Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 13


Year of God 896


Tellesberg Palace,

City of Tellesberg,

Kingdom of Old Charis,

Empire of Charis

“I hope they don’t get hammered too hard crossing The Anvil,” Cayleb Ahrmahk said somberly.

The Charisian Emperor stood looking out across Howell Bay from the tower window with one arm wrapped around his Empress. His right hand rested on the point of her hip, holding her close, and her head nestled against the side of his chest. Her eyes were as dark and somber as his, but she shook her head.

“They’re all experienced captains,” she said, watching the thicket of sails head away from the Tellesberg wharves. There were over sixty merchant galleons in that convoy, escorted by two full squadrons of war galleons and screened by a dozen of the Imperial Charisian Navy’s fleet, well armed schooners, and twenty-five more galleons from Erastor would join it as it passed through the Sea of Charis. It was the third convoy to sail from Tellesberg already — the sixth, overall, counting those which had sailed from Emerald and Tarot, as well — and it was unlikely they were going to be able to assemble yet another in time to be much help. Besides, there simply weren’t enough foodstuffs in storage in Charis, Emerald, or Tarot to fill another convoy’s holds. It was a miracle they’d found as much as they had; counting this convoy, they’d sent well over five hundred galleons, carrying a hundred and forty thousand tons of food and over a quarter million tons of fodder and animal feed. It was, frankly, an almost inconceivable effort for a technology limited to sail power and small, wooden-hulled vessels, but it still hadn’t been enough, for there’d been a limit to how much preserved and fresh food was available. Indeed, prices in the three huge islands had skyrocketed as the Crown and Church poured every mark they could into buying up every scrap of available food and sent it off to starving Siddarmark. The cost had been staggering, but they’d paid it without even wincing, for they had no choice. Not when she, Cayleb, and their allies could actually see the hundreds of thousands of people starving in northern Siddarmark.

“They’re all experienced,” she repeated. “They know what the weather’s like this time of year. And your sailing instructions made it clear they were to assume the worst.”

“There’s a difference between knowing ‘what the weather’s like’ and knowing you’re headed directly into one of the worst gales in the last twenty years.” Cayleb’s voice was as grim as his expression. “I’ll lay you whatever odds you ask that we’re going to lose at least some of those ships, Sharley.”

“I think you may be being overly pessimistic,” a voice said over the transparent plug each of them wore in one ear. “I understand why, but let’s not borrow any guilt until it’s actually time to feel it, Cayleb.”

“I should’ve delayed their sailing. Just three or four days — maybe a full five-day. Just long enough for The Anvil to clear.”

“And explain it how, Cayleb?” Sharleyan asked softly. “We can track weather fronts — do you want to explain to anyone else how we manage that? And without some sort of explanation, how could we justify delaying that food when everyone in the Empire — this side of Chisholm, anyway — knows how desperately it’s needed?”

“For that matter, Cayleb,” Merlin Athrawes said over the com plugs, “it is desperately needed. I hate to say it, but any lives we lose to wind and weather are going to be enormously outweighed by the lives we save from starvation. And” — his deep voice turned gentle — “are the lives of Charisian seamen worth more than the lives of starving Siddarmarkian children? Especially when some of the children in question are Charisians themselves? You may be Emperor, but you’re not God. Do you have the right to order them not to sail? Not to risk their lives? What do you think the crews of those galleons would’ve said if you’d asked them whether they wanted to sail, even if they’d known they were going to encounter the worst storm The Anvil has to offer, knowing how badly the food they’re carrying is needed at the other end? Human beings have faced far worse dangers for far worse reasons.”

“But they didn’t get to choose. They –”

Cayleb cut himself off and waved his left hand in an abrupt chopping gesture. Sharleyan sighed and turned to press her face against his tunic, wrapping both of her own arms around him, and they stood that way for several seconds. Then it was his turn to inhale deeply and turn resolutely away from the window and those slowly shrinking rectangles and pyramids of canvas.

The turn brought him face-to-face with a tall silver-haired man, with a magnificent beard and large, sinewy hands, wearing an orange-trimmed white cassock. The dovetailed ribbon at the back of his priest’s cap was also orange, and a ruby ring of office glittered on his left hand.

“I notice you didn’t have anything to say about my little moodiness,” the emperor told him, and he smiled faintly.

“I’ve known you since you were a boy, Cayleb,” Archbishop Maikel Staynair replied. “Unlike Sharley and Merlin, I learned long ago that the only way to deal with these self-flagellating humors of yours is to wait you out. Eventually even you figure out you’re being harder on yourself than you would’ve been on anyone else and we can get on to more profitable uses of our time.”

“You always have such a compassionate and supportive way of dealing with me in my hour of need, Your Eminence,” Cayleb said sardonically, and Staynair chuckled.

“Would you really prefer for me to get all weepy-eyed instead of kicking you — respectfully, of course — in the arse?”

“It would at least have the virtue of novelty,” Cayleb replied, his tone dry, and the archbishop chuckled again. Then he cocked one eyebrow at the imperial couple and gestured at the small conference table set under one of the skylights set into the tower chamber’s sloping roof.

“I suppose so,” Cayleb sighed, and escorted Sharleyan across to it. He pulled out her chair for her, then waited until Staynair had seated himself before taking his own place.

“It’ll be nice when you get home, Merlin. I can’t throttle you properly when you’re so far away,” he remarked to the empty air as he sat, and it was Merlin’s turn to chuckle.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he promised, “and you can throttle away to your heart’s content. Or try to, anyway. And the trip’s been worth it. We’re never going to get over the hole Mahndrayn’s left, but Captain Rahzwail’s turning out to be pretty impressive himself. Even more impressive than I’d expected, really. In fact, I wouldn’t be too surprised if he turns out to be a candidate for the inner circle in the not too distant.”

“Rushing it a bit, aren’t you?” Cayleb asked quizzically, and Merlin — perched like a cross legged tailor atop one of King’s Harbor Citadel’s crenellations — shrugged.

“I didn’t suggest telling him tomorrow, Cayleb,” he pointed out mildly. “I’m simply saying I think he has the . . . resiliency and flexibility to take it in stride. And given his new post, it would certainly be useful.”

“Not as useful as telling Ahlfryd would be.” Sharleyan’s voice was unwontedly sharp, and Cayleb looked at her. “I understand all the reasons for not telling him,” the empress went on in that same edged tone, “but we’ve told others who even the Brethren agreed were greater risks than he’d ever be, and there’s not a more trustworthy man in the entire Empire!”

“Besides which, he’s your friend,” Staynair said gently. Her head whipped around, anger flickering in her eyes, but Staynair met them with his normal calm, unflurried gaze.

“That has nothing to do with my estimate of how useful it would be to have him fully integrated into the inner circle, Maikel,” she said, her tone flat.

“No, but it has quite a bit to do with how guilty you feel for not having told him.” Staynair gave his head a slight shake. “And how disloyal you feel for not having managed to convince the Brethren to trust him with the information.”

The empress’ eyes bored hotly into his for another handful of seconds before they fell. She looked down at her own slender, shapely hands, so tightly folded on the table before her that their knuckles had whitened, and the archbishop reached out to lay one of his own far larger hands atop them.

“I understand, Sharley,” he told her softly. “But don’t forget, Bryahn was his friend, too, and it was Bryahn who recommended against telling him. And you know why, too, don’t you?”

Sharleyan never looked up, but, after a moment, she nodded ever so slightly, and Staynair smiled sadly at the crown of her head.