Captain Yairley watched and waited impatiently as HMS Torrent's second cutter blended out of the night. He was glad to see it — Lieutenant Symyn, Torrent's first lieutenant, was officially his second-in-command — but at least one launch and the thirty-five men in it had obviously gone astray.


            Not surprisingly. Indeed, if no one had gone astray, that would have been grounds for outright astonishment, not simple surprise. Every officer in the Charisian Navy knew the first law of battle was that anything which could go wrong, would. Besides, actually keeping a couple of dozen launches, cutters, and gigs together while rowing for almost twelve miles through a pitch-black night would have qualified as a miracle in any sea officer's book.


            The problem was that Yairley couldn't see a thing beyond his immediate position, except for occasional dim smears of light. He'd put together the simplest plan he could, then briefed all of the officers involved in tonight's festivities as carefully as possible before they ever embarked. Each of them had had his particular role explained to him at least twice, and each of them had also been given his contingency instructions in case someone else failed to reach his intended destination in time. That didn't necessarily mean the officers in question had actually understood their instructions, however. And even if they had, there was no way of predicting what sort of navigational errors the vagaries of wind and tide might have induced. It was even theoretically possible that only the five boats Yairley could actually see had managed to reach their assigned objective at all.


            Stop that! He shook his head. Of course they're out there . . . somewhere. And every one of them is waiting for your signal.


            Symyn's cutter came alongside Yairley's launch. Hands reached out, easing the two boats together, and Yairley leaned across towards the lieutenant.


            "I think we're in position," he said quietly. "I'm not positive, though. This –" he waved one hand at the wharf in whose shadow the boats bobbed up and down on the swell "– should be the east pier if we are where we're supposed to be."


            Symyn nodded as if he hadn't already known that perfectly well, and Yairley felt his mouth twitch in a tight grin.


            "Whether it's the east pier or not, it's a pier, and it'll just have to do. You take your cutter and Defender's launches and swing around to the far side. I'll take the other boats down this side."


            "Aye, aye, Sir," Symyn acknowledged. Hissed orders were passed, and Symyn and the assigned boats moved steadily away.


            Yairley gave them several minutes to get into position on the far side of the pier. Then his launch led the remaining boats down the nearer side towards shore, keeping to the densest, darkest shadows cast by the galleons moored to it on either side.


* * * * * * * * * *


            The pair of sentries on the east pier stood gazing glumly out into the darkness. There were very few duties which could possibly match the boredom quotient of watching over the deserted waterfront of a thoroughly blockaded port. Normally, they could at least have looked forward to the possibility of being summoned by the local city watch to help deal with a drunken brawl somewhere. But the seamen whose ships had been caught inside the blockade had run out of money with which to carouse, and the local government had decreed a curfew, if only to get the pestiferous merchant crews off the streets at night. Which meant they had absolutely nothing to do except stand there, looking out to sea as if their single-handed devotion to watchfulness could somehow prevent a Charisian attack.


            Besides, while they stood out here in the dark, they knew perfectly well that the company of army troops which was supposed to be waiting, poised in instant readiness to respond to any alarm they might raise, was undoubtedly shooting dice in the barracks. It wasn't so much that they begrudged fellow soldiers their entertainment as it was that they resented being excluded from it. Still —


            One of them heard something over the sigh of wind and steady slopping of waves. He didn't know what it was, but he began turning in its direction just as a brawny arm went around his neck from behind. His astonished hands flew up instinctively, prying at that strangling bar of bone and muscle, but then a needle-pointed dirk drove up under his ribs to find his heart, and he abruptly lost all interest in whatever it was he might have heard.


            His companion on the far side of the pier had even less warning than that, and Captain Yairley grunted in approval as he climbed up the ladder from his launch, Aplyn-Ahrmahk at his heels, and observed the two bodies.


            "Good work," he told the much-tattooed senior seaman who had led the removal of the sentries. The grin he got in reply would have done credit to a kraken, and Yairley wondered once again exactly what the man had done before joining the Navy.


            Probably better not to know, he told himself once more, and stood back as the rest of the launch's crew swarmed up onto the pier.


            He counted noses as carefully as he could in the darkness while the seamen and Marines formed up into their prearranged groups. Cutlasses and bayonets glinted dully in the dim lights of the pier's lanterns, and he watched as the Marines carefully primed their muskets. The fact that the newfangled "flintlocks" didn't need a lit length of slow match was a blessing, since it meant they could be carried ready to fire without looking like a lost flock of blink lizards through the darkness. On the other hand, it also increased the possibility of accidental discharges because it deprived a musketeer of that visual cue that his weapon was ready to fire. Which was why Yairley had given specific, bloodthirsty orders about the dreadful fate awaiting anyone who had dared to prime his musket during the long boat trip in.


            Besides, if I'd let them, the spray would damned well have soaked the priming.


            "Ready, Sir," Lieutenant Symyn said quietly, and Yairley turned to find the younger officer at his elbow. Symyn, he observed sourly, was almost beaming in anticipation.


            "Good," he said, instead of what he was actually thinking. "Remember, wait until you hear the grenades."


            "Aye, aye, Sir," Symyn said, as if Yairley hadn't made exactly that same point in the pre-attack briefings at least three times.