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Spymaster

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Spymaster

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Author: Robert Krammes
Margaret Weis
Publisher: Tor, 2017
Series: The Dragon Corsairs: Book 1

1. Spymaster
2. Privateer
3. Kingmaker

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

Politics, court intrigue, and piracy combine in this gripping fantasy adventure. On a world already riven by the ancient hatred between the Rosian and Freyan empires, privateers of each nation have long preyed on the ships of the other. What few realize is that a sinister cabal controlled by a rogue dragon is not only behind this piracy, but is organizing criminal enterprises all over the world.

As one privateer and her dragon corsairs try to keep their enterprise afloat, they are caught up in a conspiracy hatched by the cabal... and threatened by a mysterious magic crafter who works in the shadows.

Freya, in turmoil because of the accidental death of the heir to the throne, is also deeply in debt. Sir Henry Wallace, their master spy, is charged with replenishing the treasury by inviting dragons from Travia to make Freya their home--a decision that will have disastrous consequences for everyone involved.

In a riveting novel of pulse-pounding suspense, the ruthless conspiracy of humans and dragons plots against Sir Henry and the Dragon Corsairs.. And waiting in the wings, planning to throw everything in turmoil, is a young man known as Prince Tom, who claims to be Freya's true and rightful king.


Excerpt

ONE

Sir Henry Wallace sat at a table in the small cabin aboard the Freyan ship HMS Valor, dunking a ship's biscuit in his coffee in an effort to render it edible and reading the week-old newspaper.

"Ineffable twaddle," said Sir Henry, scowling. He motioned with his egg spoon to an illustration and read aloud the accompanying tale. "'The gallant Prince Tom, heedless of the many grievous wounds he had suffered in the course of the fearsome battle, raised his bloody sword, shouting, "If we are to die today, gentlemen, let history say we died heroes!"' Pah!"

Sir Henry tossed aside the newspaper with contempt.

"Your Lordship is referring to the latest exploits of the young gentleman known in the press by the somewhat romantic appellation of 'Prince Tom,'" said Mr. Sloan. "I have not read the stories myself, my lord, but I understand they have garnered a great deal of interest among the populace, such that the newspaper has trebled its circulation since the series began."

Sir Henry snorted and, after tapping the crown of the soft-boiled egg with his spoon, removed the shell and began to eat the yolk. At that moment the ship heeled, as a gust of wind hit it, forcing him to grab hold of the eggcup as it slid across the table. He looked up, frowning at Mr. Sloan, who had rescued the coffee.

"I haven't been on deck yet this morning," said Henry. "Is there a storm brewing?"

"Wizard storm, my lord," said Mr. Sloan. "Blowing in from the west."

Henry heard a distant rumble of thunder. "At least those storms are not as frequent or as bad as they used to be when the Bottom Dwellers were spewing forth their foul contramagic."

"God be praised, my lord," said Mr. Sloan.

"A dreadful war that left its mark on us all," said Henry, falling into a reflective mood as he drank his coffee. "I think about it every time there is a storm. We wronged those poor devils, sinking their island and dooming them to the cruel fate of living in relative darkness at the bottom of the world. Small wonder that even after hundreds of years, they sought their revenge on us."

"I confess I find it hard to feel much sympathy for them, my lord," said Mr. Sloan. "Especially given the terrible fate they intended to inflict on our people. Thank God you and Father Jacob and the others were able to stop them."

"I will never forget that awful night," said Henry. "I thought we had failed and all I could do was wait for the end. Alan, bleeding to death..."

He fell silent a moment, remembering the horror, the pain of his wounds. He had spent months convalescing and months beyond that battling the nightmarish memories. Not wanting to give them new life, he shook them off and managed a smile. "And there you were to save us, Mr. Sloan, your face 'radiating glory' as the Scriptures say of the angels."

"You were delirious at the time, my lord," said Mr. Sloan with a faint smile.

"I was not," said Henry. "You saved our lives, Mr. Sloan, and I do not forget that. As for the Bottom Dwellers, we couldn't let them continue sacrificing people in their foul blood magic rituals and knocking down our buildings with their contramagic."

"Indeed not, my lord," said Mr. Sloan.

"Even if the war did bankrupt us," Henry added somberly. "Fortunately the crystals will help ease that burden."

The ship rocked again, causing Mr. Sloan to stagger into a bulkhead.

"Please sit down!" Henry said. "You stand there hunched like a stork and being tossed about. I cannot function if you are laid up with a cracked skull."

Mr. Sloan sighed and reluctantly seated himself opposite Sir Henry on the bed, a shocking liberty that was harrowing to the soul of Mr. Sloan, who normally would have been standing or respectfully seated in a chair as he attended to his employer, but for the sad fact that the cabin was small with a low ceiling. Being above average height, Mr. Sloan was forced to stand with his head, back, and shoulders bent at an uncomfortable angle.

HMS Valor was a massive warship, with three masts, eight lift tanks, four balloons, and six airscrews. Her two full gun decks carried twenty twenty-four-pound cannons, thirty eighteen-pound cannons, and twenty nine-pound cannons, as well as thirty swivel guns on the main deck. She was a ship designed for war, not for the comfort of those who sailed her.

Having finished his egg, Henry left the past to return to the present. "If all these fanciful stories about Prince Tom did was to increase the circulation of this rag, I would not mind. But these stories are doing considerable harm, not the least of which is forcing you to sit on a bed with your chin on your knees."

Mr. Sloan was understandably mystified. "I am sorry, my lord, but I fail to see the connection between the prince and the bed."

"The reason we are on board Admiral Baker's ship is directly related to this so-called Prince Tom," said Sir Henry. "Her Majesty the queen complained to me that her own son, the real crown prince, comes off badly by comparison to the pretender. She ordered me to take His Royal Highness on this voyage in order to show the populace a more heroic aspect to his nature. Thus here we are: I have to play nursemaid to HRH while he is on board the flagship, and we find ourselves in these cramped quarters instead of our usual more commodious accommodations aboard the Terrapin."

The ship heeled, this time in a different direction. The thunder grew louder and the room darkened as clouds rolled across the sky, blotting out the sun.

"I must confess I wondered why His Highness was traveling with us, my lord," said Mr. Sloan, deftly whisking away the empty eggcup and pouring more coffee. Henry kept a firm hold on the coffee cup. "I am sorry to say His Highness does not appear to be enjoying the voyage."

"Poor Jonathan hates sailing the Breath," said Henry. "He was sick as a dog the first two days out. He's being a damn fine sport about it though. He knows what his mother is like when she fusses and fumes. Easier to give way to her fancies, though I'm sure he'd much rather be back home in his library with his books. He's found a new obsession: King James the First. Says he's discovered some old letters or something about the murder of King Oswald that reveal James in an entirely new light."

Mr. Sloan shook his head. "A match to gunpowder, my lord."

"The whole damn powder keg could blow up in our faces," said Henry. "This blasted Prince Tom craze put the idea into Jonathan's head. I warned His Highness to drop the matter, but Jonathan gave me that professorial look of his and said history had maligned his cousin and that it was his duty as a historian to seek the truth. Once HRH has made up his mind to proceed, nothing will budge him. He's like his mother in that regard."

"Perhaps Master Yates might be of assistance in the matter, sir," suggested Mr. Sloan. "Simon could offer his help in the research."

"By God, there's a thought!" said Henry, wiping his lips with his napkin. "Simon could stop His Highness from going off on one of his tangents or, at the very least, keep whatever Jonathan discovers out of the press. I can see the headlines now: 'The Crown Prince of Freya Proves He Has No Claim to Throne.'"

"Let us hope it will not come to that, my lord," said Mr. Sloan.

"We will put our faith in Simon, as always. He did not let me down in the matter of the crystals. He has discovered the formula and knows how to produce them. He only needs access to the Braffan refineries. Once the Braffans grant us that, he is ready to launch into production. Soon the Tears of God will be powering our ships. The navies of other nations--including Rosia--will have to buy the crystals from us, and we will charge them dearly!"

Henry drank his coffee. "Speaking of Braffa and the negotiations, I suppose we had better deal with these dispatches. How old are they?" He eyed the pile of letters and newspapers with a gloomy air.

"Some were delayed more than a fortnight, I fear, my lord," said Mr. Sloan. "The mail packet only just caught up with us."

"One would think we were living back in the Dark Times," said Henry irritably.

"Sadly true, my lord," said Mr. Sloan. "I have placed those I deemed most urgent on top."

He held out a small packet of letters that smelled faintly of lavender. "I thought you would like to read these from your lady wife in private."

Sir Henry Wallace, spymaster, diplomat, assassin, trusted advisor to the queen, member of the Privy Council, and long considered by many to be the most dangerous man in the world, smiled as he took his wife's letters and thrust them into an inner pocket.

He then perused the dispatches. His smile changed to a grimace as he read the first, which was from an agent known simply as "Wickham" living in Stenvillir, the capital of Guundar.

Henry slammed down the coffee cup, spilling the liquid. Mr. Sloan reacted swiftly, jumping off the bed to mop up the coffee before the small flood reached the remaining dispatches.

"The Guundarans are moving on Morsteget!" Sir Henry exclaimed, waving the dispatch. "According to Wickham, their parliament passed a resolution proclaiming Guundar's right to the island and voting to establish a naval base there. Fourteen ships set sail for Morsteget weeks ago and I am just now learning about it! These delays in receiving mail have to end, Mr. Sloan. I am seriously considering employing my own griffin riders."

"The expense, my lord--"

"Hang the expense!" Henry said savagely. Jumping to his feet, he promptly cracked his head on the low ceiling. "Ouch! Bloody hell! No, don't fuss. I am all right, Mr. Sloan. The devil of it is that we cannot stop Guundar from annexing Morsteget and King Ullr knows it."

"As bad as that, my lord?"

"Oh, we will make a fine show of being outraged," said Henry, seething. "The House of Nobles will pass a resolution in parliament, Her Majesty will send a strongly worded protest, and we will boycott Guundaran wine, which is so sweet no one drinks it anyway. But that will be the extent of our fury."

Henry resumed his seat, rubbing his sore head. Lightning illuminated the cabin in the bright purple glow that was the hallmark of the wizard storm: the clash of magic and contramagic. The thunderclap was some time in coming; Henry judged that the storm was going to miss them, probably passing to the north.

"At least I can use this move by King Ullr to impress upon the Braffan council that Guundar is a dangerous ally. He has gobbled up this valuable island and has his eye on the Braffa homeland," Henry said. "I wonder if those damn Guundaran ships are still skulking about the coastline."

He sifted through the pile of documents, picked up another dispatch, this one from his agent in Braffa, and swiftly read through it. "The two Guundar ships remain in port in the Braffan capital. The Rosian ships have departed. Not surprising. King Renaud is planning to turn his attention to the pirates in the Aligoes. And speaking of the Aligoes, make a note that I need to speak to Alan about finding a privateer to take his place, since he has quit the trade and become respectable."

Mr. Sloan made the notation with a smile. After years serving his country as a privateer, Captain Northrop had finally been granted his dearest wish: a commission in the Royal Navy.

"But what to do about Guundar?" Henry muttered, returning to his original problem. "I made a mistake advising the queen to request King Ullr's help in freeing the Braffan refineries from the Bottom Dwellers. We have given that minor despot delusions of grandeur."

"You had no choice, my lord," said Mr. Sloan in soothing tones. "You could not allow the Bottom Dwellers to continue to hold those refineries and after the war, neither the Freyan forces nor those of the Rosians were strong enough to oust them."

"You are right, of course, Mr. Sloan," said Henry. "Thank God for Simon and the crystals. Without him Freya would be in dire straits."

He sifted through the dispatches. "I suppose we must let King Ullr have his little island, at least for the time being. Our people will grouse, but once we have this treaty with Braffa and we put the crystals into production, money will flow into the royal coffers, our economy will improve, and our people will forget about Guundar and continue to waste their time reading about the fictional exploits of Prince Tom."

"Might I play devil's advocate, my lord?" Mr. Sloan asked.

"One of the many reasons you are in my employ, Mr. Sloan. Please, do your damnedest."

Mr. Sloan smiled. "If we make a secret treaty with Braffa to produce the crystals, won't we be breaking the Braffan Neutrality Pact?"

"Not so much a break as a hairline fracture, Mr. Sloan," said Henry. "The other signatories won't like it, but if we keep the agreement secret until the crystals are ready to come to market, it will be too late for them to protest."

The two continued to work their way through the dispatches and letters. Henry longed to read the letters from his wife, to hear about young Henry and his recent exploits, but duty called and he forced himself to concentrate on official business. Mr. Sloan handed him a letter from his rival spymaster, the Countess de Marjolaine of Rosia, ostensibly written to the gamekeeper on her estate. One of Henry's agents in Rosia had intercepted the letter, and Henry was trying to figure out if the missive was in fact to her gamekeeper and did in fact refer to poachers or if it was a message of a more sinister nature to someone with the code name "Gamekeeper."

Henry had long suspected the Rosians of supporting the Marchioness of Cavanaugh in her ridiculous attempts to make her son--the Prince Tom of whom the newspapers were so enamored--king of Freya. King Renaud of Rosia had said publicly that Rosia had no business meddling in Freyan affairs, but Henry had discovered that the Rosians were privately funding the prince's cause, hoping to destabilize the Freyan monarchy.

Henry was interrupted in his code-breaking by a stentorian bellow from the deck above. Henry raised his head.

"Was that Randolph shouting for me? What the devil--"

He could hear drums beating to quarters, feet pounding on the deck above, men running to their stations. The next moment someone was frantically pounding on the door. Mr. Sloan opened the door to find a breathless midshipman.

"The admiral's compliments, my lord; you're wanted on deck."

Henry and Mr. Sloan exchanged alarmed glances. Admiral Baker was known by the men who served under him as "Old Doom and Gloom" for his pessimistic outlook on life. He also was known to keep a cool head in a crisis.

"Randolph would not bellow without cause. This does not bode well," said Henry.

Mr. Sloan assisted Henry with his coat. Henry slipped his arms into the tailored, dark blue wool frock coat, which he wore over a blue waistcoat and white shirt. He grabbed his tricorn as he was leaving and firmly clamped it on his head, mindful of the strong wind gusts.

Mr. Sloan followed. The private secretary wore the somber, dark, buttoned-up, high-collared coat preferred by those who observed the conservative beliefs of the Fundamentalists. He then checked to make certain his pistol was loaded. Having served as a marine in the Royal Navy, Franklin Sloan was well aware of the dangers of sailing the Breath.

When the two arrived on deck, Mr. Sloan remained discreetly in the background, while Henry advanced to join the admiral, the ship's captain, and His Royal Highness on the quarterdeck. None of them immediately noticed Henry. The captain and the admiral were both focusing their spyglasses on the distant shore. Crown Prince Jonathan stood nearby, muffled in a long boat cloak that was whipping in the wind. His face, visible above the tall, turned-up collar, was tinged with green.

Henry bowed to the prince, then glanced at the sky. Clouds roiled overhead, gray and ominous and flickering with purple lightning. A smattering of rain was falling, but he could see that the worst of the storm was, as he had thought, heading north, bearing down on the Braffan city of Port Vrijheid.

He cast a look around the horizon. From the ominous tone of Randolph's bellow and now the sounds of guns being run out, he expected nothing less than a Rosian man-of-war bearing down on them. The only other ship in sight was their own escort, the Terrapin.

Henry looked toward Port Vrijheid. The city appeared quite peaceful. No pirate ships attacking, no thundering of cannon fire, no smoke billowing into the air. The port was almost empty, but that was not unusual. Prior to the Bottom Dweller War, he would have seen the large freighters that carried the liquid form of the magical Breath setting out for various parts of the world. Only a few small merchant ships were in port today and none of the freighters, for the refineries had suffered severe damage during the war and were still being rebuilt.

Henry wanted to go speak to Randolph, to find out the nature of the emergency. Protocol demanded that he first greet the prince, however. Jonathan appeared relieved to see him, for he gave Henry a faint smile and a nod.

Jonathan, Crown Prince of Freya, was twenty-two years old, was married, and had done his duty by already producing an heir. The only living child of Queen Mary of Chessington, the prince was an affable, serious-minded young man far more suited to a career as university professor than future monarch.

Passionately fond of history, Jonathan had even written a book, titled The Six Sigils of Magic as the Foundation Blocks of the Sunlit Empire, much to the chagrin of his mother. Queen Mary had never read a book in her life and seemed to feel there was something plebeian about writing one, rather as if her son had taken up bricklaying.

The queen was an active woman, fond of shooting grouse and chasing foxes. She found it difficult to understand a son who would rather read in the library than go galloping about the countryside.

The ship lurched at that moment, causing the prince to hurriedly grab hold of a mast.

"How are you feeling, Your Highness?" Henry asked.

"A bit queasy," Jonathan replied with his customary frankness. "Never been in a wizard storm out in the Breath. Damn fine sight. Wouldn't have missed it. Don't fret over me, Sir Henry. I believe the admiral needs you. Trouble of some sort."

Henry bowed and hurried over to join his friend.

"What's going on, Randolph?" Henry asked. "Judging by your bellow, I thought we were sinking with all hands."

In answer, Randolph took the spyglass from his eye and thrust it at Henry.

Randolph Baker had never been handsome, and his bald head and florid face were not improved by scars from burns he had suffered during the war, when he had dragged a burning sail off one of his officers. His face was redder than usual, verging on purple; his perpetual scowl was grimmer and deeper.

Henry put the spyglass to his eye. "What am I looking at?"

"You'll see," Randolph growled.

Henry swept the shoreline just north of the port. He suddenly stopped, stared, and then moved the spyglass slowly, concentrating, making certain he was seeing what he feared he was seeing.

"Damnation!" Henry muttered.

He should have been looking at two old-fashioned Guundaran warships, sent to Braffa to try to convince a skeptical world that King Ullr was a leading actor, no longer a spear-carrier. Instead, Henry counted ten ships of the line, six frigates and two massive troop carriers, all in full sail and all flying the blue and gold ensign of Guundar.

A bitter taste filled Henry's mouth, a taste to which he was not accustomed: the taste of defeat. He tried telling himself he and Randolph were both jumping to conclusions, but he knew quite well they weren't.

"Morsteget, my ass!" Henry said. "That was a bloody ruse! Ullr is here to snap up Braffa! Damn and double damn!"

He shut the spyglass with a snap and handed it back to Randolph. The Guundaran ships had sighted the approach of HMS Valor. Observing that one of the ships was flying the Freyan royal arms, indicating that royalty was aboard, the Guundaran flagship, the HMS Prinz Lutzow, fired a salute.

Henry saw that the Prinz Lutzow was also flying the royal arms of Guundar, which meant that some member of their monarchy was on board. He swore beneath his breath. King Ullr, without a doubt. Come to claim his conquest. Randolph had noticed as well.

"I suppose we have to salute the bastard," he said.

"Unfortunately, yes," said Henry.

"Signal from the Terrapin, sir!" shouted a midshipman.

"That will be Alan, wanting to know what's going on," Randolph remarked.

The Terrapin was raising and lowering signal flags at such a furious rate that the midshipman on board Valor responsible for reading them could scarcely keep up.

"What do we tell him?" Randolph shouted as the Valor fired her cannons, returning the salute.

A gust of wind almost took off Henry's hat. He grabbed hold of it as the smoke from the cannons blew past.

"You tell Alan he is not to start a war," Henry shouted back.

"Must I?" Randolph asked, frowning. "We could sink three of those frigates before they knew what hit them."

"Not even you and Alan can take on the entire Guundaran naval force," said Henry. "We don't want trouble. I will handle this with diplomacy. Once this storm ends, I will go ashore and meet with the Braffan council as planned."

Randolph looked grim. "I'd like to give that bastard Ullr diplomacy--in the form of a broadside!" He glanced sidelong at the prince and lowered his voice. "What about HRH? You were planning on taking him with you."

"To be humiliated? I won't give the Braffans or Ullr the satisfaction," said Henry. "Besides, I still have one card to play--Simon and the crystals. We know the formula and the Braffans don't. Something may come of that."

"Not bloody likely," Randolph grunted.

"Always the optimist," said Henry.

"Realist, old chap," said Randolph. "Realist."

"I have to tell the prince about the change in plans," said Henry, sighing. "Let me know when the wind has died down and you think it's safe to go ashore."

Randolph nodded and turned back to closely observing the Guundaran ships.

Henry signaled to Mr. Sloan, who had remained discreetly in the background and now advanced to meet him.

"You heard the news, Mr. Sloan?"

"Yes, my lord. Most unfortunate."

"I have been outwitted by King Ullr, a barbarian whose mental processes are taxed by trying to decide what to have for dinner!" Henry said bitterly. "He fooled us into thinking his blasted fleet was sailing to Morsteget, when in reality they were sailing for Braffa. And now I will have to go ashore and meet the old fart and listen to him gloat."

"We do have the crystals," said Mr. Sloan.

"That we do, Mr. Sloan. The Tears of God. Tears that are more valuable than diamonds."

"Will I be accompanying Your Lordship?"

"Yes, Mr. Sloan. I'll need you to take notes when I meet with the Braffans. You prepare for the journey. I must go speak to His Highness."

The rain had stopped and the wind had shifted. The storm had passed, though a few ragged clouds still boiled overhead. Henry was crossing the deck when a blinding flash of purple lightning streaked down from the sky, striking so close he could smell the sulfur. The lightning was accompanied by a nearly simultaneous thunderclap and the sickening sound of rending and cracking wood.

The mainsail boom crashed down onto the deck. Prince Jonathan disappeared beneath a tangle of rope, splintered wood, and sailcloth.

TWO

Time distorted for Henry. He watched the broken boom fall, the sails crumple, the rigging twist and cascade downward, all with such agonizing slowness that every moment was imprinted on his brain.

The prince vanished amid the wreckage, and suddenly time accelerated, with subsequent events happening in a confusing blur. The sight of Mr. Sloan rushing past him, shouting for help, jolted Henry to action.

He ran to join Mr. Sloan and the others as they worked frantically to free the prince. Some grabbed axes and knives. Seeing this, Randolph shouted that no one was to start chopping until they knew what had become of the prince, and try to determine his location.

Henry peered through the wreckage and thought he caught a glimpse of the boat cloak the prince had been wearing.

"I see him," Henry cried. "He's not moving. Your Highness! Jonathan!"

Everyone waited in anxious silence. There was no response.

"Clear away this bloody mess!" Randolph ordered, grabbing hold of a length of rope and hauling it off.

They worked feverishly to remove the tangle of sail and rope and splintered wood and eventually found the prince lying beneath the boom, which had fallen across his chest.

Jonathan was unconscious, his face deathly pale and covered with blood. For a terrible moment Henry feared he was dead. The ship's surgeon felt for a pulse and announced that His Highness was alive. The good news caused the sailors to raise a cheer. Randolph summoned the strongest men on board ship, and together they lifted the heavy boom and held it steady until Mr. Sloan, under the surgeon's direction, was able to grasp the prince by the shoulders and gently and carefully drag him to safety.

They placed Prince Jonathan on a litter and carried him to his cabin. Henry stood by, feeling helpless, while the surgeon and his mate stripped off the prince's clothes. Henry noted that the surgeon looked grave as he poked and prodded. The prince had an ugly cut on his head and a large purplish red bruise on his chest.

Completing his examination, the surgeon was more optimistic.

"His Highness is very lucky. He has two broken ribs, but his skull remains intact," the surgeon reported. "His lungs were not affected."

Prince Jonathan regained consciousness moments later, wondering where he was and what had happened. When the surgeon asked him if he could move his feet, the prince obliged.

"No damage to the spine, Your Highness," said the surgeon. "I predict a full and complete recovery. I will give you laudanum for the pain and to help you rest."

"I will remain with His Highness," said Henry.

The surgeon eyed him. "No, you won't, my lord. Not with those hands of yours resembling sides of beef. You come below with me."

Henry looked at his hands and was surprised to find he had ripped most of the skin off his palms, leaving them bloody and raw. He accompanied the surgeon to the sick berth. The surgeon applied a healing ointment, bandaged his hands, and recommended rest and brandy.

Mr. Sloan accompanied Henry to his cabin, then left in pursuit of brandy. He returned to find Henry attempting to change clothes and having a difficult time of it.

"What are you doing, my lord?" Mr. Sloan asked.

"Dressing for my meeting with the Braffan council," said Henry. He scowled at the bandages on his hands, which prevented him from doing the simplest tasks, such as buttoning his trousers.

"Be reasonable, my lord," Mr. Sloan said. "You have missed the meeting which was scheduled for ten of the clock. The time is now almost noon. And the surgeon said--"

"Devil take the surgeon and the clock!" said Henry angrily. "I must speak to the Braffans. Help me on with this blasted shirt and give me some of that brandy."

Mr. Sloan frowned his disapproval, if he didn't speak it. He assisted with the shirt and waistcoat and frock coat, wrapped a boat cloak around Henry's shoulders, then poured some brandy into a tin cup. Henry drank it at a single gulp.

"Have the pinnace waiting for me, Mr. Sloan. I will pay my respects to His Highness and then join you on deck."

Henry found Jonathan sitting up in bed. The prince made light of the accident.

"My own damn fault, really," said Jonathan. "I should have gone below when the storm hit. As it is, the surgeon says I shall be up and about in a few days."

"I am thankful to hear that, Your Highness," said Henry. "With your permission, I would like to proceed to my meeting with the Braffan council. I can remain here, if Your Highness has need of me--"

"No, no, carry on," said Jonathan. "I saw all those Guundaran ships in port. I gather something is amiss."

"Hopefully to be set to rights, Your Highness," Henry replied.

"Do you think the Guundarans are breaking the neutrality pact, Sir Henry?" Jonathan asked, frowning.

"I should not like to venture to say, Your Highness," said Henry.

"But you think it likely," said Jonathan. "Good luck and a safe journey, my lord. Report to me on your return."

Henry bowed and took his leave. He found the crew of the pinnace waiting for him. Mr. Sloan had already boarded, and he assisted Henry to his seat. The boat was small, designed to ferry supplies, crew, and passengers to and from shore. The helmsman inflated the single balloon and then sent magic flowing from the brass helm to the air screws and the lift tanks. The pinnace rose from the deck of the ship with a slight lurch and then sailed toward the pier.

Henry thrust the shock and the upset and the stinging pain of his palms out of his mind. He would need all his faculties to deal with the Braffans. He did not say no, however, when Mr. Sloan offered him another gulp of brandy from a small pocket flask.

As they approached the harbor, Henry saw two people, both of whom he recognized, standing on the pier in the shelter of a boathouse. One was a middle-aged woman in a rain-soaked bonnet. The other was a tall, broad-shouldered man in a military uniform and a plumed gold-braid-trimmed bicorn. They had apparently been about to board a pinnace of their own. Seeing Henry's approach, they had seemingly decided to wait.

"What are those two doing on the dock?" Henry wondered.

"I would hazard a guess that since you did not attend the meeting, they were about to sail to the Valor to speak to you," Mr. Sloan suggested. "Do you know them, my lord?"

Henry grunted. "The woman is Frau Aalder, a member of the Braffan council. She was with me at the refinery the day the Bottom Dwellers attacked. She formed a bad opinion of me during that incident--not entirely unwarranted I must confess, given that Alan and I threatened to sink the ship on which she was sailing.

"The tall man with all the medals and gold braid and plumed bicorn is His Majesty, King Ullr Ragnar Amaranthson of Guundar. I have no idea how he came by the medals. As far as I know the man has never seen combat, if you don't count the duels he fought in his youth."

The pinnace docked, the crew lowered the gangplank, and Henry and Mr. Sloan stepped onto the pier. Henry walked across the dock to meet Frau Aalder and the king. Mr. Sloan remained at a distance, yet keeping close enough to hear the conversation. Mr. Sloan could not take notes, for this conversation would be unofficial and off the record. But he had an excellent memory and would make a record of it later.

Henry bowed to the king and gave Frau Aalder a curt nod.

"I apologize for my late arrival," Henry said. "Our ship was struck by lightning with the result that I was unavoidably delayed. We can now proceed--"

Frau Aalder interrupted. "The meeting is over. Ullr and I were coming to tell you. You know Ullr, of course. What the devil did you do to your hands?"

Henry stared at the woman, disgusted at her gauche remarks, and pressed his lips together to keep his rising anger in check. He saw no need to reply. Frau Aalder was considered rude, even by the relatively relaxed mores of the Braffans. King Ullr cast her a glance of disdain and tried to make up for her crudeness.

"We were sailing over to the ship hoping to visit Crown Prince Jonathan," said King Ullr, speaking passable Freyan with a thick Guundaran accent. "We were going to invite His Highness to dine aboard the Prinz Lutzow this evening."

"I am certain His Highness would have been glad to come, Your Majesty, but unfortunately the crown prince is indisposed," said Henry.

"I am sorry to hear that," said King Ullr. "Perhaps another time. We wanted to tell His Highness how much we enjoyed reading his book. Perhaps you can pass along--"

"Never mind about books now, Ullr!" said Frau Aalder, who had been impatiently tapping her foot during the niceties. "The council originally agreed to meet with you, Wallace, to discuss Freyan offers of help to rebuild our refineries. Such help is no longer required. Braffa is now a protectorate of Guundar."

"Protectorate!" Henry repeated, amazed.

"As you know, we have no standing military of our own," Frau Aalder continued. "Our nation is too small to fund one. Guundar has offered to establish a naval base on Braffa, and to assist us to build up our defenses. During that time, their ships will patrol the refineries and our coastline."

Henry saw triumph gleam in the king's eyes. In that moment, he would have given a great deal to see a boom fall on King Ullr.

Henry kept his face expressionless as he considered his response. An outward show of anger could reveal Freya's desperate need for the money from the sale of the crystals. To say nothing of the fact that the Freyan navy required the liquid form of the Breath of God in order to condense it down to manufacture the crystals. Anger could hurt his cause. He decided to respond with the sorrow of someone who has been betrayed by a friend.

"I trust the Braffan council realizes, Frau Aalder, that such an agreement breaks the terms of the Braffan Neutrality Pact," Henry said. "Freya made that pact in good faith which, I am sorry to discover, was apparently not shared."

King Ullr gave a derisive snort. "Neutrality pact be damned! You came to Braffa, Sir Henry, hoping to persuade the council to allow your government to take over the refineries. We have simply beat you to the punch, as your Freyan pugilists say."

Henry turned a cold eye upon the king. "Since I am not to be permitted to speak to the council, you will never know, will you, Your Majesty?"

Frau Aalder intervened with the exasperated air of a governess separating naughty boys. "As for breaking the neutrality pact, that's rubbish. Guundar is acting to enforce the pact that you planned to break. So, you see, Wallace, you have no reason for complaint and so you may inform your queen." Frau Aalder plucked at King Ullr's gold-braided sleeve. "We should leave now, Ullr. I am certain Wallace is eager to return to his ship before another storm hits."

"We see no storm in the offing, madame," said King Ullr. Stepping away from her reach, he walked closer to Henry. "And our business with Sir Henry is not concluded."

"Yes, it is," said Frau Aalder irritably. "I have nothing more to say to Wallace."

"But we do, madame," said King Ullr, fixing her with an imperious stare.

Frau Aalder glowered and fumed, reminding the king that he wanted to make an inspection tour of the refineries. King Ullr was not to be deterred from speaking to Henry, who found this altercation between the two intriguing. Frau Aalder was clearly trying to whisk King Ullr away. Henry wondered why, and the next moment he had his answer.

King Ullr, brushing aside Frau Aalder, drew near Henry until they were practically toe-to-toe, attempting to use his height and bulk to intimidate him. "We have heard rumors that the Braffans developed a crystalline form of the Breath known as the Tears of God. What do you know about such crystals, Sir Henry?"

Before Henry could reply, Frau Aalder literally pushed her way into the conversation, shouldering between the two men. "I have told you, Ullr, that those rumors are completely unfounded."

As she said this, she shot Henry a warning glance from beneath the brim of her bedraggled bonnet and very slightly shook her head, urging him to silence.

Henry responded with a derisive smile, reminding her that he knew the rumors were not all unfounded. Frau Aalder grew grim.

"We did conduct some research," she admitted. "But the experiments failed and the program was halted. No need to ask Wallace. He knows nothing about it. And now we really must leave, Your Majesty. We have that inspection tour scheduled..."

King Ullr had seen Henry's smile and was not to be deterred. "Our agents tell us that the Rosians unexpectedly came into possession of several barrels of these crystals that do not exist. I suppose it was a coincidence that the appearance of the crystals in Rosia occurred immediately after you, Sir Henry, and your friend, Captain Stephano de Guichen, visited one of the Braffan refineries. The captain is reputed to have used the crystals to raise an enormous fortress off the ground and sail it Below. And yet you claim to know nothing of any of this."

"I was in Freya at the time, fighting my own battle with the Bottom Dwellers, Your Majesty," said Henry grimly. "As for Captain de Guichen--now the Duke de Bourlet--he is a Rosian and thus no friend of mine. He is, however, a close friend to King Renaud and a hero to the Rosian people."

Henry paused, then added in milder tones, "Perhaps I should remind Your Majesty that King Renaud is a signatory to the Braffan Neutrality Pact and that His Majesty will be extremely displeased to hear of Guundar's interference. The Rosian navy is dependent on the liquid form of the Breath to fuel their ships. I doubt King Renaud will be pleased to hear of this new 'protectorate.'"

"I find it hard to believe that you know nothing about these crystals, Sir Henry," King Ullr insisted stubbornly. "Captain de Guichen could not have flown a massive stone fortress to battle at the bottom of the world without them."

"And I find it hard to believe that you are coming perilously close to calling me a liar, Your Majesty," Henry said angrily.

"Actually, Ullr, you are calling me a liar!" said Frau Aalder, glaring at both men. "I told you Wallace knows nothing about the crystals! We are late for our appointment."

Frau Aalder might be rude and crass, but she was also clever, counting on the fact that King Ullr could not afford to offend her, the representative of his new ally. King Ullr realized he had gone too far and he was forced to let the matter drop.

"Forgive me, madame," King Ullr said in frozen tones. "Such was not my intent."

"I should hope not," said Frau Aalder, sniffing. She was actually almost cordial to Henry. "We will be in touch, Wallace. The council knows the importance of the Blood of God to the navies of the world and we hope to resume production as soon as possible and get it out on the market."

"At an exorbitant price, no doubt," said Henry, his lip curling.

"If you find the liquid too expensive, perhaps your navy could go back to sailing using the old-fashioned means," said King Ullr. "Although I doubt even God's Breath could float that monstrosity."

He cast a glance at HMS Terrapin, sailing in the Breath alongside the Valor. The hull of the Terrapin was covered with specially designed magical metal plates that gave the ship her name. Their magic made the ship practically impervious to gunfire, but the sheets of metal were extremely heavy. The "old-fashioned means" to which the king referred were tanks filled with the Breath of God. The magically enhanced gas could not provide the lift needed to keep the Terrapin afloat.

Henry was aware he had lost the battle and he could do nothing now except claim his wounded and retire from the field. He could at least fire a final parting shot.

"I will take this news back to Her Majesty," he said. "In the interim, I urge you, Frau Aalder, and the other members of the Braffan council to recall what happened when King Ullr's forebearers took their neighbors 'under protection.'"

King Ullr stiffened, his face flushed an angry red. The ancient Guundarans were reputed to have been barbarians who preyed upon their neighbors, looting, burning, and plundering. The Guundarans had long sought to live down this reputation; King Ullr was so outraged Henry thought the king might actually challenge him to a duel on the spot.

As the king advanced, his hand on the hilt of his sword, a gust of wind left over from the storm chose that moment to carry off the king's tall, plumed bicorn and send it bounding along the pier.

Henry kept a straight face as one of the king's aides ran to fetch the wayward hat, though he did allow his lips to twitch. Frau Aalder was not so kind. She laughed out loud. King Ullr cast Henry a furious glance, turned on his heel with military precision, and, retrieving his hat, thrust it under his arm and angrily stalked off.

Henry removed his own hat for dignity's sake, lest the wind blow it off, too. He joined Mr. Sloan, and the two slowly walked back to the pinnace.

"What did you think, Mr. Sloan?"

"Frau Aalder is an extremely unpleasant woman, my lord," Mr. Sloan replied.

"I wish I'd let the Bottom Dwellers shoot her," Henry muttered. "At least the meeting ended on an amusing note."

"If you are referring to the wind gust carrying off the king's hat, I have always said God is a Freyan, my lord," Mr. Sloan observed.

Henry smiled. "So you have, Mr. Sloan, but that wasn't what I meant."

He paused a short distance from the pinnace and lowered his voice. "The matter of the crystals. Frau Aalder and the council are lying to their new 'protector.' She was there when Captain de Guichen and I seized the crystals. And I am certain Ullr knows she's lying, though he can't prove it."

"Why would the Braffans lie about the crystals, my lord?" Mr. Sloan asked.

"I am wondering that myself," said Henry. "At a guess, I would say they don't want King Ullr to know that the crystals exist. She must know that both we and the Rosians are studying the crystals in our possession, trying to learn how to manufacture them. The Rosians have failed thus far and, from what my agents tell me, they are going to cease working on it in order not to waste any more of the crystals."

"It would seem King Ullr has bought a pig in a poke, my lord."

"I believe you are right, Mr. Sloan. Let us say that we start manufacturing the crystals in Freya. Three crystals can lift a frigate off the ground, replacing several barrels of the liquid form of the Breath. All the navies of the world would flock to purchase crystals from us. The price of the liquid would plummet and Ullr would realize he had made a bad bargain."

Henry was grim. "Unfortunately, to make the crystals, we need the liquid form of the Breath. King Ullr will see to it that we pay through the nose, such that we will not be able to afford to manufacture the crystals. This is a disaster, Mr. Sloan. An unmitigated disaster."

"I am certain you will find a way to remedy the situation, my lord," said Mr. Sloan.

Henry only shook his head and boarded the pinnace.

The journey back to the Valor was rough. The gusty winds that had carried off the king's hat blew the pinnace all over the sky and made landing treacherous. The coxswain in charge knew his business, however, and safely brought the boat down onto the deck. Sailors rushed to secure it.

Randolph was on hand to meet them. When he saw Henry, he raised an eyebrow. Henry shook his head, letting him know he had failed. Randolph shrugged. With his customary pessimism, he had been expecting nothing else. The flag captain of the Valor ordered the crew to weigh anchor and prepare for return to Freya.

That evening, Captain Alan Northrop of the Terrapin sailed to the Valor to join his friends for dinner.

Alan, Henry, Randolph, and Simon Yates had been friends for over twenty years, since their days at university. They had called themselves "the Seconds," for they had discovered that each was a second son, meaning their older brothers would inherit the family fortunes, leaving each of the younger brothers to fend for himself.

In their numerous adventures during their university days, Henry had been the cunning schemer, Randolph the dour pragmatist, Simon the swift thinker, Alan the bold, daring rogue. Their friendship had remained strong through the years. Although Simon was not present, being confined to a wheelchair in his eccentric house in Haever, his friends always kept a place for him at the table and drank a toast in his honor.

The three dined in the admiral's spacious cabin in the ship's stern. Conversation was desultory, none of them able to discuss international intrigue in the presence of the servants. Henry had finally found time to read his wife's letters; he recounted a few of young Henry's three-year-old exploits to proud smiles from the "uncles," as his friends considered themselves. After dinner, Randolph dismissed the servants. Mr. Sloan served brandy, cheese, and walnuts, and at last they were able to discuss the day's events.

"How is His Highness?" Alan asked.

"The prince is resting comfortably," Henry reported. Not wanting to risk dropping one of Randolph's fragile crystal snifters with his bandaged hands, he was drinking the brandy from a tin cup.

"Thank God for that," said Alan.

They had drunk the traditional toast to the queen, but now Randolph raised his glass to the prince. "To His Highness. Long may he reign."

"I fear the news isn't all good," Henry said, holding out his mug for a refill. "The surgeon told me privately that he is worried about the ugly bruise on the prince's chest. He fears his heart may be damaged. He detects a slight irregularity in the prince's heartbeat."

"Damn sawbones! Always making a fuss," Randolph said in disgust. "Of course the prince's heartbeat is irregular. Goddamn boom fell on him! Good stiff drink, that's what he needs. I shall send him a bottle of the '88 port."

"How did the meeting go with the Braffans?" Alan asked, finally asking the question that had been on everyone's mind. "What is Guundar up to?"

Henry gave a morose shake of his head.

"As bad as that," said Alan.

"Worse," said Henry.

He described his meeting with Frau Aalder and King Ullr. "Braffa is now a protectorate of Guundar."

"Protectorate!" Randolph repeated with a bellowing laugh. "Might as well ask the goddamn wolf to protect the goddamn sheep!"

"By God, Henry, Guundar broke the neutrality pact!" Alan exclaimed, flushed with excitement and brandy. "This means war!"

Alan had lost his right hand during a fight with the Bottom Dwellers, when his rifle had exploded after being hit by a blast of contramagic. The loss had not slowed him down, nor did it seem to overly concern him. He had practiced until he could wield a sword and shoot with his left hand almost as well as he had with his right.

Three years since the war ended, Alan was growing bored with peace. Henry suspected his friend missed his days roaming the Breath as a privateer, hoping to snap up an Estaran treasure ship or capture a rich Rosian merchantman.

"Keep your voice down, Alan, for God's sake!" Henry said, annoyed. "Rumors spread like the yellow jack aboard ship! I don't want half the fleet thinking we're going to war."

He tried to set the mug down on the table, but dropped it, spilling brandy. Henry swore, kicked the mug, sending it flying. Mr. Sloan silently retrieved the mug and mopped up the brandy.

Henry muttered an apology, then rose to his feet. "We will talk in the morning."

"Henry, this is us," said Alan earnestly. "You can tell us anything."

"Bloody damn right," said Randolph.

Henry knew he could. He knew he must tell them someday that Freya was teetering on the edge of a financial precipice. But not tonight. His bandages were stiff and uncomfortable, and his hands burned.

"Good night," said Henry.

As he left, he heard Randolph remark, "Poor old Henry. He looks like the goddamn boom fell on him."

Henry gave a bitter smile. In a way, he felt as though it had. A boom by the name of King Ullr.

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Krammes

Copyright © 2017 by Margaret Weis


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