A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 09
October, Year of God 893
Merlin Athrawes’ Recon Skimmer,
Safehold Low Orbit,
Above The Anvil.
Empress Sharleyan of Charis had been prepared for marvels — or she’d thought she was, anyway. But the reality was so far beyond what she’d expected that she’d discovered all her preparations had been in vain.
She sat in the “recon skimmer’s” passenger compartment, with her nose perhaps two inches from the inside of the clear “armorplast” which covered it like some perfectly transparent bubble, staring out at the night-struck sky. The moon rode high and clear, shining like a new, incredibly bright silver coin against the blackest heaven she had ever imagined, spangled with stars that were even more impossibly bright than the moon. They were odd, those stars, burning with pinprick clarity, without even the faintest trace of a twinkle. She’d never seen stars that sharp, that clear, even on the coldest winter night, and she shivered as she remembered Merlin’s explanation.
We’re so high there’s not even any air out there. Not enough to matter, anyway. She shook her head. It never even occurred to me that the only reason they “twinkle” is because we’re seeing them through so many miles of air that it distorts our view. I always thought “clear as air” meant really clear, but it doesn’t, really, after all. And now I’m up above all of that. I’m on the very threshold of what Merlin calls “space.”
No other Safehold-born human being, she knew, had ever been as high before. Not even Cayleb on his journey between Corisande and Charis. She stared down, down, to where the planet itself had become a vast, curved globe. To where the cloud tops so very far below the skimmer were silver and deepest black, drifting across The Anvil, that stormy sweep of water between Chisholm and Hammer Island. She couldn’t make out the surface from this height, not in the dark, not using her own merely mortal eyes. She knew it was there, though, and all she had to do was turn her head and look at the “visual display” to see that vast, wind-ruffled stretch of saltwater in perfect detail. Merlin had shown her how to manipulate the display’s controls, and the skimmer’s computer-driven sensors happily generated daylight-bright, true-color imagery of anything she cared to gaze upon. She could focus closer — “zoom in,” Merlin called it — until even the most distant objects below seemed little more than arm’s-length away, too.
And yet, as Cayleb had warned her would be the case, that marvel, that God’s eye view, paled beside what her own eye saw when she gazed out through the armorplast.
It’s because the “imagery” is magic, she thought. Merlin can call it whatever he wants, but it is magic, and my emotions know it, whatever my mind may be trying to tell them. It’s like something out of a child’s tale, something that’s not quite . . . real. But this — the moon, these stars, those clouds — I’m seeing them with my own eyes, and that means they are real. And I’m seeing them from thousands upon thousands upon thousands of feet in the air. I’m actually up here, flying among them, and they’re really, really out there, all above and about and beneath me.
She drew a deep breath, smiling more than a bit crookedly, as that thought reminded her of the previous evening . . . .
* * * * * * * * * *
Sharleyan finished throwing up (she hoped) and wiped her face with the hot, damp towel. Her mouth, she reflected, tasted as bad as she could remember anything’s ever tasting. Her stomach heaved again at the thought, but she suppressed the sensation sternly. Muscles hovered on the brink of revolt for a few precarious seconds, then subsided . . . for the moment, at least.
“Better?” a voice asked, and she looked up from the basin in her lap with a wan smile.
Despite both the fire crackling behind her husband and the embedded tile pipes circulating heated water under the bedroom’s tile floor, the air was chilly, to say the least, and the fresh towel he’d just taken from the kettle on the bedroom hearth steamed in his hand. Under the circumstances, it was understandable that the emperor had wrapped a blanket around himself as he stood beside their bed, however un-regal he might look at the moment. In fact, Sharleyan was of the opinion that it went beyond un-regal to something approaching silly.
On the other hand, she thought, he did climb out of bed and hand me a towel the instant he heard me throwing up. That’s got to count for something . . . even if the whole thing is his fault.
“Better . . . I think,” she said, adding the conditional when her stomach gave another tentative heave.
He whisked the towel with which she’d wiped her face — and which had already cooled markedly — out of her hand and replaced it with the one he’d just wrung out. The used towel went back into the kettle, and he carried the basin into the adjacent bathroom. A moment later, she heard the toilet flush. Then he returned, setting the basin carefully on the bedside table beside her before he climbed back into the bed himself and wrapped his arms around her.
“Ow!” she objected as cold feet wiggled their way under her.
“Well,” Cayleb Zhan Haarahld Bryahn Ahrmahk, Duke of Ahrmahk, Prince of Tellesberg, Prince Protector of the Realm, King of Charis, and by God’s Grace Emperor of Charis, said reasonably to Sharleyan Alahnah Zhynaifyr Ahlyssa Tayt Ahrmahk, Duchess of Cherayth, Lady Protector of Chisholm, Queen of Chisholm, and by God’s Grace Empress of Charis, “they got frozen in your service. The least you can do is help me thaw them out again!”
“And if the shock of being poked with two lumps of ice makes me throw up again?” she inquired darkly.
“At the rate you’re throwing up, whether I poke you with ice or not isn’t going to make any difference,” he told her philosophically. “Besides, you’re facing the other way.”
Some things could not be allowed to pass by any self-respecting empress, and Cayleb squawked as she whipped around and slender, vengeful fingers found his armpits. In one of the universe’s less fair dispensations, he was far more ticklish than she was, and she pressed her despicable advantage ruthlessly.
“All right! All right!” he gasped finally. “I surrender! I’ll thaw my own feet out, you ungrateful and unreasonable wench!”
“Ooooh! ‘Wench’ is it?” she retorted, and he shouted with laughter as she redoubled her attack. Then he rolled back over, caught her wrists, and pinned them down. She started to wiggle, only to stop as he bent over her and kissed her forehead.
“But you’re my very most favorite wench in all the world,” he told her softly, and she shook her head with a smile.
“You really need to work on your technique, Your Majesty,” she told him. “On the other hand, considering the source — and the fact that that’s probably the very best your poor, primitive male brain can do — I accept your apology.”
“Apology?” He quirked one eyebrow. “I don’t remember making any apol–”
She smacked her hip into him sideways, and he paused in mid-word, his expression thoughtful.
“What I meant to say,” he corrected himself in a dignified tone, “was that I’m gratified — deeply gratified — by your forgiveness.”
“Which is why you’ll live to see another dawn,” she told him sweetly.
“A consideration which did cross my own mind,” he conceded, and gave her forehead another kiss before he settled back.
Given the way her own mouth tasted, she couldn’t fault his kisses’ placement, she admitted as his right arm went back under and around her and he drew her head down on his right shoulder. She nestled close, treasuring the warmth of their blankets, inhaling the smell of him, and he raised his arm behind her in a hug which happened to let his right hand caress her hair.
“Seriously,” he said, “how long do you expect this to go on?”
“Too long, however long it is,” she said darkly, then shrugged. “I’m not sure. Mother says she was never morning sick at all, and neither was Grandmamma, as far as Mother recalls, so that’s no help. Or particularly fair, now that I think about it. And according to Sairaih, her mother was morning sick for at least ten months. Or was it an entire year? Two years?” The empress shrugged again. “Something like that anyway.”
She grimaced fondly, and Cayleb chuckled in sympathy. Sairaih Hahlmyn had been Sharleyan’s personal maid since she’d been a little girl, and she seemed to be enjoying the present moment rather more than the empress was. She was certainly hovering for all she was worth, and no matter what Father Derahk, the palace healer might say, Sairaih could be relied upon to think of one of her innumerable female ancestors who had experienced the same problem, only incomparably worse. No doubt she fondly imagined she was reassuring her charge by telling her how lucky she was that things were so much less bad than they could have been.