Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 34
City of Tellesberg,
Kingdom of Old Charis,
Empire of Charis.
Doctor Sahndrah Lywys stepped into what would have been called her laboratory on a planet named Old Earth a thousand years or so ago. On Safehold, it was simply called her study, although the “studies” she carried on here had very little to do with the libraries and quiet reading rooms most Safeholdians meant by that term. In fact, she strongly suspected that if the Inquisition — at least the Inquisition as administered by Zhaspahr Clyntahn — had had any notion of exactly what she studied here, and how, the consequences would have been drastic and extremely unpleasant.
Of course Clyntahn and his agents probably do have a pretty good idea of what we’re up to here at the college, she reflected as she used one of the “Shan-wei’s candles” which had resulted from those same studies to light the lamps in the room’s corners. If they don’t, it’s not because they haven’t been told, anyway! And if they do know, all of us better hope to Langhorne the Group of Four does lose this damned war in the end.
Sahndrah Lywys was a Charisian to her toenails, and she had enormous confidence in her emperor and empress and in her homeland, but that didn’t mean Charis couldn’t lose, and she grimaced at that thought as she replaced the last lamp’s chimney and adjusted the reflector behind it. It wasn’t as good as sunlight, but no interior light source was, and her study here in Tellesberg Palace was still far better lit than her original one in the old Royal College. The original College had seldom been able to afford the quality of the lamp oil (refined from first-grade kraken oil) available to it now. The oil burned with a bright, clear flame, far better (and far easier on her eyes) than the tallow candles and poor quality oil she’d had to use altogether too often then. And she could have literally as much of it as she needed, which was an almost sinful luxury after so many years of pinching every tenth-mark until it squealed.
Her new study was also bigger, far better equipped, and much safer. Lywys knew Rahzhyr Mahklyn had been very much in two minds about accepting Emperor Cayleb’s (only he’d simply been King Cayleb at the time, of course) offer of a new home here in the palace immediately after the Battle of Darcos Sound. The official distinction between the College and the Kingdom of Charis had always been carefully maintained, despite its name, precisely because its quest for knowledge had been enough to make any conservative churchman uncomfortable. That had been true even before the schism; since the Church of Charis had declared its independence, it had grown only worse, as the act of arson which had destroyed the original College — and all its records — had made abundantly clear.
Cayleb had been pressing Mahklyn to move to larger, safer, and more efficient quarters for over eight months before the arsonists struck. After the attack, the then king had been through arguing; he’d commanded, and Mahklyn had seen no choice but to acquiesce. Lywys had been in favor of the move even before someone started playing with lit lanterns, and nothing since had changed her mind. On a personal level, living on the palace grounds made her feel enormously safer. On a scholarship level, which was far more important to her, if the truth be known, the advantages were even greater. There was no comparison between the College’s current funding levels, with open Crown sponsorship. And even more significant to someone like Lywys, the Church of Charis’ full-fledged support of the faculty’s research as a critical component in the Empire’s and the Church’s survival had let all of them step out of the shadowy, semi-condemned twilight of near-heresy to which their love of knowledge had once condemned them.
Not that there weren’t some downsides to the move, she reflected more grimly, thinking about the years of research and notes which had burned along with the old College. She extinguished the stub of the Shan-wei’s candle carefully, testing the wooden sliver between her fingers to be certain it was out before she discarded it. There wasn’t much to burn here in her study, but she was pretty sure all of the College’s faculty had become almost as paranoid as she was where fires were concerned.
She smiled at that thought, given how much of her own studies of late had been dedicated towards finding better ways to make things burn. The Shan-wei’s candle was a case in point, although a part of her did wish people could have found a less . . . pointed name for it. Personally, she’d held out for “instant match,” or even just “match,” since in many ways it was only a better development of the old slow match and quick match which had been used to light candles and fires and set off matchlocks — and artillery — forever. She still hadn’t given up hope of eventually getting the name changed, but it was going to be an uphill battle, at best.
She chuckled and crossed to the cabinet in the study’s corner. Her assistants would be coming in soon, and it was a point of honor for her to be already here, already working when her first student arrived. She knew she wasn’t fooling any of them into thinking she’d really been here working all night — at her age, all-night sessions had become a thing of the past — yet there were still appearances to maintain and, if she was going to be honest, she thought as she opened the cabinet door, it was a game she and they both enjoyed playing.
She removed her cotton apron from the cabinet, but it on, and turned to the stone-topped worktable to resume her current project. One of her students had obviously spent at least a little time here after she’d gone home, she noted, and reached out to move the bottles of acid whoever it was had left behind. Schueler’s tears and vitriol distillate, she noted. Now what had whoever it had been —
She snatched her hand back, scowling, as she knocked over the bottle of Schueler’s tears, which, in turn, tipped over the other bottle. Fortunately, whoever had left them out had secured the stoppers properly, but the impact of their fall was enough to loosen both of them. Quite a bit of both acids leaked, flowing together in an acrid-smelling puddle, before she could snatch them up once again.
She scowled, castigating herself for her carelessness, and carried both bottles carefully across to one of the lead-lined sinks. She rinsed them both thoroughly, one at a time, then dried them and set them back into the storage rack before she returned to the worktable.
The puddle of combined acids was bigger than she’d thought, and she looked around for something to clean it up with. Unfortunately, there was nothing handy, and she shrugged. Her lab apron was getting worn, anyway. If the acids ate holes in it, it would give her an excuse to replace it. She smiled at the thought, took it off, and wiped the table cautiously, careful to keep her hands out of contact with the acid. Then she crossed to one of the lamps with the sodden apron.
She spread the wet portion of fabric over the heat rising from the lamp chimney, holding the apron by its sides, moving it in slow circles to encourage drying. The fumes made her want to sneeze, but the study was well ventilated — she’d insisted on that! — and she’d certainly smelled far worse over the years. In fact —
Lywys jumped two feet into the air as the center of her lab apron disappeared in a sudden, instantaneous burst of light, like the flash of Langhorne’s own Rakurai.
* * * * * * * * * *
“So Sahndrah brought her new discovery straight to me,” Rahzhyr Mahklyn said much later. He was tipped back in his swivel chair, gazing out the windows of his office, speaking — apparently — to the empty air. Now he grinned. “I don’t know whether she was more pleased, startled, or upset with herself for having been so clumsy in the first place. But, being Sahndrah, she went through another half-dozen aprons and hand towels checking and duplicating before she came to tell me about it.”
“Well, this will make Ahlfryd happy,” Merlin Athrawes replied over the plug in Mahklyn’s ear. At the moment, he was standing atop the citadel at King’s Harbor, overlooking the anchorage. “I know it makes me happy. I never expected anyone to discover guncotton this soon.”
“It sounds to me as if she discovered it pretty much exactly the same way Schönbein did,” Mahklyn replied. Then he paused, his eyes narrowing. “Owl’s remotes didn’t happen to’ve anything to do with her spilling that acid, did they?”
“How could you possibly suggest such a thing?” Merlin responded in tones of profound innocence.
“Because King Haarahld was right when he called you Master Traynyr! Were you pulling puppet strings in this case?”
“Much as it pains me to disabuse you of your faith in my diabolical Machiavellianism, in this particular instance, I am as innocent as the new fallen snow. I had nothing — nothing at all — to do with it.”
Mahklyn frowned suspiciously. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Merlin’s veracity . . . exactly. Still . . . .
“Well, I suppose I’ll just have to take your word,” he said after a moment. “And however it happened, she’s jumped on it like a slash lizard on a prong buck.” He shook his head. “She spent fifteen minutes telling me all about the additional research she’ll need to do before she’s prepared to make any definitive statements about the process or how it works. Then she spent the next two hours pointing out possible applications, especially where explosives in general — and artillery in particular — are concerned.”
“I can’t say I’m really surprised.” Merlin shook his head. “She’s been working too closely with Ahlfryd for too long for the possibilities not to hit her right in the eye.”
“But are we going to be able to actually use it?” Mahklyn climbed out of his chair and walked across to the window, looking out over the courtyards of Tellesberg Palace. “I checked Owl’s library before I commed you — that’s how I knew about Schönbein. Chemistry isn’t my discipline, and we don’t really have anyone inside the circle who is a chemist. But according to what I skimmed out of the library, it took decades back on Old Earth to actually develop a reliable nitro-based propellant that didn’t have a tendency to explode on its own at highly inconvenient moments.”
“Yes, it did. Almost fifty years, in fact. But Safehold’s got everything we’d really need to duplicate Vielle’s formulation. We’d have to drastically increase the scale of production for some of what we’d, and the quality control involved in washing the guncotton would have to be worked on, but none of that’s beyond the reach of what we have right now. It’s only a matter of . . . steering the development.”
“That sounds at least moderately Machiavellian to me,” Mahklyn pointed out, and Merlin chuckled as he leaned his elbows on the battlements.
“Not that Machiavellian. Only a little Machiavellian. And a good thing, too. I’m going to have to reserve most of my Machiavellian wiles for application to the Brethren to really make this work.”
“You’re right. We need a chemist in the circle, and to be honest, I can’t think of a better candidate than Doctor Lywys. She strikes me as mentally flexible enough, and I’m pretty sure she could handle the shock better than most.”
“Don’t expect me to disagree with you. I nominated her for membership over five months ago.”
“I know you did. And it hasn’t taken them this long to make a decision in her case because they don’t think it would be a good idea. They’ve had some other things on their minds.”