City of Ferayd,


Ferayd Sound,


Kingdom of Delfarahk


            "How may I help you, My Lord Bishop?" Sir Vyk Lakyr asked courteously as Bishop Ernyst Jynkyns was shown into his office near the Ferayd waterfront. Father Styvyn Graivyr, Bishop Ernyst's Intendant, followed on the bishop's heels, somber in the green cassock of an upper -priest bearing the sword and flame badge of the Order of Schueler.


            Lakyr felt more than a little uneasy over what might have brought Jynkyns to see him. He was neither the mayor of Ferayd, nor the governor of the district in which the port city lay, with either of whom the Bishop of Ferayd normally might be expected to have business. What he was was the senior officer of Ferayd's military garrison, which, given events elsewhere in the world of late, helped to explain his uneasiness.


            "I've already visited the Mayor, Sir Vyk," Jynkyns said. Lakyr's anxiety clicked up another a few notches, although he kept his expression merely politely attentive. "I'm sure you'll be hearing from him — and quite probably from the Governor, as well — shortly. Since, however, this matter directly concerns Mother Church, I thought it would be best if I came and discussed it with you in person, as well."


            "I see," Lakyr said. Then he paused and shook his head. "Actually, My Lord, I don't see. Not yet, at least."


            "That's honest, at any rate, Sir Vyk." Jynkyns smiled. It was a brief smile, and his face quickly sobered once again.


            "In point of fact, Sir Vyk," he said, "I'm here on the direct instructions of Chancellor Traynyr and Grand Inquisitor Clyntahn."


            Lakyr felt his facial muscles congeal, but he simply nodded.


            "The Office of Inquisition, and the Council of Vicars, have determined that the pernicious doctrines, misrepresentations, blasphemies, and lies being spread by the apostate heretics of Charis are even more poisonous and corrupting to all of God's people than was at first believed," Jynkyns said. Something in the bishop's tone sounded to Lakyr like a man who wasn't in complete agreement with what he was required to say, but the prelate went on unflinchingly.


            "Because of the corrosiveness of the blasphemous teachings of the so-called 'Church of Charis,' the Grand Inquisitor has determined that it is incumbent upon him to limit their spread by any means possible. And, since it has been well established that the merchant ships of the Kingdom of Charis carry its heretical teachings with them wherever they may go, as witness the copies of the apostate Staynair's falsehood-riddled 'letter' to His Holiness which have been so broadly distributed, Grand Inquisitor Clyntahn has resolved to close all ports of all God-fearing realms against their entry and the seduction of their lies. Accordingly, you are to take steps to close Ferayd to them in future . . . and to seize and intern any Charisian-flag vessels currently in the port. According to my own dispatches, the King is in agreement with the Chancellor and the Grand Inquisitor in this matter. Mother Church has made the semaphore available to him, and I believe you will be receiving confirmation of these instructions from him shortly."


            Lakyr felt as if someone had just punched him unexpectedly. For a moment, he could only stare at Jynkyns, unable to immediately comprehend what the bishop had said. Then his brain started working again, and he wondered why he'd felt surprised.


            Because this is going to effectively destroy Ferayd's economy, that's why, a stubborn voice said in the back of his brain. The city had grown wealthy and powerful because it was the major port of the Kingdom of Delfarahk . . . and because its relative proximity to Charis made it a natural transshipment point for cargoes from and to ports all over the west coast of  Howard, as well. It's like spanking a baby with an ax!


            "If those are my orders from King Zhames and from Mother Church, My Lord Bishop," he said, "I will, of course, carry them out to the best of my ability. However, I feel I should point out that there are at least twenty-five Charisian-flag vessels in the harbor at this very moment. For that matter, there are probably more than that; I haven't checked with the harbor master lately, but there have been more of them even than usual since . . . ah, since that business in Darcos Sound." He cleared his throat a bit nervously, then continued. "Not only that, but at least half of them are lying to anchor, waiting for dockside berths, not tied up alongside one of the wharves. That's going to make them rather difficult to seize if they realize what's happening and try to make sail."


            "You'll have the assistance of several galleys," Father Styvyn said rather abruptly. A flicker of annoyance flashed across Jynkyns' face and his lips pressed firmly together for perhaps a single heartbeat, but he didn't rebuke Graivyr for inserting himself into the conversation.


            Of course he didn't, Lakyr thought. Graivyr's not exactly noted for his humility and easy-going temperamentat the best of times. God only knows what he's likely to report to the Temple if he decides someone — even the Bishop — is obstructing the Grand Inquisitor's decrees. Which is a point I'd better bear in mind, as well.


            "That will undoubtedly help a great deal, Father," he said aloud. "It's still going to be tricky, though. We'll do the best we can, I assure you, but it's entirely possible that at least a few of them will evade us."


            "Then sink them if they try," Graivyr said coldly.


            "Sink them if there's no other way to stop them," Jynkyns corrected quietly. The look Graivyr gave him was not the sort Lakyr was accustomed to seeing a mere upper-priest give a bishop, but Jynkyns met it levelly.


            "Of course that's what I meant, My Lord," the Intendant said after a brief hesitation.


            "Ah, that might be more easily said than done, I'm afraid, Father," Lakyr said delicately. Both clerics turned back to him, and he shrugged. "At the moment, none of the island batteries are manned. I have skeleton gun crews for the waterfront batteries, but not for the outer batteries. If they get out of the harbor proper, they'll have a free run through any of the main channels."


            "Then get them manned." Graivyr sounded as if he thought he were speaking to an idiot, and Lakyr felt his jaw muscles tighten.


            "It's not that simple, Father," he said, trying very hard to keep any emotion out of his voice. "I don't have the gunners for those batteries. We don't normally keep them manned during time of peace, you know."


            Which, he carefully did not say aloud, is because they're over a hundred frigging miles from the city, you . . . uninformed soul. 


            The large islands between Ferayd Sound and the Southern Ocean, and the extensive shoals around them, helped shelter the huge bay from the often fractious weather off the southern tip of Howard. The islands also offered handy places to put batteries to cover the shipping channels, but manning fortifications like those was expensive. . . . and Zhames II of Delfarahk had a well-deserved reputation for pinching marks until they squealed. Aside from what were little more than bare minimum caretaker detachments, the island batteries were never manned in peacetime.


            "It would take several days at a minimum — more probably the better part of two or three five-days, to be honest, even if you permitted me the use of Mother Church's semaphore — for me to request the necessary gun crews, get them here, and then get them transported all the way out to the islands," he continued in that same painfully neutral tone. "My impression was that you intend for me to close the port to Charis promptly. If that is, indeed, the case, there won't be sufficient time to get the gunners we need to man the channel forts."


            "I see." Graivyr looked as if he wanted to find fault with Lakyr's explanation and felt nothing but irritation when he couldn't.


            "You're correct about how quickly we need this done, Sir Vyk," Jynkyns said. "And," he glanced at Graivyr, "all God can ask of any man is that he do the best he can within the capabilities he has. I feel confident that you, as always, will do just that."


            "Thank you, Bishop." Lakyr gave him a slight but heartfelt bow.


            "In that case, we'll leave you to begin making your preparations," the bishop said. "Come, Styvyn."


            Graivyr looked briefly rebellious. Because, Lakyr realized, the intendant wanted to take personal command of the entire operation. Since he couldn't do that, the next best thing would have been to spend several hours telling Lakyr how he should go about doing it.


            And wouldn't that result in a fine mess, Lakyr thought sardonically from behind the careful shield of his eyes. Not that it isn't likely to wind up as exactly that, anyway. And just how do Clyntahn and the Chancellor expect Charis and King Cayleb to react to all this?


            He had no answer for his own question . . . yet.