Royal Palace,


City of Eraystor,


Princedom of Emerald


            Prince Nahrmahn of Emerald was not a happy man.


            There were many reasons for that, starting with what had happened to his navy, followed by the fact that he no longer had control even of Eraystor Bay, beyond the reach of the waterfront's defensive batteries. And by the fact that he could hardly expect King Cayleb to overlook his own attempted assassination or the part one Prince Nahrmahn had played in arranging it. Then there was the way in which he and his entire princedom had been forced to become the junior partners — almost the vassals — of Hektor of Corisande under the Group of Four's master plan for the destruction of Charis.


            And, of course, there'd been his morning's delightful interview with Bishop Executor Wyllys.


            He stood gazing out the palace window at the vast blue expanse of the bay. Emerald's merchant marine had never been very large, compared to that of Charis, or even Corisande, but these days the waterfront wharves were crowded with merchant ships which dared not put to sea, and more of them lay to anchors and buoys further out. The naval yard's anchorages and slips, on the other hand, were virtually empty. Nine galleys — the total surviving strength of Nahrmahn's navy — huddled pathetically together, as if for some sort of mutual comfort.


            There were two additional galleys anchored off to one side, and Nahrmahn glowered at the big, twin-masted ships. They were the only prizes the Duke of Black Water's fleet had managed to capture before Haarahld and Cayleb of Charis annihilated his own ships in return. They'd just happened to be here in Eraystor when the hammer came down on Black Water, although Nahrmahn didn't expect any of his erstwhile "allies" to believe in the coincidence which had "fortuitously" left him in possession.


            Nahrmahn had gone down to examine the captured ships personally the day they'd arrived. He was no experienced naval officer himself, but even he'd been able to follow the explanations about the peculiar Charisian artillery mountings and the reasons for the new weapons' effectiveness. Not that understanding made him feel any better, especially when he reflected upon the fact that as the geographically closest member of the alliance against Charis, he was virtually certain to be the first recipient of King Cayleb's attention. As, indeed, the seizure of his capital city's outlying island defenses only emphasized.


            He turned as the chamber door opened and Ohlsyn Trahvys, the Earl of Pine Hollow, and Commodore Hainz Zhaztro came through it.


            Pine Hollow was Nahrmahn's cousin, as well as his first councilor, and one of the relatively few courtiers whose loyalty the prince truly trusted. Zhaztro, on the other hand, was the senior — in fact, the only — Emeraldian squadron commander to have returned from the Battle of Darcos Sound. There were those, Nahrmahn knew, who cherished suspicions about Zhaztro — about his courage, as well as his loyalty — simply because he was the most senior officer to come home again. Nahrmahn himself, somewhat to the surprise of many, did not. The fact that Zhaztro's flagship had suffered over thirty percent casualties and was so badly damaged that she'd gradually settled to the bottom after she'd managed to claw her way back to the naval yard was all the recommendation the commodore had needed as far as Nahrmahn was concerned.


            "You wanted to see both of us, My Prince?" Pine Hollow said with a bow, and Nahrmahn nodded.


            "Yes," he said with uncharacteristic shortness, and waved for the two of them to join him by the window.


            Pine Hollow and Zhaztro obeyed the beckoned command, and the first councilor wondered if the naval officer realized how atypical Nahrmahn's attitude had been for the past several five-days. Unless Pine Hollow was mistaken, his short, round prince was actually losing weight. Some people probably wouldn't have been particularly surprised to find a prince in Nahrmahn's position doing that, but Pine Hollow had known his cousin from childhood, and he couldn't remember anything that had ever managed to put Nahrmahn off his feed. Nor did the prince fit the image of a depressed man sinking listlessly into despair. As a matter of fact, Nahrmahn actually seemed more focused, more energetic, than Pine Hollow had ever before seen him.


            "I've just finished entertaining Bishop Executor Wyllys," the prince told his two subordinates as he looked back out the window. "He was here to express his . . . unhappiness over what happened to his dispatch boat yesterday."


            Pine Hollow glanced at Zhaztro, but the commodore only gazed calmly and attentively at Nahrmahn. The naval officer's phlegmatic personality was part of what had commended him so strongly to Nahrmahn, the first councilor suspected.


            "I explained to His Eminence," Nahrmahn continued, "that this sort of thing happens when someone else's navy is in control of one's home waters. He responded to that by telling me that it had never before happened to one of Mother Church's vessels, a fact of which," he turned to smile thinly at the others, "it may astound you to learn, I was already aware."


            Despite himself, Pine Hollow felt his eyes widen at Nahrmahn's desert-dry tone.


            "The question I have for you, Commodore," the prince said, "is whether or not there's any way you can think of that we could somehow guarantee the security of future Church dispatch vessels arriving here at Eraystor?"


            "Honestly? No, Your Highness," Zhaztro said without hesitation. "Up until yesterday, I would have said there was at least an even chance the Charisians would allow Church-flagged couriers to pass through the blockade unhindered. In fact, I would have said the chances were considerably better than even, frankly." He shrugged very slightly. "Apparently, I would have been wrong. And given their presence here in the bay, and their obvious willingness to risk the Church's anger, I don't see any way we can prevent them from doing exactly the same thing over again any time they want to."


            "I see." Nahrmahn's tone was calm, Pine Hollow noted, without even a hint of displeasure at Zhaztro's devastating frankness.


            "If I might make a suggestion, Your Highness?" the commodore said after a moment, and Nahrmahn nodded for him to continue.


            "Eraystor isn't the only port in Emerald," Zhaztro pointed out. "And Cayleb doesn't begin to have enough ships to shut down every fishing port along our coasts, as we're already demonstrating. There are several places where I feel confident couriers could make a safe landfall and send any dispatches overland to the capital."


            "That's exactly what I was thinking myself," Nahrmahn agreed. "In fact, I've already made that suggestion to the Bishop Executor. He didn't seem overly pleased by the prospect." The prince's thin smile showed the tips of his teeth. "I think he feels it comports poorly with the Church's dignity to require her messengers to 'creep around in the shadows like poachers avoiding the bailiff,' as he put it."


            Nahrmahn's voice was even drier than before, Pine Hollow noticed, and the first councilor felt a distinct flicker of uneasiness. Nahrmahn's position was grim enough without his openly antagonizing the Church's official representative in Emerald.


            And, of course, the position of Emerald's first councilor depended almost entirely upon that of its prince.


            "I'm sorry to hear His Eminence feels that way," Zhaztro said politely, and Nahrmahn actually chuckled.


            "I'm sure you are, Commodore."


            The prince shook his head, then shrugged.


            "Well, Commodore, that was really the only question I had for you. I can't say your answer surprises me, but that's certainly not your fault. Would you be so good as to draw up a list of the best alternate landing sites for future Church messengers so that I could get it to the Bishop Executor by tomorrow morning?"


            "Of course, Your Highness."


            Zhaztro bowed, clearly recognizing his dismissal, and withdrew. Nahrmahn watched the door close behind him, then looked at his cousin.


            "I can't say I'm delighted about the attached price tag, Trahvys," he observed almost whimsically, "but at least the reaming Haarahld and Cayleb gave us has brought one worthwhile officer to my attention."


            Pine Hollow nodded. Zhaztro's apparent immunity to the gloom, doom, and despair which had sent most of the Emeraldian Navy's surviving senior officers' morale plunging was remarkable. The commodore had to be aware of the near hopelessness of Emerald's position, but instead of dwelling upon it, he was actively seeking ways to strike back at Charis. As he had just finished pointing out, the Royal Charisian Navy lacked sufficient ships to blockade every Emeraldian port, and Zhaztro was busy fitting out light, jury-rigged cruisers as commerce raiders in every harbor with a boatyard. Most of them would be little more than lightly armed, outsized rowing skiffs or hastily converted — and even more lightly armed — merchantmen. Neither type could hope to stand up to any sort of regular man-of-war, even one without the devilish new Charisian artillery, but they could capture and destroy lumbering, lightly armed — or completely unarmed — merchantmen, and commerce raiding was probably the one way in which Emerald could hope to actually hurt — or inconvenience, at least — Charis.


            Not that it was going to do any good in the end, of course.