Alyk Lizardherd said the single word with quiet intensity as the Charisian brig — and they were close enough now to see the national banner which confirmed that she was Charisian — sliced through the water in surging bursts of white foam. He had to admire the other captain’s ship handling, but that was just a bit difficult to remember when he saw the seven opened gunports grinning in his direction. He’d never — yet — had the opportunity to examine one of the new Charisian guns, but he knew what he was seeing as the squat, short-barreled weapons were trundled forward. His catamounts threw three-pound shot; if those were what he was certain they were, they’d be throwing at least eighteen-pound shot. Wind Hoof was considerably larger than the Charisian brig, but not enough bigger to be able to survive that sort of imbalance in firepower!

“Sir?” Hairaym said tautly, and Lizardherd looked at him.
“I don’t think they look particularly concerned about firing on a Desnarian ship, do you, Gorjah?”
“No, Sir, I don’t,” Hairaym said after a moment, yet even as he spoke, his eyes shifted forward to where Lieutenant Aivyrs and his ten Temple Guardsmen stood waiting on the main deck.
“Yes, that is a problem,” Lizardherd agreed very softly. Hairaym’s eyes darted back to him, and the captain smiled thinly. “If we don’t strike our colors and heave to, those guns over there are going to turn us all into kraken bait, and pretty damned quickly. Or, for that matter, I’m sure they’ve got enough manpower over there to take us by boarding, assuming they somehow know enough about the cargo we’re carrying to worry about sinking us with a careless cannon shot. But Lieutenant Aivyrs is going to insist that we not strike our colors and heave to, and I’m sure his men will follow his lead if — and when — he cuts down the first man to lay a finger on a flag halyard. Not to mention the fact that if we were so careless as to lose the Church’s money by surrendering to a heretical Charisian ‘pirate,’ his report would undoubtedly have . . . unfortunate consequences. ”
“Yes, Sir,” Hairaym acknowledged in an even quieter voice.
“Trapped between the dragon and the deep blue sea,” Lizardherd murmured. No one could possibly have heard him through the noise of a sailing ship at sea, but Hairaym had been with him for a long time. He knew what his skipper was thinking, and he looked acutely unhappy.
Well, he can look as unhappy as he likes, Lizardherd thought waspishly. He’s going to look pretty frigging unhappy when we go to the bottom of the Markovian, too!
“Tell the Bosun I need to speak to him,” he said out loud, holding Hairaym’s eyes with his own. “I believe he’s up forward handing out the muskets.”
For just a moment, Hairaym appeared not even to breathe. Then he inhaled deeply, squared his shoulders, and nodded.
“Yes, Sir. I’ll see to it.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Well, I don’t see any signs of sanity breaking out over there yet, Fytzhyw thought. Unless of course it’s just that they’re all stone blind and don’t even realize we’re here!
He grimaced and raised his speaking trumpet.
“Master Chermyn!”
“Aye, Sir?” Tobys Chermyn shouted back from the foredeck.
“Clear away the pivot gun! It seems we need to attract these people’s attention!”
“Aye, aye, Sir!”
* * * * * * * * * *
Lizardherd stood by the aftercastle rail, gazing steadily — one might almost have said fixedly — at the Charisian brig. He’d discussed his plans for defending the ship with the Bosun, who’d been with him considerably longer even than Hairaym, and the Bosun had moved all twelve of Wind Hoof’s matchlock-armed seamen into the waist of the ship, more conveniently located to Lieutenant Aivyrs.
The brig had a single longer gun forward. It looked as if it were mounted on some sort of turntable. Although Lizardherd had never heard of anything like it, he could see the advantages of such a mounting, and he concentrated on it rather than risk glancing towards the Guardsmen. Any time now . . . .
* * * * * * * * * *
Loyal Son’s pivot-mounted fourteen-pounder crashed, spitting its round shot across the gray-green waves. It landed well clear of the Desnarian galleon, exactly as warning shots were supposed to do, but its message was crystal clear, and Fytzhyw watched the other ship intensely. If that ship’s master had an ounce of sense, that Church pennant would be coming down any instant. Unfortunately, Fytzhyw had already spotted at least a handful of Temple Guardsmen on the galleon’s deck. They weren’t going to take kindly to the notion of surrender. On the other hand, their presence suggested that this was, indeed, the ship for which he’d been waiting. And whether they were likely to surrender or not, he still had the responsibility to at least give them the opportunity. Personally, he’d just as soon have handed each of those Guardsmen a round shot and kicked him over the side, but rules were rules. And, he conceded almost unwillingly, following the rules was one way a man could keep himself from waking up and discovering he’d become someone he didn’t very much like. On the other hand —
He stiffened suddenly. Loyal Son was upwind of the Desnarian, but the popping sound of what was unmistakably musket fire reached him anyway, and his eyes narrowed. Exactly what did that idiot over there think he was going to do with muskets — especially matchlock muskets — at this sort of range? It was the stupidest thing he could have —
Symyn Fytzhyw’s thoughts broke off again as the Church pennant came fluttering down from the other ship’s masthead.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Heave to,” Alyk Lizardherd commanded, and turned away once more as Hairaym passed the order.
One problem solved, he thought with a sort of lunatic detachment. Of course, it does leave me with a few others.
He glanced — briefly — at the eleven bodies sprawled across Wind Hoof’s deck. He regretted that. Lieutenant Aivyrs had seemed a nice enough young man, if a trifle overly earnest, but he hadn’t been picked for his present assignment because of any weakness of faith. Even though he must have realized as clearly as Lizardherd did that nothing they might do could possibly affect the ultimate outcome of the Charisians’ attack, he would have insisted on fighting. And when he did that, a lot of Lizardherd’s crewmen — all of whom had been with him one hell of a lot longer than Aivyrs had — would have gotten themselves killed uselessly. So might one Alyk Lizardherd, although, to his own surprise, that possibility had played a relatively minor role in his final decision.
Somehow, I don’t think the Inquisition is going to accept the theory that the Charisian marksmen concentrated on shooting down just the Guardsman, he reflected sardonically. Especially not when all of the bullets seem to have miraculously struck them from behind. And when you add that to all the money we’ve got onboard, they’re bound to consider the possibility that it was an inside job. Maybe even that we never met up with any Charisian thieves at all.
It irritated him that, in fact, it wasn’t an inside job. If he was going to be suspected of making off with the Church’s money, then he would have preferred at least to actually be guilty!
Well, he’d just have to see. Fortunately, he himself had no immediate family waiting for his return, and most of his seamen were unmarried. So was Hairaym, for that matter. He could always ask if the Charisians would be interested in acquiring one slightly used Desnarian galleon. They might even be willing to part with enough of Wind Hoof’s cargo to allow the crew of the galleon in question to begin new lives under new names somewhere far, far away from the Desnarian Empire.
Or, we might be able to get them to agree to let us take to the boats long enough for them to put a couple of broadsides — hopefully nonfatal broadsides — into the ship. Then anyone who wanted to go home could sail her back, while those of us more interested in seeing the world shipped along with the Charisians. That should provide enough other “buried at sea” fatalities to keep anyone from commenting on the fluke of Charisian accuracy that hit only Guardsmen.
He shrugged. There was only one way to find out what sort of arrangement might be possible, and he raised his leather speaking trumpet.
“Ahoy, there!” he bellowed across the tumbled waste of water. “We’re ready to receive a boat!”