"Very well, Master Gahrmyn!" Mahkneel shouted through his leather speaking trumpet.


            The first lieutenant straightened from where he'd been personally peering along the barrel of the massive, four-and-a-half-ton doomwhale in the open-backed forecastle. He didn't reply to Mahkneel's order, except to wave one hand in acknowledgment, then nod to the gun captain.


            The gun captain bent over the breach of his weapon for a moment, checking its sighting for himself, then stepped aside and pressed the red-hot iron in his right hand to the primed venthole. Smoke flashed upward from the priming, and then the massive gun spewed fire and smoke as it went leaping back along the deck on its wheeless timber mounting. The shock of recoil slammed the soles of Mahkneel's feet, transmitted through Arrowhead's deck planking as the breeching tackle snubbed the gun's movement, and the white fountain as the round shot plowed into the water well over a hundred yards beyond the galleon was visible despite the whitecaps.


            And now what are you going to do, my fine heretical friend? the captain thought sardonically.


* * * * * * * * * *


            "Well, that was certainly unfriendly," Harys Fyshyr murmured. Then he raised his voice.


            "Now, Master Edwyrds," he shouted.


* * * * * * * * * *


            Mahkneel was looking straight at the Charisian galleon. Even so, it took him two or three precious heartbeats to realize what he was seeing as the gunport lids, carefully painted to match the rest of the galleon's hull, opened abruptly. They rose as if they'd been snatched up by a single hand, and the short-snouted carronades thrust out of the sudden openings.


            He opened his mouth, but Gahrmyn had seen it as well. The first lieutenant needed no orders, and Arrowhead's flank chasers bellowed almost as one. In fact, they fired too soon, while the bow was rising, and both of them went high. One of them missed entirely, and even though the other smashed into the Charisian's hull, it hit too far up her side to be effective. It tore a round, splinter-fringed hole through the bulwark, but then it continued onward on an upward trajectory to plunge into the sea far beyond the galleon without inflicting any further damage.


            Arrowhead was less fortunate.


* * * * * * * * * *


            Kraken's deck bucked as twelve tons of carronades recoiled in a single, brutal bellow. Smoke billowed, momentarily blinding, despite the brisk wind. Then it was snatched away, rolling downwind like a shredding bank of fog, and Fyshyr bared his teeth as he saw the galley once again.


* * * * * * * * * *


            "Hard a port! Hard a port!" Mahkneel shouted, fighting to get Arrowhead round so her own broadside armament would bear while the forward gunners reloaded. Unfortunately, the galley had scarcely begun to answer the helm before the Charisian fired.


            Despite their relatively narrow target, despite the fact that both their target and the deck beneath them were moving, and despite the shot which had already hammered into their own ship, the Charisian gunners made no mistake. At least eight round shot, each of them as heavy as either of Arrowhead's flank chasers could have fired, crashed into the galley's bow.


            Men shrieked as the heavy shot plowed aft, killing and maiming anyone in their paths. One struck the starboard rowing frame, ripping lengthwise along it and cutting off sweeps like a scythe reaping wheat. Two more screamed down the oardeck itself, accompanied by lethal showers of splinters, and Arrowhead staggered as the intricately coordinated choreography of her rowers was brutally interrupted.


            More iron swept aft at upper deck level, punching completely through the forecastle, exploding out its open back like demons and carving their own paths of carnage through the deckhands and the Marines waiting for orders to board the fat, helpless galleon after its surrender. One shot crashed directly into the timber bed carriage of the starboard chase flanker, dismounting the weapon and killing almost its entire crew, and yet another slammed into the capstan and sprayed a fan of splinters and bits of iron across the deck.


            "Get her around!" Mahkneel bellowed at his helmsman, and the helm went hard over. Despite the wild, flailing confusion of her starboard oars, Arrowhead retained enough momentum to respond, and the galley swept around, fighting to bring her port falcons to bear.


            That was when Hauwyrd Mahkneel discovered that the preposterous reports about how quickly Charisian artillery could fire weren't preposterous, after all.


* * * * * * * * * *


            "Yes!" Harys Fyshyr shouted as his second broadside crashed into the Delfarahkan. His gun crews knew how urgent speed was, but they were taking time to aim, as well, firing on the downroll so that every shot hammered into their target's hull, and another storm of iron smashed into the galley.


            Arrowhead was more heavily built than Kraken, but not nearly so heavily as a Charisian galley, and her turn had exposed her side instead of her narrow beam, giving Kraken's gunners a longer, bigger target. The heavy round shot smashed into her timbers, shattering and splintering, killing and maiming, and he could hear the screams of wounded and dying men as the galley's momentum carried her still closer.


            The Delfarahkan managed to get the rest of the way around, and her broadside of light falcons barked. At least three of the eight-pound shot slammed into Kraken, and someone cried out in pain. But the galleon's smoke-streaming carronades had already recoiled, their crews were already reloading, and the galley had scarcely fired before Kraken's broadside bellowed for a third time.


* * * * * * * * * *


            Mahkneel staggered, clinging to the rail for balance, as the Charisian's fire crashed into his ship again and again while she wallowed. Arrowhead's rowers were in hopeless disarray, she'd lost all forward way, dead and wounded lay heaped about the decks as she fell helplessly off to leeward, Lieutenant Gahrmyn was down — dead or wounded, Mahkneel didn't know which — and, as he watched, the "merchantman" which had already so mangled his command, altered course. She turned downwind, angling to cross his broken, bleeding ship's stern at a range of mere yards, and he knew there was nothing at all he could do to stop her.


            He watched the Charisian's guns running back out yet again, saw them flash fresh fire, felt the impact of their iron on his ship as if in his own flesh, and knew it was over.


            "Strike the colors!" he heard someone else shouting with his own voice. "Strike the colors!"


* * * * * * * * * *


            Fyshyr watched the green and orange Delfarahkan colors come down like a wounded wyvern, and his lips drew back in a snarl. Behind his eyes, he saw again those bodies being thrown over the side of their own ship like so much harbor garbage. Heard again the survivors' reports of murder and massacre, of dead women and slaughtered children, and the screaming encouragement to slaughter the "heretics" in God's name.


            His guns thundered yet again, and fierce exultation blazed in his heart as their iron shot smashed into the galley's splintering hull. They'd chosen to start the slaughter, he thought savagely. Now they could deal with the consequences.


            "They've struck, Sir!" Edwyrds cried in his ear, and Fyshyr nodded.


            "I know," he said flatly, as yet another broadside thundered into the mangled, bleeding carcass of his enemy.


            "Damn it, Sir — they've struck!"            Edwyrds shouted.


            "So what?" Fyshyr wheeled on his first officer, then shot out one arm, pointing back the way they'd come. "Did they give us any warning, like an 'officer and a gentleman' is supposed to do? Did the people we're not even at war with stop when they were murdering our people? Our women and children? Burning our ships? Killing our friends?"


            Edwyrds looked at him for a moment, then shook his head and leaned closer.


            "No, Sir, they didn't. But these people were clear out here when it happened. And even if they hadn't been, we're not them. Do you really want us to turn into exactly what Clyntahn's already accused us of being?"


            Fyshyr's eyes went wide in astonishment as bluff, unimaginative Kevyn Edwyrds threw that question into his teeth. For a long, breathless moment, while the guns roared yet again, they stood there, eyes locked . . . and it was the captain's gaze which fell.


            "No, Kevyn," he said, and his voice would have been all but inaudible even without the thunder of battle raging around them. "No. I won't be that."


            He drew a deep breath, looked once more at the broken, bleeding galley, and then raised his voice.


            "Cease fire!" Harys Fyshyr shouted. "Cease fire!"