The scorching sun was hot high overhead as Empress of Charis hove-to outside the breakwater of the city of Carmyn.

Zebediah’s capital didn’t look especially impressive to someone who’d grown up in Tellesberg, Cayleb decided, but he had to admit that the anchorage itself was superb. Protected by the full extent of the Gulf of Talisman and Hannah Bay — not to mention the sheltering land masses of Grass Island and Shoal Island — it offered excellent security from the elements, which was a not insignificant reflection in these latitudes, especially during hurricane season. And the approaches to the port were just as good, with deep water and very few hazards to navigation until one got quite close to the city.
Of course, the fact that it was also barely fifty miles north of the equator produced a climate in which even a Charisian felt as if he were being roasted on a spit whenever he stepped out into the direct noon sunlight.
The harbor waterfront was reasonably well guarded by shore batteries, but Grand Duke Zebediah had sadly neglected the fortification of the islands dotting the approaches to his capital. There were several places where batteries would have seriously inconvenienced, at the very least, an attacking fleet, but no guns had been emplaced.
Which might not owe a thing to Zebediah’s neglect, now that I think about it, he reflected. After all, Hektor knows the Grand Duke even better than Nahrmahn does. He probably made damned sure his navy wouldn’t have to fight its way past those batteries if any little unpleasantness arose. And that might not be a bad thing for me to be remembering, either, I suppose.
The other ten galleons Cayleb had brought with him lay protectively about Empress of Charis, with their guns run out and manned. That might not be considered the most diplomatic stance possible, but Cayleb didn’t really care about that. His own flagship’s guns weren’t manned, and that was about all the concession to international proprieties he intended to make.
He watched the ornate barge pulling out of the harbor towards Empress of Charis, then glanced at Merlin, who was examining the same barge through a spyglass. The emperor suppressed a temptation to smile as he privately bet himself that Merlin’s eye was actually closed. After all, a mere spyglass would only get in the way of someone with Merlin’s “natural” eyesight. It did give him an excuse to ask the “seijin” questions. However.
“I take it the rowboat with all the gold paint is our friend the Grand Duke?”
“I believe that’s correct, Your Majesty,” Merlin replied gravely, never lowering the spyglass. “At any rate, there’s a fellow sitting in the stern sheets who’s got to be about ready to suffer heatstroke, given all the gold and embroidery he’s wearing.”
“That would be Zebediah,” Nahrmahn agreed from Merlin’s other elbow. “He’s always been insistent about maintaining the ‘proper appearance.'”
The Emeraldian wore tastefully embroidered and tailored garments, but, like Cayleb, they were as utilitarian as they were elegant, and their cotton silk and steel thistle silk were as light and cool as was physically possible. Despite the extra weight Nahrmahn was carrying about with him, he looked far more comfortable than the approaching grand duke could possibly feel.
“In that case, perhaps we should keep him here on deck while we talk?” Cayleb suggested with an evil smile. “If he’s about to melt down into a puddle of fat, he’ll scarcely be at his naturally treacherous best.”
“Tempting, Your Majesty,” Nahrmahn agreed with a smile of his own. “But not very practical, I fear. I’m sure he’s already memorized everything he intends to say, and I’d be extraordinarily surprised if anything as silly as rational thought or debate was likely to change any of it. That being the case, I think the advantages for your thinking of getting into the shade outweigh the remote possibility that he might suffer the seijin’s heatstroke.”
“It’s not my heatstroke, Your Highness,” Merlin remarked mildly, lowering the spyglass at last and turning to look at Nahrmahn. “I was merely offering an analytical statement, not expressing any sort of personal desire.”
“Oh, of course not,” Nahrmahn agreed.
“Stop it, both of you,” Cayleb half-scolded.
It was remarkable how well Merlin and Nahrmahn got along, he reflected. In fact, it was obvious they actually liked one another, which wasn’t something Cayleb would have been willing to place any wagers on. And, he admitted, he found the fact that Merlin did like Nahrmahn remarkably reassuring.
“Stop what, Your Majesty?” Merlin inquired innocently. “All I said was –”
“I heard exactly what you said,” Cayleb said severely. “And let me remind you, that it’s most unbecoming of a Charisian Imperial Guardsman to think it would be a good idea for a visiting nobleman to suffer a fatal heatstroke. Until after he’s signed the surrender terms, at least.”
“Surrender terms, Your Majesty?” Nahrmahn’s eyebrows rose. “Somehow I don’t recall that particular phrase having been used in any of the correspondence you’ve exchanged with Grand Duke Zebediah. Or, at least, in any of it which you’ve shared with your advisers.”
“That’s because it wasn’t used,” Cayleb said with another of those thin smiles. “Believe me, though, Your Highness. Before the Grand Duke gets back into his rowboat this afternoon, there’s not going to be much doubt in his mind about what he’s just signed. He can call them whatever he wants, but I don’t think he’s going to be left in any uncertainty over what they really are . . . or what’s likely to happen to him if he should chance to violate them.”
“That doesn’t sound extraordinarily ‘diplomatic’ to me, Your Majesty,” Merlin observed. The emperor looked at him, and the seijin shrugged. “Not that I have any problem with the desired outcome,” he added. “Personally, I think reasoned dialogue and fair-minded negotiation are overrated at times. I mean, yes, they have their place, and they can work. But sometimes a good, hard punch in the mouth is more effective than any number of diplomatic notes. Well, more enjoyable, anyway. And from all I’ve heard, this sounds to me like it might be one of those times.”