All eyes turned to the speaker. Ehdwyrd Howsmyn was short, stout, and very well-dressed. At forty-one years of age (thirty-seven and a half, standard, Merlin automatically translated mentally), he was the youngest man in the council chamber after Cayleb himself. He was also, almost certainly, the wealthiest. It was his foundries which had produced the artillery and the copper sheathing for the galleons Cayleb and his captains had used to smash the recent attack upon the kingdom. In fact, his shipyards had built half a dozen of those galleons, as well. Howsmyn was not officially a member of the Royal Council, or even of Parliament. Neither, for that matter, was Rhaiyan Mychail, the sharp-eyed (and almost equally wealthy) man sitting next to him. Mychail was at least twice Howsmyn's age, but the two of them were business partners of long standing, and Mychail's textile manufactories and ropewalks had produced virtually all of the canvas for those same galleons' sails, not to mention most of the cordage for their standing and running rigging.


            "Unless you and Master Mychail intend to build ships gratis, we're still going to have to figure out how to pay for them," Ironhill pointed out. "And without access to Desnair's gold mines, we can't just coin money whenever we need it."


            "Oh, I'm well aware of that, Ahlvyno, And, no, I'm not planning on building them gratis. Sorry." Howsmyn grinned, and his eyes twinkled. "Neither Rhaiyan nor I have any intention of gouging the Treasury, of course. That'd be an outstandingly stupid thing for either of us to be doing at this particular moment. But we do have to manage to pay our own workers and our suppliers, you know. Not to mention showing at least a modest profit for ourselves and our partners and shareholders.


            "What I was getting at, though, was that as long as the Navy can keep merchant shipping moving, the balance of trade is going to provide quite a healthy cash flow. And under the circumstances, I don't see me or any of my fellow shipowners complaining if the Crown decides to tack on a few extra duties and taxes on the Navy's behalf so that it can keep trade moving."


            "I'm not as certain as you seem to be about that cash flow, Ehdwyrd." Ironhill's expression was far more somber than Howsmyn's. "If I were the Group of Four, the very first thing I'd do would be to demand that all of Haven's and Howard's harbors be closed to our shipping immediately." He shrugged. "They have to be as aware as we are that the Kingdom's prosperity hinges entirely on our merchant marine. Surely they're going to do everything they can to cripple it."


            Gray Harbor frowned, and some of the others went so far as to nod in sober agreement. Howard and Haven, the two main continents of Safehold, contained at least eighty percent of the planetary population. The kingdoms, principalities, and territories in which that population lived were the markets upon which Charis' merchant marine and manufactories had built the kingdom's wealth. If those markets were taken away, Charisian prosperity would be doomed, but Howsmyn only chuckled.


            "The Group of Four can demand whatever they want, Ahlvyno. I doubt they're going to be stupid enough to issue that particular decree, but, then, they've already done some spectacularly stupid things, so it's always possible I'm wrong. In fact, I rather hope I am and that they do try it. Even if they do, though, it's not going to happen."


            "No?" Ironhill sat back in his chair. "Why?"


            "Why do I wish they would? Or why do I think it's not going to happen even if they do?"




            "I wish they would because giving orders you know won't be obeyed is one of the best ways I know to destroy your own authority. And the reason an order like that wouldn't be obeyed is that no one in Haven or Howard can possibly provide the goods those markets require. I don't mean just that they can't provide them as cheaply as we can, Ahlvyno, although that's certainly true, as well. What I mean is that they literally don't have the capacity to provide them at all. And that even if they had the capacity, or developed it as quickly as possible, they still wouldn't have the ability to transport those goods at anything like the economies of cost we can achieve." Howsmyn shook his head. "That's one of the minor details the Group of Four left out of their calculations, actually. I'm astonished Duchairn didn't warn the other three what would happen if they succeeded in what they had in mind."


            "Would it really have been that bad for them, Ehdwyrd?" Gray Harbor asked, and Howsmyn shrugged.


            "It would've been bad, Rayjhis. Maybe not as bad as I think it would have been, I suppose, if I'm going to be fair. After all, my perspective is bound to be shaped by my own business interests and experience. Still, I think most people — including a lot of people right here in the Kingdom — don't understand how thoroughly we've come to dominate the world's markets. There was a reason Trynair chose King Haarahld's supposed ambition to control the entire world's merchant traffic as his pretext for supporting Hektor and Nahrmahn against us. He knows there are plenty of people in Dohlar, Desnair, Harchong — even the Republic — who deeply resent our domination of the carrying trade. And quite a few of them — the smarter ones, to be honest — resent their own growing dependency on our manufactories, as well.


            "All of that's true, but their resentment can't change the reality, and the reality is that better than half — probably closer to two-thirds, actually — of the world's merchant galleons fly the Charisian flag. And another reality is that somewhere around two-thirds of the manufactured goods those galleons transport are made right here in Charis, as well. And a third reality is that it takes four times as long and costs five or six times as much to transport the same goods to their ultimate destinations overland as it does to ship them by sea. If, of course, it's even possible to ship them overland in the first place. It's just a bit difficult to get something from Siddarmark to Tarot by wagon, after all. There's this little thing called the Tarot Channel in the way."


            One or two of the others looked dubious. Not at his analysis of the manufacture and transport of goods. That was something any Charisian understood on an almost instinctual level. Some of them clearly thought Howsmyn's assumptions were overly optimistic, however. Ironhill appeared to be one of them; Gray Harbor and Cayleb did not, and behind his own outwardly expressionless guardsman's face, Merlin frowned thoughtfully. He wasn't certain of Howsmyn's actual numbers. No one on Safehold kept that sort of statistics, so anything Howsmyn said could be no more than an informed estimate. On the other hand, he wouldn't be very surprised to discover that those estimates were, in fact, very close to accurate. No one got as wealthy as Ehdwyrd Howsmyn from international trade without a keen grasp of the realities of finance, shipping, and manufacturing.


            And, Merlin reminded himself, Charis was already well along the way towards a purely waterpowered Industrial Revolution, despite the Church's proscriptions against advanced technology, even before I put in my own two cents worth.


            "Over the past year and a half or so," Howsmyn continued, very carefully not looking in Merlin's direction, "our ability to produce goods, especially textiles, quickly and at even lower cost has increased dramatically. No one in Haven or Howard is going to be able to match our productivity for a long time to come, and that assumes that nothing happens –" he was even more careful not to glance at Merlin " — to further increase our manufactories' efficiency. And as I say, even if they could produce the goods we can produce, trying to transport them overland instead of shipping them by water would add enormously to their expenses. No." He shook his head. "If the Group of Four had succeeded in destroying Charis and our merchant marine, they would have created a huge problem for themselves. It truly would have been a case of killing the wyvern that fetched the golden rabbit."


            "Even assuming all of that's true, that doesn't mean they won't try to do exactly what Ahlvyno's just suggested anyway," Gray Harbor pointed out, dutifully playing the role of Shan-wei's advocate. "They already tried to destroy us, after all, despite all of the dire consequences you're saying they would have faced as a result."


            "I also admitted that they've already done some spectacularly stupid things," Howsmyn reminded the earl. "And they may try to close their ports to us, as well. But if they do, those ports are going to leak like sieves. There are going to be entirely too many people — including quite a few of the vicars' own bailiffs, for that matter — who want and need our goods for it to work. Not even the Church has ever really been able to control smuggling, you know, and trying to do something like that would be much, much harder than chasing a few independent smugglers."


            "You probably have a point, Master Howsmyn," Archbishop Maikel said. "However, I suspect the Group of Four — and especially Grand Inquisitor Clyntahn — are, indeed, likely to make the attempt."


            "I bow to your greater familiarity with the Council of Vicars' thinking, Your Eminence," Howsmyn said. "I stand by my analysis of what will happen if they do, however."


            "Rahnyld of Dohlar's always wanted to increase his own merchant marine," Bynzhamyn Raice, Baron Wave Thunder, pointed out.


            The bald, hook-nosed Wave Thunder had been King Haarahld VII's spymaster. He served Cayleb in the same role, and he seldom spoke up in meetings like this unless it had something to do with those duties. When he did open his mouth, though, he was almost always worth listening to, Merlin thought, and this time was no exception. The King of Dohlar was hemmed in on all sides by much more powerful neighbors like the Harchong Empire and Republic of Siddarmark. His chances of territorial expansion were effectively nil, which was why he'd attempted for years to emulate the maritime prosperity of Charis, instead.


            "That was one of the pretensions which made Rahnyld such an enthusiastic supporter of the Group of Four's plans, after all," Wave Thunder continued. "Well, that and those loans of his from the Church. Under the circumstances, I'm sure the Church would be willing to forgive even more of his loans and actively subsidize his efforts to build up a merchant fleet big enough to cut into our own carrying trade, and the Church has a lot of money. If the Group of Four decides to make a major commitment to helping him, he could launch a lot of galleons."


            "Unless my memory fails me, Bynzhamyn," Lock Island said, "we're still at war with Dohlar, and likely to remain so for quite some time. Something about our demand for Rahnyld's head, I believe."


            Quite a few of the men around the table chuckled at that observation, Merlin noticed.


            "Until and unless that state of war is terminated," the admiral continued, "any Dohlaran-flagged vessel is a legitimate prize of war. And even if, for some reason, peace should disastrously break out between us and Rahnyld, there've always been problems with piracy in the waters around Howard. I'd be astonished if some of those 'pirates' didn't somehow manage to come into possession of some nice little schooners, possibly even with some of the new guns on board."


            The chuckles were louder this time.


            "We're getting too far ahead of ourselves," Cayleb said. He looked at Howsmyn. "I'm inclined to think your analysis is basically sound, Ehdwyrd. That doesn't mean things won't change, and we've seen for ourselves over the last two years just how quickly they can change. Still, I think one of the other points you made is almost certainly valid. Navies are expensive, but as long as we have one and our enemies don't, we don't need a huge army to go with it, so at least we can avoid that expense. And under the circumstances, I think we can count on being able to finance the fleet somehow."


            "For now, at least, we can, Your Majesty," Ironhill conceded. "The funds are there for the thirty additional ships Admiral Lock Island has under construction at the moment, at any rate. We can't lay down many more than that until we've launched the current vessels to clear the building ways, anyhow. But completing those ships is going to effectively finish the total elimination of the treasury surplus your father and grandfather had managed to build up before the current emergency."


            "I understand." Cayleb nodded.


            "Which, if Your Majesty will pardon me," Lock Island said with greater than usual formality, "brings us to the question of just what we do with the ships we already have while we wait for the new ones."


            "You mean besides making certain the Church isn't able to land an overwhelming army to slaughter our people, burn our cities to the ground, and remove all of our heads?" Cayleb inquired mildly.


            "Besides that, of course, Your Majesty."