A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 29

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.”