HMS Empress of Charis,
Hannah Bay,
Grand Duchy of Zebediah

Cayleb Ahrmahk stood on the quarterdeck of HMS Empress of Charis once again as the column of galleons wended its way past Grass Island. Shoal Island lay almost thirty miles to the north, and the broad waters of Grass Reach stretched before them. It was almost ninety miles yet to the harbor of the city of Carmyn, and he tried very hard not to feel closed in by the surrounding land.

It wasn’t especially easy, even though his intellect stubbornly insisted that it ought to be.
His flagship and the squadron which she had rejoined were just over twenty-six hundred miles south-southwest of Cherry Bay. That meant the local climate was much closer to the one to which Cayleb was accustomed. If anything, it was too hot, despite the fact that it was technically winter, since they were still — barely — north of the equator at the moment, but that wasn’t the reason he felt uneasy.
Hannah Bay measured almost two hundred and forty miles from east to west. That was a lot of water, especially when the Imperial Charisian Navy was effectively the only navy in these waters. Still, it was four hundred and seventy miles from Carmyn to the mouth of the Talisman Gulf. Four hundred and seventy miles between the capital of Zebediah and the open waters of Carter’s Ocean.
Four hundred and seventy miles moving deeper and deeper into the embrace of the enormous island of Zebediah.
He didn’t like being that far from the open sea. For him, as for almost any Charisian, the sea meant safety. It meant room to maneuver, to dodge, and it meant an element of which Charis was the mistress . . . and a place where the lesser seamen of other lands intruded at their peril.
Stop being an old woman, Cayleb! he scolded himself. “Open sea,” indeed. Just what do you call thousands of square miles of seawater if it’s not “open?” And it’s not exactly as if anyone could sneak up on you, even if anyone had anything to do the sneaking with!
He glanced for a moment at Merlin Athrawes, standing protectively at his right shoulder even here. At that particular moment, Cayleb knew, Merlin was watching through those SNARCs of his. The emperor was confident that he still had only the most imperfect grasp of exactly what a “SNARC” was, but he didn’t have to know exactly what it was as long as Merlin knew. All Cayleb had to know was that Merlin’s invisible, wyvern’s-eye view encompassed not simply all of Hannah Bay, but the Gulf of Talisman — and all the other waters stretching about Zebediah like all-enveloping arms — as well. If there’d been a single warship out there in a position to threaten his fleet’s stately progress, Merlin would have known it.
Actually, Cayleb reflected, the real danger probably lies in coming to rely too heavily on Merlin’s “special abilities.” They may not always be available. For that matter, they certainly won’t be available to anyone besides me, because he’s my bodyguard. So maybe it’s just as well if I go on feeling nervous, even knowing Merlin is keeping an eye on things, as long as I don’t let that nervousness distract me from what has to be done. After all, I also need to bear in mind the fact that he won’t be available to other commanders when I assign them their missions. Wonderful. I just found something else to worry about!
His lips twitched as he considered his own perversity. It was remarkable how much that helped his mood, and he half-turned to face the shortish, rotund prince standing beside him.
“Any last-minute advice, Your Highness?”
“Not really, Your Majesty.” Prince Nahrmahn shrugged. “You simply need to continue to think about the Grand Duke much the way I’m certain you grew up thinking about me. Never forget that he’s a naturally treacherous, oily sort of fellow, with a fondness for assassins and all the personal charm and warmth of a sand maggot, and you can’t go too far wrong. I won’t say he’s actively allergic to the truth, mind you. Although, on mature consideration, I do feel relatively confident that any completely truthful statement which accidentally found its way into his mouth would cause him acute indigestion, at the very least.”
“An . . . interesting characterization,” Cayleb observed with something that sounded suspiciously like a chuckle.
“But an accurate one, I think.” Nahrmahn looked up at the taller and younger emperor, and his expression had become very serious. “At this particular moment, Your Majesty, Grand Duke Zebediah is trapped between the kraken and the doomwhale, and he knows it.”
“But which is which?”
“On balance? I’d say the Empire is definitely the doomwhale, but Hektor of Corisande makes a very respectable kraken. And then there’s the fact that Zebediah knows as well as we do that the true struggle ultimately lies not between you and Hektor, but between you and the Temple. He’s fully aware that at this time you have the power to crush him like an eggshell if he isn’t accommodating to you, but he’s equally aware that Hektor isn’t simply going to forgive and forget if he turns his coat to support Charis. It may not be very likely Hektor is going to survive, but Zebediah won’t be prepared to rule that possibility out completely. And whether Hektor survives or not, the Group of Four will most definitely still be waiting when the smoke clears here in the League.”
“Which means he’s going to be extraordinarily accommodating . . . as long as I keep my dagger firmly at his throat,” Cayleb said.
“Precisely, Your Majesty.” Nahrmahn inclined his head slightly. “You know, I always found your house’s stubborn tendency to survive and its general all-around competence extremely irritating. It’s remarkable how my attitude in that respect has changed over the last few months.”
“Flattery, Your Highness?” Cayleb’s eyebrows arched, and his brown eyes gleamed with amusement.
“Oh, of course!” Nahrmahn smiled. “After all, I am one of your courtiers now, am I not?” He swept the Emperor a deep bow, surprisingly graceful for one of his physique, and Cayleb smiled back at him. But then the Emeraldian prince sobered once again.
“Jesting aside, Your Majesty, I must admit that I’m both surprised and impressed by the maturity of the judgment you’ve consistently demonstrated. To be blunt, you’re extraordinarily young for any ruler, far less for the ruler of an empire the size of the one you and the Empress are busily hammering together. That’s enough to make a man nervous, at least until he gets to know the two of you.”
“Indeed?” Cayleb cocked his head, and Nahrmahn nodded.
“You’ve demonstrated a remarkable palette of abilities, actually,” he said in an almost detached, analytical tone. “Military capability, skilled diplomacy, a steadiness which is quite remarkable in someone as young as you still are, integrity — which, I’m discovering, can be an extraordinarily dangerous weapon when it comes to diplomacy; probably because we encounter it far too infrequently to build up defenses against it — and intelligent ruthlessness coupled with what I can only call a pragmatic compassion.” He shook his head. “That collection of abilities would be rare in a man twice your age. Your father was obviously an even better teacher than I’d ever realized.”
“I believe he was,” Cayleb agreed softly.
“And then there’s the Empress,” Nahrmahn continued with a quirky smile. “In her own way, I suspect she’s actually even more dangerous than you are. She’s certainly one of the two smartest women I’ve ever met in my life, and the fact that she managed not simply to survive but to actually strengthen the power of the Chisholmian Crown despite the best efforts of a pack of noblmen four or five times her age only underscores her own capabilities. Frankly, the two of you together are positively frightening, if you’ll excuse my frankness.”
“I’ll not only excuse it, I’ll take it as a compliment.”
“Probably you should. And,” Nahrmahn pursed his lips thoughtfully, “there’s another aspect to it, too. One that hadn’t occurred to me until I’d had the opportunity to meet both of you and acquire a firsthand impression of you.”
“And what aspect would that be?” Cayleb asked when the Emeraldian paused.
“For a time, at least, I’m inclined to think your adversaries may well be going to underestimate you simply because you are young. They’re going to assume that however intelligent you may be, you’ll still be prey to the impetuousness of your youth. In fact, I must admit that was my own first thought when I heard the details of the ultimatum you delivered to Earl Thirsk after Crag Reach. The way they were reported to me, you were quite . . . bloodthirsty about the consequences he’d face if he rejected your surrender terms. They struck me as the sort of, um, extravagant intentions one might have expected out of youthful inexperience, let’s say.”
“Good.” Cayleb chuckled. “They were supposed to.”
“Indeed, Your Majesty?”
“Oh, don’t mistake me, Nahrmahn. If he’d rejected my terms, I would have renewed the action . . . and there would have been no more offer of quarter until every last one of his ships had burned or gone to the bottom. Never think I wouldn’t have done it.”
Nahrmahn Baytz looked into the no longer gleaming brown eyes which had gone hard as frozen agates and recognized the truth when he heard it.
“And I’ll also admit that I wanted to make the consequences of attacking my kingdom crystal clear, not simply to the Earl, but to the entire world. The next ruler the Group of Four bribes or coerces into attacking Charis will never be able to pretend he didn’t know ahead of time exactly how Charis was going to respond. And in case anyone missed that after my conversation with Thirsk, I rather suspect they’ll take my point after our message to King Zhames.
“But I also figured it wouldn’t hurt for people like Clyntahn and Trynair to think they heard a young man’s arrogance talking. My father once told me it was a wonderful and always-to-be-treasured thing to be loved by your friends, but that it was essential to be feared by your enemies. And after fear, the next most essential thing where your enemies are concerned is that they underestimate you. Better never to be attacked at all, but if you are going to be attacked, the more overconfident your enemy is, the better.”
Nahrmahn gazed for several seconds at the young man who had become his emperor, and then he bent his head in a gesture of respect.
“I’m feeling better and better every day about the fact that I ended up losing to you and your father, Your Majesty.”
“Really? Because I’m such a splendid and lovable fellow?”
“No, not really,” Nahrmahn said dryly, and Cayleb snorted in amusement. Then the Emeraldian continued. “The reason I’m deciding I don’t feel so bad after all is that at least I didn’t lose to someone who simply stumbled into the ability to kick my well-padded arse up between my conniving ears.”