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By Heresies Distressed: Chapter Fifteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, June 24, 2009 07:40 EDT



White Sail Bay,
Barony of Dairwyn,
League of Corisande

    Fresh thunder rumbled and crashed, and a fresh wall of dirty-white smoke billowed up, shot through with flashes of flame, as the line of Charisian galleons sailed majestically past the floating batteries once more.

    The rapid, disciplined bellowing of their guns was having its effect. Three of the anchored batteries had already been silenced, reduced to shattered ruin despite their heavy bulwarks. Wooden vessels were extraordinarily difficult to sink using solid shot, mainly because the holes those shot punched were relatively small and most tended to be above the waterline. It could still be done, however, and one of the big, stoutly constructed rafts was listing steeply, beginning to settle as water poured into it. Another was heavily aflame, and the third had simply been shot through and through. The other four were still in action, although their fire was beginning to falter, and bodies floated in the water around them, where they’d been pushed out of the gun ports to clear space for the surviving gun crews to serve their weapons.

    From this distance, with the city of Dairos and the sparkling waters of White Sail Bay as a backdrop, it could almost have been a magnificent spectacle, a tournament arranged to entertain and enthrall. But only if the spectators hadn’t experienced the same things themselves, and Cayleb Ahrmahk had experienced those things. He knew what happened to the fragile bodies of men when round shot came crashing through heavy timber bulwarks in a cloud of lethal splinters. When the man standing beside you was turned into so much bloody gruel by a twenty or thirty-pound round shot. When the screams of the wounded cut even through the deafening thunder of your own guns. When the deck which had been sanded for traction before action was splashed and patterned and painted in human blood.

    He knew what he was truly seeing, and he stood tight-mouthed as he watched the contest with his hands tightly folded behind him. He was unarmored, without even a sword at his side, and that was part of the reason his mouth was set in such a harsh line.

    Unfortunately for what he truly wanted to be doing at this moment, his official advisers — and Merlin — had had a point. The contest against the city of Dairos’ defenses could have only one outcome. Gallant as the men behind the guns of those beleaguered rafts might be proving themselves, they couldn’t possibly stand off the firepower of Cayleb’s fleet for very much longer. For that matter, trying to employ the full galleon strength under Cayleb’s immediate command against them would have been foolish. The ships would only have gotten in one another’s way, and the possibility of crippling collisions between friendly units would have been very real under such crowded, smoke-choked conditions.

    And, as Merlin had remorselessly pointed out, if it wasn’t practical to use all of his galleons, anyway, then there was no possible excuse for using Empress of Charis. It wasn’t as if Cayleb had anything to prove about his personal courage in order to motivate the men under his command. And “sharing the risk” when there was no pressing military necessity for him to do so — and when he and Sharleyan had yet to beget an heir — would have been not simply unnecessary but criminally reckless. One unlucky round shot could have catastrophic consequences, not simply for Cayleb, but for all the people he was obligated and pledged to defend.

    The obligation argument, in Cayleb’s opinion, had been a particularly low blow, even for Merlin. Nonetheless, he’d been forced to concede the point, and so he’d been standing at Empress of Charis quarterdeck rail, watching from safely outside artillery range, for the last three hours as other ships took the brunt of combat.

    It hadn’t been entirely one-sided. As Cayleb and his senior commanders had estimated (in no small part on the basis of Seijin Merlin’s “visions”), Hektor of Corisande had, indeed, gotten the new-style artillery into production. He still had nowhere near as many of the new guns as he undoubtedly would have wished, but he obviously did have his equivalent of Edwyrd Howsmyn. In addition to all of the brand new guns which had been emerging from his foundries, some infernally clever Corisandian busybody had figured out how to weld trunnions onto existing cannon, just as Howsmyn had done. He’d apparently been busily doing just that for months, too, which helped to explain why two of Cayleb’s galleons had been forced out of the battle line to make repairs and why the ships engaging those floating batteries had already suffered upwards of two hundred casualties of their own.

    “Why can’t those idiots recognize the inevitable and strike their colors before any more people get killed . . . on either side?” he half-growled and half-snarled.

    “Probably because they know their duty when they see it, Your Majesty,” Merlin said quietly. Cayleb’s jaw muscles tightened, and his brown eyes flashed angrily at the infinitely respectful note of reproval in his chief bodyguard’s tone. But then the emperor’s nostrils flared as he inhaled a deep breath, and he nodded.

    “You’re right,” he acknowledged. It wasn’t exactly an apology, but, then, it hadn’t exactly been a rebuke, either. He turned his head to give Merlin a crooked smile. “I just hate seeing so many men killed and wounded when it’s not going to change anything in the end.”

    “In the ultimate sense, you’re probably right about that,” Merlin agreed. “On the other hand, they might get lucky. A shot in exactly the wrong place, a spark in a magazine, a smashed lantern somewhere below decks . . . as Earl Gray Harbor is fond of pointing out, the first rule of battle is that what can go wrong, will go wrong. And, as your father once pointed out to him, that’s true for both sides.”

    “I know. But the fact that you’re right doesn’t make me like it any better.”

    “Good.” The emperor’s eyebrows arched at Merlin’s reply, and the sapphire-eyed guardsman smiled a bit sadly at him. “An awful lot of people are going to get killed before this is all over, Cayleb. I know it’s going to be harder on you, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I say that the longer it takes for you to begin taking that for granted, the better man — and emperor — you’ll be.”

    On Cayleb’s other side, Prince Nahrmahn’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully as he watched the emperor nod in grave agreement with the seijin’s observation. It wasn’t that Nahrmahn disagreed with Merlin’s observation. If the truth be told, Nahrmahn himself was perfectly capable of utter ruthlessness when necessity required, but he wasn’t naturally bloodthirsty. In fact, his ruthlessness was almost a reaction against the sort of bloodthirstiness some rulers — Hektor of Corisande came to mind — often displayed. He’d always had a tendency to focus his ruthlessness on narrowly defined targets, key individuals whose surgical elimination would most advance his plans, and wholesale mayhem offended him. It was messy. Worse, it was sloppy, because it usually indicated he’d failed to properly identify the critical individual or individuals whose removal was truly necessary. Which, among other things, meant he’d probably killed more people in the end than he’d had to.

    It was also the reason why, even though he would infinitely prefer an emperor who was a bit more ruthless than he had to be to an emperor who wasn’t sufficiently ruthless, he had no quarrel with the seijin’s statement. There were other reasons, as well, though, and some of them had been rather unexpected. To his surprise, Nahrmahn had actually come to like Cayleb. He was a thoroughly decent young man, which was rare enough outside the ranks of heads of state, and Nahrmahn would prefer to keep him that way as long as possible, particularly since Cayleb was also going to be the brother-in-law of Nahrmhan’s daughter. But setting that personal consideration completely aside, the last thing Safehold needed was for the young man who had been regretfully prepared to sink the Earl of Thirsk’s entire fleet if his surrender terms had been rejected to turn into a young man who wouldn’t have regretted it at all.

    Yet however much Nahrmahn might approve of Merlin’s statement, it wasn’t the sort of thing one’s bodyguards normally said to one. Especially not when one was an emperor. Nahrmahn had been prepared for a close relationship between Cayleb and the seijin. That kind of bond between an aristocrat and his most loyal and trusted servants was only to be expected, and Merlin had saved not only Cayleb’s life, but also those of Archbishop Maikel and the Earl of Gray Harbor, not to mention the seijin’s superhuman, already legendary effort to save King Harahld’s life at Darcoss Sound. What wasn’t to be expected was for that servant to be almost a . . . mentor to an emperor. “Mentor” wasn’t exactly the right word, as Nahrmahn was well aware, but it came close. Cayleb listened to Merlin, and he treasured the seijin’s views and opinions on an enormous range of decisions. Of course, unlike altogether too many rulers, Cayleb had the incredibly valuable (and unfortunately rare) ability to listen to his advisers. No one would ever mistake him for an indecisive man, but his very decisiveness gave him the confidence to seek the opinions of others whose judgment he trusted before he reached a decision. Still, there was something different about the way he listened to Merlin’s opinions.

    Don’t do it, Nahrmahn, the prince told himself. That curiosity of yours is going to get you straight back into trouble yet, if you’re not careful. If Cayleb wanted you to know why he respects Seijin Merlin’s advice as much as he does, no doubt he’d already have told you. And, no, you don’t need to be wondering how much the seijin has to do with all of those remarkable intelligence sources Wave Thunder was very carefully not telling you about.



    He snorted in quiet amusement at the direction of his own thoughts. Then his head snapped up as a thunderous explosion rolled across the smoke-layered waters of White Sail Bay. One of the floating batteries still in action against the Charisian galleons had just disappeared in an enormous fireball, and flaming fragments traced lines of smoke across the sky as they arced outward.

    “A spark in a magazine, I believe you said, Merlin,” Cayleb said harshly.

    “Probably,” Merlin agreed sadly. “On the other hand, they still haven’t figured out how to produce corned powder. Even with bagged charges, the way their gunpowder tends to separate and throw out dust clouds is dangerous enough under any circumstances. Given what it has to be like aboard those batteries by this time . . . .”

    He shook his head, and Cayleb nodded in agreement. Then he looked over his shoulder at Empress of Charis’ captain.

    “Make a signal, Andrai. Instruct Admiral Nylz to temporarily disengage. That’s better than half their batteries gone, and even the ones still in action have to be in bad shape. Let’s give them a chance to think about the advantages of surrender before we kill any more of them.”

    “Of course, Your Majesty.” Captain Gyrard said, and bowed to his monarch. Gyrard had been promoted to his present post after being wounded in action while serving as first lieutenant aboard Cayleb’s last flagship. He, too, had only too good an idea of what it must be like aboard those shattered batteries, and his expression made it obvious he agreed wholeheartedly with Cayleb’s decision as he nodded to his signal officer, who’d been standing by, waiting for instructions.

    “You heard His Majesty. Make the signal to disengage.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir.” The lieutenant touched his shoulder in salute, then began issuing orders of his own.

    As the signal flags started to climb the halyards, Cayleb turned back to the still-rising column of smoke where the battery had exploded and grimaced.

    “I could wish we’d been wrong about Hektor’s ingenuity,” he said. “If he’s managed to cobble up something like this to defend Dairos, what has he come up with for one of his major ports?”

    “Probably more than we’d care to tangle with unless we absolutely have to,” Merlin replied.

    “At least his logistics problems have to be more complex than ours, if only because of his ammunition problems, Your Majesty,” Captain Gyrard pointed out, and Cayleb grunted in agreement.

    The Royal Charisian Navy had standardized the armament of its galleons long before it had become the Imperial Charisian Navy. Ships like Empress of Charis carried the newest artillery, which was actually a bit lighter than the guns Cayleb had taken to Armageddon Reef and Darcos Sound. Ehdwyrd Howsmyn and Baron Seamount had seen no choice before the previous year’s campaign but to use the existing kraken for their standard artillery piece. It had already been the closest thing to a standard heavy gun the Navy had boasted, so there’d been enough of them to give the fleet a useful initial stock, once Howsmyn had figured out how to add trunnions.

    But although it had been the only practical choice, it hadn’t been the one Seamount had really wanted, for several reasons. The biggest one was that the “standard” kraken, unlike the larger and longer “great kraken,” or “royal kraken,” had been intended as a comparatively short-ranged, smashing weapon. Even with the new powder, its relatively short barrel length had reduced the velocity and range of its shot, with a corresponding drop in accuracy at longer ranges. In addition, when Howsmyn had reamed out the bores to standardize them and reduce windage, he’d had to go to a heavier weight of shot than Seamount had wanted. The baron had experimented with several different shot weights, trying to find the best balance between hitting power and the speed with which human muscles could load the weapons. Especially the sustained speed with which they could be loaded. Those experiments had suggested that reducing shot weight even slightly would help substantially, so he and Howsmyn had designed somewhat different models and adopted them once they began producing only newly cast weapons.

    The new-model weapons had longer gun tubes, but they also had reduced bores, so they weighed no more than the older guns. The change hadn’t made much difference where the upper-deck carronades were concerned, but it had given the much longer and heavier main-deck guns greater muzzle velocity and striking power, despite the reduction in each shot’s weight by almost eight pounds.

    The change had its downsides, of course. The most prominent one was that it had introduced at least some ammunition complications, since the older galleons still mounted their original converted krakens, whose ammunition was not interchangeable with the guns mounted aboard the newer vessels.

    Compared to most navies, however, the Charisian Navy’s ammunition arrangements were simplicity itself. Howsmyn and Seamount had settled on a total of four “standard” long guns: the “new-model kraken” with its roughly thirty-pound shot, an eighteen-pounder, a fourteen-pounder (intended specifically for chase armaments, with an especially tight windage to enhance accuracy), and a ten-pounder (for the same role aboard lighter ships). Their carronade “stablemates” were a fifty-seven-pounder, a thirty-pounder, and an eighteen-pounder. That was an enormous improvement over the “old-model” artillery, which had included no less than fifteen “standard” long gun calibers. (Not to mention the fact that guns of nominally the same bore size frequently hadn’t been able to use the same round shot because different foundries’ “inches” had been a different length from one another before King Harahld’s draconian enforcement of the new official standards of measurement.)

    They’d sought to further simplify things by decreeing that each individual ship must mount the same caliber of carronades and long guns, at least for broadside armament. They were willing to be a bit more flexible where the chase armament was concerned, but the fact that all of the broadside weapons fired identical projectiles made both the gunners’ and the purser’s lives ever so much easier. For the moment, at least. Personally, Merlin suspected it wasn’t going to be long before the neat “official establishment” began to leak. As more specialized galleon designs evolved and the differentiated frigate/cruiser and ship-of-the-line/battleship emerged, topweight considerations and designed combat roles were going to begin dictating a reversion to mixed armaments.

    The Corisandians’ rush to improvise as many as possible of the “new-model” guns had left them in a far less enviable position, however, with no time to waste working out any sort of standardized table of naval ordnance. Their new guns appeared to come in no more than one or two calibers, but the conversions with the welded-on trunnions had pressed as many existing guns as possible into service. One of the floating batteries engaged against them in Dairos’ defense had obviously mounted at least three, and possibly four, different calibers, which must have created nightmares for the man responsible for getting the right size and weight of shot to each gun.

    Which, unfortunately, Cayleb reflected, doesn’t keep those guns from being damnably effective when the gunners do get the right shot size.

    “Your Majesty, we’ve just received a signal from General Chermyn.” Gyrard’s polite voice interrupted Cayleb’s thoughts, and the emperor turned to the flag captain.

    “And what did the General have to say?” he asked.

    “Brigadier Clareyk has reported by heliograph, Your Majesty. He has his entire brigade ashore, and the second wave of Brigadier Haimyn’s troops are landing now. Brigadier Clareyk estimates both brigades will be in their assigned positions within the next thirty to forty minutes. An hour at the outside, he says.”

    “Good!” Cayleb’s tight expression lightened slightly.



    One of the new Charisian innovations had been the introduction of the heliograph, using reflected sunlight to transmit messages in what another world in another time would have called “Morse code.” Another had been the construction of specifically designed landing craft. They came in two sizes, with the larger capable of landing field artillery or up to a hundred men at a time, while the smaller (and faster) version could land only forty, Although both designs were capable — theoretically, at least — of making extended independent passages under sail, the shallow draft and flat bottoms designed to make over-the-beach landings possible also made them less than ideal blue-water vessels at the best of times. Sir Dustyn Olyvyr had improved things at least a bit by providing them with retractable leeboards, but the smaller ones (almost half the total) had made the voyage from Charis as deck cargo, and the captains responsible for getting them to Corisande had not been delighted by their assignment.

    At the moment, Cayleb’s sympathy for their unhappiness was limited, to say the least. The deck cargo landing craft had been swayed out the day before to join their bigger, rather more weather worn sisters who’d made the passage the hard way, and while Dairos’ defenders’ attention was glued to the galleons systematically reducing the harbor’s seaward defenses to wreckage, Clareyk and Haimyn had busied themselves putting their two Marine brigades ashore just out of sight of the town’s fortifications. They had only four batteries of field guns, and no siege artillery at all, to support them, but four thousand rifle-armed Marines wouldn’t need a lot of artillery support.

    “Someone ask Father Clyfyrd to join us. I think it’s time to send another note ashore.” The emperor showed his teeth in a tight smile. “I realize Baron Dairwyn wasn’t especially impressed by his brother-in-law’s letters. Frankly, I wouldn’t have been impressed by anything from Grand Duke Zebediah, either. But the beating his batteries have taken ought to be enough to incline him to see reason even without having Clareyk and Haimyn ashore behind him.”

    “It seems likely, at any rate, Your Majesty,” Captain Gyrard agreed.

    “It better,” Cayleb said in a harder, somehow darker voice. “If we have to storm his town, it’s going to get ugly. I realize our men are better disciplined than most, but even Siddarmarkian pikemen’s discipline can slip if they take heavy casualties. Especially if they take them storming a position everyone on both side knows couldn’t hold out against them in the end. Besides, even if our people behave themselves perfectly, there are civilians — lots of them, including women and children — in Dairos.”

    “Were you thinking of making that point to the Baron in your note, Your Majesty?” Merlin asked, and Cayleb barked a laugh at his bodyguard’s painstakingly neutral tone.

    “As a matter of fact, yes. But tactfully, Merlin — tactfully. I wasn’t thinking of handling this the same way I handled Earl Thirsk, if that’s the point you were delicately raising. Observe.”

    Father Clyfyrd had arrived, portable writing desk in hand, while Cayleb was speaking. The emperor watched his secretary setting up the desk and pulling out a pad of notepaper. The brisk breeze blowing across the deck caught at the edges of the pad’s sheets, ruffling them exuberantly, and Cayleb quirked an eyebrow at Laimhyn as the priest grabbed the pad, set it on the desk, and jabbed a pair of pushpins through the bottom corners of the top sheet to tame its gyrations.

    “Would it be easier on you if we went below, Clyfyrd?” the emperor asked then with grave courtesy . . . and careful timing.

    “No, thank you, Your Majesty.” Laimhyn’s deadpan expression would have done credit to any trained stage actor, and he shook his head courteously. “By the strangest turn of fate I appear to have just this instant finished tacking down the notepaper. A peculiar coincidence of timing, I’m certain.”

    “Goodness,” Cayleb said demurely. “That is astonishing, isn’t it?”

    A sniff, barely audible over the sound of wind humming through Empress of Charis’ rigging, might have escaped from Laimhyn. Then again, it might have been only the onlookers’ imagination.

    “Truly,” Cayleb said, his expression much more serious, “are you ready, Clyfyrd?”

    “Of course, Your Majesty,” Laimhyn replied, his tone equally serious, and dipped his pen in the desk’s inkwell.

    “Make sure it’s properly addressed,” Cayleb told him. “Use some of that correspondence of Zebediah’s to be sure we get the details straight. And I’ll rely on you to choose a properly polite salutation.”

    “Yes, Your Majesty.”

    “Very well.”

    The emperor cleared his throat, then began.

    “My Lord, your men have fought with a gallantry and determination which deserves only praise and honor, but their position is now hopeless. Your defensive batteries are destroyed or too badly damaged to effectively defend themselves any longer, and my infantry is now ashore in strength and will shortly be prepared to assault your landward defenses. Men who have shown such bravery in action deserve better than to be killed when their position has become obviously untenable, and Dairos is a city, not a fortress citadel. I am confident that neither of us desires to find civilians — especially women and children — caught in battle in the middle of their own town, amid their own homes, churches, and shops. In order to avoid additional and ultimately profitless loss of life, both military and civilian, I once again urge you to surrender your position. I will guarantee civil order, the safety of your civilian population, and the preservation of private property in so far as the exigencies of war allow, and men who have fought as valiantly and steadfastly as your men have this day deserve, and will receive, honorable and correct treatment under the laws of warfare.”

    He paused, as if considering adding something else, then shrugged.

    “Read that back, please, Clyfyrd.”

    “Of course, Your Majesty.” The priest read the entire brief message aloud, and Cayleb nodded.

    “I think that should just about do it. Make a clean copy for my signature. And let’s be certain it’s properly sealed, as well as addressed. I don’t want the Baron thinking we dashed it off hastily, now do I?”

    “No, Your Majesty.”

    Laimhyn bowed to the emperor, and this time he did retire to the shelter of Cayleb’s day cabin to produce the formal note on Cayleb’s personal stationery, complete with the properly correct and ornate calligraphy.

    “There,” Cayleb told Merlin. “You see? No crude threats. Just one reasonable man sending a note to another reasonable man.”

    “Much smoother than your conversation with Thirsk, Your Majesty,” Merlin agreed respectfully. “I especially liked the bit at the end when you didn’t say ‘or else.’”

    “Yes, I thought that was well done myself,” Cayleb said with a smile.

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