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«The Clan Corporate», Charles Stross

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For Andrew, Lorna, and James



Thanks are due James Nicoll, Robert “Nojay” Sneddon, Cory Doctorow, Andrew Wilson, Caitlin Blasdell, Tom Doherty, and my editors, David Hartwell and Moshe Feder.

Tied Down

Nail lacquer, the woman called Helge reflected as she paused in the antechamber, always did two things to her: it reminded her of her mother, and it made her feel like a rebellious little girl. She examined the fingertips of her left hand, turning them this way and that in search of minute imperfections in the early afternoon sunlight slanting through the huge window behind her. There weren't any. The maidservant who had painted them for her had poor nails, cracked and brittle from hard work: her own, in contrast, were pearlescent and glossy, and about a quarter-inch longer than she was comfortable with. There seemed to be a lot of things that she was uncomfortable with these days. She sighed quietly and glanced at the door.

The door opened at that moment. Was it coincidence, or was she being watched? Liveried footmen inclined their heads as another spoke. "Milady, the duchess bids you enter. She is waiting in the day room."

Helge swept past them with a brief nod-more acknowledgment of their presence than most of her rank would bother with-and paused to glance back down the hallway as her servants (a lady-in-waiting, a court butler, and two hard-faced, impassive bodyguards) followed her. "Wait in the hall," she told the guards. "You can accompany me, but wait at the far end of the room," she told her attendant ingГ©nue. Lady Kara nodded meekly. She'd been slow to learn that Helge bore an uncommon dislike for having her conversations eavesdropped on: there had been an unfortunate incident some weeks ago, and the lady-in-waiting had not yet recovered her self-esteem.

The hall was perhaps sixty feet long and wide enough for a royal entourage. The walls, paneled in imported oak, were occupied by window bays interspersed with oil paintings and a few more-recent daguerreotypes of noble ancestors, the scoundrels and skeletons cluttering up the family tree. Uniformed servants waited beside each door. Helge paced across the rough marble tiles, her spine rigid and her shoulders set defensively. At the end of the hall an equerry wearing the polished half-armor and crimson breeches of his calling bowed, then pulled the tasseled bell-pull beside the double doors. "The Countess Helge voh Thorold d'Hjorth!"

The doors opened, ushering Countess Helge inside, leaving servants and guards to cool their heels at the threshold.

The day room was built to classical proportions-but built large, in every dimension. Four windows, each twelve feet high, dominated the south wall, overlooking the regimented lushness of the gardens that surrounded the palace. The ornate plasterwork of the ceiling must have occupied a master and his journeymen for a year. The scale of the architecture dwarfed the merely human furniture, so that the chaise longue the duchess reclined on, and the spindly rococo chair beside it, seemed like the discarded toy furniture of a baby giantess. The duchess herself looked improbably fragile: gray hair growing out in intricately coiffed coils, face powdered to the complexion of a china doll, her body lost in a court gown of black lace over burgundy velvet. But her eyes were bright and alert-and knowing.

Helge paused before the duchess. With a little moue of concentration she essayed a curtsey. "Your grace, I are-am-happy to see you," she said haltingly in hochsprache. "I-I-oh damn." The latter words slipped out in her native tongue. She straightened her knees and sighed. "Well? How am I doing?"

"Hmm." The duchess examined her minutely from head to foot, then nodded slightly. "You're getting better. Well enough to pass tonight. Have a seat." She gestured at the chair beside her.

Miriam sat down. "As long as nobody asks me to dance," she said ruefully. "I've got two left feet, it seems." She plucked at her lap. "And as long as I don't end up being cornered by a drunken backwoods peer who thinks not being fluent in his language is a sign of an imbecile. And as long as I don't accidentally mistake some long-lost third cousin seven times removed for the hat-check clerk and resurrect a two-hundred-year-old blood feud. And as long as-"

"Dear," the duchess said quietly, "do please shut up."

The countess, who had grown up as Miriam but whom everyone around her but the duchess habitually called Helge, stopped in mid-flow. "Yes, Mother," she said meekly. Folding her hands in her lap she breathed out. Then she raised one eyebrow.

The duchess looked at her for almost a minute, then nodded minutely. "You'll pass," she said. "With the jewelry, of course. And the posh frock. As long as you don't let your mouth run away with you." Her cheek twitched. "As long as you remember to be Helge, not Miriam."

"I feel like I'm acting all the time!" Miriam protested.

"Of course you do." The duchess finally smiled. "Imposter syndrome goes with the territory." The smile faded. "And I didn't do you any favors in the long run by hiding you from all this." She gestured around the room. "It becomes harder to adapt, the older you get."

"Oh, I don't know." Miriam frowned momentarily. "I can deal with disguises and a new name and background; I can even cope with trying to learn a new language, it's the sense of permanence that's disconcerting. I grew up an only child, but Helge has all these-relatives-I didn't grow up with, and they're real. That's hard to cope with. And you're here, and part of it!" Her frown returned. "And now this evening's junket. If I thought I could avoid it, I'd be in my rooms having a stomach cramp all afternoon."

"That would be a Bad Idea." The duchess still had the habit of capitalizing her speech when she was waxing sarcastic, Miriam noted.

"Yes, I know that. I'm just-there are things I should be doing that are more important than attending a royal garden party. It's all deeply tedious."

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