“I wish we had a better estimate of their total strength, My Prince,” Tartarian said. “The good news is that, thanks to the semaphore, we know they’re coming at least a five-day before something as slow as an invasion fleet can reach Dairos. The bad news is that we really don’t know how much fighting strength they’re bringing with them when they come. I know what Phylyp’s reports have been telling us about the size of their fleet, the hundreds of galleons they’ve been assembling to send after us with every man in the Kingdom embarked as elite Marines. But as I’ve been saying all along, I don’t trust our sources at this point.”

“With good reason, I’m afraid,” Coris muttered, and Hektor’s mouth tightened slightly.

It was always difficult managing spies at distances as great as the one between Manchyr and Tellesberg, yet the fiendish effectiveness Charisian security had developed over the past couple of years was still something of a sore point. He’d been forced to accept that it wasn’t really Coris’ fault, since Nahrmahn and all of Cayleb’s other enemies appeared to have been experiencing precisely the same sort of difficulties. Despite which, the fact that they were forced to rely upon secondary sources, the kinds of intelligence Coris’ agents could pick up by questioning merchant captains or frequenting taverns in other realms’ seaports to listen to sailors’ gossip, left him feeling off-balance and half-blind.

“I’m prepared to admit that the Charisians — especially now that Chisholm has thrown in with them — can put together an impressive fleet and find the transports they need to lift a fairly substantial army as far as Corisande,” Tartarian continued. “I’ll believe he has two hundred war galleons and a hundred thousand men when I actually see them, though. Assuming we’re actually facing a merely mortal foe, I don’t see how he could have as many as one hundred war galleons, and I’d be astounded if he’d been able to find the troop lift for more than fifty to sixty thousand men. Not to mention the fact that he’s had to raise and train his army virtually from scratch. That’s going to limit the total manpower he can actually deploy here in Corisande just as effectively as his troop lift will.”

“I agree,” Anvil Rock said, nodding vigorously. “Another thing to consider is that after a voyage as long as the one between here and Charis — or even between here and Chisholm — his cavalry mounts and draft animals are going to need at least a five-day or two on land before they’re going to be ready for any sort of serious campaigning.”

“Against which he’ll have the advantage of offshore mobility,” Tartarian pointed out. “We still don’t have the naval strength to face him, which means he can use his transports as aggressively as he likes. And, frankly, he’ll be able to move his troops faster and farther than Rysel and Koryn can possibly march our troops overland.

“Having said that, though, he’s not going to want to try anything too tricky right away,” the admiral continued. “He’s going to make sure he has a solid foothold here in Corisande before he does anything else. So, wherever he ends up going ashore — and, like you and Phylyp, My Prince, I think Dairos is his most probable immediate objective — he’s going to spend at least some time establishing a solid defensive perimeter. The point Rysel just made about the condition of his cavalry mounts and draft dragons is also valid, and I suggest we do what we can to make it worse by ordering every horse, mule, and dragon in the Dairos area swept up and moved west, out of easy reach from the coast, before his first Marine hits the shore. Let’s keep him from impressing any of our animals to make up any deficits. That should slow him down some. In fact, I believe we can probably count on at least another two or three five-days, even after he reaches Dairos, before he starts sending any spearheads off to find a way across the Dark Hills.”

“His best route would be by way of Talbor Pass,” Anvil Rock put in. “Well, his shortest and most direct route, at any rate. And I agree with Taryl. We’ve got time to get Koryn into position to cover Talbor before he can get there. For that matter, assuming Taryl’s estimate of his troop strength is accurate, we can get Koryn there with almost twice the fighting strength. If we start soon enough, we could actually hit Cayleb while he’s still east of the Dark Hills. We might even be able to get Koryn into position soon enough to pin him down in Dairos.”

“At which point he burns down Dairos, re-embarks his troops, and sails off to attack us somewhere else, leaving Koryn and the bulk of our army in his wake,” Hektor said sourly.

“All we can do is the best we can do, My Prince,” Tartarian said reasonably. “If we can concentrate our troops quickly enough to attack before he’s firmly established in Dairos, there’s at least the possibility of driving him into the sea. We may not be able to fight him effectively at sea just now, but if this new army of his suffers a major reverse and heavy casualties, we’ll probably get at least another six months to a year in which to build up our own strength. But if we’re going to have any chance of doing that, we’ve got to take some chances, uncover ourselves in other places, in order to concentrate the troops we need where we have at least the chance of accomplishing something significant.”

Anvil Rock nodded again, his expression sober, and Hektor’s nostrils flared. They’d been over much of this same ground before, and he knew Tartarian and Anvil Rock were right. Now that the moment was actually upon him, however, he discovered that his intellectual agreement with their arguments was far less comforting than it had been when that moment had lain somewhere in a threatening yet still indeterminate future.

“All right,” he said, and looked at Hahlmyn. “Father, if you would, I’d like to use the Church’s semaphore to begin passing orders to Dairos, Baron Dairwyn, and Sir Koryn. Cayleb can move troops and men faster than we can, but at least we can pass messages faster than he can. With the Bishop Executor’s permission, I think it’s time we put that advantage to work for us.”