Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 31


Shairncross House,


Ramsgate Bay,

Raven’s Land.


Weslai Parkair glowered out the window at the gray sky. He regarded the handful of soggy snowflakes oozing down it towards the equally gray steel of Ramsgate Bay through the chill, damp stillness of a thoroughly dreary morning with glum disapproval, not to say loathing.

Not that it did any good.

The reflection did not improve his sour mood, although the weather was scarcely the only reason for it. He knew that, but the weather was an old, familiar annoyance — almost an old friend, one might say. It was less . . . worrying than other, more recent sources of anxiety, and he was a Highlander, accustomed to the craggy elevations of his clan’s mountainous territory. That was why he hated the winter climate here in Marisahl. He neither knew nor cared about the warm current which ameliorated the climate along the southern coast of Raven’s Land and the northwest coast of the Kingdom of Chisholm. What he did care about was that winter here was far damper, without the proper ice and snow to freeze the wet out of the air. He’d never liked the raw edge winter took on here in Marisahl, where the drizzling cold bit to the bone, and as he’d grown older, his bones and joints had become increasingly less fond of it.

For the last dozen years or so, unfortunately, he’d had no choice but to winter here. It went with the office of the Speaker of the Lords, just one more of the numerous negatives attached to it, and as his rheumatism twinged, he considered yet again the many attractions of resigning. Unfortunately, the clan lords had to be here, as well, since winter was when they could sit down to actually make decisions rather than dealing with day-to-day survival in their cold, beautiful clan holdings. It wasn’t that life got easier in the winter highlands, only that there was nothing much anyone could do about it until spring, which made winter the logical time to deal with other problems . . . like the Council of Clan Lords’ business. So all resigning would really do would be to relegate him to one of the un-upholstered, backless, deliberately spartan benches the other clan lords sat in, thereby proving their hardihood and natural austerity.

Might as well keep my arse in that nice

padded chair for as long as I can, he thought grumpily, and then smiled almost unwillingly. Clearly I have the high-minded, selfless qualities the job requires, don’t I?


“It looks like it may actually stick this time, dear,” the small, petite woman across the table said, cradling her teacup between her hands. Zhain Parkair, Lady Shairncross, was eight years younger than her husband, and although his auburn hair had turned iron gray and receded noticeably, her brown hair was only lightly threaded with silver. Twenty-five northern summers and as many winters had put crowsfeet at the corners of her eyes, he thought, but the beauty of the nineteen-year-old maiden he’d married all those years ago was still there for any man with eyes to see, and those same years had added depth and quiet, unyielding strength to the personality behind it.

Umpf!” he snorted now. “If it does, the entire town will shut down and huddle round the fires till it melts.” He snorted again, with supreme contempt for such effete Lowlanders. “People wouldn’t know what to do with a real snowfall, and you know it, Zhain!”

“Yes, dear. Of course, dear. Whatever you say, dear.” Lady Zhain smiled sweetly and sipped tea. He glowered back at her, but his lips twitched, despite his sour mood. Then his wife lowered her cup, and her expression had turned far more serious.

“So the Council’s reached a decision?” Her tone made the question a statement, and her eyes watched him carefully.

“What makes you think that?” he asked, reaching for his fork and studiously concentrating on the omelet before him.

“Your smiling, cheerful mood, for one thing,” his wife said serenely. “Not to mention the fact that you’re meeting this morning with Suwail, whom I know you despise, and Zhaksyn, whom I know you like quite a lot.”

“You, woman, are entirely too bright, d’you know that?” Parkair forked up another bite of omelet and chewed. The ham, onion, and melted cheese were delicious, and he took the time to give them the appreciation they deserved before he looked back up at Lady Zhain. “And you’ve known me too long, too. Might’s well be a damned book where you’re concerned!”

“Oh, no, Father! Never anything so decadent as a book!” The young man sitting at the table with them shook his head, his expression pained. “Mother would never insult you that way, I promise!”

“You have three younger brothers, Adym,” Parkair pointed out. “That means at least two of you are spares. I’d remember that, if I were you.”

“Mother will protect me.” Adym Parkair smiled, but the smile was fleeting, and he cocked his head in a mannerism he’d inherited from Lady Zhain. “She’s right, though, isn’t she? The Council has made a decision.”

“Yes, it has.” Parkair looked back down at his omelet, then grimaced and laid aside his fork to reach for his teacup once more. “And, to be honest, it’s the one I expected.”

Zhain and Adym Parkair glanced at one another. Most Raven Lord clan heads tended to be more than a little on the dour side — enough to give teeth to the rest of the world’s stereotypical view of them and their people. Weslai Parkair wasn’t like that. Despite his only half joking distaste for anything smacking of “book learning,” he was not only warm and humorous but pragmatic and wise, as well, which had a great deal to do with how long he’d been Lord Speaker. Yet that humor was in abeyance today, despite his best effort to lighten the mood, for he was also a devout man, and the question which had occupied the Council of Clan Lords for the last five-day had been a difficult one for him.

“So the Council’s going to grant them passage?” his son asked quietly after a moment, and Parkair grimaced.

“As your mother just observed, nothing else could possibly constrain me to spend a morning talking to that ass Suwail,” he pointed out. “The thought doesn’t precisely fill me with joyous anticipation.”

Adym smiled again, very faintly. Although he was barely twenty years old, his father had initiated him into the clan’s political realities years ago. No one was immortal, Lord Shairncross had pointed out to his thirteen-year-old son, and having to learn all those realities from a standing start after the responsibility landed on him was scarcely the most auspicious beginning to a clan lord’s tenure. As part of that initiation process, he’d and systematically dissected the character, strengths, and weaknesses of every other major clan lord for Adym. Fortunately, Raven’s Land was so sparsely populated there weren’t all that many clan lords to worry about. Unfortunately, one of those clan lords was Barjwail Suwail, Lord Theralt.

Suwail had never been one of his father’s favorite people. Partly because the burly, dark-haired Lord of Clan Theralt had competed strongly for the hand of Zhain Byrns twenty-five years or so earlier, but most of it had to do with Suwail’s personality. Lord Theralt had always seen himself in the tradition of the corsair lords of Trellheim, despite the fact that the Raven Lords had never been a particularly nautical people. Aside from a fairly profitable fishing fleet, there simply hadn’t been any Raven Lord mariners to provide him with the “corsairs” he needed, but he’d proposed to overcome that minor problem by making Theralt Bay available to freelance pirates of other lands in return for a modest piece of their profits.

Suwail’s activities had been . . . irritating to King Haarahld of Charis, who’d sent a squadron of his navy to make that point to Lord Theralt some twelve years ago by burning Theralt’s waterfront, which had made a quite spectacular bonfire. He’d made it to the rest of the Raven Lords by sending the same squadron to Ramsgate Bay and not burning Mairisahl’s waterfront.

That time, at least.

Adym’s father, who’d just been elected Lord Speaker, had been the recipient of that visit’s warning, and some of the other clan lords had been in favor of sending a defiant reply back to Tellesberg. Not because any of them had been fond of Suwail, but because they were Raven Lords, and all the world knew no one could threaten Raven Lords! Besides, they weren’t a maritime people. Charisian warships might burn the coastal towns to the ground, but not even Charisian Marines were going to advance inland to tackle the clans in their valleys and dense forests. Lord Shairncross had managed to talk them out of anything quite that invincibly stupid, pointing out that the only Raven Lord who’d actually been chastised was Lord Theralt, who’d obviously brought it upon himself. In fact, he’d argued, the Charisian response had been remarkably restrained, under the circumstances.