touring the Empire. I wonder whether it’ll include shipping her body across the Western Ocean.”
“If it does,” Fiona replied, “she’ll probably be the first person to make the trip without being seasick.”
“That’s true,” Iris agreed, “a friend of our Kate was on an expedition, and she said there are waves the size of mountains, and she was as sick as an Old Time blasphemer.”
Emma sounded interested by this: “How sick were the Old Time blasphemers?”
“Jolly sick, I’d say,” Princess Rona replied piously. “Their blasphemy would make anyone sick.”
“Yes, but,” Emma objected, “if it made them sick, they’d stop doing it. Wouldn’t they?”
“Perhaps,” Princess Alice suggested, “they liked being sick. Or else, maybe, growing used to blasphemy made them immune. Like when you catch some diseases they make you ill you for a little bit, but then afterwards you can’t catch them again.”
“It’s a good job,” Princess Celeste added, “that buses aren’t like that – taking people for a little bit of a ride, but afterwards they could never catch another one.”
“Don’t be silly, Celeste,” Emma chided her sister. “Catching a bus isn’t at all the same thing as catching a disease.”
“Or,” Princess Rona added, “catching a ball.”
“If catching a ball made you immune,” Celeste said, “you couldn’t have much of a game with it.”
“That,” Passibelle quipped, “would be the catch.”
At this point in the conversation, Vicky appeared atop the ladder, closely followed by Trudy. They must have greeted members of the crowd for at least twenty minutes, I thought – although, in the absence of a clock, there was no way to verify my conjecture. This consideration of the passage of time led me to wonder when the cavalry would appear. Looking in the direction of the palace, I saw activity at the end of the valley – riders emerging, uniformed in dull blue grey. These, clearly, must be the girls Her Majesty and my genny were about to lead into battle. Dolphin and her rebels would wear scarlet tunics and snowy white breeches.
“It looks,” I said to Vicky, “as though your mother, my genny and their girls are forming up at the end of the valley.”
“Yes,” Trudy replied, “I thought I caught a hint of that from ground level. That’s why we climbed up to the platform.”
“I can’t kiss every woman and girl in the crowd, anyway,” Vicky added. “I had to call a halt sooner or later.”
“I’m sure,” Passibelle said, “that no one would have expected you to stay down there and be trampled by warhorses.”
“No, of course not, Passibelle,” Vicky responded, “although there won’t be much chance of that before the cavalry charges – which will be a bit of a while yet.”
“You see,” Trudy explained, “once the cavalry have formed at the palace end of the valley, they’ll set off at walking pace, allowing the rebels to form up. At the far end of the valley…” She pointed. “…they’ll turn before charging.”
“It’s all a bit artificial,” Vicky added. “Almost like a formal game with rules. Not at all the way it would have been back in the wars.”
“Not entirely artificial, Vicky,” I corrected her. “Women will die.”
“Yes, that’s true, Daisy. I expect, touching wood…” Vicky tapped the balustrade. “…my mum will be the only casualty on our side – several rebels are bound to die.”
“Will granny die?” Celeste asked.
“If the goddesses are kind, my sweetheart,” Princess Victoria replied.
“But, Genny, how can it be kind for the goddesses to kill my granny?”
“We must all die, my love. That is the way of things. There’s no question but that your granny will die: it’s a question of when, where and how. Will she have a good death in the saddle today, or a lingering illness?”
Vicky and Trudy embraced their daughters, all of whom appeared to be on the verge of tears. The day’s business must have been previously explained to them – but perhaps it had not seemed real. How many in the crowd, I wondered, were in a similar position – knowing theoretically what the day was about, but failing fully to realise? I shouldn’t, it occurred to me, assume that I was exempt from this. Had reality dawned for me?
“May the goddesses grant us all good deaths,” Passibelle whispered, “each in our own way.”
“Perhaps,” Trudy said to the children, “if your granny can take a rebel’s blood with her sword, today, the Mistresses of Fury will act for her with the Divine Tribunal.”
“Mistresses of…?” Emma questioned.
“Shush, sweetheart…” Trudy raised a finger to her lips. “It’s better not to speak of them.”
“But, mummy, you…”
“So I did, my angel. I think that what I said was all right, but we need to be careful. They’re the fiercest of all the goddesses.”
“Mummy do you mean that they’ll be fierce with granny?”
“No, that wasn’t what I meant. I think that maybe they’ll be fierce with the divine tribunal.”
“So that the goddesses won’t hurt granny?”
“Exactly, my precious. Now, look…” She pointed to the palace end of the valley. “Your granny is going to lead her girls.”
Whither she pointed, the cavalry had now formed up, and was evidently about to ride in our direction. The rider at the front left, I decided, must be my genny – although she was too far away for me to recognise her features. She sat tall in the saddle, with no suggestion of infirmity. But the figure to her right – who must be Her Majesty – appeared equally fit. If the Empress’ heart was unable to take the strain of the coming charge, what would that mean…? I refused to complete my thought. Instead, I murmured a prayer.
“Goddesses, please, be with my genny in the coming charge. Allow her to come to no harm, if that is your will. Otherwise, please, be with her in the journey to the World to Come.”