August, Year of God 892






Schooner Blade and galleon Guardian,


off Lizard Island,


Hankey Sound


            "All right, Mr. Nethaul! Stand by the forward gun!"


            "Aye, aye, Sir!"


            Hairym Nethaul waved acknowledgment from his post on the schooner Blade's foredeck as the fleet, flush-decked privateer swept down upon its intended prey. Captain Ekohls Raynair, Blade's master and half-owner, stood by the wheel, brown eyes narrowly intent as he simultaneously watched the wind, the set of his sails, and the Dohlaran galleon upon which he had set his sights.


            "Let her fall off a quarter-point," he growled, and the helmsman nodded.


            "Aye, Cap'n," he replied, shifting his well-masticated wad of chewleaf to the other side of his mouth, and Raynair chuckled. It would have been hard to imagine anything less navy-style than the discipline aboard Blade, but it got the job done. He and his schooner were seven thousand miles from Charis as the wyvern flew, and better than three times that far as they'd actually sailed. That was a long, long way, but Raynair didn't care. It had taken almost three months to make the trip, even for a fast ship like Blade and her three consorts, and he didn't care about that, either.


            No, what Ekohls Raynair cared about was that he and his consortium partners had been right all along. It seemed abundantly clear that no one in Dohlar had entertained the least suspicion that Charisian privateers would operate so far afield. The four schooners — Blade, Ax, Cutlass, and Dirk — had cut a swath through the totally unwary Dohlaran merchant marine for almost a month now, and the expedition's books were looking very, very good.


            How nice of King Rahnyld to invest all that time and effort in making us rich, Raynair thought as his ship went slicing through the water like the very blade for which she was named. Of course, this wasn't exactly what he had in mind. But if you're stupid enough to go swimming with krakens, then you're lucky if all that happens is you get back a bloody stump.


            Rahnyld IV's ambitions to build a merchant marine from scratch were no doubt laudable, from a Dohlaran viewpoint. Raynair didn't see it that way. His father and one of his uncles had been the master and first mate (and joint owners) of a Charisian merchant ship which had come calling in the Gulf of Dohlar twelve years before and run afoul of a Dohlaran war galley in the approaches to Silkiah Bay. They hadn't even been headed for a Dohlaran port — their cargo had been bound for a spice merchant in the Grand Duchy of Silkiah — but that hadn't mattered.


            King Rahnyld had decided that the Gulf of Dohlar, Hankey Sound, and Silkiah Bay ought to be closed waters. He'd started out by levying tolls on anyone passing east of the Dohlar Bank and its cluster of islands. Then he'd started pushing his area of operations further west. Eventually, he'd extended his "protected area" as far as Whale Island, over a thousand miles from his own coastline. Claiming to exert some sort of police power over a stretch of saltwater that vast was not only unheard of, it was ridiculous. Charis, for example, like virtually every other maritime power on the planet, hewed to the older rule which held that a nation could claim sovereignty only over waters in which it could — and did — exercise an effective control. That didn't mean just extorting money out of passing merchant ships, either. It meant dealing with pirates, preventing acts of war by other naval powers, buoying and marking navigational hazards, updating charts, and generally making the children behave. Which, in turn, meant, for all practical purposes, that territorial waters were those which lay within long cannon shot of its coastline, which was generally agreed to be about three miles. Actually, even the three-mile limit was being overly generous, as everyone understood perfectly, well. And it was worth noting that somehow ships of the Harchong Empire had ended up exempt from King Rahnyld's "passage fees."


            Ahbnair and Wyllym Raynair hadn't seen any reason why they should pour their hard-earned golden marks into Rahnyld's pockets, either. Especially since it was obvious the entire "passage fee" demand was intended solely to bar non-Dohlaran merchant ships from the waters Rahnyld IV regarded as "his."


            No one in Charis knew exactly what had happened that afternoon in the waters between Hankey Sound and Silkiah Bay. The one thing they did know was that the galleon Raynair's Pride had been fired into, boarded, and then sunk by the Dohlaran Navy. Neither Ekohls' father, nor his uncle, had survived the experience, and only two of their crewmen had ever made it home again.


            There was a reason Ekohls Raynair had been less surprised than most when Rahnyld allied himself so eagerly with Hektor of Corisande, despite the fact that Dohlar and Corisande were damned nearly on opposite sides of the world from one another. And, the truth be told, it wasn't just the profit which had attracted Blade and her consorts to Dohlaran waters, either.


            He looked back across at the lumbering Dohlaran galleon. He could see why it was operating in the Gulf. One look at real blue water would probably have frightened the clumsy, high-sided, lubberly joke's crew to death. Fortunately, whatever the Church — or, for that matter, Rahnyld of Dohlar — might think about Charis, the imperial governor of Shwei Province appeared to understand that Charisian marks spent just as well as anyone else's. At the moment, he was doing quite well for himself, in a quiet sort of way, by allowing Raynair and his partners to dispose of prize ships and seized cargoes to Harchongese merchants at Yu-Shai, on Shwei Bay. How long that would last was anyone's guess, but for the moment at least, Raynair didn't have to worry about getting his captures all the way home to Charis.


            This particular galleon seemed more stubborn than most, Raynair reflected. Her master was continuing mulishly on his course rather than accepting the inevitable. He'd clapped on all the sail he had — which wasn't all that impressive to someone who'd seen the sail plans of Charisian galleons — and he was plodding along as if he actually thought he could evade the sleek, low-slung schooner.


            Well, he's about to find out better, Raynair thought.


* * * * * * * * * *


            "Keep that damned fool's head below the bulwarks!" Captain Graygair Maigee snarled.


            The offending soldier ducked hastily back into concealment, and Maigee grunted in irate satisfaction. Then he turned his attention back to the Charisian vessel bearing down upon Guardian.


            Funny, he thought. This all seemed like a much better idea when they were explaining it to me back in Gorath Bay. Now I'm wondering what idiot thought it up. Of course, if anybody in the damned Navy actually knew his arse from his elbow, we wouldn't have landed in this mess in the first place!


            "Do you think he'll fire into us, or put a shot across our bows, Sir?" Airah Synklyr, his first officer, asked quietly.


            "How the hell do I know?" Maigee responded grumpily. It was a good question, though, he had to admit. "We'll find out when we find out, I suppose," he added.


            Which, unless I miss my guess, is going to happen very soon now.


* * * * * * * * * *