Authors: Charles Stross
Tags: #sf, #sf_history
The Hidden Family
The Merchant Princes, Book 2
In the tradition of Roger Zelazny’s classic Amber novels, the second volume of Charles Stross’s thrill-a-minute saga of multiple worlds. Miriam, a hip tech journalist from Boston, discovered her alternate world relatives in The Family Trade, and with them an elite identity she didn’t know was hers. Now, in order to avoid a slippery slope down to an unmarked grave, Miriam, known as Lady Helge to the Family, starts applying modern business practices and scientific knowledge to a trade dominated by mercantilists — with unexpected consequences for three different timelines, including the quasi-Victorian one exploited by the hidden family. Charles Stross is one of the big new SF writers of the 21st century, and the saga of The Merchant Princes is his most ambitious work yet.
To my parents
The committee meeting was entering its third hour when the king sneezed, bringing matters to a head. His Excellency Sir Roderick was speaking at the time of the royal spasm. Standing at the far end of the table, before the red velvet curtains that sealed off the windows and the chill of the winter afternoon beyond, Sir Roderick leaned forward slightly, clutching his papers to his bony chest and wobbling back and forth as he recited. His colorless manners matched his startling lack of skin and hair pigmentation: He kept his eyes downcast as he regurgitated a seemingly endless stream of reports from the various heads of police, correspondents of intelligence, and freelance informers who kept his office abreast of news.
“I beg your pardon.” A valet flourished a clean linen handkerchief before the royal nose. John Frederick blinked, his expression pained. “Ah-
!” Although not yet in middle age, the king’s florid complexion and burgeoning waistline were already giving rise to worries among his physiopaths and apothecaries.
Sir Roderick paused, awaiting the royal nod. The air in the room was heavy with the smell of beeswax furniture polish, and a faint oily overlay from the quietly fizzing gas lamps. “Sire?”
“A moment.” John Frederick, by grace of God king-emperor of New Britain and ruler of the territories and dependencies thereof, took a fresh handkerchief and waved off his equerry while anxious faces watched him from all sides. He breathed deeply, clearly battling to control the itching in his sinuses. “Ah. Where were we? Sir Roderick, you have held the floor long enough—take a seat, we will return to you shortly. Lord Douglass, this matter of indiscipline among the masses troubles me. If the effects of the poor grain harvest last year are not mitigated in the summer, as your honorable colleague forecasts”—a nod at Lord Scotia, minister for rural affairs—“then there will be fertile soil for the ranters and ravers to till next autumn. Is there any risk of a
Lord Douglass ran a wrinkled hand across his thinning hair as he considered his reply. “As your majesty is doubtless aware—” He paused. “I had hoped to discuss this matter after hearing from Sir Roderick. If I may beg your indulgence?” At the royal nod, he leaned sideways. “Sir Roderick, may I ask you to rapidly summarize the domestic situation?”
“By your leave, your majesty?” Sir Roderick cleared his throat, then addressed the room. “Your majesty, my right honorable friends, the domestic condition is currently under control, but there are an increasing number of reports of nonconformist ranters in the provinces. In the past month alone the royal police have apprehended no less than two cells of Levelers, and uncovered three illicit printers—one in Massachusetts, one in your majesty’s western New Provinces, and one in New London itself.” A whisper ran around the table: It was an open secret that the cellar press in the capital could print whatever they liked with only loose control, except for the most blatantly slanderous rumors and Leveler sedition. For there to be raids, the situation must be far worse than normal. “This ignores the usual rumbling in the colonies and dominions. Finally, police operations uncovered a plot to blow up the Western Summer Palace at Monterey—I would prefer not to discuss this in open cabinet until we have resolved the situation. Someone or something is stirring up Leveler activists, and there have been rumors of French livres greasing the wheels of treason. Certainly it takes money to run subversive presses or buy explosives, and it must be coming from somewhere.”
Sir Roderick sat down, and Lord Douglass rose. “Your majesty, I would say that if adventures are contemplated overseas, and if this should coincide with a rise in the price of bread, the introduction of new taxes and duties,
an outburst of Leveler ranting, I should not like to face the consequences without the continental reserves at Fort Victoria ready to entrain for either coast, not to mention securing the loyalty of the local regiments in each parliamentary district.”
“Well, then.” The king frowned, his forehead wrinkling as if to withstand another fit of sneezing: “We shall have to see to such measures, shall we not?” He leaned forward in his chair. “But I want to hear more on this matter of where the homegrown thorns in our crown are obtaining their finances. It seems to me that if we can snip this odious weed in the bud, as it were, and demonstrate to the satisfaction of our peers the meddling of the dauphin at work in our garden, then it will certainly serve our purposes. Lord Douglass?”
“By all means, your majesty.” The prime minister glanced at his minister for special affairs. “Sir Roderick, if you please, can you see to it?”
“Of course, my lord.” The minister inclined his head toward his monarch. “As soon as we have something more than rumor and suspicion I will place it before your majesty.”
“Now if we may return to the agenda?” The prime minister suggested.
“Certainly.” The king nodded his assent, and Lord Douglass cleared his throat, to continue with the next point on an afternoon-long agenda. The meeting continued and in every way beside the sneezing fit it seemed a perfectly normal session of the Imperial Intelligence Oversight Committee, held before his imperial Majesty John the Fourth, king of New Britain and dominions, in the Brunswick Palace on Long Island in the early years of the twenty-first century. Time would show otherwise…
* * *
On the other side of a flipped coin’s fall, in an office two hundred miles away in space and perhaps two thousand years away from the court of King John in terms of historical divergence, another meeting was taking place.
“A shoot-out.” The duke’s tone of voice, normally icily deliberate, rose slightly as he abandoned his chair and began to pace the confines of his office. With close-cropped graying hair, and wearing an immaculately tailored dark suit, he might have been mistaken for an investment banker or a high-class undertaker—but appearances were very deceptive. The duke, as head of the Clan’s security apparat, was anything but harmless. He paused beneath a pair of steel broadswords mounted on the wall above a battered circular shield. “In the summer palace?” His tone hardened. “I find it hard to believe that this was allowed to happen.” He looked up at the swords. “Who was supposed to be in charge of her guard?”
The duke’s secretary—his keeper of secrets—cleared his throat. “Oliver, Baron Hjorth is of course responsible for the well-being of all beneath his roof. In accordance with your orders I requested that he see to Lady Helge’s security.” A moment’s pause to let the implication sink in. “Whether he complied with your orders bears investigation.”
The duke stopped pacing, standing in front of the broad picture windows that looked out across the valley below the castle. Heavily forested and seemingly empty of human habitation, the river valley ran all the way to the coast, marking the northern border of the sprawling kingdom of Grainmarkt from the Nordmarkt neighbors to the north. “And the lady Olga?”
“She protests in the strongest terms, my lord.” The secretary shrugged slightly, his face expressionless. “I sent Roland to attend to her personally, to ensure she is adequately protected. For what it’s worth, there were no identifying marks on the bodies. No tattoos, no indications of who they were. Not Clan. But they had weapons and equipment from the other side and I am—startled—that Lady Olga, even with help from our runaway, survived the incident.”
is my niece, Matthias,” the duke reminded his secretary. “A rather extraordinary woman.” His expression hardened. “I want tissue samples, photographs, anything you can come up with. For the hit squad. Get them processed on the other side, run them across the FBI most-wanted database, pull whatever strings you can find, but I want to know who they were and who they thought they were working for. And how they got there. The palace was supposed to be securely doppelgängered. Why wasn’t it?”
“Ah. I have already looked into that.” Matthias waited.
“Well then?” The duke clenched his hands.
“About three years ago, Baroness Hildegarde ordered our agents on the other side—via the usual shell company—to let out one side of the doppelgänger facility to a secondary Clan-owned shipping company she was setting up. It was all aboveboard and conducted in public at Beltaigne, approved in full committee, but the shipping company moved away a year later to more suitable purpose-built facilities, and they in turn sub-let the premises. It was walled off from the original bonded store and converted into short-lease storage, leaving it wide open. Purely coincidentally, it covered the New Tower, and parts of the west wing of the palace were left undoppelgängered. Helge wouldn’t have known enough to recognize this as unusual, but it left most of her suite wide open to attack by world-walkers from the other side.”
“And where was Oliver, Baron Hjorth while this was going on?” the duke asked, deceptively mildly. A failure to doppelgänger the palace correctly—to ensure that it was physically collated with secure territory in the other universe to which the world-walking and occasionally squabbling members of the Clan had access—was not a trivial oversight, not after the blood feud or civil war that had killed three out of every four members of the six families only a handful of decades ago.
“He was worrying about roofing costs, I imagine.” Matthias shrugged again, almost imperceptibly. “If he even knew about it. After all, what does security matter if the building caves in?”
“If.” The duke frowned. “That slime-weasel Oliver is in Baroness Hildegarde’s pocket, you mark my words. An unfortunate coincidence that they can both deny responsibility for, and Helge, Miriam as she calls herself, is left facing assassins? It’s almost insultingly convenient. She’s getting slack—we shall have to teach her a lesson in manners.”
“What are your orders regarding your niece, my lord? Since she appears to have run away, like her mother before her, she could be found in breach of the compact—”
“No, no need for that just yet.” The duke walked slowly back to his desk, his expression showing little sign of the stiffness is his joints. “Let her move freely for now.” He lowered himself into his chair and stared at Matthias. “I expect to hear about her movements by and by. Has she made any attempt to get in touch?”
“With us? I’ve heard no messages, my lord.” Matthias raised one hand, scratched an itch alongside his nose. “What do you think she’ll do?”
think?” The duke opened his mouth, as if about to laugh. “She’s not a trained security professional, boy. She might do anything! But she is a trained investigative journalist, and if she’s true to her instincts, she’ll start digging.” He began to smile. “I really want to see what she uncovers.”
* * *
Meanwhile, in a city called Boston in a country called the United States:
“You know something?” asked Paulette. “When I told you to buy guns and drive fast I wasn’t, like, expecting you to actually
that.” She put her coffee cup down, half-drained. There were dark hollows under her eyes, but apart from that she was as tidy as ever, not a hair out of place. Which, Miriam reflected, left her looking a bit like a legal secretary: short, dark, Italianate subtype.
Miriam shook her head.
could keep it together the way she does,
she thought. “You said, and I quote from memory, ‘As your attorney I am advising you to buy guns and drive fast.’ Right?” She smiled tiredly at Paulette. Her own coffee cup was untouched. When she’d arrived at the other woman’s house with Brilliana d’Ost in tow, the release of tension had her throwing up in the bathroom toilet. Paulette’s wisecrack was in poor taste—Miriam had actually killed a man less than twenty-four hours ago in self-defense, and now things were starting to look
“What’s an attorney?” asked Brill, sitting up on the sofa, prim and attentive: nineteen or twenty, blond, and otherworldly in the terrifyingly literal way that only a Clan member could be.
“Not me, I’m a paralegal. Just in case you’d forgotten, Miriam. I’d have to study for another two years before I can sit for the bar exams.”
“You signed up for the course like I asked? That’s good.”
“Yeah, well.” Paulette put her empty mug down. “Do you want to go through it all again? Just so I know where I stand?”
“Not really, but…” Miriam glanced at Brill. “Look, here’s the high points. This young lady is Brilliana d’Ost. She’s kind of an illegal immigrant, no papers, no birth certificate, no background. She needs somewhere to stay while we sort things out back where she comes from. She isn’t self-sufficient here—she met her very first elevator yesterday evening, and her first train this morning.”
Paulette raised an eyebrow. “R-i-i-ght,” she drawled. “I think I can see how this might pose some difficulties.”
“I can read and write,” Brill volunteered. “And I speak English. I’ve seen
, too.” Brightly: “And
, that was the duke’s favorite! I’ve seen that one three times.”
“Hmm.” Paulette looked her up and down then glanced at Miriam. “This is a kind of what you see is what you get proposition, is it?”
“Yes,” Miriam said. “Oh, and her family wants her back. They might get violent if they find her, so she needs to be anonymous. All she’s got are the clothes on her back. And then there’s this.” She passed Paulette a piece of paper. Paulette glanced at it, then raised her other eyebrow and did a double take.
“This is valid?” She held up the check.
“No strings.” Miriam nodded. “At least, as long as Duke Angbard doesn’t cut off the line of credit he gave me. You’ve got the company paperwork together, ready to sign? Good. What we do is, we open a company bank account. I pay
into it and issue myself with shares to the tune of fifty grand. We write you up as an employee, you sign the contract, I issue you your first paycheck—eight thousand, covers your first month only—and a signing bonus of another ten thousand. You then write a check back to the company for that ten thousand, and I issue you the shares and make you company secretary. Got that?”