A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 31

Wailahr nodded slowly as he considered Ahbaht’s analysis of the other galleon captain’s thinking. It made sense, he decided, and after twenty-six years in the Crown’s service, he had more than enough experience as an officer himself to appreciate what his flag captain had offered about the probable Charisian’s thought processes. Unfortunately, he was far less well qualified to evaluate some of the other factors involved in the developing situation, since almost all of his own experience had been ashore, most of it as a cavalry commander in the Imperial Army. As in the majority of Safeholdian realms, traditional Desnairian practice had always been to assign army commanders to its warships (of which it had possessed precious few), each with an experienced seaman to translate his decisions and commands into action. It was a warship commander’s job to fight, after all, and a professional military man had more important things to worry about than the technical details of making the boat go where it was supposed to go.

Or that’s the theory, at any rate, Wailahr told himself sourly. And I suppose if I’m going to be fair, it’s always worked well enough against other people who do the same thing. Unfortunately — there was that word again — Charis doesn’t. And it hasn’t, not for a long time.

As a loyal subject of Mahrys IV and an obedient son of Mother Church, Sir Hairahm Wailahr was determined to make a success of his present assignment, but he had few illusions about his own knowledge of things naval. He was out of his depth (he grimaced mentally at his own choice of phrase) as the commander of one of the Navy’s new galleons, much less an entire squadron, which was the reason he was so grateful for Ahbaht’s experience.

Even if he did want to kick the captain in the arse from time to time.

“You say he’s making for us, Captain,” Wailahr said after a moment. “Do you mean he’s pursuing us?”

“Most likely, Sir.” Ahbaht swept one arm in a half-circle in the general direction of the other ship, still invisible from Archangel Chihiro’s deck. “There’s a lot of ocean out there, Sir Hairahm, and not much shipping on it since the damned Charisians started privateering. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for a merchant galleon to be making for Terrence Bay, just as we are. But, as I say, without positively knowing we were friendly, I’d expect any merchant skipper to keep his distance. He’d certainly have reduced sail to maintain our current separation, I’d think, even if he’s headed for Silk Town or for Khairman Keep, like we are. And even though the lookout isn’t positive, he thinks this fellow has made more sail.”

“He isn’t positive about something like that?” Wailahr raised one eyebrow.

“He says he isn’t, Sir. I can get him down here to speak to you personally, of course.” The flag captain gave another of those small shrugs. “I had Lieutenant Chaimbyrs speak with him already, though. It’s the Lieutenant’s opinion that what really caught the lookout’s eye in the first place was this other ship’s setting additional canvas.”

“I see.”

Ahbaht’s response had just neatly encapsulated both his greatest strength and, in Wailahr’s opinion, his greatest weakness as a flag captain. Or as any sort of military commander, for that matter. From his tone and his body language he was completely prepared to summon the lookout to the deck so that Wailahr could personally browbeat the man, yet he’d also had Lieutenant Zhustyn Chaimbyrs, Archangel Chihiro’s second lieutenant, interrogate the sailor first. Chaimbyrs was himself an excellent young officer — one Wailahr already had an eye on for promotion — and he would have gotten the lookout’s very best estimate out of him without intimidating him. It was just like Ahbaht to have made exactly the right choice about how to get the most accurate information possible, on the one hand, and yet to be willing to allow a possibly irritated superior to vent his spleen on the seaman who’d provided it, on the other. Especially if that superior had the sort of court influence which might benefit his own career.

Be fair, Hairahm, the commodore reminded himself for perhaps the thousandth time. Unlike you, Ahbaht has no connections at all, and the man’s already — what? Forty-three? Whatever. Old enough at any rate to expect he’s not going to climb much higher without someone to give him a boost. Although I’d think the fact that they picked him to command one of the very first galleons ought to go at least a little way towards reassuring him.

On the other hand, the Navy had never been exactly glamorous in Desnarian eyes. Quite a few of the career naval officers Wailahr had met over the last several months seemed to find it a bit difficult to grasp just how much that was about to change.

“All right, Ruhsail,” he said out loud after several seconds’ thought. “What do you recommend?”

“Recommend, Sir?” Ahbaht’s eyes flitted sideways for a moment, towards Lairays.

“Do we let him catch us, or do we make more sail of our own?” Wailahr expanded in a slightly dangerous tone.

Ahbaht’s eyes came back to the commodore’s face, and Wailahr managed not to sigh in exasperation. As far as he could tell, there was nothing at all wrong with Ahbaht’s physical courage, but it was obvious he had no more intention of putting his foot wrong in front of Lairays than he did of offending Wailahr himself.

Which, Wailahr was forced to concede upon more mature consideration, was probably wise of him, in many ways, after all. Lairays hadn’t been the commodore’s own choice as chaplain. He’d been assigned to Wailahr by Bishop Executor Mhartyn Raislair, and his presence was a clear statement of exactly who Archangel Chihiro actually belonged to. She might fly Desnair’s black horse on a yellow field, but there was a reason Mother Church’s pennant flew above the national colors. For the moment, no one was talking a great deal about that reason — not openly, at any rate. But only a complete moron (which, despite his obsequiousness, Ahbaht clearly wasn’t) could have failed to realize that all the rumors about the imminence of Holy War had a very sound basis, indeed.

It was fortunate, in Wailahr’s opinion, that there seemed to be little of the fanatic about Father Awbrai. Zealotry, yes, which was only to be expected in the priest the bishop executor had chosen as his personal eyes and ears on Wailahr’s staff, but not fanaticism. He was unlikely to hold Ahbaht’s honest opinion against the flag captain, whatever it was, but Wailahr supposed he shouldn’t really blame Ahbaht for being cautious in front of him.

“I suppose, Sir, that that depends on what it is we want to accomplish,” the flag captain said finally. “If our sole concern is to collect the bullion from Khairman Keep, then I would advise against accepting action.” His eyes tried to flick to Lairays again, but he kept his voice commendably firm as he continued. “While there are two of us and only one of him, it’s entirely possible — even probable — that we’d suffer at least some damage even against one of their privateers. If this is one of their war galleons, the chance of that goes up considerably. And any damage we might suffer would have to be put right again before we could sail with the bullion, which would undoubtedly delay its delivery.”

A reasonable answer, Wailahr reflected. And a well taken point, for that matter.

He didn’t know the precise value of the gold shipment awaiting his two ships, but he knew it was large. In fact, it was a substantial portion of Desnair’s annual tithe to Mother Church, actually. Which, considering the incredible outlays the Temple had been making to pay for the new warships building all over Hauwerd and Haven, lent a certain urgency to getting that gold safely delivered to the Temple’s coffers in Zion. Vicar Rhobair’s Treasury needed all the cash it could get, and given typical winter road conditions, it made sense to send it by sea for as much of its journey as possible. Or it would have, at least, if not for the omnipresent Charisian privateers, and if the ships building in the Gulf of Jahras, conveniently close to Khairman Keep, had been near enough to ready for sea to take it. As it happened, however, those Charisian privateers did, indeed, seem to be just about everywhere, and none of the new construction at Iythria or Mahrosa had been far enough advanced for the task. Which explained why he and the first two fully operational ships of his squadron had been dispatched all the way from the imperial capital at Desnair the City (so called to distinguish it from the rest of the empire) to fetch it.

We’re already behind schedule, too, and Bishop Executor Mhartyn won’t thank me if I’m even later, he thought. There are two of us, though, and sooner or later we have to cross swords with them. Langhorne knows the sheer terror of the Charisians’ reputation is one of their most effective weapons! Deservedly so, I suppose. But they’re only mortals, when all’s said, and we need to start chipping away at that reputation . . .

He glanced at “his” chaplain.

“Father, I’m inclined to let this fine gentleman overhaul us, if that’s his intention. Or to let him get at least a bit closer, at any rate. Close enough for us to see who he really is. If he’s only a privateer, I imagine he’ll sheer off once he realizes he’s been chasing a pair of war galleons, and, to be honest, I’d like to get him close enough we’d have a chance to catch him if he runs.”

“And if he’s a war galleon himself, Commodore?” Lairays deep voice sounded even deeper coming from someone as youthful looking as the under-priest, and the brown cockade of his priest’s cap fluttered in the stiff breeze whipping across Archangel Chihiro’s quarterdeck.

“If he’s a war galleon, then I suppose it’s possible he’ll keep right on coming,” Wailahr replied. “If he does, as the Captain’s just pointed out, there are two of us, which should give us a considerable advantage if we can entice him into engagement range. Do you think His Eminence would be willing to put up with a little delay while we repair any battle damage in return for taking or sinking one of Cayleb’s warships?”

* * * * * * * * * *

“Deck, there! The nearer chase is shortening sail!”

Captain Sir Dunkyn Yairley looked up at the mizzen crosstrees and frowned slightly as the announcement came down from above.

“She’s takin’ in her topgallants, Sir!” the lookout continued. “Both of ’em are!” he added a minute or so later, and Yairley’s frown deepened.

It was merely a thoughtful frown, however, Hektor Aplyn-Ahrmahk observed, and set his own mind to following the captain’s thoughts.

It could be that the other ship had simply decided she was carrying too much sail for safety. The other two galleons had come to a more northerly heading, about north-northwest, and set their topgallants once they realized Destiny was pursuing them, but that didn’t mean their commander had been happy about his own decision. His ships’ rigs might be considerably more powerful than they would have been two or three years ago, but very few vessels in the world had sail plans as powerful — and well-balanced — as those of the present Charisian navy.

Destiny’s masts were taller, proportionately, and included the lofty royal masts her quarry lacked, yet it wasn’t simply a matter of more mast height, either. If she’d set every scrap of canvas she had, including all her fore-and-aft staysails and all three jibs, she would have shown twenty-five sails. Not only that, the new water-powered Charisian looms meant her sails had a much tighter weave, which let them capture more of the wind’s power, and they were cut to the new, flat pattern Sir Dustyn Olyvyr had introduced. The ships she was pursuing didn’t carry royals or staysails; they would have shown only ten under the same circumstances. Those sails were still cut to the old “bag sail” pattern, acting like rounded sacks to catch the wind, rather than the flatter, more perpendicular — and hence more efficient — surface of Destiny’s. Hektor had to admit that the bag sails looked as if they should have been more powerful, but the superiority of Olyvyr’s new patterns had been conclusively demonstrated in competitive sailing tests in Howell Bay.

The proportions of the other ships’ sails were significantly different, as well, for Destiny’s topsails had both a greater hoist and a broader head, which gave each of them significantly more area and made them more powerful. In fact, her topsails were actually her principal sails, whereas the courses set below them remained the primary sails for the ships she was pursuing.

Of course, there was a vast difference between the total canvas a ship could set under optimum conditions and the amount it was safe to carry in any given sea state. In some respects, in fact, Destiny and her sisters were actually over-sparred. It would have been easy to set too much sail, drive her too hard — even dangerously too hard — under the wrong circumstances. Besides, there was a point at which crowding on more sail actually slowed a ship, by driving her head too deeply into the sea or heeling her so sharply it distorted the water flow around her hull, even if it didn’t actually endanger her. So, in most respects, how many sails a ship had mattered less than the total sail area she could show under the current strength of wind and wave.

But it did matter how that area was distributed, because of how it affected the ship’s motion. At the moment, for example, one reason Captain Yairley had set the fore course was that unlike the ship’s other square sails, the fore course actually tended to lift the bow slightly, easing the vessel’s motion, rather than driving the bow down deeper and harder. A captain had to think about the blanketing effect of his sails, as well, and, generally speaking, the higher a sail, the greater its heeling effect. So in heavy weather, the standard order of reducing sail would be to take in first the royals (assuming the ship carried them in the first place), then the topgallants, the courses, and finally the topsails. (The courses came off before the higher topsails because of their greater size and the difficulty in handling them, despite the greater heeling effect of the topsails.)

Hektor’s own initial estimate that the other galleons were as large as Destiny appeared to have been in error, too. The other ships were at least a little smaller than he’d thought, although not greatly so, which meant Destiny could safely carry more canvas than they could under these conditions. Captain Yairley had been doing just that, having shaken out his reefs and set the fore course (the main course was brailed up to keep it from blanketing the foremast, with the wind dead aft on her new course), and even without her own royals, Destiny’s speed had risen to almost eight knots. She’d been steadily overhauling the other vessels for the past five hours now, despite the fact that they’d both put on extra sail of their own once they finally noticed they were being pursued, so it was certainly possible — likely, in fact — the chases had decided they couldn’t outrun Destiny after all. And if that was the case, there was no point in their risking damage to sails or rigging by carrying too much canvas. Particularly not since it was always possible something would carry away aloft in Destiny, in which case they might be able to out-sail her yet.

On the other hand, the topgallants would have been the first sails to be furled if a captain decided to shorten for any reason, not simply because of weather concerns. So it was also possible the other ships had simply decided to allow Destiny to overtake them. Which would require either a very stupid merchant skipper, given the depredations of Charisian privateers and naval cruisers, or else a —

“I believe we’ll clear the ship for action in about another . . . three hours, I think, Master Lathyk,” Yairley said calmly. “We’ll be coming up on lunch shortly, I believe, so there’s no point rushing things. But see to it all hands get something hot to eat, and plenty of it, if you please.”

“Aye, Sir,” the first lieutenant acknowledged. He beckoned to one of the midshipmen and started giving the lad crisp instructions, and Yairley glanced at Hektor.

“You don’t think they’re merchantmen after all, do you, Sir?” Hektor asked quietly. Some captains would have bitten the head off of any officer, be he ever so well connected to the aristocracy, for having the impertinence to ask him such a question uninvited. Hektor wasn’t concerned about that, though, and not because of his own noble title.

“No, Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk, I don’t,” Yairley replied. He nodded ahead to where the other ships’ sails were visible now from the deck as Destiny rose with the waves. “Both those fellows are inviting us to catch up with them, and no merchant skipper would do that, even if they haven’t seen our colors by now. Which they well may not have.”

He glanced up to where the Empire’s banner streamed out, stiff and hard-looking, from the mizzen yard. On Destiny’s new course, running almost directly before the wind as she charged after the other ships, it was entirely possible that her colors were hidden from her quarry by the canvas on her foremast and mainmast.

“They may not realize we’re a king’s ship — I mean, an emperor’s ship –” Yairley grimaced as he made the self-correction, “but they have to assume we’re at least a privateer. Under the circumstances, merchant vessels would go right on running for all they were worth in hopes of staying away from us until dark. Mind you, I don’t think they’d succeed, but they might, and no one ever knows what the wind’s going to do.”

He paused, one eyebrow raised, and Hektor recognized the cue.

“So if they aren’t running as hard as they can — if they’ve decided they want us to catch up with them while we’ll both have daylight still in hand — you think they’re war galleons, too, Sir,” he said.

“I think that’s very likely, Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk.” Yairley nodded slightly, with the satisfaction of a teacher whose student had drawn the proper conclusion. “I’d thought for a moment, before they both shortened, that it might be a merchant with an escort dropping astern of the ship under his protection. But no escort would be foolish enough to keep his charge in close company if he’d decided to drop back to engage us, so it seems to me we have to assume they’re both warships. According to Baron Wave Thunder’s latest estimates, Desnair should have at least a dozen of their converted galleons about ready for sea. There’s no way to be positive yet, but I’ll be quite surprised if these aren’t two of them. The only question in my mind,” the captain continued, his voice becoming a bit dreamy as his eyes unfocused in thought, “is what two of them would be doing out here by themselves.”

“They might simply be working up, Sir,” Hektor suggested diffidently, and Yairley nodded.