The man who still thought of himself as Colonel Hauwerd Breygart, Royal Charisian Marines, not yet as the Earl of Hanth, stood at Destiny's bulwark as Captain Yairley worked his vessel carefully through the crowded waters of the harbor. Normally, it wouldn't have been that much of a challenge, but so far as Breygart could tell, every square yard of the harbor's surface was covered by a sailing dinghy, launch, rowboat, skiff, or raft . . . and every one of those ramshackle vessels was packed with the cheering, shouting citizens of Hanth Town.


            "They seem happy to see you, My Lord," Lieutenant Rhobair Mahkelyn, Destiny's fourth lieutenant, remarked. As Yairley's most junior commissioned officer, Mahkelyn had been detailed as Breygart's aide aboard ship. He was a personable young man, in many ways, although Breygart couldn't quite rid himself of the suspicion that Mahkelyn was one of those people who kept track of the favors his superiors owed him.


            "I'd like to believe it was a spontaneous demonstration of their deep-seated affection for me and my family," the newly recognized earl replied dryly, raising his voice to make it heard through the torrent of voices. "On the other hand, I've had enough reports of Mahntayl's tenure to know what it really is. And, frankly, I suspect they'd be cheering just as lustily for anyone who was going to replace that bastard's sorry arse here in Hanth Town."


            "There's probably some truth to that, My Lord," Mahkelyn acknowledged after a moment.


            "There's Shan-wei's own amount of truth to it," Breygart — who supposed he really ought to start thinking of himself as Earl Hanth — said bluntly. "And a few months down the road, when I haven't been able to magically fix everything Mahntayl's buggered up, I'm probably going to be a lot less popular with my beloved subjects."


            This time, Mahkelyn obviously didn't know exactly what to say. He contented himself with a nod and a small semi-bow, then excused himself with some murmured remark about his duties. Breygart — no, damn it, Hanth, you dummy! — watched him go with a certain amusement.


            Didn't want to risk putting your foot in it by agreeing with me, hey, Master Mahkelyn? he thought derisively. Then he turned his head as someone else stepped up to the bulwark beside him, gazing across at at the humanity-littered harbor waters.


            "Good morning, Your Grace," the earl said, and Hektor Aplyn-Ahrmahk grimaced.


            "Good morning, My Lord," he replied, and Hanth chuckled at his tone of voice.


            "Still an uncomfortable fit, is it, Your Grace?"


            "My Lord?" Aplyn-Ahrmahk looked up at him, and Hanth chuckled again, louder.


            "The title, lad," he said after a moment, his voice low enough to insure no one else overheard the informality. "It chafes, doesn't it? Feels like it should belong to someone else?"


            The midshipman continued gazing up at him for several moments. Hauwerd Breygart was not exceptionally tall, but he was a hard-muscled, fit man who'd seen almost twenty years service as a Marine. Compared to the slightly built boy beside him, he was a solid, chunky presence, and he watched the emotions flickering across Aplyn-Ahrmahk's face. Then the midshipman nodded.


            "It does, My Lord," he acknowledged. "Captain Yairley's working on me, but there's never been a single noble in my entire family. Not even a simple knight, as far as I know! What do I know about being a 'duke of the realm'?"


            "Probably a bit less than I know about being an earl," Hanth said with a grin. "Which, to be blunt, means not one Shan-wei-damned thing!"


            "Less than that," Aplyn-Ahrmahk told him with a crooked grin.


            "Well, I guess we'll just both have to get used to it, Your Grace." Hanth looked back across the harbor at the somewhat battered Hanth Town waterfront. There'd been more than a little arson involved in the final fighting against Mahntayl's abandoned mercenaries, and the gutted walls of at least half a dozen warehouses stood gaunt and charred under the morning sun.


            One more thing to rebuild, he thought.


            "But at least you always knew you were in the succession, My Lord," Aplyn-Ahrmahk pointed out, and Hanth nodded.


            "That I did. But, to be honest, I never expected for all five of the siblings and cousins between me and the title to up and die on me. Never wanted them to, for that matter." He shook his head, his expression glum. "I never could convince that idiot Mahntayl that I didn't want the damned earldom. I think that's why he tried so hard to have me assassinated even after the Church gave it to him, instead. He never understood that the only reason I contested his cliam in the first place was that I just couldn't stand by and watch someone like him ruin it. Which is exactly what he's spent the last couple of years doing, when all's said."


            Hector Aplyn-Ahrmahk doubted that very many people would believe the earl's claim that he'd never really wanted the title. Aplyn-Ahrmahk, on the other hand, did believe him.


            "I remember something the King — King Haarahld, I mean — said to me once, My Lord," he told the salt-and-pepper-bearded veteran standing beside him. "He said there were really only two sorts of officers — or noblemen. One felt that the rest of the world owed him something because of who he was; the other felt that he owed the rest of the world everything because of who he was. I know which sort His Majesty was. I think you're the same sort."


            "That's a compliment I'll treasure, Your Grace," Hanth said, looking back down at the serious-faced youngster at his side. "And, if you'll forgive me for saying so, I think I know which sort you'll turn out to be, as well."


            "I mean to try, at any rate," Aplyn-Ahrmahk replied. "And I had a good example. The best example."


            "Yes. Yes you did," Hanth agreed, and for just a moment, he decided, all of the proper protocol he and young Aplyn-Ahrmahk were still learning could go to hell. He reached out, wrapping one arm around those straight, slim shoulders, and the two of them stood there side-by-side, gazing out at the cheering, shouting faces of the nameless subjects to whom he owed so much.