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David Weber is the author of the New York Times-bestselling Honor Harrington series, the most recent of which was At All Costs. His many other novels include Mutineers' Moon, The Armageddon Inheritance, Heirs of Empire, Path of the Fury, and Wind Rider's Oath. He lives in South Carolina.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Princedom of Emerald
Bright morning sunlight glittered on the crossed golden scepters of the green banner of the Church of God Awaiting. The twin-masted courier ship flying that wind-starched banner as she scudded along on the brisk breeze was little more than seventy feet long, built for speed rather than endurance . . . or even seakeeping and stability. Her crew of sixty was small for any galley, even one as diminutive as she was, but her slender, lightly constructed hull was well suited for rowing, and her lateen sails drove her in a rapid flurry of foam as she went slicing across the brilliant sun-splintered water and foaming white horses of the thirty-mile-wide passage between Callie’s Island and the northeastern shore of Eraystor Bay.
Father Rahss Sawal, the small fleet vessel’s commander, stood on his tiny quarterdeck, hands clasped behind him, and concentrated on looking confident while he gazed up at the seabirds and wyverns hovering against the painfully blue sky. It was harder than it ought to have been to maintain the outward assurance (it would never have done to call it arrogance) proper to the master of one of Mother Church’s couriers, and Sawal didn’t much care for the reason he found it so.
The Temple’s messengers, whether landbound or afloat, enjoyed absolute priority and freedom of passage. They carried God’s own messages and commands, with all the authority of the archangels themselves, and no mortal had the temerity to challenge their passage wherever God or His Church might send them. That had been true literally since the Creation, and no one had ever dared to dispute it. Unfortunately, Sawal was no longer certain the centuries-old inviolability of Mother Church’s messengers continued to hold true.
The thought was . . . disturbing, in more ways than one. Most immediately, because of the potential consequences for his own current mission. In the long run, because the failure of that inviolability was unthinkable. Defiance of the authority of God’s Church could have only one consequence for the souls of the defiers, and if their example led others into the same sin . . .
Sawal pushed that thought aside once more, telling himself—insisting to himself—that whatever madness had infected the Kingdom of Charis, God would never permit it to spread beyond Charis’ borders. The universal authority of Mother Church was the linchpin not simply of the world in which he lived, but of God’s very plan for Man’s salvation. If that authority were challenged, if it failed, the consequences would be unthinkable. Shanwei, lost and damned mother of evil, must be licking her fangs at the very possibility in the dark, dank corner of Hell to which the Archangel Langhorne had consigned her for her sins. Even now she must be testing the bars, trying the strength of her chains, as she tasted the overweening, sinful pride of those who sought to set their own fallible judgment in place of God’s. Langhorne himself had locked that gate behind her, with all the authority of eternity, but Man had free will. Even now, he could turn the key in that lock if he so chose, and if he did . . .
Damn those Charisians, he thought grimly. Don’t they even realize what door they’re opening? Don’t they care? Don’t—
His jaw tightened and he forced himself to relax his shoulders and draw a deep, cleansing breath. It didn’t help very much.
His instructions from Bishop Executor Thomys had been abundantly clear. Sawal was to deliver the bishop executor’s dispatches to Bishop Executor Wyllys in Eraystor at all costs. That phrase—“at all costs”—had never before been part of Sawal’s orders. There’d never been any need for it, but there was now, and—
“Deck there!” The shout came down from the crow’s nest. “Deck there! Three sail on the port bow!” “Well, well,” Commander Paitryk Hywyt, Royal Charisian Navy, murmured to himself as he peered through the spyglass. “This should be interesting.”
He lowered the glass and frowned thoughtfully. His orders were perfectly clear on this point. They’d made him more than a little nervous when he first received them, but they were definitely clear, and now he discovered that he was actually looking forward to obeying them. Odd. He wouldn’t have thought that was likely to happen.
“It’s a Church courier, all right,” he said a bit louder, and Zhak Urvyn, HMS Wave’s first lieutenant, made a distinctly unhappy sound.
“Some of the men may not like it, Sir,” Urvyn said softly. Hywyt glanced sideways at him, then shrugged.
“I’ve got a feeling the men’s attitude may just surprise you a bit, Zhak,” he said dryly. “They’re still about as pissed off as I’ve ever seen them, and they know who that courier’s really working for this morning.”
Urvyn nodded, but he looked gloomier than ever, and Hywyt grimaced mentally. It wasn’t the men Urvyn expected to be unhappy; it was Urvyn himself.
“Bring her three points to port, if you please, Lieutenant,” Hywyt said, speaking rather more formally than was his wont. “Let’s lay out a course to intercept her.”
“Aye, aye, Sir.” Urvyn’s expression was worried, but he saluted and passed the order to the helmsman while other hands pattered across the wooden decks to tend sheets and braces.
Wave changed course, slicing across the water close-hauled on the port tack, and Hywyt felt a familiar surge of pleasure as his vessel responded. The sleek, flush-decked, twin-masted schooner was just over ninety-five feet long on the waterline, and mounted fourteen thirty-pounder carronades. Unlike some of her sisters, Wave had been designed and built from the keel up as a light cruiser for the Royal Charisian Navy. Her revolutionary sail plan made her faster and far more weatherly than any other ship Hywyt had ever encountered, far less commanded, and she’d already taken no less than seven prizes—almost half of those captured by the entire blockading squadron—here in Emeraldian waters since the Battle of Darcos Sound. That was what speed and handiness meant, and the comfortable sound prize money made falling into their purses had helped overcome any lingering qualms his crew might have cherished. They were Charisians, after all, he thought with a gleam of humor. Charis’ numerous detractors were wont to refer to the Kingdom as a “kingdom of shopkeepers and moneylenders,” and not in tones of approval. Hywyt had listened to their rancorous envy for years, and he had to admit there was at least a little truth to the stereotype of the Charisian constantly on the prowl for ways to make a quick mark.
Of course, we’re also very good at it, aren’t we? he reflected, and felt himself smiling as the courier boat with the dark green flag drew rapidly nearer.
He couldn’t be positive the other ship had come from Corisande, but no other explanation seemed very likely. The dispatch boat had obviously approached through Dolphin Reach, which certainly meant it had also crossed the Sea of Zebediah. No courier from Haven or Howard would have been coming from that direction, and Hywyt rather doubted Sharleyan of Chisholm was particularly interested in corresponding with Nahrmahn of Emerald at the moment. And judging from the way the fellow had chosen the strait between Callie’s Island and the Emeraldian coast, he definitely didn’t want to attract the attention of the blockade squadron.
Unfortunately for him, he already had, and it was evident that his ship, for all its sleek design, was quite a bit slower than Wave under these conditions.
“Clear for action,” he said, and watched the gap between the two ships narrow as the drum began to beat. Rahss Sawal tried very hard not to swear as the Charisian schooner swept towards him. Obviously, his information was even more out-of-date than he’d feared when Bishop Executor Thomys gave him his orders. He hadn’t expected to see Charisian warships actually inside Eraystor Bay proper. Then again, he hadn’t expected to see the gold kraken on black of the Charisian flag flying above what used to be the Emeraldian fortress on Callie’s Island, either.
The dispersal of the Charisian warships was the clearest possible evidence of the totality of their victory at the Battle of Darcos Sound. The true extent of the allied fleet’s defeat had still been unclear when Sawal left Manchyr. That it had been crushing was obvious, but everyone in Corisande had clung to the hope that the majority of the ships which had not returned had found refuge in Emerald, where they were even then helping Nahrmahn defend their anchorage.
Obviously not, Sawal thought sourly.
He could see exactly four ships now, counting the schooner charging down on his own command, and every one of them flew Charisian colors. They were spread out widely, as well, to cover as much of the bay as they could, and they wouldn’t have been doing that if there’d been any possibility at all that someone might consider attacking them. That, coupled with the fact that all the island fortifications Sawal could see from his quarterdeck had clearly become Charisian bases, not Emeraldian ones, made it abundantly clear that there was no “allied fleet” any longer, much less one that was still defending its anchorage.
Sawal had never before encountered one of the Charisians’ new schooners, and he was astonished at how close to the wind the thing could sail. And by the size and power of its sail plan. His ship had the same number of masts, but the Charisian had to have at least twice the sail area. It also had the stability and size to carry more sail, and it was driving far harder under these conditions than his own ship could manage.
The number of gun ports arranged along its side was at least equally impressive, and he felt his stomach muscles tighten as the stubby muzzles of cannon poked out of them.
He glanced at his own second-in-command. The one-word question made the other priest’s tension abundantly clear, and Sawal couldn’t blame him. Not that he had an answer for what he knew the man was actually asking.
“We’ll have to see what we see, Brother Tymythy,” he said instead. “Hold your course.” “He’s not changing course,” Urvyn said.
As redundant statements of the obvious went, that one took some beating, Hywyt thought.
“No, he isn’t,” the commander agreed with massive restraint as the range fell steadily. It was down to less than three hundred yards and still dropping, and he wondered how far the other skipper was going to go in calling what he undoubtedly hoped was Wave’s bluff. “Pass the word to the Gunner to stand ready to fire a shot across his bow.”
Urvyn hesitated. It was a tiny thing. Someone else might not have noticed it at all, but Urvyn had been Hywyt’s first lieutenant for over six months. For a moment, Hywyt thought he would have to repeat the order, but then Urvyn turned heavily away and raised his leather speaking trumpet.
“Stand ready to fire across his bow, Master Charlz!” he shouted, and Wave’s gunner waved back in acknowledgment. “I think he’s—”
Brother Tymythy never completed that particular observation. There was no need. The flat, concussive thud of a single gun punctuated it quite nicely, and Sawal watched the cannonball go slashing across the waves, cutting its line of white across their crests as cleanly as any kraken’s dorsal fin.
“He’s fired on us!” Tymythy said instead. His voice was shrill with outrage, and his eyes were wide, as if he was actually surprised that even Charisians should dare to offer such insult to Mother Church. And perhaps he was. Sawal, on the other hand, discovered that he truly wasn’t.
“Yes, he has,” the under-priest agreed far more calmly than he felt.
I didn’t really believe they’d do it, he thought. I’m sure I didn’t. So why am I not surprised that they have? This is the beginning of the end of the world, for God’s sake!
He thought again about the dispatches he carried, who they were addressed to, and why. He thought about the whispered rumors, about exactly what Prince Hektor and his allies had hoped for . . . what rewards they’d been promised by the Church.
No, not by the Church, Sawal told himself. By the Knights of the Temple Lands. There is a difference!
Yet even as he insisted upon that to himself, he knew better. Whatever technical or legal distinctions might exist, he knew better. And that, he realized now, with something very like despair, was why he truly wasn’t surprised.
Even now, he couldn’t put it into words for himself, couldn’t make himself face it that squarely, but he knew. Whatever might have been true before the massive onslaught Prince Hektor and his allies had launched upon the Kingdom of Charis, the Charisians knew as well as Sawal who had truly been behind it. They knew the reality of the cynical calculations, the casual readiness to destroy an entire realm in blood and fire, and the arrogance which had infused and inspired them. This time the “Group of Four” had come too far out of the shadows, and what they had envisioned as the simple little assassination of an inconvenient kingdom had turned into something very different.
Charis knew who its true enemy had been all along, and that explained exactly why that schooner was prepared to fire on the flag of God’s own Church.
The schooner was closer now, leaning to the press of her towering spread of canvas, her bow garlanded with white water and flying spray that flashed like rainbow gems under the brilliant sun. He could make out individuals along her low bulwarks, pick out her uniformed captain standing aft, near the wheel, see the crew of the forward gun in her starboard broadside reloading their weapon. He looked up at his own sails, then at the schooner’s krakenlike grace, and drew a deep breath.
“Strike our colors, Brother Tymythy,” he said.
“Father?” Brother Tymythy stared at him, as if he couldn’t believe his own ears.
“Strike our colors!” Sawal repeated more firmly.
“But, but the Bishop Executor—”
“Strike our colors!” Sawal snapped.
For a moment, he thought Tymythy might refuse. Tymythy knew their orders as well as Sawal did, after all. But it was far easier for a bishop to order an under-priest to maintain the authority of Mother Church “at any cost” than it was for Father Rahss Sawal to get the crew of his vessel killed as part of an exercise in futility.
If there were any hope of actually delivering our dispatches, I wouldn’t strike, he told himself, and wondered whether or not it was the truth. But it’s obvious we can’t keep away from them, and if those people over there are as prepared to fire into us as I think they are, they’ll turn this entire vessel into toothpicks with a single broadside. Two, at the outside. There’s no point in seeing my own people slaughtered for nothing, and we aren’t even armed.
The flag which had never before been dipped to any mortal power fluttered down from the courier boat’s masthead. Sawal watched it come down, and an ice-cold wind blew through the marrow of his bones.
It was a small thing, in so many ways, that scrap of embroidered fabric. But that was how all true catastrophes began, wasn’t it? With small things, like the first stones in an avalanche.
Maybe I should ha...
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