Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 14

Sir Ahlfryd Hyndryk, Baron Seamount, was quite possibly the most brilliant Charisian naval officer of his generation, and he’d become one of Sharleyan’s favorite people during her original visit to Charis. In fact, virtually every one in the slowly growing circle of Charisians who knew the truth about the Terran Federation and the monumental lie which underlay the entire Church of God Awaiting knew him and held him in deep affection, although he was closer to Sharleyan than to anyone except, perhaps, Staynair’s brother, Domynyk. No member of the inner circle questioned his loyalty or his intelligence. But Bryahn Lock Island had been right to fear his integrity . . . and his outrage.

In another time and another place, Ahlfryd Hyndryk would have been called a geek, and he had all of that breed’s impatience with subterfuge and dissimulation. Sheer love of knowledge and impatience to rebuild the technology the Proscriptions of Jwo-jeng had denied to Safehold so long would have been bad enough, driving him to press the limits of what was being introduced, perhaps too hard and too fast. But his wrath at the way the entire population of the last surviving world of humanity had been lied to, been robbed of the stars themselves, would have been even worse. Lock Island had feared that the combination of impatience and fury — and the awareness of how desperately Charis needed every advantage it could find — would have pushed their brilliant, adaptive problem solver into too openly challenging the Proscriptions, defying the doctrine of the Church of God Awaiting, even denouncing the Church itself as the monstrous lie it was. And if that happened in the midst of the Charisian Empire’s war against the Group of Four . . . .

Merlin gazed out over the blue water of King’s Harbor, at the swarm of ships covering the surface, the hive of activity, so much of which had resulted directly from Seamount’s fertile imagination and compulsive energy, and his sapphire eyes were cold. They dared not risk revealing the truth about the Archangels, the Church, Langhorne’s Rakurai and Armageddon Reef. Not yet. Not when such revelations would play directly into the Group of Four’s denunciation of them all as lying, blasphemous servants of corruption. And so, if it had turned out Seamount was a threat to the secret they all guarded, that threat would have to be removed . . . permanently.

“I swear to you, Sharleyan,” he said now over the com, softly, “the instant I’m certain it would be safe to tell him, I will.” He smiled crookedly. “It won’t be the first time I’ve, ah, overridden the Brethren, if you’ll recall. And if I do it and it turns out I was wrong about the safety factor, I’ll drag him off to Nimue’s Cave and pop him into one of the cryo units until it is safe to turn him loose again.” He watched through the SNARC remote perched on the ceiling above the conference table as the empress looked up with a sudden, astounded smile, and he chuckled softly. “I don’t have room for many people,” he told her, “but Ahlfryd’s one of the special ones. If we end up telling him and it turns out we shouldn’t have, he deserves space in the cave. Besides, that way we’ll know he’s still going to be around when we’re able to begin rebuilding our tech base openly!

“I hadn’t thought of that.” Cayleb sounded more than a bit chagrined.

“Well, you didn’t exactly grow up with technology, now did you?” Merlin shrugged. “On the other hand, I’d really hate to do that, because he’s so damned useful where he is. You do realize he’s come up with more original departures, even without access to Owl, than Ehdwyrd?”

“Fair’s fair, Merlin,” Staynair pointed out. “Ehdwyrd’s deliberately picking his spots carefully — and giving someone else credit for them whenever he can.”

“Oh, I know that, Maikel. I’m just saying Ahlfryd’s a mighty impressive fellow to’ve come up with so many ideas, and inspired so many of his assistants — like Mahndrayn — to come up with ideas of their own. He’s taken even the ones I’ve ‘steered’ him into and run with them, generally to places I didn’t expect him to get to without at least another few nudges. The truth is, Bryahn was right about that, too. He’s doing exactly what we need done even without Owl, and he’s teaching an entire generation of Navy officers and the civilians working with them to use their brains, push the envelope, and explore the possibilities.”

“So now that we’ve all made me feel better,” Sharleyan said in a tart tone much closer to normal, “perhaps we should go ahead and deal with the original agenda for our little get together?”

“As always, your wish is our command, love.” Cayleb smiled at her across the table, and she kicked him gently in the knee under it.

“Such a brutal, physically abusive sort,” he mourned, and she stuck out her tongue.

“However,” he continued more briskly, “you have a point. Especially since the rest of you have also made me feel better — sort of, anyway — about sailing the convoy despite the weather. So, Maikel. Your impressions?”

“I think . . . I think Stohnar is going to make it through the winter,” Staynair said slowly, his expression far more somber. “For several five-days I was afraid he wasn’t, especially when the Temple Loyalists in Mountaincross tried to push through the Sylmahn Gap.” He shook his head. “It didn’t seem possible he could stop them.”

“He wouldn’t have without ‘Aivah.'” Merlin’s own expression was as grim as his voice. “Those extra rifles — and the men trained to use them — are what made the difference. That and the food we were able to ship in.”

“The food he didn’t know was coming,” Sharleyan said softly. “I think he’s aged ten years since this started.”

“Probably,” Merlin acknowledged. “And I think he’s going to be a long time forgiving himself for some of the calls he’s made, but thank God for that military background of his. Without it, he wouldn’t‘ve made them, and in that case, Maikel’s right — the Temple Loyalists would’ve come through the Gap into Old Province.”

Heads nodded around the table. Greyghor Stohnar had recognized the absolute necessity of keeping his enemies locked up behind the Moon Thorn and Snow Barren Mountains at any cost. If the Group of Four’s adherents had broken out of Mountaincross Province, they would have opened a direct invasion pathway from the Temple Lands into the most densely populated province of the entire Republic . . . and to its capital. He’d had to hold that mountain barrier, and so he had . . . even at the expense of sending desperately needed food from the starving families of Siddar City to the troops fighting in the snow and freezing cold of the Sylmahn Gap.

Eastern Siddarmark was far more densely populated than its western provinces, and the southeastern provinces were even more heavily populated than the more northern ones, thank God. Still, there were well over seventy million people in the portion of the Republic which remained under his control, and the timing of Clyntahn’s uprising — and its deliberate attacks on food supplies and the transport system — had been catastrophic. Westmark, Tarikah, New Northland, northern Hildermoss, western Mountaincross, and the South March were major centers of the Republic’s agricultural production, and all of them had been taken by the rebels or were (at best) disputed battlefields where no one was worrying much about farming. Crop-burning rebels had done major damage to the harvests in Southguard, Trokhanos, Cliffpeak, and Northland, as well, before they’d been subdued in those provinces. The lord protector had lost over a third of the Republic’s best cropland and twenty-five or thirty percent of its normal winter food supply, and the disruption of the revolt had sent enormous numbers of refugees streaming into areas which wouldn’t have been able to feed even themselves adequately. Starvation and disease — disease brought on by the breakdown of sanitation in the refugee camps, despite the Book of Pasquale‘s stern injunctions, and the weakened resistance of human beings getting perhaps half the calories they actually needed — had stalked the Republic like demons, and that was the background against which he’d had to choose whether or not to reinforce and supply the field army driving into eastern Mountaincross, slogging ahead through snow and ice to reach the outnumbered, starving troops somehow clinging to the crucial mountain gap.

It was a decision he’d had to make long before any response to his frantic pleas for help could possibly come back from Tellesberg. He’d had no idea how soon — or even if — the first relief convoy from Charis could reach him, yet he’d made it anyway, sending every man he could spare, and the precious food to feed them, under his own first cousin’s command And Sharleyan was right: it had aged him overnight. It had engraved deep lines into his face, streaked his dark hair with thick swathes of iron gray, and turned his cheek bones hard and gaunt. Not by itself, but in conjunction with all the other decisions he’d had to make and the knowledge of what was happening to the Republic’s citizens where he couldn’t reach them at all, couldn’t do one single thing about the privation and terror being visited upon them.