How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 05

As the acting commodore of the squadron keeping watch over the Imperial Desnairian Navy’s exit from the Gulf of Jahras, he had quite a few things to be worried over. Just for starters, his “squadron” was down to only his own ship at the moment, since Destiny‘s sister ship Mountain Root had encountered one of the Gulf of Mathyas’ uncharted rocks three days before. She’d stripped off half her copper and suffered significant hull damage, and while her pumps had contained the flooding and she’d been in no immediate danger of sinking, she’d obviously needed to withdraw for repairs. To make bad worse, HMS Valiant, the third galleon of his truncated squadron (every squadron had been “truncated” in the wake of the Markovian Sea action), had reported a serious fresh water shortage two days before that, thanks to leaks in no less than three of her iron water tanks, and Yairley had already been considering detaching her for repairs. Under the circumstances, little though any commander in his place could have cared for the decision, he’d chosen to send both damaged galleons back to Thol Bay in Tarot, the closest friendly naval base, for repairs, with Valiant escorting Mountain Root just in case her hull leaks should suddenly worsen in the course of the three thousand-mile voyage.

Of course, a single galleon could scarcely hope to enforce a “blockade” of the Gulf of Jahras — Staiphan Reach was over a hundred and twenty miles across, although the shipping channel was considerably narrower — but he was due to be reinforced by an additional six galleons in another five-day or so, and that wasn’t really his true task, anyway. It wasn’t as if the Desnairian Navy had ever shown anything like a spirit of enterprise, after all. In point of fact, the Imperial Charisian Navy would have welcomed a Desnairian sortie, although it was highly unlikely the Desnairians would be foolish enough to give the ICN the opportunity to get at them in open water, especially after what had happened to the Navy of God in the Markovian Sea. If, for some inexplicable reason, the Duke of Jahras did suddenly decide to venture forth, it wasn’t Yairley’s job to stop him, but rather to report that fact and then shadow him. The messenger wyverns in the special below-decks coop would get word of any Desnairian movements to Admiral Payter Shain at Thol Bay in little more than three days, despite the distance, and Shain would know exactly what to do with that information.

In the extraordinarily unlikely eventuality that the Desnairians decided to move north, they’d have to fight their way through the Tarot Channel, directly past Shain’s squadron. That wasn’t going to happen, especially since Yairley’s warning would ensure Shain had been heavily reinforced from Charis by the time Jahras got there. In the more likely case of his moving south, down the eastern coast of Howard to swing around its southern end and join the Earl of Thirsk, there’d be ample time for the ICN’s far swifter, copper-sheathed schooners — once again, dispatched as soon as admiral Shain received Yairley’s warning — to carry word to Corisande and Chisholm long before the Desnairians could reach their destination.

In effect, his “squadron” was essentially an advanced listening post . . . and better than three thousand miles from the nearest friendly base. All sorts of unpleasant things could happen to a small, isolated force operating that far from any support — as, indeed, what had happened to Mountain Root and Valiant demonstrated. Under the circumstances, the ICN had scarcely selected that squadron’s commander at random, particularly in light of the delicate situation with the Grand Duchy of Silkiah. Silkiah Bay opened off the Gulf of Mathyas just to the north of Staiphan Reach, and dozens of “Silkiahan” and “Siddarmarkian” merchantmen with Charisian crews and captains plied in and out of Silkiah Bay every five-day in barely sub rosa violation of Zhaspahr Clyntahn’s trade embargo. Anything so blatant as the intrusion of a regular Charisian warship into Silkiah Bay could all too easily inspire Clyntahn to the sort of rage which would bring a screeching end to that highly lucrative, mutually profitable arrangement, and Yairley had to be extraordinarily careful about avoiding any appearance of open collusion between his command and the Silkiahans.

          In theory his single galleon was sufficient to discharge his responsibilities in the event of a Desnairian sortie, but in the real world, he was all alone, totally unsupported, and had no friendly harbor in which he could take refuge in the face of heavy weather, all of which had to be weighing on his mind as the implacable masses of angry-looking cloud swept closer. If he was particularly perturbed, he gave no sign of it, however, although his lips were pursed and his eyes were thoughtful. Then he drew a deep breath and turned to Lathyk.

          “We’ll alter course, Master Lathyk,” he said crisply. “Put her before the wind, if you please. I want more water under our lee if this wind decides to back on us.”

          “Aye, Sir.”

          “And after you’ve got her on her new heading, I want the topgallant masts sent down.”

          Someone who knew Lathyk well and was watching him closely might have seen a small flicker of surprise in his eyes, but it was very brief and there was no sign of it in his voice as he touched his chest in salute.

          “Aye, Sir.” The first lieutenant looked at the boatswain’s mate of the watch. “Hands to the braces, Master Kwayle!”

          “Aye, aye, Sir!”

* * * * * * * * * *

          The glass continued to fall, the wind continued to rise, and lightning began to flicker under the clouds advancing inexorably from the south.

          Destiny looked oddly truncated with her upper masts struck. Her courses had been furled, her inner and middle jibs struck, storm staysails had been carefully checked and prepared, and single reefs had been taken in her topsails. Despite the enormous reduction in canvas, she continued to forge steadily northeast from her original position at a very respectable rate of speed. The wind velocity was easily up to thirty miles per hour, and considerably more powerful gusts were beginning to make themselves felt, as well. Large waves came driving towards the ship from astern, ten feet high and more and crowned in white as they rolled up under her quarter to impart a sharp corkscrew motion, and lifelines had been rigged on deck and oilskins had been broken out. The foul weather gear was hot and sweltering, despite the rising wind, although no one was optimistic enough to believe that was going to remain true very much longer. Their current position was less than three hundred miles above the equator, but those oncoming clouds were high and the rain they were about to release was going to be cold.

          Very cold.

          Aplyn-Ahrmahk would have been hard put to analyze the atmospheric mechanics of what was about to happen, but what he saw when he looked south from his station on Destiny’s quarterdeck was the collision between two weather fronts. A high pressure area’s heavier, colder air out of the west was driving under the warmer, water-saturated air behind a warm front which had moved into the Gulf of Mathyas from the east three days earlier and then stalled. Due to the planet’s rotation, winds tended to blow parallel to the isobars delineating weather fronts, which meant two powerful, moving wind masses were coming steadily into collision in what a terrestrial weatherman would have called a tropical cyclone.