AUTHOR'S NOTE: The song used in this chapter is "The Voice," sung by the lovely ladies of Celtic Woman. I chose it after a very long search, and it's used without permission strictly for literary impact. I hope nobody minds.

"Lieutenant Commander Maysa Bari, commanding officer, Rapid Deployment Force, Sentinels Regimental Combined Arms Team, and her retainers!"

The herald barked out the name and honorifics, and Maysa fought down a surge of embarrassment. It sounded so formal, and she was used to informality. Even at concerts, she was just introduced as 'Maysa Bari,' or 'the lovely Maysa Bari,' or something along those lines. Here, people acted as if she was nobility. I'm just a bastard, Maysa said to herself with an inward smile. Stengovich was not helping, biting back a laugh at being called a retainer. Still, etiquette was etiquette, and Sheila had told Maysa to pile it on, thick and deep. Maysa strolled into the royal hall of the Eyrie like she was a queen and she owned the place.

Egan had easily acceeded to her request for a bath; there was plenty of grime from the road and not a small amount of nervous sweat. After a bath that was far too short for the heroic tub she was given, she combed out her hair so that it fanned over her shoulders rather than in its traditional tight braid; it was an arresting sight and Maysa knew it. Gone was the gray fatigues she had worn to the Eyrie: in its place was a dress uniform. It was the traditional white uniform of the Sentinels, with an hourglass design that started at the mandarin collar and fanned out into a skirt for women, but unlike the powder blue the Snowbirds wore, Maysa wore the colors adopted for the RDF: the hourglass was black, as was the cape. Five rows of campaign ribbons rode over her left breast, and below those was pinned the glittering Diamond Sunburst of the Federated Commonwealth and the red and black ribbon that marked her as a Knight of New Samarkand. Above her right breast were two small pins, one with a stylized BattleMech of a Sentinel MechWarrior, and the other a golden star, which denoted her status as the highest scoring MechWarrior in the entire regiment. Her rank diamonds were polished, as were her boots. The effect was striking, if the reaction of the onlookers was any indication.

Behind her, the SLI troopers wore their unit's formal uniforms of grey and white, their naginata blades polished to a high sheen. They were not allowed to bring in their guns, but the naginatas were considered ceremonial. Maysa wondered if the Arryns knew that the SLI's naginatas were far from ceremonial.

The throne room of the Eyrie was impressive in and of itself. It was circular in shape, in two levels: the lower level, where the court gathered, and the higher, where the throne sat; the throne's back was a stylized eagle. Large picture windows surrounded the upper level, letting in light and providing a vista of blue sky. Two staircases flanked the throne, connecting the two levels, and acted as balconies. It was very Greek, Maysa decided, with Doric columns, white statuary, and a stone-railinged spot from which to address the throne. It was crowded; Lysa Arryn evidently invited her whole court. Maysa inwardly sighed. I would prefer to do this privately, but oh well.

"Welcome to the Eyrie, Lady Bari." A woman stood up from the throne. To Maysa's surprise, she was dressed simply, in a green dress, albeit a beautifully sewn one. She was an older woman, and Maysa could tell that in her youth, she had been attractive—but grief was etched on every line in her face. Maysa knew this was Lysa Arryn even before she introduced herself, which was strange because Lysa Arryn should not be as old as she looked. "I bid you welcome to the Vale…if your intentions are peaceful."

Maysa bowed politely. "I hope so, Lady Arryn."

"This is my son, Lord of the Eyrie and Defender of the Vale, Robert Arryn." She motioned to a child still sitting in the throne. He was small—or the throne was so big—that Maysa had initially not seen him. At his mother's behest, he got to his feet. Robert Arryn was probably about six or seven, Maysa guessed, wearing a intricately-detailed, rich silk, quasi-military uniform. His hair was a dark brown as compared to his mother's russet. He looked terrified.

"Lord Arryn." Maysa bowed even deeper this time, turning it into a curtsey.

"It is customary to kneel before a lord." Lysa Arryn's voice cracked across the chamber, suddenly acquiring steel in it. Conversation, which had been at a low rumble, ceased.

Maysa straightened and stole a quick glance back at Stengovich, then back to the Arryns. The boy looked at her, but his expression was still one of fear. Lysa Arryn's smile was still there, but it was a cold one now. Maysa understood: this was a test. She took a deep breath. "Lady and Lord Arryn, with respect and apologies. I kneel before no man, only God."

"You are a Christian?"

"And a Sentinel." Maysa wished her voice was as intimidating as Sheila's. Sheila Arla-Vlata undoubtedly would have silenced Lysa Arryn with a look; Senefa Malthus would have already been drawing a Circle of Equals. It was foolish, but Maysa needed to show strength. If she bent the knee to a minor planetary lord, it would look as if the Sentinels could be intimidated. Theodore Kurita was one thing, but in the scheme of the Inner Sphere's great game, Lysa Arryn was not even a pawn on the board.

Maysa steeled herself for an argument, but Lysa gave a curt nod. "Very well. May I introduce my sister, Lady Catelyn Stark, of House Stark?"

Maysa followed the other woman's hand, and concealed her shock. Catelyn Stark was supposed to be either quietly making her way back to Winterfell, or else in her father's besieged at Riverrun. Still, the Eyrie was probably a lot safer. Catelyn was the elder sister, but looked younger. She could see the sons in the mother. Maysa was getting tired of bowing, but she did so in any case. "Lady Stark. Your sons were doing well when I saw them yesterday."

Catelyn's smile was geniuine, but it did not last. "Thank you, Lady Bari. You being here is a great load off my mind. Was Winterfell badly damaged?"

"Some, but nothing that can't be fixed." Maysa paused. "I was saddened to hear about your husband. The Sentinels will do everything possible to ensure his safety and that of your daughters." Catelyn acknowledged Maysa's sympathy with a nod. Her expression had softened, but not by much. That was not good. People would do a lot for their children. Catelyn Stark looked tough, but when one's enemies held a beloved husband and daughters hostage, that might take the ardor for war out of someone in a hurry. Inwardly, Maysa knew that she should write Eddard Stark and the two daughters off as dead, but knew she could not; if it was Daniel and Vikka in the clutches of the Word of Blake, she would not write them off. No, she told herself with a vehemence that surprised her, I'd want revenge. I'd burn King's Landing to the ground. "There's no limit to the depths the Word of Blake will go, my lady," Maysa said instead. "That's why the Sentinels are here."

Catelyn opened her mouth to say something, but it was her sister who spoke. "It was not the Word of Blake," Lysa snapped. "It was the Lannisters." Her voice was venomous. "Are you here to destroy them as well?"

Careful, Maysa, she warned herself, hearing Sheila's voice. We're here to destroy the Wobbies. We're not here to get into the middle of these people's dynastic wars. The Lannisters aligned themselves with the WOB, but the question was if it was willingly. Moreover, Sheila seemed a little nervous about fighting this Tywin Lannister, and Sheila Arla-Vlata was not someone who got nervous about people. "We're here to drive off the Word of Blake and any of their willing allies," Maysa replied diplomatically. "Westeros' political affairs are your own—"

"More empty promises," Lysa shot back. "We know why you're here, Maysa Bari."

Maysa took a breath. She thought there would be some diplomatic niceties, but apparently it was time to begin. "Yes, well—"

"You want the Vale," Lysa said triumphantly. "You want us to help you."

Maysa nodded. "That would be very helpful, Lady Arryn." She looked around the chamber. There were too many ears here; even on Virentofta, she would be worried about talking openly like this. "Perhaps we could speak privately—"

"No. I've had enough of secrets." Arryn leveled a finger at her. "It's obvious to anyone who can read a map. You want the Vale to guard your left flank when the Sentinels descend from the Neck. You want Arryn troops to guard that flank, and perhaps help you relieve the siege of Riverrun and march on King's Landing."

"Well…yes." Maysa put her most winning smile on it. "That's pretty much the size of it."

"And how many of us would die? How many Arryns, Lady Bari?" Lysa's eyes were blazing. "But you're not a lady, are you? You're a mercenary, a sellsword, and from what I understand, a bastard-born!"

"Lysa, that's enough!" Catelyn exclaimed. "These people are your guests!"

"No, Catelyn! She'll draw us into the Word of Blake's Jihad. She'll kill us all!"

Catelyn looked around the hall; it was obvious she would have liked to have this conversation quietly and elsewhere as well. "The Lannisters—"

"You heard her! They're not here to rid us of the Lannisters. They're the Kuritans' lapdogs." Suddenly Robert Arryn, who had been half-hiding behind his mother's skirts, began to cry. Lysa immediately turned to him. "Oh, poor baby. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to shout." She stepped backwards and sat in the throne, and to Maysa's utter shock, unbuttoned the top of her dress and pulled out a thick breast. The boy instantly took the nipple in his mouth and began to suckle. Catelyn looked disgusted, but the rest of the court seemed not to notice. Or were good at hiding it.

"She's crazy as hell." Stengovich said the words in Chinese, and just low enough for Maysa to hear.

Catelyn turned to Maysa. "Lady Bari, what do you intend to do on Westeros?"

"Destroy the Word of Blake's units or drive them offplanet. Liberate Westeros. That's all." Maysa shook her head. "That's our job—but it's not just what we were hired to do. It's the right thing to do." A lot of the faces in the hall looked skeptical. "The Sentinels fought on Dieron, and on New Wessex. We've seen what the Wobb—what the Blakists can do. Trust me, Westeros has been spared the worst."

"All the more reason not to get involved in your war," Lysa said.

"With respect, Lady Arryn, that's a very good reason to get involved. And you're already in the war, like it or not." Maysa felt frustration building. She had heard this argument so many times before. Wars always seemed far away until they arrived on one's doorstep, and then it was too late. It was easy to say that it was none of your business until the enemy was breaking down your door. "Lady Stark's sons and your father have already raised banners of rebellion. As far as the Word of Blake is concerned, that makes them enemies. They will stop at nothing now. And…to be perfectly honest, Lady Arryn…the fact that you and Lady Stark are sisters might be enough for the Blakists to attack the Vale, whether we're here or not."

Lysa smiled triumphantly. "We're in no danger here at the Eyrie, Commander."

Maysa bit back the words Stengovich had said earlier: you are not safe here. It would only make things worse. "Be as that may, Lady Arryn, the fact of the matter is that the Sentinels need the Vale with us. Denying us passage and your help only makes the Word of Blake's victory that much more certain—" Maysa bit her lip, inwardly cursing herself for stepping squarely into a trap. If Arryn realized that the Vale could be on the side of the winners, then not only would she close the valley tight as a drum, she could take Maysa herself prisoner. Maysa glanced at Catelyn Stark. Or she could offer to exchange me for her husband and sisters. I'm the Sentinels' second-in-command. I'd be worth it. She cursed again, below earshot, in Gaelic. I don't know who was more stupid, Sheila. You for sending me down here or me for accepting it. Some of her emotions must have been on her face, because she noticed Stengovich slowly drawing the circle of SLI a little closer around her, and fingers quietly tightened on naginatas. Maysa opened her mouth to speak, knowing that, at the least, one more misstep and blood would spill.

Lysa Arryn spoke first. "You think I would help those butchers?" Her smile was cold. "I can see it in your face, Commander Bari. You're worried that I'm going to take you prisoner."

My God, Daniel's right, Maysa sighed. I am that bad of a poker player. "The thought did occur to me, Lady Arryn." The SLI's hands were openly on their naginatas now, and hands on the Arryn guards drifted to their swords, which Maysa knew were not just for show.

Lysa suddenly laughed. It shocked everyone, even her son, who pulled away his mouth from his mother's breast to stare quizzically at her. "I would not break our laws of hospitality, Commander Bari. I am not, after all, a Lannister."

Tension left the room; at least, some of it. Maysa slowly let out the breath she was holding. "That's a relief, ma'am."

"That doesn't mean I'm going to help you. Unless…"

"Unless?" Maysa asked, confused.

"You can prove that you are sincere."

"What must I do?"

Lysa smiled. It was not a friendly smile. It was a challenging, hungry smile. "You are renowned through the Inner Sphere as a singer, Commander. Legend has it that you once made a Clan commander cry and leave the field just with your voice. I would hear you sing."

The chamber was still in shocked silence for a moment, and Maysa was slower than most. "Wait. You want me to sing?" Lysa nodded. "And if you like what I sing, you'll allow us to use the Vale as a staging area?"

"Oh, I'll do more than that," Lysa replied. "I'll pledge the Vale to your side. Arryn troops will join the Sentinels—under Arryn command, of course, but we will conform to your movements, along with the Starks and the Tullys."

Maysa once more bit back what she wanted to say, which was that Lysa Arryn was clinically deranged. Fearing what would happen to the Vale, her troops, and the House of Arryn was understandable. Fearing the Word of Blake was eminently understandable. Betting all of that on a song was insane. Maysa searched the older woman's face and did not like what she saw: Lysa Arryn was daring her to refuse. Or worse, daring her to accept and fail.

And that made Maysa Bari angry.

"Allow me a moment." She turned to Stengovich and the others and dropped her voice. "All right, guys. I'm going to do this."

"You're going to sing for this demented bitch?" Stengovich whispered.

"I've got to. There's too much to lose if I don't." Maysa laughed at little, which sounded crazy in and of itself. "Besides, you know I like to sing."

Stengovich shook his head. "This is the nuttiest thing I've ever heard. Singing so we can go fight someone. Weird." He sighed. "All right."

One of the other troopers raised a hand. "Commander Bari, you usually have some people to back you up. Begging the commander's pardon, but I can't sing."

"Me neither," someone else said.

"Don't worry about that," Maysa assured them. She could sing without accompaniment. "Worry about what I'm going to sing. I haven't the foggiest idea."

Stengovich tapped his chin. "I've always liked Sail Away."

Maysa gave a shake of the head. "I need four other singers for that."

"Yellow River?" This from the trooper with the poor singing voice. Yellow River was a favorite of the Sentinels, sung at the bars of Virentofta when the regiment returned home. It was a good song, about coming home when a war was over.

"That's not bad, but it's not exactly inspirational."

"Well, you can't sing Can't Throw Your Granny," Stengovich joked. Maysa blushed. Can't Throw Your Granny was a filthy song, peppered liberally with four-lettered words and ribald jokes about the Word of Blake. Maysa had sung it once, to the great joy of the Sentinels, and regretted it ever since. "Hmm. Damn, we need something that really shows off your voice."

Just like that, it popped into Maysa's mind. "That's it! That's what I'll sing."


She winked at Stengovich, caught up in the moment. "Trust me." She turned back to the chamber as a whole.

Lysa Arryn's smile was still there, and still rather smug. Maysa wanted to wipe that smile off Lysa's face, preferably with a Gauss rifle, but a song would do. The older woman had at least covered her bosom. "Have you chosen something?"

"I have, but I need some accompaniment. Are there any musicians here?" Maysa wondered if, with all the medieval trappings of Westeros, if they had court musicians. Or perhaps the Vale had an orchestra.

A skinny man with tousled black hair and a close-cropped beard stepped forward and held up a violin. "I'm a musician. My name's Marillion. It would be an honor to accompany you, Miss Bari."

"And I can play." To Maysa's surprise, Mya Stone stepped forward. "I can play guitar. Not like you, Commander, but with some skill."

"That's all right. This isn't a particularly hard piece to play." Stone left to get her guitar, while Maysa motioned Marillion forward. "Do you know The Voice? The other one, the solo one." The musician thought a moment, then hummed a few bars. Maysa grinned. "That's it. Do a good job and I'll make sure you get a contract." Stone returned, and Maysa stepped forward. "By your leave, Lady Arryn."

"By all means, Commander Bari."

Maysa closed her eyes. Her heart pounded with fear, and her throat was dry. She summoned up what saliva she could muster. If she failed, there would be blood on her hands. I am using my voice as a weapon, she thought sadly. It's come to this. People will die if I sing. People will die if I don't.

She put that aside. She remembered Daniel's encouragement when Maysa had first taken the stage, singing with Dan's garage band in little smoky pubs and bars, then with more professionals, then in recording studios, then in front of crowds of thousands. Maysa was terrified of crowds. It did not bother her in her powerful 60-ton Rifleman, but in front of a crowd, she felt naked, defenseless and alone. Dan had soothed her. Don't think about the crowd. Don't think about anything. Just sing, and let the song flow. You're beautiful, Maysa, the most beautiful girl in the galaxy. You can do anything. Maysa smiled, wished her husband was here. It would be the first concert he ever missed. Please, God, if it be Thy will, give me the voice of the angels to vanquish my foe.

The song was ancient and Irish. Maysa wondered if she was Irish—her pale skin and red hair seemed to hint at it—and certainly there seemed to be something distinctly Celtic about her style. To test her voice, she gave a soft cry, gradually rising. Voices ceased in the chamber, leaving only hers, which was Maysa's intention. Marillion instantly picked up on the cue and began playing.

And Maysa began:

I hear your voice on the wind

And I hear you call out my name…

She opened her eyes. Maysa knew that Lysa Arryn was the target; she was the one that needed to be convinced, insane or not. Nestled in his mother's shadow was Robert, whose attention was now fastened on Maysa. No, Maysa thought, Lysa's not my target. Robert is. I convince him, and I'll convince his mother. She instantly hated herself for thinking that, but knew she was right in thinking it.

So she addressed Robert Arryn:

Listen my child, you say to me

I am the voice of your history

Be not afraid, come follow me

Answer my call and I'll set you free!

The last word Maysa stretched out into a crescendo, letting her voice rise to the heavens and the blue sky that shone through the windows. She felt that feeling, one she could not name, when she knew she was singing at her best.

I am the voice in the wind and the pouring rain

I am the voice of your hunger and pain

I am the voice that always is calling you

I am the voice—I will remain.

Maysa closed her eyes again, letting the music flow. Marillion's violin was right where it was supposed to be, and she heard Aya Stone's guitar hesitantly join in, then with more confidence.

I am the voice in the fields when the summer's gone

The dance of the leaves when the autumn winds blow

Never do I sleep throughout all the winter long

I am the force that in springtime will grow.

That was the reason, she reflected for a moment, why she had chosen this song. Westeros' long summers spoiled the people, then winter came and hit with a fury that terrified and killed. It was just like war: peace spoiled people, and then when war came, it too made them afraid and it killed and maimed them. But there was always a spring after winter, and always hope. Maysa Bari always believed that. Others might fall victim to their fears, or give up hope, but never Maysa. She could not. She would not. She had to give these people hope, that winter might be coming, but with the Sentinels came spring, if they would only fight for it.

She paused, to let Marillion and Stone catch up. Now they were heading into the climax of the song, and Maysa took a deep breath. It was the home stretch. Her enemy was breaking, she could feel it, knew the elation that Sheila felt, the thing that kept her friend going through twenty years of war and hardship. She had the audience now, enthralled, and knew it.

I am the voice of the past that will always be

Filled with my sorrow and blood in my fields

In her mind's eye, Maysa saw the ranks of BattleMechs, waiting for the orders that would send them forward. People would die because of her voice. People would die in spite of it. Maysa began to cry, the tears welling and falling across her cheeks, and her voice became at once sorrowful and yet more triumphant.

I am the voice of the future

Bring me your peace…bring me your peace and my wounds, they will heal.

Stengovich and the other SLI troops began stomping their feet in time, and gradually so did the others.

I am the voice in the wind and the pouring rain

I am the voice of your hunger and pain

I am the voice that always is calling you

Maysa raised her hands, in supplication to God, in sorrow and in victory, because she knew she had won, and knew what the consequences of that victory would be.

I am the voice of the past that will always be

I am the voice of your hunger and pain

I am the voice of the future

I am the voice!

Her voice rebounded off the walls of the chamber, and echoed down the halls.

And then it was over. As the last notes faded away, she looked around. Silence ruled the chamber. There were open expressions of shock, but there were some grins, too. Maysa reflected that, if nothing else, she had done her best.

Then someone began to clap. To her surprise—Maysa realized she had quite forgotten him—it was little Robert Arryn, who was on his feet, smiling from ear to ear. Then others joined in, then the entire chamber. Cheers followed, and Maysa saw Stengovich wink. All the world's a stage, she thought, and bowed deeply, then motioned Mya Stone and Marillion forward, allowing them to take the bows with her.

At last, Lysa Arryn—who looked quite shocked—regained her composure and motioned for silence. When she had it, she looked at Maysa. She sighed, and to Maysa's surprise, she wiped away a tear. Maysa would never know if the tears were a result of the song, or the result of what the song would bring. "Commander Bari."

"Lady Arryn?"

A pause. "You shall have your troops…and the Vale."

The cheers were even louder now. "You did it!" Stengovich said over the noise.

Maysa looked down. "Yes." She also wiped away a tear, but she knew what her tears were for. "I did."