How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 43
HMS Dawn Star, 58,
Grand Duchy of Zebediah
It was even hotter than the first time he’d been to Hannah Bay, Merlin thought. And while that might be of primarily theoretical interest to a PICA, it was of rather more pressing relevance to the flesh-and-blood members of Dawn Star‘s still breathing ship’s company. Particularly to those — like Empress Sharleyan herself — who’d been born Chisholmians and not Old Charisians.
“Dear God,” Sharleyan said, fanning herself as she stepped out onto the awning-shaded quarterdeck with Sergeant Seahamper, “you warned me it would be hot, Merlin, but this — !”
“I’ll admit I didn’t expect it to be quite this warm,” Merlin said. “On the other hand, you are almost directly on the equator, Your Majesty.”
“A point which has been drawn rather sharply to my attention,” she replied tartly.
“At least you’re not the only one suffering from it,” Merlin offered helpfully, eliciting a glare of truly imperial proportions.
Crown Princess Alahnah had been a happier baby since the stormy weather had eased, but it would appear she had not yet developed her father’s tolerance for warm temperatures. “Cranky” was a frail description of her current mood, as Sharleyan was better aware than most.
“Perhaps I’d better rephrase that, Your Majesty,” he said, and heard something suspiciously like a chuckle from Seahamper’s direction. He glanced at the grizzled sergeant, but Seahamper only smiled back at him blandly.
“Perhaps you had,” Sharleyan agreed pointedly, reclaiming his attention from her personal armsman. “Unless you’d care to go see if you can get your goddaughter into a more cheerful mood yourself, that is.”
“It’s always my honor to undertake even the most difficult of tasks in your service, Your Majesty,” Merlin replied with a bow. “Impossible tasks, however, are beyond the abilities even of seijins.”
“Don’t I know it!” Sharleyan said feelingly.
The empress walked to the rail and the officers and seamen whose station was the quarterdeck moved back to give her space as she stood gazing out across the bay’s blue waters. They looked seductively cool as they sparkled and flashed in the relentless, brilliant sunlight, and she wished fervently that she could take advantage of that coolness. Unfortunately, she had other things to deal with, and her mouth tightened as she looked at the six Imperial Charisian Navy galleons anchored in company with Dawn Star. Twenty more galleons — transports flying the imperial banner — lay between them and shore, with lighters and longboats ferrying their cargo of Imperial Army troops ashore. She doubted very much that those reinforcements were going to be necessary, given Thomas Symmyns’ unpopularity with the people of Zebediah. In fact, she’d argued against bringing them along, but that wasn’t an argument Cayleb or the Duke of Eastshare, the Army’s commander, had been willing to entertain, and Merlin had voted with them. Rather enthusiastically, in fact, if her memory served.
“I hope none of the Zebediahans are going to take the wrong message from this,” she said now, quietly enough that only Merlin’s ears could hear her.
“I’m not sure there is a wrong message they could take from it,” he replied sub-vocally from behind her, and she smiled slightly as she heard his voice over the com earplug. “I think it’s as important for the lesser nobility and the commoners to understand you and Cayleb aren’t going to put up with any more nonsense as it is for any of Zebediah’s more nobly born confidants to get the same message. Nobody in a place like Zebediah is going to stick his neck out in support of what may be a simply transitory regime. Unless they’re pretty sure you plan to hang around — and to enforce the new rules — people are likely to keep their heads down. Especially when you add in the fact that coming out in favor of Charisian rule is going to get them on the wrong side of the Inquisition and Mother Church, as well.”
“I know,” she murmured back. “I just can’t help thinking about Hektor’s efforts. These people haven’t had a lot of good experiences with foreign troops, Merlin.”
“No,” he agreed, enhanced vision watching the first squads of Army troops debarking onto Carmyn’s wharves. “It’s time we changed that, though, and Kynt is just the man to make a good start in that direction.”
Sharleyan nodded. Kynt Clareyk, the Baron of Green Valley, was an ex-Marine. Although only a recent addition to the inner circle, he’d cherished his suspicions for some time where Seijin Merlin’s role in the innovations which had made Charis’ survival possible were concerned. He was also one of the new Imperial Army’s most highly regarded officers. Even his Chisholmian-born fellows, who tended to regard Marines as excellent for boarding actions and smash and grab raids but fairly useless for extended campaigns, listened very carefully to anything Green Valley had to say.
“I can’t help wishing we had something which more immediately demanded his talents, though,” she said after a moment. “Or perhaps I should say I hope nothing happens here which immediately demands his talents.”
“Until we figure out how somebody with an army our size invades something the size of the mainland, I think this is probably the best use for his talents we’re likely to find,” Merlin said philosophically. “Thank God. For a while there I was afraid we might really need him in Corisande after all.”
“That could still happen,” Sharleyan pointed out.
“Not with Koryn Gahrvai and his father sitting on the situation,” Merlin disagreed. “The only real chance Craggy Hill’s lot had was to convince the Duke of Margo and the Temple Loyalists to support them against the Regency Council’s ‘traitorous ambition to replace our rightful Prince with their own tyrannical despotism in the service of traitors, blasphemers, and heretics.’ When that appeal fell flat, I knew we had them. For now, at least.”
“I wish you hadn’t felt compelled to add the qualifier,” she said dryly.
“To quote a truly ancient aphorism from Old Terra, ‘Nothing’s sure but death and taxes,’ Your Majesty.” Merlin smiled as the Empress’ straight, slender shoulders quivered with suppressed laughter, then cleared his throat.
“Excuse me, Your Majesty,” he said out loud, “but I believe Master Pahskal is trying to attract your attention.”
“Thank you, Merlin,” she said, turning from the rail and smiling at the sandy-haired young midshipman who’d been shifting his weight uneasily from one foot to the other.
Faydohr Pahskal had just turned thirteen and he was the son of a family of Cherayth fishermen who’d never imagined he might come into such proximity of his queen and empress. He’d obviously been torn between whatever instructions he’d received from Captain Kahbryllo and an acute uncertainty over the wisdom of disturbing Empress Sharleyan when everyone else had obviously withdrawn to the far side of the quarterdeck to give her privacy.
“Should I assume the Captain’s sent you with a message, Master Pahskal?” she asked with a smile.
“Ah, yes, Your Majesty. I mean, he has.” Pahskal blushed hotly, although it was difficult to tell, thanks to how severely his fair skin had burned under the last couple of days’ intense sunlight. “I mean,” he continued, rushing the words a bit desperately, “Captain Kahbryllo sends his compliments and asks if you would be pleased to go ashore in about one hour, Your Majesty.”
“That would suit me quite well, Master Pahskal,” Sharleyan said gravely. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Your Majesty!” Pahskal half-blurted, touched his chest in salute, and dashed away, obviously relieved at having discharged his mission without being incinerated by the imperial disfavor.
“It’s hard to believe Hektor was even younger than that at Darcos Sound,” Sharleyan said, her smile turning a bit sad, and Merlin nodded.
“It is, although I doubt even Master Pahskal seems quite that young when it’s simply a matter of life or death, Your Majesty.”
“Am I really that terrifying?”
“To a thirteen-year-old?” Merlin laughed. “Your Majesty, the thought of facing you and Cayleb can turn strong men’s knees to water. When a mere midshipman finds himself trapped between the doomwhale of his captain’s instructions and the deep blue sea of an empress’ potential unhappiness, the only thing he wants to be is somewhere else. Preferably as quickly as possible.”
“Do you think he’ll get over it eventually?” Sharleyan asked, trying very hard not to laugh herself.
“Oh, probably, Your Majesty. If he spends enough time in your vicinity, that is. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was why Captain Kahbryllo sent him instead of coming to speak to you himself.”
“You may be right,” Sharleyan said. Then she snapped her fingers and gave her head a half-shake.
“What is it, Your Majesty?” Merlin asked.
“I should have asked young Pahskal to pass the word to Spynsair and Father Neythan, as well.”
“I doubt Captain Kahbryllo forgot to include your personal clerk and your senior law master in the message queue, Your Majesty.”
“No, but I should have made certain.”
“Will it put your mind at ease if I go and personally bend all the sinister power of my fearsome reputation on making certain they got the word too, Your Majesty?” Merlin inquired, sweeping her a deep bow, and she giggled. Unmistakably, she giggled.
“I suppose that’s not really necessary, Captain Athrawes,” she said gravely, then sighed, her expression much less humorous than it had been a moment before. “And I also suppose I’m thinking about minor details as a way to avoid thinking about more momentous ones.”
“It happens, Your Majesty,” Merlin said with a small shrug. “But I’ve noticed you usually get around to facing up to all of them in the end. It seems to be a habit you share with Cayleb.”
“I’d better!” she said in a considerably tarter tone. “And I imagine I’d better go and get ready for a boat trip, too. Under the circumstances, though, I think it would be wiser to leave Alahnah on board with Sairaih and Glahdys. Assuming of course” — she rolled her eyes — “a mere empress can convince Sairaih to stay aboard herself!”