Things are going badly for the Clan in this SF novel of the Merchant Princes, the immensely popular series by Charles Stross. Locked in a vicious civil war for control over the kingdom of Niejwein, their army is bottled up inside a fortress under siege in two parallel universes at once. Duke Angbard, the Clan's leader, has been laid low by a stroke: plotters are already conspiring in readiness for the deadly dance to come.
Miriam, rescued from a tight spot in New Britain, finds the hopes of the young, progressive faction focused on her. But do they want her as a leader or a figurehead? She soon finds herself thrown into a desperate struggle for power. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the Clan, researchers working for the US government have achieved a technological breakthrough.
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Charles Stross is the author of the bestselling Merchant Princes series, the Laundry series, and several stand-alone novels including Glasshouse, Accelerando, and Saturn's Children. Born in Leeds, England, in 1964, Stross studied in London and Bradford, earning degrees in pharmacy and computer science. Over the next decade and a half he worked as a pharmacist, a technical writer, a software engineer, and eventually as a prolific journalist covering the IT industry. His short fiction began attracting wide attention in the late 1990s; his first novel, Singularity Sky, appeared in 2003. He has subsequently won the Hugo Award twice. He lives with his wife in Edinburgh, Scotland, in a flat that is slightly older than the state of Texas.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I am not hearing this, Miriam Beckstein told herself. The temptation to giggle, to laugh it all off as a bizarre joke, was enormous. Pretend it isn’t happening; yeah, right. Story of my life. She tightened her grip on the valise holding her notebook PC and its precious CD- ROMs. Except that for the past six months, the mad stuff had made a habit of punching her in the guts whenever she least expected it. “Run that by me again,” she said.
“It’s quite simple,” said the hard- eyed young debutante with the machine pistol. “Your mother wants to use you to consolidate power.” She kept her eyes focused on Miriam as she twisted the magazine free of the gun, worked a slide to eject a cartridge, and swapped another magazine into place. “The duke agrees with her. And we”—the eloquent roll of her shoulder took in their companions, a cohort of young and alarmingly heavily armed Clan world- walkers—”intend to make sure you’re not just there for show.”
They look like students, thought Miriam. Students outfitted by North Face for a weekend hike; accessories by Fabrique Nationale and Heckler & Koch. Of course they were nothing of the kind. Young aristocrats of the Clan nobility—born in the curious quasi- mediaeval kingdom of Gruinmarkt, and able to travel to other worlds at will—they might look like ordinary American undergrads, but the mind- set behind those fresh young faces was very different.
“Oh, really?” she managed. The idea of her mother—and the duke—plotting to put her on the throne of the Gruinmarkt was pretty preposterous, on the face of it—but then, so were so many of the other intrigues the Clan seemed to generate. Then another thought struck her: You said “we,” didn’t you? So Brill had an agenda of her own, over and above her loyalty to the duke—or Miriam, for that matter? Time to probe....
“Was this”—she pointed at her belly, quiet anger in her voice—”part of their plan?”
“Milady” Brill—Lady Brilliana d’Ost, a mere twenty- something—furrowed her brow. “With all due respect, if you think that, you’re paranoid. Do you really think the duke—or your mother—know you so poorly as to think you a suitable mother for the heir to the throne? Much less, under such durance? Henryk and your—his backer—were fools for thinking they could manipulate you that way, and now they are dead fools. The rest of us are just trying to make the best of a bad deal. And if you want to talk politics, would you mind leaving it until later? I’ve got a splitting headache and it’s about to get worse.”
Miriam winced. World- walking took it out of a member of the Clan’s inner families, those with the ability: Doing it more than once in a day risked migrainelike symptoms and a blood pressure spike. There were other symptoms, too: pregnancy, she’d learned the hard way, made world- walking under your own power impossible. But they’d come here from New Britain, escaping after the abortive ambush at a provincial railway station in that world’s version of California, immediately after picking her up.
One of the young men pacing the perimeter of the clearing raised a hand, twirled it in a warning circle. “One hour to go.”
“Yah.” Brill glanced round again. The forest clearing was peaceful, unoccupied but for Miriam, Brill, and her three young bloods, but she never stopped scanning.
“Are we in any immediate danger?” Miriam asked, shifting her balance on the fallen tree trunk.
“Probably not right now.” Brill paused to continue her inspection. “The Kao’s patrols don’t usually sweep this far northeast. Better not linger, though. We’ll be ready to move in another hour.”
“The Favored of Heaven’s border troops. Most of the local tribes give them a wide berth. We should, too.” A warning look in her eyes gave Miriam a cold shiver; if Brill was scared of them, that was enough for her.
“What are you planning on doing once we cross over?”
“We’ve got a hotel suite in San Jose. I plan to get us over there, then make contact with the duke and ask for further instructions. I imagine he’ll want us back on the east coast stat—we’ve got a biz- jet standing by. Otherwise, we’ll do what Security tells us to do. Unless you have other plans?” Brill raised a carefully shaped eyebrow. Even though she’d started the day with a brisk firefight, then a forced crossing into wilderness, she’d taken pains with her makeup.
Miriam shrugged. “I thought I did.” Her hands were restless; trying to keep them still, she thrust them deep in the pockets of her overly heavy coat. “The political situation in New Britain is going to hell in a handbasket. Erasmus was on his way to meet a big wheel in the, uh, resistance.” In point of fact, the biggest wheel in the underground, returning from exile after a generation—to whom he had once been a personal assistant. “It’s too hot for comfort. I was only going along because I couldn’t think of anything else to do; when I fetched up in London all I had was the clothes on my back.”
“Well, at least you got away from the mess at the Summer Palace with your skin intact,” Brill observed. “And thank what- ever gods you believe in for that.”
She fell silent for a few minutes. But finally Miriam’s curiosity got the better of her. “I can guess how you tracked me down,” she said. “But what about Huw? And the other two? Who are they? You said something about a job I’d suggested, but I don’t recall... and they don’t look like Uncle Angbard’s little helpers to me.”
“They’re not.” Brilliana’s eyes narrowed. “I just called in help and head office sent them along. Hey! Sir Huw? Have you a minute?”
Huw nodded. “Bro, cover for me,” he told the tall, heavily built guy with the semiauto shotgun as he walked towards them. Huw was anything but husky: skinny and intense. “Has something come up?”
“Huw.” Brill smiled, oddly cheerful. “We’ve got a couple of hours to kill. Why don’t you tell her grace what you found?”
Her grace? But I’m not a duchess. Miriam blinked. Suddenly bits of the big picture were falling into place. Heir to the throne. “What you found, where?”
“We’re calling it world four right now, but I think a better name for it would be Transition A–B,” Huw said as he sat down at the far end of the fallen trunk. “It’s where you go if you use the Hidden Family’s knotwork as a focus in your world, uh, the United States.” He grinned, twitchily. “Nobody was able to cross over in New En gland because, well, it’s probably under an ice sheet—the weather there’s definitely a lot colder than in any of the other time lines we know about.”
Hang on, time lines—Miriam held up a hand. “What were you doing?”
“The duke tasked me with setting up a systematic exploration program,” Huw explained. “So I started by taking the second known knotwork design and seeing where it’d take you if you used it in world two, in the USA, which the Hidden Family had no access to. The initial tests in Massachusetts a
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