Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 07



Destiny, 54,

Sea of Justice

“Oh, my!

Princess Irys Zhorzhet Mhara Daykyn shook her head as the small, wiry, sunburned-but-tanning-quickly youngster squealed in delight. The ten-year-old stood at the back edge of HMS Destiny‘s quarterdeck, leaning back sharply with bare feet braced hard against the taffrail, while he clung to the wildly bent rod with both hands. He wore no shoes, only a pair of cutoff shorts enormously too big for him, but a canvas harness — the type the Imperial Charisian Navy used with deckside safety lines during hurricanes — was fastened about his bare torso. The harness was firmly anchored to the binnacle beside the ship’s double wheel, and two burly, seasoned-looking petty officers (either of whom weighed four or five times as much as the boy in question) stood alertly to one side, grinning hugely as they watched him.

It’s a kraken! It’s a kraken, Irys!” the youngster shouted, managing to hang onto the rod somehow.

One of the watching petty officers reached out as if to lend a hand, but he visibly thought better of it. The boy never noticed; he was too busy having the time of his life.

“It’s not really a kraken, you know, Your Highness,” a voice said quietly, and Irys turned her head quickly. Lieutenant Hektor Aplyn-Ahrmahk (known on social occasions as His Grace, Duke Hektor of Darcos) smiled at her. “A kraken would’ve already snatched the rod out of his hands,” he said reassuringly. “He’s probably got a forktail or a small neartuna. Either of which,” he added with a reminiscent smile, “will be more than enough of a challenge at his age. I remember my first neartuna.” He shook his head. “I was only a year or so older than His Highness is now, and it took me over an hour to land it. And I might as well admit I needed help. The damned thing — pardon my language — weighed more than I did!”

“Really?” Irys gazed at him for a moment, then gave him a smile of thanks. “I know he won’t really go overboard, not with that harness. But I still can’t help worrying,” she acknowledged, her smile fading slightly. “And I can’t say I was very happy about the thought of his actually landing a kraken with all those teeth and tentacles!”

“Well, even if I’m wrong and he has hooked a kraken — and he and the petty officers manage to land it, which they probably wouldn’t without a lot heavier line — someone’s going to hit it smartly between the eyes with an ax before it’s allowed on deck.” He shrugged. “The kraken may be the emblem of the House of Ahrmahk, Your Highness, but nobody wants to feed a hand or an arm to a real one.”

“I suppose not,” she said in a suddenly softer tone, looking away, and his sun-bronzed face turned darker as he realized what he’d just said.

“Your Highness, I –” he began, but she reached out and touched his forearm lightly before he could finish.

“It isn’t your fault . . . Lieutenant. My father should’ve thought about that. And I’ve been forced to . . . adjust my thinking where the blame for his death is concerned.” She turned to face him fully. “I don’t doubt Emperor Cayleb would have killed him willingly in combat, but, then, Father would just as willingly have killed Cayleb. And after what Phylyp’s learned, there’s no longer any doubt in my mind that it was Zhaspahr Clyntahn who had Father and Hektor murdered. I won’t pretend I’m reconciled to Corisande’s conquest, because I’m not. But as for Daivyn’s safety and my own, I’m far safer swimming with a Charisian kraken than waiting for an offal lizard like Clyntahn to have us both murdered at the time that suits his purposes.”

“You are, you know,” he said quietly, laying one sword-calloused hand over the slender, long-fingered one on his forearm. “I don’t know how this will all work out, but I know Cayleb and Sharleyan, and I know Archbishop Maikel. Nothing — nothing — will happen to your brother under their protection. Anyone who wishes to harm either of you will have to fight his way through the entire Imperial Army, Marine Corps, and Guard. And” — he smiled suddenly, wryly — “past Seijin Merlin, which would probably be harder than all the rest put together, now that I think about it.”

“I’m sure you’re right about that!” Irys laughed, squeezing his arm gently. “I may still worry about whether or not he got away safely, but when it comes down to it, I think Daivyn’s right. I’ve come to the conclusion there are very few things Seijin Merlin couldn’t do if he put his mind to it. And I might as well admit that knowing a man like him serves Cayleb and Sharleyan did almost as much as Phylyp to convince me how wrong I’d been about them. Good men can serve bad rulers, but . . . not a man like him.”

“You’re right about that, Your Highness.” Aplyn-Ahrmahk pressed down on her hand for a moment, then blinked and took his own hand quickly away. For a moment, he seemed remarkably awkward about finding somewhere else for that hand to go, especially for a young man who was so perpetually poised and composed, and the tiniest trace of a smile flickered across Irys’ lips.

Her brother’s fresh squeal of delight drew her eyes, and she released the lieutenant’s forearm and reached up to adjust to her wide-brimmed sun hat. The brisk wind of the Sea of Justice grasped at it with playful hands, flexing and pulling, bending all its cunning towards snatching it away, and her eyes gleamed in pure, sensual pleasure. It was summer in Safehold’s southern hemisphere, but the Sea of Justice was a brisk place any time, and the wind had a crisp edge, despite her brother’s eagerness to shed his shirt at a moment’s notice. But there was a sense of freedom, of life, in that wind. Intellectually, she knew the ship was bearing her to another sort of captivity — one she had no doubt would be genteel, kind, and as unobtrusive as possible, yet captivity nonetheless. Somehow, though, that didn’t really matter at the moment. After the endless, dreary months confined in King Zhames of Delferahk’s castle above the waters of Lake Erdan, the blustering wind, the sunlight, the smell of salt water, the play of light on canvas and rigging, the endless rushing sound of water, and the creak of timbers and cordage all swirled about her like life itself. For the first time in far too long she admitted to herself how bitterly she’d missed the rough, feathery hand of the wind, the kiss of rain, the smell of Corisandian grass as she galloped across the open fields.

She felt the lieutenant at her side, her assigned escort here on Destiny‘s deck. She was the only female member of the galleon’s entire crew, and she wondered how the Charisians had come to overlook that minor fact. In a way, it was comforting to know they could overlook things, and she was no shrinking violet. It was . . . an unusual experience to find herself without a single maid, female body servant, or chaperone, and she had no doubt three quarters of the court back in Manchyr would have been horrified by the very thought or her suffering such an insult. Or as horrified as they could have been over mere insult to her station given how much of their horror quotient would have been used up by the notion of any nobly born maiden of tender years, sister of the rightful Prince of Corisande or not, finding herself with her safety and virtue alike unprotected aboard a Charisian warship!

Yet not a single one of those Charisians — not a seaman, not a Marine, not an officer: not one of them — had offered even the slightest discourtesy. True, men who’d been at sea for months on end, some of them even longer, without sight or smell of a woman, watched with almost reverent eyes whenever she came on deck. Despite that, she was convinced that even without knowing what their officers would have done to anyone who’d dared to lay so much as a finger upon her, they wouldn’t have anyway. Oh, some of them might have; they were human beings, and they were men, not saints. But the instant anyone tried, his own fellows would have torn him limb from limb. Which didn’t even count what Tobys Raimair or the rest of her own armsmen would have done.