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A Mighty Fortress: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Monday, January 18, 2010 07:49 EST



Duchy of Eastshare,
Kingdom of Chisholm

    “So,” General Sir Kynt Clareyk, Imperial Charisian Army, late Brigadier Clareyk of the Imperial Charisian Marines and recently knighted and ennobled as the Baron of Green Valley, said as he poured wine into his guest’s cup, “what do you think, Seijin Merlin?”

    “Of what, My Lord?” the tall, blue-eyed Imperial Guardsman in the black and gold of the House of Ahrmahk asked mildly.

    He picked up his cup and sipped appreciatively. Clareyk’s taste in wine had always been good, and his promotion hadn’t changed the ex-Marine in that respect. Or in any other respect that Merlin Athrawes could see. He was still the same competent officer he’d always been, with the same willingness to roll up his sleeves and dig into a new assignment. The tent in which they currently sat while icy autumn rain pounded down against its (nominally) waterproofed canvas canopy was evidence of that. The day after tomorrow would be Cayleb and Sharleyan Ahrmahk’s first anniversary, which also made it the anniversary of the creation of the Empire of Charis, and Merlin couldn’t help comparing the chill, wet misery outside Green Valley’s tent to the brilliant sunshine, tropical heat, and flowers of that wedding day.

    The difference was . . . pronounced, and while Green Valley might be a mere baron, and one of the Empire’s most recently created peers to boot (he’d held his new title for less than four five-days, after all), it was no secret Emperor Cayleb and Empress Sharleyan both thought very highly of him. In fact, it was no secret that he’d been hauled back to Chisholm from the newly conquered (more or less) Princedom of Corisande precisely because of how highly they regarded him. Given all of that, one might reasonably have assumed that a man with his connections could have found comfortable quarters in the nearby city of Maikelberg rather than ending up stuck under canvas with winter coming on quickly.

    And a northern winter, at that, Merlin thought dryly, glancing at the large, dripping spot in one corner of the tent where its roof’s theoretical waterproofing had proved unequal to the heavy rain. He’s a southern boy, when all’s said and done, and he’s not going to enjoy winter in Chisholm one bit. The rain’s bad enough, but there’s worse coming. Snow? What’s that?!

    Which, as Merlin understood perfectly well, was the real reason Green Valley had taken up residence in this tent instead of a luxurious townhouse, or at least a comfortable room in one of the city’s more respectable inns. An awful lot of other Charisian ex-Marines were about to spend a Chisholmian winter under less than ideal conditions, and Green Valley wouldn’t be moving out of his tent until the last man under his command had been provided with dry, warm space of his own in the barracks being hastily thrown up.

    “‘Of what,’ is it?” the general repeated now, sitting back in his folding camp chair beside the cast-iron stove which was doing its best — successfully, at the moment — to maintain a fairly comfortable temperature inside the tent. “Now, let me see . . . what could I possibly have been asking about? Hmmm . . . .”

    He frowned in obvious, difficult thought, scratching his chin with his eyes screwed half- shut, and Merlin chuckled. There weren’t all that many people on the planet of Safehold who felt comfortable enough with the fearsome Seijin Merlin to give him grief, and he treasured the ones who did.

    “All right, My Lord!” He acknowledged defeat with a grin, then let the grin fade slowly. “Actually,” he went on in a considerably more serious tone, “I’ve been impressed. You and Duke Eastshare seem to be managing the integration process even more smoothly and quickly than Their Majesties had anticipated. It’s my impression that you’re basically comfortable with the emerging command relationships, as well.”

    His tone made the final sentence a question, and Green Valley snorted.

    “I’d expected a somewhat more . . . visionary comment out of you, Merlin,” he said. “In fact, I’m a little surprised His Majesty felt it was necessary to send you all the way up here to look things over with your own eyes, as it were.”

    Merlin managed not to wince, although that was coming to the point with a vengeance. On the other hand, it was a reasonable enough observation, given that Green Valley was one of the relatively small number of people who knew Seijin Merlin was far more than merely Emperor Cayleb Ahrmahk’s personal armsman and bodyguard.

    Over the last few years, virtually everyone in what had become the Empire of Charis had learned that all of the old fables and fairytales about the legendary seijin warrior-monks were not only true, but actually understated their lethality. There was absolutely no question in anyone’s mind that Seijin Merlin was the most deadly bodyguard any Charisian monarch had ever possessed. Given the number of assassination attempts he’d thwarted, and not just on the emperor, it was no wonder he was kept constantly at Cayleb’s back, watching over him, protecting him both in the council chamber and on the field of battle.

    But what Green Valley knew — and very few of his fellow Charisians even suspected — was that Cayleb and Sharleyan had another and very special reason for keeping Merlin so close.

    The seijin had visions. He could see and hear far distant events, know what was happening thousands of miles away even as it happened. His ability to literally sit in on the war councils and political deliberations of Charis’ enemies was a priceless advantage for the beleaguered empire, and his role as Cayleb’s bodyguard was a perfect cover. He truly was the deadly and efficient guardian everyone thought he was, but that very deadliness provided ample reason for his permanent proximity to Cayleb and Sharleyan. After all, not even a seijin could protect someone from an assassin if he wasn’t there to do the protecting, now could he? And so any potentially suspicious souls understood exactly why Captain Athrawes, with his eyes of “unearthly seijin blue,” was constantly at the emperor’s elbow, and it obviously had nothing at all to do with visions. Merlin was a bodyguard, not an adviser and an oracle. Any village idiot could figure that much out!

    Green Valley knew better than that. Indeed, he’d come to suspect that Merlin was as much mentor as adviser. That most of the radical innovations which had provided the margin — so far — for Charis’ survival in the face of its enemies’ overwhelming numerical advantages had come from the seijin’s “suggestions” to the Charisians who had actually developed them into workable propositions. The baron suspected that for the excellent reason that he’d been one of those Charisians. It had been Green Valley, as a major in the Royal Charisian Marines, who’d played the lead role in developing revolutionary new infantry tactics built around the field artillery and rifled flintlock muskets which had “just happened” to appear in Charis shortly after one Merlin Athrawes’ arrival. He’d worked closely with Merlin in the process of accomplishing that task, and they’d worked even more closely together, in many ways, during the Corisande campaign. In fact, the victory which had won Green Valley his title (and his knighthood) and sealed Prince Hektor of Corisande’s defeat had been possible only because Merlin had revealed his ability to see visions to him.

    And, so, yes — Baron Green Valley knew far more than the vast majority of his fellow subjects about Merlin Athrawes. But what he didn’t know — what Merlin devoutly hoped he didn’t even suspect — was how much more Merlin truly was.

    I’d really like to get him added to the inner circle, the seijin reflected, and I know Cayleb and Sharleyan both agree with me, too. In fact, I think we have to get him added. It simply doesn’t make sense not to bring him all the way inside, and I don’t think we have to worry about any crises of religious conscience on his part.

    That last thought really did almost make him wince, given its direct bearing on the reason he was here.

    “Their Majesties actually sent me for several reasons, My Lord,” he said. “One of them, in many ways probably the most important, was to let me evaluate your progress — yours and Duke Eastshare’s, I mean — firsthand. When I can actually ask questions, maybe even make a few suggestions in His Majesty’s name. It’s hard to do that if all you’re doing is watching a vision.”

    “I can see where that would be true,” Green Valley agreed. He didn’t seem at all upset by the notion of Merlin’s “evaluating” his progress in his new assignment, the seijin noted.



    “And the second reason, almost equally important,” Merlin admitted, “is to get me close enough to Eastshare to . . . interact with him.”

    This time, Green Valley only nodded. Merlin wasn’t especially surprised — the baron had always been an astute and diplomatic fellow. He understood that, even with him, Merlin could scarcely come right out and say “They want me to see whether or not Eastshare is a traitor . . . too.”

    The good news was that Merlin was almost certain Eastshare wasn’t. The bad news was that, despite all the seijin’s “unfair” advantages, Merlin was only almost certain he wasn’t. And, unfortunately, the fact that the duke was effectively Empress Sharleyan’s uncle by marriage, that he was the brother-in-law of the recently deceased Duke of Halbrook Hollow, and that he’d been Halbrook Hollow’s senior general, second in command of the Royal Chisholmian Army, for the better part of fifteen years, meant that “almost certain” wasn’t nearly good enough.

    Not in the wake of Halbrook Hollow’s treason.

    “May I ask what your impressions have been so far?” Green Valley asked politely. “In a general sense, of course. I wouldn’t want to ask you to get too specific about any particularly deserving ex-Marines — assuming there are any of those around, of course — and embarrass me with your effusive praise,” he added, and Merlin snorted.

    “You know, My Lord,” the seijin said in an almost meditative tone, “I’ve always heard that a certain . . . brashness, one might say, is an integral part of any Marine’s personality. You wouldn’t happen to know how that rumor might have gotten started, would you?”

    “Me?” Green Valley widened his eyes innocently. “I’m not a Marine, Seijin Merlin! I’m an officer in the Imperial Army. In fact, I’ve got a written commission around here somewhere to prove it. So what would a bluff, honest, naturally modest Army officer know about Marines and their overinflated self-images?”

    “Oh, an excellent point,” Merlin agreed. “I can’t imagine what could have come over me to ask such a question.”

    “I should certainly hope not,” Green Valley said a bit severely as he picked up the wine bottle and topped off Merlin’s cup once more.

    “Well, at any rate, in answer to your question, my impressions so far have been just about universally good.” Merlin’s tone and expression had both turned serious once again. “To be honest, I hadn’t really realized quite how good the Chisholmian Army was. I should have, I suppose, given the role it played under King Sailys. Not to mention keeping Queen Sharleyan on the throne — and alive — after Sailys’ death, of course. I mean, two-thirds of its senior officers are veterans of Sailys’ campaigns, after all, and it’s obvious Eastshare — and Halbrook Hollow, for that matter — did an excellent job of training and equipping them in the first place.”

    Green Valley nodded slowly, his gaze thoughtful, and Merlin shrugged.

    “Obviously,” he continued, “their equipment hasn’t been as good as what we took to Corisande with us — but, then, no one’s has, when you come down to it. And, just as you’ve undoubtedly been discovering, their formations and drill are all oriented around tactics which have just become obsolete. But, again, they’re scarcely alone in that. Given the weapons available to everybody a few years ago, my impression is that Eastshare’s troops could at least hold their own against any of the mainland armies, man-for-man, and probably kick their arses for them, for that matter. Except for Siddarmark, of course.”

    It was Green Valley’s turn to snort. The Republic of Siddarmark’s army was widely acknowledged — with good reason — as the most effective armed force in Safehold’s history. On land, at least. Siddarmark’s navy was virtually nonexistent, and the Royal Charisian Navy had reigned supreme upon Safehold’s seas even before Merlin Athrawes’ arrival in Tellesberg. Anyplace a Siddarmarkian pike phalanx could find a place to stand, though, it reigned supreme. Which explained the Republic’s successful, sustained expansion southward towards the Desnarian Empire over the past hundred and fifty Safeholdian years or so. That expansion had been halted only when the Lords of the Temple Lands guaranteed the frontiers of the Grand Duchy of Silkiah, in the Treaty of Silk Town, in 869.

    Silkiah was at least nominally independent, although its grand duke paid a substantial yearly tribute to Desnair. He also paid one to the Lords of the Temple Lands every year, although that one was called a “tithe” and, until very recently, had been paid by every Safeholdian ruler. Not officially to the “Lords of the Temple Lands,” of course, but that was only because the Lords of the Temple Lands all just happened to be members of the Church of God Awaiting’s Council of Vicars, as well. Their dual role as both secular and temporal rulers gave them a significant unfair advantage, yet it imposed certain disadvantages, as well. Especially now. The Lords of the Temple Lands had been nervous for a long, long time about that magnificent Siddarmarkian army just on the other side of their shared frontier, and over the years, they’d used their power as princes of the Church to help discourage any adventurism on the part of a succession of the Republic’s lords protector. The Treaty of Silk Town might be the most flagrant example of their intervention, but it was scarcely the only one. That hadn’t exactly helped the Church’s relations with the Republic, although it had scarcely seemed likely to provoke an open breach, whatever some of the Vicars might have thought, given the Church’s unassailable supremacy.

    But now . . . now that the Church’s supremacy had been assailed, all of the anxieties which had been entertained by decades of Church chancellors had just acquired an entirely new point. There was no real evidence of any general movement of Siddarmarkians to embrace the Church of Charis, yet that didn’t keep the Group of Four — the quartet of powerful vicars who truly ruled the Church — from worrying about what might yet happen.

    I wish it would happen, Merlin thought more than a bit wistfully, but however much Stohnar resents the Church — or the Group of Four, at least — he’s not about to climb out on a limb with Charis. I don’t think it’s because he disagrees with Charis’ accusations of Church corruption or because he has any illusions about the “sanctity” of the Group of Four and their motivations. But he’s pragmatic as hell, and as well aware of the balance of power as anyone. In fact, he’s better aware of it than almost anyone else. Besides, from what I’ve seen, he doesn’t think any move to break with the Church would find general support in Siddarmark. And, for the moment at least, it looks like he’s right about that.

    “The thing that impresses me most about the Chisholmians, to be honest,” the seijin continued out loud, “is how readily and smoothly they seem to be adapting to the new tactics.”

    He raised one eyebrow at Green Valley, inviting comment, and the baron nodded.

    “You’re right about that,” he agreed. “It seems to me that their officers are grasping the reasons behind the new tactics even faster than our troops did. And they’re not just going through the motions in order to keep Their Majesties happy. For that matter, they’re not even just duplicating what we’ve got to teach them, either. Instead, they’re thinking about why we made the changes we’ve made and looking for ways to make what we’ve already accomplished even more effective.”

    “That’s been my impression, too,” Merlin acknowledged.

    “As a matter of fact, I haven’t seen a sign of what I was most worried about,” Green Valley said. Merlin’s eyebrow rose again, and the baron shrugged. “Charis has never had anything anyone in his right mind would call an ‘army,’ Merlin. We had a navy second to none, and nobody wanted to face our Marines at sea, but in terms of anything a land power would describe as an army, Charis wasn’t even on the map.

    “Here in Chisholm, though,” he continued, sitting back in his chair, his expression intent, “the Army’s clearly the senior service. It was the Army that broke the power of the great nobles and provided the stability here at home that let the Empress’ father — and her, in her turn, of course — build the Kingdom’s prosperity. King Sailys may have started building a navy as soon as he could, since Chisholm needed it to protect its commerce against Corisandian privateers, but it was only the prosperity created by the Army which let him do that. So while we Charisians have tended to lavish our admiration and pride — not to mention the dragon’s share of our wealth — on the Navy, it’s been the other way around in Chisholm.”



    He shrugged again.

    “Under those circumstances, what I was most afraid of was that the Chisholmians would automatically reject our advice about the new tactics. After all, what could a bunch of Marines know about the real conditions and requirements of fighting a war on land? In a lot of ways, that would only have been a reasonable question, too. For that matter, I imagine more than a few Charisian naval officers felt exactly that way where the Chisholmian Navy was concerned, when you come down to it. And the fact that it was our Marines who did all the actual fighting in Corisande — that their Army was completely left out, sitting here at home — could very well have fanned their resentment. Oh, they said they accepted the logistics arguments. That they understood we could only supply so many men across so many miles of ocean, which meant we couldn’t afford to take along anyone who wasn’t already equipped and trained with the new weapons. But I was afraid that, whatever they might have said, they would have resented being treated like some kind of farm team and left sitting in the dugout while the big-league players went off to war.

    “As a matter of fact, that was what I expected to happen, and not just because of any petty concern about the Army’s ‘honor,’ either. You know as well as I do that prestige — and the ability to point to past accomplishments — play a big role in how big a budget an army or a navy can expect to see coming its way. This is a professional army, with a professional officers corps, Merlin. They have to have been worried that being left home while someone else did all the fighting was going to . . . adversely effect their career prospects, one might say. I’ve seen a distinct undertone of resentment out of quite a few civilian Chisholmian bureaucrats who seem to think Charis has gotten an unfair share of the power and advantages under the Empire, so I don’t think it would have been unreasonable for the Army to’ve felt that way.”

    “I know.” Merlin nodded. “I’ve seen the same thing — from the bureaucrats, I mean — although, for some strange reason, they seem a bit more leery about showing their resentment around the Emperor or the Empress.”

    “No, really? I wonder why that might be?” Green Valley mused with an innocent smile, and Merlin snorted.

    “As I say, I really was concerned about the Army’s possible resentment over being ‘left out’ of the Corisande campaign,” Green Valley went on. “And I have seen a little bit of it, but not very much, thank Langhorne.”

    “So they don’t seem to be upset about the sudden infusion of all the Marines, either?” Merlin asked.

    He was watching Green Valley attentively. The baron had been chosen for his present assignment, despite his relative youth — he was still well short of forty — and painfully new elevation to the aristocracy, not simply because he was so good at his job, but because of the acuity of his insights. Now Green Valley gave the seijin a wry headshake, as if admonishing him for having asked a question to which they both so obviously already knew the answer.

    “No, it hasn’t,” he said out loud. “Partly, I think that’s because of their professionalism. They’re more interested in learning how to do their jobs even better than in defending their reputation for how well they already do them. In that respect, they remind me a lot of our naval officers like Earl Lock Island and Baron Rock Point. They’re professionals first and prima donnas second, or even third.

    “But, as I say, that’s only part of the reason.” Green Valley’s eyes were narrow, now, his expression intent. “I think probably an even bigger reason is that, aside from its very uppermost ranks, such a huge percentage of the Army’s officers are commoners. One of the things I think most frustrates the great nobles who are so unhappy with the Emperor and the Empress is the way they’ve been shut out of any real positions of power in the Army. It would be stupid of them to be surprised by that, I suppose, since the whole reason King Sailys and Baron Green Mountain — and Halbrook Hollow, to give the man his due — created the Royal Army in the first place was to restore the Crown’s prerogatives at the expense of the nobility. After the amount of fighting that took, I don’t think it should astonish anyone that they decided against handing out generalships to any noblemen whose loyalty to the Crown they weren’t totally sure of. And the fact that lowborn soldiers could– and have — risen to high rank in the Army helps explain how enthusiastically the commons support it. Here in Chisholm, the Army holds exactly the same position — as far as the commons are concerned, at any rate — as the Navy does in Charis, and it’s young enough and professional enough to be genuinely flexible.” He shook his head. “I honestly never expected just how flexible it really is.”

    Merlin nodded in agreement. He’d been a bit more optimistic about the Royal Chisholmian Army’s willingness to adopt the new weapons and tactics than some Charisians had been, but even he had been pleasantly surprised by the Chisholmians’ enthusiasm for the changes.

    And, the seijin thought, Green Valley had an even better point than the baron himself might realize about the Army’s importance in the eyes of the Empire’s Chisholmian subjects.

    By and large, the majority of Chisholmians appeared firmly united behind the decision to fuse the kingdoms of Chisholm and Charis (now almost universally referred to as “Old Charis,” just to keep things straight) into the new Charisian Empire. Not all of them were, however. Some — and especially those who were most prone to think in terms of their own power and influence — doubted that the promised equality between Chisholm and Old Charis could (or would) truly be maintained. Old Charis boasted half again the population of Chisholm, and its economic wealth was at least four times that of Chisholm. Its manufactories and merchants had held a dominant position in Chisholm’s economy even before the two kingdoms had united, the Charisian merchant marine dominated all the seas and oceans of Safehold, and the Royal Chisholmian Navy had disappeared — almost without a trace — into the much larger Royal Charisian Navy, even if the resulting union was officially called the Imperial Navy.

    Under the circumstances, it probably wasn’t unreasonable for at least some Chisholmians to nourish a few doubts about how long it would be before Chisholm openly became the junior partner — one might almost say the second-class partner — in the imperial relationship.

    Cayleb and Sharleyan were determined to prevent that from happening. The fact that Sharleyan was Cayleb’s co-ruler, that she had governed the entire Empire in her own name from Tellesberg while Cayleb was off at war in Corisande, and that it was she — not Cayleb — who had overseen the creation of the new Imperial Parliament, had gone quite some way towards accomplishing that goal. The fact that the imperial capital would be located in Cherayth, the capital of the Kingdom of Chisholm, for half the year, and in Tellesberg, the capital of the Kingdom of Charis, for the other half of the year, went even further. It assured the citizens of Chisholm that Charisian viewpoints would not be allowed to dominate the imperial government simply because the people arguing for those viewpoints enjoyed a far better, far closer, and uninterrupted access to the Emperor and Empress.

    The formation of the Imperial Army was intended to be yet another reassurance. The Chisholmian Crown’s two great supports under King Sailys and Queen Sharleyan had been the fierce loyalty of the Chisholmian Commons and the Royal Army. As Green Valley had just pointed out, it had been the Army, backed by the political and financial support of the Commons and with its ranks filled primarily by commoners, with which King Sailys had broken the arrogant power of the Charisian aristocracy’s great magnates. It was that same Army and the even fiercer loyalty — the love — of those same commoners for the dauntless courage of the child-queen who had succeeded Sailys after his untimely death which had allowed Sharleyan to survive. And those same deep reservoirs of support were what had carried them with her in her decision to wed Cayleb and create the Empire.



    She and Cayleb were both fully aware of that, which was why, just as Cayleb had insisted Chisholmian merchants and manufacturers must have equal access to the Empire’s markets, both foreign and domestic, the two of them had decreed that it was Chisholm which would take the lead in the formation of the Imperial Army. There were those among the Royal Charisian Marines who had objected (although they’d been wise enough to do it quietly, in most cases) to that decision. Whose sense of pride in their own organization, in the way it had grown so explosively, the fashion in which it had smashed its opposition in Corisande, was deeply offended by the notion that the Marines should not only go back to being purely a shipboard and amphibious force but also transfer the majority of the Corisande campaign’s veterans to the Army.

    Those who’d been sufficiently foolish to make an issue of their objections had been . . . found other duties, however.

    “I think probably still another part of it,” the seijin said out loud now, “is the fact that Cayleb and Sharleyan have made it so abundantly clear that whereas Charis is reasonably going to take the lead where naval affairs are concerned, it only makes sense to give that same role to Chisholm where the Army is concerned. Which is why you’re an Army officer now, of course. The decision to fold the bulk of the Imperial Marines over into the Army — and respect the seniority of the Army’s existing officers in the process — wasn’t an easy one, but Cayleb and Sharleyan were right to insist on it, I think.”

    “Absolutely!” Green Valley’s nod was more vigorous and emphatic than Merlin’s had been. “The officers I’m working with obviously see that decision as proof Their Majesties meant what they said about the organization of the Empire’s armed forces. Especially after — well . . . .”

    The baron’s voice trailed off on a most unusual note of something that was almost — not quite, but almost — embarrassment, and Merlin smiled without any trace of humor.

    “Especially after the Army’s top commander conspired with the Temple loyalists to murder — or at least kidnap — Sharleyan, you mean?”

    “Well, yes, actually,” Green Valley admitted. He shook his head slightly. “Hard to blame them for worrying about it, really. In their place, I’d certainly have been afraid the Crown would entertain serious doubts about the Army’s basic reliability. Especially given how popular Halbrook Hollow was — with the common troopers, not just the officer corps. He’s the one who built this entire Army, Merlin. He shaped it, he commanded it in most of its critical battles, and he led its soldiers to victory in every campaign. How could they not have worried about whether or not the Crown would feel it couldn’t afford to trust their loyalty after something like that? For that matter, a lot of them felt shamed by his actions. They hadn’t done anything wrong, but he was their commander, and at least some of them feel his treason has stained them, as well.”

    “I know exactly what you mean,” Merlin said soberly.

    And the truth is, he told himself silently, that at least some of the Army’s officers do entertain the same doubts Halbrook Hollow did. Like the noble Earl of Swayle, for example.

    Barkah Rahskail, the Earl of Swayle, was young, only thirty-seven Safeholdian years old. He was also very tall for a Safeholdian, within an inch or so of Merlin’s own height, and rakishly good-looking with his fair hair, dark eyes, and sun-bronzed complexion. Back when Merlin Athrawes had been Nimue Alban, she would definitely have given Swayle a close look.

    But in addition to his good looks and noble birth, Swayle was a dyed-in-the-wool Temple Loyalist. He’d done a better job of hiding it than quite a few of his fellows, including Halbrook Hollow, but Merlin had no doubts about his fundamental beliefs. What he didn’t know yet was where Swayle’s ultimate loyalties lay. Would his repulsion against the Church of Charis’ “apostasy” and “heresy” — and, quite possibly, the death in disgrace of an army commander he’d deeply admired and respected — drive him into treason of his own? Or would his and his family’s long-standing loyalty to the House of Tayt — unusual, actually, among the high Chisholmian nobility — and his oath as an officer of the Royal Army hold firm against those forces?

    Merlin was afraid he could guess which way Swayle would jump in the end. But he hadn’t jumped yet, and neither Cayleb nor Sharleyan was in the habit of punishing people for what they might do.

    Which suited Merlin Athrawes just fine, when it came down to it.

    I’m keeping an eye on all of the ones we know shared at least some of Halbrook Hollow’s doubts, he reminded himself. And if Cayleb and Sharleyan aren’t going to hammer anyone until and unless someone decides to emulate Halbrook Hollow, they won’t hesitate if the time ever comes to bring that hammer down, either. I know they hope they won’t have to, but they’ll do it if they do have to. And at least it looks like the ones with Temple Loyalist leanings are definitely in the minority . . . for now.

    “And Duke Eastshare?” he asked out loud. “What’s your read of how he feels about all this, My Lord?”

    “You’re asking me to comment about my commanding officer, Seijin Merlin,” Green Valley said with a sudden — and unaccustomed — edge of severity, and he frowned. “I understand why you’d be concerned, but, to be honest, I don’t think it’s really appropriate for me to be passing judgment on His Grace’s loyalty to the Crown.”

    Merlin allowed one of his eyebrows to arch in mild surprise. He started to respond, then stopped.

    Actually, he thought, Green Valley’s . . . stiffness was a judgment on Eastshare’s loyalty. Particularly since it clearly didn’t stem from any reluctance to risk antagonizing a powerful noble in the extraordinarily unlikely event that word of any criticism on his part would ever make it back to Eastshare.

    What it is, is an indication of just how much he’s discovered he respects Eastshare, Merlin told himself. If he had any doubts about Eastshare’s loyalty, he wouldn’t respect him, either, no matter how flexible the Duke might be in a professional sense. So the fact that he doesn’t want to answer is an answer.

    “I understand, My Lord,” he said out loud, rather more formally than had become the norm for his conversations with Green Valley. The baron looked at him for a moment, then gave an almost imperceptible nod, and his frown vanished.

    “So, overall, you’re satisfied?” Merlin continued in a more normal tone, and Green Valley nodded again, more firmly.

    “Overall, I’m very satisfied. I wish — and so does Duke Eastshare — that we could have provided even more Marines as cadre, but we both understand why Their Majesties had to leave General Chermyn a big enough garrison force in Corisande. I also wish we could get the new rifle shops and cannon foundries set up here in Chisholm more quickly, but Chisholm simply doesn’t have the pool of experienced mechanics and craftsmen Old Charis does. At least the first couple of shipments of rifles have already come in, so not everyone is drilling with broom handles.

    “On the plus side, in addition to everything else we’ve just been talking about, I have to admit that the Duke and his officers seem to have a better grasp of the realities of fighting on land than we do — than I do, and I’m the fellow who developed all our new infantry tactics.” He snorted. “They pay me a flattering amount of attention, and they listen damned carefully to everything I say, particularly given the fact that, unlike them, I actually have field experience with the new weapons. But the truth is, they’ve already pointed out a lot of places where my ideas — and not just about tactics, either; they’ve got a lot more experience with army logistics than we have — could stand some improving. In some cases, a lot of improving.”

    And it says very good things about you, My Lord, that you not only recognize the truth when you see it but that you’re willing to admit it — to others, and not just yourself, too, Merlin thought.

    “So you think I’ll be able to go back to Cherayth and tell Their Majesties the great army integration project is going well?” he said out loud.

    “Yes,” Green Valley said, looking steadily into the seijin’s blue eyes, making it plain just how many levels he was actually speaking on. “Yes, I think you can tell them it’s going very well.”

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