Earl of Thirsk's Townhouse,


City of Gorath,


Kingdom of Dohlar


            "So how well did it work?" Lywys Gardynyr, the Earl of Thirsk, asked his guest.


            "That depends," that guest replied now.


            Admiral Pawal Hahlynd had the unenviable task of commanding the ships assigned to protect the Kingdom of Dohlar's commerce in Hankey Sound and the approaches to Gorath Bay. Once upon a time, that had been a simple, even boring task. These days, it had become anything but.


            "Depends on what, Pawal?" Thirsk asked as patiently as he could.


            "Depends on how many of your 'trap ships' we have to trade for Charisian pirates," Hahlynd said sourly.


            "That bad, was it?"


            "Bad enough," Hahlynd agreed. Then he shook himself and inhaled deeply. "Actually, I think Maigee would have taken him in the end, if another of those damned schooners hadn't turned up. Against two of them, though –"


            The admiral shrugged, his expression grim, and Thirsk nodded. He wasn't actually very surprised by the outcome, especially given the fact that the Charisians were smart enough to stay concentrated where they could support one another.


            Not exactly what you expected out of "pirates," was it, Pawal? he thought sourly, then scolded himself almost instantly. Hahlynd might not have fully grasped what Thirsk had told him about the new Charisian guns or the deadly discipline of their captains and crews, but at least he'd bothered to listen. And not simply to listen, either. He'd actually put some of Thirsk's suggestions and recommendations into effect.


            And he damned well deserved to have it work out to better, the earl told himself.


            "From the sound of things," Hahlynd continued, "Maigee probably managed to kill or wound at least two-thirds of the first ship's crew. And he obviously pounded the shit out of its hull." The admiral showed his teeth in a grin that was more than half snarl. "That's the only reason I can think of for a pirate to burn his own ship, at any rate."


            Thirsk nodded again, this time with a bit more enthusiasm. If the Charisians had actually burned one of their ships, this far from home, then Hahlynd's estimate of the damage Thirsk's "trap ship" had managed to inflict had to be reasonably accurate. And while there were seldom enough officers of the caliber of this Maigee of Hahlynd's around — especially after the battles of Rock Point and Crag Reach, he thought bitterly — a one-for-one trade was probably the very best Dohlar could reasonably hope for.


            He considered pointing out to Hahlynd that Charisian privateers were a far cry from the occasional Harchongese or Trellheim-based piratical scum the other admiral normally had to deal with. For all intents and purposes, the privateers who had decimated Dohlar's and Tarot's commerce off the east coast of Howard, and who were now ranging all the way to the western coast of the mainland, were auxiliary cruisers of the Royal Charisian Navy.


            Thirsk was quite certain King Cayleb and Admiral Lock Island were inventively cursing the diversion of trained manpower from their navy to the privateers, but they couldn't have been surprised by it. Privateering paid better, after all . . . as long as there were enemy merchant ships upon which to prey, at least. Despite the loss of trained men to their crews, though, Thirsk somehow doubted private shipowners would have been able to get their hands on any of the new Charisian artillery pieces without at least the Royal Navy's tacit agreement. Which, given the privateers' record of success to date, had to be one of Cayleb's better investments. And, in the end, a lot of those diverted seamen would probably end back up in naval service. Privateering might pay well while it lasted, but Thirsk wasn't particularly optimistic about how much longer the Charisians would be able to find merchant ships to pounce upon.


            That's one way to send the privateers home, I suppose, he thought bitterly, gazing out of the townhouse window at the beautiful blue sweep of Gorath Bay. Once they've completely wiped out our merchant fleet, there won't be any reason for them to stay around, will there?


            "I hate to say it," he said out loud, never turning away from the view as he put his thoughts into words, "but trading one of our galleons for one of their privateers is probably as good as it's going to get."


            "Well it's not good enough," Hahlynd growled. "And not just because Thorast is blaming me for it, either!"


            "I know, Pawal," Thirsk replied. "I know."


            And he did know. In fact, Hahlynd was one of the relatively few senior officers of the Royal Dohlaran Navy who were more concerned about finding the best way to deal with the radically new threats the navy faced than with covering their own precious arses.


            Well, one of the relatively few senior officers still serving, at least, the earl corrected himself.


            "They've got to give you a command again, Lywys," Hahlynd said, almost as if he'd been reading Thirsk's mind. Not, the earl conceded, that it would have taken a genius to figure out what he was thinking. "Surely they have to realize they can't afford to leave you sitting ashore like a spare anchor!"


            "Don't bet on it," he said sourly, and turned to face his guest fully. "Given the way Thorast and the King blame me for what happened off Armageddon Reef, I suppose I'm lucky they settled for just beaching me."


            Hahlynd looked as if he would have preferred to argue. Unfortunately, King Rahnyld had been more interested in finding and punishing a scapegoat than he had in profiting from his best sea commander's experience against the Charisian Navy. And it was Thirsk's additional ill fortune that the Duke of Thorast, the closest thing Dohlar had to a navy minister — and that navy's senior officer, to boot — was married to the sister of  Duke Malikai, the incomparably incompetent (and thankfully deceased) "grand-admiral" who'd gotten most of the Dohlaran navy chopped up for kraken bait despite Thirsk's best efforts to save him from his own disastrous bungling. Thorast was scarcely likely to admit Malikai's culpability, especially with someone else available to take the blame. Under the circumstances, Thirsk had actually seriously considered the invitation from Baron White Ford to stay on in Tarot as the second-in-command of the Tarotisian Navy.


            If it hadn't been for his family, he probably would have, he admitted to himself now. His wife had been dead for years, but all three of his daughters had husbands and children of their own. Not only would he have missed them almost more than life itself, but he'd been far from certain the king wouldn't have punished them for their father and grandfather's "failure" if Thirsk himself had been beyond his reach.


            "They can't leave you cooling your heels here for long," Hahlynd argued. "You're the best and most experienced fleet commander we've got!"


            "And I'm also the bone they're prepared to throw to Vicar Allayn and the 'Knights of the Temple Lands' if it comes down to it," Thirsk pointed out rather more calmly than he actually felt.


            "Surely it won't come to that."


            Thirsk would have felt better if Hahlynd had been able to put a little more confidence into his tone.


            "I hope not." The earl turned back to the window, clasping his hands behind him as he wished his life could be as calm as those distant waters looked from here. "I'm not thoroughly convinced of that, though."


            "You know," Hahlynd said a bit diffidently, "it would probably help if you'd, well . . . "


            "Keep my mouth shut? Stop stepping on their toes?" Thirsk's mouth curled sardonically. "Unfortunately, Pawal, I have my own responsibilities. And not just to the King."


            "I know that. It's one reason I've been over here taking your advice, trying to pick your brain for ideas. But the truth is that every time you open your mouth, you only piss off the King. And as for Thorast –!"


            Hahlynd rolled his eyes and shook his head, and Thirsk laughed sourly.


            "I can't think of anything — short of a death rattle, at least — that Thorast wants to hear out of me," he said.


            In fact, he added silently to himself, if it weren't for Fern, I think Thorast would have preferred court-martialing me and hanging me in front of Parliament as a warning to all those other "cowardly slackers" — like the ones who obviously helped me betray his brother-in-law through our own incompetence and cowardice — he's so sure are out there somewhere.