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A Mighty Fortress: Chapter Twelve

       Last updated: Friday, February 26, 2010 07:03 EST



November, Year of God 893

Imperial Palace,
City of Cherayth,
Kingdom of Chisholm;
HMS Dawn Wind, 54,
Dolphin Reach

    “What do you think about Merlin’s and Owl’s latest reports on Corisande, Maikel?” Sharleyan asked.

    She and Cayleb sat in Prince Tymahn’s Suite, the rooms just down the hall from their own suite which had been converted into a combined library and office. It lacked the remodeled, heated floors of their bedroom, but a brand-new cast-iron stove from the Howsmyn Ironworks had been installed, and the coal fire in its iron belly gave off a welcome warmth.

    “You’ve both seen the same imagery I have from Merlin’s SNARCs,” Maikel Staynair pointed out over the plug in her right ear. His voice sounded remarkably clear for someone better than four thousand miles, as the wyvern flew, from Cherayth. “What do you think?”

    “No you don’t,” Cayleb shot back with a grin. “We asked you first!”

    “Harumpf!” Staynair cleared his throat severely, and Sharleyan grinned at her husband. Their contact lenses brought them the archbishop’s image as he sat in his shipboard cabin, looking out over a sunset sea, with Ahrdyn draped across his lap. His own lenses showed him her grin, as well, and he made a face at her. But then he shrugged, and his tone was more serious as he continued.

    “As far as the Church goes, I think we’ve been extremely blessed with Gairlyng and — especially — men like Father Tymahn,” he said very soberly. “We’re not going to find any Charisian ‘patriots’ in Corisande, even among the clergy, any time soon, but the reform element in the Corisandian hierarchy’s proved rather stronger than I’d dared hope before the invasion. And the really good news, in many ways, is how many of those reformists are nativeborn Corisandians, like Father Tymahn. That puts a Corisandian face on voices of reason, and that’s going to be incredibly valuable down the road.

    “From a more purely political perspective,” the archbishop continued, “I think General Chermyn and Anvil Rock and Tartarian are about as on top of things as we could reasonably ask, Your Majesty. That’s Bynzhamyn’s opinion, too, for that matter. Neither of us sees how anybody could be doing a better job, anyway, given the circumstances of Hektor’s murder and the fact that there probably aren’t more than a half dozen people in all of Corisande — even among the most reform-minded members of the priesthood — who think Cayleb wasn’t behind it.”

    “Agreed,” Cayleb said, his own expression sober. “All the same, I have to admit I’d feel a lot better if the Brethren would let us go ahead and bring Hauwyl fully inside. If we’d been able give somebody in Corisande one of Merlin’s coms, I’d sleep a lot more soundly at night.”

    Sharleyan nodded, although, truth to tell, she wasn’t entirely certain she would have been in favor of giving Hauwyl Chermyn a communicator. It wasn’t that she doubted the Marine general’s loyalty, intelligence, or mental toughness in the least. No, the problem was that despite Chermyn’s genuine hatred for the Group of Four, he still believed — deeply and completely — in the Church’s doctrine. As with Rayjhis Yowance and Mahrak Sahndyrs, there was simply no way to know how he might react if they tried to tell him the truth.

    And it’s not as if they’re the only ones that’s true of, she acknowledged unhappily to herself. Or as if they were the only ones who could be so much more capable if we only dared to tell them everything we know.

    Unfortunately, they couldn’t, despite the difficulties that created. It was bad enough that they couldn’t tell Gray Harbor, given his position as the effective First Councilor of the Charisian Empire, but Sahndyrs, the Baron of Green Mountain, was at least equally important in light of his duties as First Councilor of the Kingdom of Chisholm.

    Not to mention the tiny fact that he’s Mother’s lover (whether I’m supposed to know that or not) and the man who taught me everything I know about being a queen, she thought unhappily. Why, oh why, couldn’t the two political advisers Cayleb and I both lean most heavily upon have just a little bit less integrity . . . where the Church is concerned, at least?

    “I’ve done my best to ginger up Zhon and the others, Your Grace,” Staynair told Cayleb, his tone a bit wry. “And I have to say, in the interests of fairness, that they’ve actually become much more flexible about approving additions to your inner circle. After being so miserly with their approval for so long — for so many entire generations of the Brethren, when you come down to it — that’s really quite remarkable, when you think about it.”

    “Agreed,” Cayleb said once more, acknowledging his archbishop’s slightly pointed but unmistakably admonishing tone. “Agreed! And however irritating it may sometimes be, I have to admit that having someone put the brakes on my own occasional bursts of . . . excessive enthusiasm isn’t exactly a bad thing.” The emperor made a face. “I think all monarchs have a tendency to fall prey to expediency, if they aren’t careful. And sometimes I think the rest of the Brethren might’ve had a point when they worried about that ‘youthful impatience’ of mine while they debated telling me about it.”

    “I don’t think I’d go quite that far,” Staynair replied. “At the same time, though, I won’t pretend I’m not relieved to hear you say that, either.”

    “Oh, I’m maturing, I am,” Cayleb assured him dryly. “Having Merlin and Sharley right here at hand to whack me over the head at the drop of a hat tends to have that effect, you know.”

    “Maybe it would, if your skull wasn’t quite so thick,” his wife told him, smiling as she ran her fingers through his hair. He smiled back at her, and she snorted in amusement. But then she leaned back in her own chair and shook her head.

    “At least, where Corisande is concerned, you and I are closer than Tellesberg, at the moment,” she pointed out aloud. “And even with the over-water links, the semaphore between here and there — or from here to Eraystor, for that matter — works for us now, not the Group of Four. We can get dispatches to Manchyr a lot quicker from Cherayth.”

    “That helps,” Cayleb agreed. “In fact, as far as the semaphore’s concerned, we’re actually better placed here than we would be in Tellesberg, since Cherayth’s much closer to our geographic center. It’s not the same as being there to keep an eye on things in Corisande myself, though. And, for that matter, I’m none too delighted at having to send them overland through Zebediah, even if we did personally vet the semaphore managers,” he added a bit sourly.

    “No, it’s not the same as being there,” she acknowledged. On the other hand, they both knew why he wasn’t still in Manchyr, personally overseeing the restive princedom’s incorporation into the Empire. And completely leaving aside all of the personal reasons she was glad he wasn’t — including the one which was just beginning to affect her figure — the cold-blooded political calculation which had brought him “home” to Cherayth seemed to be proving out in practice. Sharleyan wasn’t foolish enough to think Earl Anvil Rock and Earl Tartarian were going to keep the lid nailed down on the conquered princedom’s many and manifold boiling resentments forever. The “spontaneous” street demonstrations in Manchyr — and quite a few of them truly were spontaneous, she admitted, completely independent of the activities of people like Paitryk Hainree — were an ominous indication of heavy weather just over the horizon. But it was obvious from Merlin’s SNARCs that it would have been even worse if Cayleb had remained in Corisande. At least, unlike Cayleb, Anvil Rock and Tartarian were also Corisandians themselves. And at least they were governing Corisande (officially, at any rate) as the regents of Prince Daivyn, not in the name of a foreign conqueror. Everyone might still see that foreign conqueror lurking just behind Daivyn’s (empty) throne, yet it still gave them a degree of legitimacy in Corisandian eyes which Viceroy General Chermyn simply could not have enjoyed.

    Of course, that was its own jar of worms. And a particularly squirmy jar it was, too.

    I wish I didn’t sympathize with Irys as much as I do, she thought grimly. And I know I can’t afford to let that sympathy influence me. But I also know what it’s like to have your father murdered. I know exactly what that can do to someone, and however much I may have loathed and hated Hektor Daykyn, he was her father. She loved him, loved him as much as I loved mine, and she’s never going to forgive Cayleb for having him assassinated any more than I ever forgave Hektor for buying my father’s murder.

    Sharleyan Ahrmahk was only too well aware of the bitterly ironic parallels between herself and Irys Daykyn, and despite her own burning hatred for Hektor of Corisande, she truly did feel a deep, pain-laced sympathy for Hektor’s surviving, orphaned children. And if there was one person on the face of Safehold who would never underestimate just how dangerous a “mere girl’s” blazing determination to avenge that murder could truly be, it was Sharleyan of Chisholm.

    Which only makes me worry even more about Larchros, Storm Keep, and all of their damned friends and neighbors. If only we could just go ahead and arrest them all for what we know they’re doing.

    That, however, was the one thing they absolutely couldn’t do. Cayleb had been right when he’d decided he couldn’t simply replace conquered princes and nobles with people who would inevitably be seen as his favorites. No, he had to leave legitimate nobles who had sworn fealty to him in place . . . unless and until he had incontrovertible proof the princes and nobles in question had been guilty of treason. Which, since they couldn’t possibly present evidence from the SNARCs in any open court, meant all they could do was to keep a wary eye on what Merlin had christened the “Northern Conspiracy.”

    And, if she were honest, she wished even more passionately that they could move openly even against the street agitators. She supposed there really wasn’t any reason they couldn’t arrest commoners “on suspicion,” assuming there’d been some way to identify them to General Chermyn. Or to Koryn Gahrvai. But just how did one go about indentifying them to anyone outside the inner circle without raising all sorts of potentially disastrous questions? And even leaving aside that not-so-minor consideration, did they really want to start down that road? She didn’t doubt there might come a time when they’d have no choice, but as Cayleb had just pointed out, it was always tempting (and seldom wise) to succumb to expediency. As far as she was concerned, she’d prefer to delay that time when they had no choice for as long as possible.

    Of course, there were some other weighty, purely pragmatic arguments in favor of their current “hands-off” approach, as well. The “database” of agitators Merlin had Owl building continued to grow steadily, and there were many advantages in letting that proceed undisturbed . . . up to a point, at least. Not only would they know where to find their organized enemies when the moment finally came, but letting the other side do its recruiting undisturbed also served to draw the most dangerous opposition together in one group, to give them a single target they could decapitate with a single strike.

    And, she reflected, sifting through Owl’s reconnaissance “take,” as Merlin calls it, helps us evaluate why someone joined the resistance. I never realized how valuable that could be, until he pointed it out. Knowing what motivates people to actively oppose you is incredibly useful when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of your policies. Or how other people perceive those policies, at any rate. And it doesn’t hurt to be able to judge the character of your opponents, either. Not everyone who joins up with people like Hainree and Waimyn belongs in the same basket with them. There are good and decent people on the other side — people who genuinely think what they’re doing is the right thing, what God wants them to do. It’s hard enough remembering that even with the proof right in front of us. Without it, I don’t think I’d be able to remember at all when sentencing time rolls around.

    At least the effort wasn’t burning up as much of their time as it might have. Now that Merlin had gotten the process up and running, Owl routinely assigned parasite sensors to each additional anti-Charis activist as he was identified. At this point, neither Merlin nor Cayleb or Sharleyan were trying to keep track of everyone being added to the files. If the “filters” Merlin had put in place were doing their jobs, Owl would identify any important Corisandian churchman, noble, or member of Parliament who crossed the path of anyone in the database. At that point, those involved would be brought to Merlin’s attention and flagged for closer future observation. Several of the more important (or more active, at least) of the street agitators had also been added to the “special watch” list, and Owl routinely notified Merlin of anyone new who crossed those people’s paths, regardless of the newcomer’s rank. For the most part, though, all they were really doing was to develop their list of active opponents and continue to chart the slowly growing, steadily more sophisticated organization those opponents were putting in place. And hard as it was watching it grow when they couldn’t nip it in the bud, none of them were foolish enough to think they could have prevented it from happening, in one form or another, whatever they did.

    And sooner or later, we will be in a position to break their organization, too, Sharleyan thought. In fact, sooner or later we’ll have to, and not just in Manchyr, either. The “Northern Conspiracy” is going to be on our little list, too. Eventually, they will give us evidence we can use, once we “discover it” through more acceptable avenues. And when we do, they’ll discover just how efficient our headsmen are.

    She was rather looking forward to that day, actually.

    “Well,” she said, “at least it doesn’t look like Corisande’s going up in flames tomorrow morning. It doesn’t hurt that you’re on your way for your first pastoral visit both here and in Corisande, either, Maikel. And I imagine” — her voice turned just a bit smug, undeniably it turned smug — “that once word gets out that we’re finally about to produce an heir it’s going to upset certain people I could mention almost as much as it’s going to reassure all of our people.”

    “Oh, I’m sure it is,” Cayleb agreed in a tone of profound satisfaction. “I’m sure it is.”

    “And neither is Emerald,” Staynair told them both. “Going up in flames, I mean.”

    None of them were speaking loudly, but the archbishop’s voice was lower pitched than either Cayleb’s or Sharleyan’s. They had the advantage of thick, stone walls, and of a heavy door of solid nearoak, warded by two imperial guardsmen personally selected for their duty by Merlin Athrawes and Edwyrd Seahamper. No one was going to get close enough to eavesdrop on them.



    Staynair, on the other hand, was ensconced in the admiral’s cabin aboard HMS Dawn Wind, one of the Charisian Navy’s newer galleons. As quarters went aboard cramped, overcrowded warships, it was a spacious abode, well-suited to the archbishop’s dignity and the privacy the duties of his office — not to mention his own need for meditation and prayer — frequently required. Of course, it was aboard one of the aforementioned cramped, overcrowded warships. Which was to say that the bulkheads were thin, the doors were anything but solid nearoak, and people were likely to inadvertently intrude upon his privacy at any moment. Fortunately, he’d already firmly established a tradition of retiring to his cabin every evening to enjoy the sunset through the stern windows and meditate. By now, his staff was accustomed to protecting his privacy during those moments. As long as he kept his voice down — and the cabin skylight closed — it was extremely unlikely anyone would hear his voice over the inevitable sounds of a sailing ship underway. And even less likely that anyone who heard him speaking would be able to make out words. The logical assumption would simply be that he was praying, and anyone who thought that was what was happening would get themselves out of eavesdropping range as quickly as they could.

    “In fact,” the archbishop continued now, “I think Emerald is going to be almost as happy to hear about your pregnancy as anybody in Old Charis or Chisholm, Sharleyan. They’re committed now — they know that — and they’re as eager to see the succession secured as anyone else.”

    “Really?” Sharleyan said. “I think that’s been my own impression,” she admitted, “but I also have to admit I’ve been a little afraid it was my impression because that was the impression I wanted to have, if you follow me.” She grimaced slightly. “In some ways, I think, having all this access courtesy of Merlin’s SNARCs only makes it harder to figure out what people are really thinking. I’ve spent years training myself to estimate things like that accurately on the basis of second- and third-hand reports. Interpretively, I suppose you might say. Now I’m actually trying to look at people directly and decide for myself, and I’ve discovered that it’s hard to get some sort of objective feel for what that many people are really thinking from direct observation. No wonder Merlin’s tended to get himself buried under the ‘data overload.’”

    Her voice softened with the final sentence, and Cayleb nodded in agreement. He still didn’t fully understand how the “high-speed data interface” Merlin’s PICA body had once possessed had functioned, but he didn’t have to understand how it had worked to understand what it had done. Or to understand how bitterly Merlin regretted its loss. Having had personal experience now of the sheer quantity of imagery and audio recordings flooding in through Merlin’s planet-circling network of reconnaissance platforms, he only wished he had a “high-speed interface.”

    Fortunately, they were making at least a little progress. And while Cayleb wasn’t positive, he suspected Owl was getting progressively better at sorting and prioritizing information. Whatever Owl was doing, though, the ability to assign specific portions of what Merlin called the “intel take” to someone besides just Merlin had helped enormously. There were limitations, of course. No one else had Merlin’s built in com equipment; they had to speak out loud, instead of sub-vocalizing, if they wanted to communicate with Owl (or anyone else), which severely limited where and when they could interact with the AI. And all of them were also creatures of flesh and blood, prey to all the weaknesses of the flesh — including the need for food and at least a reasonable amount of sleep.

    For that matter, even Merlin had discovered the hard way that he did need at least the equivalent of rest if he was going to maintain his mental focus. More to the point, Cayleb had figured that out, as well, and ordered him to take the “downtime” he needed to stay fresh and alert.

    Which, in fact, was precisely what he was doing at this very moment. Or he’d damned well better be, at any rate, because if Cayleb or Sharleyan caught him listening in when he was supposed to be “sleeping” — and Owl had been ordered to report him, if it happened — there’d be hell to pay.

    “Well, in this case, Your Majesty, I think your impression is accurate,” Staynair told her. “As a matter of fact, I suppose I might as well go ahead and admit I was hugely relieved by my own observations here.”

    “Here” wasn’t actually quite the correct word anymore, Sharleyan reflected. Dawn Wind had sailed from Eraystor Bay on the afternoon tide. At the moment, she was making her way — slowly, especially for someone who had experienced Merlin’s recon skimmer — out into the western half of Dolphin Reach, and she was no wyvern, able to ignore reefs, shoals, islands, currents, and unfavorable winds. If they were lucky, and if Dawn Wind managed — oh, unlikely event!– to avoid any major storms and made a relatively quick passage for this time of year, she would cover the seventy-three hundred sea miles to Cherayth in “only” about ten five-days.

    Sharleyan hated — absolutely hated — having Staynair stuck aboard a ship for that long, yet she’d been forced to agree with him that it wasn’t really as if they had a lot of choice. It was essential for the ordained head of the Church of Charis to visit all of the new empire’s lands, and unlike the Church of God Awaiting, the Church of Charis had decreed from the outset that its bishops and archbishops would be permanent residents of their sees. Instead of making brief annual visits to the souls committed to their care, they would make one — and only one — visit to the Church of Charis’ annual convocation each year. The rest of their time would be spent at home, seeing to their own and their flocks’ spiritual needs, maintaining their focus on what truly mattered. And the Church’s annual convocation would be held in a different city every year, not allowed to settle permanently into a single location which would, inevitably, become an imperial city — the Charisian equivalent of the City of Zion — in its own right.

    That meant the Archbishop of Charis would be traveling most years just as surely as any of his subordinate prelates. It would have been unthinkable for any Grand Vicar to make the same sort of journey and subject himself to all the wearying effort involved in it — or, for that matter, the inescapable perils of wind and weather inherent in such lengthy voyages — but that was fine with Maikel Staynair. The greater and more numerous the differences between the Church of Charis and the Church of God Awaiting, the better, for a lot of reasons, as far as he was concerned, and he was determined to establish the pattern firmly. Firmly enough that no empire-building successor of his would find the tradition easy to subvert.

    His current tour was part of building that tradition. Yet it was more than that, too, for he was determined to personally visit every capital of every political unit of the Charisian Empire — and as many more of the major cities as he could manage, as well. As Wind Thunder had so grumpily pointed out before his departure for Emerald, it was a security nightmare, in many respects. God only knew how many Temple Loyalists would simply have loved to stick something sharp and pointy between the ribs of “Arch Heretic Staynair,” as the Loyalist broadsides had dubbed him, but the number had to be enormous. The attempt had already been made once, right in his own cathedral. Who knew what kind of opportunities might arise — or might be manufactured — in someone else’s cathedral? On the other hand, he was right. He had to establish that kind of personal contact with as much as possible of the new Church’s clergy if he expected that clergy to accept that he truly cared about its worries, its concerns, its agonizing crises of conscience, as it coped with the spiritual demands of schism.

    And he does care, Sharleyan thought. He truly does. He understands what he’s asking of them. I don’t believe anyone not completely blinded by intolerance and hatred could fail to recognize that after five minutes in his presence, and that’s the exact reason he has to be doing this, however much what I really want to do is lock him up safe and sound inside Tellesberg Cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace.

    “So you’re satisfied about Emerald, at least. Where the Church is concerned, I mean,” Cayleb said, and Staynair nodded.

    “I don’t think Prince Nahrmahn’s Emeraldians have quite as much . . . fire in their bellies, let’s say, as we have back home in Tellesberg,” he said. “On the other hand, they weren’t the people the Group of Four intended to have raped and murdered, either. At the same time, though, I was deeply gratified by how clearly people in Emerald already recognized the fundamental corruption that let the Group of Four come to power in the first place. It’s become increasingly evident to me that many — indeed, I’m tempted to say most, if that’s not a case of letting my own optimism run away with me — of Emerald’s churchmen saw the Temple’s corruption long before Nahrmahn ever decided to swear fealty to the two of you, at any rate. And, believe me, those who did recognize it know they could have been Clyntahn’s next target, even they weren’t the first time around. In fact, I’m coming to the conclusion that we may discover a larger reformist movement and commitment than we’d initially anticipated in most places.”

    “A reformist commitment,” Cayleb repeated, and Staynair nodded again, far more serenely than Sharleyan suspected she would have been able to in response to the same question.

    “One step at a time, Cayleb,” the archbishop said calmly. “One step at a time. Merlin was right when he said God can creep in through the cracks whenever He decides to, but we’re going to have to let Him do this in His own good time, I think. First, let us correct the gross, obvious abuses. Once we have people in the habit of actually thinking about matters of doctrine and church policy it will be time to begin suggesting . . . more substantive changes.”

    “He’s right, Cayleb,” Sharleyan said quietly. Cayleb looked at her, and she reached across to touch the side of his face. It was a conversation they’d had often enough, and she knew how bitterly it grated upon his sense of responsibility that he literally dared not rip away the mask, expose the full, noisome extent of the lies and perverted faith which were the entire foundation of the Church of God Awaiting. Not doing that was going to be the true supreme challenge of his life.

    “I know he is, love,” Cayleb replied. “I don’t have to like it — and I won’t pretend I do — but I know he’s right.”

    “In the meantime, I’m starting to think young Saithwyk might actually make a good candidate for the inner circle, in a year or two,” Staynair said.

    “You’re joking!” Sharleyan realized she was sitting bolt upright in her chair, her eyes wide.

    “I don’t know why you should think anything of the sort, Your Majesty.”

    Staynair’s tone was imperturbability itself, although there was a slight twinkle in his eyes, and Sharleyan felt her own eyes narrowing. Fairmyn Saithwyk was the newly consecrated Archbishop of Emerald. Barely forty years old — less than thirty-seven in Terran Standard Years, in point of fact — he came from a conservative family, and his nomination had been firmly supported by Emerald’s House of Lords. That was scarcely the pedigree of a rebellious radical, she thought. Yet as she studied Staynair’s expression –

    “You’re not joking,” she said slowly.

    “No, I’m not.” He smiled gently at her. “You might want to remember that I’m the one with primary responsibility for evaluating Owl’s reports about the senior clergy,” he pointed out. “Given that, I don’t suppose it should be too surprising for me to have a somewhat different perspective. On the other hand, you should also remember who it was who nominated him in the first place.”

    “Nahrmahn,” Cayleb said thoughtfully.

    “Precisely, Your Grace.” Staynair bobbed his head in Cayleb’s direction in a half-bow. “You, of course, were never faced with the necessity of making a nomination, given my own fortuitous — and vastly qualified — presence right there in Tellesberg.”

    Cayleb made an indelicate sound, and Staynair chuckled. But then his expression sobered.

    “You didn’t have that luxury in Corisande, though, Cayleb. And Sharleyan didn’t have it in Chisholm. Or Nahrmahn in Emerald. Mind you, I’ve been quite satisfied with everything I’ve seen of Braynair. Both by the way he supported me and the Crown when Sharleyan organized the Imperial Parliament here in Tellesberg, and by the way he’s supported both of you — and me — there in Cherayth, since. And I think you’ve been quite satisfied with him, too.”

    He held Cayleb’s eye until the emperor nodded, then shrugged.

    “We take what God gives us, and we do the best with it that we can, Cayleb,” he said simply. “And in this case, I think He’s given us some sound timber to work with. Pawal Braynair is a good, solid, reliable man. He’s loyal to God and to Sharleyan, in that order, and however much he might have wished it weren’t so, he recognizes how corrupt the vicarate’s become. I’m sorry to say I don’t think he’ll ever be ready for the complete truth, any more than Rayjhis or Baron Green Mountain, but he’s just as good a man as they are.

    “Yet I’m actually inclined to think Nahrmahn may have found an even greater treasure in Saithwyk.” The archbishop’s lips seemed to twitch for a moment, and he shook his head. “I’m not at all certain, mind you, but I rather had the impression he was probing to see just how . . . revolutionary, in a doctrinal sense, I was prepared to be. I don’t have any idea yet where it is he wants to go, although I’m sure I’ll get around to figuring it out soon enough. I’ll want a little longer to watch him in action, mind you, but I’m serious. I think that ultimately he may make a very good candidate for the inner circle. And let’s face it, the more senior churchmen we can recruit, the better.”

    “Well, I doubt anyone could argue with that,” Sharleyan conceded. Then she shook herself and stood.

    “And on that note, Archbishop Maikel, I’m going to call this conference to an end and drag my husband off to bed before he decides to break out the whiskey and stay up all night carousing with you long distance.”

    “Carousing?” Cayleb repeated in injured tones. “I’ll have you know that one doesn’t ‘carouse’ with an archbishop!”

    “I didn’t say he’d be the one doing the carousing, either,” she pointed out with a stern twinkle. “And while it’s barely the twentieth hour where he is, it’s well past twenty-fourth here. An empress in my delicate condition needs her sleep, and if I’m going to get any sleep, I need my hot water bottle. I mean, my beloved husband.” She grinned at him. “I can’t imagine how I came to . . . misspeak myself that way.”

    “Oh, no?” Cayleb climbed out of his own chair, eyes laughing while both of them heard Staynair chuckling over the com. Sharleyan regarded him with bright-eyed innocence and shook her head.

    “Absolutely,” she assured him. “I would never think of you in such a purely utilitarian and selfish terms! I can’t imagine how a phrase like that could have somehow slipped out that way!”

    “Well, I can,” he told her ominously. “And I assure you, young lady — there’s going to be a penalty.”

    “Really?” She cocked her head, then batted her eyes at him. “Oh, goody! Should I ask one of the guardsmen to find us the peach preserves? After all, it’s not going to be all that much longer before I start losing the athleticism to really enjoy them, you know.”

    Cayleb made a strangled sound, his face turning a rather alarming shade of red as he fought his laughter, and she giggled delightedly, then looked at the archbishop and smiled sweetly.

    “And on that note, Maikel, goodnight.”

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