Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 18



Destiny, 54,

The Throat,

Kingdom of Old Charis,

Charisian Empire

“Well, this would’ve been a nasty business, even if we’d won at Darcos Sound,” Phylyp Ahzgood, Earl of Coris, said.

The earl stood sat on the breech ring of Destiny‘s number three quarterdeck carronade as he gazed across the sunlit, blue and green water of The Throat, the long, narrow strait which connected Howell Bay to the Charisian Sea, at the tall walls and imposing battlements of the centuries-old fortress which guarded the island Charisians had named simply “the Lock.” That island sat almost directly in the center of The Throat, and it was flanked by even larger fortresses on either shore of the strait, overlooking the ship channels which passed on opposite sides of Lock Island.

Those channels were too broad to be entirely covered by the fortresses’ guns, but the Charisians had dealt with that. Floating batteries — little more than enormous barges with five-foot thick bulwarks . . . and two complete gun decks each — had been anchored to sweep the narrowest portions of the channels. Coris was pretty sure the batteries he was looking at were replacements for the ones whose construction King Haarahld rushed through to cover The Throat prior to the Battle of Darcos Sound. These actually had recognizable prows, rudders, bowsprits, and stumpy masts, indicating they were designed to move (clumsily, perhaps, but move) under their own power rather than simply being towed into position. And each of them mounted at least forty guns — very heavy guns — in each broadside. Some showed as many as fifty, giving them twice the firepower of any galleon ever built, even by the Charisian Navy. The possibility of any conceivable fleet forcing the Throat against that sort of firepower simply didn’t exist.

“You might‘ve gotten through against the original batteries, My Lord.” Lieutenant Aplyn-Ahrmahk stood on the other side of the carronade, his arms crossed, his hat lowered on his forehead to shield his eyes against the sunlight, and his expression was somber. “They weren’t this powerful,” he continued, confirming Coris’ own thoughts, “and they were armed completely with carronades, not krakens. But, yes, it would’ve been a ‘nasty business,’ My Lord. Almost as nasty as Darcos Sound.”

Coris looked quickly at the younger man.

“I didn’t mean to bring up unpleasant memories, Your Grace.”

“Not your fault, My Lord.” Aplyn-Ahrmahk smiled briefly. “And there are a lot of good ones to go with them. He was a man, King Haarahld. A good man, and a good king, and I was luckier than I ever deserved to have known him.”

“It may be hard for a Charisian to believe,” Coris said, “but a lot of Corisandians would’ve said the same thing about Prince Hektor.” He shook his head. “He had his faults — enormous ones, in fact — but I’m sure even King Haarahld had at least some faults, and Hektor’s subjects by and large thought well of him. Very well, in fact. And he was my friend, as well as my prince.”

“I know that, My Lord.” Aplyn-Ahrmahk looked back across at Lock Island and grimaced. “And it’s not hard for a Charisian — this Charisian, at least — to realize different men are different people to different people. For the most part, though, you’d be hard put to find a Charisian who didn’t take a certain satisfaction in Prince Hektor’s death.” He shrugged, never looking away from the island as Destiny sailed slowly past it. “When everyone thought the Emperor had ordered his assassination, the main reaction was that it was a fitting punishment. And feelings ran even higher than that in Chisholm. In fact,” the lieutenant smiled a crooked smile, “I think the Empress Mother is still a bit disappointed that Cayleb wasn’t the one who had him assassinated.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised.” Coris watched the young duke’s profile. “For that matter, I’d probably feel the same in their position. But attitudes — even or perhaps especially emotional attitudes — can influence thinking in ways the people doing the thinking never realize they have.”

“Oh, I know” Aplyn-Ahrmahk snorted. “I suppose the trick’s to get past it, and I’d think reminding yourself it can happen even to you would have to be the first step. It’s hard though, sometimes.”

His eyes strayed from Lock Island to where Princess Irys and Prince Daivyn stood in the shade of the canvas awning stretched across the quarterdeck, watching the same island.

“Yes, it is,” Coris agreed, following the lieutenant’s gaze. “And it was especially hard for Irys. She loved her father a great deal, and he was her father first and her prince second. I think she’d probably be one of the first to admit she shared his ambitions, at least at secondhand, but that was because they were his ambitions, not because they were hers.”

“No?” Aplyn-Ahrmahk turned to look directly at Coris.

“He was her father, Your Grace.” Coris smiled sadly. “It’s hard for anyone to admit the father they love isn’t perfect or that anyone could legitimately see him as a villain. I think that’s even harder for a daughter than it is for a son, sometimes. But you may’ve noticed my princess has a very, very sharp brain, and she never willingly lies to herself. She still loves him, and she always will, but that doesn’t mean her eyes haven’t been opened to the reasons other people might not have loved him. And she’s a princess, the only sister of the rightful Prince of Corisande. She knows how politics and diplomacy work . . . and however little she may like to admit it even to herself, she knows who actually started the war between Corisande and Charis.”

“I’ve never discussed any of that with her.” It was Aplyn-Ahrmahk’s turn to smile ever so slightly. “Mostly because I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t agree.”

“She might surprise you.” The earl shrugged. “She and I have discussed it, which gives me a bit of an unfair advantage when it comes to predicting how she’d react. The fact that I’ve known her since she was born is an even bigger one, of course, but she’s changed a lot over the last few years. A lot.”

His eyes darkened as he repeated the last two words softly, and he, too, turned his head to gaze at the princess standing beside her tallish, golden-haired companion. Irys was smiling at something the other woman had said, and Daivyn was tugging impatiently at his sister’s sleeve while he pointed to something on the island.

“There’s been a lot of that going around, My Lord,” Aplyn-Ahrmahk replied. “And I imagine it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.”

“Just because part of it’s getting worse doesn’t mean other parts can’t start getting better,” Coris pointed out. “That’s what I’ve been telling Irys, and I think she’s actually beginning to believe it.”

“I hope so,” Aplyn-Ahrmahk said quietly. “She and Daivyn have lost enough already. I don’t want to see them lose any more.”

Coris nodded slowly. He never looked away from his prince and princess, but he heard the lieutenant’s tone, and he treasured it. Of course, duke or no duke, Aplyn-Ahrmahk wasn’t even seventeen yet, hardly a gray-bearded and astute political advisor to his emperor. But he was a very mature sixteen-year-old, one who’d seen and done things that would have terrified a man three times his age. And however common his birth might have been, he was the adopted son of the Emperor and Empress of Charis. Although, Coris thought, there were times — many of them — when the youngster seemed unaware of all the implications of that relationship.