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A Mighty Fortress: Chapter Eleven

       Last updated: Monday, February 22, 2010 07:20 EST



IHNS Ice Lizard,
City of Yuthain,
Shwei Province,
Harchong Empire

    “Welcome aboard, My Lord.”

    “Thank you, Captain –?” Phylyp Ahzgood replied, arching one eyebrow as he returned the bow of the stocky, bearded man in the uniform of the Imperial Harchong Navy who’d been waiting for him at the inboard end of the boarding plank.

    “Yuthain, My Lord. Captain Gorjha Yuthain, of His Imperial Majesty’s Navy, at your service.” The officer bowed again, more deeply, with that certain special flourish of which only the Harchongese seemed truly capable.

    “Thank you, Captain Yuthain,” Earl Coris repeated, acknowledging the introduction, and smiled with genuine if weary gratitude.

    This wasn’t his first visit to Yu-Shai, and he hadn’t really cared much for the city the first time round. It wasn’t the townsfolk that bothered him, but both the city and the provincial administrations possessed every bit of the arrogance and insufferable sense of superiority stereotype assigned to all Harchongese bureaucrats. The permanent bureaucracy which administered the Empire was highly skilled. When properly motivated, it could accomplish amazing feats with astonishing skill and efficiency. Unfortunately, it was equally corrupt, and that skill and efficiency tended to vanish like snow in summer when the proper “spontaneous gifts” weren’t offered. The fact that he and his royal charges had been little more than political fugitives — and fugitives who were very, very far from home, at that — had meant the local officialdom had expected considerably more generous “gifts” than usual, and Phylyp Ahzgood had a constitutional objection to being gouged.

    This Captain Yuthain, however, was something else again. Coris recognized a type he’d seen often enough back home in Corisande — a professional seaman, with quite a few years of tough naval service behind him and a marked lack of patience with the sort of bureaucrats who’d extorted every mark they could out of the earl the first time through. Coris doubted Yuthain would turn up his nose at the possibility of garnering a few extra marks here and there. He might even not be completely above a little judicious smuggling — or above looking the other way while someone else did the smuggling, at any rate. But any venality on his part would be little more than surface deep, unless Coris missed his guess, and his competence — and his own confidence in that competence — were obvious.

    That was good, and the gleam of humor the earl seemed to detect in Yuthain’s eye was another good sign. Unless Coris was mistaken, Captain Yuthain was going to need a good sense of humor — and all that competence — in the next few five-days. The icy wind was brisk enough down here by the docks, in the shelter of the breakwaters and the waterfront buildings. It was going to be a lot brisker once they cleared the port, too. There was a reason a trip by galley across the Gulf of Dohlar in the teeth of a West Haven winter was nothing to look forward to. Not only that, but what waited after his arrival in the port of Fairstock, in the Empire’s Malansath Province promised to be substantially less pleasant even than that.

    Coris was perfectly well aware of that, yet after more than a full month’s travel by coach and horseback, the thought of spending three or four five-days aboard a ship was positively alluring. The deck might move under his feet, probably fairly violently, at least once during the voyage. But Phylyp Ahzgood had been born and raised in an island princedom. He’d discovered early on that he was actually a very good sailor . . . and he’d just once again amply proved that he was not a good equestrian. In fact, it took all the self-restraint he possessed to keep himself from kneading his aching posterior.

    “I can tell you’ve had a less than restful journey so far, My Lord, if you’ll pardon my saying so,” Yuthain observed, brown eyes twinkling ever so slightly as he took in Coris’ mud-streaked boots and slightly bowlegged stance. “Ice Lizard’s no fine cruise ship, and I’m afraid that this time of year she’s likely to live up to her name, too, once we’re clear of the land. But we’ll not be sailing until tomorrow morning’s tide, so if you’d care to get your gear stowed aboard, you can get at least one good night’s sleep tied up wharf-side. For that matter,” he twitched his head towards the lamp-lit windows of a tavern at the end of the wharf, “the Copper Kettle sets a good table, and it’s got a decent bathhouse attached out back. A man who’s spent the last few five-days aboard a saddle might be thinking a good, hot, steaming bath would be the best way to start his evening.”

    “He might indeed, Captain,” Coris agreed with a smile which was even more grateful, and glanced over his shoulder at the equally travel-worn servant at his heels.

    Rhobair Seablanket was a tall, thin man, probably close to fifty years old, with stooped shoulders, brown hair, dark eyes, and a full but neatly trimmed beard. He also boasted a long nose and an habitually lugubrious expression. He looked, to be brutally honest, like the compulsive-worrier sort of man no one had ever heard tell a joke, but he was a competent, if occasionally overly fussy, valet, and he was also Corisandian. That hadn’t been a minor consideration when Coris hired him after Captain Zhoel Harys had safely delivered the earl and his two royal charges to Yu-Shai for their first visit to the city, on their way to Delferahk. There’d been no question of taking servants with them aboard the cramped merchant galley Wing, given their humble cover identities, and Coris had been delighted, for several reasons, to engage Seablanket when the Harchongese hiring agency turned him up. The man’s accent was a comforting reminder of home, and his competence — in more than one area — had been more than welcome in the long, weary five-days since Coris had engaged him.

    “Yes, My Lord?” Seablanket asked now, correctly interpreting his employer’s glance.

    “I think Captain Yuthain’s advice is excellent,” Coris said. “I fully intend to take advantage of that hot bath he just mentioned. Why don’t you go ahead and get our gear stowed aboard? If I’ve got a dry change of clothes, unpack it and bring it over to the — the Copper Kettle, was it, Captain?” Yuthain nodded, and Coris turned back to Seablanket. “Bring it over so I’ll have something to put on, and if the kitchen looks as good as Captain Yuthain is suggesting, bespeak dinner for me, as well.”

    “Of course, My Lord.”

    “And don’t forget to bring a change for yourself, too,” Coris admonished, raising one forefinger and wagging it in the valet’s direction. “I imagine you’re just as frozen as I am, and I’m sure they’ve got more than one tub.”

    “Yes, My Lord. Thank you!”

    Seablanket’s normal expression lightened noticeably, but Coris merely shrugged his gratitude aside.

    “And now, Captain,” the earl said, returning his attention to Yuthain, “please don’t think me rude, but the sooner I get into that hot tub of yours, the better. And while I’m sure Ice Lizard is an admirably well found vessel, I’m also going to be spending quite a bit of time as your guest. I’m sure we’ll have entirely too much time to get to know one another between here and Fairstock.”



    The Copper Kettle’s bathhouse was plainly furnished, but well-built and fully equipped. Coris spent the better part of an hour immersed up to the neck, eyes half-closed in drowsy content as steaming water soaked the ache out of his muscles. He’d endured more time on horseback — or in one of the bouncing, jouncing stage-coaches that bounded between posting houses on the more heavily traveled stretches — over the past few months than in his entire previous existence, and he felt every weary mile of it deep in his bones. To be fair, the high roads here in Howard were far better designed, built, and maintained than their ostensible counterparts in Corisande had ever been. Broad, stone-paved, with well designed drainage and solid bridges, they’d made it possible for him to maintain an average of just over a hundred miles a day. He could never have done that on Corisandian roads, and to be honest, he wished he hadn’t had to do it on Howard’s roads, either. The fact that it was possible didn’t make it anything remotely like pleasant, and the earl’s lifetime preference for sea travel had been amply reconfirmed over the month since his departure from Talkyra.

    Of course, that had been the easy part of his projected journey, he reminded himself glumly as he hoisted himself out of the water at last and reached for the towel which had been warming in front of the huge tiled stove that heated the bathhouse. The Gulf of Dohlar in October was about as miserable a stretch of seawater as anyone could ever hope to find. And while Coris had formed a high initial impression of Captain Yuthain’s competence, Ice Lizard was a galley, not a galleon. She was shallow draft, low-slung, and sleek . . . and it was obvious to the earl’s experienced eye that she was going to be Shan-wei’s own bitch in a seaway.

    Assuming they survived the passage of the Gulf (which seemed at least an even bet, if Captain Yuthain proved as skilled as Coris thought he was), there was the delightful prospect of another thirteen hundred miles of overland travel — this time through the belly-deep snows of November — just to reach the southern shores of Lake Pei. And then there was the even more delightful prospect of the four hundred-mile trip across the lake. Which would undoubtedly be frozen over by the time he got there, which — in turn — meant he would have to make the entire trip — oh, joy! — by iceboat.

    That experience, he had no doubt, would make Ice Lizard look exactly like the fine cruise ship Yuthain had assured him she wasn’t.

    It’s a good thing you’re not fifty yet, Phylyp, he told himself glumly as he finished toweling off and reached for the linen drawers Seablanket had thoughtfully placed to warm in front of the stove. You’ll probably survive. It’s a good thing you made sure your will was in order ahead of time, but you’ll probably survive. Until you actually get to Zion, at least.

    And that was the crux of the matter, really, wasn’t it? What was going to happen once he reached Zion and the Temple? The fact that the writ summoning him had been signed by the Grand Inquisitor, as well, not just the Chancellor, hadn’t exactly put his mind at ease. Not surprisingly, he supposed, since he rather doubted it had been intended to do anything of the sort. Trynair and Clyntahn couldn’t possibly see Daivyn as anything more than a potentially useful pawn. Someday, if he could finally, somehow reach the chessboard’s final file, he might be elevated — converted into something more valuable than that. But Daivyn Daykyn was only a very little boy, when all was said, and Clyntahn, at least, would never forget for a moment that pawns were meant to be sacrificed.

    Coris had done his best to reassure Irys, and he knew the princess far too well to serve up comforting lies in the effort. In the earl’s opinion, the girl was even smarter than her father had been, and she wasn’t afraid to use the wit God and the Archangels had given her. She had all her father’s ability to carry a grudge until it died of old age, then have it stuffed and mounted someplace where she could admire it at regular intervals, but — so far, at least — she’d usually shown a fair amount of discretion in choosing which grudges to hold. That might well change — indeed, might already have changed — given how her world had been shattered into topsy-turvy ruin in the last year or so, but despite her youth, she was just as capable as Coris himself when it came to reading the political wind, recognizing the storm clouds gathering about her younger brother. That was why he’d told her the absolute truth when he’d said he doubted the Group of Four had any immediate plans for how they might most profitably utilize Daivyn. Yet sooner or later, they would have plans, and that was the reason they’d decided to drag him all these thousands of miles through a mainland winter.

    When the time came, they would want to be certain Phylyp Ahzgood understood his place. Recognized his true masters, with a clear vision, un-blinkered by any lingering, misplaced loyalty to the House of Daykyn. They intended to underscore that to him . . . and to see him for themselves, form their own judgment of him. And if that judgment proved unfavorable, they would remove him from his position as Daivyn’s and Irys’ guardian. If he was quite unreasonably lucky, he might even survive the removal rather than be quietly and efficiently disappeared. At the moment, he’d give odds of, oh, at least one-in-fifty that he would.

    Well, Phylyp, my boy, he thought, slipping into an embroidered steel thistle silk shirt, you’ll just have to see that they form a favorable opinion, won’t you? Shouldn’t be all that hard. Not for an experienced, conniving liar such as yourself. All you have to do is keep any of them from getting close enough to figure out what you really think. How hard can it be?



    “I’ve got to be getting back to the Copper Kettle,” Rhobair Seablanket said. “He’s bound to be finished with his bath by now. He’ll want his dinner, and as soon as I get it served, he’ll wonder why I’m not in the bathhouse myself.” He grimaced. “For that matter, I’ll wonder why I’m not neck-deep!”

    “I understand,” the man on the other side of the rickety desk in the small dockside warehouse office replied.

    The office wasn’t exceptionally clean, nor was it particularly warm, and its tiny window was so thoroughly covered with grime no one could possibly have seen through it. All of which only served to make it even better suited to their purposes.

    “I understand,” the other man repeated, “and so far, at least, I think my superiors are going to be satisfied. At any rate, I don’t think anyone’s going to want to give you any . . . more proactive instructions.”

    “I hope not,” Seablanket said with obvious feeling. The other man arched an eyebrow, and the valet snorted. “This man is no fool, Father. I’m confident of everything I’ve reported so far, and I think your ’superiors” original estimate of his character probably wasn’t far wrong. But I’d really rather not be asked to do anything that might make him start wondering about me. If he ever realizes I’m reporting everything he does to someone else, he’s likely to do something drastic about it. Please don’t forget he was Hektor’s spymaster. You know — the one all of Hektor’s assassins reported to?” Seablanket grimaced. “Corisandian intelligence was never too shy about dropping suitably weighted bodies into handy lakes or bays — or swamps, for that matter — and the two of us are about to sail across the Gulf of Dohlar in winter. I’d sort of like to arrive on the other side.”

    “Do you think it’s really likely he’d react that way?” The other man actually seemed a bit amused, Seablanket noted sourly.

    “I don’t know, and if it’s just the same to you, Father, I’d rather not find out. It’s always possible he’d exercise a little restraint if he figured out who planted me on him the last time he was in Yu-Shai, but he might not, too. For that matter, he might not care who it was.”

    “Well, we can’t have that!” The other man stood, straightening his purple, flame-badged cassock, and raised his right hand to sign Langhorne’s scepter in blessing. “My prayers will go with you, my son,” he said solemnly.

    “Oh, thank you, Father.”

    It was, perhaps, a sign of just how preoccupied Seablanket truly was with the more immediate threat of the Earl of Coris’ possible reactions that he allowed his own irritation to color his tone. Or it might simply have been how long he’d known the other man. Perhaps he realized it wasn’t actually quite as risky as someone else might have thought.

    After all, even one of the Grand Inquisitor’s personal troubleshooters could have a sense of humor, when all was said.

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