One more snippet after this one. [Wink]

How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 44

* * * * * * * * * *

          “Welcome, Your Majesty.”

          Baron Green Valley went down on one knee and bowed very formally as Sharleyan stepped into the throne room of the palace which had once belonged to Tohmas Symmyns, and fabric rustled as every other man — and the handful of women — followed his example. Only the sentries standing against the huge chamber’s walls and the Imperial Guardsmen following at Sharleyan’s heels remained upright. Especially the grim-faced sergeant at her side and the tall, sapphire-eyed captain at her back, with one hand resting lightly on the hilt of his sword. She rather doubted any of those kneeling Zebediahns were unaware of his presence, which was the main reason he was here, and she turned her head, regarding them all regally.

          She let silence hover for almost a full minute, listening to a stillness so intense that the zinging flight of one of the local insects was clearly audible. Then, confident she’d made her point, she reached down and laid one slim hand on Green Valley’s shoulder.

          “Thank you, General Green Valley,” she said, projecting her voice clearly and choosing his military title with malice aforethought. “We could wish the journey had been a little less tempestuous, but it’s good to be here . . . and to see such an old and trusted friend again.”

          No one with a working brain would ever have imagined that she and Cayleb would have sent someone they didn’t trust to handle the delicate task of arresting a Grand Duke, yet she could almost physically feel the way attention clicked in Green Valley’s direction. It never hurt to make it publicly clear who enjoyed the Crown’s trust — and had the Crown’s ear, if it came to that. Which was also the reason — or one of them, at least — she’d used the imperial “we.”

          “Rise, please,” she said, tugging gently on his shoulder, and smiled as he rose to tower over her. He was tall for a Charisian, within a few inches of Merlin’s own height, and he smiled back at her.

          “We realize we have a great many details to which we must attend,” she continued, turning to look past him and let her eyes sweep the assemblage of notables. Every senior Zebediahan noble, and a great many of the lesser nobility, as well, were present in that throne room. It was almost claustrophobically full as a consequence, although her guardsmen maintained an open bubble at least four yards across around her at all times.

          Wide enough to stop an assassin with cold steel, at any rate, she thought. A bit more problematic where muskets are concerned, I suppose, but getting one of those past Merlin and the SNARCs wouldn’t be the easiest thing in the world. And then there’s the fact that every stitch I’m wearing, aside from my lingerie, is made out of antiballistic smart fabric. If somebody does get a shot at me, he’s going to be very surprised when the miraculous favor of the Archangels comes to my rescue. She suppressed an urge to smile. Now that I think about it, that might not be such a bad thing. It’d certainly give Clyntahn and the Temple Loyalists conniptions!

          “Yet first and foremost among those details,” she continued out loud, keeping her voice womanfully level despite her devilish amusement as she imagined Clyntahn’s reaction to her miraculous deliverance, “is our duty to thank you for the exemplary fashion in which you have performed your duties here. We and the Emperor have read your reports with great interest and approval. And while we deeply regret the necessity which impelled us to send you here in the first place, it seems evident to us that not only you but many of the loyal members of the Zebediahan nobility, faithful to their sworn word, have done all we might ask of any man in these difficult and troubling times.”

          She sensed the slight rustle of relief which went through the still-kneeling aristocrats as her tone registered, and she was hard-pressed not to smile sardonically.

          Of course they’re relieved by your attitude, Sharley. More than half of them probably expected you to come in snorting fire and breathing brimstone! That would have been Hektor’s approach, at any rate. Now they’re at least provisionally ready to believe they’re not all going to be tainted in your eyes by past associations with Zebediah. Despite herself, her lip curled ever so slightly. I suppose it would probably be a good idea not to mention how many of them you know were toying with the idea of supporting him this time around.

          It had been tempting to make a clean sweep of those who’d come closest to throwing in their lot with Symmyns and the Northern Conspiracy down in Corisande. Some of them had come very close, as a matter of fact, which didn’t augur well for their continued future loyalty to Charis. Still, as Cayleb and Staynair had pointed out, thinking about an act was a very different thing from actually committing it. People dedicated to the concept of freedom of thought could scarcely go around lopping off heads just because possibly treasonous thoughts might have rattled around inside them at one point or another. Besides, knowing who the weak links were offered the opportunity to strengthen them in the future.

          And in the meantime, it lets us know who to keep an eye on.

          “I thank you for those kind words, Your Majesty,” Green Valley said, bowing once more.

          “They’re no more than you deserve of us, General,” she said sincerely, inclining her own head to him ever so slightly. “And now, of your courtesy, would you be so kind as to escort us?”

          “It would be my honor, Your Majesty,” he replied, offering her his arm.

          She tucked her hand into it and allowed her to escort her ceremonially to the throne awaiting her . . . and that sapphire-eyed Guardsman followed silently at her back.

* * * * * * * * * *

          “Well, that went about as well as it could have, I think,” Sharleyan said several hours later.

          She sat in the luxurious bedchamber which had once belonged to the man now sitting in a far more humble chamber in one of the palace’s more securely guarded towers. The bedchamber was actually rather more luxurious than she would have preferred, and she’d already made a mental note to have its more ostentatious furnishings removed. If nothing else, it would probably give her enough space to walk in a straight line for more than three feet at a time, she thought tartly.

          “And at least you’re sitting in a nice warm — and still — palace,” Cayleb replied sourly over her earplug.

His passage back to Old Charis wasn’t setting any records after all. Despite having left Cherayth almost two five-days before Sharleyan had, he still hadn’t cleared the Zebediah Sea. In fact, he was barely more than twelve hundred miles from Carmyn even as he spoke, and Royal Charis was plunging wildly as she fought her way through the Mackas Strait in the teeth of a full storm roaring its way eastward from the East Chisholm Sea with what the old Beaufort scale would have called Force Ten winds, approaching sixty miles per hour. She shuddered and bucked her way through waves almost thirty feet high, with long overhanging crests. Foam blew in dense white streaks and great gray patches along the direction of the wind; everywhere the eye looked, the surface of the sea was white and tumbling; and the galleon’s stout timbers quivered under the heavy impacts slamming into them.

          “What’s this? The Charisian seaman with the cast-iron stomach upset over a little rough weather?”

          Sharleyan put a considerably more humor into the question than she actually felt. She’d spent enough time aboard ship by now herself to realize Royal Charis wasn’t really in desperate straits, despite the violence of her motion. Still, even the best found ship could founder.

          “It’s not the motion, it’s the temperature,” Cayleb shot back. “You may be accustomed to freezing your toes off, dear, but I’m a Charisian boy. And my favorite hot water bottle happens to be in Zebediah at the moment!”

          “Trust me, if it weren’t for the motion I’d trade places with you in a heartbeat,” she said feelingly. “I’ve learned to love the weather in Tellesberg, but this is ridiculous!”

          She wiped a sheen of perspiration from her forehead. The bedchamber’s open windows faced the harbor, and the evening seabreeze was just beginning to make up. It was going to get better soon, she told herself firmly.

          “Nahrmahn would trade with you, too, Your Majesty,” Princess Ohlyvya said. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen him more miserable. I think he was bringing up the soles of his shoes this afternoon.”

          The Emeraldian princess’ tone mingled amusement, sympathy, and at least some genuine concern. In fact, her worry over her husband was clearly helping to divert her from any qualms she might feel herself in the face of such weather, and Sharleyan smiled.

          “I wondered why he hadn’t had anything to say,” she said.

          “He got the healer to prescribe golden berry tea with an infusion of sleep root, and he’s been sleeping ever since,” Ohlyvya told her. “Should I try to wake him?”

          “Oh, no! If he can sleep, let him.”

          “Thank you,” Ohlyvya said sincerely.

          “At the moment, I find myself envying him,” Cayleb remarked only half-humorously. “But since I’m awake and not asleep, was there anything we particularly needed to discuss?”

          “I don’t really think so. To be honest, I just needed to hear your voice more than anything else,” Sharleyan admitted. “I think we got off on the right foot today, and Kynt played his part wonderfully. There are a couple of people I’d like Nahrmahn to keep a little closer eye on than we’d discussed. Now that I’ve personally met them, I’m a bit less optimistic about their fundamental reliability than I was. Aside from that, though, I really do think it’s going well so far. I’m just not looking forward to tomorrow, I suppose.”

          “I don’t blame you.” Cayleb’s tone was more sober than it had been. “Mind you, I don’t think it would bother me as much as I think it’s bothering you. Probably because I’ve already had the questionable pleasure of meeting him. In a lot of ways, I wish I could have taken this one off your shoulders, but –“