It's been a little while since I've read ISoT, but I thought I'd give this a shot. At least for a chapter or two to see how it goes.
A Short Introduction To "Island in the Sea of Time" [WARNING: Spoilers]
So for those who aren't familiar with it, Island in the Sea of Time and its two sequels describe what happens when the modern island of Nantucket - along with its 4,000-ish inhabitants - gets teleported to 1250 BC, complete with all of the houses, machines, roads, etc.
The Nantucketers start gearing down to more sustainable Victorian-era technology. In the meantime, they fight two wars against a renegade Coast Guard officer named William Walker, who tries to carve his own kingdom out of Bronze Age Europe.
Oh, and it was written by S.M. Stirling (yes, that S.M. Stirling, of Draka fame), so it's got plenty of violence, hypercompetent villains, and grimdark to go around. Not that that's a bad thing.
Point of Divergence:
This fic diverges from the series late in the third book. Walker beats the combined armies of the Republic of Nantucket, the Hittite Empire, and the Babylonians. He manages to nab Anatolia before getting assassinated more or less on schedule, along with Alice Hong (his pet sadist) and Althea (his daughter).
But his son Harold survives.
Mycenae, ca. 17 A.E. (ca. 1233 B.C.)
Birds twittered. Sunshine peeked through oak trees. I allowed myself to close my eyes for a second, and breathed in. None of Neayoruk's smog here.
I've always preferred groves to temples. Hollow trees or interlaced laurel boughs work fine in a pinch. And speaking personally, air and sunlight do wonders for piety.
But maybe that's just because of buildings like the Walkerium.
It had been built over the ruins of an older palace shrine, which in turn had dated back to the days when we still believed that gods visited the king's megaron rather than living in their own temples. Like most buildings from the early days, Dad had built it large and blocky. Art and sculpture books hadn't been high on his list of priorities when he'd hijacked Nantucket's fastest ship.
We approached the stone threshold. A golden breastplate was nailed above it – spoils from my Ringapi campaign. Some Danubian chieftain wouldn't be needing it anymore.
The city's matrons had been marching around the heap of stones for hours. Unlike the Nantucketers, we preferred our altars outside. Some worshippers had hung Shang silk robes in the grove. Others had offered gold bands.
I smelled the sizzling thigh-fat of bulls and goats, and coughed on the wood-smoke. Fortunately, most of it was wafting skyward, where our assorted divinities could enjoy it.
A youngish woman in a long black dress greeted me. She tossed her hair and grinned, displaying spotless white teeth – the product of an intersection between our own shortage of refined sugars and her training in "dentistry". And yes, the quotation marks are intentional.
"Harry," she said. "So glad you could join us."
Oholotarix tensed at my elbow – partly from the informality, and partly, I suspected, from having to spend time at close quarters with her.
I assembled a smile.
"And how's my favorite cult leader doing?" I said.
Kylefra affected a pout, and then smiled back.
"Surviving. Shall we go in?" she said.
The three of us entered the Walkerium's inner darkness. Even torchlight barely allowed you to navigate inside that massive, windowless building. We went in without one.
Skulls lined the walls. Most were trophies from Dad's wars, but I'm willing to bet that the resident mystery cult had put a decentish number of them there as well. Mostly the artistically mutilated ones with precisely drilled holes.
There's a difference between religion and organized religion, and the Sisterhood of the Lady of Pain had exploited that difference to the fullest.
Before Alice Hong had brought her private religious movement into Achaea, Achaean priests had pretty much kept to themselves. Each temple had been independent. Delians hadn't messed with Delphians, and Delphians hadn't messed with Delians. Which was fine, since most priests had worked at a day job. They'd worn fillets on their head for special occasions, foretold a plague every now and again, and that was that.
The Dark Sisterhood, Cult of the Lady of Pain, Despotnia Algeos, et cetera, was different. It was centralized. Years before, Alice Hong had designed it as one-third religious sisterhood, one-third secret police, and one-third creepy finishing school for Achaean noblewomen.
Which would have been fine, except that Alice had also been a sadomasochistic cannibal. Who'd designed all their rituals.
And don't get me started on their "ninjettes".
Kylefra had been the founder's foremost pupil, and was now the high priestess. Her reddish-brown hair, high cheekbones, and freckles marked her as an Alban. Iraiina, to be exact.
Alice had recruited her young. The phrase "harmful to minors" came to mind. Not that Kylefra hadn't relished every minute of it, mind you. Her decision to adopt her mentor's irreverent attitude could also get annoying.
"Somebody wants to meet you," she said.
"In other words, you want me to meet somebody," I said.
She'd said it in English. Even with years of practice, her Iraiina accent still clipped the syllables and gave them a guttural undertone.
Kylefra leaned close and whispered in my ear. Her breaths were warm and heavy on my neck. My skin tingled.
"I have a surprise for you, Harry."
I nearly choked on my tongue.
When I was twelve-ish and Dad had been dead for a year, Kylefra had awakened me at midnight. She'd been dressed in black then, too, and veiled. The fabric had rustled as she'd lead me down the megaron's corridors. Our shadows had melded in the whale-oil lanterns' light.
The shrine of the Despotnia Algeos had been smaller back then. Kylefra had reserved a seat for me behind the altar. It had been a darkened crevice, where none of the others could see me. Kylefra had called it "tradition".
No problem, I'd thought. My father had apparently watched their rituals from the same place. How bad could it be? After all, I'd already seen the Trojan War at close quarters, watched Dad's gladiatorial matches, tolerated "Auntie" Hong's public displays of sexuality, and even seen one or two results of her experiments after she'd patched them up…
Yeah. Not enough.
That night had been an initiation for two new "Sisters". They'd brought a dozen manacled slaves in; six for each Initiate. Practice.
They'd also brought trays full of polished tools, blades, and other things.
Kylefra's hands had tightened around my shoulders. She really shouldn't have bothered. After the first minute, I'd found myself frozen to the chair, gripping it like the proverbial drowning man's rope.
I can't tell you exactly what it was. Maybe the near-total darkness. Maybe the way that the tiny room magnified the screams. Or smells. Heck, maybe it was the sense that I really was trapped there for all intents and purposes, and wasn't entirely sure what they'd do if Kylefra revealed my presence.
But it hadn't been a pleasant experience regardless.
When the ceremony had concluded and the other cultists had left, Kylefra had cupped my chin and thrust her tongue through my lips. She slid it around in my mouth for a while. I suspect that I was largely unresponsive.
She'd finally pulled back with a lazy smile. A couple drops of saliva glistened on her lips.
"And that's how your father enjoyed himself, Harold."
I hadn't said anything. She'd lead me back to my room, and I'd stumbled after her. As she was closing the door, though, she'd offered me "much more" if I ever felt so inclined. I haven't.
Oholotarix had discovered my little fieldtrip a day later. My insomnia had tipped him off enough to pry the story out of me. He'd blown a gasket.
It's the only time I can remember when anyone cursed Kylefra out in public. In Iraiina, no less. She'd jeered back in the same language, and Oholotarix had knocked her to the ground. If his officers hadn't restrained him, he may well have gone for her right there with a sword.
It had been the closest that the Sisterhood and the Army had ever come to a direct confrontation. Odikweos had smoothed things over. As always.
I've been kinda meh about sex since then.
Back to the present, though...
The three of us continued deeper into the Walkerium's labyrinth. Kylefra lead me by one hand while she brushed the wall with the other, looking for navigational markings. She hummed a memory-rhyme under her breath. Her sandals tapped the stone.
Dad had left behind specific instructions about his future tomb. He'd been particularly insistent about keeping the looters out, which made navigation a pain.
I felt myself descending. Not long now.
A door creaked open. I blinked at the shaft of lamplight.
My father's body rested in the Walkerium's inner sanctum. It was pasty and pale; paler even than the day he'd died. His loose-fitting black canvas clothing only added to the effect. Polished leather boots shone in the lamplight. In retrospect, I'd probably made a mistake when I'd allowed them to embalm Dad's body "Uncle Joe style", as his will had charmingly put it.
Dad's Xoanon also waited for us. The statue was gold rather than wood, but shared its flat, upright posture with most other Xoana. I poured wine on its base.
I realized that my arm was hovering near the corpse's eyes, where the two coins rested. Unlike our counterparts further south, we don't have religious taboos about touching the dead.
I withdrew my hand before it made contact.
While I'm on the subject, I've always suspected that the first Hwalkarz overestimated his ability to shape Great Achaea's culture. And I say that without condescension: dead or not, thinking about Dad can still make my blood freeze. Great king and father overall, but he had ways of making sure you didn't cross him twice.
Oh, he changed things. Going from bronze lamellar to smokeless powder in a generation ain't chump change, as he might have put it. But notice the "we" I'm using.
See, I'm half American on my father's side. Montana dirt farmers of German-Scots-Irish stock, if you're feeling picky. Ignore a few details, and you could even spin Dad's time-travelling conquest of Homeric Greece as a rags-to-riches story:
Born in Montana. Joins the Coast Guard. Gets caught in a temporal distortion that transplants the island of Nantucket to 1250 BC. Betrays the newly-christened "Republic of Nantucket" to start an empire in what would have become Britain. Fails. Tries again in Greece. Succeeds. Beats aforementioned Republic of Nantucket in a world war, along with Babylon and the Hittite Empire. Nabs half of Anatolia in the bargain. Dies of assassination, courtesy of his ex-Stasi chief of secret police. His daughter and sadomasochistic doctor-cum-girlfriend die with him (no complaints on that count). As American as apple pie.
…Well, okay. Not really. But whatever else his enemies may have called him, Wannax William Walker was an American. A ruthless one, maybe, but then so was his namesake.
My mother, on the other hand, was Iraiina. A chieftain's daughter. Unfortunately, she'd never managed to stamp much Iraiina on me – and it is unfortunate, since they're an admirable people in a lot of ways. Mom had always seemed quiet when I told her about my hunting trips with the other Achaean lordlets. Regretful, or something. Not that we talked much after Dad died.
I lifted my hands and muttered a quick prayer, laced with nudging reminders of my past offerings. Not that it was likely to do much, but it couldn't hurt.
I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned to Kylefra again. She pointed to a second room tucked behind the first. I squinted.
"Your surprise is waiting for you, Wannax," Kylefra said.
A young man and woman lay on the inner altar, both dressed in white chitons that looked like they'd been bleached about a dozen times. Their hands and feet were almost as meticulously washed. I noticed a glazed look in their eyes. Drugged, probably. The Sisterhood of the Despotnia Algeos had all sorts of narcotics.
Speaking of the Sisters, one of them was busily cutting the young people's hair and tossing it in a fire, in imitation of an animal sacrifice. You could see other carry-overs as well: the barleycorns on the victims' heads, their unblemished skins…even their atrophied limbs, "untouched by the goad".
On a personal note, I've never cared for this sort of thing. A man offers wine to a god because both of them think that wine tastes good. The implications of offering up a person are disturbing at both ends of the transaction.
At least Kylefra wasn't sacrificing hecatombs' worth these days.
Oholotarix glared at her.
Oh, yes: Oholotarix. The number two or three guy in Great Achaea, depending on how you measured it. He'd probably seen his fair share of sacrifices as an Iraiina warrior, but his lot had mostly just strangled people and thrown them in bogs. Or beheaded them. They hadn't shared the Despotnia Algeos's creativity.
Otto must have been in his early forties by then (I'd never asked for an exact accounting), but he was still trim. Mostly from the centuries-early pankration that Dad had introduced.I mention it only because I could clearly see the muscles knot in his forearms when he clenched his fists.
"Perhaps His Majesty doesn't wish to see your rituals."
Oholotarix had spat the last word. Kylefra laughed. Her reply came somewhat thicker and more Iraiina-accented than usual, except for the American nickname.
"Ah, but Otto! This is in His Majesty's honor. And it wouldn't be polite to insult the Lady of Pain by stopping now…"
She raised an eyebrow.
"…would it, Lord Harold?"
"What do you want, Kylefra?" I said.
She snapped her fingers. The Sisters paused in mid-ritual. One of the scalpels hung a few inches above the young man's eye.
"Oh, I'd just hoped you could meet one of my friends from abroad," she said. "With an open mind. That's not too much to ask, is it?"
The scalpel glinted.
"I'm not going to agree to anything, you know," I said.
Kylefra clasped her hands behind her back and spun around like some parody of a mischievous schoolgirl. Her dress spun around her like flower petals opening and closing.
"Ahhh, but you will in the end, Harold Walker, King of Men. Because you're a romantic."
She grinned and led us to the appointed meeting room with far too much spring in her step. Those steps echoed on the stone walls – which were barely head-high, since only women tended my father's body. I ducked.
Kylefra opened a small door behind a snake-headed statue. A candle burned inside. We stepped through.
A man in a cloth headdress and white linen was waiting. He was black-haired and tannish, like a native of Tartessos or the Levant.
He lay face-down in front of me and grabbed my knees, suppliant-style.
"Hail Wa-nekhs Harold Wal-kher, King of Men, Chosen of—"
"And you're…?" I said.
He stopped at that, but only for a moment.
"Pareherwenemef, Wa-nekhs. First Charioteer of His Majesty, First Brave of the Army, Superintendent of the Horse –"
"Rameses II's son?"
"You're one of the younger ones, right? The one who was at Kadesh?"
I didn't miss the tense shoulders or wider-than-usual eyes. In my experience (and Dad's), informality tends to make most Bronze Agers jumpy. Myself included, at times.
Though I draw some consolation from the idea that informality is so foreign to everybody at my court that we have to do it artificially. So it really is ceremonial, if you think about it long enough.
"And you're asking me for help with your priest problem," I said.
"The scum at Thebes and the traitor Khaemweset. Yes."
"As I understand it – ugh, look…Just stand up and stop fondling my legs. Good. So anyway, as I understand it, your reactionary brother and his priests control most of Lower Egypt."
"Ah…Please forgive me, Wa-nekhs, but it's Upper Egypt."
"Oh. Right. The geography-reversal thing. But my point stands that you're losing the war."
"We have your arts on our side."
"They've got the manpower. And iron. And for all that your priests dislike the "New Learning", they're building those Fergusons quickly enough."
"I admit this."
His answer had come out with just the slightest growled undertone. Not directed at me, of course. More rueful than anything. The guy wasn't stupid.
"They're already marching on Pi-Rameses, right?" I said.
"If Kashtiliash and his Nantukhtar witch-queen Hollard were not aiding them-"
"They are, though," I said. "So again: convince me."
But it was my witch who answered for him.
"Adventure," Kylefra said.
"You just want to start up an Egyptian branch of the Sisterhood, Kylefra," I said.
She laughed once, sharply.
"See? That's what I like about you, Harry. Now if only you had a little more ruthlessness to go with that paranoia."
"Which brings me back to why I should help him—"
"Adventure," she repeated. "Sorry, but you're still Daurthunnicar's grandson and Walker's kid."
"It's a little more complicated—"
"Or do you think I've forgotten widdle eight-year-old Harry asking me to recite Iraiina epics?" she said. "And that's on top of the Achaean garbage you were already getting from Odikweos. Not to mention your, ah, fights…"
She was half right, and we both knew it. The epics part was true. Kylefra had always been a captivating storyteller when she cared enough to do it. Not that I'd asked her again after the Initiation incident.
The 'fights' thing…not quite. Yeah, I'd kept dragging my skinny carcass off the mat during pankration sessions with other noblemen's sons. Yes, I'd fought a lot over points of honor. And just as often, I'd lost. Oholotarix had never really managed to coax an athlete out of my bony frame – all five-six of it, since I hadn't grown much after thirteen. Not bad for the Bronze Age, but not great, either. As a bonus, I'd gotten Mom's fine features and soft skin, which meant I cut easily.
But here's the trick to fighting: You don't need to be fearless per se. Or huge. Or particularly durable, even. You only need to be more afraid of what Dad will do if he finds out that you backed down.
If you look at it objectively, I guess I can't blame him too much. Iraiina and Achaean noblemen alike don't think much of kings who lose face. So even years after his death, I was still putting in my daily quota of bruises, cuts, and rattled brains. It had only been my campaign against the Ringapi the year before that had made it all worthwhile.
…And I had enjoyed the Ringapi campaign.
But like I said, Kylefra had known about all that.
Anyway, enough whining.
"Okay, Pareherwenemef, here's the thing—"
I heard a scream, followed by a gurgle. I shot to my feet. The sound had been dry and shortened. A formalized shriek, like the ones at bull sacrifices to get the gods to pay attention…
I jerked my hand from Kylefra's grasp and threw the door open. I found about what I'd expected: two corpses lying in a red pool on the altar, while the Sisters caught their blood in iron tannurs.
They'd opened the young people's throats. Both victims were looking at the ceiling ; easier to cut the cords that way. (Which I only knew – in case you're wondering – because Kylefra had told me. Several times.)
There were other refinements that I won't mention.
Kylefra leaned on the doorframe.
"They'll be flaying them soon, Highness," she said. "Care for a thigh-bone?"
She touched my neck, gently running her fingers down my jugular.
"You're so much fun to mess with," she said. "Oh, all right. I've had my fun."
After forcibly removing her hand, I turned to Oholotarix.
"What's the latest production on the Winchesters and Nordenfelts?"
"You're not thinking about going?" Oholotarix said.
"I am," I said. "Stats, please."
"We could equip a couple regiments, but—"
"Then see what Cuddy's doing. The younger one. I need an engineer. Did the Fifth and Seventh come back from the Danube yet? Yes? Great. Get them ready. Oh, and grab Odikweos, too. I don't trust him while I'm away. Regent my ass."
"As you say."
"And since she's so peachy-keen on the expedition, Kylefra's coming with us," I said.
The witch in question froze for a quarter of a second, and then forced a smile. She made a great show of straightening her dress.
"If the Wannax wishes."
I turned to Pareherwenemef, and tipped my goblet. Wine splattered on stone.
"Whoever first breaks his oath, so may his brains flow on the ground," I said.
"May it happen that way," he replied.
So that was one difficulty hurdled. Cunning and untrustworthy they may be, but Egyptians know that Nature abhors a perjurer with roughly the same vehemence that it does a vacuum.
No such need with Oholotarix. He'd eaten my salt, and my Dad's before me.
Kylefra clicked her tongue. Who knows? Maybe I had some loyalty there, too. Just a really, really weird variety.
"And just when will we depart, O King of Men?" she said.
"Let's just say it rests on the knees of the gods. And don't think I've missed your sarcasm."
She rolled her eyes.
"In other words, 'I don't know, but here's a cute saying,'" she said.
"Yup. Now if you'll excuse me, Otto and I have some planning to do."
I gave the gathered party a curt nod, and stomped out. There's an art to stomping. You want to get just the right pitch. Especially this time.
It took a minute to find a Sister who hadn't covered herself in blood yet. Fortunately, most of them didn't share Kylefra's taste for lèse majesté. One of them led us out.
Only when we'd walked some distance in the sunlight did Oholotarix bristle. His face reddened behind that brownish-blond hair.
Iraiina have an irritating habit of telling you exactly what they think of your decisions. Like old-school Achaean nobles, only worse.
Oholotarix had lived in Meizon Achaea since its founding, but he'd been one of Dad's Iraiina warriors before that. Our police state hadn't leached all the honesty out yet. It still shined through here and there.
Like now, for instance.
"That was foolish, Majesty. To decide foreign policy just because you want to one-up that cultist bitch—"
"I planned to intervene in Egypt three weeks ago."
"And with an oath! Irresponsible, dangerous, childish—Wait, what?"
"First off, if you'd listened closely, I didn't exactly swear to do anything. Just mentioned an oath. Second, we need a client state on Babylon's Levantine border. Why d'you think Babylon prefers Egypt reactionary? I just wanted Kylefra to suggest it. She can't back out now."
(Incidentally, my people have a special term for a guy who manipulates oaths like that. Roughly translated from Achaean, you could render it "skilled in thieving and swearing". Moving on, though...)
"Why should you care who suggested it?" Oholotarix said. "You lost face -"
"You're staying behind. Does that answer your question?"
His eyes narrowed.
"Why would Your Majesty deny me the opportunity to serve—Oh."
"We'll be taking most of Kylefra's subordinates along with us," I said. "I'm signing a decree organizing a professional priesthood…I think the Despotnia Algeos could use some competition while I'm away. Be sure that they get it."
"What, like the Nantucketers?"
"A murder cult is one thing, and a useful one. Unfortunately. A state religion is another. It's just a matter of making sure that the first doesn't become the second."
"I take back my earlier objection."
"I thought you might. Of course, Kylefra was right about one thing."
"What's that, Wannax?"
I put my arm around Oholotarix's back. It barely stretched that far. As I've already noted: five-six.
"Adventure, Otto," I said.