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Midst Toil and Tribulation: Chapter Thirteen
Last updated: Thursday, August 2, 2012 23:12 EDT
Weslai Parkair glowered out the window at the gray sky. He regarded the handful of soggy snowflakes oozing down it towards the equally gray steel of Ramsgate Bay through the chill, damp stillness of a thoroughly dreary morning with glum disapproval, not to say loathing.
Not that it did any good.
The reflection did not improve his sour mood, although the weather was scarcely the only reason for it. He knew that, but the weather was an old, familiar annoyance — almost an old friend, one might say. It was less . . . worrying than other, more recent sources of anxiety, and he was a Highlander, accustomed to the craggy elevations of his clan’s mountainous territory. That was why he hated the winter climate here in Marisahl. He neither knew nor cared about the warm current which ameliorated the climate along the southern coast of Raven’s Land and the northwest coast of the Kingdom of Chisholm. What he did care about was that winter here was far damper, without the proper ice and snow to freeze the wet out of the air. He’d never liked the raw edge winter took on here in Marisahl, where the drizzling cold bit to the bone, and as he’d grown older, his bones and joints had become increasingly less fond of it.
For the last dozen years or so, unfortunately, he’d had no choice but to winter here. It went with the office of the Speaker of the Lords, just one more of the numerous negatives attached to it, and as his rheumatism twinged, he considered yet again the many attractions of resigning. Unfortunately, the clan lords had to be here, as well, since winter was when they could sit down to actually make decisions rather than dealing with day-to-day survival in their cold, beautiful clan holdings. It wasn’t that life got easier in the winter highlands, only that there was nothing much anyone could do about it until spring, which made winter the logical time to deal with other problems . . . like the Council of Clan Lords’ business. So all resigning would really do would be to relegate him to one of the un-upholstered, backless, deliberately spartan benches the other clan lords sat in, thereby proving their hardihood and natural austerity.
Might as well keep my arse in that nice padded chair for as long as I can, he thought grumpily, and then smiled almost unwillingly. Clearly I have the high-minded, selfless qualities the job requires, don’t I?
“It looks like it may actually stick this time, dear,” the small, petite woman across the table said, cradling her teacup between her hands. Zhain Parkair, Lady Shairncross, was eight years younger than her husband, and although his auburn hair had turned iron gray and receded noticeably, her brown hair was only lightly threaded with silver. Twenty-five northern summers and as many winters had put crowsfeet at the corners of her eyes, he thought, but the beauty of the nineteen-year-old maiden he’d married all those years ago was still there for any man with eyes to see, and those same years had added depth and quiet, unyielding strength to the personality behind it.
“Umpf!” he snorted now. “If it does, the entire town will shut down and huddle round the fires till it melts.” He snorted again, with supreme contempt for such effete Lowlanders. “People wouldn’t know what to do with a real snowfall, and you know it, Zhain!”
“Yes, dear. Of course, dear. Whatever you say, dear.” Lady Zhain smiled sweetly and sipped tea. He glowered back at her, but his lips twitched, despite his sour mood. Then his wife lowered her cup, and her expression had turned far more serious.
“So the Council’s reached a decision?” Her tone made the question a statement, and her eyes watched him carefully.
“What makes you think that?” he asked, reaching for his fork and studiously concentrating on the omelet before him.
“Your smiling, cheerful mood, for one thing,” his wife said serenely. “Not to mention the fact that you’re meeting this morning with Suwail, whom I know you despise, and Zhaksyn, whom I know you like quite a lot.”
“You, woman, are entirely too bright, d’you know that?” Parkair forked up another bite of omelet and chewed. The ham, onion, and melted cheese were delicious, and he took the time to give them the appreciation they deserved before he looked back up at Lady Zhain. “And you’ve known me too long, too. Might’s well be a damned book where you’re concerned!”
“Oh, no, Father! Never anything so decadent as a book!” The young man sitting at the table with them shook his head, his expression pained. “Mother would never insult you that way, I promise!”
“You have three younger brothers, Adym,” Parkair pointed out. “That means at least two of you are spares. I’d remember that, if I were you.”
“Mother will protect me.” Adym Parkair smiled, but the smile was fleeting, and he cocked his head in a mannerism he’d inherited from Lady Zhain. “She’s right, though, isn’t she? The Council has made a decision.”
“Yes, it has.” Parkair looked back down at his omelet, then grimaced and laid aside his fork to reach for his teacup once more. “And, to be honest, it’s the one I expected.”
Zhain and Adym Parkair glanced at one another. Most Raven Lord clan heads tended to be more than a little on the dour side — enough to give teeth to the rest of the world’s stereotypical view of them and their people. Weslai Parkair wasn’t like that. Despite his only half joking distaste for anything smacking of “book learning,” he was not only warm and humorous but pragmatic and wise, as well, which had a great deal to do with how long he’d been Lord Speaker. Yet that humor was in abeyance today, despite his best effort to lighten the mood, for he was also a devout man, and the question which had occupied the Council of Clan Lords for the last five-day had been a difficult one for him.
“So the Council’s going to grant them passage?” his son asked quietly after a moment, and Parkair grimaced.
“As your mother just observed, nothing else could possibly constrain me to spend a morning talking to that ass Suwail,” he pointed out. “The thought doesn’t precisely fill me with joyous anticipation.”
Adym smiled again, very faintly. Although he was barely twenty years old, his father had initiated him into the clan’s political realities years ago. No one was immortal, Lord Shairncross had pointed out to his thirteen-year-old son, and having to learn all those realities from a standing start after the responsibility landed on him was scarcely the most auspicious beginning to a clan lord’s tenure. As part of that initiation process, he’d and systematically dissected the character, strengths, and weaknesses of every other major clan lord for Adym. Fortunately, Raven’s Land was so sparsely populated there weren’t all that many clan lords to worry about. Unfortunately, one of those clan lords was Barjwail Suwail, Lord Theralt.
Suwail had never been one of his father’s favorite people. Partly because the burly, dark-haired Lord of Clan Theralt had competed strongly for the hand of Zhain Byrns twenty-five years or so earlier, but most of it had to do with Suwail’s personality. Lord Theralt had always seen himself in the tradition of the corsair lords of Trellheim, despite the fact that the Raven Lords had never been a particularly nautical people. Aside from a fairly profitable fishing fleet, there simply hadn’t been any Raven Lord mariners to provide him with the “corsairs” he needed, but he’d proposed to overcome that minor problem by making Theralt Bay available to freelance pirates of other lands in return for a modest piece of their profits.
Suwail’s activities had been . . . irritating to King Haarahld of Charis, who’d sent a squadron of his navy to make that point to Lord Theralt some twelve years ago by burning Theralt’s waterfront, which had made a quite spectacular bonfire. He’d made it to the rest of the Raven Lords by sending the same squadron to Ramsgate Bay and not burning Mairisahl’s waterfront.
That time, at least. Adym’s father, who’d just been elected Lord Speaker, had been the recipient of that visit’s warning, and some of the other clan lords had been in favor of sending a defiant reply back to Tellesberg. Not because any of them had been fond of Suwail, but because they were Raven Lords, and all the world knew no one could threaten Raven Lords! Besides, they weren’t a maritime people. Charisian warships might burn the coastal towns to the ground, but not even Charisian Marines were going to advance inland to tackle the clans in their valleys and dense forests. Lord Shairncross had managed to talk them out of anything quite that invincibly stupid, pointing out that the only Raven Lord who’d actually been chastised was Lord Theralt, who’d obviously brought it upon himself. In fact, he’d argued, the Charisian response had been remarkably restrained, under the circumstances.
Suwail hadn’t cared for his position, or for his own certainty that Shairncross had been privately delighted by what had happened to him, but he hadn’t been particularly popular with his fellow clan lords even before he angered Charis. The Council had accepted its new Lord Speaker’s advice, which hadn’t done anything to improve relations between Clan Shairncross and Clan Theralt. Still, all of that had been eleven whole years ago, so of course all the bad blood had been given plenty of time to dissipate, Adym thought sardonically.
“I thought Suwail was opposed to the idea, Father,” he said out loud, and Parkair laughed harshly.
“Suwail’s been opposed to the anything coming out of Charis ever since he got his fingers burnt along with his waterfront. Say what you will about the man, he does know how to hold a grudge. Probably because there’s nothing else in his head to drive it out. But, give Shan-wei her due, he’s greedy enough to set even a grudge aside for enough marks. In his case, at least, it was never about anything remotely approaching a principle, at any rate!”
Lady Zhain made a soft noise which sounded remarkably like someone trying not to laugh into her teacup. Her husband glanced at her, then looked back at his son.
“I’m sure he’s going to hold out for as handsome a bribe as we can screw out of the Charisians, but once he’s paid off, he’ll be fine with the idea. And Zhaksyn’s been in favor of it from the beginning. He’s the logical one to serve as our liaison with Eastshare. As long as he doesn’t end up letting the Charisians buy us too cheaply, anyway.”
Adym nodded, but his eyes were thoughtful as he reflected upon what his father hadn’t just said. He knew Lord Shairncross had been badly torn by the request the exhausted Chisholmian messenger had carried to Marisahl, and he respected his father’s position, even if it wasn’t quite the same as his own.
Weslai Parkair was a loyal son of Mother Church, and he’d raised his heir to be the same. The thought of openly permitting a Charisian army to march across Raven’s Land to enter the Republic of Siddarmark for the express purpose of aiding Lord Protector Greyghor against a Temple Loyalist uprising had caused him immense pain. A Lord Speaker was traditionally neutral in any matter brought before the Council of Clan Lords, and he’d observed that neutrality this time, as always. Yet no one who knew him could have doubted how difficult he found the decision.
Poor Father, Adym thought. Such a good man, and so loyal to such a bad cause. And the real hell of it, from his perspective, is that he knows it’s a bad cause.
They’d talked about it, just as Adym had discussed it with his mother, and his father knew they didn’t see eye-to-eye on this particular topic. But Lord Shairncross was too astute a student of human nature not to understand the very thing his faith and loyalty to Mother Church insisted he deny.
And it helps that Bishop Trahvys knows it, too, Adym thought. Of course, he’s more like a clansman than a mainlander these days himself!
Despite its impressive size, Raven’s Land’s tiny population was too miniscule to support an archbishopric. Instead, it had been organized into a single bishopric, and its climate, combined with its relative poverty and lack of people, meant it had never been considered any prize by Mother Church’s great dynasties. Trahvys Shulmyn was the scion of a minor noble in the small Border State duchy of Ernhart, who’d never had the patrons or the ambition to seek a more lucrative post.
And he was also a very good man, one Adym suspected was much more in sympathy with the Reformists than his masters in far distant Zion realized.
“I know this is a hard decision for you, Weslai,” Lady Zhain said now, setting down her cup and looking into her husband’s eyes across the table. “Are you going to be all right with it? I know you too well to expect you to be comfortable with it, no matter what the Council says. But are you going to be able to live with it?”
The dining room was silent for several seconds. Then, finally, Parkair inhaled deeply and nodded.
“Yes,” he said. “You’re right that I’m never going to be comfortable with it, but these aren’t ‘comfortable’ times.”
He smiled faintly. It was a fleeting expression, and it vanished as he looked back out at the slowly thickening snowfall.
“I never thought I’d see a day when the sons and daughters of God had to choose between two totally separate groups of men claiming to speak for Him and the Archangels,” he said softly. “I never wanted to see that day. But it’s here, and we have to deal with it as best we can.”
He turned away from the window and his eyes refocused as he looked first at his wife and then at his son.
“I know both of you have been . . . impatient with me over this issue.” Adym started to speak, but Parkair’s raised hand stopped him. “I said ‘impatient,’ Adym, and that was all I meant. And, to be honest, I’ve been impatient with myself . A man ought to know what he believes, where he stands, what God demands of him, and he ought to have the courage to take that stand. But I’ve been wrestling with myself almost since this war began, and especially since the Ferayd Incident and what happened in Zion last winter. What should be clear’s been nothing of the sort, and even if it had been as simple and clear-cut as I wanted it to be, a clan lord has obligations and responsibilities. A man can take whatever position God and his conscience require of him and accept the consequences of his actions, but a clan lord, responsible for all the folk who look to him for leadership — his decisions have consequences for far too many people for him to make any decision this important impulsively. And in the quiet of his own thoughts, he has to ask himself whether or not he has a right to take all of those other folk with him to wherever he ultimately decides to go.”
It was very quiet in the dining chamber, and his eyes were dark as he looked back and forth between the two most important people in his own life.
“Mother Church was ordained by Langhorne himself on God’s own command. We owe her obedience, not simply because Langhorne created her, but because of the reason he created her — to be the keeper of men and women’s souls, the guardian of God’s world and all of His children’s hope of immortality. And yet . . . and yet. . . .” He shook his head, his expression sad. “Mother Church speaks now with Zhaspahr Clyntahn’s voice, and what she says has driven a wedge into her own heart. Bishop Trahvys has done his best to mitigate that here in Raven’s Land, but not even a man as good as he is can hide the harshness of that voice. Or the fact that he finds himself in disagreement with so much of what it says.”
He shook his head, his expression sad.
“I don’t know how it started, or why Clyntahn and the others” — even here, even now, he avoided the term “Group of Four,” Adym noted — “sought Charis’ destruction. But I do know that if I’d been Haarahld Ahrmahk, I would’ve responded exactly the way he did. And there’s no question in my heart or mind that it’s Vicar Zhaspahr who’s truly driving this schism. Maybe he’s right to do that, and Langhorne knows a true servant of Shan-wei must be dealt with severely, as Schueler commanded. Yet the doctrine he’s announced and the policies he’s set are only widening the schism. They’re justifying this ‘Church of Charis” defiance of the Temple, and I understand how someone like Maikel Staynair or Sharleyan of Chisholm or Cayleb Ahrmahk can see only the hand of Shan-wei herself in the Inquisition’s actions. None of which changes the fact that by defying the Grand Vicar’s authority, they threaten to completely splinter Mother Church.
“And that’s why things have been so far from clear-cut for me. But clear-cut or not, we’re called to make decisions, and the Council’s decided. I can’t pretend I find myself in wholehearted agreement with that decision, yet neither can I ignore or deny the arguments of those who pushed for it . . . or that Bishop Trahvys ‘happened’ to find himself called away from Mairisahl Cathedral on urgent business the five-day he knew we’d be debating it.”
He touched his plate, with its half eaten omelet, and his expression was cold, his eyes as hard as Adym could remember ever having seen them.
“It can’t be God’s will for His servants to deliberately starve women and children in the middle of winter. Not children.” He looked up to meet his wife’s gaze, and those hard eyes were haunted now. “Not babes in arms, not children who never had the chance to choose. That much I do know, even if I know nothing else in the entire world.” His voice was deep, with the pain of a clan lord who’d seen malnutrition in his own lands in far too many winters. “And the instructions to destroy that food came from Zion itself. There are enough of our own people in the Republic for me to know Eastshare and the Charisians’ve told nothing but the truth about that, and whatever else may be true, Mother Church would never have given that order. It came from the Grand Inquisitor, and so, in the end, we have to choose — to decide — whether or not Zhasphar Clyntahn speaks for God as well as His Church.
“I don’t know what will happen to the Church in the fullness of time, and no matter what, I’ll never be able to draw my own sword against her. But if someone doesn’t prevent this from continuing, if someone doesn’t stop it, this schism can only become permanent. Mother Church will be broken forever, beyond any hope of healing, because the Reformists will have no choice but to break with Zion and the Grand Vicar completely and permanently. And whatever the Grand Inquisitor may think, he’ll never be able to crush the hatred he’s fanning.”
He shook his head sadly.
“I may not be the theologian he is, but I’ve spent fifty years watching human beings. We clansmen are stubborner than most, and we pride ourselves on it, yet we’re not all that different from others when it comes to it, and not even Vicar Zhaspahr can kill everyone who disagrees with him. He seems determined to try, though, and if he persists, if no one stops him, the wounds Mother Church has already suffered can only become eternal. Only Shan-wei can profit from that, and I fear, fear to the bottom of my heart and soul, that the only power on Safehold that can stop him now lies in Tellesberg . . . and that it can stop him only by the sword I can never draw against her myself. That . . . fills me with shame, in far too many ways, yet all of my grief and all of my shame can’t change the truth into something else.”
Adym Parkair looked at his father, hearing the pain and recognizing the honesty, and he reached across the table to touch Lord Shairncross’ forearm.
“I think you’re right, Father,” he said quietly. “I wish you weren’t, but I think you are.”
“Of course I am.” His father patted the hand on his arm gently as he tried to inject some lightness into his tone. He didn’t succeed in that, but he managed a smile, anyway. “Of course I am. I’m a wise and experienced student of men, aren’t I?”
“That’s what you’ve always told me, at any rate,” Adym responded in kind, and Lord Shairncross chuckled.
“You should always trust your father,” he assured his son, then straightened his shoulders and reached for his teacup once more.
“On a more pragmatic note,” he continued, “telling Duke Eastshare he couldn’t march through Raven’s Land would’ve been . . . ill advised, I think. Our clansmen are almost as stubborn and bloody-minded as they like to think they are, but there aren’t very many of us. Not enough to stop a Chisholmian army, much less a Charisian one, with all those newfangled weapons, from marching pretty much wherever it chooses. And the Charisian Navy doesn’t really need our permission to sail into places like Theralt Bay and land supplies for that army, either. That idiot Suwail discovered that a few years back, if I recall correctly.”
His smile was tart, but this time it held some real humor, Adym noted.
“We could make their march unpleasant, and we could slow them down, and we could bleed them, but in the process we’d take far heavier losses. And” — his expression hardened once more — “we’d turn Raven’s Land into what’s happening in places like Glacierheart and Shiloh Province, as well. I’m not surprised the Council’s declined to do that when we couldn’t stop them anyway. And whatever my own doubts about this ‘Church of Charis,’ I won’t be party to that, either.
“So,” he inhaled deeply, “if we can’t deny them passage, we might as well make the best terms we can and find a way to profit from it.”
“Profit?” Lady Zhain frowned distastefully, and he chuckled, this time with more than a little genuine amusement.
“Love, I realize we Highlanders have nothing but contempt for the soft, decadent luxuries that come with money, but even for us, money can be a useful thing to have. That’s certainly what someone like Suwail’s going to be thinking, at any rate. But there’s more than one sort of ‘profit,’ you know.”
“You’re thinking about Charisian goodwill, aren’t you, Father?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Parkair acknowledged, turning back to his son with an approving nod. “I’ve come to the conclusion that whatever else may happen, this Charisian Empire isn’t going away. And t if we align ourselves with the Charisians’ enemies, it would have to be tempting for them to simply occupy us, the same way they’ve occupied Zebediah and Corisande. I think they’d prefer not to, but there’s no point pretending it wouldn’t be a lot easier for them to seize control of Raven’s Land — especially when all they have to do is march right across The Fence to get to us — than it ever was for them to conquer a princedom as far away, across so much ocean, and with as many people and as much money as Corisande. They might find themselves faced with one revolt after another — clansmen being clansmen — but they could do it. Frankly, they’d be stupid not to do it, if we made ourselves their enemy, and one thing Sharleyan of Chisholm never was is stupid. I haven’t seen much evidence that this new husband of hers is any slower than she is, either.”
He paused, one eyebrow arched, and Adym nodded emphatically.
“So, given all that, it makes far more sense to welcome them in and do everything we can to speed them on their way, minimizing the opportunity for the sorts of unfortunate incidents marching armies frequently encounter, especially passing through hostile territory. And if in the process we get on their good side where things like trade opportunities are concerned while simultaneously staying off their bad side where things like invasions and occupations are concerned, I’ll not complain.”
He shrugged and sipped tea, looking back out the window.
“I wish it had never come to this, and I wish I’d never seen the day I had to help make this sort of decision,” he told his wife and his son. “But we don’t always get what we wish, and the Council knows that as well as I do. That’s why we’ve made the decision we’ve made, and I’m as close to ‘all right’ with it as I suppose anyone could ever be, Zhain. Not happy, not enthusiastic, but definitely ‘all right’ under the circumstances.”
His eyes dropped back to that half-eaten omelet, and he smiled sadly, eyes darkened by the specter of starving children in Siddarmark.
“All right,” he repeated again, softly. “All right.”
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