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A Mighty Fortress: Chapter Eighteen

       Last updated: Saturday, March 27, 2010 10:44 EDT



Archbishop’s Palace,
City of Tairys,
Province of Glacierheart,
Republic of Siddarmark

    It was the coldest winter Zhasyn Cahnyr could remember . . . in more than one way.

    Cahnyr was a lean man, and God had wasted very little fat when He designed him. As a result, he usually felt the cold more badly than many others did, and he’d always thought his assignment to the Archbishopric of Glacierheart, in the mountains of Siddarmark, was evidence that God and the Archangels had a sense of humor.

    Of late, that humor had seemed somewhat harder to find.

    He stood gazing out of his office window on the second floor of his palace in the city of Tairys. It wasn’t much of a palace as the great lords of Mother Church usually reckoned such things. For that matter, Tairys, despite its unquestioned status as Glacierheart Province’s largest city, was actually little more than a largish town by the standards of wealthier, more populous provinces.

    The people of Cahnyr’s archbishopric tended to be poor, hard-working, and devout. Most of the limited wealth Glacierheart could boast came from the province’s mines — which, unfortunately, produced not gold, silver, sapphires, or rubies, but simply coal. Cahnyr had nothing against coal. In fact, in his opinion, it had far greater intrinsic value than any of those more pricey baubles, and Glacierheart’s coal was good, clean-burning anthracite. It was an . . . honest sort of product. The sort which could be set to purposes of which he was fairly confident God approved. One that provided homes with desperately needed warmth in the midst of winter ice and snow. One that at least a few foundry owners here in Siddarmark were beginning to experiment with, turning it into coke in emulation of the current Charisian practice.

    Yet there were times when the archbishop could have wished for something a bit gaudier, a bit more in keeping with the vain desires of the world. One that would have provided his hard-working, industrious parishioners with a greater return. And one which did not, despite all the Order of Pasquale could do, send all too many of those parishioners to early graves with black lung.

    Cahnyr’s mouth twitched at the familiar thought, and he shook his head.

    Of course you wish that, Zhasyn, he scolded himself, although the scold was on the mild side, its hard edges worn down by frequent repetition. Any priest worth his cap and scepter wants his people to live longer, healthier, richer lives! But be grateful God at least gave them coal to mine and a way to get it to market.

    That thought drew his eyes to the Tairys Canal, frozen hard now, which connected the city to the Graywater River. The Graywater was navigable — for barge traffic, at least — for most of its four hundred-mile length, although there were several spots where locks had been required. It linked Ice Lake, northwest of Tairys, with Glacierborn Lake, two hundred miles to the southwest. From there, the mighty Siddar River ran sixteen hundred miles, snaking through the final mountains of Glacierheart, then through the foothills of Shiloh Province, and into Old Province to the capital city of Siddar, itself. Which meant barges of Glacierheart coal could be floated down the rivers all the way to Siddar, where it could be loaded aboard coasters and blue-water galleons for destinations all over the world.

    Most of it was used right here in the Republic, either dropped off at one of the river ports as it passed, or carried clear to Siddar City before it was sold. Of the portion that wasn’t disposed of in any of those places, the majority was shipped up the East Haven coast as far as Hsing-wu’s Passage, then west, through the passage, to serve the insatiable winter appetite of the city of Zion. The fact that it could be sent by water the entire way made its delivery price competitive with overland sources, even when those sources were much closer to hand and even in far off Zion, and its quality made it highly prized by discerning customers. Most of its purchase price got soaked up by the merchants, shippers, and factors through whose hands it passed, of course. Very little of the final selling price found its way into the hands — the gnarled, callused, broken-nailed, coal dust-ingrained hands — which had actually wrested it from the bowels of Glacierheart’s mountains. But it was enough, if only barely, and the people of Cahnyr’s archbishopric were grateful to get it. They were a provincial people, with only the most imperfect knowledge of the world beyond the craggy, snow-topped palisades of their mountain horizons, yet they knew they were better off than many other people on Safehold.

    That was one of the things Cahnyr loved about them. Oh, he loved their piety, as well. Loved the pure joy in God which he heard in their choirs, saw in their faces. But as much as he loved those things, as much as he treasured them, it was their sturdy independence, their stubborn self-reliance, that truly resonated somewhere deep inside him. They had a sense of self-sufficient integrity. Always quick to help a neighbor, always generous even when their own purses were sadly pinched, there was something in them that demanded they stand upon their own two feet. They knew what it meant to earn their own livelihoods by the sweat of their brows, by backbreaking labor in the deep and dangerous mines. They entered the labor force early, and they left it late, and along the way, they learned to value themselves. To recognize that they had given good value and more for those livelihoods. That they had managed to put food on their families’ tables. That they had met their obligations, and that they were beholding to no one but themselves.

    Clyntahn and Trynair and Rayno have never understood why I love these people so, the archbishop thought now, his eyes sweeping the mist-shrouded, snow-covered mountains. Their ideal is what Rayno gets in Harchong — serfs, beaten down people who “know their place.” Cahnyr’s face hardened. They like knowing their “flocks” aren’t going to get uppity. Aren’t going to argue with their secular and temporal masters. Aren’t going to start thinking for themselves, wondering why it is that Mother Church is so incredibly wealthy and powerful while her children starve. Aren’t going to start demanding the princes of Mother Church remember that they serve God . . . and not the other way around.

    Cahnyr knew the vast majority of his fellow prelate had never understood why he insisted on making two lengthy pastoral visits to his archbishopric every year, instead of the one grudging, flying visit per year most of them made. The fact that he voluntarily spent the winter in Glacierheart, away from the amenities of the Temple, the diversions of Zion, the political maneuvering and alliance building which were so central to the vicarate’s existence, had always amused them. Oh, one or two of them realized how he’d come to love the spectacular beauty, the cragginess of towering mountains, snowcaps and dense, evergreen forests. Waterfalls that tumbled for hundreds of feet through lacey banners of spray. The deep, icy cold lakes fed by the high mountain glaciers from which the province took its name. A few others — mostly men he’d known in seminary, when he’d been far younger — knew of his long-standing interest in geology, the way he’d always loved studying God’s handiwork in the bones of the world, his pleasure in spelunking, and the hushed cathedral stillness he’d found in deep caverns and caves.

    Yet even the ones who knew about those sides of his nature, who could dimly grasp what a man like him might see in an archbishopric like his, still found his preference for Glacierheart and his lengthy visits to its uncouth, country bumpkin inhabitants difficult to understand. It was so eccentric. So . . . quaint. They’d never understood the way he drew strength and sustenance from the faith which burned so brightly here in Glacierheart.

    Nor had they ever understood that the people of Glacierheart — nobles (such as they were and what there were of them) and commoners alike — knew he genuinely cared about them. Those other archbishops, and those vicars, didn’t worry about such minor matters. Even the best of them, far too often, considered that they’d done their jobs and more by keeping tithes within survivable bounds, seeing to it that enough other priests were sent to their archbishoprics to keep their churches and their priories filled, making certain their bishop executors weren’t skimming too much off their parishioners. They were no longer village priests; God had called them to greater and more important duties in the administration of His Church, and there were plenty of other priests who could supply the pastoral care they no longer had time to give.

    Which is precisely how this entire business in Charis managed to take all of them so completely by surprise, Cahnyr thought grimly. He shook his head, eyes hard on the horizon — harder than the ice and snow upon which they gazed. The idiots. The fools! They sneer at efforts to reform Mother Church because she’s working just fine . . . for them. For their families. For their power, and for their purses. And if she’s working for them, then, obviously, she must be working for everyone else. Or for everyone else who matters, at least. Because they’re right. They aren’t priests anymore . . . and they don’t even realize what an abomination in God’s eyes a bishop or a vicar becomes when he forgets that first, last, and always, he’s a pastor, a shepherd, a protector and teacher. When he gives up his priesthood in the name of power.

    He made himself step back from the anger. Made himself draw a deep breath, then gave himself a shake, and turned away from the window. He crossed to the fireplace, opened the screen, and used the tongs to position a couple of fresh lumps of coal on the grate. He listened to the sudden, fierce crackling sound as the flame explored the surfaces of the new fuel and stood warming his hands for a few moments. Then he replaced the screen, walked back to his desk, and seated himself behind it.

    He knew the real reason his anger against the corrupters of Mother Church turned so easily into a white-hot fury these days, crackling and roaring up like the flames on his grate. And he knew his anger was no longer the simple product of outrage. No, it was rather more pointed and much more . . . personal now.

    He closed his eyes, traced the sign of the scepter across his chest, and murmured yet another brief, heartfelt prayer for his friends in Zion. For the other members of the Circle who he’d been forced to leave behind.

    He wondered if Samyl Wylsynn had discovered the traitor’s identity. Had he uncovered the deadly weakness in the walls of the Circle’s fortress? Or was he still guessing? Still forced to keep his knowledge to himself lest Clyntahn realize he knew what was coming and strike even more quickly and more ruthlessly?

    I shouldn’t say it, Lord, the archbishop thought, but thank You for sparing me Samyl’s burden. I ask You to be with him and protect him, and all of my brothers. If they can be saved, then I ask You to save them, because I love them, and because they are such good men and love You so dearly. Yet you are the Master Builder of all this world. You alone know the true plan of Your work. And so, in the end, what I ask most is that You will strengthen me in the days to come and help me to be obedient to whatever plan You have.

    He opened his eyes again, and leaned back in his chair. That chair was the one true luxury Cahnyr had permitted himself — the one extravagance. Although, to be fair, it would have been more accurate to say it was the one true extravagance he had allowed himself to accept. Eight years earlier, when Gharth Gorjah, his longtime personal secretary, had told him the people of the archbishopric wanted to buy him a special Midwinter gift and asked him for suggestions, Cahnyr had commented that he needed a new chair for his office because the old one (which was probably at least a year or two older than Father Gharth) was finally wearing out. Father Gharth had nodded and gone away, and the archbishop hadn’t thought very much about it. Not until he arrived for his regular winter pastoral visit — the long one, when he always spent at least two months here in Glacierheart — and found the chair waiting for him.

    His parishioners had ordered it from Siddar City itself. It had cost — easily — the equivalent of a year’s income for a family of six, and it had been worth every mark of its exorbitant price. Cahnyr had discovered only later that Fraidmyn Tohmys, his valet, had provided his exact measurements so that the craftsman who had built that chair could fit it exactly to him. It was in many ways an austere design, without the bullion-embroidered upholstery and gem-set carvings others might have demanded, but that suited Cahnyr’s personality and tastes perfectly. And if no money had been wasted on ostentatious decoration, it was the most sinfully comfortable chair in which Zhasyn Cahnyr had ever sat.

    At the moment, however, its comfort offered precious little comfort.

    His lips twitched sourly as he realized what he’d just thought, but that didn’t make his current situation any more amusing, and the brief flash of humor faded quickly.

    He’d been deeply touched when Wylsynn told him about his suspicions, about his growing certainty that the Circle had been compromised, betrayed to Clyntahn and the Inquisition. The fact that Samyl had trusted him enough to tell him, had known he wasn’t the traitor, had filled him with an odd sort of joy even as the terror of that treachery’s consequences flooded through him. And Samyl had been as blunt and forthright as ever.

    “One reason I’m telling you, Zhasyn,” he’d said, “is that unlike any of the rest of us, you have the perfect reason to leave Zion in the middle of winter. Everyone knows about your ‘eccentricities,’ so no one — not even Clyntahn — will think it’s out of character for you to return to Glacierheart as usual. I’m going to do what I can to get as many as possible of our other archbishops and bishops out of harm’s way, but if we’ve been as thoroughly betrayed as I think we have, all of us are going to be marked for the Inquisition. That includes you.”

    Wylsynn had looked into his eyes, then reached out and rested one hand on each of Cahnyr’s shoulders.

    “You got Erayk Dynnys’ final letters out of his cell, Zhasyn. And we got them to his wife — his widow — in Charis. This isn’t going to be that simple. This time they know about us. But I don’t think they’re likely to make an open move against us for at least another month or two. So you’ll have some time once you get to Glacierheart. Use it, Zhasyn.” The hands on his shoulders had shaken him with powerful, gentle emphasis. “Use it. Make your plans, however you can, and then disappear.”

    Cahnyr had opened his mouth to protest, only to find Wylsynn shaking him again.

    “You couldn’t accomplish anything here even if you stayed,” the vicar had told him. “All you could do would be to die right along with the rest of us. I know you’re prepared to do that, Zhasyn, but I think God has more in mind for you yet than martyrdom. Much though I hate to admit it, I’ve come to the conclusion that the ‘Church of Charis’ has become our only true hope. Well, not ours, so much, since I don’t see much Staynair or Cayleb could do to save the Circle even if they knew about our predicament. But our only hope for what we set out to accomplish in the first place. The rot’s gone too deep here in the Temple. Clyntahn and Trynair — but especially Clyntahn — are too corrupt. They’re actively committed to maintaining the very evils that are turning Mother Church into an abomination, and if we ever truly had any hope of stopping them, we’ve lost it now. We’ve run out of time. So the only hope I see is that the Charisians will succeed in challenging them. That the example of Charis from without will force reform from within. What that ultimately means for the universality of Mother Church is more than I can say, yet I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s more important she be God’s Church, be she broken into however many pieces, than that she remain one unbroken entity enslaved to the power of the Dark.”

    Cahnyr had seen the pain in Wylsynn’s eyes, recognized the bitterness of that admission. And in that recognition, he’d realized Wylsynn had come to speak for him, as well. His very soul quailed from the thought of schism, the nightmare of the religious strife — the enormous scope for doctrinal error — that must sweep over the world if Mother Church dissolved into competing sects. And yet even that was preferable to watching God’s Church slide deeper and deeper into corruption, for that was the worst and darkest “doctrinal error” of which Zhasyn Cahnyr could possibly conceive.

    Yet even though he’d found himself in unwilling agreement with Wylsynn’s analysis, and even though he’d shared every bit of Wylsynn’s urgency, he’d had no idea how he might contrive to escape the Inquisition in the end. True, he’d probably have at least a slightly better chance from Glacierheart than he would in the Temple itself, but that wasn’t saying a great deal.

    He was positive Father Bryahn Teagmahn, the Glacierheart Intendant, was at least generally aware of Clyntahn’s suspicions. The Intendant, like all intendants, had been assigned to Glacierheart by the Office of the Inquisition, and, also like all intendants, he was a member of the Order of Schuler. He was also a cold, harsh-minded disciplinarian. Cahnyr had tried to get him replaced several times, and each time his request had been denied. That was unusual, to say the least, and bespoke an interest in keeping Teagmahn here at a very high level within the Inquisition, all of which meant there was no question in Cahnyr’s mind where “his” Intendant’s loyalties lay. Yet, sad to say, Teagmahn wasn’t exactly the most deft agent Clyntahn could possibly have selected. Perhaps the Grand Inquisitor had felt sufficient dedication would substitute for a certain lack of subtleness? Or had he decided that only a moderate degree of competence would be required to keep an eye on an obviously addled “eccentric” like Cahnyr? Whatever the logic, Teagmahn had been doing a very poor job of late of disguising the suspicion with which he regarded his nominal superior. He was ever so much more attentive than he’d normally been, constantly calling upon the archbishop, checking with him, making certain he had no unexpected needs or tasks for his loyal Intendant. As ways of keeping an eye on someone went, it was about as subtle as throwing a cobblestone through a window. Which, unfortunately, made it no less effective.

    Worse, that very brute force technique told Cahnyr a great deal. It told him Clyntahn was confident he had the archbishop under his thumb, ready to be snapped up whenever the moment came. Which meant Teagmahn would be alert for any arrangements Cahnyr might make, and Tairys was a small enough city that it wouldn’t be difficult for the Intendant and the Inquisition to monitor his actions. He’d had absolutely no idea what he was going to do after he reached his archbishopric, not even the first faint glimmering of a plan.

    Which was one reason he’d been astonished when he arrived here and discovered that, apparently, he wasn’t the only one who’d been thinking about that.

    Now he reached into the inner pocket of his cassock and withdrew the letter once more.

    He didn’t know who’d sent it, and he didn’t recognize the handwriting. He supposed it was entirely possible it had been sent to him on Clyntahn’s orders as a means of provoking him into a false move to help justify his own arrest when the time came, but it seemed unlikely. The degree of subtleness such a strategy implied went far beyond anything Clyntahn or the Inquisition had ever before wasted on him.

    Besides, there was no need for the Grand Inquisitor to manufacture or provoke some sort of self-incriminating action on Cahnyr’s part. He had the authority to order Cahnyr’s arrest whenever he chose to, and he could always count upon the skill and energy of his Inquisitors to produce whatever “evidence” he might feel he required. Given that, and given the contempt with which he so obviously regarded Cahnyr, setting some sort of complex, subtle trap would have been totally out of character.

    Which left the perplexing question of exactly who else might have sent the letter.

    He was positive it wasn’t from Wylsynn. First, because the letter had beaten him here. If Wylsynn had wanted to communicate its contents to him, he could simply have spoken to him face-to-face, directly, without the letter’s protective obliqueness, before he ever left to Zion. Second, if Wylsynn had actually sent it after Cahnyr left Zion for some reason, he would have sent it in cipher, and he wouldn’t have spent so much time speaking in what amounted to riddles.

    Now Cahnyr unfolded it, and his eyes narrowed as he re-read the single page yet again.

    “I realize you have reason for anxiety at this time, Your Eminence, and I understand from a mutual friend why that is. I realize also that you have no idea who I am, and I wouldn’t blame you for simply burning this letter immediately. In fact, burning it might well be your best choice, although I would like to think you’ll read it in full first. But our mutual friend has shared his concerns with me. I believe he’s been willing to do so because I have never been a member of his inner circle, one might say. Nonetheless, I am aware of your hopes and aspirations . . . and of your current difficulties. It is possible I may be able to be of some assistance with those difficulties.

    “I have taken the liberty of suggesting a few alternatives. The degree to which any one of these may be applicable will, of course, depend on many factors which I cannot possibly properly evaluate at this time from so far away. And the fact that I’m unable to give you a return address will make it impossible for you to inform me as to which, if any, of my suggested alternatives strike you as most workable.

    “Because of that, I have also taken the liberty of making a few definite arrangements. The critical point, Your Eminence, is that any successful travel plans on your part will require you to be in one of three locations within a specific window of time. If you can contrive to reach one of those locations at the appropriate time, I believe you’ll find a friendly face waiting for you. Precisely how things might proceed beyond that point is more than I dare commit to writing at this time. We can only trust in God for that. Some might say that seems a futile trust, given the darkness you — and we all — face, I suppose. Yet despite that present Darkness, there is always a far greater Light waiting to receive us. With that in our hearts, how can we not risk a little loss in this world if that should be the price of setting our hands to the work we know God has prepared for us?”

    There was no second or third page to the letter. Or, rather, there was no longer any second or third page. Cahnyr had taken his mysterious correspondent’s advice to heart in that much, at least. But he’d kept the first page. It was his talisman. More than that, it was the physical avatar of hope. Of hope, that most fragile and most wonderful of commodities. If the author of that letter had written truly — and despite a conscientious effort to remain skeptical, Cahnyr believed he had — then there were people in God’s world still willing to act as they believed He wanted them to. Still willing to set their hands to that task, even knowing all Clyntahn and the twisted power of the Inquisition might do to them.

    That was why he’d kept that single sheet of paper written in an unknown hand, and why he carried it in the pocket of his cassock, close against his heart. Because it reminded him, restored his hope, that Light was mightier than the Dark. And the reason Light was mightier was that it resided in the human heart, and the human soul, and the human willingness to risk everything to do what was right.

    And as long as even a flicker of that willingness burns in a single heart, illuminates a single soul, the Dark cannot win, Zhasyn Cahnyr thought as he refolded that single priceless sheet and placed it almost reverently back in the pocket next to his heart once more.

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