How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 19


HMS Royal Charis, 58,

West Isle Channel,


Imperial Palace,


Kingdom of Chisholm


          The cabin lamps swung wildly, sending their light skittering across the richly woven carpets and the gleaming wood of the polished table. Glass decanters sang a mad song of vibration, planking and stout hull timbers groaned in complaint, wind howled, rain beat with icy fists on the skylight, and the steady cannon-shot impacts as HMS Royal Charis‘ bow slammed into one tall, gray wave after another echoed through the plunging ship’s bones.

          A landsman would have found all of that dreadfully alarming, assuming seasickness would have allowed him to stop vomiting long enough to appreciate it. Cayleb Ahrmahk, on the other hand, had never suffered from seasickness, and he’d seen heavy weather bad enough to make the current unpleasantness seem relatively mild.

          Well, maybe a bit more than relatively mild, if we’re going to be honest, he admitted to himself.

          It was only late afternoon, yet as he gazed out through the stern windows at the raging sea in Royal Charis‘ wake it could have been night. True, by the standards of his own homeland, night came early in these relatively northern latitudes in mid-winter, but this was early even for the West Isle Channel. Solid cloud cover tended to do that, and if this weather was merely . . . exceptionally lively, there was worse coming soon enough. The front rolling in across the Zebediah Sea to meet him was going to make this seem like a walk in the park.

          “Lovely weather you’ve chosen for a voyage,” a female voice no one else aboard Royal Charis could hear remarked in his ear.

          “I didn’t exactly choose it,” he pointed out in reply. He had to speak rather loudly for the com concealed in his jeweled pectoral scepter to pick up his voice amid all the background noise, but no one was likely to overhear him in this sort of weather. “And your sympathy underwhelms me, dear.”

          “Nonsense. I know you, Cayleb. You’re having the time of your life,” Empress Sharleyan replied tartly from the study across the hall from their suite in the Imperial Palace. She sat in a comfortable armchair parked near the cast-iron stove filling the library with welcome warmth, and their infant daughter slept blessedly peacefully on her shoulder.

          “He does rather look forward to these exhilarating moments, doesn’t he?” another, deeper voice observed over the same com net.

          “Ganging up on me, Merlin?” Cayleb inquired.

          “Simply stating the truth as I see it, Your Grace. The painfully obvious truth, I might add.”

          Normally, Merlin would have been aboard Royal Charis with Cayleb as the emperor’s personal armsman and bodyguard. Circumstances weren’t normal, however, and Cayleb and Sharleyan had agreed it was more important for the immediate future that he keep an eye on the empress. There wasn’t much for a bodyguard to do aboard a ship battling her way against winter headwinds across nine thousand-odd miles of salt water from Cherayth to Tellesberg. And not even a seijin who was also a fusion-powered PICA could do much about winter weather . . . except, of course, to see it coming through the SNARCs deployed around the planet. Cayleb could monitor that information as well as Merlin could, however, and he was just as capable of receiving OWL’s weather predictions from the computer’s hiding place under the far distant Mountains of Light.

          Not that he could share that information with anyone in Royal Charis’ crew. On the other hand, the Imperial Charisian Navy had a near idolatrous faith in Cayleb Ahrmahk’s sea sense. It he told Captain Gyrard he smelled a storm coming, no one was going to argue with him.

          “He may not mind weather like this,” a considerably more sour voice inserted. “Some of the rest of us lack the sort of stomachs that seem to be issued to Charisian monarchs.”

          “It’ll do you good, Nahrmahn,” Cayleb replied with a chuckle. “Ohlyvya’s been after you to lose weight, anyway. And if you can’t keep anything down, then by the time we reach Tellesberg you’re probably going to waste away to no more than, oh, half the man you are today.”

          “Very funny,” Nahrmahn half-growled.

Unlike Cayleb, who was gazing out into the dark the better to appreciate the weather, the rotund little Prince of Emerald was curled as close as he could fold himself into a miserable knot in his swaying cot. He wasn’t quite as seasick as Cayleb’s rather callous remark suggested, but he was quite seasick enough to be going on with.

          His wife, Princess Ohlyvya, on the other hand, was as resistant to motion sickness as Cayleb himself. Nahrmahn found that a particularly unjust dispensation of divine capriciousness, since she’d said very much the same thing the emperor just had to him that very morning. At the moment, she was sitting in a chair securely lashed to the deck, knitting, and he heard her soft chuckle over the com.

          “I suppose it really isn’t all that funny, dear,” she said now. “Still, we all know you’ll get over it in another five-day or so. You’ll be just fine.” She waited half a beat. “Assuming the ship doesn’t sink, of course.”

          “At the moment, that would be something of a relief,” Nahrmahn informed her.

          “Oh, stop complaining and think about all the scheming and planning and skullduggery you’ll have to keep you occupied once we get home again!”

          “Ohlyvya’s right, Nahrmahn,” Sharleyan said, and her voice was rather more serious than it had been. “Cayleb’s going to need you to help sort out the mess. Since I can’t be there to help out myself, I’m just as happy you can be.”