The Clan Corporate (The Merchant Princes, Book 3)

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9780765309303: The Clan Corporate (The Merchant Princes, Book 3)

Miriam Beckstein has gotten in touch with her roots and they have nearly strangled her. A young, hip, business journalist in Boston, she discovered (in The Family Trade ) that her family comes from an alternate reality, that she is very well-connected, and that her family is a lot too much like the mafia for comfort. In addition, starting with the fact that women are family property and required to breed more family members with the unique talent to walk between worlds, she has tried to remain an outsider and her own woman. And start a profitable business in a third world she has discovered, outside the family reach (recounted in The Hidden Family). She fell in love with a distant relative but he's dead, killed saving her life. There have been murders, betrayals. Now, however, in The Clan Corporate, she may be overreaching. And if she gets caught, death or a fate worse is around the bend. There is for instance the brain-damaged son of the local king who needs a wife. But they'd never make her do that, would they?

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About the Author:

CHARLES STROSS lives in Edinburgh, Scotland

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One
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 ingénue. 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.”
 
“With an attitude like that you’ll go far.” Her mother paused. “All the way to the scaffold if you don’t watch your lip, at least in public. Do I need to explain how sensitive to social niceties your position here is? This is not America—”
 
“Yes, well, more’s the pity.” Miriam shrugged minutely.
 
“Well, we’re stuck with the way things are,” the duchess said sharply, then subsided slightly. “I’m sorry, dear, I don’t mean to snap. I’m just worried for you. The sooner you learn how to mind yourself without mortally offending anyone by accident the happier I’ll be.”
 
“Um.” Miriam chewed on the idea for a while. She’s stressed, she decided. Is that all it is, or is there something more? “Well, I’ll try. But I came here to see how you are, not to have a moan on your shoulder. So, how are you?”
 
“Well, now that you ask . . .” Her mother smiled and waved vaguely at a table behind her chaise longue. Miriam followed her gesture: two aluminium crutches, starkly functional, lay atop a cloisonné stand next to a pill case. “The doctor says I’m to reduce the prednisone again next week. The Copaxone seems to be helping a lot, and that’s just one injection a day. As long as nobody accidentally forgets to bring me next week’s prescription I’ll be fine.”
 
“But surely nobody would—” Miriam’s whole body quivered with anger.
 
“Really?” The duchess glanced back at her daughter, her expression unreadable. “You seem to have forgotten what kind of a place this is. The meds aren’t simply costly in dollars and cents: someone has to bring them across from the other world. And courier time is priceless. Nobody gives me a neatly itemized bill, but if I want to keep on receiving them I have to pay. And the first rule of business around here is, Don’t piss off the blackmailers.”
 
Miriam’s reluctant nod seemed to satisfy the duchess, because she nodded: “Remember, a lady never unintentionally gives offense—especially to people she depends on to keep her alive. If you can hang on to just one rule to help you survive in the Clan, make it that one. But I’m losing the plot. How are you doing? Have there been any aftereffects?”
 
“Aftereffects?” Miriam caught her hand at her chin and forced herself to stop fidgeting. She flushed, pulse jerking with an adrenaline surge of remembered fear and anger. “I—” She lowered her hand. “Oh, nothing physical,” she said bitterly. “Nothing . . .”
 
“I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately, Miriam. He wouldn’t have been good for you, you know.”
 
“I know.” The younger woman—youth being relative: she wouldn’t be seeing thirty again—dropped her gaze. “The political entanglements made it a messy prospect at best,” she said, frowning. “Even if you discounted his weaknesses.” The duchess didn’t reply. Eventually Miriam looked up, her eyes burning with emotions she’d experienced only since learning to be Helge. “I haven’t forgiven him, you know.”
 
“Forgiven Roland?” The duchess’s tone sharpened.
 
“No. Your goddamn half-brother. He’s meant to be in charge of security! But he—” Her voice began to break.
 
“Yes, yes, I know. And do you think he has been sleeping well lately? I’m led to believe he’s frantically busy right now. Losing Roland was the least of our problems, if you’ll permit me to be blunt, and Angbard has a major crisis to deal with. Your affair with him can be ignored, if it comes to it, by the Council. It’s not as if you’re a teenage virgin to be despoiled, damaging some aristocratic alliance by losing your honor—and you’d better think about that some more in future, because honor is the currency in the circles you move in, a currency that once spent is very hard to regain—but the deeper damage to the Clan that Matthias inflicted—”
 
“Tell me about it,” Miriam said bitterly. “As soon as I was back on my feet they told me I could only run courier assignments to and from a safe house. And I’m not allowed to go home!”
 
“Matthias knows you,” her mother pointed out. “If he mentioned you to his new employers—”
 
“I understand.” Miriam subsided in a sullen silence, arms crossed before her and back set defensively. After a moment she started tapping her toes.
 
“Stop that!” Moderating her tone, the duchess added, “If you do that in public it sends entirely the wrong message. Appearances are everything, you’ve got to learn that.”
 
“Yes, Mother.”
 
After a couple of minutes, the duchess spoke. “You’re not happy.”
 
“No.”
 
“And it’s not just—him.”
 
“Correct.” Her hem twitched once more before Helge managed to control the urge to tap.
 
The duchess sighed. “Do I have to drag it out of you?”
 
“No, Iris.”
 
“You shouldn’t call me that here. Bad habits of thought and behavior, you know.”
 
“Bad? Or just inappropriate? Liable to send the wrong message?”
 
The duchess chuckled. “I should know better than to argue with you, dear!” She looked serious. “The wrong message in a nutshell. Miriam can’t go home, Helge. Not now, maybe not ever. Thanks to that scum-sucking rat-bastard defector the entire Clan network in Massachusetts is blown wide open and if you even think about going—”
 
“Yeah, yeah, I know, there’ll be an FBI SWAT team staking out my backyard and I’ll vanish into a supermax prison so fast my feet don’t touch the ground. If I’m lucky,” she added bitterly. “So everything’s locked down like a code-red terrorist alert; the only way I’m allowed to go back to our world is on a closely supervised courier run to an underground railway station buried so deep I don’t even see daylight; if I want anything—even a box of tampons—I have to requisition it and someone in the Security Directorate has to fill out a risk assessment to see if it’s safe to obtain; and, and . . .” Her shoulders heaved with indignation.
 
“This is what it was like the whole time, during the civil war,” the duchess pointed out.
 
“So people keep telling me, as if I’m supposed to be grateful! But it’s not as if this is my only option. I’ve got another identity over in world three and—”
 
“Do they have tampons there?”
 
“Ah.” Helge paused for a moment. “No, I don’t think so,” she said slowly. “But they’ve got cotton wool.” She fumbled for a moment, then pulled out a pen-sized voice recorder. “Memo: business plans. Investigate early patent filings covering tampons and applicators. Also sterilization methods—dry heat?” She clicked the recorder off and replaced it. “Thanks.” A lightning smile that was purely Miriam flashed across her face and was gone. “I should be over there,” she added earnestly. “World three is my project. I set up the company and I ought to be managing it.”
 
“Firstly, our dear long-lost relatives are over there,” the duchess pointed out. “Truce or not, if they haven’t got the message yet, you could show your nose over there and get it chopped off. And secondly . . .”
 
“Ah, yes. Secondly.”
 
“You know what I’m going to say,” the duchess said quietly. “So please don’t shoot the messenger.”
 
“Okay.” Helge turned her head to stare moodily out of the nearest window. “You’re going to tell me that the political situation is messy. That if I go over there right now some of the more jumpy first citizens of the Clan will get the idea that I’m abandoning the sinking ship, aided and abetted by my delightful grandmother’s whispering campaign—”
 
“Leave the rudeness to me. She’s my cross to bear.”
 
“Yes, but.” Helge stopped.
 
Her mother took a deep breath. “The Clan, for all its failings, is a very democratic organization. Democratic in the original sense of the word. If enough of the elite voters agree, they can depose the leadership, indict a member of the Clan for trial by a jury of their peers—anything. Which is why appearances, manners, and social standing are so important. Hypocrisy is the grease that lubricates the Clan’s machinery.” Her cheek twitched. “Oh yes. While I remember, love, if you are accused of anything never, ever, insist on your right to a trial by jury. Over here, that word does not mean what you think it means. Like the word secretary. Pah, but I’m woolgathering! Anyway. My mother, your grandmother, has a constituency, Miri—Helge. Tarnation. Swear at me if I slip again, will you, dear? We need to break each other of this habit.”
 
Helge nodded. “Yes, Iris.”
 
The duchess reached over and swatted her lightly on the arm. “Patricia! Say my full name.”
 
“Ah.” Helge met her gaze. “All right. Your grace is the honorable Duchess Patricia voh Hjorth d’Wu ab Thorold.” With mild rebellion: “Also known as Iris Beckstein, of 34 Coffin Street—”
 
“That’s enough!” Her mother nodded sharply. “Put the rest behind you for the time being. Until—unless—we can ever go back, the memories can do nothing but hurt you. You’ve got to live in the present. And the present means living among the Clan and deporting yourself as a, a countess. Because if you don’t do that, all the alternatives on offer are drastically worse. This isn’t a rich world, like America. Most women only have one thing to trade: as a lady of the Clan you’re lucky enough to have two, even th...

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