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A Mighty Fortress: Chapter Sixteen

       Last updated: Monday, March 15, 2010 20:52 EDT



City of Fairstock,
Province of Malansath,
West Harchong Empire

    The falling snow was so thick no one could see more than a ship’s length or two in any direction.

    The Earl of Coris found that less than reassuring as Snow Lizard crept cautiously into the Fairstock roadstead. Captain Yuthain had furled his sail and gone to oars as soon as the leadsman in the bow found bottom at ten fathoms. Sixty feet represented considerably more depth of water than Snow Lizard required, but only a fool (which Yuthain had conclusively demonstrated he was not) took liberties with the Fairstock Channel. It measured the next best thing to two hundred and fifty miles from north to south, and if most of it was easily navigable, there were other bits which were anything but. And there wasn’t a lot of room to spare. At its narrowest point, which also happened to offer some of the nastiest, shifting sandbanks, it was barely fourteen miles wide . . . at high water. Fairstock Bay itself was a superbly sheltered anchorage, well over two hundred miles wide, but getting into it could sometimes prove tricky.

    Especially in the middle of a snowstorm.

    Frankly, Coris would have preferred to lay-to off the entrance of the channel until the weather cleared. Unfortunately, there was no guarantee the weather would clear any time soon, and Captain Yuthain was under orders to deliver his passenger to Fairstock as quickly as possible. So he’d crept very cautiously and slowly inshore until he’d been able to run a line of soundings which let him locate himself by matching them with the depths recorded on his chart. Even after he was confident he knew where he was, however, he’d continued to proceed with a caution of which Coris had wholeheartedly approved. Not only was it distinctly possible, in these visibility conditions, that Snow Lizard wasn’t really where he thought she was, but there was always the equally unpleasant possibility that they might meet another vessel head-on. The narrowness of the channel and the atrocious visibility only made that even more likely, and Phylyp Ahzgood hadn’t come this far at the summons of the Council of Vicars just to get himself drowned or frozen to death.

    “By the mark, seven fathom!”

    The cry floated back from the bow, oddly muffled and deadened by the falling snow, and despite his thick coat and warm gloves, Coris shivered.

    “I imagine you’ll be happy to get ashore, My Lord,” Captain Yuthain remarked, and Coris turned to face him quickly. He’d been careful not to intrude on the captain’s concentration while Yuthain conned Snow Lizard cautiously up-channel. It wasn’t the sort of moment at which one joggled someone’s elbow, he reflected.

    Something of his thoughts must have shown in his expression, because Yuthain grinned through his beard.

    “This next little bit’s not all that bad, My Lord,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to sound overconfident, but I’d say the really tricky parts are all safely past us. Not but what I imagine there was a time or two when you were less than confident we’d get this far.”

    “Nonsense, Captain.” Coris shook his head with an answering smile. “I never doubted your seamanship or the quality of your ship and crew for a moment.”

    “Ah, now!” Yuthain shook his head. “It’s kind of you to be saying so, but I’m not so sure telling a fearful lie like that is good for the health of your soul, My Lord.”

    “If it were a lie, perhaps it wouldn’t be good for my spiritual health. Since it happens to have been a completely truthful statement, however, I’m not especially concerned, Captain.”

    Yuthain chuckled, then cocked his head, listening to the leadsman’s fresh announcement of the depth. He frowned thoughtfully down at the chart, obviously fixing his position afresh in his brain, and Coris watched him with the respect a professional deserved.

    As it happened, what he’d just said to Yuthain really had been the truth. On the other hand, despite his recognition of the captain’s skill and the capability of his crew, there’d been more than one moment when Coris had strongly doubted they would ever reach Fairstock. The Gulf of Dohlar in winter had proved even uglier than he’d feared, and once they’d cleared the passage between Cliff Island and Whale Island, they’d encountered a howling gale which he’d been privately certain was going to pound the low-slung, frail, shoal-draft galley bodily under. The steep, battering seas had been almost as high as the galley’s mast, and at one point they’d been forced to lie to a sea anchor for two full days with the pumps continuously manned. There’d been no hot food for those two days — not even Yuthain’s cook had been able to keep his galley fire lit — and icy water had swirled ankle deep through the earl’s cabin more than once as the ship fought for her very life. They’d survived that particular crisis after all, yet that had scarcely been the end of the foul weather — or the crises — they’d faced. Snow, bad visibility, and icy rigging had only made things still worse, and Coris’ respect for Yuthain and his men had grown with each passing day.

    Despite which, he could hardly wait to get off the ship. It would have been tiresome enough to spend an entire month in such confined quarters under any circumstances. Under the conditions associated with a winter passage of the Gulf, “tiresome” had quickly given way to something much closer to “intolerable.”

    Of course, there is the little fact that every foot closer to Fairstock brings me that much closer to Zion and the Temple, as well, he reminded himself. On the other hand, as the Archangel Bédard said, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” If I get off this damned ship alive, I’ll be perfectly prepared to let future problems take care of themselves!

    “I make it about another three hours to our anchorage, My Lord,” Yuthain said, reemerging from his contemplation of the chart. “If the visibility were better, we’d probably already have a pilot boat coming alongside. As it is, I won’t be so very surprised if we have to feel our way all the way in on our own. Either way, though, I think we’ll have you ashore in time for supper.”

    “I appreciate that, Captain. I doubt anyone could have taken better care of me on the passage than you have, but I trust I won’t offend you if I admit I’d really like to sleep in a bed that isn’t moving tonight.” He grimaced. “I doubt I’ll get more than one night — maybe two, if I’m really lucky — but I intend to enjoy it to the fullest!”

    “Well, I can’t say as I blame you,” Yuthain said. “Mind you, I’ve never really understood why anyone prefers sleeping ashore when he’s the option. Although, to be honest, back before I had my own cabin, and my own cot, I felt rather differently about it, I believe. Fortunately for my sea dog image,” he grinned at his passenger again, “that’s been long enough ago now that my memory’s none too clear!”

    “I’m sure that for a seasoned sailor like yourself the ship’s motion is just like a mother rocking a cradle,” Coris responded. “Still, though, I think it’s an acquired taste. And if it’s all the same to you, it’s one I’d just as soon not acquire.”

    “To each his own, My Lord,” Yuthain agreed equably.



    As it happened, Yuthain’s prediction was accurate. They had to make their own way until they saw the blurred, indistinct shapes of other vessels, riding at anchor, and dropped their own anchor. In fact, they’d passed close enough aboard one of the other ships to draw an irate shout of warning from its anchor watch.

    “Oh, hold your noise!” Yuthain had bellowed back through his speaking trumpet. “This is an Emperor’s ship on Church business! Besides, if I’d wanted to sink your sorry arse, you silly bastard, I’d hit you square amidships, not passed across your misbegotten bow!”

    The noise from the other vessel had ended abruptly, and Yuthain had winked at Coris.

    “Truth to tell, My Lord,” he’d admitted in a much lower voice, “I never even saw ‘em until the last moment. I think I’m as surprised as they are that I didn’t cut their cable! Not that I’d ever admit it to them, even under torture!”

    “Your secret’s safe with me, Captain,” Coris had assured him, then gone below to be certain Seablanket had everything packed up to go ashore.

    “I’ve checked and double checked, My Lord,” the habitually gloomy-faced valet had assured him. “Still and all, I don’t doubt I’ve forgotten something. Or misplaced it. Or that one of Captain Yuthain’s sticky-fingered sailors has relieved us of it when I wasn’t looking.”

    “I promise I won’t hold you responsible for someone else’s pilferage, Rhobair,” Coris had assured him. If the promise had done anything to lighten Seablanket’s gloom, Coris hadn’t noticed it. On the other hand, his valet knew their itinerary as well as he did, and he rather doubted Seablanket was any more eager than he was for the final stage of the journey.

    Now, as the earl sat on the midships thwart of the ten-oared launch which had (eventually) turned up to ferry him ashore, he found his own thoughts dwelling on the prospect of the journey in question. He was, by nature, a less gloomy fellow than Seablanket, but at the moment he’d discovered his mood was very much in tune with the valet’s. The one good thing about the weather was that there was very little wind, yet that didn’t keep an open boat from feeling like Shan-wei’s own icehouse, and he felt confident the bitter cold he was feeling at the moment was only a mild foreshadowing of what it was going to be like when they reached Lake Pei.

    Or, for that matter, how cold it’s going to be between here and Lake Pei, he told himself sourly. Langhorne, I hope I really do get at least two nights in a row under a roof in a warm bed that isn’t simultaneously pitching and rolling under me!

    “Easy all!” the launch’s coxswain called. “In oars . . . and bear off forward there, Ahndee!”

    Coris looked up to see a long, stone quay looming up close at hand. The tide had turned long enough ago to leave the high-water garland of weed and shellfish a good foot and a half clear of the harbor, and the launch slid alongside a set of stone steps, leading down into the sea. The two or three lowest of the exposed steps looked decidedly treacherous, covered with a slushy mix of residual sea water and falling snow (where they weren’t still regularly sloshed over by the weary-looking swell), but the upper steps didn’t look a lot better. There’d been enough traffic to pack the snow into ice, and it didn’t look as if anyone had spread fresh sand across them in the last several hours.

    “Mind the footing, My Lord,” the coxswain warned, and Coris nodded in acknowledgment. He also reached into his purse to add an extra quarter-mark to the boat crew’s tip. That was probably exactly what the coxswain had hoped would happen, and the earl knew it, but that didn’t change his gratitude for the reminder.

    “And you mind your footing, too, Rhobair,” he tossed over his shoulder as he stood and stepped cautiously onto solid stone for the first time in a month.

    The solid stone in question seemed to be curtsying and dipping underfoot, and he grimaced at the sensation. That wasn’t going to help him get up these damned stairs un-drenched, un-drowned, and un-fractured, he reflected glumly.

    “I don’t want to be fishing you — or the baggage — out of the damned harbor,” he added as one of the launch’s oarsmen helped the valet move Coris’ carefully balanced trunk.

    “If it’s all the same to you, My Lord, I’d just as soon you didn’t have to, either,” Seablanket replied, and Coris snorted, took a firm (and grateful) grip on the hand rope rigged through eyebolts set into the side of the quay to serve as a railing, and made his way carefully up the slippery steps.



    He inhaled in relief as he finally reached the quay’s broad, flat surface intact. Everything still seemed to be moving under his feet, and he wondered how long it was going to take him to regain his land legs this time. Given how extended (and lively) the passage across the Gulf had been, he wouldn’t be surprised if it took considerably longer than usual.

    He stepped away from the head of the stair, trying not to move too gingerly across the apparently swaying quay, then turned to watch Seablanket and one of the launch’s oarsmen carrying the baggage cautiously up. The valet’s expression was even more lugubrious than usual, and his long nose — red with cold — seemed to quiver, as if he could actually smell some sort of accident or dropped trunk stealing surreptitiously closer under cover of the veiling snow.

    Despite any trepidation Seablanket might have felt, however, Coris’ trunks and valises made the hazardous journey up onto the quay un-ambushed by disaster. Seablanket had just clambered back down the slippery steps after his own more modest traveling bag when someone cleared his throat behind the earl.

    He found himself facing a man wearing the blue-trimmed brown cassock of an under-priest of the Order of Chihiro under a thick, obviously warm coat. The priest seemed on the young side for his clerical rank, and, although he was actually only very slightly above average in height, he also seemed somehow just a bit larger than life. The badge of Chihiro’s quill on the left shoulder of his coat was crossed with a sheathed sword, further identifying him as a member of the Order of the Sword. Chihiro’s order was unique in being divided into two sub-orders: the Order of the Sword, which produced a high percentage of the Temple Guard’s officers, and the Order of the Quill, which produced an almost equally high percentage of the Church’s clerks and bureaucrats. Coris rather doubted, given this fellow’s obviously muscular physique and the calluses on the fingers of his sword hand, that anyone really needed the shoulder badge to know which aspect of Chihiro’s order he served.

    “Earl Coris?” the under-priest inquired in a courteous voice.

    “Yes, Father?” Coris replied.

    He bowed in polite acknowledgment, hoping his face didn’t show his dismay. Having someone pop up clear down here at quayside, in the middle of a snowfall, on a freezing-cold day, when no one could possibly have known Snow Lizard would choose today for her arrival, did not strike him as a good sign. Or not, at least, where his hope of spending a day or two in a snug, warm room was concerned.

    “I’m Father Hahlys Tannyr, My Lord,” the under-priest told him. “I’ve been waiting for you for several days now.”

    “I’m afraid the weather was less than cooperative,” Coris began, “and –”

    “Please, My Lord!” Tannyr smiled quickly. “That wasn’t a complaint, I assure you! In fact, I know Captain Yuthain quite well, and I’m confident he got you here as swiftly as humanly possible. In fact, given what I expect the weather was like, he made rather better time than I expected, even from him. No, no.” He shook his head. “I wasn’t complaining about any tardiness on your part, My Lord. Simply introducing myself as the fellow responsible for seeing you through the next, undoubtedly unpleasant, leg of your journey.”

    “I see.”

    Coris considered the under-priest for a moment. Tannyr couldn’t be more than thirty-five, he decided, and probably not quite that old. He was dark-haired and brown-eyed, with a swarthy complexion and the lean, lively features of a man who would never find it difficult to attract female companionship. There was what looked suspiciously like humor dancing in the depths of those eyes, and even simply standing motionless in the snow, he seemed to radiate an abundance of energy. And competence, the earl decided.

    “Well, Father Hahlys,” he said after a handful of seconds, “since you’ve been so forthright, I won’t pretend I’m looking forward to the . . . rigors of our trip, shall we say?”

    “Nor should you be,” Tannyr told him cheerfully. “The bad news is that it’s the better part of thirteen hundred miles as the wyvern flies from here to Lakeview, and we’re not wyverns. It’s a bit better than seventeen hundred by road, and what with snow, ice, and the Wishbone Mountains squarely in the way, it’s going to take us very nearly a month just to get there. At least the high road follows the Rayworth Valley, so we won’t have to spend all our time climbing up and down. And I’ve arranged for relays of snow lizards to be waiting at the Church post houses all along our route, so we’ll make fair time, I imagine, as long as we’re not actively weather-bound. But even the Valley’s a good seven or eight hundred feet higher than Fairstock, so I think we can safely assume the weather’s going to be miserable enough to keep us off the roads for at least the equivalent of a five-day or so, anyway.”

    “You make it sound delightful, Father,” Coris said dryly, and Tannyr laughed.

    “The Writ says truth is always better than lies, My Lord, and trying to convince ourselves it’ll be better than we know it will isn’t going to make us any happier when we’re stuck in some miserable little village inn in the Wishbones waiting for a blizzard to pass, now is it?”

    “No, I don’t imagine it is,” Coris agreed. And, after all, it wasn’t as if Tannyr were telling him anything he hadn’t already realized.

    “The good news, such as it is,” Tannyr said, “is that I think you’ll be in for a bit of a treat once we finally do get to Lakeside.”

    “Indeed?” Coris cocked his head, and Tannyr nodded.

    “It’s been a hard winter, My Lord, and according to the semaphore, the Lake’s already frozen pretty hard. By the time we get there, we won’t have to worry about hitting any open water on our way across. Well,” he corrected himself with a judicious air which was only slightly undermined by the twinkle in his eyes, “we probably won’t have to worry about it. You can never be entirely certain when a lead’s going to open up unexpectedly.”

    “So we definitely will be taking an iceboat from Lakeview to Zion?” Coris shook his head just a bit doubtfully. “I’ve been to sea often enough, but I’ve never gone ice-sailing.”

    “That we will, and I think you’ll find the experience . . . interesting,” Tannyr assured him. The under-priest had obviously noticed Coris’ mixed feelings, and he smiled again. “Most people do, especially the first time they make the trip. Hornet’s quite a bit smaller than Snow Lizard, of course, but she’s much faster, if I do say so myself.”

    “Ah?” Coris cocked an eyebrow. “That sounded rather possessive, Father. Should I take it you’re going to be my captain across the Lake, as well as shepherding me safely from here to Lakeview?”

    “Indeed, My Lord.” Tannyr gave him a sort of sketchy half-bow. “And I can assure you that I have never — yet — lost a passenger during a winter passage.”

    “And I assure you that I am suitably comforted by your reassurance, Father. Even if it did seem to contain at least a hint of qualification.”

    Tannyr’s smile became a grin, and Coris felt himself relaxing a bit more. He still wasn’t looking forward to the journey, but Hahlys Tannyr was about as far as anyone could have gotten from the grimly focused Schuelerite keeper he’d expected to encounter for the final stage of his journey.

    “Seriously, My Lord,” Tannyr continued, “Hornet is much faster than you may have been assuming. She doesn’t have a galley’s hull drag, so the same wind will push her a lot faster, and the prevailing winds will be in our favor, this time of year. Not to mention the fact that we’re far enough into the winter now that the ice’s been pretty well charted and marked, so I can afford to give her more of her head than I could earlier in the year. I won’t be surprised if we average as much as thirty miles an hour during the lake crossing itself.”


    Despite himself, Coris couldn’t hide how impressed he was by the speed estimate. Or by the fact that it radically revised downward his original estimate of how long it would take to cross Lake Pei. Of course, that was a two-edged sword, in some ways. It meant he’d spend less time shivering and miserable on the ice, but it also meant he’d be meeting with Chancellor Trynair and the Grand Inquisitor that much more quickly, as well.

    And it wasn’t going to make the month-long journey from Fairstock to Lakeview any less arduous than the under-priest had already promised.

    I suppose I should spend some time thinking Langhorne I’m still young enough to have a realistic prospect of surviving the experience, he thought sourly.

    “Really, My Lord,” Tannyr assured him, answering his last question. “In fact, running with the wind in a good lake blizzard, I’ve had her up to better than fifty miles per hour — that’s average speed, over a twenty-mile course, too, so I’m sure we were higher than that, at least in bursts — on more than one occasion. I’ll try not to inflict any weather quite that spectacular on you this time around. It’s not exactly something for the faint of heart — or, as my mother would put it, for the reasonably sane.” He winked. “Still, I think I can promise you’ll find the crossing memorable.”

    The under-priest smiled with obvious pride in his vessel, then turned his head, watching Seablanket emerge onto the quay once more with the final piece of baggage. He gazed at the valet with a thoughtful expression for several seconds, then looked back at Coris, and there was an almost conspiratorial gleam in his eye.

    “I realize, My Lord, that you undoubtedly wish to complete your journey as quickly as possible. I have no doubt your impatience to set forth again is greater than ever in light of the current inclement weather and the obviously strenuous nature of the voyage you’ve just completed. I’m afraid, however, that I’m not entirely satisfied with the lizard team reserved for the first leg of our journey. Not only that, but I’ve been having a few second thoughts about our planned stopping points along the way. I’ve come to the conclusion that the entire trip could have been a bit better planned and coordinated, and I think we’ll probably complete the trip more quickly, in the long run, if I spend a little time . . . tweaking my present arrangements. I apologize profusely for the delay, but as the person charged with delivering you safe and sound, I really wouldn’t feel comfortable setting out on a journey as long as this one without first making certain all of our arrangements are going to be as problem-free as possible.”

    “Well, we certainly couldn’t have you feeling pressured into anything precipitous, Father,” Coris replied, making no effort to hide his sudden gratitude. “I’m certainly prepared to defer to your professional judgment. We can’t have you skimping on your preparations if you feel any of them could stand improvement, now can we? By all means, see to it before we set out!”

    “I appreciate your willingness to be so understanding, My Lord. Assuming the weather gives us a window for the semaphore, I expect tidying things up should take no more than, oh” — Tannyr looked at the earl consideringly, like an assayer, almost as if he could physically measure Coris’ fatigue — “a day or two. Possibly three. In fact, we’d better count on three. So I’m afraid you’re probably going to have to spend at least four nights here in Fairstock. I hope that won’t disappoint you too deeply.”

    “Believe me, Father,” Coris said, looking him in the eye, “I believe I’ll manage to bear up under my disappointment.”

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