A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 35

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.