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A Mighty Fortress: Chapter Fourteen

       Last updated: Friday, March 5, 2010 07:22 EST



Royal Palace,
City of Manchyr,
Princedom of Corisande

    Sir Koryn Gahrvai sighed with relief as he entered the palace’s heat-shedding bulk and got out of the direct path of the sun’s ferocity. November was always warm in Manchyr, but this November seemed determined to set a new standard.

    Which we don’t exactly need, on top of everything else, he thought as he strode briskly down the hall. Langhorne knows we’ve got enough other things generating “warmth” all over the damned princedom!

    Indeed they did, and Gahrvai was — unfortunately — in a far better position to appreciate that minor fact than he might have preferred.

    The guards standing outside the council chamber door came to attention at his approach, and he nodded back, acknowledging the military courtesy. He recognized both of them. They’d been part of his headquarters detachment before that . . . unpleasantness at Talbor Pass, which was the main reason they’d been chosen for their present duty. Just at the moment, the number of people he could trust behind him with a weapon was limited, to say the least, he thought as he passed through the garden door.

    “Sorry I’m late,” he said as his father looked up from a conversation with Earl Tartarian. “Alyk’s latest report arrived just as I was getting ready to leave my office.”

    “Don’t worry about it,” his father said just a bit sourly. “You haven’t really missed much, since it’s not like we’ve managed to accomplish a whole hell of a lot so far today.”

    Gahrvai wished the sourness in that response could have come as a surprise, but Sir Rysel Gahrvai, the Earl of Anvil Rock, had a lot to feel sour about. As the senior of the two designated co-regents for Prince Daivyn, he’d wound up head of the prince’s Regency Council, which had to be the most thankless task in the entire princedom. Well, probably aside from Sir Koryn Gahrvai’s new assignment, that was.

    If there were six nobles in the entire princedom who genuinely believed Anvil Rock hadn’t cut some sort of personal deal with Cayleb Ahrmahk, Gahrvai didn’t have a clue who they might be. Aside from Tartarian (who was probably as thoroughly detested these days as Anvil Rock himself), Gahrvai could think of exactly three of the deceased Prince Hektor’s councilors who genuinely believed Anvil Rock and Tartarian weren’t solely out for themselves.

    Fortunately, Sir Raimynd Lyndahr, who continued to serve as the Keeper of the Purse, was one of those three. The other two — Edwair Garthin, the Earl of North Coast, and Trumyn Sowthmyn, the Earl of Airyth — had both agreed to serve on the Regency Council, as well (although with a marked lack of enthusiasm on North Coast’s part), because they’d realized someone had to do it. Archbishop Klairmant Gairlyng, whose position automatically made him a member of the council, as well, appeared to agree with North Coast and Airyth where Anvil Rock and Tartarian were concerned, but he’d never been one of Hektor’s councilors. The council’s final two members, the Duke of Margo and the Earl of Craggy Hill — neither of whom were present at the moment — had held positions on Hektor’s council . . . and shared the rest of the nobility’s general suspicion about Anvil Rock and Tartarian’s motives to the full.

    Not having them here today isn’t going to make them any happier when they find out about this meeting, either, Gahrvai thought as he walked across to his own place at the circular council table. On the other hand, I can’t think of anything that would make them happy.

    Sir Bairmon Chahlmair, the Duke of Margo, was the Regency Council’s highest ranking nobleman. He’d also been a distant — very distant — cousin of Prince Hektor, and it probably wasn’t too surprising that he resented having a mere earl as Daivyn’s regent instead of himself. Wahlys Hillkeeper, the Earl of Craggy Hill, on the other hand, was quite a different breed of kraken. It was entirely possible Margo nursed a few ambitions of his own, under the circumstances. Gahrvai didn’t think he did, but he well might, and not without at least some justification, given the current, irregular circumstances. Yet if there was an edge of doubt about him in Gahrvai’s mind, there was none at all about Craggy Hill. The earl’s ambition was far more poorly hidden than he obviously thought it was, despite the fact that, unlike Margo, he possessed not even a shred of a claim on the crown.

    The good news was that the two of them were outnumbered six-to-two whenever it came down to a vote. The bad news was that their very inability to influence the council’s decisions had only driven them closer together. Worse, one of them — at least one of them — was leaking his own version of the council’s deliberations to outside ears.

    Which probably explains why Father didn’t make any particular effort to get the two of them here today, Gahrvai reflected.

    “Actually, Rysel, saying we haven’t accomplished anything today isn’t entirely fair,” Tartarian said in a rather milder tone.

    “Oh, forgive me!” Anvil Rock rolled his eyes. “So far we’ve managed to agree on how big a stipend to set aside for Daivyn from his own income. Of course, we haven’t figured out how we’re going to get it to him, but I’m sure we’ll come up with something . . . eventually.”

    “I realize you’re probably even more worn out with all of this than I am,” Tartarian said. “And I don’t blame you, either. But the truth is that we’ve at least managed to handle the correspondence from General Chermyn.”

    “Handle?” Anvil Rock repeated. “Just exactly how did we ‘handle’ that, Taryl? If I recall correctly, it was more a matter of getting our marching orders than ‘handling’ anything.”

    Obviously, Gahrvai thought, his father was in one of his moods. Not surprisingly.

    “I’d scarcely call them ‘marching orders,’” Tartarian replied calmly. “And neither would you, if you weren’t so busy pitching a snit.”

    Anvil Rock’s eyes opened wide. He started to shoot something back, then visibly made himself pause.

    “All right,” he conceded grudgingly. “Fair enough. I’ll try to stop venting my spleen.”

    “A little venting is perfectly all right with us, Rysel,” Lyndahr told him with a slight smile. “It’s not as if the rest of us don’t feel exactly the same way from time to time. Still, Taryl has a point. From my read, the Viceroy General” — it was clear to Gahrvai that Lyndahr had used Chermyn’s official title deliberately — “is still doing his best to avoid stepping on us any harder than he has to.”

    Anvil Rock looked as if he would have liked to dispute that analysis. Instead, he nodded.

    “I have to admit he’s at least taking pains to be courteous,” he said. “And, truth to tell, I appreciate it. But the unfortunate fact, Raimynd, is that he’s not telling us anything we don’t know. And the even more unfortunate fact is that, at the moment, I don’t see a damned thing we can do about it!”

    He looked around the table, as if inviting suggestions from his fellows. None, however, seemed to be forthcoming, and he snorted sourly.

    “May I assume the Viceroy General was expressing his concern over the latest incidents?” Gahrvai asked after a moment, and his father nodded.

    “That’s exactly what he was doing. And I don’t blame him, really. In fact, if I were in his position, I’d probably be doing more than just expressing concern by this point.”

    Gahrvai nodded soberly. Given the white-hot tide of fury which had swept Corisande following Prince Hektor’s assassination, it wasn’t surprising the princedom seethed with resentment and hatred. Nor was it especially surprising that the resentment and hatred in question should spill over into public “demonstrations” which had a pronounced tendency to slide over into riots. Riots which seemed to be invariably punctuated by looting and arson, as well, if the City Guard or (more often than Gahrvai liked) Chermyn’s Marines, didn’t get them quenched almost immediately.

    By an odd turn of fate, the people suffering most frequently from that arson tended to be merchants and shopkeepers, many of whom had been blamed for profiteering and price gouging once the Charisian blockade of Corisande had truly begun to bite. Gahrvai was certain quite a few longstanding, private scores (which had damn all to do with loyalty to the House of Daykyn) were being settled under cover of those riots — and, for that matter, that some of that arson was intended to destroy records of just who owed what to whom — although he was in no position to prove anything of the sort. Yet, at least. But even if some of the motivation was somewhat less selfless than outraged patriotism and fury over Hektor’s assassination, there was no denying the genuine anger at Charis’ “foreign occupation” of Corisande which was boiling away at the bottom of it.

    And, inevitable or not, understandable or not, the unrest that anger engendered had equally inevitable consequences of its own. The terms Emperor Cayleb had imposed were far less punitive than they could have been, especially in light of the decades of hostility between Charis and Corisande. All the same, Gahrvai was certain they were more punitive than Cayleb would really have preferred. Unfortunately, the emperor had been able to read the writing on the wall as clearly as anyone else.

    “I agree, Father,” he said out loud. “I suppose it’s a good thing, under the circumstances, that the Viceroy General recognizes the inevitability of this sort of thing. At least he isn’t likely to overreact.”

    “Yet, at least,” North Coast said.

    The earl was a thickset man, getting a bit thicker through the belly as he settled into middle age. His thinning hair still held a few embers of the fiery red of his youth, and his gray eyes were worried.

    “I don’t think he’s likely to overreact no matter what happens, My Lord,” Gahrvai said frankly. “Unfortunately, if we can’t get a handle on this unrest, I think he’s going to feel forced to take considerably more forceful steps of his own. Frankly, I don’t see that he’ll have any choice.”

    “I have to agree with you, Koryn,” Earl Airyth said somberly. “But when he does, I’m afraid it’s only going to make things worse.”

    “Which is undoubtedly why he’s showing restraint, so far,” Lyndahr pointed out. He shifted in his chair slightly, facing Gahrvai more squarely. “Which, in turn, brings us to you, Sir Koryn.”

    “I know,” Gahrvai sighed.

    “You said you had a report from Alyk?” Anvil Rock asked.

    “Yes. In fact, that report is probably the closest thing to good news I’ve gotten lately. He says his mounted constables are just about ready.”

    “That is good news,” Anvil Rock said, although his feelings were obviously at least somewhat mixed, for which Gahrvai didn’t blame him a bit.

    Sir Alyk Ahrthyr, the Earl of Windshare, had a reputation as something of a blunt object. A well-deserved reputation, if Gahrvai was going to be honest about it. He’d been accused, on more than one occasion, of thinking with his spurs, and no dictionary was ever going to use Windshare to illustrate the words “calmly reasoned response.”

    On the other hand, he was aware he wasn’t the most brilliant man ever born, and Gahrvai knew better than most that the impetuous earl had actually learned to stop and think — for, oh, at least thirty or forty seconds — before charging headlong into the fray. In many ways, he was far from the ideal commander for the mounted patrols about to assume responsibility for maintaining order in the countryside, yet he had two shining qualifications which outweighed any limitations.

    First, whatever anyone else might think, the survivors of Gahrvai’s army trusted Windshare as implicitly as they trusted Gahrvai himself. They knew, whether the rest of the princedom was prepared to believe it or not, that no one could have done a better job, under the circumstances, than Gahrvai, Windshare, and Sir Charlz Doyal had done. That the combination of the Charisian Marines’ rifles, the long range of the Charisian artillery, and the deadly amphibious mobility of the Charisian Navy had been too much for any merely mortal general to overcome. And they knew another commander, other generals, might very well have gotten far more of them killed proving that. As a consequence, they were willing to continue to trust their old commanders, and that trust — that loyalty — was more precious than rubies.

    And, second, just as important as the troops’ trust in Windshare, Gahrvai had complete faith in the earl. Perhaps not without a few reservations about Windshare’s judgment, he conceded, although he did have rather more confidence in that judgment than some of the Regency Council’s members. But whatever reservations he might quietly nurse about the earl’s . . . sagacity, he had complete and total faith in Alyk Ahrthyr’s loyalty, integrity, and courage.

    So maybe he doesn’t have the sharpest brain in the Princedom to go with them. These days, I’ll take three out of the four and thank Langhorne I’ve got them!

    “What about the rest of the army, Koryn?” Tartarian asked.

    “It could be better, it could be worse.” Gahrvai shrugged. “General Chermyn’s reissued enough muskets for our total permitted force, and we’ve converted all of them to take the new bayonets. At the moment, we still don’t have any artillery, and, to be honest, I can’t really blame him for that. And, all the muskets are still smoothbores. On the other hand, they’re a hell of a lot better than anyone else is going to have. That’s the ‘could be worse’ side of things — none of the troublemakers we’re likely to face are going to have anything like the firepower we do. Unfortunately, I don’t have anywhere near as many men as I wish I had. As many as I’m pretty damn sure we’re going to need before this is all over, the way things seem to be headed, in fact. And the ones I do have were all trained initially as soldiers, not city guardsmen. Until we actually see them in action, I’m not as confident as I’d like to be that they aren’t going to react like combat troops instead of guardsmen, which could get . . . messy. That’s the ‘could be better’ side.”

    “How many do you have? Do we have?” North Coast asked. Gahrvai looked at him, and he shrugged. “I know you sent us all a memo about it. And I read it — really I did. But, to be honest, I was paying more attention to the naval side of things when I did.”

    Well, that made sense, Gahrvai supposed. North Coast’s earldom lay on Wind Daughter Island, separated from the main island of Corisande by East Margo Sound and White Horse Reach. Wind Daughter was very nearly half Corisande Island’s size, but it boasted less than a quarter as many people. Much of it was still covered in old-growth forest, and ninety percent of the population lived almost in sight of the water. Wind Daughter’s people tended to regard inhabitants of “the big island” as foreigners, and (so far, at least) they seemed far less incensed than the citizens of Manchyr over Prince Hektor’s assassination. Under the circumstances, it didn’t really surprise Gahrvai that North Coast had been more concerned over how the Charisian naval patrols were likely to affect his fishermen than over the size of garrison the island might be going to receive.

    “Our total force — field force, that is — is going to be a little under thirty thousand,” he said. “I know thirty thousand sounds like a lot of men, and, frankly, I’m more than a little amazed that Cayleb agreed to let us put that many Corisandians back under arms at all. But the truth it that it isn’t really that big a number. My Lord — not when we’re talking about something the size of the entire Princedom. As long as I can keep them concentrated, they can deal with anything they’re likely to face. If I have to start dividing them into smaller forces, though — and I will, just as sure as Shan-wei — the odds start shifting. Frankly, I don’t see any way I’m going to be able to put detachments everywhere we’re really going to need them. Not if I’m going to keep them big enough, new muskets or not, to make any of us happy.”

    North Coast nodded somberly.

    “The real problem,” Anvil Rock observed, “is that we’re going to have enough combat power to stomp on any fires that spring up, but we’re not going to have enough numbers to give us the sort of coverage that might keep the sparks from flaring up in the first place.” He looked unhappy. “And the real problem with stomping on fires is that everything else in the vicinity tends to get stomped on as well.”

    “Exactly, Father. Which is why I was so glad to see Alyk’s report. I’m going to start deploying his men to the other major towns, especially down here in the southeast, as quickly as possible. He’s not going to be able to make any of his detachments as big as we’d all like, but they’ll be more mobile than any of our infantry. They’ll be able to cover a lot more ground, and, frankly, I think cavalry is going to be more . . . reassuring to the local city guardsmen.”

    “Reassuring?” His father smiled thinly. “Don’t you mean more intimidating?”

    “To some extent, I suppose I do,” Gahrvai admitted. “On the other hand, a little intimidation for the people who’d be most likely to give those guardsmen problems is a good thing. And I’m not going to complain if the constables suggest to the local guard officers that remembering they’re supposed to be maintaining public order instead of leading patriotic insurrections would be another good thing.”

    “I’m not either,” Anvil Rock said. “Even though there’s a part of me that would rather be doing exactly that — leading a patriotic insurrection, I mean — instead of what I am doing.”

    No one responded to that particular remark, and, after a moment, the earl shrugged.

    “All right, Raimynd,” he said. “Now that Koryn has his troops ready to deploy, I suppose it’s time we figure out how we’re going to pay them, isn’t it?” His smile was wintry. “I’m sure that’s going to be lots of fun, too.”

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