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A Mighty Fortress: Chapter Nineteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, March 31, 2010 07:18 EDT



February, Year of God 894

Duke of Kholman’s Office,
City of Iythria,
Gulf of Jahras,
Desnairian Empire


    Daivyn Bairaht, the Duke of Kholman and Emperor Mahrys IV’s senior councilor for the Imperial Desnarian Navy, balled the sheet of paper into a crushed wad and hurled it at the trashcan. The improvised projectile’s aerodynamic qualities left a great deal to be desired, and it landed on his office carpet, bounced twice, and sailed under a bookcase.

    “Shit,” the duke muttered in disgust, then slumped back in the chair behind his desk and glowered at the man sitting in the chair facing it.

    His guest — Sir Urwyn Hahltar, Baron Jahras — was a short, compactly built man, brown hair going salt-and-pepper gray at the temples. A study in physical contrast with the taller, silver-haired Kholman, he had a full beard, rather than the duke’s neatly groomed mustache. He was also more than ten years younger, with a much more weathered-looking complexion.

    And, not to his particular comfort at the moment, he was Admiral General of the Imperial Desnairian Navy. It was a magnificent sounding title. Unfortunately, it was also an office with which no Desnairian had any previous experience, since there’d never before been any need for it. The Desnairian Navy had never been particularly “Imperial” before the recent unpleasantness between the Kingdom of Charis and the Lords of the Temple Lands. In fact, it had never boasted more than forty ships at its largest. Worse, that somewhat less than towering level of power had been attained almost seventy years before; the navy’s strength as of the Battle of Darcos Sound had been only twelve ships, and all of them had been purchased somewhere else, rather than built in any Desnairian shipyard. Despite the magnificent harbors of the Gulf of Jahras, Desnair had never been a maritime power — especially over the past century and a half of or so of its competition with the equally land-oriented Republic of Siddarmark.

    Baron Jahras, however, was something of an oddity for a Desnairian noble. He’d served — adequately, if not outstandingly — in the Imperial Army, as any senior aristocrat was expected to do, but his family had been far more active in trade than most wellborn Desnairians. In fact, they’d been even more active than they’d been prepared to admit to most of their noble relatives and peers. Jahras, in fact, had controlled the largest merchant house in the entire Desnairian Empire, and (however disreputable it might have been for a proper nobleman) that merchant house had owned a fleet of no less than thirty-one trading galleons.

    Which was how he had come to find himself tapped to command Emperor Mahrys’ newborn navy.

    Of course, he thought now from behind a carefully expressionless face, it would help if I’d ever commanded a naval warship before I found myself commanding the entire damned Navy! Or, for that matter, if there were a single Desnairian who had a clue how to organize a navy.

    “His Majesty isn’t going to be happy about this, Urwyn,” Kholman said finally, in a calmer tone. And, Jahras reflected, with monumental understatement.

    “I know,” the baron said out loud. Despite the vast gulf between their titles, Jahras, even though a mere baron, was very nearly as wealthy as Kholman. He was also married to Kholman’s first cousin, a combination which, thankfully, made it possible for him to speak frankly, which he now proceeded to do.

    “On the other hand,” he continued, “I can hardly say I’m surprised.” He shrugged. “Wailahr was a good man, but he didn’t have any more experience commanding a galleon than any of the rest of our senior officers.”

    Kholman snorted. He couldn’t disagree with that particular statement, although he could have added that none of their senior officers had any particular experience commanding galleys, either. Which, given the apparent differences between galleys and galleons, might not necessarily be a bad thing. He only wished that he, as the imperial councilor directly charged with building and running the emperor’s new navy, had some idea of exactly what those differences were.

    “That may be true,” the duke said now. “But when His Majesty gets his copy of that,” he jabbed an index finger in the direction of the vanished ball of paper, “he’s going to hit the roof, and you know it. Worse, Bishop Executor Mhartyn’s going to do the same thing.”

    “I do know it,” Jahras agreed, “but, frankly, they should have seen this — or something like it — coming when they decided to send the tithe by sea.” He shrugged unhappily. “I’ve had enough experience with what happened to my own merchant galleons to know what Charisian privateers and naval cruisers can do.”

    “But according to that,” Kholman’s finger stabbed the air again, “one of their galleons just beat the shit out of two of ours. And ours were under the command of what you yourself just described as ‘a good man.’ In fact, one of our better men.”

    “It’s what I’ve been trying to explain from the beginning, Daivyn,” Jahras said. “Sea battles aren’t like land battles, and we just aren’t trained for them. By the time a Desnairian nobleman’s eighteen, he has at least some notion about how to lead a cavalry charge, and the Army has a well-developed organization with at least some experience in how to supply cavalry and infantry in the field. We know how long it’s going to take to get from Point A to Point B, how many miles we can expect an army to advance over what sort of roads and in what kind of weather, how many horseshoes and nails we’re going to need, what kind of wagons, how many farriers and black smiths. We can make plans based on all of that. But how many casks of powder does a galleon need? How much spare cordage and canvas and spars? For that matter, how long will it take a galleon to sail from Geyra to Iythria? Well, that depends. It depends on how fast it is, how skilled its captain is, what the weather’s like — all sorts of things none of His Majesty’s officers really have any experience at all with.”

    The baron shrugged again — not nonchalantly, but with a certain helplessness.

    “When we think about taking Charis on at sea, we’re talking about fighting someone else’s kind of war,” he said. “I’d love the chance to face them on land, no matter what kind of ridiculous stories we’re hearing out of Corisande. But at sea, there’s no way we can match their experience and training any more than they could match ours in a cavalry melee. Until we’ve had a chance to build up some experience, it’s going to stay that way, too.”

    Kholman managed not to swear again, although it wasn’t easy. On the other hand, one of the good things about Jahras (aside from the fact that he was family) was that he was willing to speak his mind plainly, at least to Kholman. And he had a point. To be honest, the duke had never been overly impressed with his cousin-in-law’s military prowess, but Jahras had one of the Desnairian Empire’s better brains when it came to managing anything which had to do with trade, shipping, or manufactories. Well, one of the better aristocratic brains when it came to dealing with such matters, but that was pretty much the same thing. It was, after all, unthinkable that anyone who wasn’t an aristocrat should be given the sort of authority the Admiral General of the Navy required.

    It was a testimonial to Kholman’s inherent mental flexibility that he was even vaguely aware that there might have been a non-aristocrat somewhere in Desnair with more expertise in those matters than he or Jahras possessed. The very notion would never have occurred to the vast majority of his fellow nobles, and it never occurred even to Kholman that anyone except a nobleman should hold his or Jahras’ current offices. The sheer absurdity of such an idea would have been sufficient to keep it from crossing his brain in the first place. And if someone else had suggested it, he would have rejected it immediately, since it would have been impossible for that theoretical common born officer to exercise any effective authority over “subordinates” so much better born than he was.

    But the fact that Jahras had what was probably the best brain available when it came to the problems involved in building a navy from scratch didn’t necessarily mean he was really up to the task. For that matter, in Kholman’s estimation, the Archangel Langhorne might not have been up to this task!

    “I don’t disagree with anything you’ve just said, Urwyn,” the duke said after a moment. “Langhorne knows we’ve discussed it often enough, at any rate. And it’s not anything we haven’t warned His Majesty and the Bishop Executor about, either. But that’s still not going to solve our problem when the Emperor and Bishop Executor Mhartyn hear about this.”

    Jahras nodded. The good news was that Emperor Mahrys and the bishop executor were in Geyer, thirteen hundred miles from Kholman’s Iythria office. There were times when that physical distance between Kholman’s headquarters and the imperial court worked against them, especially given the nasty infighting which so often marked Desnairian politics. Rivals had much easier and quicker access to the imperial ear, after all. On the other hand, most of those rivals had quickly realized that despite the enormous opportunities for graft inherent in building a navy from scratch, it was likely to prove a thankless task. However optimistically belligerent Emperor Mahrys and — especially — Bishop Executor Mhartyn might be, Jahras doubted that any Desnairian aristocrat ever born could possibly look forward to the notion of fighting the Charisian Navy at sea. No one who’d ever done that had enjoyed the experience . . . a point which had been rather emphatically underscored by what the Charisians had recently done to the combined fighting strength of five other navies.



    Under the circumstances, while Kholman’s enemies would undoubtedly seize upon any opportunity to damage his credibility with the crown with unholy glee, they’d be careful not to do it in a way which might end up with them being chosen to take his place. For that matter, Jahras’ position, despite his far less lofty birth, was even more secure. In fact, if he’d been able to think of any way to avoid it himself in the first place, he would have done so in a heartbeat. But at least the sheer distance between them and Geyer gave them a pronounced degree of autonomy, without rivals or court flunkies constantly peering over their shoulders. So the two of them were far enough away from the imperial capital, and well enough insulated against removal, to be reasonably confident of not simply surviving their monarch’s anger but retaining their current positions.

    Oh joy, he thought ironically.

    “Let’s be honest, Daivyn,” he said out loud. “Nothing is going to make the Emperor or the Bishop Executor any less angry about what’s happened to Wailahr. That’s a given. In fact, I think we should use this to underscore the fact that — as you just said — we’ve warned everyone we’re bound to get hurt, at least initially, going after Charisians in their own element. We’re not the only ones who know Wailahr, or who understand his reputation as a good commander’s well deserved. All right. Let’s make that point to His Majesty — that one of our better commanders, with two of our best vessels under his command, was defeated by a single Charisian galleon in less than forty-five minutes of close action. Don’t blame him for it, either. In fact, let’s emphasize the fact that he fought with great gallantry and determination. For that matter, as far as I can tell from this Captain Yairley’s message, that’s exactly what Wailahr did! Tell the Emperor we’re making great progress in building the Navy, but that it’s going to take a lot longer to train it.”

    Kholman frowned thoughtfully. There was a great deal to what Jahras had just said. In fact, the economies of the Gulf of Jahras and Mahrosa Bay had attained an almost Charisian bustle since the Church of God Awaiting had begun pouring money into the creation of shipyards there. Skilled carpenters, smiths, ropemakers and sailmakers, lumberjacks, seamstresses, gunpowder makers, foundry workers, and farmers and fishermen to provide the food to feed all of them, had swarmed into the area. The locals might not think much of the Harchong “advisers” who’d been sent in to (theoretically) help them, but they’d buckled down with a will to the task itself, propelled by an enthusiasm built almost equally out of religious zeal and the opportunity for profit.

    For that matter, Kholman and Jahras had increased their own families’ fortunes enormously in the process. Of course, that was one of the standard, accepted perquisites of their birth and position, and their own share of the graft had been factored into the navy’s original cost estimates. With that in mind, they were actually ahead of schedule and marginally under budget where the actual building programs were involved, and the local metalworking industry was booming. It wasn’t precisely mere happenstance that almost all of the expanded foundries — and every single one of the new foundries — supplying artillery to the ships building in Iythria, Mahrosa, and Khairman Keep were located in the Duchy of Kholman, but there were actually some valid logistical arguments to support the far more important money-making arguments in favor of that. And production was rising rapidly. The guns coming out of those foundries might cost more than twice as much as the same guns would have cost from Charisian foundries, and they might have been two or three times as likely to burst on firing, but they were still being cast and bored far more quickly than Desnairian artillery had ever before been produced, and they were arriving in numbers almost adequate to arm the new construction as it came out of the yards.

    “We can tell them that,” the duke said. “And, for that matter, whether His Majesty wants to admit it or not, he’ll almost certainly realize that it is going to take time to crew and train this many ships. But he’s still going to want some kind of an estimate as to how long it’s going to take, and I don’t think he’s going to settle for generalities much longer. Even if he’d like to, Bishop Executor Mhartyn isn’t going to stand for it.”

    “Probably not,” Jahras agreed.

    The baron sat gazing at one of the paintings on Kholman’s office wall for several seconds, stroking his beard while he thought. Then he shrugged and returned his attention to the other man.

    “I think we need to tell the Bishop Executor that, whether it’s going to be convenient or not, we’re going to have to send the tithe overland to Zion this year. I’ll give you an official report and recommendation to that effect. And then, I think, we need to point out that we’re actually managing to build and arm the ships faster than the people responsible for providing crews can get the men to us. When I write up my recommendation to send the tithe overland, I’ll also point out how what’s happened to Wailahr underscores the obvious need for longer and more intensive training even after we get the crews assembled. And as the men come in, let’s assign them proportionately to all of the ships ready to commission, rather than fully crewing a smaller number of them.”

    Kholman’s eyes narrowed, and he felt himself beginning to nod slowly. If they announced that they had even a limited number of new galleons fully manned, they would almost inevitably come under pressure to repeat the same disastrous sort of experiment which had just recoiled so emphatically on Wailahr. As long as they could report — honestly — that the ships’ crews remained seriously understrength, there’d be no pressure (or none that couldn’t be resisted, at any rate) to send them to sea in ones and twos where the Charisians could snip them off like frost-killed buds.

    And if we spread the men between as many ships as possible, we can do that while still sending in manpower returns that show we’re making use of every man they send us. That it’s not our fault the supply won’t stretch to cover all our requirements, however hard we try . . . .

    “All right,” he agreed. “That makes sense. And if they press us for a definite schedule, anyway?”

    “Our first response should be to say we’ll have to see how successful they are in sending us the men we require,” Jahras replied promptly. “That’s only the truth, by the way. Tell them we’re going to need some time — probably at least a month or two — to form some kind of realistic estimate of how long it will take to fully man the ships we need at the rate they can provide the crews.

    “After that, we’ll need time to train them. I imagine that will take at least several more months, and it’s already February.” The baron shrugged again. “Under the circumstances, I’d say August or September would be the soonest we could possibly expect to really be prepared, and even then — and I’ll mention this, tactfully, of course, in my report to you, as well — we’re going to be inexperienced enough that it would be unrealistic to expect us to win without a significant numerical advantage. Obviously,” his lips twitched in a faint smile, “it would be wisest to avoid operations which would permit the Charisians to whittle away at our own strength until we can be reinforced with enough of the ships building elsewhere to provide us with that necessary numerical advantage.”

    “Of course,” Kholman agreed.

    August or September, eh? he thought, restraining a smile of his own. Heading into October, really, with the inevitable — and explainable — schedule slippage, aren’t you, Urwyn? Slippage we can blame, with complete justification, on the people who aren’t getting us the manpower we need. More probably even next November . . . which will just happen to be about the time Hsing-wu’s Passage freezes solid. At which point none of those ships “building elsewhere” will be able to reinforce us until spring.

    It hadn’t escaped the duke’s thoughts, as he considered what Jahras had just said, that stretching out the schedule would also present the opportunity to funnel still more of the Church’s bounty into his own and the baron’s purses. In truth, however, that calculation was little more than a spinal reflex, inevitable in any Desnairian noble. What was more important, at least in so far as Kholman’s conscious analysis was concerned, was that acting too precipitously — being the first swimmer to plunge into a sea full of Charisian-manned krakens — would be an unmitigated disaster for the navy he and Jahras were supposed to be building. Far better to be sure there were at least other targets for those krakens to spread their efforts between.

    “Go ahead and write your report,” the Duke of Kholman told his admiral general. “In fact, I think it would be a good idea to backdate at least some of it. We really have been thinking about this for a while, so let’s make that clear to His Majesty.” The duke smiled thinly. “It wouldn’t do to have him decide we’re just trying to cover our arses after what happened to Wailahr, after all.”

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