A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 28

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.