How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 26


Year of God 895



HMS Dawn Star, 58,

Chisholm Sea.


Crown Princess Alahnah Zhanayt Naimu Ahrmahk wailed lustily as another sea rolled up under HMS Dawn Star‘s quarter and sent the galleon corkscrewing unpleasantly. Despite her parentage, the infant crown princess was not a good sailor, and she obviously didn’t care who knew it.

          It was chilly in the large after cabin, despite the small coal stove securely affixed to the deck, and a warmly dressed Empress Sharleyan sat in the canvas sling-chair. The chair was adjusted so that its swinging movement could minimize the ship’s motion as much as possible, and she cradled the blanket-cocooned baby on her shoulder, crooning to her.

It didn’t seem to help a lot.

          “Let me fetch Glahdys, Your Majesty!” Sairaih Hahlmyn, Sharleyan’s personal maid said yet again. “Maybe she’s just hungry.”

          “While I’ll admit this young monster is hungry most of the time, Sairaih, that’s not the problem right now,” Sharleyan replied wanly. “Believe me. I’ve already tried.”

          Sairaih sniffed. The sound was inaudible against the background noise of a wooden sailing ship underway on blowing weather, but Sharleyan didn’t need to hear it. Glahdys Parkyr was Alahnah’s wetnurse, and as far as Sairaih was concerned, that meant Mistress Parkyr should be the crown princess’ only wetnurse. She’d made no secret of her opinion that Sharleyan had far too many pressing demands on her time to do anything so unfashionable as breast-feeding her daughter.

          There were times Sharleyan was tempted to agree with her, and there were other times when she had no choice but to allow Mistress Parkyr to replace her. Sometimes that was because of those other pressing demands, but she’d also been forced to admit that her own milk production wouldn’t have kept pace with Alahnah’s needs without assistance. That bothered her more than she wanted to admit even to herself, which was one reason she was so stubborn about nursing the baby whenever she could.

          In this case, however, that wasn’t the problem. In fact, her breasts felt uncomfortably full at the moment and Alahnah was too busy protesting her universe’s unnatural movement to care. Of course, Alahnah being Alahnah, dire starvation was going to redirect her attention sometime in the next half-hour or so, Sharleyan thought wryly.

          “You need your rest, Your Majesty,” Sairaih said with all the stubbornness of an old and trusted retainer gamely refusing to give up the fight.

          “I’m stuck aboard a ship in the middle of the Chisholm Sea, Sairaih,” Sharleyan pointed out. “Exactly what do I need to be resting up for?”

          The unfair question gave Sairaih pause, and she looked reproachfully at her empress for sinking so low as to actually use logic against her.

          “Never mind,” Sharleyan said after a moment. “I promise if I can’t get her to settle down in a little bit, I’ll let you get Glahdys or Hairyet to see what they can do. All right?”

          “I’m sure whatever Your Majesty decides will be just fine,” Sairaih said with immense dignity, and on that note, she swept a rather deeper curtsy than usual and withdrew from Sharleyan’s cabin.

          “Have you ever considered how the rest of your subjects would react to the knowledge of how ruthlessly you’re tyrannized in your own household?” a deep voice asked in the empress’ ear, and she chuckled.

          “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she replied to the cabin’s empty air, and it was Merlin’s turn to chuckle.

He stood alone on Dawn Star‘s sternwalk, gazing out over the endless ranks of white-crested waves sweeping down on the ship from the northwest. There was enough flying spray, and the weather was cold enough, that no one seemed inclined to dispute his possession of the sternwalk at the moment. Of course, the fact that he was Emperor Cayleb’s personal armsman and currently attached to Empress Sharleyan in the same role probably had as much to do with it as the weather did. Then there was that minor matter of his seijin‘s reputation. Even most of those who knew him well were disinclined to crowd him when they didn’t have to.

“No idea at all,” he said now. “That’s what you want me to believe?”

          “I’ll have you know, Seijin Merlin, that I rule my household with a will of iron,” she told him firmly.

          “Oh, of course you do.” Merlin rolled his eyes. “I’ve seen the way they all jump to obey your orders in obvious terror.”

          “I should certainly hope so.” She elevated her nose with a sniff Sairaih couldn’t have bettered, but a sudden, renewed complaint from Alahnah spoiled her pose.

          “There, baby,” she murmured in the child’s delicate ear. “Momma’s here.” She nuzzled the side of the little girl’s neck, inhaling the scent of her while she patted her back gently.

          Alahnah’s protests died back to a more sustainable level, and Sharleyan shook her head.

          “How much longer until that wind change gets here?” she asked.

          “Another seven or eight hours yet, I’m afraid,” Merlin replied, watching the real-time weather map from Owl’s sensors.

          “Wonderful,” Sharleyan sighed.

          “At least we’ve got better weather than Cayleb does,” Merlin pointed out. At that moment, Empress of Charis was battling headwinds and high seas as she fought her way steadily westward. “And we’ll be heading into even better weather in the next few days. Of course, it’s going to get a lot hotter.”

          “Fine with me,” Sharleyan said fervently. “Don’t tell any of my Chisholmians, but this northern girl’s been spoiled by Charisian weather.”

          “Would that have anything to do with the fact that the snow was three or four feet deep when we left Cherayth?” Merlin asked mildly.

          “I think you can safely assume it factors into the equation.”

          “I thought it might. Still, you might want to remember that too much heat’s as bad as too much cold, and the last time Cayleb and I were in Zebediahan waters, it was hot enough to fry eggs on a cannon’s breech. I thought it was going to render that toad Symmyns down into candle fat right on the quarterdeck.”

          “And it would’ve saved all of us — including him — a lot of grief if it had,” Sharleyan said, her voice and expression much grimmer than they had been. “That’s another part of this trip I’m not looking forward to, Merlin.”

          “I know,” Merlin agreed soberly. “And I know it probably doesn’t help, but if anyone’s ever had it coming, it’s certainly him.”

          Sharleyan nodded. Tohmys Symmyns, Grand Duke of Zebediah, was presently ensconced in a reasonably comfortable cell in what used to be his own palace in the city of Carmyn. He’d been there for four months now, awaiting the arrival of Cayleb or Sharleyan, and he’d probably have preferred to go on waiting a lot longer. Facing the emperor or empress against whom one had committed high treason wasn’t something to which most self-serving, treacherous schemers looked forward. Unfortunately for Symmyns, he was going to have the opportunity to do precisely that — briefly, at least — in another seven or eight days. And while Merlin knew Sharleyan wasn’t looking forward to the meeting either, he also knew she would never flinch from what her duty required.

          “I’m not looking forward to Corisande, either, for that matter,” she said now. “Well, not most of it, anyway. But at least there’ll be some good news to go along with the bad in Manchyr.”

          “Would it happen that Hauwyl’s reaction is one of the things you are looking forward to?” Merlin inquired dryly.

          “Absolutely,” Sharleyan replied smugly.

          “I still say it was a nasty trick for you and Cayleb to keep him entirely in the dark about it.”

          “We’re cunning, devious, and underhanded heads of state engaged in a desperate struggle against an overwhelming foe,” Sharleyan pointed out. “It’s one of our responsibilities to keep our most trusted henchmen alert and on their toes, ready for anything which might come their way.”

          “Besides which you both like practical jokes.”

          “Besides which we both like practical jokes,” she agreed.