Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 12



Kingdom of Chisholm,

Charisian Empire

“Thank you for coming so promptly, Kynt,” Ruhsyl Thairis, the Duke of Eastshare and commander of the Imperial Charisian Army, said as his aide withdrew.

“Your message indicated it was important, Your Grace,” General Sir Kynt Clareyk, the Baron of Green Valley, replied. He grimaced down at the snow melting on his boots, then looked back up at his superior. “Under the circumstances, even a Charisian boy’s going to hustle out into the snow when he hears that.”

“So I see.” Eastshare smiled and pointed at one of the chairs in front of his desk.

Green Valley nodded his thanks and settled into the chair, watching Eastshare’s face intently. The duke’s expression seldom gave away much, and at the moment, Green Valley’s gave away even less. It would never do for Eastshare to realize the baron already knew exactly why he’d been summoned.

A cast-iron stove from Ehdwyrd Howsmyn’s foundries radiated welcome heat from a corner of the office — a heat that felt more welcome still as he rattling sleet battered its windows. It was going to turn to snow before much longer, Green Valley thought, but not before the sleet inserted a nasty sheet of ice between the layers of snow and made Maikelberg’s sidewalks and pavements even more interesting to walk upon. He’d decided he really, really disliked Chisholmian winters, and the fact that he was one of the handful of people who knew the truth about Merlin Athrawes and an artificial intelligence named Owl meant he got to watch far more detailed weather forecasts than anyone else in Maikelberg.

Which is how I know it’s going to be another howling blizzard by Thursday

, he thought glumly. Although, to be honest, the snowfall and high winds which would soon pummel Maikelberg would scarcely count as a “blizzard” someplace like Glacierheart or Hildermoss. It would be more than severe enough for him, however, and the nature of the weather currently battering Safehold’s northern hemisphere was going to have quite a bearing on the reason Eastshare had sent for him.

“I’ve received a dispatch,” Eastshare said abruptly. “One I have to take seriously, if it’s really from the man it claims to be from. And” — he grimaced — “it does have all the right code words and phrases. It’s just . . . hard to believe it could be accurate.”

“I beg your pardon?” Green Valley sat straighter, cocking his head, and Eastshare snorted.

“If it said anything but what it does, I’m sure I would’ve accepted it without turning a hair. But we haven’t heard a word about this from Their Majesties, and if it’s accurate, the entire strategic situation’s just changed out of all recognition.”

“I hope you’ll forgive me for saying this, Your Grace, but you’re making me nervous.”

Green Valley’s tone was just a bit tarter than most of Eastshare’s officers would have adopted, but Green Valley wasn’t just any officer. He was one of Cayleb and Sharleyan Ahrmahk’s trusted troubleshooters, not to mention the man who’d first worked out practical tactics for rifles and modern field artillery, and one of the very few Charisian ex-Marines who’d turned out to have far more to teach the Chisholmian Army than he had to learn from it. Over the last couple of years, he’d also become one of Eastshare’s favored sounding boards, and the two men had developed a personal friendship to go with their professional relationship.

“Sorry,” Eastshare said now. “It’s just that the courier who carried it for the last third of its trip was half dead when he got here, and even he couldn’t vouch for its accuracy. According to the dispatch, though, Clyntahn’s finally run completely mad.”

“With all respect, Your Grace, he did that quite some time ago.” Green Valley’s voice was suddenly harsh, and Eastshare nodded.

“Agreed, but this time he’s done something I wouldn’t’ve believed even he was stupid enough to do. He’s instigated an open revolt against Lord Protector Greyghor and tried to overthrow the entire Republic.”

“He’s what?!” Green Valley was rather proud of the genuine note of astonishment he managed to put into the question, and he stared at the duke in obvious consternation.

“That’s what the dispatch says.” Eastshare shrugged. “Bad enough to infuriate a kingdom half the world away like Charis, but this time they’ve pissed off a nation right across the Border States from the Temple Lands — and with the biggest, best disciplined army on the mainland, too boot! If Stohnar makes it through the winter . . . .”

“You do have a way with words,” Green Valley said as Eastshare let his voice trail off. “Does your dispatch indicate Stohnar’s likely to survive the winter?”

“It doesn’t offer an opinion either way.” Eastshare grimaced. “It only tells us what the man who sent it knew when he sent it off, although I have to admit he seems to’ve been fiendishly well informed. Assuming, of course, he’s telling us only things he knows to be true and not relying on rumor and hearsay. It doesn’t read like it’s from someone who’d do that, though, and it’s signed by someone named Ahbraim Zhevons. His name’s on the list of completely reliable agents, too, verified by Prince Nahrmahn, Baron Wave Thunder, and Sir Ahlber. And it does have the right code phrases to go with the name, so I have to take it seriously. But if he’s right, everything you and I have been talking about in terms of the Army for the next year just got stood on its head.”

“It certainly sounds that way so far,” Green Valley said slowly, sitting back in his chair once more.

Unlike Duke Eastshare, he knew exactly how that message had gotten here. Although he was a bit surprised it had arrived this quickly, given the state of the icy roads (if the term “road” could be applied to narrow, rocky tracks through dense forest and heavy woods) over which it had traveled. Merlin Athrawes, in his Zhevons personna, had personally launched it from Iron Cape, the westernmost headland of Raven’s Land, across the Passage of Storms from the Republic’s Rollings Province. An overland message could reach Chisholm much more quickly than the same word could come from Charis by sea, despite the atrocious winter going and the collapse of the Church’s semaphore chain across Raven’s Land since the beginning of the Jihad.

And, of course, the word would’ve had to officially

reach Charis before anyone could send a dispatch boat to Cherayth, he thought.

“Obviously, the message is several five-days old,” Eastshare continued, “but whoever this Zhevons is, he obviously knew the sorts of information we’d need. And there’s a note that he’s sending a copy of the same dispatch to Tellesberg, as well.”

“Did he say exactly why he sent it to you, Your Grace?”

“Not in so many words, but I think it’s pretty evident he thinks we’re going to be shifting our priorities in light of the new situation, and if he does, he’s damned well right. That’s why I wanted you in here this afternoon. You’re going to be point man on a lot of the planning, and you need to be brought into the loop as quickly as possible.”

“I appreciate that . . . I think, Your Grace,” Green Valley said wryly.

“You’ll get your own copy of the entire dispatch as soon as my clerks have finished copying it out for you.” Eastshare tipped back in his own chair, laying his forearms along the armrests. “For now, let me just hit the highlights. Then I want you to sit down with your own staff and start making a list of what we could send into Siddarmark if the Lord Protector requests assistance.”

“This Zhevons thinks he’s likely to go that far?” Green Valley raised both eyebrows, and Eastshare shrugged.

“I don’t think he’s going to have much choice, if this is accurate. It sounds as if Clyntahn did his level best to plant a dagger squarely in Stohnar’s back, and he damned near succeeded. I don’t know where else Stohnar and the Republic can look for an ally willing to stand up beside them against Mother Church and the Inquisition. Do you?”

“Not when you put it that way,” Green Valley admitted.

“Well, in that case I think we need to take it as a given that if he does manage to survive the winter, he’s going to want as much help as he can possibly get as early in the year as we can get it to him. From Zhevons’ note, he’s probably going to be more concerned with food shipments than troops for the next couple of months, but he’s got all that border with the Border States. And with Desnair and Dohlar, now that I think about it. By late spring — early summer, at the latest — his western provinces are going to be swarming with troops from the Temple Lands, from the Border States, from Desnair. Shan-wei! By late summer, he’ll probably have Harchongian troops closing in for a piece of him! I’d say the odds are against him pretty heavily at the moment, but if he can hang on, and if we can figure out a way to get worthwhile numbers of our own troops into the Republic, we’ve got at least a fighting chance of carving out the foothold we needed on the mainland. If Stohnar goes down, it’s going to be a disaster for any hope that anyone else on the mainland is going to be willing to defy Clyntahn. But if he doesn’t go down, if he manages to survive, we just may have found the ally we needed to go after the Group of Four on their own ground.”

There was nothing wrong with Eastshare’s strategic instincts, Green Valley thought. The duke couldn’t have had “Zhevons'” dispatch for more than an hour or two, but he’d already cut directly to the heart of the matter. And he was clearly prepared to begin planning for active intervention in the Republic even without any instructions from Cayleb or Sharleyan. That was exactly the initiative Cayleb and Merlin had hoped for when they’d sent the message, and Green Valley felt a glow of pride in his superior as he watched Eastshare responding to the challenge.

“All right,” the duke said, “according to Zhevons, the whole thing must’ve started months ago in Zion. Apparently, what Clyntahn did was to –”