At least Samyl Cahkrayn, the Duke of Fern and the first councilor of Dohlar, seemed to understand that Thirsk and the handful of other surviving (and disgraced) senior officers of Duke Malikai's shattered fleet were a valuable resource. He appeared to be trying to protect them, at any rate. And without a protector that highly placed, Thirsk probably would have already suffered the full consequences of the king's "extreme displeasure." Of course, it was always possible the real reason Fern was preserving Thirsk was as a potential sacrifice against a greater need. If the Group of Four ended up claiming a sacrificial victim for the failure of Vicar Allayn's oh-so-brilliant naval campaign plan, it would be hard to come up with a better one than the senior surviving admiral from the resultant fiasco.


            "I'm afraid you're right where Thorast is concerned," Hahlynd admitted unhappily.


            "Of course I am." Thirsk snorted. "If it's not all my fault, then it has to be his brother-in-law's, after all."


            "That's certainly part of it," Hahlynd agreed. "But the way you keep pushing where the new building program's concerned isn't helping any."


            "No?" Thirsk looked at him for a moment, then shrugged. "You're probably right, but that doesn't change the fact that the 'new building program' isn't going to help much against Charis, either. We don't need another galley fleet, Pawal. In fact, that's the last thing we need!"


            Hahlynd started to say something, then changed his mind, and Thirsk snorted again.


            Apparently, no one was particularly interested in his own reports on what had happened off Armageddon Reef. In his fairer moments, he tried to remind himself that the people reading those reports had to wonder whether he was telling the truth, or simply trying to cover his own arse. After all, it would make his own failure look far more excusable if he'd found himself confronting some sort of deadly new warship design and not simply an enemy commander who'd turned out to be more competent than he was. But the truth had a nasty habit of biting people who refused to confront it, and Thirsk was glumly certain his navy was going to get bitten all over again.


            "This is just plain stupid, Pawal. Galleys?" He shook his head. "You've just been telling me what one of their schooners did to a galleon armed with the most effective broadside we could give it. Can't anyone understand that galleys have just become totally outclassed?"


            "At least the new designs are going to be more seaworthy." Hahlynd sounded remarkably like someone searching for a silver lining, Thirsk thought.


            "I'll grant that," he said after a moment, "and, to be fair, that's nothing to sneeze at."


            His eyes turned bleak and hard as he remembered his own fleet's endless voyage to its final catastrophic meeting with the Royal Charisian Navy. The Dohlaran Navy's galleys had been designed for in-shore waters, not for the sort of blue-water crossing which had been demanded of them. They'd been shorter than most of the heavier Charisian galleys, and their drafts had been much shallower, even for their size. As a result, they'd displaced little more than a half or a third as much as a Charisian galley. That had made them much faster and more maneuverable under oars, of course . . . as long as their bottoms were reasonably clean. But it also left them far less stable under sail (which meant they could carry less of it), and far more vulnerable to even average conditions on the open sea. Which meant that except under oars (which meant anywhere outside coastal waters) they were actually slower and less maneuverable. The Charisians' galleys weren't really designed to move under oars at all, except in calms or to maneuver once combat was actually joined. They were designed primarily as sailing vessels with oars to provide auxiliary power — to give them additional speed under sail, to help them accelerate, to get them around onto a new tack more rapidly. In calm conditions, they were at a serious maneuvering disadvantage; in typical blue-water conditions, the advantage flipped entirely to their side.


            Duke Malikai's flagship, King Rahnyld, had been the biggest ship in the entire Dohlaran Navy. She'd been almost as long as Baron White Ford's Tarotisian flagship, and stood far higher out of the water . . . yet her displacement, huge for the Dohlaran Navy, had been little more than half that of White Ford's flagship. Even White Ford's ship had been lighter and shallower draft than the majority of the Royal Charisian Navy's galleys, and the Charisian galleons were deeper draft, still. Which not only made them even more seaworthy but created ideal platforms for the new Charisian-style artillery. Speed and maneuverability under oars, like high fighting castles, had proved useless in combat against the galleons' far heavier broadsides and greater seaworthiness. For that matter, Thirsk was positive that at least a dozen, and probably more, of the ships Malikai had lost had foundered primarily because they simply had no business making an ocean crossing. So if the new designs were at least a little more seaworthy, so much the better.


            Unfortunately, that only means they'll stay afloat long enough for the Charisians to turn them all into driftwood.


            "It's nothing to sneeze at," he repeated, "but it's not enough, either. Remember, we aren't the only fleet Cayleb smashed."


            "No, we're not. But as far as I know, we still don't have any reliable reports about what happened to Black Water and Earl Mahndyr."


            Thirsk grunted. That was true enough, unfortunately.


            "You're right," he said. "And I suppose it says something for the Group of Four's decisiveness, at any rate, that they've already arranged their new building program . . . even if it is the wrong program. It's too bad they didn't wait to read the reports first, though."


            The existence of the Church's semaphore system had allowed the Group of Four to issue the various kingdoms' and empires' orders with a speed no purely secular realm could have matched. It was an advantage which had served the Church (and the Group of Four) well over the years, as Thirsk was well aware. In this case, though, that speed was actually working against them. They'd launched what had to be the biggest single shipbuilding program in the history of the world . . . and they were building the wrong ships. God only knew how much money and, even more importantly, time and skilled labor they'd already squandered buying ships which were going to be worse than useless under the new conditions of sea warfare. The fact was that the Church could probably afford the financial consequences, but if the "Knights of the Temple Lands" persisted in ignoring Thirsk's own reports, they were going to get an unholy number of other people's seamen and marines slaughtered by the Royal Charisian Navy.


            And I can't convince a single one of them to even read my damned reports, the earl thought despairingly. Being "proved right" in the end is going to be damned cold comfort.


            "Well, Pawal," he said finally, "all we can do is try our best. I know it seems unlikely, but if I keep shouting loud enough, long enough, maybe someone will actually end up listening to me. I'm sure something more unlikely must have happened somewhere in the world since the Creation."


            Hahlynd chuckled dutifully at Thirsk's feeble joke, but the earl himself didn't feel at all like laughing.


            There are times, he thought, when it's really, really hard to go on believing God is on our side.


            Of course, that was a thought he dared not express even to Hahlynd. In fact, it was one he would have preferred not expressing even to himself.