How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 20

          “I appreciate the compliment, Your Majesty,” Nahrmahn said. “All the same, I can’t help thinking how much more comfortable it would have been to provide all that assistance from a nice, motionless bedroom in Cherayth.”

          “Coms are all well and good,” Sharleyan replied, “but he’s going to need someone to obviously confer with instead of just listening to voices out of thin air. And having another warm body he can send out to do things isn’t going to hurt one bit, either.”

          “I have to agree with that,” Cayleb said. “Although trying to picture any Charisian’s reaction to the notion of using Prince Nahrmahn of Emerald as an official representative and emissary a couple of years ago boggles the mind.”

          “I’m sure it boggles your mind less than mine,” Nahrmahn replied tartly, and it was Cayleb’s turn to chuckle. “On the other hand, it’s worked out better — and a lot more satisfyingly — than several alternatives I could think of right off hand,” the Emeraldian continued a bit more seriously.

          “I’d have to agree with that, too,” Cayleb acknowledged. “Although I wish to hell you and I didn’t have to go home and assist each other with this mess.”

          “I wish you didn’t have to either,” Sharleyan agreed somberly, “but this mess is a lot less ugly than the one we could’ve had.”

          Cayleb nodded, his expression sober, at the accuracy of her remark.

          The Navy of God had outnumbered the Imperial Charisian Navy by a terrifying margin when they met in the Gulf of Tarot barely two months ago. Of the twenty-five Charisian galleons who’d engaged, one had been completely destroyed, eleven had been reduced to near-wrecks, five more had lost masts and spars, and only eight had emerged more or less intact. Charis had suffered more than three thousand casualties, more than half of them fatal . . . including Cayleb’s cousin, High Admiral Bryahn Lock Island. Yet hideously expensive as the victory had been, it had also been overwhelming. Forty-nine of the Navy of God’s galleons had been captured. Fourteen had been destroyed in action, another seventeen had been scuttled after their capture as too damaged to be worth keeping, and only nine had actually managed to escape. Forty-one Harchongese galleons had been captured, as well, and the blow to the Church’s naval power had been devastating.

          Cayleb Ahrmahk had never felt so useless as he had watching that titanic engagement through Merlin’s SNARCs. He’d seen every moment of it, including his cousin’s death, but he’d been the better part of eight thousand miles away, unable to do anything but watch the death and destruction. Almost worse, there’d been no acceptable way for him and Sharleyan even to know the battle had been fought. They’d had to pretend they knew nothing about it, had no idea how desperate it had been or how many men had died obeying their orders. Even when Admiral Kohdy Nylz had arrived with the reinforcements dispatched to Chisholm when they’d anticipated the Church was sending its ships west to join Admiral Thirsk in Dohlar instead of east to the Desnarian Empire, they’d been unable to discuss it with him in any way.

          It had taken another full two and a half five-days for a weather-battered schooner to arrive with Admiral Rock Point’s official dispatches, and the only good thing was that their inner circle had had plenty of time by then to confer and make plans over their coms. Which was why Cayleb was already on his way back to Tellesberg, despite the fact that he and Sharleyan had been scheduled to remain in Cherayth for another month and a half. And it was also the reason Sharleyan wasn’t headed back to Tellesberg with him.

          One of them had to return. In theory, they could have used their coms to coordinate responses with Rock Point, Archbishop Maikel Staynair, Baron Wave Thunder, and the inner circles’ other members in Tellesberg from Cherayth. In fact, that’s what they’d been doing, in many ways. But there were limits to what their subordinates could do on their own authority, which meant either Cayleb or Sharleyan had to be there in person. For that matter, the entire world would be expecting one or both of them to return to Old Charis after such a cataclysmic shift in naval power. They couldn’t afford the sort of questions not returning might arouse, and the truth was that Cayleb wanted to be there. Not that he was going to get there in any kind of hurry. This time of year, they’d be lucky if Royal Charis could make the crossing in less than two months, although Cayleb expected they’d be able to shave at least a five-day or so off of the time anyone else might have managed.

          Unfortunately, Sharleyan couldn’t come with him. He was just as glad to spare Alahnah the roughness and potential hazards of this particular winter voyage, but that wasn’t the main reason she and her mother had remained in Cherayth. Nor was it the reason Merlin had remained with them. Sharleyan would be making a voyage of her own soon enough, and Cayleb didn’t envy the task she was going to face at the end of it.

          Well, no one ever told you it was going to be easy . . . or pleasant, he reminded himself. So stop thinking about how much you envy Nahrmahn and Ohlyvya for at least being together and concentrate on getting your job done. Sharley will handle her part of it just fine, and the sooner she does, the sooner she will be joining you.

          “I agree things could be a lot worse,” he said in a deliberately more cheerful tone, then smiled wickedly. “For example, I could be just as bad a sailor as Nahrmahn!”