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A Mighty Fortress: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Wednesday, February 10, 2010 07:39 EST



King Ahrnahld’s Tower,
Royal Palace,
City of Gorath,
Kingdom of Dohlar

    Lywys Gardynyr, the Earl of Thirsk, was in a less than cheerful mood as the guardsmen saluted and their commanding officer bowed him through the open door.

    Langhorne, how I hate politics — especially court politics, he thought harshly. And especially court politics at a time like this!

    Of course, he admitted a bit grudgingly as one of the Duke of Fern’s innumerable secretaries met him with a deep bow, just inside King Ahrnahld’s Tower, it could have been worse. In fact, for the last two years or so, it had been worse — a lot worse. Things were in the process of looking up enormously, at least for him personally, and he was grateful that was true. On the other hand, he could have wished they’d started looking up a bit sooner . . . and at not quite so cataclysmic a cost for everyone else.

    The secretary led him down a short, broad hall, turned a corner, ascended a shallow flight of stairs, and knocked gently on an ornately carved wooden door.

    “Enter!” a deep voice called, and the secretary pushed the lavishly decorated panel wide.

    “Earl Thirsk is here, Your Grace,” he announced.

    “Excellent. Excellent! Come in, My Lord!”

    Thirsk obeyed the deep voice’s invitation and stepped past the secretary into a luxurious, sunlit office. The walls of King Ahrnahld’s Tower were over three feet thick, but some remodeler had laboriously cut windows, reaching almost from floor to ceiling, through the thick masonry. They filled the chamber with light and at least the illusion of warmth. It was a welcome illusion, given the icy weather outside. The reality of the fire crackling on a wide hearth did considerably more to hold off the chill, however, and he was grateful for it, even if the chimney did seem to be smoking just a bit.

    “Thank you for coming so promptly, My Lord,” the owner of the deep voice said, rising to stand behind his desk.

    Samyl Cahkrayn, the Duke of Fern, was a man of medium height, thick-chested, with still-powerful arms and hands, despite the years he’d spent in offices very like this one. His hair had silvered with age, yet it was still thick and curly, despite the fact that he was several years older than the grizzled, gray Thirsk. Those sinewy hands were soft and well manicured these days, though, without the sword calluses they’d boasted when he was younger, and he’d discovered that a quill pen was a far more deadly weapon than any blade he’d ever wielded.

    “My time is His Majesty’s, Your Grace,” Thirsk said, bowing to the Kingdom of Dohlar’s first councilor, “and sea officers learn early that nothing is more precious than time.” He straightened once more with a smile which was decidedly on the thin side. “Changing tides have little compassion, and winds have been known to shift whenever the mood takes them, so a seaman learns not to dawdle when they’re a favorable.”

    “I see.” Fern returned the earl’s smile with one which was even thinner, then gestured gracefully to the other man who’d been waiting in the office. “As a matter of fact,” he continued, “Duke Thorast and I were just discussing that. Weren’t we, Aibram?”

    “Yes, we were,” Aibram Zaivyair, the Duke of Thorast, replied. There was no smile at all on his face, however, and the “bow” he bestowed upon Thirsk was far closer to a curt nod.

    “You were, Your Grace?” Thirsk asked, raising one eyebrow slightly in Thorast’s direction. It probably wasn’t wise of him, yet under the circumstances, he couldn’t quite refrain from putting a certain innocent curiosity into his tone.

    “Yes, we were,” Fern said before his fellow duke could respond. The words were identical to Thorast’s, but there was a small yet pronounced edge to them. Thirsk heard it, and met the first councilor’s eyes. The message in them was plain enough, and the earl nodded in acknowledgment and acceptance.

    He’s probably right, too, Thirsk reflected. Much as I’d like to watch the bastard squirm, I’m still going to have to work with him, so rubbing too much salt into the wounds probably isn’t the very smartest thing I could do. But, damn, it felt good!

    “As you say, Your Grace,” he said out loud. “And, to be honest, I can’t say I’m completely surprised to hear it. It’s not as any of us have an unlimited supply of time, is it?”

    “No, we don’t,” Fern agreed, and waved his hand at a large armchair set facing his desk. “Please, be seated, My Lord. We have a great deal to discuss.”

    “Of course, Your Grace.”

    Thirsk seated himself in the indicated chair and leaned back, his expression attentive. Although Fern’s formal note hadn’t stated the official reason for his summons to the first councilor’s private office, he’d been fairly certain what it was about. Finding Thorast waiting with the first councilor — and looking like a cat-lizard passing fish bones, into the bargain — confirmed the earl’s original surmise. What remained to be seen was exactly how far Thirsk was about to be formally “rehabilitated.”

    “As I’m sure you’re aware, My Lord,” Fern began after a moment, “Mother Church’s Captain General, Vicar Allayn, determined some months ago that our initial shipbuilding programs required a certain degree of . . . modification.”

    Well, that’s one way to put it, Thirsk thought sourly. After all, it would hardly do to say “The fucking idiot finally got his thumb out of his arse and realized he’d wasted Langhorne only knows how many marks building exactly the wrong damned ships,” even if it would be considerably more accurate.

    “Although I’m sure many of the galleys we originally laid down will still prove useful,” Fern continued, “it’s apparent that, as Vicar Allayn has pointed out, we’re going to require a galleon fleet of our own when the time comes to take Mother Church’s war back to the apostate.”

    Which is exactly the point I made to the moron in my reports — my detailed reports — eighteen months ago, if memory serves, Thirsk reflected.

    Of course, it had been made tactfully but firmly — very firmly — clear to him that he was to keep his mouth shut about how long Vicar Allayn Maigwair had totally ignored his own warnings about what Cayleb Ahrmahk’s heavy, gun-armed galleons had done to the Royal Dohlaran Navy’s galleys in the battles of Rock Point and Crag Reach.

    “As I’m sure you’re aware, the Captain General ordered a major shift in our building plans six months ago,” the first councilor said. “It took some five-days for that change in direction to be integrated into our own efforts here in Gorath” — in fact, it had taken over two months, as Thirsk knew perfectly well — “but we’ve undertaken a large scale conversion program on existing merchant galleons. Work is well under way on the new ships now, as well, and several of our original vessels are being altered on the ways. Duke Thorast” — Fern nodded in Thorast’s direction — “tells me the first of our converted galleons will be ready for service within the month and that the first of our new galleons will be launching quite soon after that, although it will obviously take rather longer than that to get them rigged and ready for sea. When they are ready for sea, however, My Lord, I intend to call upon you to command them.”

    “I’m honored, Your Grace,” Thirsk said quietly. “May I ask, however, if I am to command them in King Rahnyld’s service, or in that of the Temple?”

    “Does it matter?” Thorast asked, his tone sharp, and Thirsk looked at him calmly.

    “In many ways, not at all, Your Grace,” he replied. “If my impression of the number of ships to be manned is correct, however, we’ll have no choice but to impress seamen. Just finding experienced officers is going to be extremely difficult, assuming it’s possible at all, and our supply of experienced sailors may well be even more limited, relative to the numbers I’ll require.”

    Thorast’s lips tightened. He seemed about to say something, then glanced at Fern and clearly changed his mind.

    Probably just as well I didn’t point out that his idiot brother-in-law, Malikai, is one of the main reasons we’re so short of sailors, the earl reflected dryly. Especially since he’s done everything he could for the last two years to hang responsibility for that fiasco around my neck! And what Cayleb’s privateers have done to our merchant fleet — on his own watch — hasn’t done one thing to help the shortage, either. Not to mention considerably reducing the potential supply of those converted galleons Fern was just talking about.

    “And your point is, My Lord?” Fern inquired as if he were totally unaware of Thirsk’s thoughts . . . which he most definitely was not.

    “My point, Your Grace, is that it will make quite a bit of difference whether those seamen are being impressed by the Kingdom of Dohlar or by Mother Church. While I realize no one likes to admit it, many of His Majesty’s subjects have little or no compunction about avoiding the Navy’s press gangs, and I regret to say that not a few of their fellow subjects have no compunction about helping them do it. Frankly, it would be unreasonable to expect anything else, I’m afraid, given the common seaman’s lot aboard a ship of war.

    “If, however, they’re being impressed for service in Mother Church’s name, I think it likely many who might otherwise attempt to avoid service will be more willing to come forward. Moreover, I believe it’s even more likely that those who might otherwise assist the . . . less enthusiastic in avoiding the press gangs are far less likely to do so if that would run counter to Mother Church’s commands.”

    Fern frowned thoughtfully. Although the first councilor had never himself served at sea, he had risen to high rank in the Royal Army before turning to a political career. He understood the question Thirsk was really asking.

    “I see your point, and it’s well taken, My Lord,” the duke conceded after several seconds. “Unfortunately, I can’t answer it at this moment.”

    “May I speak frankly, Your Grace?”

    “Of course, My Lord.” Fern sat back in his chair slightly, his eyes narrowing, and Thirsk gave a small shrug.

    “Your Grace, I realize Grand Vicar Erek has not yet chosen to decree Holy War against Charis.” Thorast stiffened noticeably, but Fern only sat there, and Thirsk continued in the same calm voice. “Among ourselves, however, as the men who will be responsible for answering Mother Church’s summons when it comes, a certain degree of bluntness is in order, I think. No one in the entire Kingdom can possibly doubt why Mother Church is building such an enormous fleet. Given the Charisians’ actions over the last couple of years, it’s inevitable that Mother Church is going to move openly against Cayleb and Sharleyan as soon as it’s practicable to do so. I’m positive Cayleb and Sharleyan realize that, as well, unless all of their spies have been miraculously rendered deaf and blind. That being the case, I believe it would be better to acknowledge from the beginning exactly whom the ships — and their crews — will serve, and why. Pretending otherwise will fool no one, yet may make it more difficult to get the ships manned. Under the circumstances, I would vastly prefer to be able to tell my officers and men what they will be called upon to do from the start.”

    There was silence in the office for the better part of a minute. Even Thorast looked more thoughtful than belligerent — for the moment, at least. Finally, Fern nodded slowly.

    “Again, I see your point, My Lord,” he said. “And I confess I’m inclined to agree with you. At the moment, however, I have no instructions from the Captain General or the Chancellor in this regard. Without such instructions, it would undoubtedly be . . . premature, shall we say, to begin unilaterally declaring our belief that Holy War is coming. That being the case, I don’t believe we can authorize you to begin impressing men in Mother Church’s name. Not yet, at least. But what I can do is ask Bishop Executor Ahrain to consult with the Captain General by semaphore. I’ll inform Vicar Allayn that I’m in agreement with you on this matter. I’m inclined to think that while the Grand Vicar may not wish to declare Holy War quite this soon, Vicar Allayn” — or the rest of the Group of Four, at least, the first councilor carefully did not say aloud — “will agree that it’s self-evident the fleet is being raised in Mother Church’s service.”

    “Thank you, Your Grace,” Thirsk murmured.

    “You’re welcome.” Fern gave him a smile which looked mostly genuine, then turned to other matters.

    “Something you may not be aware of, My Lord,” he said briskly, “is that the Grand Inquisitor has personally ruled that the new artillery mountings do not constitute any infringement of the Proscriptions. While I’m sure all of us could wish this point had been clarified sooner, all of our new artillery will be modified as it’s cast to incorporate these ‘trunnions.’ In addition, I’ve been informed that a technique has been devised for adding ‘trunnions’ to existing guns. I’m scarcely an artisan myself, so the details of the process don’t mean much to me, but I feel confident that an experienced sea officer like yourself will understand them.

    “In addition, we’ll be adopting the new sail plans, and I’ve been informed that our gunsmiths will soon be beginning construction of a new and improved musket, as well. Taken all together, I believe this means –”

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