White Sail Bay,
Barony of Dairwyn,
League of Corisande

Fresh thunder rumbled and crashed, and a fresh wall of dirty-white smoke billowed up, shot through with flashes of flame, as the line of Charisian galleons sailed majestically past the floating batteries once more.

The rapid, disciplined bellowing of their guns was having its effect. Three of the anchored batteries had already been silenced, reduced to shattered ruin despite their heavy bulwarks. Wooden vessels were extraordinarily difficult to sink using solid shot, mainly because the holes those shot punched were relatively small and most tended to be above the waterline. It could still be done, however, and one of the big, stoutly constructed rafts was listing steeply, beginning to settle as water poured into it. Another was heavily aflame, and the third had simply been shot through and through. The other four were still in action, although their fire was beginning to falter, and bodies floated in the water around them, where they’d been pushed out of the gun ports to clear space for the surviving gun crews to serve their weapons.

From this distance, with the city of Dairos and the sparkling waters of White Sail Bay as a backdrop, it could almost have been a magnificent spectacle, a tournament arranged to entertain and enthrall. But only if the spectators hadn’t experienced the same things themselves, and Cayleb Ahrmahk had experienced those things. He knew what happened to the fragile bodies of men when round shot came crashing through heavy timber bulwarks in a cloud of lethal splinters. When the man standing beside you was turned into so much bloody gruel by a twenty or thirty-pound round shot. When the screams of the wounded cut even through the deafening thunder of your own guns. When the deck which had been sanded for traction before action was splashed and patterned and painted in human blood.

He knew what he was truly seeing, and he stood tight-mouthed as he watched the contest with his hands tightly folded behind him. He was unarmored, without even a sword at his side, and that was part of the reason his mouth was set in such a harsh line.

Unfortunately for what he truly wanted to be doing at this moment, his official advisers — and Merlin — had had a point. The contest against the city of Dairos’ defenses could have only one outcome. Gallant as the men behind the guns of those beleaguered rafts might be proving themselves, they couldn’t possibly stand off the firepower of Cayleb’s fleet for very much longer. For that matter, trying to employ the full galleon strength under Cayleb’s immediate command against them would have been foolish. The ships would only have gotten in one another’s way, and the possibility of crippling collisions between friendly units would have been very real under such crowded, smoke-choked conditions.

And, as Merlin had remorselessly pointed out, if it wasn’t practical to use all of his galleons, anyway, then there was no possible excuse for using Empress of Charis. It wasn’t as if Cayleb had anything to prove about his personal courage in order to motivate the men under his command. And “sharing the risk” when there was no pressing military necessity for him to do so — and when he and Sharleyan had yet to beget an heir — would have been not simply unnecessary but criminally reckless. One unlucky round shot could have catastrophic consequences, not simply for Cayleb, but for all the people he was obligated and pledged to defend.

The obligation argument, in Cayleb’s opinion, had been a particularly low blow, even for Merlin. Nonetheless, he’d been forced to concede the point, and so he’d been standing at Empress of Charis quarterdeck rail, watching from safely outside artillery range, for the last three hours as other ships took the brunt of combat.

It hadn’t been entirely one-sided. As Cayleb and his senior commanders had estimated (in no small part on the basis of Seijin Merlin’s “visions”), Hektor of Corisande had, indeed, gotten the new-style artillery into production. He still had nowhere near as many of the new guns as he undoubtedly would have wished, but he obviously did have his equivalent of Edwyrd Howsmyn. In addition to all of the brand new guns which had been emerging from his foundries, some infernally clever Corisandian busybody had figured out how to weld trunnions onto existing cannon, just as Howsmyn had done. He’d apparently been busily doing just that for months, too, which helped to explain why two of Cayleb’s galleons had been forced out of the battle line to make repairs and why the ships engaging those floating batteries had already suffered upwards of two hundred casualties of their own.

“Why can’t those idiots recognize the inevitable and strike their colors before any more people get killed . . . on either side?” he half-growled and half-snarled.

“Probably because they know their duty when they see it, Your Majesty,” Merlin said quietly. Cayleb’s jaw muscles tightened, and his brown eyes flashed angrily at the infinitely respectful note of reproval in his chief bodyguard’s tone. But then the emperor’s nostrils flared as he inhaled a deep breath, and he nodded.

“You’re right,” he acknowledged. It wasn’t exactly an apology, but, then, it hadn’t exactly been a rebuke, either. He turned his head to give Merlin a crooked smile. “I just hate seeing so many men killed and wounded when it’s not going to change anything in the end.”

“In the ultimate sense, you’re probably right about that,” Merlin agreed. “On the other hand, they might get lucky. A shot in exactly the wrong place, a spark in a magazine, a smashed lantern somewhere below decks . . . as Earl Gray Harbor is fond of pointing out, the first rule of battle is that what can go wrong, will go wrong. And, as your father once pointed out to him, that’s true for both sides.”

“I know. But the fact that you’re right doesn’t make me like it any better.”

“Good.” The emperor’s eyebrows arched at Merlin’s reply, and the sapphire-eyed guardsman smiled a bit sadly at him. “An awful lot of people are going to get killed before this is all over, Cayleb. I know it’s going to be harder on you, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I say that the longer it takes for you to begin taking that for granted, the better man — and emperor — you’ll be.”

On Cayleb’s other side, Prince Nahrmahn’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully as he watched the emperor nod in grave agreement with the seijin’s observation. It wasn’t that Nahrmahn disagreed with Merlin’s observation. If the truth be told, Nahrmahn himself was perfectly capable of utter ruthlessness when necessity required, but he wasn’t naturally bloodthirsty. In fact, his ruthlessness was almost a reaction against the sort of bloodthirstiness some rulers — Hektor of Corisande came to mind — often displayed. He’d always had a tendency to focus his ruthlessness on narrowly defined targets, key individuals whose surgical elimination would most advance his plans, and wholesale mayhem offended him. It was messy. Worse, it was sloppy, because it usually indicated he’d failed to properly identify the critical individual or individuals whose removal was truly necessary. Which, among other things, meant he’d probably killed more people in the end than he’d had to.

It was also the reason why, even though he would infinitely prefer an emperor who was a bit more ruthless than he had to be to an emperor who wasn’t sufficiently ruthless, he had no quarrel with the seijin’s statement. There were other reasons, as well, though, and some of them had been rather unexpected. To his surprise, Nahrmahn had actually come to like Cayleb. He was a thoroughly decent young man, which was rare enough outside the ranks of heads of state, and Nahrmahn would prefer to keep him that way as long as possible, particularly since Cayleb was also going to be the brother-in-law of Nahrmhan’s daughter. But setting that personal consideration completely aside, the last thing Safehold needed was for the young man who had been regretfully prepared to sink the Earl of Thirsk’s entire fleet if his surrender terms had been rejected to turn into a young man who wouldn’t have regretted it at all.

Yet however much Nahrmahn might approve of Merlin’s statement, it wasn’t the sort of thing one’s bodyguards normally said to one. Especially not when one was an emperor. Nahrmahn had been prepared for a close relationship between Cayleb and the seijin. That kind of bond between an aristocrat and his most loyal and trusted servants was only to be expected, and Merlin had saved not only Cayleb’s life, but also those of Archbishop Maikel and the Earl of Gray Harbor, not to mention the seijin’s superhuman, already legendary effort to save King Harahld’s life at Darcoss Sound. What wasn’t to be expected was for that servant to be almost a . . . mentor to an emperor. “Mentor” wasn’t exactly the right word, as Nahrmahn was well aware, but it came close. Cayleb listened to Merlin, and he treasured the seijin’s views and opinions on an enormous range of decisions. Of course, unlike altogether too many rulers, Cayleb had the incredibly valuable (and unfortunately rare) ability to listen to his advisers. No one would ever mistake him for an indecisive man, but his very decisiveness gave him the confidence to seek the opinions of others whose judgment he trusted before he reached a decision. Still, there was something different about the way he listened to Merlin’s opinions.

Don’t do it, Nahrmahn, the prince told himself. That curiosity of yours is going to get you straight back into trouble yet, if you’re not careful. If Cayleb wanted you to know why he respects Seijin Merlin’s advice as much as he does, no doubt he’d already have told you. And, no, you don’t need to be wondering how much the seijin has to do with all of those remarkable intelligence sources Wave Thunder was very carefully not telling you about.