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Tob Kerr, master of the merchant vessel Rain Daughter, closed the glass and cursed. He wasn't sure where the strange ships had come from—there wasn't anything on that bearing but the Surom Shoals, and nobody actually lived in these demon-infested waters—but they were headed right for him. And sailing at least forty degrees closer to the wind than any tack he could take. He not only didn't recognize the origin of the ships, he couldn't even begin to identify their design, or imagine how sails like that could work.

However they did it, though, they obviously did a better job than his own ship could manage, and he wondered where they could possibly have sprung from.

The Lemmar Raiders behind him, on the other hand, were all too well known a quantity. With luck, they would only take his cargo. More likely, though, they would sell him and the crew into slavery, and sell his ship for a prize. Either way, he was ruined. So the best bet was to continue on course and hope for a gift from the Sar, because this was clearly a case of worse the devil you knew than the devil you didn't.

He looked back at the oncoming strangers. The more he studied them, the odder they looked. They were low, rakish, and almost unbelievably fast, and they carried an enormous sail area—one far larger than anything Kerr had ever seen before. It was amazing that they could sail the deep ocean at all; with so little freeboard, he had to wonder why the water didn't wash right over their decks. But it didn't. In fact, they rode the swells like embera, green foam casting up from their bows and their strange, triangular sails hard as boards as they sliced impossibly into the oncoming wind.

He grabbed a line and slid to the deck. The calluses of decades at sea made nothing of the friction, and his mate, Pelu Mupp walked over to him and flipped his false-hands in an expression of worry.

"Should we change course?" he asked.

It was a damnably reasonable question, Kerr thought grimly. The Lemmar Raiders had been in a fairly unfavorable position at the start. Well, as far as Rain Daughter was concerned. Certain other ships had been less fortunate, but Kerr had taken full advantage of the slim opportunity for escape the pirates' preoccupation with the convoy's other members had offered him. By the time they'd been free to turn their full attention to Rain Daughter, Kerr had managed to put enough distance between them to give him and his crew a better than even chance. A stern chase was always a long one, and under those conditions, victory could go to either side. The pirate ships were a bit faster than the merchantman, but the Daughter had a good lead, and any number of circumstances could have resulted in the Kirstian ship's escaping, especially if Kerr could only have kept clear of the Lemmar until darkness fell. But now, with the unknowns closing from almost dead to leeward, the trap seemed to have closed.

"No," Kerr said. "We'll hold our course. They might be friendly. And how much worse than the Raiders could they be?"

If the crew went into slavery, they would probably end up back in Kirsti, but as "guests" of the Fire Priests. And if that was the alternative, he preferred to throw himself over the side now.

"We'll hold our course, Mupp. And let the Lady of the Waters decide."

* * *

Roger pulled on a strand of hair and sighed.

"Captain, much as I hate making suggestions—" he began, only to stop dead as Pahner let loose an uncharacteristic bark of laughter that momentarily made him jump. Then the captain snorted.

"Yes, Your Highness?"

"Well, I don't," Roger retorted.

"I know you don't, Your Highness," Pahner said with a smile. "You tend to do something by yourself, and then ask me if it was okay later. That's different from making suggestions, I'll admit. So let's have it—what's the suggestion?

"I was thinking about wind position," Roger continued, after deciding that it wasn't a good time for a discussion of whether one Prince Roger MacClintock had been making too many stupid mistakes lately. Most of the watchers had returned to the deck once the general outline of the approaching ships and their formation had been established. A Marine private was now perched at the fore topmast crosstrees beside the Mardukan lookout, using her helmet systems to refine the data. But at this point it was a matter of waiting nearly two hours as the ships slowly closed the intervening gap.

"They're coming in on our starboard bow, straight out of the wind, but the formation of six ships is spread to our west, and it takes a few minutes for us to wear around. If we stay on this course, when the pursuers come up to us, the most westerly ship will be in a position that would make it hard for us to completely avoid her."

"I'm . . . not quite getting this," Pahner admitted.

Roger thought for a moment, then did a quick sketch on his toot, detailing the human/K'Vaernian flotilla, the lead unknown, and the trailers.

"I'm sliding over a graphic," he said, flipping the sketch from his toot to the Marine's. "From the point of view of avoiding contact, we can break off from the lead ship easily. But if we decided to avoid the trailers, we'd have three choices. One would be to tack to starboard when we come up to them. That would put us in a position to take full advantage of the schooners' weatherliness to run past them into the wind and avoid contact handily. But it takes a bit of time to tack, and there's a small risk of getting caught in irons."

Pahner nodded at that. A couple of times, especially early in the voyage, when the native Mardukan captains were still getting accustomed to the new rig, one or more of the ships had been caught "in irons" while tacking, and ended up facing directly into the wind, effectively unable to move or maneuver until they could fall off enough to regather way. It was not a situation he wanted to be in with potential hostiles around.

"We don't want that to happen," he observed. "Go on."

"Our second choice would be to fall off to the west," Roger said, "opening out our sails and either sailing across the wind, or coming around to let it fill our sails from behind while we run almost away from it. That's a 'reach' or a 'broad reach.' The problem is, on either tack, the westernmost ship would have at least some opportunity to intercept us. We could probably show them our heels—I'd back any of ours, even Snarleyow, to outrun anything they've got. But there's a risk of interception."

"In which case, we blow away whatever unfortunate soul intercepts us," Pahner noted as he brought up the sketch on his implant and studied it.

"Yes, Captain, we can do that," Roger agreed, licking a salty drop of sweat off his upper lip. "But I submit that it would be better to be in a position where we can avoid contact altogether, if that's what we decide to do. Or control the maneuver menu if we decide to engage."

"Can we?" the captain asked. "And should we be discussing this with Poertena or the Skipper?"

"Maybe," Roger said. "Probably. But I was thinking. If we tack to starboard and put them on our port side, we've got all that maneuver room to starboard. It's a better wind position. Also, if we decide to jump in, we can get to windward for maneuvering better from that position. But we need to wait a bit, until we're a little closer."

"I'll talk it over with T'Sool," Pahner agreed. "But unless I'm much mistaken, that's a very good idea."

* * *

"They're wearing around," Pelu said.

"I can see that," Kerr answered. He rubbed his horns as he considered the small fleet's maneuvers. Its units were changing to an easterly heading on the port tack, and the maneuver was a thing of beauty for any seaman to watch. The sails seemed to float into position naturally, and in a remarkably short period of time, all five ships were hove over and flying before the wind.

"They're in a better position to drop on us from windward," Pelu worried. "Could they be some new ship type out of Lemmar?"

"If Lemmar could build ships like that," the captain snorted, "we'd already be in chains in Kirsti! And if they're in a better position to drop on us, they're also in a better position to avoid all of us. They can leave us in their wake any time they want to now, but before, they could have been cut off by the western Reavers. Actually, I think what they're doing now is a better sign."

"I wish we knew who they were," Pelu fretted.

"I wonder if they're wishing the same thing?"

* * *

"Ready for some more unsolicited input?" Roger asked with a grin.

"Certainly, Your Highness," Pahner replied with a slight smile. "Every fiber of my being lives to serve the Empire."

"Somehow, I think I detected just a tad of sarcasm attached to that answer," Roger said with an answering grin. "But I digress. What I was going to say is that we need to make contact with these folks."

"Agreed. And you have a suggestion?"

"Well, for first contact, we'll need someone who's well versed with the translator program and whose toot has enough capacity to run it. And that means either Ms. O'Casey or myself. And since it's a potentially dangerous situation . . ."

"You think it makes more sense to send the person I'm supposed to be guarding," Pahner finished. Then he shook his head. Firmly. "No."

"So you're going to send Eleanora?" Roger asked sweetly.

"Quit smiling at me!" Pahner snapped. "Damn it. I'm the commander of your bodyguard, Your Highness. I'm not supposed to be sending you into situations because they're too dangerous to send somebody else!"

"Uh-huh," Roger said. "So, you're sending Eleanora?"

"There is no way you're going over to that ship," Pahner said. "No. Way."

"I see. So . . . ?"

* * *

"Ah, freedom!"

Roger leaned back in the sailing harness, suspended from a very thin bit of rope less than an arm length above the emerald sea as the catamaran cut through the water at nearly sixteen knots. D'Nal Cord shifted and tried to get into something that felt like a stable position—difficult for someone his size on the deck of the flimsy craft—and rubbed a horn in exasperation.

"You have an unusual concept of freedom, Roger."

Most of the small boats of the flotilla were traditional "v" hulls, but both Roger and Poertena had insisted on at least one small "cat" for fast movement. Building it had required nearly as much human-provided engineering knowledge as the much larger schooners—light, fast catamarans require precise flexion in their crossbraces—but the result was a small craft that in any sort of decent weather was even faster than the schooners.

And it was fun to sail.

"I have to admit that this is sort of fun," Despreaux said, fanning her uniform top. "And the breeze is refreshing."

"Back on Earth, catting and skiing were as close as I ever got to being free," Roger pointed out, bounding forward in the harness to see if it improved the point of sail. "You guys would actually let me get away for a little bit."

"Don't complain," Kosutic replied. "Your lady mother's spent most of her life wrapped in cotton. As your grandfather's only child, there was no way the Regiment was willing to risk her at all. She rarely even got to leave the palace grounds."

"Frankly, I could care less about Mother's problems," Roger said coldly, swinging back in his harness as Poertena altered the cat's course slightly.

"Maybe not," the sergeant major replied. "But you've had more experience with 'real people' in the last six months than she has in her whole life. The closest she ever got to dealing with anyone but Imperial functionaries and politicians was the Academy. And even there, she spent the whole time still wrapped in cotton. They wouldn't even consider having her do live zero-G drills—not out of atmosphere, at least. It all had to be in simulators, where there was no possibility of exposing her to death pressure. And if they never let her do that, you can just imagine how much less likely they were to let her do things like, oh—just as an example that comes from the top of my head, you understand—leading a charge into a barbarian horde. And no cut-ups like Julian were allowed within a kilometer of her."

"And your point is?" Roger asked. He leaned further outward and dangled his hand into the water as a slightly stronger puff of wind hit the sail. "Speaking of risks, you do realize that if there are any of those giant coll around, we're toast?"

"That sort of is the point," Kosutic said soberly. "Imperial City is filled with professional politicians and noble flunkies, most of whom have never had to scramble for money to supply a unit in the field. Who've never been exposed to 'lower class' conditions. Who have never slept on the ground, never gone to bed hungry. In some cases, that means people who not only don't understand the majority of the population of the Empire, but who also don't like them or care about them. And in other cases—which I happen to think are worse—they don't understand them, but they idealize them. They think there's a special dignity to poverty. Or a special quality to being born into misery and dying in it."

"Saint Symps," Despreaux said.

"And various soclibs," Kosutic agreed. "Especially the older style pro-Ardane redistributionists."

"There's at least an argument there," Roger said. "I mean, too much concentration of power, and you're not much better off than under the Dagger Lords." He paused and grinned. "On the other hand, I know you're all a bunch of low-lifes!"

"And if you live entirely by what you think is 'the will of the people,' you get the Solar Union," Kosutic continued, pointedly ignoring the prince's last comment.

"Pockers," Poertena growled, and spat over the side.

"Yeah, Armagh mostly sat that one out," the sergeant major admitted. "But Pinopa got it bad."

"What really burned some of the early members of the Family was that the ISU used Roger MacClintock's policies as their 'model' for that idiocy," Roger said. "Prez Roger, that is. Roger the Unifier. But without accepting the societal sacrifices that were necessary. And then, when it all came apart, they tried to blame us!"

"I could kind of understand getting involved in planetary reconstruction," Despreaux commented. "Some of those planets were even worse off than Armagh. But leaving your main base completely uncovered was just idiotic."

"And why did they do that?" Kosutic asked, and proceeded to answer her own question. "They had to. They were already so wrapped up with social welfare programs that they couldn't build the sort of fleet and garrison force they needed and still be redistributionist. So they depended on bluff, sent the entire damned fleet off to try to do some planet-building, and the Daggers nipped in and ate the Solar System's lunch."

"The Daggers were very good at killing the golden goose," Roger said. "But we—the MacClintocks, that is—learned that lesson pretty well."

"Did we?" Kosutic asked. "Did we really?"

"Oh, no," Roger moaned. "This isn't another one of those 'let's not tell Roger,' things, is it?"

"No." The sergeant major laughed, but her eyes were on the native ship they'd come to meet, and her gaze was wary as Poertena wore around its stern, preparing to come alongside to port. "But take a good look at your grandfather's career," she continued, "and then tell me we've learned. Another person who'd never worked a day in his life and thought the lower classes were somehow magical. And, therefore, that they should be coddled, paid, and overprotected . . . at the expense of the Fleet and the Saint borders."

"Well, that's one mistake I would never make as Emperor," Roger joked as Poertena completed his maneuver. "I know you're all a bunch of lying, lazy pockers."

"Be about time to hail," Poertena said. The ship and the catamaran were about a hundred meters apart now, on near parallel headings, with the cat slightly to the rear of the much larger merchant ship. Since that put the wind at their stern, Poertena had brought the sail in until it was luffing and dangerously close to jibing, or falling over to the other side of the boat. It might make them a little anxious about collisons between things like heads and booms, but it also slowed them down enough that they wouldn't pass the slower Mardukan ship.

"Get us a little closer," Roger ordered as he unclipped the harness and secured it to the mast. "I need to be able to hear their reply. And I don't see any guns."

"Odd, that," Kosutic said. "I agree we need to get closer, but if those are pirates, or even letters of marque, chasing them, you'd think they would have defenses. And I don't even see a swivel gun."

"Something else to ask about," Roger said as Poertena fell off to starboard. The change quickly filled the sail, set as it was for a reach, and the cat began skipping across the rolling swell.

"Shit!" Despreaux flattened herself and tried to figure out where to move as it suddenly seemed obvious that the cat was about to go clear over on its side.

"Hooowah!" the prince said with a laugh, throwing his weight back outboard again to offset the heel. "Don't dunk us, for God's sake, Poertena! We're trying to show our good side."

"And I cannot swim," Cord added.

"Lifejackets!" Roger laughed. "I knew we forgot something!"

"T'is close enough?" Poertena asked as he brought the boat back to port with a degree more caution. They had closed to within sixty meters or so, and the Mardukan ship's crew was clearly evident, lining the side, many of them with weapons in their hands.

"Close enough," Roger agreed, then stood back up and grasped a line to stay steady. "Try not to flop us around too much."

"What? And have you get all wet and sloppy?" Despreaux said.

"Hea'en forbid!" Poertena laughed. "I try. Never know, though."

"You'd better," Kosutic growled. "Straight and steady."

* * *

"Just keep us on this heading," Kerr said to the helmsman. "They don't seem to be threatening us. And I don't see what they'd be able to do with that dinky little boat, anyway."

"Who are they?" Pelu asked.

"How the hell do I know?" Kerr shot back in exasperation. "They look like giant vern, but that's crazy."

"What do we do if they want to come aboard?"

"We let them," Kerr answered after a moment. "Their ships can run rings around us, and I think those ports showing on the sides are for bombards. If they are, there's not much we can do but heave to and do whatever they say."

"It's not like you just to give up," Pelu protested.

"They're not Lemmar, and they're not Fire Priests," Kerr pointed out. "Given the choice of them, or the Lemmar and the priests, I'll always take the unknown."

* * *

"Here goes nothing," Roger said.

"What language are you going to use?" Despreaux asked.

"The kernel that came with the program. It's probably taken from the tribes around the starport, and we're finally getting close to that continent. Hopefully it will at least be familiar to them for a change." He cleared his throat.

"Hullo the ship!"  

* * *

"Oh, Cran," Pelu said.

"High Krath," Kerr muttered. "Why did it have to be High Krath?"

"Are they Fire Priests?" the helmsman asked nervously. "It can't be Fire Priests clear out here, can it?"

"It could be," Kerr admitted heavily. "Those could be Guard vessels."

"I never heard of the Guard having ships like that any more than the Lemmar," Pelu said. "Anyway, they would've used Krath, not High Krath. Most Guard officers can't speak High Krath."

"But they're not priests!" Kerr snarled, rubbing his horns furiously. "So where did they learn High Krath?"

* * *

"No response," Despreaux said. The unnecessary comment made it evident just how nervous the veteran NCO was.

"They're talking it over, though," Roger said. "I think the two by the helmsman are the leaders."

"Concur," the sergeant major agreed. "But they aren't acting real happy to see us."

"Oh, well," Roger sighed. "Time to up the ante. Permission to come aboard?"

* * *

"Well, at least they're asking," Pelu observed. "That's something."

"That's odd, is what it is," Kerr answered. He stepped to the rail and took a glance at the more distant ships. They had crossed his course almost a glass before, and then swung back to the west. At this point, they were still to his east and the range from them to Rain Daughter would have been opening as she ran past them on her southeasterly heading . . . except for how close they were to the wind. As it was, their nearest approach was still to come. But it didn't seem that they intended any harm. Either that, or they were jockeying for a good wind position.

"What do we do?"

"Let them board," Kerr said. His curiosity was getting the better of his good sense, and he knew it. But he didn't suppose, realistically speaking, that he had very many options, anyway. "One, I want to know who they are. Two, if we've got part of their crew on board, they're less likely to attack us."

He walked over to the rail and waved both true-hands.

"Come aboard!"

* * *

Roger caught the dangling line and swarmed up it. Technically, he should have let either Kosutic or Despreaux go first, and he could hear the sergeant major's curses even through the sound of rigging and water. But of the three of them, he was the most familiar with small boats, and he felt that even if it was a deliberate trap, he could probably shoot his way clear of the four-person welcoming party.

The scummies waiting for him were subtly different from those on the far continent. They were definitely shorter than the Vashin Northerners who made up the bulk of the cavalry, closer to the Diasprans in height. Their horns were also significantly different, with less of a curve and with less prominent age ridges. Part of that might have been cosmetic, though, because at least one of them had horns which had clearly been dyed. They were also wearing clothes, which, except for armor, had been a catch-as-catch-can item on the far continent. The "clothing" was a sort of leather kilt, evidently with a loincloth underneath. Otherwise (unless they were very unlike any of the other Mardukans the humans had met), certain "parts" would be showing under the kilt. The two leaders also wore baldrics which supported not only swords, but also a few other tools, and even what were apparently writing implements.

The leader of the foursome, the one who had waved for them to board, stepped forward. His horns were undyed and long, indicating a fairly good age for a Mardukan. He wasn't as old as Cord, though, or if he was, he was in better condition, because his skin was firm and well coated in slime, without the occasional dry spots that indicated advanced age in the locals.

Roger raised both hands in a gesture of peace. It wasn't taking much of a chance; he could still draw and fire before any of the four raised a weapon.

"I am pleased to meet you," he said, speaking slowly and distinctly and using the words available on the kernel that was the only Mardukan language the software had initially offered. "I am Prince Roger MacClintock. I greet you in the name of the Empire of Man."

"Sadar Tob Kerr . . . greet," the officer responded.

Roger nodded gravely while he considered what the toot was telling him. The language the local was using was similar to the kernel, but it contained words which were additional to the kernel's five-hundred-word vocabulary, combined with some that were clearly from another language entirely. It appeared that the leader was attempting to use the kernel language, but that it was a second language for him, not primary. The toot was flagging some of the words as probably being totally bogus. The captain—this Tob Kerr—clearly wasn't a linguist.

"Use your own language, rather than the one I'm using," Roger invited as Kosutic followed him over the side. If the others were on plan, Cord would be the next up, then Despreaux. Poertena would remain in the cat. "I will be able to learn it quickly," he continued. "But I must ask questions, if I may. What is the nature of your position, and who are the ships that pursue you?"

"We are a . . . from the Krath to the . . . base at Strem. Our . . . was . . . by Lemmar Raiders. The Guard ships were destroyed, and we are the only ship who has made it this far. But the Lemmar are . . . I do not think we'll . . . Strem, even if we can . . ."

Great, Roger thought. What the hell is Krath? Then he realized that the answer was lodged in the back of his brain.

"Krath is the mainland ahead?" he asked. The toot automatically took the words it had already learned from the language the captain was using where it had them, and substituted kernel words where it didn't. The sentence was marginally understandable.

"Yes," the officer replied. "The Krath are the . . . of the Valley. Strem is a recent acquisition. The . . . is attempting to subdue the Lemmar Raiders, but taking Strem means they have to supply it. We were carrying supplies and ritual . . . for the garrison. But the Lemmar came upon us in force and took our escorts. Since then, these six have been running down the survivors. I believe we are the last."

"Oh bloody hell," Roger muttered. "Are the rest between us and the mainland?"

"Yes," the local told him. "If you're making for Kirsti, then they are on your path. They're just below the horizon from the mast."

"Great. Just . . . great," Roger muttered again, then shook himself. "Tob Kerr, meet Sergeant Major Eva Kosutic, my senior noncommissioned officer." Cord dropped to the deck, and Roger rested his left hand lightly on the shaman's lower shoulder. "And this is D'Nal Cord, my asi." He had to hope that the translation software could explain what an asi was.

"I greet you, as well," Kerr said, then returned his attention to Roger and spoke earnestly. "Your ships can wear around and make sail for Strem. It's less than a day's sail from here, and you would surely make it. Those fine craft of yours are the fastest I've ever seen. But I cannot guarantee the garrison's greeting when you arrive there—this convoy was important to them."

"Are you getting this, Sergeant Major?" Roger asked, shutting off the translation circuit and slipping into Imperial.

"Yes, Your Highness," the NCO replied. Roger's toot had automatically updated her onboard software with its translations of the local language. As soon as he got back into proximity with the rest of the party, the updates would be transferred to them, as well, skipping from system to system. The Marine toots were well insulated against electronic attack, and while the greater capacity and power of Roger's toot made him the logical person to do the initial translation, his much more paranoid design required a manual transfer, rather than the automatic network of the Marines.

"I'm still not sure of what the Lemmar are," the prince continued. "But if this fellow is telling the truth, they're enemies of the continental forces. And there are apparently a stack of prize ships, with some crew to fight, between us and the continent. Again, if this guy is telling the truth."

"Pardon me," Kerr interrupted, "but I'd like to ask a question of my own, if I may. Who are you, and where did you come from?"

"We came across the Eastern Ocean." Roger trotted out the set response. "We are the first group we know of to actually make it, although others have tried. Our intent is to travel to the larger continent to the north—to Krath—and establish trade routes. But you say there are pirates between here and there?"

"Yes, both the six you see, and the prizes, some of whom are armed," Kerr said. "And as far as I know, you are indeed the first group to make the crossing. A few from our side have also attempted the crossing, including one large group of ships. It was assumed that there were very hostile people on the far side of the ocean. I take it that was wrong?"

"Oh, yeah," Kosutic broke in. "Your problem was very hostile and very large fish between here and there. Coll fish the size of a ship. We lost one of our vessels to one of them."

"We must make decisions and communicate with the other ships," Cord pointed out. Without a toot, the shaman was unable to understand anything Kerr had said, but, as always, he maintained his pragmatic focus on the matter in hand.

"You're right," Roger agreed. He nodded to his asi, then turned back to the merchantman's captain. "Tob Kerr, we must cross back to our own ships and advise them as to the situation. Then we will decide whether to turn for Strem or to go on."

"You cannot go on," Pelu broke in excitedly. "There are six of them—plus the armed prizes!"

Roger snorted, and Cord, standing at his back, sighed at the sound. Not so, the sergeant major.

"And your point is?" Eva Kosutic asked with a snort of her own.

* * *

"The Lemmar are an island nation," Roger said, pointing to the chart they had extracted from Tob Kerr. "They live in this volcanic archipelago that stretches down from the continent to this large island to the southeast. South from that, there's open ocean which is apparently also infested with killer coll fish. Nobody's ever come back to say 'aye or nay,' at any rate. But there's another archipelago to the southwest of it that stretches to the southern continent, and they're in contact with that continent on a fairly tenuous basis. This 'Strem Island' is apparently the crossroads of the trade between them, which makes it a rather rich prize. But while it can produce sufficient food, it also requires additional supply from the mainland. And it was a supply convoy that got hit. They were taking down weapons, new soldiers, and 'temple servitors,' and they would have brought back the goods—mostly spices—that have been stored at Strem awaiting safe transport.

"But the Lemmar changed their plans," Pahner said.

"Yes, Sir," the sergeant major answered. "The Lemmar are pirates, and there have been plenty of times in human history when pirates banded together into fairly large groups. But from what Tob Kerr says, having six of their 'large' ships pounce on the convoy simultaneously was a fairly bad surprise. And the Krath apparently aren't particularly good sailors—or, at least, their Navy is no great shakes. The Lemmar took out the three galleys that were supposed to guard the convoy without any ship losses of their own, then tore into the merchantmen like dire wolves on a flock of sheep. As far as Kerr knows, his ship's the only survivor."

"We have an opportunity here," Roger noted carefully.

"I'm aware of that, Your Highness," Pahner said. "Remember that little talk about going out on a limb, though? This is the classic Chinese sign for chaos: danger and opportunity mixed. Of course there's an opportunity . . . but my job is to pay attention to the danger, as well."

"If we take out the pirates," Roger pointed out, "and recapture most of the ships, the authorities on the continent should automatically treat us as the good guys."

"Should," Eleanora O'Casey interjected. "But that depends on the society, and there's no societal data at all in the database where these people are concerned. In fact, there's no societal data for any of the locals on this continent. Which, even allowing for the general paucity of data on this godforsaken planet, is a remarkable oversight.

"Without any information at all, it's impossible to say how they might actually react to our intervention. They could resent our showing our military prowess. They could be worried by it. They could even have an honor system under which saving their people would put us in their debt. There are a thousand possibilities that you haven't explored which could arise from recapturing those ships. And that assumes that, militarily, we can."

"Oh, I think we can," Pahner noted. He knew he was a landlubber, but it would take someone without eyes to miss the clear difference in capabilities between the ships. The pirate vessels were somewhat sleeker than the merchantman, and obviously had much larger crews—a common sign of pirates. But they mounted only a few clumsy swivel guns for broadside armament to back up the single large bombard fixed and pointed forward in their heavy bow "castles." Sinking them wouldn't be difficult, not with the flotilla's advantage in artillery. Reducing the crews, and then taking them by a boarding action, wouldn't even have been too costly in casualties, given all the bored Diasprans and Vashin they had on board. But there would be some casualties, and the end result had better be worth every one of them.

"Militarily, we can take these six fairly easily," the captain continued. "But we will take casualties, especially if we try to take them intact."

"How much are these ships worth?" Fain asked, with a slight clap of his hands that indicated mild humor. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but from the point of view of the people taking the casualties, there are only two things they're going to worry about. Will it prevent us from taking the starport—which is our big mission—and how much money will we get for those ships?"

"Mercenary," Roger said with a smile. "In most societies, ships cost a good bit. I'd say that if we can get them to port, and if the authorities permit us to sell them as a matter of standard prize rules, then there'll be a fair amount to spread around. Even if we take only one. And we may be able to claim most or all of the ships the pirates have already taken as legitimate prizes of war, assuming we manage to retake them, as well. If we can, it would be enough for an officer to retire on."

"Well, I already have that," Fain said. "But not all of the troops were in on the sack of Sindi. As one of the potential casualties, and if we can determine that we can sell them as prizes, my choice is to take the ships."

"T'ey going to slow us down sailing upwind to Krat'," Poertena pointed out. "We migh' be able to rig some jib sails, but t'ey still ain't gonna be as fast as us. Not enough keel, for one t'ing."

"That's something to think about quite a bit down the line," Pahner noted. "Taking these six warships is the significant issue. After that, we contact Kerr again and get his reaction. If it's favorable, we'll determine where to get sufficient prize crews, then sail on our way. If we encounter the rest of the prizes, we'll engage as seems most favorable at the time."

"In other words, we're going to play it by ear," Roger said with a grin. "Where in hell have I heard that operations order before?"



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