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Midst Toil and Tribulation: Chapter Nine
Last updated: Monday, June 18, 2012 14:12 EDT
HMS Destiny, 54,
Kingdom of Old Charis,
“Well, this would’ve been a nasty business, even if we’d won at Darcos Sound,” Phylyp Ahzgood, Earl of Coris, said.
The earl stood sat on the breech ring of Destiny‘s number three quarterdeck carronade as he gazed across the sunlit, blue and green water of The Throat, the long, narrow strait which connected Howell Bay to the Charisian Sea, at the tall walls and imposing battlements of the centuries-old fortress which guarded the island Charisians had named simply “the Lock.” That island sat almost directly in the center of The Throat, and it was flanked by even larger fortresses on either shore of the strait, overlooking the ship channels which passed on opposite sides of Lock Island.
Those channels were too broad to be entirely covered by the fortresses’ guns, but the Charisians had dealt with that. Floating batteries — little more than enormous barges with five-foot thick bulwarks . . . and two complete gun decks each — had been anchored to sweep the narrowest portions of the channels. Coris was pretty sure the batteries he was looking at were replacements for the ones whose construction King Haarahld rushed through to cover The Throat prior to the Battle of Darcos Sound. These actually had recognizable prows, rudders, bowsprits, and stumpy masts, indicating they were designed to move (clumsily, perhaps, but move) under their own power rather than simply being towed into position. And each of them mounted at least forty guns — very heavy guns — in each broadside. Some showed as many as fifty, giving them twice the firepower of any galleon ever built, even by the Charisian Navy. The possibility of any conceivable fleet forcing the Throat against that sort of firepower simply didn’t exist.
“You might‘ve gotten through against the original batteries, My Lord.” Lieutenant Aplyn-Ahrmahk stood on the other side of the carronade, his arms crossed, his hat lowered on his forehead to shield his eyes against the sunlight, and his expression was somber. “They weren’t this powerful,” he continued, confirming Coris’ own thoughts, “and they were armed completely with carronades, not krakens. But, yes, it would’ve been a ‘nasty business,’ My Lord. Almost as nasty as Darcos Sound.”
Coris looked quickly at the younger man.
“I didn’t mean to bring up unpleasant memories, Your Grace.”
“Not your fault, My Lord.” Aplyn-Ahrmahk smiled briefly. “And there are a lot of good ones to go with them. He was a man, King Haarahld. A good man, and a good king, and I was luckier than I ever deserved to have known him.”
“It may be hard for a Charisian to believe,” Coris said, “but a lot of Corisandians would’ve said the same thing about Prince Hektor.” He shook his head. “He had his faults — enormous ones, in fact — but I’m sure even King Haarahld had at least some faults, and Hektor’s subjects by and large thought well of him. Very well, in fact. And he was my friend, as well as my prince.”
“I know that, My Lord.” Aplyn-Ahrmahk looked back across at Lock Island and grimaced. “And it’s not hard for a Charisian — this Charisian, at least — to realize different men are different people to different people. For the most part, though, you’d be hard put to find a Charisian who didn’t take a certain satisfaction in Prince Hektor’s death.” He shrugged, never looking away from the island as Destiny sailed slowly past it. “When everyone thought the Emperor had ordered his assassination, the main reaction was that it was a fitting punishment. And feelings ran even higher than that in Chisholm. In fact,” the lieutenant smiled a crooked smile, “I think the Empress Mother is still a bit disappointed that Cayleb wasn’t the one who had him assassinated.”
“I can’t say I’m surprised.” Coris watched the young duke’s profile. “For that matter, I’d probably feel the same in their position. But attitudes — even or perhaps especially emotional attitudes — can influence thinking in ways the people doing the thinking never realize they have.”
“Oh, I know” Aplyn-Ahrmahk snorted. “I suppose the trick’s to get past it, and I’d think reminding yourself it can happen even to you would have to be the first step. It’s hard though, sometimes.”
His eyes strayed from Lock Island to where Princess Irys and Prince Daivyn stood in the shade of the canvas awning stretched across the quarterdeck, watching the same island.
“Yes, it is,” Coris agreed, following the lieutenant’s gaze. “And it was especially hard for Irys. She loved her father a great deal, and he was her father first and her prince second. I think she’d probably be one of the first to admit she shared his ambitions, at least at secondhand, but that was because they were his ambitions, not because they were hers.”
“No?” Aplyn-Ahrmahk turned to look directly at Coris.
“He was her father, Your Grace.” Coris smiled sadly. “It’s hard for anyone to admit the father they love isn’t perfect or that anyone could legitimately see him as a villain. I think that’s even harder for a daughter than it is for a son, sometimes. But you may’ve noticed my princess has a very, very sharp brain, and she never willingly lies to herself. She still loves him, and she always will, but that doesn’t mean her eyes haven’t been opened to the reasons other people might not have loved him. And she’s a princess, the only sister of the rightful Prince of Corisande. She knows how politics and diplomacy work . . . and however little she may like to admit it even to herself, she knows who actually started the war between Corisande and Charis.”
“I’ve never discussed any of that with her.” It was Aplyn-Ahrmahk’s turn to smile ever so slightly. “Mostly because I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t agree.”
“She might surprise you.” The earl shrugged. “She and I have discussed it, which gives me a bit of an unfair advantage when it comes to predicting how she’d react. The fact that I’ve known her since she was born is an even bigger one, of course, but she’s changed a lot over the last few years. A lot.”
His eyes darkened as he repeated the last two words softly, and he, too, turned his head to gaze at the princess standing beside her tallish, golden-haired companion. Irys was smiling at something the other woman had said, and Daivyn was tugging impatiently at his sister’s sleeve while he pointed to something on the island.
“There’s been a lot of that going around, My Lord,” Aplyn-Ahrmahk replied. “And I imagine it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.”
“Just because part of it’s getting worse doesn’t mean other parts can’t start getting better,” Coris pointed out. “That’s what I’ve been telling Irys, and I think she’s actually beginning to believe it.”
“I hope so,” Aplyn-Ahrmahk said quietly. “She and Daivyn have lost enough already. I don’t want to see them lose any more.”
Coris nodded slowly. He never looked away from his prince and princess, but he heard the lieutenant’s tone, and he treasured it. Of course, duke or no duke, Aplyn-Ahrmahk wasn’t even seventeen yet, hardly a gray-bearded and astute political advisor to his emperor. But he was a very mature sixteen-year-old, one who’d seen and done things that would have terrified a man three times his age. And however common his birth might have been, he was the adopted son of the Emperor and Empress of Charis. Although, Coris thought, there were times — many of them — when the youngster seemed unaware of all the implications of that relationship.
“I don’t want to see them lose any more, either, Your Grace,” he said after a moment, then smiled quirkily. “On the other hand, I am their legal guardian and chief political advisor. I don’t doubt, somehow, that my notion of ‘any more’ probably won’t be exactly the same as the Empire of Charis’ notion.”
“Neither do I, My Lord,” Aplyn-Ahrmahk acknowledged with a grunt of laughter. “Neither do I.”
“I don’t know how big those guns are, Daivyn,” Irys Daykyn said as patiently as she could. “Why don’t you go ask Hektor — I mean Lieutenant Aplyn-Ahrmahk? I’m sure he knows.”
“Can I?” Daivyn looked at that her, then shifted his gaze to the blonde-haired, gray-eyed woman beside his sister. “I promise not to get tar all over my pants, Lady Mairah — really I do!”
“Your Highness, you’re a ten year old on a sailing ship,” Lady Mairah Breygart, the Countess of Hanth, pointed out with a smile. “One ounce of encouragement and you’ll be swarming up the ratlines like a spider monkey, and you and I both know it, don’t we?” She shook her head. “You really shouldn’t go around making promises you can’t keep.”
“But I promise to try really hard!” He shot back with a smile of his own. “That should count for something!”
“Miscreant!” Countess Hanth smacked him on top of his head with a chuckle, then threw up both hands. “A charming miscreant, though. Go ahead — pester the Lieutenant. Maybe he’ll toss you overboard and your sister and I will get some rest.”
“I’m a really good swimmer, you know!” the prince assured her over his shoulder, his smile turning into a triumphant grin as he trotted quickly away.
“Is he really?” Lady Hanth asked, cocking an eyebrow at Irys.
“Not as good as he thinks he is . . . but probably a better one than I’m willing to admit, My Lady.” Irys shrugged, watching him slide to a halt by Aplyn-Ahrmahk, grab the lieutenant by the sleeve, and start gesticulating enthusiastically in the direction of the fortress. “He’d be perfectly willing to jump off the ship and swim to that island for a closer look at the artillery.”
“I shudder to think what’s going to happen when we finally get around to introducing him to young Haarahld,” Lady Hanth said, watching the same tableau. “Tell me, has Daivyn discovered marsh wyvern or duck hunting yet?”
“King Zhames wouldn’t've dreamed of letting him out with a firearm in his hands,” Irys replied with much less amusement. “And he was too small for anything like that before we left Corisande, of course.”
“Of course.” Lady Hanth agreed. If she was aware of Irys’ changing mood, she gave no sign of it. “I wonder if I’ll be able to convince Cayleb and Sharleyan to let the two of you spend some time with us at Breygart House? Young Haarahld’s only about a year older than he is, and Trumyn just turned nine. The three of them would have a wonderful time tearing around the countryside together, and Haarahld and his brother Styvyn — Styvyn’s only a year or two younger than you are, Your Highness — are both already accomplished hunters. Well, enthusiastic ones, in Haarahld’s case, anyway. I’m sure we’d have to take along an entire Guard company as bodyguards, but Hauwerd swears by the marsh wyvern hunting around Lake Zhym. I understand it’s a great deal of fun, and while I’ve never quite grasped the reasoning behind that myself, he seems delighted by it for some reason.” She rolled her gray eyes expressively. “I know he — and the boys — always come home covered in mud with all sorts of explanations for why the really big marsh wyverns got away from them this time, at any rate.”
Irys chuckled, the shadows retreating from her eyes.
“I imagine Daivyn would enjoy that a lot, My Lady. Assuming the Emperor and the Empress really would let him.”
“Oh, I imagine I could talk Her Majesty into it if I put my mind to it. I’ve known her a long time, you know.”
Irys nodded. If anything, “a long time” was a gross understatement, for Lady Mairah Lywkys had been Queen Sharleyan of Chisholm’s senior lady-in-waiting. A much younger cousin of Baron Green Mountain, Mairah was a decade senior to Sharleyan, and in many ways she’d been the older sister the youthful queen had never had. Mairah had accompanied Sharleyan to Charis to meet her betrothed husband, Cayleb Ahrmahk, and she walked with a slight but permanent limp from the “riding accident” which had prevented her from accompanying Sharleyan to Saint Agtha’s for the visit which had almost ended in the empress’ death.
Since that episode, Sharleyan had decided to dispense with formal ladies-in-waiting entirely. Charisian practice had never involved the crowds of nobly born attendants the mainland realms enshrined, and the Empress had become a firm proponent of Charisian traditions in that regard. Chisholm had been closer to the mainland in that respect, but she’d never really liked surrounding herself with ladies-in-waiting — an attitude which had hardened into steely determination since her unexpected ascent to the throne, when she’d been forced to fend off the sort of fluttery attendants most courtiers would have considered suitable for a twelve year-old queen.
As part of that campaign, she’d fought hard to convince Green Mountain to make Mairah her chief lady-in-waiting. The baron had resisted the idea, fearing the possible political repercussions if it had seemed he was deliberately surrounding Sharleyan with his own adherents and supporters. But Sharleyan had insisted, and Mairah had served as the child-queen’s buttress against all those other attendants, which explained why Sharleyan had insisted upon bringing her to Tellesberg with her when she’d gleefully left every other lady-in-waiting home in Chisholm. She hadn’t had any of those ladies shipped to Tellesberg since, either. Nor had she selected any Old Charisian ladies to add to Mairah. In fact, Irys suspected, the empress’ deep affection for Lady Hanth was the only reason Sharleyan had delayed two years after her wedding — until Mairah’s own wedding to the Earl of Hanth — before formally abolishing the post entirely.
Lady Hanth hadn’t explained any of that to Irys, but Phylyp Ahzgood hadn’t been her father’s spymaster for so many years without learning a great deal about the Kingdom of Chisholm’s internal dynamics. It hadn’t taken him long to update his information on her, and Irys agreed with his analysis. Having Mairah Lywkys Breygart named as Irys’ official “companion” (since the term “lady-in-waiting” had been so . . . enthusiastically eliminated by Empress Sharleyan) was almost certainly a good sign.
I hope it is, anyway, she thought, gazing across the water at the slowly passing island. Phylyp’s right about this being the best option open to us, but “best” doesn’t necessarily mean “good.” And Hektor’s a good man, like Seijin Merlin, and he obviously trusts Cayleb and Sharleyan. But still, they’re both Charisians and–
“Sharleyan used to have an expression just like that when she was worried,” Mairah said thoughtfully. Irys glanced quickly sideways, but all she saw was Lady Hanth’s profile, for the older woman’s eyes were fixed on Lock Island. “About half the time,” she continued in that same considering tone, “if anyone could convince her discussing what worried her wasn’t a sign of weakness, she’d find out it wasn’t quite as bad as she’d thought it was while she was wrestling with it on her own. Not always, of course. But sometimes.”
Irys smiled faintly.
“I’m sure it did . . . sometimes, My Lady. But as you say, not always.”
“No,” Mairah agreed. “The thing is, though,” she turned her head to look into Irys’ hazel eyes with a gentle smile of her own, “that until she did try talking to someone about it, she could never really know whether this was one of the times it would help.”
Their eyes held for a moment, and then Mairah’s smile faded.
“You’re still worried about how she felt about her father, Your Highness.” She shook her head ever so slightly when Irys opened her mouth. “Of course you are.” She shrugged, never looking away from the princess. “When there’s been so much hatred for so long, so much bloodshed — when two families have stored up so many mutual wrongs — it has to be that way. And, if I’m going to be honest, I’d have to admit I believe Sharley — Her Majesty, I mean — had much more cause to hate your father than he ever had to hate her. For that matter, I won’t pretend that if your father had come into her power, she wouldn’t have found it very, very difficult not to take his head and call it justice, not vengeance.”
“And would you have agreed with her, My Lady?” Irys asked, so quietly her voice was scarcely audible through the sounds of wind and wave.
“I’m a Chisholmian, Your Highness. King Sailys was my King, not just my cousin’s friend. And I was over twenty when he died. I knew him — knew him personally, not just as a king — as well as how he came to be where he was and die the way he did. So, yes.” She met Irys’ gaze very levelly. “Yes, I would’ve called it justice. Perhaps it would’ve been vengeance, as well, but it would’ve been just, wouldn’t it?”
Their eyes held for a long, still moment, and then Irys’ lips trembled and her gaze fell.
“Sometimes justice seems to solve so very little,” she half-whispered, and Mairah touched her shoulder gently. She looked up again, and the older woman’s eyes were as gentle as her touch had been.
“Sometimes justice solves nothing at all,” she said. “And vengeance solves even less. Have you heard how Sharleyan addressed your brother’s subjects after one of them attempted to assassinate her on her very throne?”
“No.” Irys shook her head, her folded hands tightening on one another. She hadn’t learned of that assassination attempt until after she’d reached Destiny, and a part of her dreaded the way that experience must have hardened Sharleyan Ahrmahk’s hatred for the princedom of her birth.
“I wasn’t there myself,” Mairah said, “but the clerks took down a transcript of every one of her sessions sitting in judgment . . . including that one. She’d just pardoned four convicted traitors, and when she looked at the body of the man who’d tried to kill her, she said ‘Surely God weeps to see such violence loosed among His children.’ And then she said ‘Despite anything the Group of Four may say, God does not call us to exult in the blood and agony of our enemies!’”
“She did?” Irys’ eyes widened, and Mairah nodded.
“She did. And she meant it. Empress Sharleyan is a good hater, Your Highness, but it’s hard to make her hate in the first place. If that’s what you truly want, then you harm someone she loves or victimize the weak, but I doubt you’ll enjoy the experience in the end. She hated your father because he’d hurt someone she loved and because — much as I realize you loved him — he victimized a great many people weaker than he was. But she hated him, and because of what he’d done, not you or your brother, and she isn’t one to visit vengeance upon someone’s children or family. Neither is Emperor Cayleb — if for no other reason, because neither of them would stoop so low as to take vengeance upon an innocent for someone else’s crime. But it goes deeper than that, as well, especially with Sharleyan.”
“Why?” Irys asked simply, and Mairah smiled sadly.
“Because you and she are so much alike. Because she lost her father early, and she knows the pain that brings. Because she knows who was truly behind his murder, and who planned your brother’s murder, as well, and she is a good hater when it comes to the viciousness of a man who could kill a little boy out of cold, calculating ambition. Because people have tried to murder Cayleb, the man she loves, and she’s seen the cost of that, as well. And because people’ve tried to murder her, not just once, but four times — twice in the last five years, plus the two assassination attempts her Guard defeated before she was fifteen years old. Your Highness, her own uncle tried to have her murdered — or, at least, aided those who wanted her dead, whether that was his own intention or not — and the only reason I’m alive, most probably, is because her uncle was also my cousin’s friend and he ‘arranged’ the riding accident that left me with a broken leg when Sharleyan made her trip to Saint Agtha’s. But the stories you may’ve heard about Saint Agtha’s — the stories about how she picked up her dead armsmen’s muskets and killed at least a dozen of the assassins herself . . . they’re true, Your Highness. She knows what you’ve felt about your father, and she knows how terrified you’ve been, how desperate to protect your brother. She’s felt those things herself, and I promise you this — no matter what may lie between the House of Daykyn and the House of Tayt or the House of Ahrmahk, my Empress will never allow harm to come to you or to Daivyn. If the need were to arise, she would pick up a musket — or a rock, if that was the only weapon she could find — and defend both of you just as she and her armsmen defended one another at Saint Agtha’s. She couldn’t do anything else and still be who she is.”
Irys gazed at her, tasting the iron certainty in her words. Lady Hanth might be mistaken; she wasn’t lying, and Irys smiled a bit tremulously as she reached up to cover the hand on her shoulder with her own palm. She started to say something, but then she stopped, gave her head a little shake, and inhaled deeply. She squeezed the older woman’s hand, and then turned back to gaze at the passing fortress once more.
“I wonder if Daivyn’s finished pestering Lieutenant Aplyn-Ahrmahk out of all patience yet?” she said instead.
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