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By Schism Rent Asunder: Section Thirty Two

       Last updated: Wednesday, April 9, 2008 07:21 EDT




Earl of Thirsk's Townhouse,
City of Gorath,
Kingdom of Dohlar

    "So how well did it work?" Lywys Gardynyr, the Earl of Thirsk, asked his guest.

    "That depends," that guest replied now.

    Admiral Pawal Hahlynd had the unenviable task of commanding the ships assigned to protect the Kingdom of Dohlar's commerce in Hankey Sound and the approaches to Gorath Bay. Once upon a time, that had been a simple, even boring task. These days, it had become anything but.

    "Depends on what, Pawal?" Thirsk asked as patiently as he could.

    "Depends on how many of your 'trap ships' we have to trade for Charisian pirates," Hahlynd said sourly.

    "That bad, was it?"

    "Bad enough," Hahlynd agreed. Then he shook himself and inhaled deeply. "Actually, I think Maigee would have taken him in the end, if another of those damned schooners hadn't turned up. Against two of them, though –"

    The admiral shrugged, his expression grim, and Thirsk nodded. He wasn't actually very surprised by the outcome, especially given the fact that the Charisians were smart enough to stay concentrated where they could support one another.

    Not exactly what you expected out of "pirates," was it, Pawal? he thought sourly, then scolded himself almost instantly. Hahlynd might not have fully grasped what Thirsk had told him about the new Charisian guns or the deadly discipline of their captains and crews, but at least he'd bothered to listen. And not simply to listen, either. He'd actually put some of Thirsk's suggestions and recommendations into effect.

    And he damned well deserved to have it work out to better, the earl told himself.

    "From the sound of things," Hahlynd continued, "Maigee probably managed to kill or wound at least two-thirds of the first ship's crew. And he obviously pounded the shit out of its hull." The admiral showed his teeth in a grin that was more than half snarl. "That's the only reason I can think of for a pirate to burn his own ship, at any rate."

    Thirsk nodded again, this time with a bit more enthusiasm. If the Charisians had actually burned one of their ships, this far from home, then Hahlynd's estimate of the damage Thirsk's "trap ship" had managed to inflict had to be reasonably accurate. And while there were seldom enough officers of the caliber of this Maigee of Hahlynd's around — especially after the battles of Rock Point and Crag Reach, he thought bitterly — a one-for-one trade was probably the very best Dohlar could reasonably hope for.

    He considered pointing out to Hahlynd that Charisian privateers were a far cry from the occasional Harchongese or Trellheim-based piratical scum the other admiral normally had to deal with. For all intents and purposes, the privateers who had decimated Dohlar's and Tarot's commerce off the east coast of Howard, and who were now ranging all the way to the western coast of the mainland, were auxiliary cruisers of the Royal Charisian Navy.

    Thirsk was quite certain King Cayleb and Admiral Lock Island were inventively cursing the diversion of trained manpower from their navy to the privateers, but they couldn't have been surprised by it. Privateering paid better, after all . . . as long as there were enemy merchant ships upon which to prey, at least. Despite the loss of trained men to their crews, though, Thirsk somehow doubted private shipowners would have been able to get their hands on any of the new Charisian artillery pieces without at least the Royal Navy's tacit agreement. Which, given the privateers' record of success to date, had to be one of Cayleb's better investments. And, in the end, a lot of those diverted seamen would probably end back up in naval service. Privateering might pay well while it lasted, but Thirsk wasn't particularly optimistic about how much longer the Charisians would be able to find merchant ships to pounce upon.

    That's one way to send the privateers home, I suppose, he thought bitterly, gazing out of the townhouse window at the beautiful blue sweep of Gorath Bay. Once they've completely wiped out our merchant fleet, there won't be any reason for them to stay around, will there?

    "I hate to say it," he said out loud, never turning away from the view as he put his thoughts into words, "but trading one of our galleons for one of their privateers is probably as good as it's going to get."

    "Well it's not good enough," Hahlynd growled. "And not just because Thorast is blaming me for it, either!"

    "I know, Pawal," Thirsk replied. "I know."

    And he did know. In fact, Hahlynd was one of the relatively few senior officers of the Royal Dohlaran Navy who were more concerned about finding the best way to deal with the radically new threats the navy faced than with covering their own precious arses.

    Well, one of the relatively few senior officers still serving, at least, the earl corrected himself.

    "They've got to give you a command again, Lywys," Hahlynd said, almost as if he'd been reading Thirsk's mind. Not, the earl conceded, that it would have taken a genius to figure out what he was thinking. "Surely they have to realize they can't afford to leave you sitting ashore like a spare anchor!"

    "Don't bet on it," he said sourly, and turned to face his guest fully. "Given the way Thorast and the King blame me for what happened off Armageddon Reef, I suppose I'm lucky they settled for just beaching me."

    Hahlynd looked as if he would have preferred to argue. Unfortunately, King Rahnyld had been more interested in finding and punishing a scapegoat than he had in profiting from his best sea commander's experience against the Charisian Navy. And it was Thirsk's additional ill fortune that the Duke of Thorast, the closest thing Dohlar had to a navy minister — and that navy's senior officer, to boot — was married to the sister of  Duke Malikai, the incomparably incompetent (and thankfully deceased) "grand-admiral" who'd gotten most of the Dohlaran navy chopped up for kraken bait despite Thirsk's best efforts to save him from his own disastrous bungling. Thorast was scarcely likely to admit Malikai's culpability, especially with someone else available to take the blame. Under the circumstances, Thirsk had actually seriously considered the invitation from Baron White Ford to stay on in Tarot as the second-in-command of the Tarotisian Navy.

    If it hadn't been for his family, he probably would have, he admitted to himself now. His wife had been dead for years, but all three of his daughters had husbands and children of their own. Not only would he have missed them almost more than life itself, but he'd been far from certain the king wouldn't have punished them for their father and grandfather's "failure" if Thirsk himself had been beyond his reach.

    "They can't leave you cooling your heels here for long," Hahlynd argued. "You're the best and most experienced fleet commander we've got!"

    "And I'm also the bone they're prepared to throw to Vicar Allayn and the 'Knights of the Temple Lands' if it comes down to it," Thirsk pointed out rather more calmly than he actually felt.

    "Surely it won't come to that."

    Thirsk would have felt better if Hahlynd had been able to put a little more confidence into his tone.

    "I hope not." The earl turned back to the window, clasping his hands behind him as he wished his life could be as calm as those distant waters looked from here. "I'm not thoroughly convinced of that, though."

    "You know," Hahlynd said a bit diffidently, "it would probably help if you'd, well . . . "

    "Keep my mouth shut? Stop stepping on their toes?" Thirsk's mouth curled sardonically. "Unfortunately, Pawal, I have my own responsibilities. And not just to the King."

    "I know that. It's one reason I've been over here taking your advice, trying to pick your brain for ideas. But the truth is that every time you open your mouth, you only piss off the King. And as for Thorast –!"

    Hahlynd rolled his eyes and shook his head, and Thirsk laughed sourly.

    "I can't think of anything — short of a death rattle, at least — that Thorast wants to hear out of me," he said.

    In fact, he added silently to himself, if it weren't for Fern, I think Thorast would have preferred court-martialing me and hanging me in front of Parliament as a warning to all those other "cowardly slackers" — like the ones who obviously helped me betray his brother-in-law through our own incompetence and cowardice — he's so sure are out there somewhere.



    At least Samyl Cahkrayn, the Duke of Fern and the first councilor of Dohlar, seemed to understand that Thirsk and the handful of other surviving (and disgraced) senior officers of Duke Malikai's shattered fleet were a valuable resource. He appeared to be trying to protect them, at any rate. And without a protector that highly placed, Thirsk probably would have already suffered the full consequences of the king's "extreme displeasure." Of course, it was always possible the real reason Fern was preserving Thirsk was as a potential sacrifice against a greater need. If the Group of Four ended up claiming a sacrificial victim for the failure of Vicar Allayn's oh-so-brilliant naval campaign plan, it would be hard to come up with a better one than the senior surviving admiral from the resultant fiasco.

    "I'm afraid you're right where Thorast is concerned," Hahlynd admitted unhappily.

    "Of course I am." Thirsk snorted. "If it's not all my fault, then it has to be his brother-in-law's, after all."

    "That's certainly part of it," Hahlynd agreed. "But the way you keep pushing where the new building program's concerned isn't helping any."

    "No?" Thirsk looked at him for a moment, then shrugged. "You're probably right, but that doesn't change the fact that the 'new building program' isn't going to help much against Charis, either. We don't need another galley fleet, Pawal. In fact, that's the last thing we need!"

    Hahlynd started to say something, then changed his mind, and Thirsk snorted again.

    Apparently, no one was particularly interested in his own reports on what had happened off Armageddon Reef. In his fairer moments, he tried to remind himself that the people reading those reports had to wonder whether he was telling the truth, or simply trying to cover his own arse. After all, it would make his own failure look far more excusable if he'd found himself confronting some sort of deadly new warship design and not simply an enemy commander who'd turned out to be more competent than he was. But the truth had a nasty habit of biting people who refused to confront it, and Thirsk was glumly certain his navy was going to get bitten all over again.

    "This is just plain stupid, Pawal. Galleys?" He shook his head. "You've just been telling me what one of their schooners did to a galleon armed with the most effective broadside we could give it. Can't anyone understand that galleys have just become totally outclassed?"

    "At least the new designs are going to be more seaworthy." Hahlynd sounded remarkably like someone searching for a silver lining, Thirsk thought.

    "I'll grant that," he said after a moment, "and, to be fair, that's nothing to sneeze at."

    His eyes turned bleak and hard as he remembered his own fleet's endless voyage to its final catastrophic meeting with the Royal Charisian Navy. The Dohlaran Navy's galleys had been designed for in-shore waters, not for the sort of blue-water crossing which had been demanded of them. They'd been shorter than most of the heavier Charisian galleys, and their drafts had been much shallower, even for their size. As a result, they'd displaced little more than a half or a third as much as a Charisian galley. That had made them much faster and more maneuverable under oars, of course . . . as long as their bottoms were reasonably clean. But it also left them far less stable under sail (which meant they could carry less of it), and far more vulnerable to even average conditions on the open sea. Which meant that except under oars (which meant anywhere outside coastal waters) they were actually slower and less maneuverable. The Charisians' galleys weren't really designed to move under oars at all, except in calms or to maneuver once combat was actually joined. They were designed primarily as sailing vessels with oars to provide auxiliary power — to give them additional speed under sail, to help them accelerate, to get them around onto a new tack more rapidly. In calm conditions, they were at a serious maneuvering disadvantage; in typical blue-water conditions, the advantage flipped entirely to their side.

    Duke Malikai's flagship, King Rahnyld, had been the biggest ship in the entire Dohlaran Navy. She'd been almost as long as Baron White Ford's Tarotisian flagship, and stood far higher out of the water . . . yet her displacement, huge for the Dohlaran Navy, had been little more than half that of White Ford's flagship. Even White Ford's ship had been lighter and shallower draft than the majority of the Royal Charisian Navy's galleys, and the Charisian galleons were deeper draft, still. Which not only made them even more seaworthy but created ideal platforms for the new Charisian-style artillery. Speed and maneuverability under oars, like high fighting castles, had proved useless in combat against the galleons' far heavier broadsides and greater seaworthiness. For that matter, Thirsk was positive that at least a dozen, and probably more, of the ships Malikai had lost had foundered primarily because they simply had no business making an ocean crossing. So if the new designs were at least a little more seaworthy, so much the better.

    Unfortunately, that only means they'll stay afloat long enough for the Charisians to turn them all into driftwood.

    "It's nothing to sneeze at," he repeated, "but it's not enough, either. Remember, we aren't the only fleet Cayleb smashed."

    "No, we're not. But as far as I know, we still don't have any reliable reports about what happened to Black Water and Earl Mahndyr."

    Thirsk grunted. That was true enough, unfortunately.

    "You're right," he said. "And I suppose it says something for the Group of Four's decisiveness, at any rate, that they've already arranged their new building program . . . even if it is the wrong program. It's too bad they didn't wait to read the reports first, though."

    The existence of the Church's semaphore system had allowed the Group of Four to issue the various kingdoms' and empires' orders with a speed no purely secular realm could have matched. It was an advantage which had served the Church (and the Group of Four) well over the years, as Thirsk was well aware. In this case, though, that speed was actually working against them. They'd launched what had to be the biggest single shipbuilding program in the history of the world . . . and they were building the wrong ships. God only knew how much money and, even more importantly, time and skilled labor they'd already squandered buying ships which were going to be worse than useless under the new conditions of sea warfare. The fact was that the Church could probably afford the financial consequences, but if the "Knights of the Temple Lands" persisted in ignoring Thirsk's own reports, they were going to get an unholy number of other people's seamen and marines slaughtered by the Royal Charisian Navy.

    And I can't convince a single one of them to even read my damned reports, the earl thought despairingly. Being "proved right" in the end is going to be damned cold comfort.

    "Well, Pawal," he said finally, "all we can do is try our best. I know it seems unlikely, but if I keep shouting loud enough, long enough, maybe someone will actually end up listening to me. I'm sure something more unlikely must have happened somewhere in the world since the Creation."

    Hahlynd chuckled dutifully at Thirsk's feeble joke, but the earl himself didn't feel at all like laughing.

    There are times, he thought, when it's really, really hard to go on believing God is on our side.

    Of course, that was a thought he dared not express even to Hahlynd. In fact, it was one he would have preferred not expressing even to himself.

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