Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 08

No, she’d never been safer in her father’s palace than here on this warship of a hostile, heretical empire, and that was the true reason for the lightness in her heart. For the first time in far, far too long, she knew she and, ever so much more importantly, her brother were safe. And the wiry young man beside her in the sky blue tunic and dark blue trousers of the Imperial Charisian Navy was one of the reasons she was.

She glanced up at him from the corner of one eye, but he wasn’t looking at her. He was watching Daivyn and grinning hugely. It made him look absurdly young, but then he was young, over two years younger even than she herself. Only that was hard to remember when she recalled his voice out of the darkness, leading his men in a charge against the Delferahkan dragoons who’d outnumbered them better than two-to-one to rescue her and her brother. When she recalled merciless brown eyes in the moonlight and the flash of the pistol as he put a bullet through the brain of the inquisitor who’d done his best to trick those dragoons into massacring her and Daivyn. When she remembered his competence and certainty on the long boat trip downriver to Sarmouth and safety. Or, for that matter, when she watched him and his easy assurance giving commands to men three times his own age here aboard Destiny.

He would never be a handsome man, she thought. Pleasant looking, perhaps, but not remarkably so. It was the energy that was so much a part of him, the quick decision and the agile brain, that struck any observer. And the confidence. She remembered that moonlit night again, then remembered the lecture Admiral Yairley had given him when they finally reached the Sarmouth and came aboard Destiny. She had a suspicion Yairley had lectured him more for her benefit than for his own, but she was a princess herself. She understood how the game was played, and she’d been grateful to the admiral for making it clear to her that Aplyn-Ahrmahk had proceeded entirely on his own to complete his mission — and just incidentally save her own life — when any reasonable man would have turned for home. She’d suspected that was the case from one or two remarks the seaman under his command had made during the trip down the river, but the lieutenant had simply brushed the entire notion aside. Now she knew better, and she wondered with a wisdom beyond her years, hard-earned as a prince’s daughter, how many young men his age, with that accomplishment to their credit, could have refrained from attempting to bask in a young woman’s admiration.

“That fish is going to have him into the water, safety harness or not!” she said now, as Daivyn was dragged bodily forward despite his braced feet.

“Nonsense!” Aplyn-Ahrmahk laughed. “He’s not strong enough to hang onto the rod if the safety line comes taut!”

“Easy for you to say!” she said accusingly.

“Your Highness, you see that fellow standing to His Highness’ right — the one with all the tattoos?” Irys glanced up at him and nodded. “That’s Zhorj Shairwyd. In addition to being one of the best petty officers in the ship, he’s also the squadron’s champion wrestler and one of the strongest, quickest men I know. If it even looks like your brother’s headed over the taffrail, Shairwyd will have him, the fishing rod, and whatever’s on the other end of it, dragged up onto this deck faster than a cat-lizard jumping on a spider rat. I didn’t — I mean, Captain Lathyk didn’t pick him at random to keep an eye on the His Highness.”

“I see.” Irys carefully took no note of his quick self-correction. Now that she thought about it, though, Aplyn-Ahrmahk always seemed to be in the vicinity when Daivyn was on deck, as well. It was obvious the prince liked him, and Aplyn-Ahrmahk had a much more comfortable, easy way with the boy than most of the other officers aboard Yairley’s flagship.

“Tell me, Lieutenant,” she said, “do you have brothers or sisters of your own?”

“Oh, Langhorne, yes!” He rolled his eyes. “I’m the middle one, actually — three older brothers, an older sister, a younger sister, and two younger brothers.” Irys’ eyes widened at the formidable list, and he chuckled. “Two of the older brothers and both of the younger ones are twins, Your Highness, so it’s not quite as bad as it might sound. Mother used to tell me she’d thought four would be quite enough, though she’d been willing to entertain the thought of five, but she never would’ve agreed to eight! Unfortunately, Father didn’t tell her twins run in his family. Or that’s her story, at any rate, and she’s sticking to it. Since they’ve known each other since they were children and Father has twin brothers, though, I’ve never really believed she didn’t know that perfectly well, you understand. Still, I have to admit it was a relief when they were able to pack me and two of my brothers off to sea.”

“I expect so,” Irys murmured, trying to imagine what it would have been like to have seven siblings. Or, for that matter, any immediate family beyond Daivyn at this point. She envied the lieutenant, she realized. Envied him deeply. But that stack of brothers and sisters undoubtedly did help explain his comfortable approach to Daivyn. And so, she thought suddenly, must the peculiar circumstances of his ennoblement. He was a duke, a member — if only by adoption — of the House of Ahrmahk itself. She wasn’t as familiar with the Charisian peerage as she wished, especially in her current circumstances, yet she was fairly sure no more than a handful of the Empire’s nobles could take precedence over him. Yet he’d been born a commoner, one more child in a brawling, sprawling, obviously happy family who’d never dreamed of the heights to which one of their sons would rise. And so he was neither a commoner dealing with a prince, afraid of overstepping his place, nor a noble by birth, trained to understand that one simply couldn’t casually ruffle a young boy’s sun bleached hair if it should happen the young boy in question was the rightful ruler of an entire realm and must be safely fortified within the towering buttresses of the respect due his exalted birth.

It was all quite unacceptable, of course. Daivyn had no business dashing barefoot about a warship’s deck wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, watched over by common seamen and tattooed petty officers. He had no business shrieking with laughter as he fought whatever fish was at the other end of his line, or when he was allowed — in calm weather, under close supervision — swarming up to the maintop with half a dozen midshipmen, many of them no more than a year or so his elders. She should be horrified, should insist he be kept safely on deck — or, even better, below decks — where he would be sheltered from all threat or harm. And she certainly shouldn’t allow Lieutenant Aplyn-Ahrmahk to encourage him to run wild! She knew that, just as she knew the consequences if something did happen to Daivyn Daykyn while in Charisian custody could be catastrophic beyond imagining.

But it didn’t matter. Not to her, and not any longer. Daivyn was her Prince, her rightful ruler, a life far too important for anyone to risk, or to allow to risk itself. And that didn’t matter, either. Because he was also her baby brother, and he was alive when he wasn’t supposed to be, and he was happy for the first time she could remember since they’d fled Corisande. He’d rediscovered the boyhood Zhaspahr Clyntahn and the world had stolen from him far too early, and her heart rejoiced to watch him embrace it.

And none of it would have happened without the humbly-born duke standing at her side.

“Thank you,” she said suddenly.

“I beg your pardon, Your Highness?” He looked down quickly, and she smiled.

“That wasn’t meant just for you, Lieutenant,” she reassured him, wondering even as she did if she was being truthful. “It was for all of you — Destiny‘s entire crew. I haven’t seen Daivyn laughing like this in over two years. And no one’s allowed him to simply run wild and be a little boy again in all that time. So,” she patted him on the forearm again, her eyes misty, and her voice was just the slightest bit unreliable, “thank you all for giving him that. Giving me the chance to see him like that again.” She cleared her throat. “And, if it won’t embarrass an emperor’s officer such as yourself to pass that thanks along to Sir Dunkyn, I’d appreciate it.”

“I’ll try to bear up under the humiliation of passing on your message, Your Highness,” he told her with a slightly crooked smile. “I’m sure it will be hard, but I’ll try.”