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Midst Toil and Tribulation: Chapter Five
Last updated: Monday, May 7, 2012 01:44 EDT
HMS Destiny, 54,
Sea of Justice
Princess Irys Zhorzhet Mhara Daykyn shook her head as the small, wiry, sunburned-but-tanning-quickly youngster squealed in delight. The ten-year-old stood at the back edge of HMS Destiny‘s quarterdeck, leaning back sharply with bare feet braced hard against the taffrail, while he clung to the wildly bent rod with both hands. He wore no shoes, only a pair of cutoff shorts enormously too big for him, but a canvas harness — the type the Imperial Charisian Navy used with deckside safety lines during hurricanes — was fastened about his bare torso. The harness was firmly anchored to the binnacle beside the ship’s double wheel, and two burly, seasoned-looking petty officers (either of whom weighed four or five times as much as the boy in question) stood alertly to one side, grinning hugely as they watched him.
“It’s a kraken! It’s a kraken, Irys!” the youngster shouted, managing to hang onto the rod somehow.
One of the watching petty officers reached out as if to lend a hand, but he visibly thought better of it. The boy never noticed; he was too busy having the time of his life.
“It’s not really a kraken, you know, Your Highness,” a voice said quietly, and Irys turned her head quickly. Lieutenant Hektor Aplyn-Ahrmahk (known on social occasions as His Grace, Duke Hektor of Darcos) smiled at her. “A kraken would’ve already snatched the rod out of his hands,” he said reassuringly. “He’s probably got a forktail or a small neartuna. Either of which,” he added with a reminiscent smile, “will be more than enough of a challenge at his age. I remember my first neartuna.” He shook his head. “I was only a year or so older than His Highness is now, and it took me over an hour to land it. And I might as well admit I needed help. The damned thing — pardon my language — weighed more than I did!”
“Really?” Irys gazed at him for a moment, then gave him a smile of thanks. “I know he won’t really go overboard, not with that harness. But I still can’t help worrying,” she acknowledged, her smile fading slightly. “And I can’t say I was very happy about the thought of his actually landing a kraken with all those teeth and tentacles!”
“Well, even if I’m wrong and he has hooked a kraken — and he and the petty officers manage to land it, which they probably wouldn’t without a lot heavier line — someone’s going to hit it smartly between the eyes with an ax before it’s allowed on deck.” He shrugged. “The kraken may be the emblem of the House of Ahrmahk, Your Highness, but nobody wants to feed a hand or an arm to a real one.”
“I suppose not,” she said in a suddenly softer tone, looking away, and his sun-bronzed face turned darker as he realized what he’d just said.
“Your Highness, I –” he began, but she reached out and touched his forearm lightly before he could finish.
“It isn’t your fault . . . Lieutenant. My father should’ve thought about that. And I’ve been forced to . . . adjust my thinking where the blame for his death is concerned.” She turned to face him fully. “I don’t doubt Emperor Cayleb would have killed him willingly in combat, but, then, Father would just as willingly have killed Cayleb. And after what Phylyp’s learned, there’s no longer any doubt in my mind that it was Zhaspahr Clyntahn who had Father and Hektor murdered. I won’t pretend I’m reconciled to Corisande’s conquest, because I’m not. But as for Daivyn’s safety and my own, I’m far safer swimming with a Charisian kraken than waiting for an offal lizard like Clyntahn to have us both murdered at the time that suits his purposes.”
“You are, you know,” he said quietly, laying one sword-calloused hand over the slender, long-fingered one on his forearm. “I don’t know how this will all work out, but I know Cayleb and Sharleyan, and I know Archbishop Maikel. Nothing — nothing — will happen to your brother under their protection. Anyone who wishes to harm either of you will have to fight his way through the entire Imperial Army, Marine Corps, and Guard. And” — he smiled suddenly, wryly — “past Seijin Merlin, which would probably be harder than all the rest put together, now that I think about it.”
“I’m sure you’re right about that!” Irys laughed, squeezing his arm gently. “I may still worry about whether or not he got away safely, but when it comes down to it, I think Daivyn’s right. I’ve come to the conclusion there are very few things Seijin Merlin couldn’t do if he put his mind to it. And I might as well admit that knowing a man like him serves Cayleb and Sharleyan did almost as much as Phylyp to convince me how wrong I’d been about them. Good men can serve bad rulers, but . . . not a man like him.”
“You’re right about that, Your Highness.” Aplyn-Ahrmahk pressed down on her hand for a moment, then blinked and took his own hand quickly away. For a moment, he seemed remarkably awkward about finding somewhere else for that hand to go, especially for a young man who was so perpetually poised and composed, and the tiniest trace of a smile flickered across Irys’ lips.
Her brother’s fresh squeal of delight drew her eyes, and she released the lieutenant’s forearm and reached up to adjust to her wide-brimmed sun hat. The brisk wind of the Sea of Justice grasped at it with playful hands, flexing and pulling, bending all its cunning towards snatching it away, and her eyes gleamed in pure, sensual pleasure. It was summer in Safehold’s southern hemisphere, but the Sea of Justice was a brisk place any time, and the wind had a crisp edge, despite her brother’s eagerness to shed his shirt at a moment’s notice. But there was a sense of freedom, of life, in that wind. Intellectually, she knew the ship was bearing her to another sort of captivity — one she had no doubt would be genteel, kind, and as unobtrusive as possible, yet captivity nonetheless. Somehow, though, that didn’t really matter at the moment. After the endless, dreary months confined in King Zhames of Delferahk’s castle above the waters of Lake Erdan, the blustering wind, the sunlight, the smell of salt water, the play of light on canvas and rigging, the endless rushing sound of water, and the creak of timbers and cordage all swirled about her like life itself. For the first time in far too long she admitted to herself how bitterly she’d missed the rough, feathery hand of the wind, the kiss of rain, the smell of Corisandian grass as she galloped across the open fields.
She felt the lieutenant at her side, her assigned escort here on Destiny‘s deck. She was the only female member of the galleon’s entire crew, and she wondered how the Charisians had come to overlook that minor fact. In a way, it was comforting to know they could overlook things, and she was no shrinking violet. It was . . . an unusual experience to find herself without a single maid, female body servant, or chaperone, and she had no doubt three quarters of the court back in Manchyr would have been horrified by the very thought or her suffering such an insult. Or as horrified as they could have been over mere insult to her station given how much of their horror quotient would have been used up by the notion of any nobly born maiden of tender years, sister of the rightful Prince of Corisande or not, finding herself with her safety and virtue alike unprotected aboard a Charisian warship!
Yet not a single one of those Charisians — not a seaman, not a Marine, not an officer: not one of them — had offered even the slightest discourtesy. True, men who’d been at sea for months on end, some of them even longer, without sight or smell of a woman, watched with almost reverent eyes whenever she came on deck. Despite that, she was convinced that even without knowing what their officers would have done to anyone who’d dared to lay so much as a finger upon her, they wouldn’t have anyway. Oh, some of them might have; they were human beings, and they were men, not saints. But the instant anyone tried, his own fellows would have torn him limb from limb. Which didn’t even count what Tobys Raimair or the rest of her own armsmen would have done.
No, she’d never been safer in her father’s palace than here on this warship of a hostile, heretical empire, and that was the true reason for the lightness in her heart. For the first time in far, far too long, she knew she and, ever so much more importantly, her brother were safe. And the wiry young man beside her in the sky blue tunic and dark blue trousers of the Imperial Charisian Navy was one of the reasons she was.
She glanced up at him from the corner of one eye, but he wasn’t looking at her. He was watching Daivyn and grinning hugely. It made him look absurdly young, but then he was young, over two years younger even than she herself. Only that was hard to remember when she recalled his voice out of the darkness, leading his men in a charge against the Delferahkan dragoons who’d outnumbered them better than two-to-one to rescue her and her brother. When she recalled merciless brown eyes in the moonlight and the flash of the pistol as he put a bullet through the brain of the inquisitor who’d done his best to trick those dragoons into massacring her and Daivyn. When she remembered his competence and certainty on the long boat trip downriver to Sarmouth and safety. Or, for that matter, when she watched him and his easy assurance giving commands to men three times his own age here aboard Destiny.
He would never be a handsome man, she thought. Pleasant looking, perhaps, but not remarkably so. It was the energy that was so much a part of him, the quick decision and the agile brain, that struck any observer. And the confidence. She remembered that moonlit night again, then remembered the lecture Admiral Yairley had given him when they finally reached the Sarmouth and came aboard Destiny. She had a suspicion Yairley had lectured him more for her benefit than for his own, but she was a princess herself. She understood how the game was played, and she’d been grateful to the admiral for making it clear to her that Aplyn-Ahrmahk had proceeded entirely on his own to complete his mission — and just incidentally save her own life — when any reasonable man would have turned for home. She’d suspected that was the case from one or two remarks the seaman under his command had made during the trip down the river, but the lieutenant had simply brushed the entire notion aside. Now she knew better, and she wondered with a wisdom beyond her years, hard-earned as a prince’s daughter, how many young men his age, with that accomplishment to their credit, could have refrained from attempting to bask in a young woman’s admiration.
“That fish is going to have him into the water, safety harness or not!” she said now, as Daivyn was dragged bodily forward despite his braced feet.
“Nonsense!” Aplyn-Ahrmahk laughed. “He’s not strong enough to hang onto the rod if the safety line comes taut!”
“Easy for you to say!” she said accusingly.
“Your Highness, you see that fellow standing to His Highness’ right — the one with all the tattoos?” Irys glanced up at him and nodded. “That’s Zhorj Shairwyd. In addition to being one of the best petty officers in the ship, he’s also the squadron’s champion wrestler and one of the strongest, quickest men I know. If it even looks like your brother’s headed over the taffrail, Shairwyd will have him, the fishing rod, and whatever’s on the other end of it, dragged up onto this deck faster than a cat-lizard jumping on a spider rat. I didn’t — I mean, Captain Lathyk didn’t pick him at random to keep an eye on the His Highness.”
“I see.” Irys carefully took no note of his quick self-correction. Now that she thought about it, though, Aplyn-Ahrmahk always seemed to be in the vicinity when Daivyn was on deck, as well. It was obvious the prince liked him, and Aplyn-Ahrmahk had a much more comfortable, easy way with the boy than most of the other officers aboard Yairley’s flagship.
“Tell me, Lieutenant,” she said, “do you have brothers or sisters of your own?”
“Oh, Langhorne, yes!” He rolled his eyes. “I’m the middle one, actually — three older brothers, an older sister, a younger sister, and two younger brothers.” Irys’ eyes widened at the formidable list, and he chuckled. “Two of the older brothers and both of the younger ones are twins, Your Highness, so it’s not quite as bad as it might sound. Mother used to tell me she’d thought four would be quite enough, though she’d been willing to entertain the thought of five, but she never would’ve agreed to eight! Unfortunately, Father didn’t tell her twins run in his family. Or that’s her story, at any rate, and she’s sticking to it. Since they’ve known each other since they were children and Father has twin brothers, though, I’ve never really believed she didn’t know that perfectly well, you understand. Still, I have to admit it was a relief when they were able to pack me and two of my brothers off to sea.”
“I expect so,” Irys murmured, trying to imagine what it would have been like to have seven siblings. Or, for that matter, any immediate family beyond Daivyn at this point. She envied the lieutenant, she realized. Envied him deeply. But that stack of brothers and sisters undoubtedly did help explain his comfortable approach to Daivyn. And so, she thought suddenly, must the peculiar circumstances of his ennoblement. He was a duke, a member — if only by adoption — of the House of Ahrmahk itself. She wasn’t as familiar with the Charisian peerage as she wished, especially in her current circumstances, yet she was fairly sure no more than a handful of the Empire’s nobles could take precedence over him. Yet he’d been born a commoner, one more child in a brawling, sprawling, obviously happy family who’d never dreamed of the heights to which one of their sons would rise. And so he was neither a commoner dealing with a prince, afraid of overstepping his place, nor a noble by birth, trained to understand that one simply couldn’t casually ruffle a young boy’s sun bleached hair if it should happen the young boy in question was the rightful ruler of an entire realm and must be safely fortified within the towering buttresses of the respect due his exalted birth.
It was all quite unacceptable, of course. Daivyn had no business dashing barefoot about a warship’s deck wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, watched over by common seamen and tattooed petty officers. He had no business shrieking with laughter as he fought whatever fish was at the other end of his line, or when he was allowed — in calm weather, under close supervision — swarming up to the maintop with half a dozen midshipmen, many of them no more than a year or so his elders. She should be horrified, should insist he be kept safely on deck — or, even better, below decks — where he would be sheltered from all threat or harm. And she certainly shouldn’t allow Lieutenant Aplyn-Ahrmahk to encourage him to run wild! She knew that, just as she knew the consequences if something did happen to Daivyn Daykyn while in Charisian custody could be catastrophic beyond imagining.
But it didn’t matter. Not to her, and not any longer. Daivyn was her Prince, her rightful ruler, a life far too important for anyone to risk, or to allow to risk itself. And that didn’t matter, either. Because he was also her baby brother, and he was alive when he wasn’t supposed to be, and he was happy for the first time she could remember since they’d fled Corisande. He’d rediscovered the boyhood Zhaspahr Clyntahn and the world had stolen from him far too early, and her heart rejoiced to watch him embrace it.
And none of it would have happened without the humbly-born duke standing at her side.
“Thank you,” she said suddenly.
“I beg your pardon, Your Highness?” He looked down quickly, and she smiled.
“That wasn’t meant just for you, Lieutenant,” she reassured him, wondering even as she did if she was being truthful. “It was for all of you — Destiny‘s entire crew. I haven’t seen Daivyn laughing like this in over two years. And no one’s allowed him to simply run wild and be a little boy again in all that time. So,” she patted him on the forearm again, her eyes misty, and her voice was just the slightest bit unreliable, “thank you all for giving him that. Giving me the chance to see him like that again.” She cleared her throat. “And, if it won’t embarrass an emperor’s officer such as yourself to pass that thanks along to Sir Dunkyn, I’d appreciate it.”
“I’ll try to bear up under the humiliation of passing on your message, Your Highness,” he told her with a slightly crooked smile. “I’m sure it will be hard, but I’ll try.”
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