Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 17

“Only because he hasn’t heard back from the Raven Lords yet,” Sharleyan replied, and shrugged slightly. “He’s hedging his bets, and you’re right that he’d much rather have a guarantee of free passage from Shairncross and the Council. I think that’s one reason he’d just as soon not start moving towards The Fence until he does hear back from Shairncross, actually. God knows the Raven Lords are a prickly, stubborn bunch, even without the religious aspect of it all! The last thing he’d want would be to look as if he were massing troops on their border to cow them into meeting his demands. Even if the Council agreed to grant him passage, those stiff-necked clansmen would consider it their sacred duty — in more ways than one! — to delay him any way they could if they thought the Council had caved in to threats. And he doesn’t trust Lord Theralt as far as he can spit, either. But he’d be staging through Ahlysberg and its stores magazines no matter what, and I’m sure he’s at least keeping the possibility of taking them all the way from Ahlys Bay to the Republic by sea in the back of his head, if something untoward happens. After all, the thought of marching through Raven’s Land, in the winter, against guerrilla opposition would be enough to give anyone pause! But in the end, he’ll do it anyway, if it comes down to it.”

Cayleb couldn’t quite expunge the doubt from his expression, but Sharleyan only looked back at him with a small, crooked smile.

“There’s not a man alive whose loyalty and judgment I trust more than Ruhsyl Thairis’. It’s obvious he understands how important it is to get troops into Siddarmark as quickly as possible, and knows you and I will never leave his troops hanging at the end of an unsupported supply route. He won’t worry about whether or not we’ll approve or disapprove; he’ll only worry about whether or not it really is the fastest way to get his men where they have to be.”

Cayleb gazed at her for a moment longer, then nodded in acceptance and agreement.

“That still leaves what’s going to be going on in the western Republic before he can possibly get there, though,” he pointed out after a moment.

“All we can do is all we can do,” Merlin said, his tone more composed than he actually felt. “Paitryk Hywyt’s going to land over five thousand Marines in Siddar City next five-day, and Domynyk’s combing out every additional Marine he can find.” He grimaced. “Admittedly, there aren’t as many of them as there were before we transferred so many to the Army after the Corisande campaign, but if he drafts them from every galleon in Home Fleet and scours Helen Island down to the bedrock, he can probably turn up another six thousand or so. And he’s prepared to draft seamen, as well.”

It was Cayleb’s turn to grimace, and Merlin chuckled.

“All right, I’ll admit they’re going to be out of their natural element. But you may have noticed it’s a bit hard to find a coward amongst them even when you need one, and I’ll take our seamen over most people’s trained soldiers any day. Even if we can’t stop Rahnyld dead, I expect we’ll be able to slow him down. And with a little luck, his troops are going to react . . . poorly, shall we say, the first time they meet shrapnel shells.”

“And at least most of the Marines will have Mahndrayns,” Cayleb agreed, his grimace segueing into a thin smile, edged with sad memory, as he used the term. The decision to name the Charisian Empire’s new breech-loading rifles after Urvyn Mahndrayn, the brilliant, murdered naval officer who’d come up with the design, had made itself without anyone quite knowing how. It was as fitting as it was inevitable, though, and even though the new rifles weren’t available in the numbers anyone would really have preferred, they were going to come as a nasty surprise to the Group of Four and their allies.

At the moment, however, the Imperial Charisian Marines actually had more of them than the Army. Virtually all of the conversions had been made here in Charis, in the newly completed Urvyn Mahndrayn Armory Ehdwyrd Howsmyn had constructed at the Delthak Works, his massive foundry complex on the shore of Lake Ithmyn, where the tooling existed and security could be maintained. The Army troops who — hopefully — would soon be marching through Raven’s Land, would be equipped almost exclusively with the old-style muzzleloaders, whereas the Marines (the majority of whom were based either in Old Charis, Tarot, or Emerald) had been close enough to Howsmyn’s facility to be reequipped with Mahndrayns as they left the workshop floor. There were several thousand more of them already crated for shipment, as well, however and Howsmyn’s workers were laboring with fiercely focused energy to convert still more of them. More thousands were leaving the workshop floors as new-build weapons, although that was slower than conversion of existing stocks. Hopefully, by the time Eastshare’s column could reach Iron Cape, enough of the new rifles would have been completed to be shipped to him and exchanged for his muzzleloaders, which could then be returned to Charis and converted in turn.

Or, more probably, simply handed over to the Siddarmarkian Army, whose troopers wouldn’t give a damn that they were “old fashioned.” Any rifle was one hell of a lot better than no rifle, and that was what the vast majority of the Republic’s troops had at the moment. And the sudden appearance of forty or fifty thousand Siddarmarkian riflemen would come as a nasty and unwelcome surprise to Zhasphar Clyntahn.

“I really don’t like doing all our logistic reorganization on the fly this way,” Cayleb’s unhappy tone spoke for all of them. “There’s too much chance we’re going to drop a stitch somewhere, even with Kynt tied into the com net. Simply running into more bad weather could throw everything out of gear at exactly the wrong moment.”

“That’s been true of everything we’ve done so far, love,” Sharleyan pointed out.

“Not to this extent,” Cayleb replied with an off-center grin. “I realize I have a reputation for impetuosity, but I actually have tried to make sure I had — What was that expression of yours, Merlin? ‘All my pigs and chickens in a row,’ was it? — before I leapt headlong into yet another reckless adventure.”

“I used the phrase once, Cayleb,” Merlin said with a certain asperity. “One time. It just slipped out that single time, and I’ve never used it again.”

“You can’t fool me, Merlin. It’s not just ‘a phrase’ at all, is it? Not really. It’s a cliché — that’s what it is. One that no one on Safehold ever heard of until you resurrected it out of the ash heap of history, where any decent soul would’ve left it.”

I’m not the one using it; you are!” Merlin shot back while Staynair and Sharleyan looked at each other in amusement.

“But only because you inserted that accursed string of words into my innocent and untrammeled brain. It’s like . . . like one of those childhood songs you can’t get out of your mind. Like that stupid jingle you taught me back in the carefree days of my bachelorhood, the one about bottles of beer on the wall. I’m doomed — doomed, I tell you! Within five-days, a month at the outside, that same fatal phrase will slip out of my mouth in a formal audience, and everyone will think I coined it. Every hanger-on, every flatterer and sycophant, will start using it when he thinks I’ll hear about it. Before you know it, it’ll creep into common usage throughout the entire Empire, and future historians will blame it on me, Merlin — not you, where the guilt truly belongs — when it’s wormed its way inextricably into the very sinews of our language.” The emperor shook his head sadly. “To think that I’ll be remembered for that rather than for my prowess in battle.”

“Given the penalties for regicide, I feel very fortunate to be here on the island instead of there in Tellesberg at this moment,” Merlin said meditatively, and Cayleb laughed. Then the emperor’s expression sobered once more.

“Even if it does sound incredibly silly, the concept’s still valid,” he said. “And I’d feel a lot better if our chickens really were neatly in line behind our pigs before we started on all this.”

“We all would, Cayleb,” Staynair said serenely. “On the other hand, Sharley does have a point. This isn’t going to be any more of a scramble than the Armageddon Reef campaign was, and you’re in a much stronger relative position than you were then. Not to mention having acquired quite a lot of well-trained subordinates since then, all of whom know exactly what you and Sharley are going to expect them to do. It’s not given to mortal men and women to simply command success with the wave of a hand or a magic wand, and it’s always possible we simply aren’t going to be able to get enough troops into Siddarmark quickly enough to stem the tide. But if we don’t, it won’t be because we didn’t try, and that’s what God expects of us.” The archbishop smiled slightly. “He’s done pretty well by us so far, and I don’t see any reason to expect Him to do any differently now.”

“Neither do I, Maikel,” Merlin said from Helen Island. “You do remember that other cliché, though, don’t you? The one about God helping those who help themselves?”

“Indeed I do.”

“Then in that case, I think Cayleb and Sharleyan and I would like you to do the heavy lifting with God while we see about doing as much of that more mundane helping as we can.”

“I think that’s an entirely equitable division of labor, Merlin,” Staynair said with another, broader smile. “In fact, I’ve already started.”