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A Mighty Fortress: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Monday, February 15, 2010 07:33 EST



Archbishop’s Palace,
City of Tellesberg,
Kingdom of Charis

    “Another glass, Bynzhamyn?” Archbishop Maikel Staynair invited, reaching out a long arm to lift the brandy decanter and arching one salt-and-pepper eyebrow suggestively.

    “I suppose, under the circumstances, it couldn’t hurt, Your Eminence,” Bynzhamyn Raice, Baron Wave Thunder, agreed.

    The baron was a large man, with a completely bald head and a powerful nose, who had risen from humble beginnings to his present position on the Royal Council of Old Charis. Although Prince Nahrmahn of Emerald had become the official Imperial Councilor for Intelligence, Wave Thunder had been King Haarahld’s spymaster before Cayleb ascended to the Charisian throne, and he continued to hold what was almost certainly the most sensitive of the new Empire of Charis’ intelligence positions. He held that position because he was so very good at what he did, although he’d recently acquired certain advantages he had never previously dreamed might exist.

    He and Staynair sat in the cleric’s third-floor study in the Archbishop’s Palace beside Tellesberg Cathedral, listening to the background sounds of the benighted city through the study’s open windows. The night was relatively cool — for Tellesberg in October, at any rate — which was a relief after the day’s heat, and the city noises were muted this late in the evening. They would never quite cease, of course. Not in Tellesberg, the city that never quite slept. But they were definitely diminishing as the night deepened, and the palace was far enough from the eternally-busy docks for the noises which continued to be hushed by distance.

    The archbishop’s official residence sat in a stately park of just under three wooded, beautifully landscaped acres, which were worth a not-so-small fortune in their own right, given the price of real estate in Tellesberg. The palace itself was a magnificent building, having been built of golden-hued Ahrmahk marble and designed to house one of Mother Church’s archbishops in the splendor appropriate to his high office, but Staynair’s tastes were rather simpler than those of most of Old Charis’ previous prelates. The magnificent furnishings with which his immediate predecessor had filled this study, for example, had been removed early in Staynair’s tenure. He’d replaced them with furniture he and Ahrdyn Staynair, his years-dead wife, had assembled during their lives together. All of that was tasteful enough, but it was also old, comfortable, and (obviously) well loved.

    At the moment, Staynair lay tipped back, half-lying in a recliner his wife, Ahrdyn had commissioned for him when he was first ordained a bishop. He’d had it recovered at least twice since then, and from the condition of the fabric, he was going to have to have it reupholstered yet again sometime soon. The reason he was going to have to do that (this time) lay contentedly curled in his lap, purring in happy possessiveness. The snow-white cat-lizard whose claws had shredded the upholstery of the recliner-shaped scratching post with which he had been so obligingly provided — and whose name was also Ahrdyn, despite the fact that he happened to be male — was clearly in no doubt as to who owned who, whatever any silly humans might think.

    Now Ahrdyn-the-lizard interrupted himself in mid-purr and raised his head to look disapprovingly up at Staynair as the archbishop leaned far enough to the side to pour fresh brandy into Wave Thunder’s proffered glass. Fortunately for the cat-lizard’s view of the proper organization of the universe, the refilling process didn’t take long, and his mattress’ anatomy settled back into the appropriate position relatively quickly. Better yet, the hands which been distracted from their proper function resumed their dutiful stroking.

    “It’s such a relief to realize that the Empire’s spiritual shepherd is made of such stern stuff,” Wave Thunder observed dryly, gesturing with his glass at the large, powerful hands rhythmically stroking the cat-lizard’s silky pelt. “I’d hate to think you could be readily manipulated — or, God forbid, allow yourself to be dominated!”

    “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Staynair replied with a serene smile.

    “Oh, of course not!” Wave Thunder snorted, then allowed a fresh sip of brandy to roll across his tongue and send its honeyed fire sliding down his throat. He savored the sensation, but then his expression sobered as he returned his attention to the true reason for this evening’s visit.

    “I understand the logic behind your travel plans, Maikel,” he said soberly, “but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I have some significant reservations about them, as well.”

    “I don’t see how the man charged with your responsibilities could feel any other way.” Staynair shrugged very slightly. “In fact, in many ways, I’d really prefer to stay right here at home, myself. And not just because of the possibility of lurking assassins, or any of the more mundane hazards involved in the trip, or even of the fact that I anticipate spending quite a bit of it being ineffably bored.” He grimaced. “On the other hand, and even giving all of those reasons I should stay home their just weight, I still can’t possibly justify not going. First, because it’s my spiritual responsibility as Archbishop of the Church of Charis. We’ve had more than enough of absentee archbishops who visit their archbishoprics for a single month or two each year! God’s children deserve better than that, and I intend to see that — to the best of my own ability — they get it.”

    Staynair’s lips tightened, and his eyes darkened. Wave Thunder knew better than most that Maikel Staynair was one of the most naturally gentle men the human race had ever produced. At that moment, though, looking into those eyes, seeing that expression, he realized yet again what a vast gulf lay between the words “gentle” and “weak.”

    “And even if that weren’t true — which it is, and you know it as well as I do,” Staynair resumed after a moment, “it’s absolutely essential that people outside Old Charis have a face to put with my name. Or, rather, with my office. It’s not going to be very much longer before the Group of Four does manage a counter attack. When it does, the Church of Charis will face the first true test of its strength and stability. And, frankly, at this particular moment, the extent of that strength and stability is still very much an unknown quantity. I’m confident about the state of the Church here in Old Charis, and I’m optimistic about Emerald and Chisholm, given my correspondence and the . . . other intelligence avenues available to us. But it would be terribly unfair to people like Archbishop Fairmyn in Emerald or Archbishop Pawal in Chisholm to expect them to stand firm in the face of a tempest like that one is going to be — and hold their own clergy with them — without at least having had the opportunity to meet their Archbishop face to face.”

    “I said I understood the logic,” Wave Thunder pointed out. “But I may be just a bit more focused on those assassination possibilities than you are. I know you’re going to have your own guardsmen along, and frankly, the fact that you’ll be a moving target is actually going to make any sort of coordinated attack, like the one on Sharleyan, more difficult to put together. It could still happen, though, Maikel, and I’m not going to be very happy about that possibility until you’re either safely under Merlin’s eye in Chisholm or back here, where I can keep an eye on you. There are too many people, completely exclusive of the Group of Four, who’d really, really like to see you dead about now. If I have my way, though, they’re going to go on being disappointed in that regard, if you don’t object to strongly.”

    He gave the archbishop a stern look, which turned into something a bit more like a glower when Staynair answered it with one of complete tranquility. They looked at one another for a second or two, and it was Wave Thunder who abandoned the struggle first.

    “In addition to that little area of concern, however,” he continued, “having you out of the Kingdom for so long is going to cause its own share of problems that don’t relate directly to the Church — or any potential assassins — in any way, and you know it. For one thing –”

    He tapped the lobe of his right ear with an index finger, and Staynair nodded, his own expression rather more sober than it had been. Like Wave Thunder’s, his own ear held the almost invisible earplug for one of Merlin Athrawes’ security coms. The baron had been one of his own very first nominees to be added to Cayleb’s “inner circle” when Merlin made the devices available after the attempt to assassinate Sharleyan had come so terrifyingly close to success.

    In the almost five months since the assassination attempt, both Staynair and Wave Thunder had become accustomed to the many advantages the coms provided. Indeed, the archbishop often thought Wave Thunder found those advantages even greater than he himself did, which was hardly surprising, given the nature of the baron’s duties. As a priest, Staynair couldn’t be entirely happy about the degree of intrusiveness into others’ lives which Merlin’s SNARCs made possible, but he also knew that Merlin, with Cayleb’s and Shareyan’s strong approval, had set up “filters” (whatever they might be, which was a subject still well beyond Staynair’s current understanding) to limit that as much as possible. For that matter, and despite the fact that any man might have been tempted by expediency after spending as long as Wave Thunder had spent managing all of the Charisian spy networks, Staynair trusted the baron’s integrity enough to not spend too many nights lying awake worrying over what privacies he might be violating. He knew the baron habitually spent at least an hour every night now conferring with Owl and reviewing the day’s intelligence information, but he also knew he was more than content to leave the actual monitoring of the various reconnaissance platforms up to the computer. If Wave Thunder looked at something, it was only because it fell into the parameters he’d defined for Owl — parameters designed to insure it was really important — and not out of any sort of voyeurism.

    Unfortunately, the number of other people in Old Charis who had been cleared for the level of information available to the two of them literally could have been counted on the fingers of one hand. (Assuming Ahrdyn had been prepared to relinquish one of Staynair’s hands long enough for the computation to be accomplished.) In fact, the only people so far equipped with the communication devices were Staynair himself; Wave Thunder; Dr. Rahzhyr Mahklyn at the Royal College; Admiral Sir Domynyk Staynair, the Baron of Rock Point (and Maikel Staynair’s brother); Sir Ehdwyrd Howsmyn, who was undoubtedly the Empire of Charis’ wealthiest single subject; and Father Zhon Byrkyt, the Prior of the Monastery of Saint Zherneau. There were others Staynair would desperately have preferred to see added to that list, but that decision was neither his, nor Cayleb’s and Sharleyan’s, alone. And, despite his own impatience, he had to agree with Cayleb’s original decision to set things up that way. Maddening though it might so often be, he was prepared to admit the overwhelming force of the arguments in favor of proceeding with almost insane caution where the expansion of the inner circle was concerned.

    Which is about the only thing that lets me maintain a semblance of patience with Zhon and the rest of the Brethren, he reminded himself. The fact is, though, that someone has to be that voice of caution. And let’s be honest with ourselves, Maikel. At this point, it’s a lot more important we not tell someone it turns out we couldn’t trust after all than that we add everybody we’d like to the list.

    “Domynyk is already out of the Kingdom,” Wave Thunder continued, “Howsmyn is pretty much anchored to his foundry right now — which, I might point out, is the next best thing to eleven hundred miles from where we happen to be sitting at the moment, in case it’s slipped your mind — and Father Zhon is about as close to a hermit as someone living in the middle of Tellesberg gets. So when you leave the Kingdom, that will leave the Emperor or Empress with direct access only me and Rahzhyr, here in the capital. Rahzhyr isn’t a member of the Council at all — yet, at least — and, to be brutally frank, I don’t have the amount of influence with Rayjhis that you do. He and I are friends and colleagues, and he trusts my judgment in a lot of specific areas. But I don’t begin to have the status you have with him. Or with the rest of the Council, for that matter. If they head off in some wrong direction, I’m not going to be able to rein them in the way you could.”


    Staynair nodded, and his eyes darkened for a moment. Wave Thunder was entirely correct about his own influence with Sir Rayjhis Yowance, the Earl of Gray Harbor and First Councilor of the Kingdom of Old Charis. The two of them had known one another almost literally since boyhood, and they trusted one another implicitly. Yet that wasn’t the only reason why Gray Harbor trusted Archbishop Maikel Staynair’s judgment so deeply.

    Just as it isn’t the only reason I haven’t even considered suggesting Rayjhis be added to the “inner circle,” he thought with more than a trace of sorrow, then grimaced at his own perversity. It’s really pretty stupid for an archbishop to regret the depth of a kingdom’s first councilor’s personal faith, he told himself severely.

    Perhaps it was, yet he did regret it, in some ways, and he was too self-honest to deny it, especially in the privacy of his own thoughts. Like every other living Safeholdian, Gray Harbor had been brought up in the Church of God Awaiting, and despite his burning hatred for the Group of Four and the other men who had corrupted that Church, his faith ran deep. It was an absolutely essential part of who he was, of what made him such a strong and honorable man.

    And it was the reason Sir Rayjhis Yowance could never be told the truth about “the Archangel Langhorne” and the entire, perverted lie upon which Langhorne’s Church rested. It would destroy him. Or perhaps it wouldn’t. He was a strong man, and his faith was powerful. He might weather the storm . . . but Staynair was certain the struggle would be a terrible one. One which would, at the very least, thrust him into an agonizing crisis of conscience that would paralyze the strong, confident decisiveness which was so much a part of him — the very things which had made him so very outstanding in his present position.

    Personally, Staynair would have breathed a deep, heartfelt prayer of gratitude if all it cost them was the most effective first councilor to have served the Kingdom of Charis in at least two generations. Perhaps that was shortsighted of him as an archbishop, but he’d been a priest long before he was a bishop, and he prayed nightly that he would never become more concerned with “matters of state” than with individual souls. Yet the priest in him was dreadfully afraid that a first councilor would not be all it cost them . . . and in that fact lay a microcosm of Maikel Staynair’s true quandary as a man of God.

    There was no question in Staynair’s mind that God had to recognize the strength and passion of the faith of a man like Rayjhis Yowance, however that faith had been distorted by the very people who’d been charged with nurturing his soul. As Staynair himself had once told Merlin Athrawes, God might demand much from some of His servants, but whatever else He might be, He wasn’t stupid. He would never condemn a man like Rayjhis for believing as he had been taught to believe.

    Yet when — and how — did Staynair and the others like him, who knew the truth, proclaim that truth? That day must eventually come. Ultimately, faith could not be based upon a deliberate lie, and those who knew the lie had been told must expose it. But how? When? And at what cost to those who had been reared to believe the lie? Despite his own faith, Maikel Staynair never doubted for a moment that when the truth was told, there would be many who decided God Himself must be a lie, as well. He dreaded that moment, dreaded the possible cost to all of those souls, yet he knew it must be done, anyway. Just as he knew that the religious conflict which that schism would bring to life would, in many ways, dwarf the present one.

    Which was why they first had to destroy the Group of Four and break the Church of God Awaiting’s stranglehold on all of Safehold.

    Which, in turn, brought him back to the problem of his own impending departure and the hole that would leave in the Council.

    “To tell the absolute truth, Bynzhamyn, I’m not really that worried about Rayjhis,” he said. “It’s not as if you and I have had to spend all of our time ’steering him’ into doing the things we know Cayleb and Sharleyan want done, after all. I mean, he’s already doing them, and God knows he’s demonstrated often enough how competent he actually is. Besides, there are practical limits to the amount of ’steering’ we could do. Unless you want to stand up in the middle of the next Council meeting and announce that you ‘hear voices’?”

    “Not likely!” Wave Thunder snorted.

    “Well, there it is, then, when you come down to it.” Staynair shrugged again. “Rayjhis isn’t the sort to go charging off in some idiosyncratic direction without at least discussing it with the rest of the Council first. When that happens, if you think, based on something you know that he doesn’t, that he’s about to make a mistake, you’re just going to have to do the best you can. I wouldn’t push it too hard, if I were you, until you’ve had a chance to discuss it directly with Cayleb and Sharleyan, in any case. It may well be that if we all put our heads together, we can come up with some way to . . . restrain his enthusiasm, let’s say. And, knowing Rayjhis, even if we can’t find a way to do that, he’s hardly likely to do anything stupid or risky enough to create a genuine danger.”

    “You’re probably right about that,” Wave Thunder conceded. “No, you are right about that. All the same, I really don’t like having the Court in Cherayth this way.” He grimaced. “I’m sure Green Mountain and Queen Mother Alahnah felt pretty much the same way when the Court was here in Tellesberg, and I know it’s something we’re all going to have to get used to, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy it.”

    “No, it doesn’t,” Staynair agreed. “In fact, sheer distance — and how long it takes for messages to cross between its various parts, openly, at least — is the Empire’s biggest weakness, and we all know it. I’m pretty sure the Group of Four does, too, and I imagine anyone as smart as Trynair and Clyntahn is going to do his best to take advantage of it. Of course,” Staynair showed his teeth in a most un-archbishop-like smile, “they don’t know quite everything, do they? We may be sitting here fretting about how to ’steer’ Rayjhis, but they don’t have a clue of the fact that you or I can discuss a situation ‘face-to-face’ with Cayleb and Sharleyan anytime we have to!”

    “Which only makes it even more frustrating when we can’t talk to someone else anytime we have to,” Wave Thunder growled, and the archbishop chuckled.

    “The Writ says patience is one of the godly virtues,” he pointed out. “Interestingly enough, so do all of the other religions Owl and I have been reading about. So you’re not going to get a lot of sympathy from me just because it’s a virtue which you notably lack, Bynzhamyn!”

    “I hope you still find it humorous when you’re sitting on a becalmed galleon in the middle of the Chisholm Sea,” Wave Thunder replied, dark eyes gleaming. “Patience, I mean.”



    “Somehow I suspect being becalmed in the Chisholm Sea is going to be one of the least of my problems in the middle of the winter,” Staynair said wryly. “I’ve been advised to pack a lot of golden-berry tea, for some reason.”

    The gleam in Wave Thunder’s eyes turned into a snort of amusement. Golden-berry tea, brewed from the leaves of the golden-berry tree, which grew to a height of about ten feet and thrived in almost any climate, was the standard Safeholdian treatment for motion sickness.

    “You may find the thought amusing,” Staynair said severely, “but I rather doubt I’m going to feel the same way when we’re looking at waves as high as a cathedral spire!”

    “Probably not,” Wave Thunder acknowledged with a grin. He leaned back in his own chair and sipped more brandy for several moments, then looked back across at Staynair.

    “And Nahrmahn?” he asked. “Have you pressed Father Zhon about that recently?”

    “Not really,” Staynair confessed. “I’m still in two minds, myself, if the truth be told. I understand how valuable Nahrmahn could be, but I don’t really have a good enough feel for him yet — as a man, and not just a prince — to feel comfortable predicting how he’d react to the complete truth.”

    “He’s handled the ‘Merlin has visions’ version of the truth well enough,” Wave Thunder pointed out.

    “So has Rayjhis,” Staynair countered. “Oh, don’t get me wrong, Bynzhamyn. If there’s anyone who’s . . . mentally flexible enough, let’s say, to accept the truth, it’s got to be Nahrmahn. And I’m very much inclined to believe Merlin — and Cayleb, for that matter — are correct about where he’s placed his fundamental loyalties now. Maybe the problem’s just that Emerald was the enemy for so long. I mean, it’s possible I’m carrying around some kind of automatic prejudice towards all things Emeraldian, including the Prince of Emerald, myself. I don’t think I am, but that doesn’t mean I’m not. I’m just . . . uncomfortable in my own mind about how . . . stable his loyalties are. That’s not the right word.” The archbishop waved one hand, his expression that of a man unaccustomed to being unable to express himself with precision. “I guess what it comes down to is that I haven’t really been able to spend enough time with him to feel I truly know him.”

    “Well, that’s fair enough,” Wave Thunder conceded. Prince Nahrmahn had spent no more than a month and a half in Tellesberg before departing for the Corisande campaign with Emperor Cayleb. He’d returned to Old Charis two months ago, but he’d stayed in Tellesberg for less than two five-days before departing for Emerald. No reasonable person could have complained about his priorities, given the fact that he’d seen neither his wife nor his children in the better part of a year, but it did mean that Staynair — and Wave Thunder, for that matter — had enjoyed precious little opportunity to truly get to know him.

    “Maybe you’ll have the opportunity to get better acquainted during your pastoral visit,” the baron pointed out, and Staynair nodded.

    “I plan to make a point of it,” he said. “For that matter, I think it’s entirely possible he may end up sailing back to Chisholm with me, as well. And as you so tactfully pointed out a few moments ago,” the archbishop grimaced, “that ought to give me plenty of time to get ‘ acquainted’.”

    “I understand ocean cruises are supposed to be an excellent opportunity to make lifelong friendships,” Wave Thunder observed, and Staynair snorted. Then the archbishop’s expression turned a bit more thoughtful.

    “Actually,” he said in the tone a man used to admit something he found at least mildly surprising, “I think a genuine friendship with Nahrmahn is definitely a possibility.” He shook his head with a bemused air. “Who would’ve thought that a year or two ago?”

    “Not me, that’s for sure!” Wave Thunder shook his own head rather more forcefully, then glanced at the clock. “Well,” he set his brandy snifter back down, “I suppose I ought to be getting back home. I’d like to say Leahyn is going to be wondering where I am. Unfortunately, the truth is that she already knows where I am, and she’s probably got a pretty fair idea of what the two of us have been up to.” He grimaced. “I don’t doubt that she’s going to give my breath the ’sniff test’ as soon as I come in the door.”

    Staynair chuckled. Leahyn Raice, Lady Wave Thunder, was sometimes described as “a redoubtable female,” which was accurate enough as far as it went. She was almost as tall as her husband, and no one had ever accused her of being frail. She also had strong opinions on quite a few subjects, a sharp tongue she wasn’t at all afraid to use, and a keen intelligence which had quite often helped her husband solve a particularly perplexing problem. She was also warmhearted and deeply caring, as the priest who’d been her bishop for so long knew better than most. She went to considerable lengths to disguise the fact, however. She wasn’t really all that good at it, though. She and Bynzhamyn had been married for the better part of twenty-five years, and while Staynair knew it amused Wave Thunder to play the “wyvern-pecked husband” to his friends, everyone who knew them recognize that the truth was distinctly different. Still, there was no denying that Leahyn Raice had a distinctly proprietary attitude where the care and feeding of her husband were concerned.

    “The real reason she picks on you is that heart attack, you know,” the archbishop said now, mildly.

    “Of course I know that!” Wave Thunder smiled wryly. “On the other hand, that was six years ago, Maikel! The healers have all said a little wine now and then — or even whiskey, in moderation — won’t hurt me a bit. In fact, they say it’s probably good for me!”

    “If I didn’t know they’d given you permission, I wouldn’t have invited you to deplete my stock,” Staynair pointed out.

    “Well, I just wish one of them would have another talk with her!”

    “Nonsense!” Staynair shook a finger at him. “Don’t try to mislead me. This is part of the game you two have been playing for years, and I’m really not sure which of you enjoys it more.” He eyed Wave Thunder shrewdly. “Most of the time, I think it’s you, actually.”

    “That’s ridiculous.” The spymaster’s voice was less than fully convincing as he pushed himself up out of his chair, Staynair noticed. “But, in any case, I do need to be getting home.”

    “I know,” Staynair replied, but something in his manner stopped Wave Thunder half way to his feet. The baron’s eyebrows rose, and then he settled back again, his head cocked.

    “And what did you just decide you were going to mention to tell me after all, Maikel?” he asked.

    “We have known each other for quite a while, haven’t we?” Staynair observed a bit obliquely.

    “Yes, we have. And I know that expression. So why don’t you go ahead and tell me instead of sitting there while I pull something you already know you’re going to tell me about out of you by inches?”

    “Actually,” Staynair’s voice was unwontedly serious, almost hesitant, “this is a bit difficult for me, Bynzhamyn.”

    “Why?” Wave Thunder asked in a markedly different tone, his eyes narrowing with concern as the archbishop’s genuine — and highly unusual — discomfort registered.

    “Tomorrow morning,” Staynair said, “Father Bryahn will be at your office bright and early to deliver a half-dozen crates to you. They aren’t very large, but they’re fairly heavy, because they’re packed almost solid with paper.”

    “Paper,” Wave Thunder repeated. He leaned back in his chair again, crossing his legs. “What sort of paper, Maikel?”

    “Documents,” Staynair replied. “Files, really. Collections of memoranda, depositions, personal letters. You can think of them as . . . evidence.”

    “Evidence of what?” Wave Thunder asked intently.

    “Something like twenty years worth of documented corruption within the vicarate and the Inquisition.” Staynair’s voice was suddenly very flat, his eyes cold. “Evidence of specific acts of extortion, blackmail, theft — even rape and murder. And evidence that Zhaspahr Clyntahn, at least, knew about quite a few of those acts and conspired to conceal them.”

    Despite his many years of experience, Wave Thunder felt his jaw drop. He stared at his old friend for several seconds, literally speechless, then shook himself violently.

    “You’re not joking, are you? You really mean it!”

    “I do.” Staynair sighed. “And I really wasn’t going to tell you I had it, either. Unfortunately, accidents do happen, and I am going to be making some rather lengthy voyages in the next few months. So I decided I had to hand it to someone before I sail, just in case.”

    “And how long have you had it?” Wave Thunder asked in a careful tone.

    “I’ve been examining it for about a month now,” Staynair admitted. “It took a while to get here from — Well, never mind about that.”

    “And you weren’t going to tell anyone about it?” Wave Thunder shook his head slowly. “Maikel, if your description of what you have is accurate, then you have to realize even better than I do just how critical that sort of evidence could be. Especially if we can document it.”

    “To be honest, that’s part of the problem.” Staynair leaned back in his own chair. “What I have are duplicates of the original evidence. I’m personally completely convinced of its authenticity, but there’s no way I could prove all of it isn’t simply a clever forgery, and that definitely makes it a double-edged sword. Frankly, I think we could do ourselves enormous damage in the propaganda war between us and Zion by publishing allegations we can’t prove.”

    “Maybe,” Wave Thunder conceded. “On the other hand, no matter what kind of ‘proof’ we had, the Group of Four and its mouthpieces would swear up and down that it was all a forgery, anyway. I mean, it doesn’t matter how much genuine proof we have; people on both sides are going to make their minds up based on what they already believe. Or what they’re willing to believe, at any rate.”

    “I know. And I thought about that. But there’s another issue involved, as well.”

    “What sort of ‘issue’?” Wave Thunder asked warily.

    “This information was delivered to me under the seal of the confessional,” Staynair said. “The person who delivered it to me agreed to trust my discretion about the use I might choose to make of it, but I was told the source of the documentation in my role as a priest. And the person who gave it to me doesn’t wish the identity of the source to become known.”

    “Not even to Cayleb or Sharleyan?”

    “Not to anyone.” Staynair expression was somber. “I think the person who delivered this to me is probably being overly cautious, Bynzhamyn, but that isn’t my decision to make. And I have to agree, given what I’ve been told — and what I’ve already seen of the documentation itself — that if the Group of Four should suspect, even for a moment, that we have this information and — especially! — how it came into our possession, the consequences for a very courageous person would be devastating. For that matter, the consequences would be fatal, and quite probably for a large number of other people, as well.”

    The archbishop’s eyes, Wave Thunder realized, were as troubled as the baron had ever seen them.

    “In many ways, I really ought to hand this over to Hainryk for safekeeping, I suppose.” Staynair said slowly. “I thought about that . . . hard. But in the end, I decided this was an occasion where finding the best way to balance my responsibilities to the Empire and my responsibilities to God required very careful consideration. I’m not fully satisfied with the answer I’ve come to, but it’s the best I’ve been able to do after praying in meditating about as hard as I’ve ever prayed or meditated in my life.”

    Wave Thunder nodded slowly. Hainryk Waignair, the Bishop of Tellesberg, was the second ranking member of the Church of Charis’ episcopate here in Old Charis. In fact, Waignair would be the acting Archbishop of Charis until Staynair returned. He was also a Brother of Saint Zherneau, which meant that — like Wave Thunder and Staynair — he knew the truth behind the lie of “the Archangel Langhorne” and the Church of God Awaiting. He and Staynair were very old friends, as well as colleagues and brothers of the same order, and Wave Thunder knew that Staynair trusted Waignair implicitly, both as a man and as a priest. The baron had no doubt that it must have taken a great deal of prayer and meditation, indeed, to bring the archbishop to the point of leaving this with him, and not with Waignair.

    “Speaking as a member of the Imperial Council, and as the Archbishop of Charis, and as Cayleb’s and Sharleyan’s adviser, there’s absolutely no question in my mind that I should already have handed all of this information over and told you and them exactly where it came from, Bynzhamyn,” Staynair continued. “But speaking as Father Maikel — as a priest — I cannot violate the sanctity of the confession. I won’t. The Church of God Awaiting may be a lie, but God isn’t, and neither is the faith of the person who trusted me in this matter.”

    Wave Thunder had started to open his mouth to argue. Now he closed it again as he recognized the unyielding armor of Maikel Staynair’s faith and integrity. Speaking purely for himself, Bynzhamyn Raice had found he was considerably less confident of the existence of God following his discovery of the truth about the Church of God Awaiting. He wasn’t comfortable admitting that, even to himself, yet there was that nagging suspicion — possibly a product of his spymaster’s necessary cynicism — that if one religion could have been deliberately fabricated, then all of them might have been. He was too intellectually self-honest to deny that doubt to himself, but it didn’t keep him up at night, unable to sleep, either. Whether God existed or not, the Empire of Charis was still locked in a death struggle with the Group of Four, and laying itself open to charges of atheism (a word Wave Thunder had never even heard of until he gained access to Owl’s computer records) would only hand someone like Clyntahn a deadly weapon.

    But whatever doubts he might find himself entertaining, he knew there was no doubt at all in Maikel Staynair. The archbishop was as far removed from a fanatic as a human being could possibly be. Wave Thunder was pretty sure Staynair was aware of his own doubts, but he was even more confident that if the archbishop was aware of them, he would never condemn the baron for them. That simply wasn’t the way Staynair worked, and Wave Thunder had found himself hoping that the God Maikel Staynair believed in — the God who could produce a man like Maikel Staynair — did exist. But if Staynair had given his word as a priest, then he would die before he broke it.

    Which, when you come down to it, is the real difference between him and someone like Clyntahn, isn’t it? Wave Thunder thought. Clyntahn believes in the Church. In the power of the Church, not of God, despite the fact that no one has ever shown him a scrap of evidence to cast doubt on God’s existence. Maikel knows the Church is a lie . . . but his faith in God has never wavered for a moment.

    “All right, Maikel,” he said quietly. “I understand your thinking. And I respect it. But if you deliver this evidence to me, then it’s going to be my duty to make use of it. Or, at least, to examine it all very carefully. You know how much insight we got into the Church and the Inquisition from the files Domynyk captured in Ferayd. From what you’re saying, these documents could tell us a hell of a lot more — if you’ll excuse the language — than they did.”

    “I realize that. It’s one of the reasons I hesitated so long about giving them to you. I even considered leaving them here to be delivered to you only in the event that something did happen to me, along with a cover letter explaining what they were. In the end, though, I decided I needed to explain to you in person, and I decided that for many of the same reasons I decided to leave it with you and not Hainryk. Hainryk is my brother in God and one of my dearest friends, and he has the courage of a great dragon, yet his deepest and truest joy lies in his priesthood, in ministering to the needs of his flock. That’s a great deal of what made him such a perfect choice as the Bishop of Tellesberg — well, to be honest, that and the fact that I knew I could place complete trust in his loyalty. But if I left this with him, it would put him in a most uncomfortable position. I think he would recognize the same issues I recognize, yet I can’t be certain of that, and I refuse to put him in the position of carrying out binding instructions from me which might violate his conscience as a priest.

    “From a more practical perspective, he truly detests politics — even church politics, though he knows he has to be aware of them. Secular politics, diplomacy, and strategy are things he would far rather leave in other hands, however. Which means he’s far less well informed and aware of the . . . imperial realities, shall we say, than you or I. He would definitely not be the best person to be evaluating the information in these files for its possible significance and value to the Empire.

    “You, on the other hand, have a very keenly developed sense for all of those things. If there’s a single person in all of Old Charis who could more accurately judge the value of this material, I have no idea who he might be. Which is why I decided to leave it with you . . . and to make you aware of the reasons I can’t tell you exactly where they came from, or who delivered them to us. I trust your discretion, and I know you’ll handle them with extraordinary care. And” — Staynair looked levelly into Wave Thunder’s eyes — “I know you won’t tell a soul where you got them until and unless I give you permission to do so.”

    The baron wanted to argue, but he recognized an exercise in futility when he saw it. And the fact that Staynair trusted him enough to hand him something like this meant it was unthinkable that he should violate that trust.

    “All right,” he said again. “You have my word, in that regard. But on one condition, Maikel!”

    “And that condition is?”

    “If something does happen to you — God forbid — then I’ll do what seems best in my own judgment with this evidence.” Wave Thunder held Staynair’s eyes as levelly as the archbishop had just held his. “I’ll do my best to protect your source, whoever it is, and I’ll be as cautious as I can. But I won’t accept something like this without the understanding that my own duties and responsibilities will require me to decide what to do with it if you’re no longer around to make the call. Is that understood?”

    “Of course,” Staynair said simply.


    There were a few moments of silence, and then Wave Thunder snorted quietly.

    “What?” the archbishop asked.

    “Well, it just occurred to me to wonder if you’re planning on telling Cayleb and Sharleyan about this?”

    “I’m not in any tearing rush to do so,” Staynair said wryly. “I’m sure they’d respect the responsibilities of my office. That’s not the same thing as saying they’d be happy about it, though. So, if it’s all right with you, I’m just going to let that sleeping dragon lie.”

    “As a matter of fact,” Wave Thunder smiled crookedly, “I think that may be the best idea I’ve heard all night!”

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