A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 36

Under the circumstances, while Kholman’s enemies would undoubtedly seize upon any opportunity to damage his credibility with the crown with unholy glee, they’d be careful not to do it in a way which might end up with them being chosen to take his place. For that matter, Jahras’ position, despite his far less lofty birth, was even more secure. In fact, if he’d been able to think of any way to avoid it himself in the first place, he would have done so in a heartbeat. But at least the sheer distance between them and Geyer gave them a pronounced degree of autonomy, without rivals or court flunkies constantly peering over their shoulders. So the two of them were far enough away from the imperial capital, and well enough insulated against removal, to be reasonably confident of not simply surviving their monarch’s anger but retaining their current positions.

Oh joy, he thought ironically.

“Let’s be honest, Daivyn,” he said out loud. “Nothing is going to make the Emperor or the Bishop Executor any less angry about what’s happened to Wailahr. That’s a given. In fact, I think we should use this to underscore the fact that — as you just said — we’ve warned everyone we’re bound to get hurt, at least initially, going after Charisians in their own element. We’re not the only ones who know Wailahr, or who understand his reputation as a good commander’s well deserved. All right. Let’s make that point to His Majesty — that one of our better commanders, with two of our best vessels under his command, was defeated by a single Charisian galleon in less than forty-five minutes of close action. Don’t blame him for it, either. In fact, let’s emphasize the fact that he fought with great gallantry and determination. For that matter, as far as I can tell from this Captain Yairley’s message, that’s exactly what Wailahr did! Tell the Emperor we’re making great progress in building the Navy, but that it’s going to take a lot longer to train it.”

Kholman frowned thoughtfully. There was a great deal to what Jahras had just said. In fact, the economies of the Gulf of Jahras and Mahrosa Bay had attained an almost Charisian bustle since the Church of God Awaiting had begun pouring money into the creation of shipyards there. Skilled carpenters, smiths, ropemakers and sailmakers, lumberjacks, seamstresses, gunpowder makers, foundry workers, and farmers and fishermen to provide the food to feed all of them, had swarmed into the area. The locals might not think much of the Harchong “advisers” who’d been sent in to (theoretically) help them, but they’d buckled down with a will to the task itself, propelled by an enthusiasm built almost equally out of religious zeal and the opportunity for profit.

For that matter, Kholman and Jahras had increased their own families’ fortunes enormously in the process. Of course, that was one of the standard, accepted perquisites of their birth and position, and their own share of the graft had been factored into the navy’s original cost estimates. With that in mind, they were actually ahead of schedule and marginally under budget where the actual building programs were involved, and the local metalworking industry was booming. It wasn’t precisely mere happenstance that almost all of the expanded foundries — and every single one of the new foundries — supplying artillery to the ships building in Iythria, Mahrosa, and Khairman Keep were located in the Duchy of Kholman, but there were actually some valid logistical arguments to support the far more important money-making arguments in favor of that. And production was rising rapidly. The guns coming out of those foundries might cost more than twice as much as the same guns would have cost from Charisian foundries, and they might have been two or three times as likely to burst on firing, but they were still being cast and bored far more quickly than Desnairian artillery had ever before been produced, and they were arriving in numbers almost adequate to arm the new construction as it came out of the yards.

“We can tell them that,” the duke said. “And, for that matter, whether His Majesty wants to admit it or not, he’ll almost certainly realize that it is going to take time to crew and train this many ships. But he’s still going to want some kind of an estimate as to how long it’s going to take, and I don’t think he’s going to settle for generalities much longer. Even if he’d like to, Bishop Executor Mhartyn isn’t going to stand for it.”

“Probably not,” Jahras agreed.

The baron sat gazing at one of the paintings on Kholman’s office wall for several seconds, stroking his beard while he thought. Then he shrugged and returned his attention to the other man.

“I think we need to tell the Bishop Executor that, whether it’s going to be convenient or not, we’re going to have to send the tithe overland to Zion this year. I’ll give you an official report and recommendation to that effect. And then, I think, we need to point out that we’re actually managing to build and arm the ships faster than the people responsible for providing crews can get the men to us. When I write up my recommendation to send the tithe overland, I’ll also point out how what’s happened to Wailahr underscores the obvious need for longer and more intensive training even after we get the crews assembled. And as the men come in, let’s assign them proportionately to all of the ships ready to commission, rather than fully crewing a smaller number of them.”

Kholman’s eyes narrowed, and he felt himself beginning to nod slowly. If they announced that they had even a limited number of new galleons fully manned, they would almost inevitably come under pressure to repeat the same disastrous sort of experiment which had just recoiled so emphatically on Wailahr. As long as they could report — honestly — that the ships’ crews remained seriously understrength, there’d be no pressure (or none that couldn’t be resisted, at any rate) to send them to sea in ones and twos where the Charisians could snip them off like frost-killed buds.

And if we spread the men between as many ships as possible, we can do that while still sending in manpower returns that show we’re making use of every man they send us. That it’s not our fault the supply won’t stretch to cover all our requirements, however hard we try . . . .

“All right,” he agreed. “That makes sense. And if they press us for a definite schedule, anyway?”

“Our first response should be to say we’ll have to see how successful they are in sending us the men we require,” Jahras replied promptly. “That’s only the truth, by the way. Tell them we’re going to need some time — probably at least a month or two — to form some kind of realistic estimate of how long it will take to fully man the ships we need at the rate they can provide the crews.

“After that, we’ll need time to train them. I imagine that will take at least several more months, and it’s already February.” The baron shrugged again. “Under the circumstances, I’d say August or September would be the soonest we could possibly expect to really be prepared, and even then — and I’ll mention this, tactfully, of course, in my report to you, as well — we’re going to be inexperienced enough that it would be unrealistic to expect us to win without a significant numerical advantage. Obviously,” his lips twitched in a faint smile, “it would be wisest to avoid operations which would permit the Charisians to whittle away at our own strength until we can be reinforced with enough of the ships building elsewhere to provide us with that necessary numerical advantage.”

“Of course,” Kholman agreed.

August or September, eh? he thought, restraining a smile of his own. Heading into October, really, with the inevitable — and explainable — schedule slippage, aren’t you, Urwyn? Slippage we can blame, with complete justification, on the people who aren’t getting us the manpower we need. More probably even next November . . . which will just happen to be about the time Hsing-wu’s Passage freezes solid. At which point none of those ships “building elsewhere” will be able to reinforce us until spring.

It hadn’t escaped the duke’s thoughts, as he considered what Jahras had just said, that stretching out the schedule would also present the opportunity to funnel still more of the Church’s bounty into his own and the baron’s purses. In truth, however, that calculation was little more than a spinal reflex, inevitable in any Desnairian noble. What was more important, at least in so far as Kholman’s conscious analysis was concerned, was that acting too precipitously — being the first swimmer to plunge into a sea full of Charisian-manned krakens — would be an unmitigated disaster for the navy he and Jahras were supposed to be building. Far better to be sure there were at least other targets for those krakens to spread their efforts between.

“Go ahead and write your report,” the Duke of Kholman told his admiral general. “In fact, I think it would be a good idea to backdate at least some of it. We really have been thinking about this for a while, so let’s make that clear to His Majesty.” The duke smiled thinly. “It wouldn’t do to have him decide we’re just trying to cover our arses after what happened to Wailahr, after all.”