LIII.

TALAGA

Prince Rupart came into the world squalling, pink and healthy.

Regelline lay back on her pillows panting heavily, sweaty and spent. Childbirth was supposed to be a natural thing, common to all species to perpetuate themselves and essential for the continuation of bloodlines both royal and wretched … so why had nature contrived to make it so draining, so messy and, most of all, painful?

"Why is he crying like that?" Regelline asked as Demetria, back turned to her Queen, busied herself with cleansing and tending the new prince while two of her helpers similarly attended their maternal sovereign. "Is anything … wrong?"

"Not in the least, Your Majesty," the midwife assured her. "Most healthy babes greet the world thus. Drinking in his first taste of air, he is."

"I will trust you to that, then," Regelline grunted as the two female attendants finished their own cleanup duties and pulled the soft blanket halfway up the chest of the exhausted new mother. In accordance with birth custom and Demetria's suggestion, Regelline had delivered unclothed, not that this bothered the Searat Queen in the slightest, since all the routine checkups and progress examinations leading up to this day had been performed with the royal patient in a similarly ungarbed state. The midwife staff of Talaga were thorough professionals and the best at what they did, and it was nothing they'd not seen before, from the wives of captains and commanders; indeed, Regelline had by now grown quite nonchalant about disrobing in the discreet presence of Demetria and her assistants.

"Would you like to hold him, Majesty?"

"Maybe once he settles down and stops that wailing," Regelline responded, about ready to flatten her ears against the newborn's gasping, gulping screams.

"Perhaps your mother's embrace will prove the very balm to soothe and settle him." Demetria turned and strode across the master bedchamber of the former Governor's mansion, presenting the bathed and swaddled infant to Regelline, who took him in uncertain paws. Again, Demetria's expertise in this area was proven as tiny Rupart's squalling protests at the wide new world around him subsided into a mellow litany of sucks and clucks.

"He's … so pink and … shrivelly," the Queen murmured, gazing down at her progeny cradled in her arms. "Are you sure he's all right?"

"He's as hale and healthy as any I've ever brought into this world, Majesty," Demetria assured her. "I may not know the ways of power within empires, but I do know midwifery, and your new babe is a fine and strong one!"

"Hmm." Couldn't prove it by me, came the acerbic thought to Regelline's mind. She wasn't sure why she'd expected anything different; she possessed the worldly experience, and knew enough about the ways of procreation and childbirth, to realize that this was how rats came into the world. But somehow she'd resisted this obvious insight, thought that her status as Queen might insulate her somehow from the hard facts of nature, and that her son (or daughter) might be born not all pink and furless like ordinary rats but fully-pelted and ready to step forward in searat society, if only figuratively. The idea that there must now come a period of nursing and careful incubation and tender care while her successor developed into something resembling an actual rat went against Regelline's psyche. How was she to take the time and expend the energy looking after something like this when she had an Empire to help run, and perhaps someday soon claim as her own?

"There, you see?" Demetria encouraged. "I knew your touch would calm him, Majesty. It's the mother-child bond. I've seen it before, countless times. It's all quite normal."

Regelline shot the midwife a sharp glance. "I am no ordinary rat, in case I need remind you."

Realizing her mistake, Demetria stammered, "Y-yes, of course, I … I only meant … "

"Oh hush. You'll set him fussing again."

Demetria remained at her Queen's side, silent now, as her two other attendants withdrew from the bedchamber to await at a slightly greater remove, their own duties finished for the moment. The most esteemed midwife on Talaga kept her clinic on the northeast part of the isle, under the shadow of Fort Ballaster, and many of her patients sought out her services there, but ever since Regelline had engaged her for this royal pregnancy and delivery, Demetria had practically lived at the Governor's mansion that the Queen had taken over for her own. While this represented both a high honor and no great hardship, for the guest bedroom reserved for Demetria on her frequent overnight stays was more luxurious than her usual chambers, it was also an immense responsibility, safeguarding the care and health of the Queen and her expected heir. And, truth be told, the female sovereign was not always the easiest or least demanding beast to get along with …

Regelline looked up from the softly-squirming bundle of life to gaze out the wide double windows. The mansion sat atop the hills overlooking Talaga Bay and its encircling seaside village, and so from her spot in her bed she could see only blue, cloudless sky through the glazed panes. Her length of labor had robbed her of all sense of time, but since no more beams of direct sunlight slanted through into the bedchamber, she guessed morning must have moved on to afternoon, the temperate day still bright outside but only more diffuse, ambient daylight reaching her now.

The Queen knew ratwives had all kinds of superstitions about childbirth, just as most searats did about most things, and idly wondered now what silly beliefs might surround the time of day of delivery, and the latitude and longitude of the birth site, and the state of the weather at the moment of the event. All such frivolous silliness was to be dismissed by those who made their own fate; Regelline had chosen her home isle of Talaga for this moment, for symbolic and personal reasons, and she was exactly where she wanted to be. As for the weather, she supposed it could not have boded better for any omens anyrat cared to assign to the new Prince's destiny … although, now that she thought about it, his arrival in the midst of a mighty tempest might well have marked him as a wild and dangerous and unpredictable figure to command the loyalty of his subjects at all costs, and woe to any who dared cross him.

Oh well. One couldn't have everything.

Regelline returned her gaze to little Rupart, furless eyelids screwed shut in lingering, futile resistance against his new world outside the womb. The tiny being still repulsed her in all its naked, helpless vulnerability, but she knew that soon, once the eyes had opened and the fur had grown in, she would properly bond with her offspring and undertake the seasons-long upbringing which would marry his future ambitions with her own, forging him into both her greatest supporter and a strong, ruthless Searat King of his own someday.

Watch out, my husband. You will not be needed very much longer.

"As soon as I'm feeling recovered," Regelline said to Demetria, "I'll want to go sit outside so I can take in some fresh ocean air with the Prince - his first breath of his future - as I look over my old home isle and its bay. While I'm outside doing that, change all this bedding … and maybe bring in a new mattress as well. A Queen needs her clean and restful sleep, you know."

TERRAMORT

It seemed to Uroza that Clucus should have returned to Terramort by now.

No worry yet impinged upon the Spymaster's mind, for his was not a fretful constitution, nor did dark suspicions cloud his thoughts, even though such might fit both his nature and occupation. Sea trials were just that, and the unexpected often occurred during such test runs - indeed, the whole point to those exercises was to ensure that all the negative surprises were worked out of new vessels and new weaponry so that no further surprises lay in wait for when it really mattered, after the prototypes had been put into active service where they might encounter actual battle situations. A weapon misfiring or a craft faultily maneuvering during trials was one thing, but in the midst of military action such mishaps could spell disaster.

And, given the fairly preposterous character of the ferret weaponsmith's latest product, it concerned Uroza minimally that Clucus might be running somewhat overdue, for if any contraption of his was likely to present unanticipated complications, this was surely it. Besides, if the trial fleet ran into any particularly troublesome difficulties, Mortara knew to return to Terramort with all due speed to report to Uroza and summon help if needed. She may have been a female, but she was perfectly capable of at least that much.

The lateness of Clucus and his support ships occupied but one small corner of Uroza's mind these days; uppermost was King Tratton's ill-advised visit to Salamandastron and Mossflower. Fleetrunner Six had returned some days ago bearing confirmation that His Majesty had emerged from the mountain fortress with his life, set sail on the Darktide to another point along the coast slightly south of Salamandastron and below the lower limb of the mountain range, and disembarked from there to set out for the inner lands … which meant that Tratton's fate now lay largely in the paws of creatures who might very well wish him dead - both Urthblood's and many others. And there wasn't a thing Uroza could do about it, if treachery or disaster were to befall his sovereign at that far remove.

Fleetrunner Six had borne startling news as well: one reason Tratton was perhaps able to pass through Salamandastron unscathed was that its badger master had ventured elsewhere, absent from his own stronghold at the very moment his searat adversary had chosen to visit. And, while no woodlander at the mountain would confirm the badger's destination, all signs pointed to Southsward, where Urthblood stood to wreck havoc with Korba's diplomatic mission to Floret, if that mission had not already met with disaster on its own at the paws of the Southswarders - a quite plausible proposition, given lack of any news from the Bloodreef or Redsky on Korba's success or failure. At the very least, Urthblood stood to intrude upon negotiations precarious and uncertain, perhaps casting them into total disarray, and at worst he would forge an alliance with the Squirrel King where Korba had failed, shutting off an entire kingdom from searat influence. Unless Korba had by some miracle secured a treaty with Floret prior to Urthblood's arrival, the situation in Southsward only looked to be going from bad to worse.

It was these kinds of internecine affairs - along with maintaining internal security within the Empire itself - at which the Spymaster excelled and felt fully in his element, and thus did he find it all the more frustrating that such events unfolded far beyond his reach and influence, bound to play out as they would without any direct input or participation from him. In the end, all he could do was send Fleetrunner Six off to return to the Darktide, and wait to see whether Tratton ever returned from Mossflower.

And if he didn't … Before leaving for Talaga and thence on to Salamandastron, the sea tyrant had made Uroza swear and vow that, should anything befall Tratton while on the mainland, the Spymaster would pledge his obedience and fealty to Regelline and the as-yet unborn prince, placing himself entirely at her pleasure - even if that pleasure was to have Uroza slain and replaced with a new head spy more to her liking. For this reason along with many others, Uroza hoped Tratton met with success on his tour of the inner lands; the idea of having to deal with the more temperamental and scheming Queen while trying to hold together the Empire without its founder was not a prospect he relished.

And then there was the other half of Talaga to keep in mind, and the continuing efforts to satisfy and placate the savage cormorants even while bringing them firmly into the fold of the searat military, training them in ways of fighting to match Urthblood's gulls. Reports from the new governor Voccola suggested that their hoped-for winged allies devoted far more of their attention to slaying slaves in their high-drop games and squabbling among themselves than practicing their battle drills and learning how to deploy the necessary weaponry. His Majesty had placed great hopes in this alliance providing the long-sought balance to neutralize the threat of the badger's birds, and sacrificed an otherwise loyal and capable governor to win that alliance, but in the early analysis, the promise of this strategy looked hazy indeed.

All of these specific concerns lay atop Uroza's other daily routine responsibilities in overseeing the internal and external security of the Empire. And so, while he essentially had the run of Terramort to himself in Tratton's absence, he felt no great elevation in his power, no lifting of the weight of duty or increased freedom to do as he wished. If anything, the uncertainty of these various situations all unfolding at once only left him feeling weighed down even more than usual - not that he would ever let anybeast else know or see this. He did have his reputation to uphold, after all.

The approaching clack-stomp of booted paws from the corridor beyond his office reminded Uroza that he shared his present stewardship of Terramort with one other, and while their styles may have clashed, the Spymaster was grateful for one other unquestionably loyal commander to help shoulder the burden of running Terramort without its sovereign.

Malvarkis appeared in the doorway in the presence of two other rats - one expected, one not. "Captain Tillark of Fleetrunner Two, Spymaster."

"Thank you, Malvarkis." Uroza used the Palace Guard Captain's name to avoid confusion, with the presence of two rats bearing that rank, if in very different capacities. Malvarkis gave a nod and clomped his way back down the hallway, leaving Tillark and his unnamed companion to wait on the pleasure of the Spymaster.

"Be seated, both of you."

The two visitors did as bidden, taking chairs before the Spymaster's desk. Tillark of course Uroza knew, having personally appointed every fleetrunner captain with paw-picked rats from his own Bureau. And he'd known to expect Tillark this morning, Fleetrunner Two having been spotted some way out from the island during her approach. Tillark and his spycraft had been assigned to Viceroy Korba's mission, and Uroza was most interested to hear the news from Southsward, even if he could guess what that news likely was. At the very least, this meeting ought to confirm that Urthblood had in fact gone to Southsward himself, and might even provide details of the badger's movements and intent.

For the moment, however, Uroza fixed his attention on the other rat, Tillark's unannounced companion. Here was a creature clearly unaccustomed to the halls of power and privilege, a lowly crewrat by dress and by manner obviously overwhelmed by finding himself here. Uroza could only imagine how his office must strike such a beast as this; the Spymaster maintained a workspace crafted to reflect his sinister reputation, with lamplight shuttered and directed to create isolated islands of cold, efficient light floating against a veiling darkness which hid the tools of his trade - mostly maps and books and scrolls, but also vials and instruments no rat in the Empire ever wished to have used on them. Little wonder this deckpaw sat with wildly staring eyes and soundlessly working jaw, not sure whether his presence in this place represented an honor or a nightmare.

Uroza had left orders summoning Tillark here upon disembarking, the Spymaster eager to hear the fleetrunner captain's tidings from Korba's mission and Urthblood's insertion into those events. He had not expected his fellow spyrat to bring anybeast else to their debriefing, least of all somerat like this.

"And who is this, Captain?"

"Clantor," the junior Bureau rat replied with smooth urgency. "Assistant ship's steward of the Skyburn."

"And why is he here with us now?"

"Because he appears to be the sole survivor of the explosion and sinking of the Skyburn."

Uroza did not visibly tense or sit up straighter, nothing so obvious as that, but on some more subtle level his demeanor changed, his attention sharpened and even more focused than before. "Tell me."

Tillark looked to Clantor. "Tell the Spymaster what you told me. Every detail."

And so Clantor did - how the lookout had spotted the red, black and green sails of a fellow ship of the Fleet on the far horizon, and Captain Koncurat had given orders to rendezvous with the other vessel, in accordance with searat custom. How, some time later, the two ships lay at anchor, ready for the dreadnaught to receive the smaller ship's captain, as was also custom. How, as Clantor had been bustling through the forward belowdecks stores to scrounge up the special ingredients his captain had ordered for a lavish meal, a thunderous cataclysm ripped the Skyburn in two, leaving the mighty vessel sundered and sinking. And how the lowly second steward had managed to claw his way out of the flooding hold long after most of his crewmates had already perished or abandoned the sinking wreck themselves, into the hungry maws of waiting sharks. Clantor had lucked into latching onto a chunk of shattered hull large enough to keep the sharks at bay, and from there he watched as the other ship, anchor already pulled up, turned about and fled the scene under full sail, her back turned cold and uncaring upon her distressed counterpart. No other rat that Clantor could see succeeded in securing any piece of wreckage as substantial as his, and soon he was alone, bobbing on the sea's surface along with assorted barrels and crates and planks and other debris which was all that remained of the once formidable Skyburn.

"What was the other ship?" Uroza asked the steward, the lowly rat shaken as much by this recounting of a living nightmare best forgotten as by his presence before another living nightmare in black fur.

"Dunno, Spymaster, sir. Most o' my duties kept me belowdecks, so I only caught a few glimpses of 'er here an' there while we were closin' distance 'tween us. T'was smaller'n us - a frigate, mebbe a galleon."

"Could she have been some foreign or trader vessel, disguised to look like a ship of the Fleet?"

"Clantor and I have already discussed that possibility on our way to Terramort," Tillark told Uroza. "I do not see it as very likely. Captain Koncurat would have been familiar enough with the other ships under our flag not to have been taken in by such a ruse. I think she has to have been one of ours."

"And yet her captain showed, at the very least, dire disregard for a fellow ship in desperate distress - assuming he did not cause the Skyburn's destruction in the first place." Uroza turned his full, dissecting gaze on Clantor. "Tell me, and think hard on this - did you not overhear any shipmate of yours speak the name of that vessel, even as something you may have caught in passing? Not even when you were briefly topside, during your approach to this other ship?"

"Nay, Spymaster, altho' … "

"Yes?"

"Well, when Chief Steward Dorta sent me down for'ard t' round up th' fancy grub from stores, he did mention a name … said Cap'n Koncurat was lookin' mighty for'ard to swappin' stories with Cap'n … Tangle? Triangle?"

"Trangle?"

Clantor's face lit up as the low-ranking rat momentarily forgot his oppressive surroundings. "Aye, that's it, Spymaster! Cap'n Trangle!"

"Trangle." Uroza looked to Tillark. "Of the Redfoam. It's the Redfoam we're looking for."

"I'd say so, Spymaster."

Uroza returned his gaze to Clantor. "Did anyrat from the Redfoam actually board the Skyburn?"

"Uh, dunno, sir. Couldn't rightly say. Last I heard, there was a rowboat makin' its way 'cross from their ship t' ours, an' talk was their cap'n was on it - heard talk 'bout some funny hat he allers wore. But explosion came not long after that. If 'ee'd had time t' board t'all, couldn'ta been on th' Skyburn fer more'n a few moments 'fore th' powder blew. Treacherous stuff, that powder. Allers did make me nervous, bein' 'round it."

"Yes. Treacherous. Is there anything else you can tell us about this incident that might be helpful to us, Clantor?"

"Um, not sure what t' say to that, Spymaster sir, 'cos I ain't sure what you'd find helpful. I ain't a smart rat like you, an' Cap'n Tillark's already picked my brain on th' way here 'bout ev'rything he could. I'll gladly answer any questions y' have fer me, but I'm afraid I'd not know m'self what questions t' ask."

"I understand. Thank you for your time, Clantor. The guards outside will show you to appropriate quarters so that you can rest properly. I'll summon you again if I think of any further questions you might assist us with."

Waiting until the second steward was escorted well down the corridor, Uroza said to Tillark, "Is he truly the sole survivor of the Skyburn?"

"He maintained that he was, Spymaster, and we could find no others. It was only sheer luck that we found him at all, borne into our path by a fortuitous southern current that crossed our northbound course from Southsward. We did encounter a few other waveborne vestiges of wreckage and debris which spoke of a naval disaster, but for now it appears Clantor's testimony is the only detailed evidence we have that the Skyburn has actually been lost."

"You think he may have been giving you some cover story, perhaps to hide the fact that he was expelled from the Skyburn for some transgression and left to die at sea by Koncurat?"

"That idea did cross my mind, Spymaster, but I do not think so. The piece of hull we found him floating on bore hallmarks of an explosion - I towed it back with us for further detailed examination - and I also subjected Clantor to some unobtrusive, soft interrogation techniques. That one is not any kind of advanced deceptionist who could outwit us so. He is simply glad to be alive, certain he would perish at sea after witnessing and narrowly escaping a disaster which will haunt him for the rest of his days." Tillark paused a beat. "And on the subject of his remaining days, what is to be done with him now?"

"We may need to consult with him further. He'll be held in a secure chamber and allowed no contact with anyrat outside the Bureau. Speaking of which, what of your own crew?"

"Standard isolation protocols, Spymaster. I don't believe any of them overheard my closed-door debriefing of Clantor, but they could see for themselves how he was plucked from the sea, and they may have caught snatches of his jabbering. Certainly they saw and heard enough to form their own conclusions. We can't risk the loss of the Skyburn becoming widespread knowledge, at least not until we can shape the revelation to suit our purposes."

"Indeed. After the disaster at Salamandastron before the Accord, we were left with only three dreadnaughts, and have since only been able to add a fourth to the Fleet due to interruptions in the lumber supply. The loss of even one of those master ships would constitute a major blow to our naval power. Such a setback, coming now of all times, must be controlled very closely."

"Why now, Spymaster? And where is His Majesty? I'd have thought he would want to be present to hear my report himself."

"The answer to both those questions is the same. King Tratton is not currently at Terramort." Uroza proceeded to explain to Tillark, in a few concise sentences, how Tratton had ventured into the inner lands after passing through Salamandastron … and finding the Badger Lord also, to his immense surprise, absent from his own stronghold. "We had hoped you could provide verification of Urthblood's presence in Southsward. All indications were that that was where he had gone, but we had no definite proof, and his own soldiers made sure to offer no clue or confirmation on the matter."

Tillark gave a nod - a degree of physical expression seldom demonstrated by the stoic agents of Uroza's Bureau. "That he has, Spymaster. He arrived on a woodlander trading vessel, crewed by otters. He brought with him a score of his Gawtrybe, and a slightly larger number of mouse soldiers. They set out into the heart of Southsward immediately upon disembarking, and I departed that very same day at all speed, to deliver this news as promptly as I could. I … did not expect to find His Majesty gone from Terramort."

"We did not advertise this expedition widely, even among the Bureau or senior commanders. As far as most of Terramort knows, His Majesty departed for Talaga, and remains there still with the Queen, perhaps to be on paw for the birth of the prince or princess. So, how fares Korba with his own mission to Southsward?"

"Would that I had news to share on that front, Spymaster, but there has been no word from his party since they struck out for Floret."

"Hmm. Then it's likely he has already met with failure - and even if he hasn't, Urthblood's interference can only complicate matters at Floret, perhaps beyond salvaging. It was a long shot to begin with, but still, I had hoped you might bear more encouraging news. And now that you've delivered it, you must return to Southsward right away, just to make sure you are there in case Korba's expedition should reappear, or if anything happens regarding Urthblood which must be observed and reported."

"Should I tell any of the officers or commanders on the scene there of King Tratton's visit to Mossflower?"

"I wouldn't. The fewer who know, the better. Share it only on a need-to-know basis, at your discretion - with 'discreet' as your overriding consideration."

"Understood, Spymaster. I will share it with norat else, not even my own small crew, unless circumstances force me to - and I can't imagine why they would."

"We will make sure your original crew returns with you to Southsward, and remains aboard Fleetrunner Two so that they cannot spread word of the Skyburn's loss. Being at sea can be the best kind of isolation."

"Too true. So, what are we to make of what Clantor told us?"

"Was he by any chance aware of the coordinates where the Skyburn encountered the Redfoam?"

"An assistant steward? He knows naught of maps and bearings and latitude and longitude."

"Pity. We could have sent a fleetrunner out to investigate his story, see if we could find any physical evidence to corroborate it … or any other survivors."

"It might have all drifted far from the scene of the explosion by now in any case." Tillark paused. "Do you really think the Redfoam could have caused the Skyburn's sinking?"

"I do. Did you know that, shortly before your own arrival, Fleetrunner Six came to Terramort bearing news of His Majesty's successful departure for the inner lands, and of Urthblood's absence at Salamandastron, and presumed journey to Southsward?"

"No, Spymaster. How could I have known such a thing?"

"How indeed? And those weren't Fleetrunner Six's only tidings of interest. It seems that, two days out from Salamandastron, King Tratton and his escorts passed a certain other ship of the Fleet, just departed from Urthblood's mountain herself. The Redfoam, by name. But what's most intriguing is that Captain Trangle, upon being boarded by our own Jagtar, revealed that he was already aware His Majesty sailed on the Darktide in secret for the lands, even though there was no way he could have known."

Tillark stiffened. "You suspect a leak?"

"Actually, I do not. There's no way the news could have preceded His Majesty, even if there was a leak, not even by fleetrunner. I suspect it was rather Urthblood playing more of his prophetic mind games, and sharing what he foresaw with Trangle, for whatever reason. What matters is that Trangle knew, and now his ship has been implicated in a possible attack that has reportedly cost the Royal Navy one of its four remaining dreadnaughts. If I were of a half-suspicious mind, I might think Trangle has gone rogue, using Tratton's absence from his maritime realm to launch attacks against his fellow searats at a time when we would be poorly equipped and organized to counter."

"And if you were of a fully-suspicious mind?" Tillark prompted, appalled at the picture Uroza was painting.

"Then I might suspect Urthblood of doing more than just tipping off Trangle that His Majesty was on his way to Salamandastron and meant to take an extended foray into Mossflower. We know the ways of that badger verge on sorcery; can we discount out of paw that he planted some buried suggestion or compulsion deep in Trangle's mind which would lead him to turn on his fellow searats, and lead his crew in open revolt against the Empire at this precise moment when we stand at our most vulnerable? Where that badger is concerned, I discount nothing."

Tillark considered this, then voiced a comment. "What of our agents aboard the Redfoam? I assume we have some. Would they not have been able to forestall such a thing? To assassinate Trangle when they saw he was moving into open revolt against His Majesty?"

"If Urthblood knew through eldritch means all King Tratton meant to do, perhaps he also divined the identity of our agents hidden amongst the Redfoam's crew, and shared this information with Trangle so that they could be eliminated as a prelude to the revolt."

Tillark paled at this possibility; if Urthblood truly possessed such powers, could any searat anywhere be safe from him?

"All that matters," Uroza continued, "is that, whatever the reason, Trangle and his galleon now appear to have made themselves enemies of the Empire - and if they have already sunk a dreadnaught, they may try to sink other ships of the Fleet, or else capitalize on this achievement to convince other captains and ships to join them in standing against us. Perhaps Trangle is not alone; perhaps he has been plotting with other captains whose ships and crews even now move to strike against loyal vessels."

"Wouldn't we have known of this, Spymaster?" Tillark wondered, voicing the long-held assumption - and confidence - that nothing like this could ever happen under the Bureau's ever-watchful eyes.

"Wouldn't we have known of even one ship going rogue?" Uroza countered, pursing his lips. "But I would very much like to know how they pulled off the sinking of the Skyburn. Not only were they outgunned four catapults to one, but it would have taken such a precise shot at just the right spot to have detonated the Skyburn's main powder magazine. And Clantor's testimony suggests they wouldn't have had time to smuggle a saboteur aboard … unless one was already aboard before the two ships encountered each other … in which case, the traitor could have destroyed the Skyburn at the time and place of his choosing, without waiting for the Redfoam to be on the scene … "

Tillark broke respectfully into Uroza's musings. "Could it be that Trangle is blameless after all? That coincidence placed the Redfoam at the scene when the saboteur struck? Or that it wasn't sabotage at all, but an accident, and Trangle fled the scene out of fear of being thought responsible for this catastrophe?"

"Possible, I suppose, although captains of the Fleet are trained to render assistance to fellow ships in distress, not to flee. No, I still suspect foul play here, and the Redfoam's behavior speaks of complicity. She must be found, and Trangle must be brought in for examination - and if he resists, he and his crew must be slain, to the very last rat if necessary."

Tillark gave a single nod. "I understand, Spymaster. Are your orders still for me to return to Southsward with all haste, or have they changed in light of this development?'

Uroza sat in silent contemplation for a long time, a shadow crossing his already black face as he ruminated on considerations which had occupied his mind even before Tillark's arrival, making connections few other minds in the Empire might make.

"No," he said at last, a hint of disquiet edging his voice. "No, I think a change of plans for you is called for, in light of what we have learned. I must impose upon you to make a quick run to the Doldrums for me."