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By Heresies Distressed: Chapter Eleven

       Last updated: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 06:43 EDT



HMS Empress of Charis,
Hannah Bay,
Grand Duchy of Zebediah

    Cayleb Ahrmahk stood on the quarterdeck of HMS Empress of Charis once again as the column of galleons wended its way past Grass Island. Shoal Island lay almost thirty miles to the north, and the broad waters of Grass Reach stretched before them. It was almost ninety miles yet to the harbor of the city of Carmyn, and he tried very hard not to feel closed in by the surrounding land.

    It wasn’t especially easy, even though his intellect stubbornly insisted that it ought to be.

    His flagship and the squadron which she had rejoined were just over twenty-six hundred miles south-southwest of Cherry Bay. That meant the local climate was much closer to the one to which Cayleb was accustomed. If anything, it was too hot, despite the fact that it was technically winter, since they were still — barely — north of the equator at the moment, but that wasn’t the reason he felt uneasy.

    Hannah Bay measured almost two hundred and forty miles from east to west. That was a lot of water, especially when the Imperial Charisian Navy was effectively the only navy in these waters. Still, it was four hundred and seventy miles from Carmyn to the mouth of the Talisman Gulf. Four hundred and seventy miles between the capital of Zebediah and the open waters of Carter’s Ocean.

    Four hundred and seventy miles moving deeper and deeper into the embrace of the enormous island of Zebediah.

    He didn’t like being that far from the open sea. For him, as for almost any Charisian, the sea meant safety. It meant room to maneuver, to dodge, and it meant an element of which Charis was the mistress . . . and a place where the lesser seamen of other lands intruded at their peril.

    Stop being an old woman, Cayleb! he scolded himself. “Open sea,” indeed. Just what do you call thousands of square miles of seawater if it’s not “open?” And it’s not exactly as if anyone could sneak up on you, even if anyone had anything to do the sneaking with!

    He glanced for a moment at Merlin Athrawes, standing protectively at his right shoulder even here. At that particular moment, Cayleb knew, Merlin was watching through those SNARCs of his. The emperor was confident that he still had only the most imperfect grasp of exactly what a “SNARC” was, but he didn’t have to know exactly what it was as long as Merlin knew. All Cayleb had to know was that Merlin’s invisible, wyvern’s-eye view encompassed not simply all of Hannah Bay, but the Gulf of Talisman — and all the other waters stretching about Zebediah like all-enveloping arms — as well. If there’d been a single warship out there in a position to threaten his fleet’s stately progress, Merlin would have known it.

    Actually, Cayleb reflected, the real danger probably lies in coming to rely too heavily on Merlin’s “special abilities.” They may not always be available. For that matter, they certainly won’t be available to anyone besides me, because he’s my bodyguard. So maybe it’s just as well if I go on feeling nervous, even knowing Merlin is keeping an eye on things, as long as I don’t let that nervousness distract me from what has to be done. After all, I also need to bear in mind the fact that he won’t be available to other commanders when I assign them their missions. Wonderful. I just found something else to worry about!

    His lips twitched as he considered his own perversity. It was remarkable how much that helped his mood, and he half-turned to face the shortish, rotund prince standing beside him.

    “Any last-minute advice, Your Highness?”

    “Not really, Your Majesty.” Prince Nahrmahn shrugged. “You simply need to continue to think about the Grand Duke much the way I’m certain you grew up thinking about me. Never forget that he’s a naturally treacherous, oily sort of fellow, with a fondness for assassins and all the personal charm and warmth of a sand maggot, and you can’t go too far wrong. I won’t say he’s actively allergic to the truth, mind you. Although, on mature consideration, I do feel relatively confident that any completely truthful statement which accidentally found its way into his mouth would cause him acute indigestion, at the very least.”

    “An . . . interesting characterization,” Cayleb observed with something that sounded suspiciously like a chuckle.

    “But an accurate one, I think.” Nahrmahn looked up at the taller and younger emperor, and his expression had become very serious. “At this particular moment, Your Majesty, Grand Duke Zebediah is trapped between the kraken and the doomwhale, and he knows it.”

    “But which is which?”

    “On balance? I’d say the Empire is definitely the doomwhale, but Hektor of Corisande makes a very respectable kraken. And then there’s the fact that Zebediah knows as well as we do that the true struggle ultimately lies not between you and Hektor, but between you and the Temple. He’s fully aware that at this time you have the power to crush him like an eggshell if he isn’t accommodating to you, but he’s equally aware that Hektor isn’t simply going to forgive and forget if he turns his coat to support Charis. It may not be very likely Hektor is going to survive, but Zebediah won’t be prepared to rule that possibility out completely. And whether Hektor survives or not, the Group of Four will most definitely still be waiting when the smoke clears here in the League.”

    “Which means he’s going to be extraordinarily accommodating . . . as long as I keep my dagger firmly at his throat,” Cayleb said.

    “Precisely, Your Majesty.” Nahrmahn inclined his head slightly. “You know, I always found your house’s stubborn tendency to survive and its general all-around competence extremely irritating. It’s remarkable how my attitude in that respect has changed over the last few months.”

    “Flattery, Your Highness?” Cayleb’s eyebrows arched, and his brown eyes gleamed with amusement.

    “Oh, of course!” Nahrmahn smiled. “After all, I am one of your courtiers now, am I not?” He swept the Emperor a deep bow, surprisingly graceful for one of his physique, and Cayleb smiled back at him. But then the Emeraldian prince sobered once again.

    “Jesting aside, Your Majesty, I must admit that I’m both surprised and impressed by the maturity of the judgment you’ve consistently demonstrated. To be blunt, you’re extraordinarily young for any ruler, far less for the ruler of an empire the size of the one you and the Empress are busily hammering together. That’s enough to make a man nervous, at least until he gets to know the two of you.”

    “Indeed?” Cayleb cocked his head, and Nahrmahn nodded.

    “You’ve demonstrated a remarkable palette of abilities, actually,” he said in an almost detached, analytical tone. “Military capability, skilled diplomacy, a steadiness which is quite remarkable in someone as young as you still are, integrity — which, I’m discovering, can be an extraordinarily dangerous weapon when it comes to diplomacy; probably because we encounter it far too infrequently to build up defenses against it — and intelligent ruthlessness coupled with what I can only call a pragmatic compassion.” He shook his head. “That collection of abilities would be rare in a man twice your age. Your father was obviously an even better teacher than I’d ever realized.”

    “I believe he was,” Cayleb agreed softly.

    “And then there’s the Empress,” Nahrmahn continued with a quirky smile. “In her own way, I suspect she’s actually even more dangerous than you are. She’s certainly one of the two smartest women I’ve ever met in my life, and the fact that she managed not simply to survive but to actually strengthen the power of the Chisholmian Crown despite the best efforts of a pack of noblmen four or five times her age only underscores her own capabilities. Frankly, the two of you together are positively frightening, if you’ll excuse my frankness.”

    “I’ll not only excuse it, I’ll take it as a compliment.”

    “Probably you should. And,” Nahrmahn pursed his lips thoughtfully, “there’s another aspect to it, too. One that hadn’t occurred to me until I’d had the opportunity to meet both of you and acquire a firsthand impression of you.”

    “And what aspect would that be?” Cayleb asked when the Emeraldian paused.

    “For a time, at least, I’m inclined to think your adversaries may well be going to underestimate you simply because you are young. They’re going to assume that however intelligent you may be, you’ll still be prey to the impetuousness of your youth. In fact, I must admit that was my own first thought when I heard the details of the ultimatum you delivered to Earl Thirsk after Crag Reach. The way they were reported to me, you were quite . . . bloodthirsty about the consequences he’d face if he rejected your surrender terms. They struck me as the sort of, um, extravagant intentions one might have expected out of youthful inexperience, let’s say.”

    “Good.” Cayleb chuckled. “They were supposed to.”

    “Indeed, Your Majesty?”

    “Oh, don’t mistake me, Nahrmahn. If he’d rejected my terms, I would have renewed the action . . . and there would have been no more offer of quarter until every last one of his ships had burned or gone to the bottom. Never think I wouldn’t have done it.”

    Nahrmahn Baytz looked into the no longer gleaming brown eyes which had gone hard as frozen agates and recognized the truth when he heard it.

    “And I’ll also admit that I wanted to make the consequences of attacking my kingdom crystal clear, not simply to the Earl, but to the entire world. The next ruler the Group of Four bribes or coerces into attacking Charis will never be able to pretend he didn’t know ahead of time exactly how Charis was going to respond. And in case anyone missed that after my conversation with Thirsk, I rather suspect they’ll take my point after our message to King Zhames.

    “But I also figured it wouldn’t hurt for people like Clyntahn and Trynair to think they heard a young man’s arrogance talking. My father once told me it was a wonderful and always-to-be-treasured thing to be loved by your friends, but that it was essential to be feared by your enemies. And after fear, the next most essential thing where your enemies are concerned is that they underestimate you. Better never to be attacked at all, but if you are going to be attacked, the more overconfident your enemy is, the better.”

    Nahrmahn gazed for several seconds at the young man who had become his emperor, and then he bent his head in a gesture of respect.

    “I’m feeling better and better every day about the fact that I ended up losing to you and your father, Your Majesty.”

    “Really? Because I’m such a splendid and lovable fellow?”

    “No, not really,” Nahrmahn said dryly, and Cayleb snorted in amusement. Then the Emeraldian continued. “The reason I’m deciding I don’t feel so bad after all is that at least I didn’t lose to someone who simply stumbled into the ability to kick my well-padded arse up between my conniving ears.”



    The scorching sun was hot high overhead as Empress of Charis hove-to outside the breakwater of the city of Carmyn.

    Zebediah’s capital didn’t look especially impressive to someone who’d grown up in Tellesberg, Cayleb decided, but he had to admit that the anchorage itself was superb. Protected by the full extent of the Gulf of Talisman and Hannah Bay — not to mention the sheltering land masses of Grass Island and Shoal Island — it offered excellent security from the elements, which was a not insignificant reflection in these latitudes, especially during hurricane season. And the approaches to the port were just as good, with deep water and very few hazards to navigation until one got quite close to the city.

    Of course, the fact that it was also barely fifty miles north of the equator produced a climate in which even a Charisian felt as if he were being roasted on a spit whenever he stepped out into the direct noon sunlight.

    The harbor waterfront was reasonably well guarded by shore batteries, but Grand Duke Zebediah had sadly neglected the fortification of the islands dotting the approaches to his capital. There were several places where batteries would have seriously inconvenienced, at the very least, an attacking fleet, but no guns had been emplaced.

    Which might not owe a thing to Zebediah’s neglect, now that I think about it, he reflected. After all, Hektor knows the Grand Duke even better than Nahrmahn does. He probably made damned sure his navy wouldn’t have to fight its way past those batteries if any little unpleasantness arose. And that might not be a bad thing for me to be remembering, either, I suppose.

    The other ten galleons Cayleb had brought with him lay protectively about Empress of Charis, with their guns run out and manned. That might not be considered the most diplomatic stance possible, but Cayleb didn’t really care about that. His own flagship’s guns weren’t manned, and that was about all the concession to international proprieties he intended to make.

    He watched the ornate barge pulling out of the harbor towards Empress of Charis, then glanced at Merlin, who was examining the same barge through a spyglass. The emperor suppressed a temptation to smile as he privately bet himself that Merlin’s eye was actually closed. After all, a mere spyglass would only get in the way of someone with Merlin’s “natural” eyesight. It did give him an excuse to ask the “seijin” questions. However.

    “I take it the rowboat with all the gold paint is our friend the Grand Duke?”

    “I believe that’s correct, Your Majesty,” Merlin replied gravely, never lowering the spyglass. “At any rate, there’s a fellow sitting in the stern sheets who’s got to be about ready to suffer heatstroke, given all the gold and embroidery he’s wearing.”

    “That would be Zebediah,” Nahrmahn agreed from Merlin’s other elbow. “He’s always been insistent about maintaining the ‘proper appearance.’”

    The Emeraldian wore tastefully embroidered and tailored garments, but, like Cayleb, they were as utilitarian as they were elegant, and their cotton silk and steel thistle silk were as light and cool as was physically possible. Despite the extra weight Nahrmahn was carrying about with him, he looked far more comfortable than the approaching grand duke could possibly feel.

    “In that case, perhaps we should keep him here on deck while we talk?” Cayleb suggested with an evil smile. “If he’s about to melt down into a puddle of fat, he’ll scarcely be at his naturally treacherous best.”

    “Tempting, Your Majesty,” Nahrmahn agreed with a smile of his own. “But not very practical, I fear. I’m sure he’s already memorized everything he intends to say, and I’d be extraordinarily surprised if anything as silly as rational thought or debate was likely to change any of it. That being the case, I think the advantages for your thinking of getting into the shade outweigh the remote possibility that he might suffer the seijin’s heatstroke.”

    “It’s not my heatstroke, Your Highness,” Merlin remarked mildly, lowering the spyglass at last and turning to look at Nahrmahn. “I was merely offering an analytical statement, not expressing any sort of personal desire.”

    “Oh, of course not,” Nahrmahn agreed.

    “Stop it, both of you,” Cayleb half-scolded.

    It was remarkable how well Merlin and Nahrmahn got along, he reflected. In fact, it was obvious they actually liked one another, which wasn’t something Cayleb would have been willing to place any wagers on. And, he admitted, he found the fact that Merlin did like Nahrmahn remarkably reassuring.

    “Stop what, Your Majesty?” Merlin inquired innocently. “All I said was –”

    “I heard exactly what you said,” Cayleb said severely. “And let me remind you, that it’s most unbecoming of a Charisian Imperial Guardsman to think it would be a good idea for a visiting nobleman to suffer a fatal heatstroke. Until after he’s signed the surrender terms, at least.”

    “Surrender terms, Your Majesty?” Nahrmahn’s eyebrows rose. “Somehow I don’t recall that particular phrase having been used in any of the correspondence you’ve exchanged with Grand Duke Zebediah. Or, at least, in any of it which you’ve shared with your advisers.”

    “That’s because it wasn’t used,” Cayleb said with another of those thin smiles. “Believe me, though, Your Highness. Before the Grand Duke gets back into his rowboat this afternoon, there’s not going to be much doubt in his mind about what he’s just signed. He can call them whatever he wants, but I don’t think he’s going to be left in any uncertainty over what they really are . . . or what’s likely to happen to him if he should chance to violate them.”

    “That doesn’t sound extraordinarily ‘diplomatic’ to me, Your Majesty,” Merlin observed. The emperor looked at him, and the seijin shrugged. “Not that I have any problem with the desired outcome,” he added. “Personally, I think reasoned dialogue and fair-minded negotiation are overrated at times. I mean, yes, they have their place, and they can work. But sometimes a good, hard punch in the mouth is more effective than any number of diplomatic notes. Well, more enjoyable, anyway. And from all I’ve heard, this sounds to me like it might be one of those times.”




    Prince Nahrmahn, Cayleb decided as he exchanged bows with Tohmas Symmyns, the Grand Duke of Zebediah, on Empress of Charis’ quarterdeck, had a pronounced gift for accurate thumbnail descriptions. If Zebediah could have been rendered down, his natural oil content could have lit every lamp in Tellesberg Palace for at least a year.

    Which would probably be the best use to which he could possibly be put.

    The grand duke was a man of average height and average build, with a prominent nose, thinning dark hair, and eyes which appeared to be only about a quarter of an inch deep. They met other people’s gazes with laudable steadiness, but there was an opacity, an armor, just under the surface, that reminded Cayleb of certain species of poisonous hedge lizards.

    “It was most kind of you to come all this way to meet me, Your Grace,” Cayleb said, straightening from his own bow.

    “You’re an emperor, Your Majesty,” Zebediah said, showing large, even, white teeth in a gracious smile. “Emperors, like kings, are entitled to their little quirks and foibles. And, to be completely honest,” he allowed his smile to fade into an expression of sobriety, “under the circumstances, I would have been astonished if your advisers had even considered allowing you to anchor your flagship within range of the harbor batteries of someone with whom your realm is still officially at war.”

    “True enough.” Cayleb produced an expression which was almost a pout, and glanced sideways at the expressionless bodyguard towering at his shoulder in the livery of the House of Ahrmahk. Then the emperor returned his attention to the grand duke. “There are times when those ‘advisers’ of mine can be just a little . . . overprotective. It’s been even worse since Father’s death. There are times I think I’m never going to be allowed to do anything spontaneous again.”

    “I’m afraid great rank and great responsibility bring with them their own limitations, Your Majesty,” Zebediah said sympathetically.

    “I know.” Cayleb sighed, then drew a deep breath and straightened his shoulders.

    “Forgive my manners, Your Grace,” he said. “Here I stand, keeping you talking on deck, rather than getting you into the shade and offering you some refreshment. Will you join me in my cabin?”

    “I would be honored to,” Zebediah assured him.



    “Well, I thought that went rather well,” Cayleb remarked, some hours later as he stood on Empress of Charis’ quarterdeck once more, watching Zebediah’s ornate barge pull back towards the city.

    “You did, did you?” a deep voice asked, and Cayleb smiled up at Merlin. The two of them stood by the rail, with one of the quarterdeck carronades between them and out of easy earshot of anyone else, as long as they kept their voices down.

    “Of course I did,” the emperor replied, returning his attention to the departing barge. “Didn’t you?”

    “I think Grand Duke Zebediah thinks you’re still a drooling teenager, at least when your ‘advisers’ aren’t around,” Merlin said.

    “So do I,” Cayleb said with obvious satisfaction, and Merlin snorted.

    “All well and good to be ‘underestimated,’ Cayleb. As long as someone like Zebediah doesn’t end up underestimating you so badly he does something stupid, that is. Something that gets a lot of people killed.”

    “I agree.” Cayleb looked back at Merlin, his expression serious. “I think, though, in this case, that Nahrmahn was probably right. Zebediah knows he doesn’t have any choice but to give us the basing rights I demanded from him. And of course he showed more than a flicker of interest in the notion of his remaining as the first-ranking noble of Zebediah when we formally add the island to the Empire. And he fully intends to be my loyal and supportive ally and vassal right up until the first opportunity he sees to leave a dagger planted between my shoulder blades.”

    “Which is precisely why it may not be a good thing for him to underestimate you too badly.”

    “You’re missing my point, Merlin. It’s not a question of if he’ll see an opportunity to betray me; it’s only a question of when. And, that being the case, I’d really prefer for him to feel overconfident, rather than underconfident. I don’t want him to be so afraid of me that he actually ends up taking effective precautions. For that matter, I’d just as soon have him make his try before we’re directly engaged against the Church’s own forces. Better to have him hatch some sort of treason when we’re not distracted by a more serious threat, don’t you think?”

    “You may well have a point,” Merlin said slowly. “I’m not sure I agree with your logic, but I have to admit that it is logical. It seems a bit . . . convoluted, though.”

    “There are times, Merlin, when I find it easier than usual to believe you really did grow up in that ‘Terran Federation’ of yours.”

    “I beg your pardon?” Merlin’s left eyebrow arched, and Cayleb chuckled harshly.

    “In a more kindly and straightforward world — like the one you grew up in, at least where its politics were concerned — I’d just go ahead and quietly remove Zebediah. I’d ‘fire him’ as Grand Duke, and find someone else for the job. Preferably one of my Charisians who I know is loyal to me and deserves a proper reward for his services. Unfortunately, I can’t do that. Or, rather, I could, but only at the expense of making the next noble who might be tempted to reach an accommodation with me wonder if I plan on stripping him of his titles as a present for one of my favorites as soon as it’s convenient, as well.

    “I didn’t greet Nahrmahn with open arms just because of his diplomatic contacts, or his undeniable value as an adviser, Merlin. And while it’s fortunate that he’s actually a rather likeable old bugger — when he’s not trying to assassinate me, of course — I planned on treating him as if I’d liked him even if he’d turned out to be an unmitigated pain in the arse. But I didn’t greet him so warmly or betroth Zhan to Mahrya on the basis of those things. I did it because it sent a message to other princes, other dukes and earls. And that message was that I was prepared to be reasonable and pragmatic, not to insist upon vengeance. And that so long as a man honors his promises to me, I’ll honor my promises to him . . . including the promise that he’ll be allowed to keep his titles, and to pass them on to his heirs in the fullness of time. Unless, of course, he does something which gives me legitimate grounds to attaint him for treason. If he does that — if he obviously breaks his oaths, obviously supports my enemies — then I’ll be totally justified in stripping him of his titles and crushing him like a bug. But I need him to give me that obvious justification if I don’t want others to regard me as capricious and untrustworthy.”

    Merlin stroked his waxed mustachios, his expression thoughtful, then nodded slowly.

    “You’re right, that aspect of it hadn’t occurred to me,” he admitted.

    “That’s what I meant about believing you grew up somewhere else. It’s second nature to a dynast like me or Nahrmahn to think in those terms. Or, at least, it’s second nature to think that way if we’re reasonably intelligent dynasts. Which brings me back to my original point about the advantages of having Zebediah underestimate how smart I really am.”

    “You know, Cayleb, it’s rather unsporting of you to challenge an unarmed man to a duel.”

    “Oh? Is that what I’ve just done?”

    “No, it isn’t. It’s just the closest analogy I can come up with . . . at least until I think of something even nastier.”

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