Luke Reviews continues its preview of Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett, and out from Angry Robot Books. Helpful Links: Reviews of other Dan Abnett works here at Luke Reviews, Angry Robot Books, Part One of Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero.
NOTE: TRIUMFF: HER MAJESTY’S HERO CONTAINS SOME LANGUAGE NOT APPROPRIATE FOR YOUNGER READERS.
At the very same moment that the Laird of Ben Phie was divorced from his left ear in Chitty Yard by means of a novelty potato peeler, the six days of solid rain came to an end. Spent clouds, wrung dry, slouched off grumpily towards Shoeburyness and the sea. A tearful sun, pale as a smoky candle, appeared over the Square Mile. The City’s mood swung.
At Leadenhalle, the cheap was reconvened amid over-enthusiastic announcements of apres-deluge bargains. By the Gibbon Watergate, on the Embankment, the men of the Cisterns and Ducts Guild slouched back the hoods of their oilskins and exchanged knowing, professional nods that hid their relief. In the stable adjoining the Rouncey Mare, Boy Simon woke up and remembered his own name after only a few minutes’ concentration.
The City shook itself dry. Casements creaked open in swollen wood frames. Damp boots were upturned on hearths. The residents of the ditch-quarters began to bail out their homes with a blithe London cheeriness that had been called “blitz-spirit” ever since the airship raids of the Prussian Succession. The marshy reek of drowned vegetation that had permeated the City for a week began to be replaced by the reassuringly familiar odour of refuse. In Cambridge Circus, pedestrians skirted a beached sea-bass gasping out its last moments on the cobbles.
Within an hour of the sea-change in the climate, one of the Billingsgate mongers sold a pint of shrimp, and there was considerable rejoicing. Within ninety minutes, a troop of the City Militia in Babcock Gardens began the onerous, though unusual, task of returning the barge Mariette Hartley to the river three hundred yards away. Several of the City’s bolder cats were seen for the first time in six days.
Two minutes before St Dunstan’s clock tower struck eleven, one of the faithful finally sold a lace memento to a passer-by. The parson of St Dunstan’s began a short service of thanks, and his congregation struck up with the Old Seventy-Sixth (“Though the fence is sharp, my Lord hath riches waiting”). Across the street, the Sisters of the Justified Madonna, who had ceremonially disrobed, pressed most of themselves against the windows, and shouted out messages of congratulation and other heart-warming communiques.
St Dunstan’s flock hurried indoors on the advice of the parson, all except a lingering choirboy, who was later assured by most of the congregation that he was irrevocably destined to have his eyes put out in the Fierce Smithy of Hades.
By noon, the sun had coaxed a mist of evaporation out of the Capital. Every inch of wood: every bridge-post, every newel, every beam, every door in the City groaned and sighed. From the villages and hamlets around the outskirts, it was possible to hear the complaints of the drying metropolis, faintly and distantly, like an elderly relative stumbling out of bed next door. A goat-herd in the Brent Woods, sheltering from the downpour under a broad oak, heard the faraway groaning, and cheered up, anticipating imminent relief from his misery.
At Richmond, the terraces, beds, rows, lawns, mazes, arbours and quincunxes of the Royal Palace blinked away the dew and woke up. Ornamental ponds finally stopped being choppy, and their lily pads drifted to rest, becalmed. The gardeners oiled and unleashed the mower from its lair near the boathouses. The Beefeaters started to whistle as they took off their weatherproofs and cycled off on their patrols. Maids on the south terrace began to beat carpets with wicker paddles, and maids by the wash-house began to hang out a week’s worth of damp laundry. Boar and turkey, penned in an enclosure north of the Chase, noted the approach of the Assistant Under-Chef with heavy hearts, and jostled the weakest present to the front.
On a gravel walk along the paddock, Cardinal Woolly of the United Church crunched maze-wards, with two pike-men and a small, obedient civilian in attendance. The cardinal’s robes were rich to the point of Papery. The civilian’s hose was all but out at the knees. Tugging at his ill-fitting ruff as he followed the cardinal, the civilian moistened the end of his lead-stick on his tongue and pulled open his notebook. He was a nondescript, bearded man with tawny hair, long at the back and absent at the front. His ear was punctuated with a gold ring. His name was Beaver, and being me, your servant the writer, he will have no further words wasted upon him.
“Know then, Master Beaver,” said his worship, “that the following declaration may be printed with my approval in your periodical.”
“Right ho, cardinal,” quoth I (Wllm Beaver).
The cardinal continued.
“Hereby, it is made known that her most Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth XXX, Mistress of All Britain, Empress of the Anglo-Español Unity, Defender of the Cantrips, Protector of the Jinx… and so on. You know the form and style, Beaver.”
“Ex Ex Ex, uh huh, right ho,” I said, nodding.
“Hereby, it is made known that Her Majesty has no comment yet to make on the seriousness of the threat made to the Channel Bridge by the Liberte Gauloise subversives, nor on the unsound rumours reaching our ears from Wiltshire. However, on the matter of the Great Masque this weekend, it is announced that it will now go ahead, thanks to the change in weather. Further, on the subject of the Spanish insistence of an expedition, forthwith, to the new-found Continent, Her Majesty is still awaiting consultation with said Continent’s discoverer, Captain Sir Rupert Triumff.”
“Tee-Arr-Eye-umff… uh uh. Right ho. Go on, your holiness.”
“Sir Rupert maintains that the Terra Australis is a diverting realm, but largely lacking in precious metals or other exploitable resources. Further, its people are said to be ignorant of the ways of ensorcelment. Given the grave hardship of a journey to the New South Lands, he considers further missions there unworthy of the cost and effort. In this, the Privy Council and the Church are yet to agree. There is much still to be reckoned out. And all, of course, depends upon Sir Rupert presenting his Letters of Pa– Excuse me.”
We paused, at the turn of the paddock walk, as a Great Dane the size of a pony shambled across our path, trailing its lead and carrying a rose trellis in its mouth, complete with climbing rose. The cardinal sent one of the pike-men after it. We could hear his calls of “Easy boy, easy boy!” disappearing down towards the lake.
“Any official comment, your worship, on the rumour that Captain Gull of the Royal huscarls is currently minus an ear?”
“None whatsoever,” snapped the cardinal. “Ask him yourself.”
“I did,” said Beaver.
“What did he say?”
“He didn’t appear to hear the question, sir,” I admitted.
There was a splash from the direction of the lake. The hound retraced its steps across our path, dragging a chewed halberd instead of the trellis. The cardinal turned to the other pike-man. I closed my book with a shrug. The press conference was over.
The emerald privet of the Inigo Maze stood before us. A blue kite sporting the Royal Crest scudded along above it, its line secured to some moving point amid the leafy walls. We heard the unmistakable sound of female sniggering. Woolly straightened his robes, cleared his throat, and headed for the entrance arch of the maze.
“Your Majesty?” he called gently.
I felt suddenly chilly, despite the sun. I rubbed my beard in a nervous gesture particular to myself, and beat a retreat towards the gatehouse on the City Road.
Some fourteen miles west of the Palace, the timbered Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park shook with the sound of tramping boots and yapping bow-hounds, those robust, lugubrious, liver-spotted retrievers from Abyssinia, noted for their reliability as hunting dogs, their extensive dewlaps, and their copious spittle. “Drooling like a fine bow” is a common expression across the Unity. Almost every physical aspect of a bow-hound seems to loll.
A watercolour sky of the most dilute blue washed around the swollen sun. Fine mist, like cold smoke, rose from the soggy nettles and elderbushes, around about, and wafted through the forest of beech, mature oak and hawthorn. Distantly, fallow and roe, preternaturally sensing that something was up, scattered from deer-licks into the early afternoon.
The Windsor Lodge had been built for the twenty-fourth Elizabeth as a gift from the Duke of Cartagena, one Gonzalo de Ruiz, a keen huntsman and keener suitor to the Royal Personage. Many at Court said it was the Lodge that had put the final nail in Gonzalo’s coffin. This was untrue. The final nail had been put in by one Ralph Logge, a joiner from Church End, but it was a safe bet that Logge had only got the job as a direct result of Gonzalo’s gift. Elizabeth XXIV was less than enthusiastic about the pastime of inserting iron-barbed darts into fleeing deer at very high velocity through holes not previously there. Poor Gonzalo, blinded by the double visors of love and ambition, failed to realise this, and would attend the Gloriana at Windsor regularly, wearing the latest chequered hunting-breeches, the most fashionable stalking-doublets, tweedy sporting hats with ear flaps, and bandoliers packed full of lures, calls, whistles, castanets and a comprehensive trousse de chasse that contained so many specialised blades it could have armed an entire company of Landsknechts and still have some bits spare to hang over the fireplace.
Gonzalo would attempt to distract Her Majesty with discourses on the correct stringing of the composite bow, the training of the dog pack, the pros and cons of the frog-crotch barb, crossbows for pleasure and profit, detecting grot-worm in the stools of bow-hounds, and sundry other secrets of the huntsman’s art. Frequently, he would invite the Queen to join him for an afternoon in the Park. She always declined, having pressing business of national import to attend to in the Star Chamber. Elizabeth XXIV’s private diaries reveal that the “pressing business of national import” was almost always a game of tiddlywinks with members of the Privy Council. They also relate that she referred to Gonzalo as “that smelly maniac with the arrows”.
Eventually, Gonzalo became desperate for some sign of progress in his suit, and forced things by making a gift of the hunting lodge to the Queen. He had it designed by the celebrated architect Morillo of Barcelona, who devised it to be “churrigueresque”. Technically speaking, this was a style characterised by twisted columns, broken and arched pediments, and pilasters with more than one capital. In practice, it was an overly enthusiastic wealth of decoration beneath which the actual structure of the building was largely hidden. Morillo assured Gonzalo that this was “the latest thing”.
Elizabeth was certainly impressed by the gift. Within a week, she’d had Gonzalo beheaded on a charge of Conspiring To Mock The Royal Person. Elizabeth XXIV is reckoned to have been a mild and gentle queen, so the affair vividly demonstrates that there’s only so far you should push a monarch.
On that misty St Dunstan’s Day afternoon, the men who emerged from the Lodge had thoughts of the hapless Gonzalo and his ill-advised churrigueresque very far from their minds. (Apart, obviously, from passing thoughts such as “If this is a broken and arched pedimental ornamentation, where’s the bloody door?” And “How the bastard do you get out of this benighted shed?”)
Leading out the beaters, the pack and the hound-master was Sir John Hockrake, Duke of Salisbury, resplendent in his green stalking gaiters and leaf-pattern tabard. Salisbury, a rotund, gouty ox, was one of the richest men on the mainland, and one of the country’s largest landowners to boot. His Court influence, however, was scant, as he and the Queen had precious little time for one another. It had something to do with the Queen’s manners, and Salisbury’s complete lack of them.
The Duke of Salisbury hawked in a rasping noseful of air, coughed, and spat what appeared to be an entire bed of shucked oysters into the nearby scrub.
“Let’s be off!” he bellowed to all present, and flourished his cry with a fanfare of expelled wind that trained men with bugles would have been sore pressed to mimic. The bow-hounds set to yapping excitedly.
Roustam Allasandro de la Vega, Regent of Castile, Governor of Toledo and victor of Lille, scowled at the obese Duke as he followed him out of the Lodge. An athletic, handsome six-footer, reputed world-master with the rapier, de la Vega busied himself with checking the brace of pearl-inlaid matchlocks that his bearer carried for him. The noblest of Spanish blood ran in de la Vega’s veins, but the pressure of that blood was not as low and tranquil as one might expect in a high-born aristocrat. Steadily, through the preceding century, the power of the Unity had swung further and further towards Britain and the demi-goddess Glorianas. Resentful frustration underlay most of the Spanish politicking, and behind the pleasant smiles and the charming manners of their regal scions lay rancour and unrest. In Madrid, Zaragoza, Sevilla and Salamanca, the pamphleteers cranked out bitter diatribes about “the Virgin thief” and the “scales of partnership overbalanced”. A constitutional crisis loomed across the Unity, and even the most Anglophile of commentators foresaw a time, not far away, when the Queen would have to begin to make reparations that restored the potency of the Spanish political machine.
But Roustam de la Vega wasn’t going to wait for some unspecific time. He had always been a man of action, and his action always got him what he wanted.
He took one of the primed matchlocks, and trial-aimed it at a distant tree-bole. Salisbury looked at the firearm in disgust.
“Good hunting today, you think, señors?” de la Vega asked, by way of making things more convivial.
“Poor as I reckon for you, if you persist with that black powder nonsense,” growled Salisbury. “A stout bow of English yew is good enough for me.”
“My dear Regent,” said Lord Slee diplomatically as he joined them from the Lodge, pulling on his leather bow-string protectors, “I for one am keen to see your new devices in operation. I trust they will not alarm the pack?”
Salisbury stooped with a wheeze to knuckle-rub the scalp of a panting bow-hound that worried at his heels.
“These dogs don’t scare for nothing,” he observed, rising again and shaking the ropes of dog-drool from his hand. “Don’t you fret, Slee. My men trained ’em well.”
“Good, good!” smiled Slee, thinly. He and de la Vega exchanged knowing grins that Salisbury was too busy to see. They were grins of tolerance. Slee clicked his fingers and called for his bow and quiver. He tested the tension, and exchanged a little technical wisdom with the bow-master.
Robert Slee was a short, mobile man of forty-three, his patrician’s profile set off by a receding head of silver hair. He owned ancestral lands in Hertfordshire and Essex, but his power stemmed entirely from a hard-won career in law, through the Inns of Court and Whitehall. He had won himself a seat in the Privy Council, and was tipped to take the post of Lord Privy Seal from Thomas Arbuthnot before the year was out. Slee’s scholarship and learning was admired across the Unity. His many books and treatises were required reading for all young men with political aspirations. It was said he spoke and wrote nine languages. He had travelled extensively, and participated in some of the most formidably important legislation of the last six Parliaments. His only fault, it seemed, was his lack of charm, which was often remarked upon. Dignitaries from across Europe queued up eagerly to meet the author of such articulate writings, and they were all disappointed. In the flesh, Slee was a cold, dry, plaster-of-Paris man. No one actively disliked him, but he’d have had trouble forming a cricket side if he only called on his friends.
The Divine Aleister Jaspers, fourth and final member of the illustrious party, joined his three waiting companions from the Lodge, and took a pair of polished Swiss crossbows from a waiting bearer. An austere young man with fleshy lips and cropped hair, Jaspers wore the knee-length robes of the Magickians’ Union. When the Arte of Magick had been rediscovered, the Church had been forced to accept and accommodate it, or be ousted from the structures of power. The Protestants had simply enlarged their doctrines. The Catholic Church had “fortuitously” discovered six more books of the New Testament in a cave in Sinai, all of which thoroughly expanded the motif of “moving in mysterious ways” to include Magick. This additional doctrine was included in the very first edition of the Steve Gutenberg Bible, and its textual authority was embraced rapidly by the Church of England, which was, at that time, an uneasy blend of Catholic pomp and Protestant simplicity, and formed one of the fundamental tenets of belief. The Church of England became, in time, the United Church, and absorbed almost all the other Christian religions of the Unity (except for various underground movements and secret societies, and, of course, the Bollards of Ghent, the Stevenage Prurients, and the Vatican, who were allowed to continue as usual if they didn’t bother anyone). The Church closely regulated all official usage of Magick through the Magickians’ Union, which was part Trade Guild and part Holy Order. All members of the Union were skilled and potent users of the Arte, answering only to the Queen, the Privy Council and the Church cardinals. Through them, the Cantrips and the Jinx were operated for domestic use.
Jaspers also displayed the collar pin of Infernal Affairs, the Union’s disciplinary department, charged with investigating and punishing any individuals conducting unauthorised dabbling in the Arte. Jaspers was reckoned to be Infernal Affairs’ finest. His twinned powers of Magick and Prosecution gave him a status at Court far, far above his actual social rank.
“Are we ready?” he asked, smoothly, examining with hooded eyes the oiled, machined perfection of his weapons. To the other three, his soft voice sounded like Turkish Delight: sweet, rich, intense, and the sort of thing you can quickly have enough of.
“I ’ope you won’t be using any Goety to improve yorn aim,” commented Salisbury to the Divine. There was a pause. Even the agitation of the hunting dogs skirled to a halt. A shadow passed over the sun. Salisbury, unaccountably cold for a moment, looked into Jaspers’s piercing eyes. What he saw there, he patently didn’t like.
Slee stepped forward quickly, and executed what was, on balance, probably the most graceful diplomatic manoeuvre of his career. He said, “Ha ha! As if!”
“As if!” joined Roustam de la Vega, catching on quickly, and adding his deep laugh to Slee’s thin, piping chuckle. Only Salisbury, who seemed incapable of getting anything out of his voicebox, didn’t laugh. In ten seconds, his tomato-red face had become cabbage-white. He managed a pale, valiant smile.
Jaspers smiled too, though it was not a reassuring smile.
“As if,” he echoed. Then he turned, and sauntered away towards the dog-pack and the hunt-team.
Salisbury sagged, and then, as his colour flushed back, he busied himself volubly with unnecessary checks of the hounds and their handlers.
“Close,” whispered Slee to de la Vega, as they stood, side by side, buttoning up their coat collars. “Your assistance was appreciated. Salisbury is profoundly clumsy in almost every respect, politics included. No wonder the Queen can’t abide him.”
De la Vega smiled dryly, and said, “I’m not about to marry him myself, my good Lord Slee. If it weren’t for his considerable financial reserves I’d be more than happy to be part of a tragic hunting accident this very afternoon.”
Slee allowed himself a thin smile at the delicious thought. To their left, the runners were blowing shrill whistles and calling guttural encouragements to the pack, which surged away through the sunlit mist of the forest space. As the volume of the hounds dipped away, they could hear birdsong, dripping water and the crackle of undergrowth all around them. Slee and de la Vega set off after the others.
“Shall we,” asked Slee, “discuss your disengano, my dear cousin? The woods are close and deaf.”
“Good,” replied the Spaniard crisply, “for my words would seem calumny to most English ears, but not yours, or those of our other two… friends. We all share a certain hunger. My family, my faction… they ache for the taste of power, but we are famished of the influence that is our due. Magick, my lord, that is what we need. Without access to the Cantrips, we have no leverage. With them…”
Slee caught at his sleeve and pointed at their companions ahead through the trees.
“Do you see, Lord Regent, the way that no hound will go voluntarily within a lance-length of the Divine?” he asked.
“They are wiser than us, perhaps,” said de la Vega. “I often doubt it is entirely safe to have Jaspers around, even if he is of our cause.”
Slee nodded, and breathed deeply. The two men hefted up their weapons and moved on through the ferny chiaroscuro of the forest.
“So,” said Slee, “you were saying?”