INTERLUDE, WITH SEARATS

Tratton sat upon his white marble throne, all alone in his grand tiled audience chamber. The Searat King knew they were coming to kill him, and there was nothing he could do but wait for them to arrive.

Whenever he'd suffered any kind of reversal in the past, Tratton would stifle all reports and control all witnesses - by assassination and imprisonment, if necessary - to quell the waves of rumor and gossip which might otherwise sweep through the ranks of his soldiers and subjects. When word eventually did get out, enough time would have elapsed that the bad news was taken as a matter of course rather than a cause for unrest and insurrection. Tratton maintained his share of spies among his rats, and those agents were always helpful with disseminating cover stories and peacekeeping propaganda. As long as the overall power and scope of his empire continued to grow with each passing season, minor setbacks would not cause Tratton any great concern.

But this time it would be different. The loss of four dreadnoughts in a single engagement was not a thing that could be kept hidden, not even with all his spies, not even were he to have all the survivors of the ill-fated battle slain to ensure their silence. Too many eyes had seen the Wedge come limping back into the port of Terramort, alone save for the trio of salvaged submersibles trailing pathetically in her wake on their towropes. Too many had witnessed Tratton's rapid withdrawal to his private quarters upon disembarking, without even trying to put on a false front of bravado or stoic imperial confidence. There could be only one reason for their ruler's return so soon, without any of his formidable surface ships as escort. And a defeat of this magnitude, following on the heels of the losses from the season before, would not go ignored. For all that Tratton had done to transform the anarchic realm of the searats into a cohesive empire of unprecedented dimensions, some searat ways died hard. He had led them into disaster, and the more ambitious of his officers - those who had survived the clashes with Urthblood - could smell his weakness and vulnerability right now. Usually, the mechanism of his secret police would crush any rebellion before it started, but too many of high rank would be emboldened to move against him this time. They would act in unison to overwhelm his personal guard, and they would act soon.

The bodyguards were gone now, dismissed on the whim of their master. But, as always, cold calculation lay behind Tratton's actions. Let them all think he'd given up, that he'd grown so demented in his despondence that he might be blind to the threat from within his own court, or might perhaps even welcome death in his present state. Tratton had long known there were those among his captains who coveted the throne of Terramort for themselves, and might resort to old-style searat treachery to gain it, even if that meant jeopardizing all for which Tratton had worked so hard. Those traitors would reveal themselves openly now. And then ...

Tratton glanced once again at the floor lever along the left side of his throne. It would be a gambit, he knew. This arrangement had never been tested, and if it failed, then this day would be his last, and his empire most likely would be doomed.

But if it did work, seasons would pass before any rat dared challenge his authority again. Those still loyal to him would only have their awe and devotion deepened, but all would fear his power - just as it was meant to be.

As the first distant murmur of many voices echoed down the corridor into the throne room, Tratton stood, alone save for his wits and his preparations. He wanted to appear as unthreatening as possible. Some of his staunchest guards undoubtedly would have stood by him, even to the death, but Tratton would need those loyal rats more than ever if he survived the coming confrontation. Let their lives be spared now, and afterwards they would be even more grateful to their master.

Nearly a score of searats filed into the ornately-tiled throne room, some clomping heavy boots against the geometric stone designs underfoot while others clicked their unshod claws upon the smooth floor. None held a rank lower than lieutenant, and every rebel brandished at least one weapon. Their manner was hesitant, in spite of their numbers and arms. Perhaps they still retained some respectful fear of their all-powerful ratlord, or perhaps they were merely surprised that they'd penetrated so far into Tratton's inner sanctum without having to fight their way through layers of the Searat King's security forces.

The apparent leader of this insurrection stopped halfway into the spacious chamber, his supporters at his back. The audience hall was a perfect cube, unadorned by rugs or hangings, or any furniture save the throne itself. The rebels stared at their emperor across that emptiness.

"We came t' talk, Tratton!" the leader barked.

"Is that so, Captain Struss my old friend? You look like you have more than talking on your minds."

Struss and the others seemed unsure about Tratton's assured demeanor, standing before them alone and unarmed and yet apparently unconcerned for his safety. A few cast anxious glances toward the walls, half-expecting Tratton's bodyguards to come spilling out at them from secret passageways. Perhaps suspecting some such trap, the rebels did not move farther into the chamber, staying close to the room's only door in case they needed to stage a hasty retreat.

"We know what happened at Salamandastron," Struss said. "Word's all over th' island, an' on ev'ry vessel docked at Terramort. You cost us four of our biggest ships, an' a thousand an' a half of our mateys with yer foolish bid t' take that accursed chunk o' rock!"

"MY ships!" Tratton roared. "Those were my ships, and my rats too, since every one of 'em had sworn its fealty to me! Or do you claim some special kinship to them over and above your King's?"

New traces of nervousness appeared on some of the faces behind Struss. Didn't Tratton realize they'd come here to kill him? How could he remain so confident? Had he truly gone mad, as some of the rumors maintained?

Struss and a few of his fellow captains remained uncowed by Tratton's show of authority. "Well, y' ain't our King no more, not after th' disaster you led us inta! That's what we came t' tell ya!"

"No longer King?" Tratton feigned genuine surprise, glancing from one captain to another. "But, if not me, then who? You, Struss? Or you, Turkin? What about you, Kozma? Or maybe you, Mobus? You all obviously plotted amongst yourselves before coming up here. Surely you settled upon which of you would become the new King?" Tratton's tone of gentility turned to a snarl. "Of course you didn't! You would cut off the head of your body and leave yourselves in ruin! How long would it be before you and your crews turned on each other in the power struggle to determine which of you would succeed me? My guess is, before my body has even grown cold! Terramort would be lucky to survive intact! And you dare accuse me of leading our kind to disaster?"

Tratton's mocking scorn enraged several of the senior captains, who stepped toward the throne dais, cutlasses and rapiers raised menacingly. Tratton stopped them with an imperiously upraised paw.

"Hear me well! Any rat among you who would sit upon this throne in my place had best know the secrets of Terramort! I will share one of these with you now. And if I deem there stands a rat before me who can use that secret to his benefit better than I, then perhaps I will agree to step down to make room for that rat as my successor ... "

Tratton's left paw closed around the waist-high lever at his side. "Somewhere below this fortress is a boulder of immense proportions, big as this room and heavier than ten fully-laden galleons. For seasons now that boulder has balanced upon a fine ledge, awaiting only the slightest of pushes to send it tumbling into the deep chasm below it. One thrust of this lever, and the boulder will fall."

It was clear from the faces before him that the implications of this statement were utterly lost upon his listeners. "Yeah, so?" Struss growled.

With his right paw, Tratton gestured about them. "Laid into the floor and walls of this chamber, hidden among the tiles, is a network of extremely fine and unimaginably tough wire, of the sort usually used for garroting, only thinner and stronger. If used for such purposes, a grown rat could probably take another beast's head clean off."

Still the faces of his would-be killers remained blank. "And?" Struss demanded.

"And, those wires are tied to the boulder."

Tratton pushed the lever home.

It took several heartbeats for the rumble to make itself heard and felt, as the unseen boulder in the depths of the isle toppled from its precarious perch and plummeted into its subterranean grave.

It took another several heartbeats after that for the razor-sharp steel wires, drawn savagely forth from their inlaid hiding places by the inexorable pull of their mammoth counterweight, to slice through the room from almost every angle. Only the throne dais upon which Tratton stood was spared from this unyielding dance of death. The rebel rats before him, standing alert with ears cocked at the first sound of the earth-shaking rumble coming from far below them, barely had time to twitch before the deathtrap was sprung.

Tratton's breath caught as the suddenly-released stench of death filled the throne room and assailed his nostrils. Not a single rat among his challengers was intact. Head, arms, legs, tails and bisected torsos lay scattered on the floor before him in a spreading soup of blood and gore - all that was left of this sorry rebellion.

No, not quite all. Near the throne room doorway stood a rat Tratton recognized as Frocco, first mate under the now-deceased Captain Alterig of the raider galleon Bloodrudder. Frocco's right arm had been severed just below the elbow, robbing the rebel rat of both paw and weapon. He seemed in a state of mute shock - which was only natural.

Tratton stepped off the throne dais and walked across the large room toward the immobilized Frocco, his unshod footpaws squelching in the sea of blood and viscera. The Searat King made no attempt to avoid the gore, since no clean spot remained anywhere on the floor. He just made sure to avoid the larger pieces of the carcasses which might have caused him to trip and fall into the mess. The fresh death felt warm and vital against his soles and between his toes, but Tratton made sure to carry his tail high; soiled footpaws were one thing, but he hated a dirty tail.

In the back of his mind, in an almost surreal departure from his present surroundings, Tratton hearkened back to his days as a young deckpaw, when the derisive older crewrats had saddled him with the name Whiteclaw due to the dried sea salt that always seemed to accumulate on his footpaws no matter how often he washed them. If only those long-gone tormentors could see him now, they would be calling him Redclaw instead.

Redclaw. He liked the sound of that. Perhaps he would use that name for his new flagship.

Tratton stopped before Frocco. "It was very foolhardy of you to involve yourself in this," he said to the maimed first mate. "The question you must ask yourself now is, do you want to live past this day?"

Frocco merely nodded, still unable to find his voice.

"Then do exactly what I say ... " Tratton undid Frocco's belt and tied it around the bleeding stump as a tourniquet. The Searat King took no great care to avoid getting Frocco's blood on his royal tunic, and by the time he'd finished tending the other's wound, dark crimson liberally streaked the fine garment.

"There. That ought to keep you alive long enough to get down to the sick bay." Tratton drew his dagger. "Now, open your mouth wide and stick out your tongue."

Frocco hesitated, knowing what was to come. In a flash, Tratton had the tip of his blade pressed against the usurper's throat.

"Do ... you ... want ... to ... live?"

Slowly, Frocco lowered his jaw and extended his tongue.

With one deft swipe, Tratton sliced off the protruding member, then tossed the severed tongue over his shoulder to land among the rest of the carnage with a wet slap. More blood spattered the front of his tunic as a result of this endeavor.

"Run along now," Tratton encouraged the mute, maimed rebel. "And consider this the luckiest day of your life."

00000000000

After Frocco was gone, Tratton summoned Malvarkis, the head of his personal guard. Malvarkis was visibly surprised to see his master still alive, and stunned speechless by the sight of the carnage filling the throne room.

"Round up every officer of every ship currently in port," Tratton ordered, "along with every officer of the Terramort island forces. Those that are still alive, at any rate. Have them brought up here, and make sure each one gets a good look at this chamber."

"Yes, Your Majesty!"

For the rest of that day and into the evening, the remaining captains and subcommanders on the island were methodically paraded past the throne room. These were the officers who'd either remained loyal to Tratton in the face of the plot against him, or who'd sat on the fence, waiting to choose a side until a clear victor had emerged in this attempted coup. Each one saw their grim sea lord seated upon his royal throne, paws and tunic stained with gore as he wordlessly surveyed the nightmarish scene spread out before him. Tratton made sure to meet each rat's mortified gaze with an unflinching one of his own. He never spoke a word to any of them, for no words were necessary to put across the message he meant to convey.

Oppose me, and this is what you may expect.

When the last wide-eyed, slack-jawed witness was led away by Malvarkis and his guards, Tratton rose from his regal chair and strode through the butchery mayhem once more. The stench was overpowering now, forcing him to breathe through his mouth to keep from growing nauseous, and the sticky-cooled blood underpaw felt sickening rather than exhilarating. Even after a thorough cleanup, this chamber would reek for days. Issuing orders for the slaughter in his royal audience chamber to be cleared away at last and for the floors to be swabbed spotless, Tratton tramped his way toward his private apartments, leaving bloody pawprints in his wake. He spared not a care for this further mess; somebeast would be sure to clean up after him.

00000000000

"So, the conquering hero has survived with his rule of terror intact."

Tratton, fresh from a hot bath and a change of his imperial garments, regarded his wife with a liberal helping of jaundice in his green-and-lavender gaze. "Your spies must be good, Regelline, given that you have not set foot outside this suite since this morning. Dare I ask which side you were on in that little uprising we had today?"

"Dare you hope for an honest answer if I was foolish enough to back the losing side?" she shot back.

"Touche. But you were no fool when you agreed to be my queen ... and as long as no embarrassing evidence comes to light linking you to this ill-advised conspiracy, you may continue to hold that title."

"Just how did you do it, anyway? Slay a roomful of armed challengers who wanted you dead, after sending away all your bodyguards?"

"Don't you mean, our bodyguards?" He stepped over to her and, even though they were alone in their restricted-access apartments, leaned in close to whisper in her ear. "I do have my secrets, my dear - even from you. Let's just say I like to be prepared for every contingency."

"Prepared, huh? Like you were prepared when you took four dreadnoughts to Salamandastron, and lost them all?"

Tratton grimaced, fangs slightly exposed in a half-snarl. "Urthblood used unforeseen tactics on us. How was I to know he had forged an alliance with the seagulls, or taught them how to drop fire from the sky?"

"Perhaps if your spies were as good as mine ... "

Tratton wanted to snap back at her, but the galling truth was that Regelline was right. He should have known about the Urthblood-seagull alliance before he'd directly assaulted Salamandastron. He'd been so busy spying on his own rats - and so confident in the ability of the stormpowder to bring the Badger Lord to his knees - that he'd never imagined he could fail in either arena. Of course, if he'd not attacked Urthblood head-on, he would still have had to find some other way to confront his badger foe; after the losses of the first two dreadnoughts and the lumber compound, inaction on his part would have guaranteed an insurrection as surely as his terrible miscalculation in battle. At least his investment in spies among his own kind had paid off. He was alive, and those who thought to replace him were not.

"You are not made of steel, however much you might like to pretend or believe you are," Regelline pressed on. "You are still vulnerable. No Searat King has ever lost as much in his entire reign as you have in just the past season."

"That is only because I had more to lose in the first place. The dreadnoughts, the ironclads and submersibles, the mainland and island compounds, the stormpowder, our ports and shipyards and workshops, this fortress - all mine! None of it would exist without my vision and leadership!"

"Your vision and leadership are now very much in question, after the disaster you brought down upon us."

"I still rule the seas, and Terramort. My two remaining dreadnoughts alone are a greater naval force than most historical searat fleets in their entirety. Then there are the galleons and frigates, the ironclads, and our land-based forces ... and after today, none will dare challenge me for the throne!"

"They may not voice their doubts or designs aloud, my dear husband, but it would be a mistake to assume their dissent has been entirely dispelled. Perhaps a fatal one."

"And what would you have me do about it, my sweet scorpion? Purge the remaining officers, and appoint an entirely new command staff, right down to every captain, boson and third mate?"

"They followed you because you promised them greatness!" Regelline exhorted. "The terror you wielded was always necessary to keep any would-be usurpers in line, but most would have followed you anyway! There is only one way for you to survive this setback in the long term, and that is to show them greatness once more! You must present them with a victory so staggering that it will blind them to the debacle of Salamandastron, dazzle them with a light of triumph that will banish all memories of defeat from their minds! Then none would dare oppose you, not even if you rule for another ten seasons, and another ten after that!"

"Oh? And what shall this victory be?"

"That's for you to decide," she said as she stalked toward her private rooms. "You're the King, after all. You can't expect me to do all your thinking for you!"

00000000000

Clucus the engineer ferret stepped hesitantly into Tratton's throne room, gently but insistently urged forward by the two palace guards who'd escorted him here. By now, word of the massacre which had taken place in this chamber two days earlier had penetrated even down to the workshop caves where Clucus toiled, and some of the rumors were quite preposterous.

"Th' King, 'ee slew 'em all single-pawed!"

"Aye, 'tis true! Sent all 'is guards away, an' faced them rebels all by 'imself, alone!"

"I heard he hypnotized 'em, so that they'd stand stock still while he hacked 'em t' bits! 'Ee c'n do that, y' know - it's them green 'n' purple eyes o' his!"

"Oh? Well, I 'eard 'ee c'n move so fast that 'ee just lit inta 'em like furred lightnin', an' had 'em all slain 'fore any o' their blades could touch 'im!"

"Well, all I knows is not a one o' them traitors made it outta there alive!"

"'cept fer Frocco. He got off lucky, losin' just his paw an' his tongue. Too bad he can't tell us what really happened up there ... "

"Poor Frocks! Th' horror still ain't left 'is face! Dunno if 'ee could speak on what 'ee saw, even if'n 'ee did still 'ave 'is tongue!"

"Poor Frocks is right. Don't be surprised if'n we're usin' that rat fer target practice 'fore th' season's out. Not much use fer a mute, one-pawed turncoat in King Tratton's service ... "

And thus was the living legend of the sea lord perpetuated. Clucus knew better, of course - mainly since he was the one who'd designed and rigged the throne room death trap for Tratton in the first place. Clucus's unique mechanical genius was not confined to the building of ships alone. And when the blond ferret had heard about the slaughter, he knew exactly what had happened.

He had not, however, known what to expect upon entering the scene of such gruesome bloodshed. Clucus should have guessed that Tratton's palace attendants, efficient as usual, would have the gory mess cleared away in good time so that the royal audience chamber would be usable again. His nose wrinkled in a trepidatious sniff, but he was not hit by any overpowering stench of death or decay, just the faint tangy whiff of spilled blood mingled with an underlying essence of exposed gut and bowel. Clucus was impressed that this would be the only trace evidence a mere two days after what must have been a nightmarish scene of carnage in this windowless room.

Clucus felt an inexplicable relief that Tratton stood waiting to receive him in the middle of the floor, halfway between his throne dais and the doorway. The ferret knew the trap here could not have been reset without his help, and probably not even with it, since the boulder counterweight was now toppled from its fulcrum into a useless and irretrievable position. The sprung steel razor wires must have been cut away, since there would have been no other way to get rid of them and Tratton wouldn't want to risk accidental contact with the nearly invisible filaments. Of course, if the trained swordsbeast before him wanted Clucus dead, he wouldn't need any hidden trap to accomplish that goal; the ferret engineer wouldn't stand a chance against Tratton in any fair fight. Not that Tratton fought fair ...

"I trust, um, that my arrangements here, uh, worked to yer satisfaction, Lord?"

"They did their job splendidly," Tratton replied with barely a trace of a smile; Clucus read at once that the Searat King was in a businesslike mood. "You are to be commended for your ingenuity."

"T'was yer idea, majesty - I just figgered out th' mechanics of makin' it go, as t'were. Um, didja hafta use any of the other, ah, surprises I installed fer you?"

"Now you're prying, my friend."

"Oh, um ... sorry, M'Lord. Ferget I asked ... "

"I will. Now, I trust you have heard by now what happened at Salamandastron?"

"Beasts are talkin', Yer Highness. But down there, y' can never know what t' credit as true an' what ain't ... "

"Urthblood is using birds in his military now," Tratton stated. "We've long known he was using them for reconnaissance and message-bearing, just a few of them, but now he has hordes of savage gulls trained to rain fire down upon my ships. This alliance was unanticipated."

"So, it is true that all four dreadnoughts were lost?" Clucus asked timidly, fearing the rat King's reaction.

"Such a thing must never be allowed to happen again," Tratton replied, indirectly answering the dread question. "I have two dreadnoughts left to me, with a third nearing completion in the shipyards. But there is no reason to believe our smaller frigates and galleons would not be equally vulnerable to these new tactics of Urthblood's. For this reason, I must now issue orders that all ships in our fleet stay well away from Salamandastron, as much as it galls me to do so. By all rights, my will should be law right up to the coastline, and even past it in some places. But now, there are sea lanes I dare not use for fear of what Urthblood might unleash upon my vessels. He has taken away part of my territory, told me where I may and may not venture in my own maritime realm!"

Tratton took a deep breath to calm himself. "But even if I keep all my forces far from Salamandastron, will that be enough? How far out to sea will Urthblood dispatch his fire-dropping gulls to attack me? Will he build boats of his own, a woodlander navy to challenge me at sea? Will he seek to storm the very gates of Terramort itself? I would not put it past him ... "

"Majesty! Surely the badger's power has not grown so great?"

"This is Urthblood we are talking about. The question facing us now is, what can we do to ensure that such a thing never happens?"

"Um ... er ... I'll hafta give th' matter some thought, M'Lord ... "

"I have already done some of your thinking for you, my friend. I will tell you what I need, and you will tell me whether you can provide it for me ... just like you did for my little surprise that I shared with the traitors in here two days ago."

Clucus nodded. This was often how their professional relationship worked: Tratton would approach him with a rough idea of what he wanted done and how, and leave it to the ferret to work out all the details and make his concept a reality. This method had always produced results before.

"My newer steel ships would not be vulnerable to this form of attack as my wooden vessels are," Tratton began. "However, until my stockpiles of metal ores are increased dramatically, I will not be able to withdraw my dreadnoughts and galleons and frigates from active service. Let us therefore work with what we have. It appears Urthblood is intent upon setting afire every ship of mine that comes within his range, from the sails down. Is there any way of treating canvas so that it can be made fireproof, or at least more resistant to flame, without losing so much of its pliancy that it cannot still be used for sails?"

Clucus stroked his chin. An interesting challenge - his favorite kind. "I'll hafta do some experimentin', Sire."

"You'll be provided with whatever you need. And I want you to look into fireproofing wood as well. All the gulls between here and Hellsgates won't do Urthblood any good if our ships won't burn for him!"

"Excellent ideas, Majesty!"

"In the meantime, the stormpowder remains our most potent weapon. I saw with my own eyes what happens when flames reach the main powder magazines aboard the dreadnoughts. Do you think it would be possible to isolate the magazines from the rest of the ships' structures with steel firedoors and firewalls, without jeopardizing the vessels' seaworthiness by overloading them with too much weight?"

"It should be, M'Lord. Again, I'll hafta run some calculations, mebbe make some models ... "

"You do that. Ideally, I would like to retrofit every galleon and frigate in the fleet so that each can carry a secure stock of stormpowder in her armories, along with at least one catapult apiece. The more independent captains might balk at being made to carry the explosive, but then I've already taken care of the worst of that rabble, haven't I? At least all of those who would have opposed me openly ... and it was time I shortened their leashes anyway. Some of these old-time corsair captains barely tolerated me as their King, going their own way more often than not. Well, no more! From this day forward, every searat ship is under the commission of Terramort, and every crewrat aboard them is a soldier of my royal navy! And any captain who doesn't like it can face execution for treason!"

Clucus merely nodded; these matters lay outside his area of expertise.

"I was also wondering whether there might be some way to utilize the explosive capability of the stormpowder to greater effect. Right now we're just lobbing lit casks of the stuff the same way we would ordinary rocks. A beast with good speed and eyesight would have a decent chance at dodging them. Perhaps a more direct means of delivery, like an oversized slingshot or mounted on a giant crossbow ... "

"I dunno. Range wouldn't be as great as with a catapult ... "

"Well, it's something for you to consider. Now, as to the matter of communication. It occurred to me during my long voyage back to Terramort that this is an area in which Urthblood commands an overwhelming advantage. When he attacked our timber mill and sank two of our dreadnoughts last season, I didn't even know about it until the survivors who escaped on the Butcher Buoy were able to make their way back here and report to me directly. And if I hadn't sailed with my assault force to Salamandastron aboard the Wedge, I might still be wondering what had happened there. Urthblood, by contrast, is never more than a day away from knowing what is going on in any part of his domain. Even before his alliance with the gulls, that badger had birds working for him that could traverse all of Mossflower in a single day, or cover the distance from the Northlands to Southsward in the time between a single sunrise and sunset. In terms of real distance, my empire with all its islands and mainland encampments covers a far vaster area than Urthblood's ever will - and yet I am, for all of my spies, virtually deaf and blind as to what is going on in it at any given moment! Indeed, how can I be certain as I stand here talking to you now that my marble quarries on Karnavat have not fallen to a slave rebellion, or that my captains on Sampetra have not broken from my empire, or that Urthblood is not burning my crop tracts on Talaga, my fishing ports on Desta, or my mining camps on Baro? How do I know my lumber mill above Southsward has not been overrun by woodlanders, or the one on the shores of the eastern sea wiped out by Gawtrybe? This situation is clearly untenable under present circumstances, and I can ignore it no longer."

Clucus was at a loss now; as far as he could tell, this was not a matter that had anything to do with him. "You gonna try 'n' get some bird spies of yer own, M'Lord?"

"If I can keep my numbskulled crews from eating every one they see, then perhaps, in time. But time is not a luxury I have in abundance at the moment. Can you design me a fleet of small, swift messenger craft that can skim across the waves like the wind itself, and cover the distances between my outposts in a fraction of the time that any of my present vessels could?"

"Um, what size crew?"

"I don't care if it's three or thirty or three hundred - whatever will go fastest. Speed is all I care about."

"Ah. I'll hafta play 'round with some diff'rent design's, o' course, but I'm sure I can come up with sumpthin' ... "

"If you can't, then nobeast can. I can tell you are eager to get to work on these various assignments, but there is one thing more. The Wedge served me well at Salamandastron. I will need more such ships. In time, I may wish to make them the main component of my fleet. My question is, how large could you build such a vessel - a wooden ship braced and shielded with steel, or something like our defender submersibles, cast entirely from steel? Could you build a warship as big as, say, a dreadnought?"

The ferret's eyes went wide. "A dreadnought? Majesty, there ain't that much steel in all th' world!"

"You let me worry about getting you the steel you need. Just concentrate on the tasks I have set for you. I have the utmost confidence in your ability, Clucus."

The engineer stumbled from the throne room, head fairly swimming. His King certainly had given him much to consider.

00000000000

For all that he'd assigned Clucus, for all the grand ambitions that those individual endeavors might collectively accumulate to in time, Tratton realized that none of these projects would deliver him any kind of quick and overwhelming victory. As much as he hated to admit it, Regelline was right about that, if nothing else. With the massacre of the traitors, he had reasserted his grip of terror over his subjects, but that alone would not sustain his rule indefinitely. He needed some triumph he could show his soldiers and officers. Or, at the very least, he needed to make them think such a triumph was imminent.

It went without saying that both dreadnoughts and nearly all of his frigates and galleons were currently in port at Terramort. Of course the rebels had waited to move against him until they were assured of having the majority of his fleet's surviving officers on their side. Between the commanders who had been lost in the various clashes with Urthblood and now this latest purge, it was a time for many promotions. His remaining ships still needed captains and lieutenants and first mates, and Tratton's army of spies told him which rats among the lower ranks were most ideal for this honor.

Now, the promotions having been made, Tratton took the next step, convening a strategy meeting of all his captains, old and new alike. Such councils were normally held once or twice a season anyway, but in light of recent events, this would be the first time many of them would be attending such a session.

The long and sterile conference room of Terramort, dominated by an equally long table of the same white marble, was built into the east face of the terraced fortress palace. On sunny mornings such as this, the wide windows admitted enough light to illuminate the austerely magnificent chamber to an almost blinding brilliance. Rather than take a place at one end of the table, Tratton traditionally seated himself with his back to the window at the midpoint of one long side. This allowed him to look across into the well-lit faces of his subordinates and read them for any signs of betrayal. Those commanders he knew to be loyal were seated on his side of the table - not that that stopped Tratton from positioning two of his most trustworthy bodyguards at either paw, just in case.

When the meeting commenced, Tratton spoke not a word about what had happened in the throne room. Nearly every rat present had beheld the aftermath of that incident, and if they hadn't a clue as to how the Searat King had prevailed against such overwhelming odds, well, that was all the better as far as Tratton was concerned. Let that be the unspoken shibbolith in the room, the dread mystery hanging over this assembly and weighing upon every mind, sowing doubts and uncertainties among any who might contemplate traitorous thoughts.

"As you all know," Tratton began, "the badger Urthblood has declared war on our great empire, not through formal pronouncement but by sneak attack. This treachery will not stand. Urthblood is strong, and crafty, that cannot be denied - but he is not powerful enough to bring down the kingdom of the searats! The setbacks we suffered as a result of his latest trap made some in my ranks doubt my leadership. Now that those doubts - and the doubters - have been removed, it is time for those of us who have weathered this storm of disloyalty to move forward with renewed confidence in our purpose, to recommit ourselves to our goals."

He had their complete attention. Had they expected him to crawl meekly out of his isolation to admit defeat? Did they believe Urthblood had dealt them a fatal blow? Whether out of fear or defeatism, none made any attempt to add their voice to the proceedings ... which suited Tratton just fine, since he planned to do all the talking here.

"Urthblood is using birds as a weapon now, rendering all of our traditional wood craft vulnerable - even the dreadnoughts. This makes him invulnerable to us. We will not be able to take Salamandastron away from him with our present naval forces, and it will be some time before we will be equipped to challenge him directly again. For now, we must concentrate on how we will deal with these new circumstances until our navy can be overhauled and modernized to meet this new reality.

"Only one ship of mine survived the battle at Salamandastron - the Wedge. An ironclad. This leads me to believe, as I have suspected all along, that this type of vessel is beyond Urthblood's capacity to destroy, even with his fire-dropping seagulls. We must build more such ships if we are to retain our supremacy at sea. More, and bigger. Indeed, I have already issued orders that the dreadnought nearing completion in our shipyards now will be the last of its kind. Henceforth, all our shipbuilding energies will be directed toward craft that can neither burn nor be holed by otters. With a fleet of such ships at our command, and the stormpowder as our fearsome weapon of obliteration, even Urthblood will in time be brought down before our might!"

No other rat present dared say a word against this strategy or question its wisdom, not after the exuberance with which Tratton had outlined his vision for the future. But neither did they applaud or shout out in support of their emperor's plans. Uncertainty lay plain on every face ... except for the various bodyguards in the room, whose stony expressions of attention remained forever unreadable.

"Obviously, it will take seasons for such a goal to become a reality. In the meantime, we must cope with the situation as best we can. Which is why I already have Clucus looking into ways of fireproofing wood and canvas so that our current fleet will be less susceptible to this kind of attack. We will still have to stay well clear of Salamandastron, but until Urthblood makes it clear just how far out to sea he will send his gulls in pursuit of us, this will be a wise precaution to take. Clucus is also going to experiment with new methods of delivering the stormpowder, and I am hereby ordering every ship of the fleet refitted to carry at least one catapult, and a stock of stormpowder stored in a special steel-lined hold that will make it less vulnerable to attack using fire. Urthblood has seen the stormpowder in use; now let us reveal the full power of our ultimate weapon to everybeast who might oppose us, wherever we sail or put ashore!"

Tratton looked to his trusted spymaster Uroza, who was responsible not only for rooting out and quelling dissent within Tratton's own ranks but also for gathering intelligence from regions not under searat control. Along with the captain of Tratton's personal guard Malvarkis, Uroza was one of the few rats the Searat King felt he could count on without reservation.

"Clucus is also designing a fleet of small, fast messenger boats we can use to improve communications between our ships, islands and mainland colonies. We must be able to know what is happening in the far reaches of our realm without the unacceptable delays of up to a season that we have now. Uroza, I will be placing this messenger fleet under your direct command. Crew and staff them with your own paw-picked rats, ones who will know that their reports and observations are more important than staging raids or going after spoils."

"Aye, Majesty. I might need t' recruit some new members, dependin' on how many o' these liddle boats ye're gonna have built."

"There is no doubt you will," Tratton said to the dark spyrat, "because I am assigning you another task as well. I want you to dispatch teams of your scoutrats to the mainland, to be landed north and south of Salamandastron or up the rivers so that they can infiltrate far into Mossflower, Southsward and the Northlands. You may have the use of one or two of our submersibles if it can be arranged. It may take a season or two, but I want to know everything that is happening behind the coastlands - where the main concentrations of creatures are, what are their strengths and weaknesses, spots that might be advantageous for us to strike or to establish strongholds of our own."

Tratton swept his gaze slowly up and down the line of his captains' faces. "Urthblood has made it abundantly clear that we cannot assail him at the seat of his power. So be it. Then we will simply go around Salamandastron, and strike at Mossflower directly!"