King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 8, 9, 10

“The Arabs are so used to the fishing boats that they take no notice of them. Nor can they tell Christian from Muslim, or from Jew. Our boats mix in with theirs. Every night one has steered out to sea and brought us a report. I have known exactly where every ship of theirs has been for days.”

“Maybe they’ve been doing the same to us.”

Georgios shook his head. “I am not as careless as the Arab admiral. No boat comes within fifty stadia of here without being boarded and inspected. If they are Muslims—” He chopped his hand down on the edge of the table.

“How come our spy boats are back here so long before their fleet. Are they faster?”

“Handier, certainly. You see the kind of sails they use?” Georgios waved a hand again at the cluster of boats alongside. One, slipping quietly across the water on some errand, had its sail up and rigged: a three-cornered sail on a sloping yard. “Round here they call it the Latin sail—lateeno in their language.” Both men let out a simultaneous sharp bark of contemptuous amusement at the foreigners. “They use lateeno to mean—” Georgios hesitated for a word. “Something like aptus, handy. And it is a handy rig, fast and useful in light airs.”

“Why don’t you rig them, then?”

“If you were to look closely,” the admiral explained, “you’d see that if you want to turn the ship from side to side”—neither his Latin nor Agilulf’s ran to the word for “tack”—”you can’t do it by just turning the yard, the stick the sail is on. You have to lift the yard over the mast. Easy for a small boat. Harder and harder as the mast gets higher and the yard gets heavier. It’s a rig for small boats. Or for ships full of seamen.”

Agilulf grunted, not much interested. “So we know where they are but they don’t know where we are. How does that help us?”

The Greek leaned back on his bench. “Well. Our weapon is fire. Theirs—as you have told me again and again—is stone. You tell me you have seen one ship of theirs, an iron one at that, sink a whole fleet in less time than it takes to say a Mass.”

Agilulf nodded. He had been at the battle of the Braethraborg, had seen the Ragnarsson fleet battered into wrecks by Shef’s own Fearnought. It had impressed him greatly.

“I believe you. So they will want to fight at a distance, we want to fight up close. They may expect us to try to attack at night. I have a better idea. You see, my men on the spy boats are all unanimous on one thing. These Northern ships, they say, are sailers. They have never seen anyone even try to row them, and they look heavy and round-bellied.

“But in these waters the wind always fades round noon, as earth and water reach the same heat. No wind either way. That’s when I am going to hit them.”

“They can shoot their stones without moving at all,” objected Agilulf.

“Not over bow or stern. In any case my plan is to drive off or burn their support ships, the Arabs. And then to have a good look at the Northerners. When I can move and they cannot. If the worst comes to the worst—we just row away. If they show a weakness—we’ll take it.”

“So you drive off the fleet, leaving the Northerners becalmed if need be, and then come in with your marines and rowers, from the sea, on the rear of the Arab army. While I hold the Arab horse and foot from in front.”

Georgios nodded silently. Both men knew there were many permutations possible within their overall plan. Each knew, now, how the other thought and what the other could do. They had never lost a battle or a skirmish yet, had swept the northwest Mediterranean from coast to coast.

Agilulf rose. “Good enough. My detachments for your ships are already told off. I’ll have them by the shore an hour before dawn, fully provisioned. Just have the boats ready to take them off.”

Georgios rose too. The two men shook hands. “I wish the emperor were here,” said Agilulf suddenly. “My emperor, that is.”

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Categories: Harrison, Harry