"All right, Mr. Nethaul — put a shot across his bow!"


            The forward gun thudded almost before Raynair had finished speaking, and he watched the plume of white water rise far beyond the galleon.


            Blade and her sisters had come from the Shumair Yard in Charis. They were basically duplicates of Sir Dustyn Olyvyr's design for the Royal Navy, but with a few minor changes to suit them for their private enterprise role. Their naval counterparts carried fourteen thirty-pounder carronades apiece, but Blade carried only ten carronades plus the long fourteen-pounder forward on one of the new "pivot mounts." Raynair didn't know who'd thought up the "pivot mount," and he didn't really much care.


            It consisted of an almost standard gun carriage that was mounted on a platform made of two heavy timbers, or skids, which were joined by four massive, evenly spaced blocks. The carriage had no wheels, however; instead, it slid along grooves cut into the skids when it recoiled. The skids themselves were secured to the deck by a pivot pin through the rearmost connecting block. The pin passed through the deck, and its lower end was secured to a two-foot-square timber. The point at which it passed through the deck was strengthened by a massive cast iron socket that extended half-way through the below-decks timber, and its upper end was heavily bushed where it joined to the skids, since it took the majority of the recoil forces when the gun fired. Castor wheels under the skids' front end rode a circular iron rail set into the deck, and by moving the front end along the rail and pivoting on the rear end, the entire mount could be trained around through a theoretical arc of three hundred and sixty degrees, although the ship's bowsprit and rigging blocked certain angles of fire. Rumor gave Baron Seamount credit for it, but all that Raynair really cared about was that the centerline mount permitted Blade's single long gun to be brought to bear anywhere in either broadside.


            There were limits to the size of gun the mount could take, and the long fourteen fired a much lighter shot than the carronades, but its range was longer, and it didn't really take the heaviest gun afloat to convince any reasonably sane merchant skipper that it was time to surrender his ship.


* * * * * * * * * *


            "How the hell did they do that?" Synklyr demanded.


            "D'you think I know?" Maigee snarled back.


            In fairness, he knew it had been a rhetorical question. In fact, he wasn't certain Synklyr even realized he'd spoken aloud. None of which made him feel any happier at the fresh evidence of yet another of the apparently unending, devilish Charisian innovations.


            In fact, this was the closest Maigee had yet come to the new Charisian artillery, which he more than half-suspected was the real reason for most of his irritable tension. Virtually everyone in the Dohlaran Navy, from the Duke of Thorast down, was busy trying to downplay the effectiveness of the Charisian guns. Maigee supposed that was inevitable — obviously, he thought sardonically, pretending the Charisian guns don't work is much simpler than figuring out what what to do about them if it turns out they do work , after all — but it did damn-all for the poor bastard who found himself face-to-face with them.


            He longed to pull out his spyglass and take a good, long look at the schooner's armament, but spyglasses were rare aboard merchant ships at the best of times, and especially for one as deliberately down-at-the-heels as Guardian.


            "Stand ready, Mr. Synklyr," he said instead, then looked at his second officer. "It's time, Mr. Jynks," he said.


* * * * * * * * * *


            "That's odd," Ekohls Raynair murmured to himself as the galleon finally accepted the inevitable and hove-to. He frowned, trying to decide what it was that was jabbing at the corner of his mind as Blade followed suit and Nethaul and a dozen heavily-armed seamen took the first cutter across to take possession of their prize. There was something —


            Then he found out what the "something" was.


* * * * * * * * * *


            "Now!" Captain Maigee barked, and several things happened at once.


            The waiting soldiers rose to their feet, matchlocks ready, showing themselves over the high bulwark even as other, specially arranged sections of that  bulwark dropped suddenly, exposing the cannon mounted behind them. The guns were only falcons, throwing shot that weighed just under eight pounds. Guardian was only a converted merchant galleon, after all. She hadn't been built with artillery in mind, and each of those guns still weighed just over a ton apiece. It simply hadn't been practical to put any larger, heavier weapons aboard her, and if even a tenth of the tales about the new Charisian guns were true, her broadside was going to be far slower-firing. But the privateer had only five guns in each broadside, and Guardian had eighteen.


* * * * * * * * * *


            Raynair's heart seemed to stop beating as the Dohlaran "merchant ship" suddenly bared its fangs. His mouth opened, but before he could get out the first order, the afternoon seemed to explode around him.


            There were at least a hundred musketeers aboard that ship. Now they rose from their places of concealment and opened fire on Blade's cutter. At that range, not even matchlocks were likely to miss, and the concentrated fire turned the cutter into a shattered, slowly sinking wreck filled with dead men and blood.


            The fact of Nethaul's death, along with the massacre of all of the rest of his boarding party, barely had time to begin to register before the Dohlaran's broadside thundered. They were only Dohlaran guns, but there were a lot of them, and obviously these gunners had a damned good idea about which end of the gun the round shot came out of. Several of them managed to miss, anyway, despite the ridiculously low range. Most of them did better than that, however, and screams erupted across Blade's deck as the Dohlaran fire ripped through Raynair's crew.


            That was terrible enough, but that same broadside brought down Blade's foremast in an avalanche of shattered spars and canvas. The foremast was actually the primary mast for a twin-masted schooner, and the tangled wreckage crippled Blade.


            "Fire!" Raynair heard someone else shouting with his voice, and four of the five carronades in the schooner's port broadside belched flame.


* * * * * * * * * *


            "Yes!" Maigee cried as the Charisian ship's mast came thundering down. That was far better than he'd hoped for, and he could see at least a dozen men already down on the schooner's shot-ripped deck.


            But then the privateer disappeared behind a cloud of smoke of its own, and Maigee staggered as the fat, far heavier shot from the schooner's carronades slammed back into his own command.


            Guardian had been designed and built as a merchant vessel. Her timbers were lighter, her planking was thinner, than any naval architect would have demanded. In at least one way, that worked in her favor. Because her planking was so much thinner, the shattering impact of Blade's fire produced fewer and smaller splinters than would have been the case with a "proper warship's" heavier construction. On the other hand, her hull was packed with soldiers and seamen, and her lighter construction meant she was much more fragile than a warship would have been.


            Maigee's ears rang with the shrieks and screams of his own wounded. One of his guns took a direct hit, and the bulky timber of its clumsy, wheelless carriage disintegrated even as still more of the Charisian's heavy shot clawed great bleeding furrows through the ship's company. Guardian's guns outnumbered Blade's by better than three to one, and the Dohlaran had the advantage of surprise. But Blade's guns threw far heavier shot, and they fired much more rapidly.


            "Reload! Reload, damn your eyes!" He heard Synklyr shouting out of the smoke from somewhere forward. The first lieutenant's voice sounded harsh and distorted against the backdrop of screams. The musketeers were blazing away at the Charisian ship as quickly as they could reload, but the range to the schooner was much too great for any sort of accuracy.


* * * * * * * * * *


            "Hit them — hit the bastards!" Raynair shouted even as the bosun led a rush of seamen with axes and hatchets forward to cut away the wreckage.


            Like most privateers, Blade carried a far larger crew than was actually required to work or fight the ship. The prize crews to take custody of their captures had to come from somewhere, after all. But the Dohlaran's deadly surprise must have killed or wounded at least thirty of Raynair's men. Counting Nethaul and his cutter's crew, the number was closer to sixty than to fifty, a voice somewhere deep inside informed him savagely. That was at least a third of his total ship's company.


            Yet there'd been a reason he'd demanded such relentless, unceasing gun drill and training during the long voyage from Charis. His port gun crews had taken heavy casualties, but replacements from the starboard guns came charging across to replace the dead and wounded. If Blade had been free to maneuver, things would have been very different. Unfortunately, the wreckage forward meant even the clumsy galleon could match her maneuverability.


            No, there was only one thing Ekohls Raynair could do now, and he bared his teeth as Blade's second broadside thundered.