North Bay,


Princedom of Emerald


            "Quietly, damn your eyes!" Sir Dunkyn Yairley hissed. "You're seamen, not drunk whores at a wedding!"


            Someone laughed softly, secure from identification in the darkness. Yairley couldn't be certain, but he rather suspected the sound had come from Stywyrt Mahlyk, his personal coxswain. It had certainly come from aft, and Mahlyk had the tiller as the launch moved steadily and, for the most part — despite Yairley's injunction to its crew — quietly through the water.


            The chuckle certainly hadn't come from the seaman whose incautiously moving foot had elicited Yairley's gentle remonstrance when it knocked over one of the cutlasses piled in the launch's floorboards with a loud clang. On the other hand, that worthy, having been methodically kicked by two of his crewmates for his clumsiness, was ulikely to be making any more noise anytime soon, and Yairley knew it. Besides, these were all handpicked men, chosen for their experience. They knew what they were about.


            So did Yairley, although it felt . . . peculiar to be personally leading what amounted to a glorified cutting-out expedition. As the captain of one of the Royal Charisian Navy's more powerful galleons, he'd thought this sort of nonsense was behind him. Unfortunately, this particular "cutting-out expedition" consisted of well over three hundred Marines and the next best thing to four hundred seamen, and that was a captain's command, wherever the men in question had come from.


            He peered astern from his place in the launch's bow, trying to see the other boats. The overcast night was darker than the inside of Shan-wei's boot, and he could barely make out the two closest ones. All the others were completely invisible, and he told himself that was a good thing. If he couldn't see them, it was extremely unlikely that the defenders of North Bay could see them, either. Which, after all, was the entire point of launching the raid after moonset. Not that knowing all of that made him feel any happier about his own blindness.


            Stop fretting, Dunkyn! he scolded himself. You've got more than enough men for this business. You just don't like being out here.


            Well, no, if he was going to be honest, he didn't like being out here. That wasn't something an officer in the Royal Charisian Navy was supposed to admit, even to himself, however. They were all supposed to be brave, daring, and perpetually eager to close with the foe. Sir Dunkyn Yairley understood his duty, and he was prepared to do it unflinchingly, yet deep inside, he'd always questioned his own courage. He didn't really know about anyone else, but he'd never seen the signs of his own sweaty palms and knotted stomach muscles in his fellow officers.


            That's just because they're better at hiding it than you are, he told himself. Which was all very well, and probably even true, but didn't make him feel one bit better at the moment. Of course —


            "There, Sir!"


            The whispered half-exclamation interrupted his thought, and he turned his head as the young midshipman crouched in the bows beside him tapped his shoulder and pointed. Yairley peered in the indicated direction, straining his older, less acute eyes, then nodded sharply.


            "Good lad, Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk," he said quietly, then looked aft to where he couldn't quite see Mahlyk in the stern sheets. "Come two points to starboard," he said. "And show the others a light."


            He he thought about the youngster beside him while he listened to the whispered repetition running aft, relayed from one rower to another until it reached Mahlyk. Bringing a royal duke — however he'd gotten to be one — along on a mission like this might not be the best way for a man's career to prosper. The Charisian tradition had always been that members of the royal house served their time in the Navy and took their chances just like anyone else, yet Yairley couldn't quite rid himself of the suspicion that a man who got the member of the royal house in question killed on his watch might find himself under just a little bit of a cloud. Still, keeping the lad wrapped up in cotton-silk wouldn't be doing him — or anyone else — any favors, either. And the captain had gone far enough to assign young Aplyn-Ahrmahk as his personal aide, which should keep him out of at least some potential trouble. And —


            He thoughts broke off as he saw the faintest of glows when the seaman beside Mahlyk opened the shutter of the closed lantern for the benefit of the boats following astern of them while using his own body to shield it from anyone ashore.


            A moment later, the launch altered course, the men pulling more strongly as Mahlyk steered for the dim points of light the alert midshipman had pointed out to Yairley.


* * * * * * * * * *


            Major Bahrkly Harmyn tipped back in his chair, stretched, and yawned mightily. It was almost Langhorne's Watch, that period between midnight and the first true hour of the day. In theory, Harmyn should be spending that time meditating on all of God's gifts and his duty to the Archangles and to God. In fact, he was spending it trying to stay awake.


            He finished yawning and let the chair tip forward again. The oil lamps filled his sparsely furnished office with light, although it was scarcely what anyone would have called bright. Somewhere on the other side of the office door, there were two clerks and an orderly, who were undoubtedly also doing their best to stay awake. Of course, they might be finding it a little easier than Harmyn was. They probably hadn't spent most of the night before drinking in one of the waterfront taverns the way Harmyn had.


            The way I wouldn't have, if I'd had any idea I was going to get stuck with the duty tonight, he thought sourly.


            Unfortunately, his superiors hadn't asked him about that when his name came up as the replacement for Major Tyllytsyn. Tyllytsyn wasn't going to be holding down the night watch for a while. Still, he was more fortunate than his horse had been. The beast had put its foot into a lizard hole and, like its rider, broken a leg. But while Tyllytsyn's leg had been set and wrapped up in plaster, the horse had simply been put down. And one Major Harmyn had been informed that he was going to be holding down Tyllytsyn's night duties until the Colonel told him differently.


            At least it's not likely anything's going to happen, he thought.