Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 25


Tellesberg Palace,

City of Tellesberg,

Kingdom of Old Charis,

Empire of Charis

Sharleyan Ahrmahk stood beside her husband in the bright sunlight. A warm breeze danced and curtsied around the terrace, rustling and chattering in the broad-bladed palmettos, spike-thorn, and tropical flowers which surrounded it. A pair of spider monkeys chased one another through the sword-like canopy of nearpalms high overhead, scolding and screeching at one another, their voices clear but distant through the wind’s voice. Closer at hand, a brilliantly colored parrot sat on one limb of the ornamental sugar apple tree in the tree well at the center of the terrace, ignoring the human intrusion into its domain, hooked beak burrowing as it preened, and the same breeze brought them the whistles and songs of more distant wyverns and birds.

Crown Princess Alahnah lay in the hammock-like canvas cradle, embroidered with her house’s coat of arms, which had been a gift from the crew of HMS Dawn Star the year before. The stitchery of the ship’s sailmaker and his mates would have done any professional seamstress proud, and their gift had touched Sharleyan to the heart as the entire crew manned the yards with huge, beaming grins and watched Captain Kahbryllo present it to her on the infant princess’ behalf. An empress had countless finer cradles for her child, many of them exquisite treasures of the woodworker’s art, but not one of them meant as much to her as that simple length of canvas. Alahnah was too young to worry about things like that, but she, too, had loved that cradle from the very first day the ship’s motion had lulled her to sleep in it, and they’d made it with plenty of room for growth. It fitted her just fine at fourteen months, and now she lay making happy, sleepy sounds while Hairyet Saltair, one of her nannies, substituted for the ship’s motion and kept it gently moving.

A single blue-eyed armsman — a major of the Imperial Guard — stood at the feet of the shallow steps leading up to the terrace from the garden proper. Another, more grizzled armsman, this one a sergeant, stood beside the princess’ cradle, but somehow their armed presence only emphasized the peacefulness of the moment. Because, perhaps, of the only other person on that terrace — a white-haired man in an orange-trimmed cassock who seemed to carry peacefulness around with him like a personal possession.

“I guarantee you plenty of people will insist — after the fact, of course, and only when they can pretend they think we can’t overhear them — that we ought to’ve done this in the throne room,” Cayleb said now, one arm around Sharleyan’s waist while he kept his eyes on the path winding its way between the banks of landscaped greenery. “And they’re going to come up with all kinds of ‘reasons of state’ we ought to’ve done it, too. You know they will.”

“Of course they will,” Sharleyan replied. “On the other hand, most of those ‘reasons’ are going to be — what was that delightful phrase of Zhan’s yesterday? ‘Kraken-shit,’ I believe? — manufactured by people whose real objection is that their own highly aristocratic selves weren’t present. We really shouldn’t encourage him to use language like that, I suppose, but the description does fit, doesn’t it?”

“I know that. And you know that. Hell, they know that! Not going to shut them up, though. In fact, it’s only going to make it worse than if they’d had some substantive complaint!”

“Now, now,” Maikel Staynair soothed. “I’m sure you’re worrying unduly. And even if you’re not, I’m confident we’ll manage to weather the tempest of their disappointment. If it will make you feel better, I’ll even admonish them for it from the pulpit next Wednesday.”

“Oh, I’m sure that will make it all better!” Cayleb rolled his eyes. “I think we’d make out better dropping hints about headsmen, actually.”

“Such bloody-handed tyranny is not the best way to endear yourselves to your subjects, Your Majesty,” Staynair pointed out.

“Who said I wanted to endear myself to them? I’ll settle for shutting them up!”

Staynair chuckled, and Cayleb practiced a theatrical scowl on him.

“Don’t encourage him, Maikel,” Sharleyan said severely.

“Me? Encourage him?” Staynair eyed her reproachfully. “Nonsense!”

“No, it isn’t.” Sharleyan smacked him on a still-muscular shoulder. “You enjoy it as much as he does. Which, you might note, is my diplomatic way of saying you’re just as bad as he is.”

“He is not just as bad as I am,” Cayleb said with immense dignity. “How can you, of all people, say such a thing? I’m far worse than he is, and I work harder at it, too.”

It was Sharleyan’s turn to roll her eyes, but they were interrupted before she could respond properly.

“Seijin Merlin!

The voice came around the bend in the path before the boy who owned it did, but not by much. The youngster hurled himself around the turn, running hard, and left the ground several feet in front of the blue-eyed armsman. He launched himself with the fearless, absolute assurance that he would be caught, and the armsman laughed as he snatched the small, wiry body out of midair.

“I’m glad to see you, too, Your Highness,” he replied in a deep voice. “It would appear your voyage hasn’t imbued you with enhanced dignity, though, I see.”

“I think that’s your way of saying I’m not behaving.” The youngster braced his hands on the armsman’s shoulders so he could lean back against Merlin Athrawes’ mailed, supporting arms and look into those sapphire eyes. “And, if it is, I don’t care.” He elevated his nose and sniffed. “Lady Mairah says I’m perfectly well behaved compared to her stepsons, and I’m a prince. So I get to choose to do what I want sometimes.”

“Somehow I don’t think that’s exactly what Lady Hanth said, Your Highness,” Merlin replied, shifting Prince Daivyn to sit on his left forearm as the rest of the prince’s party followed him more sedately around the bend.

“Allowing for a certain liberality of interpretation, it’s not all that far off, Seijin Merlin,” Lady Hanth herself said. “I do think it wouldn’t hurt His Highness’ dignity for you to go ahead and set him back down, though.”

“As you wish, My Lady.” Merlin smiled, half-bowed to her, and set the boy on his feet. Daivyn grinned up at him, and the armsman ruffled his hair with an answering smile, then looked up at Princess Irys and the Earl of Coris.

“I see you made it safe and sound after all, Your Highness,” he greeted Irys.

“As did you, Major Athrawes.” She smiled almost as warmly as Daivyn as she took note of his new rank. “I’ll admit now that I was less confident than I could have wished that we’d see you again. But now that we do, thank you.” She laid a hand on his forearm, her expression turning very serious. “Thank you very much. For my life, and for his.”

She laid her other hand on Daivyn’s shoulder, and Merlin gazed into her hazel eyes for a moment, then bowed again, more deeply.

“It was my honor to have been of service,” he said softly. “And seeing the two of you here — and observing that someone” — he glanced down at Daivyn’s tanned face — “seems to’ve grown at least three inches — is all the reward I could ask.”

“At the moment, it’s also all the reward we can give you,” Irys said. “In time, I hope that will change.”

“That won’t be necessary, Your Highness.”

“I know.” Irys smiled, recognizing the sincerity in his voice and, even more importantly, in his eyes as he gazed down at Daivyn’s beaming expression. “But it’s important to me — and to Daivyn — that we show the rest of the world we recognize our debt.”

Merlin merely bowed again, then turned towards the terrace, and Irys followed the turn gracefully.

She found herself at last face-to-face with what were arguably the most powerful monarchs in the world, even if they seemed remarkably unaware of it at the moment.

They were both several years older than she was, although they still struck her as absurdly young to have accomplished as much — and acquired as many enemies — as they had. Cayleb Ahrmahk was taller than she’d expected, and a bit broader of shoulder, although still shorter than Merlin Athrawes, and the emerald-set golden chain which marked a king of Charis winked green and golden glory on his chest. The crown of Sharleyan Ahrmahk’s head barely topped his shoulder, and her slender, not quite petite figure showed no sign she’d ever borne a child. The silken hair confined by the simple golden circlet of her light presence crown was so black the sunlight seemed to strike green highlights from it, her eyes were as brown as Cayleb’s, and her strong, determined nose was ever so slightly hooked. There was very little of classic beauty about her, but she didn’t need it, Irys thought — not with the character and intelligence sparkling in those eyes as they rested in turn upon Irys and her brother.

They gazed at one another for several seconds, and then Irys drew a deep breath, squeezed Daivyn’s shoulder gently with the hand still resting on it. He turned and accompanied her obediently as she walked steadily towards the terrace. The boy’s eyes darkened and she felt his shoulder tighten under her fingers, but her own expression was composed, almost serene, and only someone who knew her well could have recognized the tension swirling in her hazel eyes. Phylyp Ahzgood, Earl of Coris, followed the two of them, half a step back and to her Irys’ left, his expression as serene as her own, and Cayleb and Sharleyan watched them come.

They reached the terrace and climbed the steps, and Coris and a suddenly very sober-faced Daivyn bowed deeply while Irys curtsied. Then all three Corisandians straightened and stood gazing at the Emperor and Empress of Charis.