How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 29


King’s Harbor Citadel,

Helen Island,

Howell Bay,

Kingdom of Old Charis

          Admiral Sir Domynyk Staynair, Baron Rock Point, stood gazing out a familiar window at an incredibly crowded anchorage. His own flagship lay well out on the seventeen mile stretch of King’s Harbor Bay, but dozens of other galleons were moored literally side-by-side all along the waterfront. Others lay to anchors and buoys while flotillas of small craft wended their way through the press.

          From this high in the Citadel they looked like toy boats, growing smaller as the eye moved further and further away from the wharves and piers, and he’d never in his wildest imagination dreamed he might see that many warships anchored here.

          They’d arrived over the last several weeks in fits and starts as the men who had originally crewed them were taken ashore or moved to one of the old ships which had been converted into prison hulks to accommodate them. Under other circumstances, in another war, those men probably would have been paroled and repatriated to the Temple Lands and the Harchong Empire In these circumstances, in this war, that was out of the question, and so the Kingdom of Old Charis had been forced to find places to put them.

          Finding places to safely confine and guard upwards of sixty thousand men, more than a few of whom were religious zealots perfectly prepared to die for what they believed God wanted of them, was a serious challenge. Safeholdian wars never produced POWs on a scale like that, and no realm had ever been prepared to accommodate them. The sheer expense of feeding that many prisoners, far less maintaining security and hopefully seeing to it that their living conditions were at least bearable, was one reason the practice of paroling honorably surrendered enemies was so universal. Perhaps Charis should have foreseen something like this, but it hadn’t occurred to any of the native Safeholdians to even think about it. Nor, for that matter, had it occurred to Merlin Athrawes.

          Rock Point had been inclined, when he first recognized the magnitude of the problem, to think Merlin should have seen it coming. After all, unlike Rock Point, Nimue Alban had been born and raised in the Terran Federation. She’d grown up learning about the long and bloody history of a planet called Old Terra, where prisoner hauls like this one had once been almost routine. But that was the point, he’d realized. It had been history to her . . . and there’d been no surrenders, no POWs, in the only war Nimue had actually fought, which explained why Merlin hadn’t anticipated the problem either.

          Oh, quit bitching, Rock Point told himself now. The problem you’ve got is one hell of a lot better than the alternative would’ve been!

          Which was undoubtedly true, however inconvenient things might seem at the moment.

          Most of the ships closer to shore still flew the imperial Charisian flag above the green, scepter-badged banner of the Church of God Awaiting. A handful still showed red and green banners with the crossed scepter and saber of the Harchong Empire, instead, but most of those were moored further out, or in one of the other anchorages. King’s Harbor was more concerned with the ships which had been fully armed, and surveyors and petty officers swarmed over those vessels like locusts. Their reports would tell Rock Point how quickly the prize vessels could be put into Charisian service . . . assuming he could find crews for them, of course.

          And with Bryahn Lock Island’s death, that decision would be his, at least until Cayleb could get home.

          An embarrassment of riches, that’s what it is, he thought. Thank God the Church doesn’t have them anymore, but what the hell am I going to do with all of them?

          He shook his head and turned back from the window to the two officers he’d actually come here to see.

Commodore Sir Ahlfryd Hyndryk, Baron Seamount, stood before one of the slate sheets which covered his office’s walls. As always, the cuffs of his sky blue uniform tunic were dusted with chalk and the fingers of his good hand were stained with ink. The short, plump Seamount was about as far removed from the popular imagination’s image of a sea officer as it would be possible to get, yet his fertile brain and driving energy were one of the primary reasons all those prize ships were anchored in King’s Harbor this sunny summer afternoon.

The rail-thin, black haired commander standing respectfully to one side was at least ten or twelve years younger than Seamount. He radiated all the intensity and energy people tended not to notice just at first in his superior officer, and his left hand was heavily bandaged.

          “It’s good to see you, Ahlfryd,” Rock Point said. “I apologize for not getting out here sooner, but –”

          He shrugged, and Seamount nodded.

          “I understand, Sir. You’ve had a lot to do.”

          The commodore’s eyes dropped to the enormous Rottweiler lying quietly beside his desk. Rock Point had inherited the acting rank of high admiral from Bryahn Lock Island, but Seamount had inherited Keelhaul. Frankly, the commodore was more than a little surprised the big, boisterous dog had survived his master’s death. For the first couple of weeks, he’d been afraid Keelhaul was going to grieve himself to death, and he still hadn’t fully regained the exuberance which had always been so much a part of him.

          “Yes, I have.” Rock Point inhaled deeply, then crossed to one of the office’s armchairs. His peg leg thumped on the stone floor, the sound quite different from the sound his remaining shoe made, and he seated himself with a sigh of relief.

          “Yes, I have,” he repeated, “but I’ve finally managed to steal a couple of days away from all the reams of paperwork. So why don’t the two of you dazzle me with what you’ve been up to while I’ve been away?”

          “I don’t know if ‘dazzle’ is exactly the right word, Sir,” Seamount replied with a smile. “I do think you’re going to be impressed, though. Pleased, too, I hope.”

          “I’m always impressed by your little surprises, Ahlfryd,” Rock Point said dryly. “Of course, sometimes I’m not so sure I’m going to survive them.”

          “We’ll try to get you back to Destroyer undamaged, Sir.”

          “I’m vastly reassured. Now, about those surprises?”

          “Well, there are several of them, actually, Sir.”

Seamount crossed to the slate wall and reached for a piece of chalk. Rock Point watched him a bit warily. The commodore was a compulsive sketcher who had a tendency to illustrate his points enthusiastically.

          “First, Sir, as you. . . suggested last time you were both here,” Seamount continued, “I’ve had Commander Mahndrayn and the Experimental Board finishing up the work on the rifled artillery pieces. Master Howsmyn’s provided us with the first three wire wound pieces, and they’ve performed admirably. They’re only twelve-pounders — although the shot weight’s actually closer to twenty-four pounds, given how much longer it is in proportion to its diameter —  but as proof of the concept, they’ve been completely satisfactory. Master Howsmyn is confident he could go to production on much heavier weapons if and when you and Their Majesties should determine the time is right.”

          “That’s excellent news, Ahlfryd!” Rock Point’s smile of pleasure was completely genuine, even though he’d already known what Seamount was going to report. Ehdwyrd Howsmyn had kept him fully informed. Unfortunately, Seamount wasn’t part of the inner circle, which meant explaining how Rock Point could have come by his knowledge would have been a trifle difficult.