Royal Palace,
City of Manchyr,
League of Corisande

Lamps burned late in the small council chamber as Prince Hektor walked through the door, followed by two of his bodyguards. As usual, Hektor was impeccably attired, yet something about his appearance suggested he’d dressed rather more rapidly than usual this time. Or perhaps it was merely that the men awaiting him already knew he had.

He walked across to the head of the conference table with a quick, determined stride, and settled into the chair waiting for him there. Then he looked around the table with hard, grim eyes.
The Earl of Anvil Rock, Admiral Tartarian, the Earl of Coris, and Father Mahrak Hahlmyn, one of Bishop Executor Thomys’ senior aides, were already seated there, waiting for him. The prince’s eyes might have hardened briefly as they brushed across Hahlmyn, but if they did, he banished the hardness quickly and nodded respectfully to the upper-priest.
“I’m sorry to have summoned you on such short notice, Father,” he said.
“Don’t be concerned about it, Your Highness,” Hahlmyn replied, his expression and tone both grave. “Shan-wei’s machinations wait on no man, and the Writ tells us news of them has a habit of coming at inconvenient moments. I only regret that the Bishop Executor and FatherAidryn are both away from the city tonight. I have, of course, informed them of your message by carrier wyvern. And the Bishop Executor has asked me by return wyvern to tell you he and FatherAidryn will set out on their return at dawn. In the meantime, I am instructed to offer whatever assistance Mother Church can provide at this time.”
“Thank you, Father.” Hektor gave him a brief smile, then inhaled deeply. “The first thing I believe Mother Church could do for us this evening would be for you to ask the intervention of God and the Archangels on our behalf.”
“Of course, Your Highness.” Hahlmyn made the sign of Langhorne’s Scepter, then bowed his head. “O God, we beseech you in the name of Your Holy Archangels to grant us Your strength and the true knowledge of Your will in this hour of trial. As the Holy Langhorne taught us, You and You alone are the true refuge of the righteous. Defend us from the malice and poison of Shan-wei, and strengthen us as we put upon us the armor of Your champions against those who would defile and defy Your Holy Church in the Evil One’s dark name. There is no day so dark Your light cannot fill it, no enemy so powerful Your strength cannot subdue it. Lead us, guide us, and make us your sword against the powers of Hell. In Langhorne’s holy name, amen.”
“Thank you, Father,” Hektor said again, his voice a bit softer, as he raised his head once more. His eyes circled the table again, then settled on Earl Coris.
“I take it you’ve already seen Taryl’s dispatch, Phylyp?”
“I have, My Prince.” Coris’ expression was grim.
“And your thoughts on the matter?”
“My Prince, Admiral Tartarian’s judgment would be far more reliable than mine in a matters such as this, I’m sure.”
“That’s probably true. However, I’d like to hear your thoughts before we hear from him. I have the greatest possible respect for the Admiral’s judgment, and for Rysel’s, but they’re both professional military men. I think it’s at least possible something will occur to you which might not occur to them precisely because they’re professional military men. If that should happen to be the case, I’d like to hear it before something they say sends all our minds in another direction.”
“Of course, My Prince.” Coris pursed his lips for a moment, obviously marshaling his thoughts, then leaned forward slightly.
“The first thing that occurs to me, My Prince, is that the sighting report put the Charisians off Cape Targan, not Tear Island. From the report, it sounds as if they were making for either Tralmyr Passage or Coris Strait.” The earl grimaced at the thought of how close to his own earldom the Charisian Navy was about to pass. “That’s scarcely the most direct route from Charis, but it would make sense if Cayleb came by way of Port Royal to make rendezvous with Sharpset and what’s left of the Chisholmian Navy, I suppose. Somehow, though, I don’t think the answer is quite that simple . . . or palatable.”
“Why not?” From Hektor’s tone, he already knew where his spymaster was headed.
“Because Sir Farahk Hyllair is Grand Duke Zebediah’s brother-in-law, My Prince,” Coris said in a flat voice, and Hektor grimaced. Sir Farahk Hyllair was the Baron of Dairwyn, and there were times the prince regretted the marital connection he’d urged Dairwyn to form with Grand Duke Zebediah. At the time, like a great many things, it had seemed like a good idea to anchor Zebediah to one of his more trusted barons. And one whose relatively lightly populated barony needed all of the royal patronage it could get.
“The fact that Cayleb has chosen to circle all the way around into the Chisholm Sea to come at us from the north, instead of the south, could mean several things, of course,” Coris continued. “The most likely, though, I’m afraid, is that he stopped off at Carmyn en route.”
“Do you really think Dairwyn would betray you, Your Highness?” Anvil Rock asked quietly.
“Frankly? I don’t know.” Hektor shrugged. “Ordinarily, I’d say no. For several reasons. But these aren’t exactly ordinary conditions, are they? Much as I hate to admit it, almost everyone has to be looking over his shoulder at the moment, wondering what’s going to happen to him if we lose to Cayleb. And as Phylyp has just pointed out, Dairwyn is Zebediah’s brother-in-law.”
“We’ve had no indications that Sir Farahk might even be contemplating anything of the sort,” Coris said. “What I’m afraid of is that Zebediah’s turned his coat. If he has, it would be just like him to send letters along with Cayleb urging his brother-in-law to do the same thing.”
“With all due respect, Your Highness,” Tartarian said, entering the conversation for the first time, “I know Baron Dairwyn. I don’t believe he’ll be that easily swayed into betraying his loyalty to you.”
“I think you’re probably right,” Hektor replied thoughtfully. “On the other hand, if Zebediah did send a letter like the one Phylyp is suggesting, then Cayleb may have decided it would be worth trying to get Dairwyn to come over to his side. Dairos is a good, relatively deepwater port right there on White Sail Bay. It’s a bit on the cramped size for a really large fleet, but it’s big enough to provide a decent anchorage at a pinch if his fleet’s still tied down when the storm season really picks up in the next month or two . . . and it’s only about two hundred miles overland from Manchyr. Admittedly, the Dark Hills are between Dairwyn and Manchyr, but that works both ways. If they’d be an obstacle for his army moving west against Manchyr, they’d also give his own base of operations some protection if we manage to concentrate our own forces against him. But the key point is that he’s going to need a port somewhere at this time of year. If there’s even a chance that Dairwyn might give him Dairos intact and without a fight, it’s probably worth his while to at least give it a try.”
“And if Dairwyn doesn’t go over to him, Dairos isn’t anywhere nearly as heavily defended as the ports along the Margo Sound coastline,” Tartarian agreed unhappily.
“We had to prioritize our forces and the new artillery somehow, Taryl.” Hektor waved one hand. “You and Rysel were right when you pointed out — as I just did — that the Dark Hills cover Manchyr from the east. So it made sense to concentrate on fortifying the southwestern ports, instead.”
“Which could also be another indication Cayleb has been in contact with Zebediah,” Coris pointed out. “Zebediah’s had plenty of time to discover where we were concentrating our forces. I expect it’s exactly the kind of information he would have been gathering up to offer Cayleb as proof of his value.”
“It could indicate that,” Hektor acknowledged. “By the same token, it’s hard to hide new coastal batteries, Phylyp. Any one of the merchant ships passing through the Sound could have reported the information to Cayleb.”
“And even if that isn’t what happened, it probably wouldn’t have required a military genius to figure out the way we’d approach the problem,” Anvil Rock added.
“Exactly.” Hektor nodded. Then he grimaced. “All right, I think all of that was worth thinking about, but now we have to concentrate on what we’re going to do if they are headed for Dairwyn.”