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A Mighty Fortress: Chapter Twenty One

       Last updated: Wednesday, April 14, 2010 19:59 EDT




The Temple,
City of Zion,
The Temple Lands

    Silent snowflakes battered against the floor-to-ceiling windows like lost ghosts. The brilliant, mystic lighting which always illuminated the outside of the Temple turned the swirling flakes into glittering gems until the wind caught them and swept them to their rendezvous with the window. Hauwerd Wylsynn watched them changing from gorgeous jewels into feathery ghosts and felt a coldness, far deeper than that of the night beyond the windows, whispering, whispering in the marrow of his bones.

    He looked away from the transmuting snowflakes at the luxurious suite assigned to his brother. Every vicar had personal apartments in the enormous, majestic sweep of the Temple, and as apartments went, Samyl Wylsynn’s were not particularly huge. They weren’t tiny, either, yet they were substantially more modest than a vicar of Samyl’s seniority might have demanded.

    They were more plainly and simply furnished, too, without the sumptuous luxury other vicars required. Zhaspahr Clyntahn, the current Grand Inquisitor, was a case in point. It was rumored (almost certainly correctly) that the art treasures in his chambers, alone, were probably worth the total annual income of most baronies. And that didn’t even consider the fact that Clyntahn had demanded and received one of the coveted corner apartments, with windows looking both east and north, allowing him to survey the roofs, towers, and buildings of the city of Zion through one set and the magnificent dome and colonnade of the main Temple through the other.

    Hauwerd supposed that one could make the argument — as Clyntahn obviously did — that such quarters were merely in keeping with the office of the man responsible for overseeing the state of Mother Church’s soul. More than once, he’d heard Clyntahn piously declaiming about the need to properly support the authority and prestige of the Grand Inquisitor. Of the need to emphasize the necessary — always necessary — extent of that official’s authority over all of Mother Church’s children in ways which even the most worldly soul might recognize. To reach out to those too easily impressed by the trappings and power of this world in ways which even they could not ignore. It was never about his own gluttonous, greedy, debauched, power-mongering personal lifestyle or desires. Oh, Langhorne, no!

    Hauwerd felt his lips tightening, and acid churned in his stomach as he compared his brother’s chosen simplicity — the absence of statuary, the dearth of priceless carpets, the lack of stupendous oil paintings by the greatest masters Safehold had ever produced — with Clyntahn’s. There were paintings on Samyl’s walls, but they were portraits of both his first and his current wife, his three sons, his two daughters, his son-in-law, and his first grandchild. The furniture was comfortable, and certainly not cheap, yet it was only furniture, selected because it was comfortable and not to emphasize the importance of its owner. And the artworks which adorned his bookshelves and prayer desk were modest and understated, almost all exquisitely wrought, but most of them by lesser known artists he had chosen to support with his patronage because something about the pieces had touched his own heart, his own soul and faith.

    If Samyl had only won the election, Hauwerd thought bitterly. He came so close. In fact, I’m still not convinced Clyntahn really won. That lickspittle Rayno, was in charge of the vote count, after all, and look where he wound up!

    Of course, if Samyl had won, if he’d become the new Grand Inquisitor instead of Clyntahn, the vast gulf between the fashion in which he would have furnished his apartments in the Temple and the fashion in which Clyntahn had done the same thing would have been the least of Mother Church’s differences.

    For one thing, this damned schism would never have happened. Samyl would never have signed off on Clyntahn’s casual proposal to completely destroy an entire kingdom just because it had pissed him off. For that matter, Clyntahn wouldn’t have been in any position to be tossing off suggestions like that, in the first place! Of course, Hauwerd admitted grimly, it’s probably at least as likely that if he’d won he would have been assassinated by now. It’s happened to more than one of our ancestors, after all. So at least we were spared that much.

    Not that it’s going to make any difference in the end.

    He drew a deep breath, and his hard eyes softened as he glanced at his brother. He and Samyl had always been close, despite the almost twelve years between their ages. He’d always admired Samyl, always known Samyl was fated to do great things for God and Mother Church.

    He knew his mother had been dismayed when Samyl chose the Schuelerites. She’d might not have been a Wylsynn by birth, but she’d scarcely been blind to the way in which the heritage of the family into which she had married had pitted so many of its members against Church corruption over the last three or four centuries. She’d understood what had drawn Samyl into the Order of Schueler, recognized his burning desire to do something to fight the evils he saw gathering about the Temple . . . and she’d remembered what had happened to his great grandfather, just over a hundred years ago, now. Saint Evyrahard’s grand vicarate had been the shortest in history, and whatever the official histories might say, no one ever doubted that his “accidental fall” had been the direct result of his efforts to reform the vicarate. And the grand vicarate of Grand Vicar Tairhel, Samyl and Hauwerd’s grand uncle, had been almost as short. There were no rumors to suggest Tairhel’s death had been arranged, but he’d been old and in ill-health when he’d been raised to Langhorne’s Throne, without the vigor and energy which had characterized Evyrahard. His fellow vicars may have felt they could simply wait for natural causes to put an end to his reform efforts. Of course, it was also always possible the “natural causes” which had finally killed him had been nudged along just a bit despite, what anyone might have thought.

    Well, Mother, Hauwerd thought now. You were right to worry. I’m just glad you and Father won’t be here to see what happens. I’m sure you’ll know anyway, but the Writ says that from God’s side, all things make sense. I hope that’s true, because from where I sit right this minute, there’s neither sense nor sanity in what’s about to happen. And there sure as Shan-wei isn’t a trace of justice in it!

    “What did you think of the wine?” Samyl asked calmly, and Hauwerd snorted.

    “I thought it was excellent. Saint Hyndryk’s, wasn’t it? The ‘64?” Samyl nodded serenely, and Hauwerd snorted again, louder. “Well, at least that’s one thing Clyntahn won’t get his pig-hands on!”

    “Not exactly the reason I chose to serve it tonight, but a thought worth remembering, I suppose,” Samyl agreed so serenely a corner of Hauwerd’s innermost soul wanted to scream at him in frustration. That serenity, that total, always grounded faith, was one of the things Hauwerd had always most admired in his brother. At the moment, however, it rasped on his nerves almost as much as it comforted him. And the real reason it did, however little he might want to examine the truth, was that Samyl’s serenity — his acceptance of God’s will — actually made Hauwerd question his own faith.

    He’d fought that doubt with all his strength, yet he’d never been able to completely vanquish it. Surely, a truly just God, archangels who truly served the Light, would never have abandoned a man as good as his brother, one who longed only to serve God and love his fellow man. Not simply abandon him, but deliver him into the hands of a vile, corrupt, evil man like Zhaspahr Clyntahn. Into the hands of a man prepared to slaughter an entire kingdom. The hands of a man who was armed with every terrible punishment of The Book of Schueler . . . and perfectly willing, eager, to inflict every single one of them upon blameless children of God whose only crime had been to resist his own corruption.

    Hauwerd Wylsynn knew his own weaknesses, his own shortcomings. He couldn’t really honestly say he thought any of them were so terrible as to justify the fate Clyntahn had in mind for him, either, yet he was prepared to admit that he, too, had been prey to the sin of ambition. That, on occasion, he had allowed the seductive power of his birth and his office to lead him into taking the easy course, accepting the shortcut, using God instead of using himself in God’s service. But he also knew Samyl hadn’t done that. That Samyl truly had been the spiritual heir of Saint Evyrahard, and not just his descendent. What could God possibly be thinking to let the man who should have been His champion, the man who would willingly have embraced his own death to redeem His Church, come to an end like this one?

    That wasn’t the sort of question anyone, far less someone consecrated to the orange, was supposed to ask of God. And a vicar of the Church of God Awaiting wasn’t supposed to rail at God, indict Him for abandoning even the most blameless of His servants. That was what faith was supposed to be for. To help a man accept what he could not understand.

    He started to say just that. To take his doubt, his anger, to Samyl as he’d done so often before, knowing his brother would listen without condemnation, then offer the quiet words of comfort (or the gently stern words of admonition) he needed to hear. But this time, no words could comfort the questions burning deep inside Hauwerd Wylsynn, just as no words of admonition could banish them. And this time, he would not — could not — add the burden of his own doubt to the weight already crushing down upon his brother.

    At least we got as many of the junior members of the Circle as we could out of Zion before the snows really set in, he reminded himself. And along the way, I think, some of the other vicars must have realized what Samyl was doing. I hope some of them did, anyway. That they were able to come up with plans which might give them at least a tiny hope of escaping when the Inquisitors come for us all. That’s the only reason I can think of for so many of their families to have “disappeared,” at least.

    His eyes went back to the portraits of his brother’s family. They had vanished, as well, although he didn’t think Samyl had arranged it. In fact, he’d been there when his brother received the letter from his wife, Lysbet, informing him that she would be coming to the Temple this winter after all . . . in spite of his specific instructions that she stay away. He’d seen the way Samyl’s facial muscles had sagged, despite his best effort to hide his reaction, and he’d understood exactly why his brother had just aged five years in front of him. But then, still three days’ journey short of Zion, Lyzbet and the children had disappeared one night.

    There’d been evidence of a struggle, but no sign of who the struggle might have been with, and Lysbet, her two boys, and her daughter had simply vanished. At first, Samyl had looked even older and more . . . defeated than before, but then gradually, he’d realized that whatever else had happened, his family had not been quietly taken into custody by the Inquisition, after all. No one seemed to have the least idea what had happened to them, and there’d been at least some expressions of sympathy, but it was Zhaspahr Clyntahn’s barely hidden fury which had convinced Hauwerd the Inquisition truly hadn’t had a thing to do with Samyl’s family’s “abduction.”

    Obviously, the kidnapping of a vicar’s family had sparked one of the most intense manhunts in the history of Mother Church, yet not one single sign of the culprits had been discovered. Over the five-days which had followed, Samyl had born up nobly under the strain as day after day passed with no ransom demand, no threat, no word at all. Hauwerd was quite certain the Inquisition was still watching his brother like king wyverns waiting to pounce, hoping for some break, some communication, which would lead it to Lysbet. After so long, though, even Clyntahn’s agents seemed to be giving up hope of that.

    And it was probably Lyszbet’s disappearance which had inspired some of the Circle’s other members to make arrangements for their own families. Hauwerd hoped those arrangements had been in time and that they were going to prove effective.

    And I hope — pray — the others understand why we couldn’t warn them directly.

    In his own mind, Hauwerd had narrowed the suspects to no more than half a dozen. The problem was that he didn’t know which of those half-dozen might have turned informant, betrayed them all to Clyntahn, revealed the existence — and membership — of the organization of reformists. For that matter, he might have been wrong. The traitor might not be one of the people he was convinced it had to be. And they could warn none of the Circle’s members without warning all of them . . . including the traitor.

    Had they done that, Clyntahn would have struck with instant, vicious power rather than waiting until what he judged to be the perfect moment. Waiting, Hauwerd was certain, so that he could savor the sweet bouquet of his coming triumph over the men who had dared to challenge his authority.

    And so they’d said nothing, using the time while Clyntahn waited to do what little they could to mitigate the blow when he finally pounced. Getting all of the junior bishops and archbishops they could out of Zion where they might be safe. Alerting their network of correspondents and agents outside the innermost circle to quietly prepare the deepest boltholes they could contrive.

    Thank God I never married, Hauwerd thought. Maybe that was another way I had less faith than Samyl, because I was never willing to trust God enough to give up those hostages to someone like Clyntahn.

    “I understand Coris arrived this evening,” he said out loud, and Samyl smiled faintly at his younger brother’s obvious effort to find something “safe” to talk about.

    “Yes, so I heard,” he replied, and shook his head. “That must have been a nightmare of a journey this time of year.”

    “I’m sure it was, but I doubt the thought particularly bothered Clyntahn or Trynair,” Hauwerd said sourly. “I suppose we should be grateful they didn’t insist he drag the boy along with him!”

    “I’m sure they saw no need to.” Samyl shrugged. “He’s only a little boy, Hauwerd. For at least the next several years, Daivyn’s going to do what he’s told by his elders simply because that’s what he’s accustomed to doing. I imagine Clyntahn figures there’s plenty of time to . . . impress him with the realities of his position, let’s say, before he gets old enough to turn into a headstrong young prince.”

    “Assuming he and Trynair are willing to let the boy grow up at all.” Hauwerd’s tone was harsh, bitter, yet it was less bitter than his eyes.

    “Assuming that, yes,” Samyl was forced to concede. “I’ve prayed about it. Of course, I’d feel more optimistic if it didn’t seem so evident God has decided to let things work their own way out.”

    Hauwerd’s jaw muscles tightened again as he fought down yet another stab of anger. Still, as Samyl had pointed out more than once, God wouldn’t have given man free will if He hadn’t expected him to use it. And that meant those who chose to do evil could do evil. Which automatically implied that other men — and even little boys — could and would suffer the consequences of those evil actions. No doubt it truly was all part of God’s great plan, but there were times — like now — when it seemed unnecessarily hard on the victims.



    “Well, I hope Coris is as smart as I’ve always heard he is,” Hauwerd said after a moment. “That boy — and his sister — are going to need every edge they can find if they’re going to survive.”

    This time, Samyl only nodded, his eyes softening briefly with affection. So like his brother, he thought, to be worrying about a little boy and a teenaged girl he’d never even met. That was the Temple Guardsman in him, the pugnacious, protective streak which had driven him to serve God first with a sword, and only later with his heart and mind. He was glad Hauwerd already knew how deeply he loved him, that neither of them had to say it at this time, in this place.

    “And on that note,” Hauwerd said, glancing at the clock on the wall — the clock which, like every other clock in the Temple, always kept perfect, precisely synchronized time — and then climbing out of his chair, “I’m afraid I have to be going. I’ve got a couple of errands I need to take care of tonight.”

    “Anything I can help with?” Samyl asked, and Hauwerd snorted yet again, this time much more gently.

    “You may not believe this, Samyl, but I’ve been buttoning my own shirt and tying my own shoes for, oh, years now.”

    “Point taken.” Samyl chuckled softly. “And I know you have. So go see to your errands. Supper tomorrow night at your place?”

    “It’s a date,” Hauwerd said, then nodded to his brother and left.




    The sneeze seemed to have taken the top right off of Vicar Rhobair Duchairn’s head. Not even the Temple’s sacred, always comfortable precincts seemed capable of defeating the common cold. This was the third cold Duchairn had already entertained this winter, and this one looked like being worse than either of its predecessors.

    He paused long enough to get out his handkerchief and blow his nose — taking the opportunity to recover from the sneeze at the same time — then resumed his progress along the corridor. He was already late for the scheduled meeting, although timing wasn’t actually all that critical. He was the Church of God Awaiting’s Treasurer, after all.

    The people waiting for him all reported to him, and it wasn’t as if they could start things without him. And it wasn’t as if he were really looking forward to the conference, for that matter. The Treasury had been hemorrhaging money ever since the Kingdom of Charis smashed the initial attack upon it, and he didn’t see that situation getting better any time soon. Especially not with the blow the Church’s cash flow had taken. Not only had the Kingdoms of Charis and Chisholm and the Princedoms of Emerald and Corisande — not to mention the Grand Duchy of Zebediah — abruptly stopped paying their tithes (which, in Charis’ case, had been very large tithes), but Charis’ relentless destruction of its enemies’ commerce had dealt severe damage to the economies of those enemies. And as their economies slowed, so did their ability to generate tithes. According to Duchairn’s latest estimates, the cash flow from the mainland kingdoms’ annual tithes had dropped by somewhere around ten percent . . . and total tithes, including those which should have been coming in from the lands now in rebellion against Mother Church, had fallen by over a third. It was fortunate the Church had so many other lucrative sources of income, but there was a limit to how much slack could be squeezed out of those other sources. For the first time in mortal memory, the Church of God Awaiting was spending money faster than it was taking money in, and that sort of thing couldn’t be sustained forever.

    Which, unfortunately, certain of his colleagues seemed to find it difficult to grasp.

    His expression darkened as he thought about those other colleagues. Neither Trynair nor Clyntahn had mentioned to him that they intended to “interview” the Earl of Coris this morning. He was fairly confident he had sources neither of those two suspected he possessed, but he wasn’t going to risk revealing those sources’ existence by challenging his “colleagues” on something he wasn’t supposed to know anything about. He doubted either of them would have been prepared to make an issue out of it if he’d suddenly turned up for their “interview,” yet he was quite positive they’d deliberately timed things so it just happened to fall opposite his already-scheduled Treasury meeting. Both of them, each for his own reasons, would have found Duchairn’s presence for the discussion they had in mind decidedly unwelcome.

    And that, unfortunately, neatly underscored the differences between him and them . . . and the dangers yawning about him because of those differences.

    He paused, looking out the windows which formed one entire side of the hallway. The snow had stopped shortly after dawn, and brilliant sunlight sparkled and bounced from the new, deeper layers of trackless white which had blanketed the Temple’s grounds. The mystic, unbreakable, perfectly insulated crystal of the windows muted the snow glare, however, and the icy vista’s pristine purity made him acutely aware of the warm air moving gently about him.

    And made him think about all the people outside the Temple, especially the city of Zion’s many poor, who were anything but warm and comfortable this freezing cold morning, as well. That was yet another thought he was unprepared to share with his erstwhile colleagues in the Group of Four. Not because they didn’t already realize it would have occurred to him, but because it would have done no good and might do quite a lot of harm.

    Zahmsyn Trynair would simply have looked at him with a certain impatient incomprehension. If the Church of God Awaiting’s Chancellor ever thought of Zion’s poor at all, it was undoubtedly to remember the passage from The Book of Langhorne in which the Archangel had warned that they would have the poor with them always. If that had been good enough for Langhorne, it was good enough for Trynair.

    Allayn Maigwair, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t even notice that Duchairn had mentioned them. These days, especially, all of the Church’s captain general’s thoughts and efforts were fully concentrated on building up the fleet needed to crush the upstart Empire of Charis once and for all. The fact that he’d started out building the wrong fleet, and that Duchairn’s Treasury had disbursed a staggering sum to pay for hundreds of galleys which were effectively useless, lent a certain emphasis to his concentration, no doubt. Of course, Maigwair had never been overburdened with intellect in the first place. Concentrating the entire, scant sore of it he possessed shouldn’t require all that great an effort. He should have been able to spare at least a little thought for the men and women and children — especially the children — for whom every vicar was supposed to be responsible.

    And then there was Clyntahn. The Grand Inquisitor. The one member of the Group of Four who would have regarded Duchairn’s concern over the poor with neither incomprehension nor indifference. Duchairn sometimes wished he himself had felt called to the Order of Bédard instead of the Order of Chihiro. He was pretty sure any Bédardist who wasn’t terrified of the Grand Inquisitor would have unhesitatingly diagnosed him as a paranoiac, and one whose paranoia was growing steadily deeper, as well. Of course, finding any Bédardist who was insane enough not to be terrified of Clyntahn would probably have been an impossible task. Still, Duchairn would have liked to have something besides his own layman’s opinion — where matters of the mind were concerned, at least — to go on.

    Not that it mattered a great deal. He didn’t need a formal diagnosis to know Clyntahn would have taken any comment about the Writ’s injunction to care for the poor and the least fortunate of God’s children as a criticism of the Church’s record in that regard. As a matter of fact, he would have been perfectly correct if he’d done so, too, Duchairn admitted. But at this particular moment, when Zhaspahr Clyntahn had divided the entire world into just three categories — those who were his allies, those who had an at least fleeting value as tools, and those who must be exterminated without mercy — suggesting that any aspect of the Church’s stewardship might be found wanting was dangerous.

    Duchairn had discovered there were times when he really didn’t care about that. When his anger, his outrage, the pain stemming from his re-found faith’s recognition of his own blood guilt, actually drove him to seek confrontation with Clyntahn. When he found himself almost yearning for destruction, even martyrdom, with all that would entail, as some sort of expiation for his own life. For his own acceptance of the vicarate’s corruption. His own lifelong eagerness to profit by that corruption. For the fact that he’d stood there and not simply accepted Clyntahn’s proposal to destroy the Kingdom of Charis utterly but actually acquiesced in it. Helped to arrange it.

    Duchairn made himself resume his progress towards his waiting underlings, but his eyes were as bleak as the snow beyond the hallway’s windows as he once more admitted his guilt to himself. He wouldn’t pretend he wasn’t terrified of what Clyntahn would have done to him if it had come to an open confrontation. That he didn’t know precisely how savage an example Clyntahn would make of any member of the Group of Four who seemed to have turned against him. Yet it wasn’t that fear which drove him to bite his tongue, keep his furious denunciation of Clyntahn’s vileness lodged behind his clenched teeth. No, it was quite a different fear that kept him silent: the fear that if he allowed himself to be too easily destroyed he would commit the still more grievous sin of dying without at least trying to undo the terrible, terrible damage he had helped to unleash upon God’s own world.

    Not that I’ve figured out how to go about undoing any of it yet, he admitted desolately. Maybe that’s part of my penance? Is it part of my punishment to be forced to watch things getting worse and worse without seeing any way to make them better again? But the Writ says God will always find a way, whether man can or not. So maybe what He really wants me to do is to stop trying so hard, stop being so arrogant as to think I can somehow fix a disaster on a worldwide scale. Maybe He wants me to finally accept that I need to let Him show me what to do, and then –

    Rhobair Duchairn’s thoughts were abruptly interrupted as he walked full tilt into a wall someone had inconsiderately left in the exact center of the hallway.

    That was what it felt like, at any rate, although the wall’s sudden “Oof!” suggested it might not actually have been the solid granite obstruction it appeared to be.

    He staggered backward, almost falling. In fact, he would have fallen if someone’s hands hadn’t caught him by the upper arms and held him upright. He shook his head, cold-clogged ears ringing, and his eyes widened as they refocused on the face of the man he’d run into.

    Duchairn was not a short man, but neither was he a giant. In fact, he’d always been on the slender side, and his had been a decidedly sedentary life for the last twenty or thirty years. The man with whom he’d just collided was half a head taller than he, broad-shouldered and powerfully built, and he’d obviously spent the last several years of his own life exercising to maintain the physical toughness he’d enjoyed as a senior officer of the Temple Guard. He must outweigh Duchairn by a good forty or fifty pounds, and very little of that weight advantage was fat.

    And he also happened to be named Hauwerd Wylsynn.

    Duchairn found himself temporarily paralyzed, staring into eyes of Wylsynn gray. They were hard, those eyes, with polished, quartz-like purpose. The eyes of a man who, unlike Rhobair Duchairn, had never compromised with the Temple’s corruption. Of a man who had every reason to fear Zhaspahr Clyntahn . . . and no reason at all to fear God.

    “You want to be a bit more careful, Rhobair,” Wylsynn said, setting him fully back on his feet before he released his grip on Duchairn’s arms. He patted the smaller man almost gently, as if to be certain there was no breakage, and his smile was thin. “You might do yourself a mischief running into people like that. Life’s too short to take that sort of chance, don’t you think?”

    Wylsynn cocked his head slightly with the question, and Duchairn felt an icicle run through his veins. There was something about Wylsynn’s tone, something about the glitter of those hard eyes.

    He knows, Duchairn thought. He knows I warned his brother. And, God help me, he knows Clyntahn is going to kill both of them. And that I don’t have the courage to try to stop him.

    The Church’s Treasurer felt his mouth open without having the least notion of what was going to come out of it, but then Wylsynn shook his head. It was a quick gesture, one that stopped whatever Duchairn might have been about to say cold.

    “Of course it is,” the doomed man said. “Too short, I mean. There are too many things we all need to do to just throw away the time to do them in. Doesn’t the Writ say God sets the course for every man to run?”

    “Yes,” Duchairn heard himself say. “Yes, it does.”

    “Well, then I don’t imagine He’s through with any of us until we’ve finished running it. So be more careful.” He actually smiled faintly, wagging an index finger under Duchairn’s nose. “Watch where you’re walking, or else you won’t have time to do all the running God has in mind for you.”

    It took every ounce of Duchairn’s self-control to clamp his mouth on what he wanted to say. He looked into those gray eyes, and he didn’t really trust himself to speak at all when he realized what was truly looking back at him out of them. Wylsynn only smiled at him again, gently this time, and gave him another pat, then turned and walked away.



    “The Earl of Coris, Your Holiness,” the upper-priest said, as he bowed Phylyp Ahzgood into the small, private meeting chamber.

    It wasn’t very much of a bow, Coris reflected. Then again, the upper-priest was assigned to the Chancellor’s office. He probably saw dukes by the dozen and earls by the score, and God only knew how many bevies of mere barons he might encounter every year. Not to mention the fact that most of the dukes and earls who crossed his path weren’t dispossessed exiles living on someone else’s charity.

    “So I see,” a voice replied. “Come in, My Lord.”

    Coris obeyed the summons and found himself facing a tallish, lean man with an angular face, a closely trimmed beard, and deep, intelligent eyes. He wore the orange cassock of a vicar, and he matched the description of Vicar Zahmsyn Trynair quite well.

    Trynair extended his hand, and Coris bent to kiss the sapphire ring, then straightened.

    “Your Holiness,” he acknowledged.

    “We appreciate the promptness with which you’ve responded to our summons, My Lord, especially at this time of the year,” Trynair said. His smile never touched his eyes. “Would that that all of Mother Church’s sons were so mindful of their duty to her.”

    “I won’t pretend it wasn’t an arduous journey, Your Holiness.” Coris allowed himself a slight, wry smile of his own. “But as a boy, I was always taught that when Mother Church calls, her sons answer. And it was also interesting, especially the voyage across Lake Pei, while the opportunity to finally visit the Temple is an added blessing.”


    The single, perfunctory word came not from Trynair, but from the shorter, portly, silver-haired, heavy-jowled vicar who hadn’t bothered to rise when Coris entered. There was no doubt about his identity, either, the earl thought, although he was just a bit surprised to realize Zhaspahr Clyntahn matched the descriptions he’d received so completely. Right down to the spots spilled food had left on his cassock.



    There ought to be a rule that real villains aren’t allowed to look like stereotypical villains, Coris thought, and felt a tiny shiver run through him as he realized how he’d just allowed himself to describe Clyntahn. It wasn’t really a surprise; he’d been headed in that direction for years, after all. Yet there was an odd sense of commitment to the moment, as if he’d crossed some irrevocable bridge, even if he was the only one who realized he had.

    And you’d damned well better make sure you stay the only one who realizes you have, Phylyp! he told himself.

    From Clyntahn’s expression, he didn’t much care what might be going through Coris’ mind at the moment. Nor did he appear to feel tempted to expend any courtesy on their visitor. Where Trynair’s eyes held the cool dispassion of a chess master, Clyntahn’s glowed with the fervor of a zealot. A fervor which confirmed Coris’ long-standing opinion that Clyntahn was, by far, the more dangerous of the two.

    “Please be seated, My Lord,” Trynair invited, indicating the single chair on Coris’ side of the meeting room table.

    It was the simplest chair Coris had yet seen the inside the Temple — a straight-backed, apparently unpadded, utilitarian piece of furniture. It was certainly a far cry from the throne-like chairs in which Trynair and Clyntahn were ensconced, yet when he settled onto it, he almost jumped back to his feet in astonishment as what had appeared to be a simple wooden surface seemed to shift under him. It moved — flowed — and he couldn’t keep his eyes from widening as the chair shaped itself perfectly to the configuration of his body.

    He looked up to see Trynair regarding him speculatively, and made himself smile at the Chancellor. It was an expression which blended an admission of surprise with a sizable dollop of boyish enjoyment, and Trynair allowed himself the small chuckle of a host who has successfully surprised a guest.

    Clyntahn — predictably, probably — seemed completely oblivious to the small moment, Coris noted.

    Best not to assume anything of the sort, Phylyp, he told himself. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Clyntahn’s long since figured out just how useful it can be to have potential opponents underestimate one’s powers of observation. The only thing in the world more dangerous than a fool, especially when it comes to the “great game,” is a smart man you’ve assumed is stupid. Nahrmahn should certainly have taught you that much!

    “Well,” Trynair began briskly after a moment, “now that you’re here, My Lord, I suppose we ought to get right down to business. As you know, I have, as Mother Church’s Chancellor, and acting on Grand Vicar Erek’s specific instructions, formally recognized young Prince Daivyn as the rightful ruler of Corisande. Given his tender years, it struck us as unnecessary to bring him all the way to the Temple to discuss his future with him. You, on the other hand, are his legal guardian. Since we do not — and never will — recognize that travesty of a ‘Regency Council’ Cayleb and Sharleyan have foisted upon God, we also regard you as the closest thing Daivyn has at this time to a true regent.”

    He paused, as if inviting comment, but Coris wasn’t about to rush into that particular snare. He contented himself with a slow nod of understanding and an attentive expression, instead.

    “In light of the circumstances,” the Chancellor resumed a few seconds later, “we think it’s essential to . . . regularize Daivyn’s position. While he would appear to be safe enough for the moment under the protection of King Zhames, especially given the fact Delferahk is already at war with the apostates, there are certain aspects of his situation which we feel require formal clarification.”

    He paused once more, and this time it was obvious he intended to stay paused until Coris responded.

    “‘Formal clarification,’ Your Holiness?” the earl obediently repeated. “May I ask what sort of clarification?”

    “Oh, come now, My Lord!” Clyntahn entered the discussion, waving one hand in a dismissive gesture. “You were Prince Hektor’s spymaster. You know how the game is played, if anyone does!”

    “Your Holiness,” Coris replied, choosing his words more carefully than he’d ever chosen words in his life before, “you’re right. I was Prince Hektor’s spymaster. But, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, my perspective from a single princedom that far from the Temple couldn’t possibly be the same as your perspective from right here, at the heart of all of Mother Church’s concerns and at the focus of all of the avenues of information Mother Church possesses. I’ll admit I’ve spent a lot of time trying to analyze the information I do have in an effort to anticipate what it is you and the Chancellor have called me here to explain. I’m not foolish enough, however, to assume for a moment that I have enough information to make any sort of truly informed deductions. I can think of several aspects of Prince Daivyn’s current situation which might require ‘clarification,’ but without a better understanding of precisely how Prince Daivyn — and I, of course — can best serve Mother Church, I truly don’t know how you and Vicar Zahmsyn may wish to proceed.”

    Trynair’s eyes had flickered with what might have been irritation when Clyntahn spoke up. Now the Chancellor sat back in his own chair, folding his hands together on the table before him, his expression thoughtful. Clyntahn, on the other hand, gave Coris an oddly triumphant little smile, as if the earl’s response had passed some sort of test.

    “We’re naturally relieved to learn you’ve been thinking about how best Daivyn — and you yourself — can serve Mother Church,” the Grand Inquisitor said, and the emphasis on the word “you” was as unmistakable as the glow in his eyes. “I feel confident we’ll be able to rely as fully upon your intelligence and diligence as Prince Hektor ever did.”

    “And we’d damned well better be able to,” eh, Your Holiness? Is that it? Coris thought trenchantly. However intelligent Clyntahn might actually be, he was dangerously transparent in at least some ways. Of course, when a man controlled all the levers of power that came together in the office of the Grand Inquisitor, he could probably afford a certain degree of transparency, at least when it suited his own purposes to come straight to the point.

    “I’ll certainly do my very best to justify your confidence, Your Holiness,” he said out loud.

    “Then I hope you’ll understand that what I’m about to say reflects no lack of confidence in you personally, My Lord,” Trynair said. Coris looked back at him, and the Chancellor shrugged very slightly. “Under the circumstances, the Grand Vicar deems it best to formally vest authority as Prince Daivyn’s regent in the vicarate, rather than in any secular noble. His father was martyred by the champions of apostasy and impious heresy. The Grand Vicar believes it is incumbent upon Mother Church to openly — and expressly — extend her protection to Prince Hektor’s heir.”

    “Of course, Your Holiness,” Coris replied.

    He was confident Trynair would assume — accurately — that he recognized that business about Grand Vicar Erek as pure fiction. Trynair had hand-selected the current Grand Vicar from a short list of suitable puppets years ago, and if Erek had ever cherished a single independent thought since assuming the Grand Vicar’s throne, that thought had undoubtedly perished of loneliness long since.

    “In many ways,” Trynair continued, “that change will represent little more than a technicality. As I suggested earlier, there’s no need to further destabilize young Daivyn’s life at this time. Better to leave him where he is, under the care of someone he trusts and knows is looking out for his best interests.”

    Especially if the someone he trusts is looking out for the interests of the Church– or of the Group of Four, at least — instead, Coris thought.

    “And, to be frank, My Lord,” Clyntahn said, “we’re of the opinion that it won’t hurt a bit to have a man with your particular set of skills and experiences watching over him.” Coris looked at him, and the Grand Inquisitor shrugged his beefy shoulders. “After all, Cayleb’s already murdered the boy’s father. There’s no telling when someone like him — or that bitch Sharleyan — might decide the time’s come to make a clean sweep of the entire House of Daykyn. I understand they’re confronting considerable popular unrest in Corisande. They might just come to the conclusion that it would be a good idea to remove young Daivyn as a potential focus for the more restive elements of the princedom’s population.”

    “I see, Your Holiness.” Coris prayed that the icicle which had just danced down his spine wasn’t apparent to either of the vicars. “Obviously, I discussed Prince Daivyn’s security with King Zhames before I left Talkyra. As you say, I don’t think we could be too careful where his safety is concerned. And I assure you that once I return to Delferahk, I’ll exercise personal oversight of his security arrangements.”

    “Good!” Clyntahn smiled broadly. “I feel confident our decision to rely upon you and your judgment will prove well placed, My Lord.”

    “As do I,” Trynair seconded. “In the meantime, however, we have several other points to discuss,” the Chancellor went on. “I’m sure it will take us several sessions to cover all of them, and you will, of course, remain the Temple’s honored guest until we’ve completed them. For the moment, what we’d really like to do, though, is to pick your brain a little bit. Obviously, we’ve had many reports about the situation in Corisande and the attitude of the Corisandian people, but you’re a Corisandian yourself. And one who was extremely well placed to see the consequences of Cayleb’s invasion from Corisande’s viewpoint. No doubt there have been many changes since your own departure from the Princedom, but you still represent a priceless resource from our perspective. There are many points on which we would greatly appreciate hearing anything you can tell us. For example, which of Prince Hektor’s — I mean Prince Daivyn’s, now — nobles do you think would be most likely to organize effective resistance against the Charisian occupation?”

    Well, I can see this is going to take some time, Coris thought dryly. Still, best to be careful about how we proceed, especially when we don’t know how much information they’ve already got.

    “That’s a complicated question, Your Holiness,” he began. “I can think of at least a dozen of Prince Hektor’s closer allies among the Corisandian Lords who are almost certainly thinking in those directions. Without a better feel than I have at this time — please do recall that I’ve been traveling for the better part of four months, which has prevented me from setting up any sort of proper network — I would suspect those farther from Manchyr would be in a better position to act upon such thoughts, however.

    “Bearing that in mind, I’d be inclined to think the Earl of Storm Keep and the Earl of Craggy Hill have probably already begun to take steps along exactly those lines. None of them are going to feel particularly well disposed towards Cayleb and Sharleyan, and all of them are located well up to the north, out of easy reach from the capital.

    “Moving back to the south, and west,” he continued, “I wouldn’t be dreadfully surprised to find Earl Black Water — that would be Sir Adulfo, the new Earl — is headed in the same direction. For that matter, the Duke of Barcair is probably similarly inclined, and –”



    “So, Master Seablanket. I see you’ve succeeded admirably in your assignment once again.”

    “I’ve certainly attempted to, Your Eminence.”

    Rhobair Seablanket bowed over Archbishop Wyllym Rayno’s hand, kissing the proffered ring, then straightened. His expression was politely attentive, waiting for Rayno’s questions to begin, and the archbishop smiled very slightly.

    Rayno was short, dark, and slender. As always, he wore the habit of a simple monk in the Order of Schueler’s dark purple. But that habit bore the flame-crowned sword of the Schuelerite Adjutant General, which made him Vicar Zhaspahr Clyntahn’s second-in-command and a very dangerous man, indeed. He was always a bit amused by the way the Inquisition’s various agents reacted to him. More to the point, he’d learned over the years that those reactions offered a valuable yardstick for evaluating an agent’s capabilities. Take Seablanket, for example. No one who’d risen as high in the Inquisition’s service as he had was going to be foolish enough to take the adjutant general lightly, nor could he be unaware of the potential consequences of disappointing him, yet the Corisandian’s eyes met Rayno’s levelly, and his composure appeared genuine.

    Maybe he really is as calm as he looks, the archbishop thought. And maybe he isn’t. I wonder which it is? If he’s really that comfortable meeting me for a face-to-face interview for the very first time, he could be more foolish than I’d expected. No one’s conscience is so clear that they shouldn’t feel at least a little anxiety under these circumstances. On the other hand, if he’s able to appear this comfortable under those same circumstances, then his ability to dissemble is even greater than his file indicates. And in that case, I’m sure I can find profitable employment for an agent of his caliber elsewhere once he’s no longer needed to keep an eye on Coris.

    “I’ve read your reports,” Rayno continued out loud. “I must say that, compared to some of the accounts which cross my desk, yours have been clear, concise, and comprehensive. And the grammar’s actually been correct!”

    His whimsical smile didn’t touch his eyes, and Seablanket managed to restrain any unseemly temptation to laughter.

    “From those reports,” Rayno continued, “it would appear Earl Coris is both aware of the political realities of Prince Daivyn’s position and also . . . pragmatic enough, shall we say, to be aware of how those realities might impinge upon his own future. At the same time, he seems to be even more competent than I’d anticipated. I suppose I really shouldn’t be too terribly surprised by that, given how long he held his position under Prince Hektor. However, I have several specific questions I’d like to address, and I’ve discovered over the years that even the best written reports are sometimes . . . incomplete.”

    Seablanket stirred slightly, and Rayno raised his right hand in a gentle, fluttering gesture.

    “I’m not suggesting anything was intentionally omitted, Master Seablanket. I have seen that happen on occasion, of course,” he smiled again, thinly, “but what I really meant was that written reports are no substitute for oral reports in which questions can be asked, individual points can be more fully explained, and I can be certain I’ve actually understood what you meant to say the first time.”

    He paused, head cocked slightly, expression expectant, and Seablanket nodded.

    “I take your meaning, Your Eminence. And, obviously, if you have any questions or any points you’d like more thoroughly gone into, I’m at your service. I would, though, point out that the Earl will be expecting to find me in his chambers when he returns from his interview with Vicar Zahmsyn and Vicar Zhaspahr.”

    “An excellent point to bear in mind,” Rayno agreed. “On the other hand, the Chancellor and the Grand Inquisitor are going to be picking his brain about Corisande’s internal politics for quite some time. I estimate that the process will take at least two or three hours, and to be frank, Master Seablanket, as important as this is in many ways, I’m afraid I don’t have two or three hours to devote to it this morning.”

    “Of course, Your Eminence,” Seablanket murmured with a small bow.

    Rayno nodded, satisfied the Corisandian had taken the point. It never hurt to encourage brevity and concision in an agent’s report.

    “In that case, Master Seablanket, let us begin.” Rayno settled into the comfortable chair behind his desk without offering Seablanket a seat. He tipped back, resting his elbows on the chair arms, and steepled his fingers across his chest. “First,” he said, “your reports indicate Prince Daivyn seems to trust Coris implicitly. Would you care to expand briefly on why you think that?”



    “Your Eminence, the Prince is a very little boy at the moment,” Seablanket responded without hesitation. “He knows his father is dead and that his own life would be in danger if Charisian assassins could reach him.”

    The agent’s eyes met Rayno’s again, and the archbishop’s respect for the other man inched up another notch. Obviously, Seablanket had his own suspicions about who’d actually been behind Hektor’s assassination. Equally obviously, he had no intention of ever voicing those suspicions aloud. Yet he was also smart enough to know what Rayno was truly interested in discovering.

    “Under those circumstances, and given the fact that he’s known the Earl for his entire life — not to mention the fact that he knows his father specifically named the Earl as his legal guardian — it’s hardly surprising Daivyn should trust the man. And, frankly, the Earl’s done everything he could to encourage that trust.” Seablanket smiled ever so slightly. “He was Prince Hektor’s spymaster for years, Your Eminence. Convincing a little boy to view him as his best friend, as well as his protector, is child’s play after something like that.”

    “So it’s your opinion Coris is deliberately encouraging the boy’s dependency on him?”

    “I wouldn’t actually put it precisely that way, Your Eminence.” Seablanket pursed his lips slightly, eyes narrowed in thought as he searched for exactly the words he wanted.

    “He doesn’t have to encourage the Prince’s dependency on him,” the agent went on after a moment. “It’s already clear to everyone, including Daivyn and Princess Irys, that both of them are completely dependent on him. King Zhames may be their official protector, but to be perfectly honest, I doubt His Majesty is even half as smart as Earl Coris.” Seablanket shrugged. “It’s only a matter of time before the Earl has the entire court at Talkyra dancing to his tune, whoever may officially be in charge. So it’s not so much a case of his encouraging Daivyn’s dependency as much as it is encouraging Daivyn’s trust. Of getting the boy to regard him as not simply his primary advisor but as his only advisor. I’m sure at least some of it is for the Prince’s own good,” Seablanket smiled piously, “but the upshot is that when the time comes for the Earl to ‘recommend’ a course of action to Prince Daivyn, the boy isn’t going to hesitate for a moment. And he’s going to take the Earl’s advice regardless of what anyone else, even his sister, might have to say about it.”

    “So you believe Coris is going to be in a position to control the boy?”

    “I believe he’ll be in a position to control the boy’s decisions, Your Eminence. At the moment, King Zhames controls the boy’s physical security.” Seablanket met the archbishop’s eye again. “If His Majesty should decide for some reason that it might be . . . advantageous for Prince Daivyn to fall into someone else’s hands, I doubt the Earl would be in a position to prevent it.”

    “And do you believe there is some danger of King Zhames making such a decision?” Rayno’s eyes had narrowed, and Seablanket shrugged.

    “Your Eminence, I’m not in King Zhames’ service, and my insight where he’s concerned is far more limited than anything I might be able to tell you about the Earl. I’m not attempting to suggest His Majesty has any plans at all for Prince Daivyn — other than any he may have already discussed you and the Grand Inquisitor, of course — but it’s no secret in Talkyra that he’s under a great deal of pressure at the moment. The Charisian navy has completely wiped out his merchant marine, and Charisian raiding parties are operating freely all along his coasts. His army isn’t being any more successful at stopping them ashore than his navy’s been at stopping them at sea, either. Under those circumstances, who can say how he might eventually be tempted to play a card like Prince Daivyn?”

    Rayno nodded slowly. That was an excellent point, and the fact that Seablanket had made it was another indication of the man’s intelligence and general capability. And his suggestion that Zhames might not be the most reliable of guardians . . . that might be distressingly well taken, given what had already happened with certain other rulers (Prince Nahrmahn of Emerald came rather forcibly to mind) who’d found themselves in Cayleb of Charis’ path. Still . . . .

    “I don’t think we need concern ourselves too deeply with King Zhames at the moment,” he observed, half to Seablanket and half simply thinking out loud. “I doubt very much that he’s likely to disregard any directives from the Temple where Daivyn is concerned.”

    “I’m certain he wouldn’t, Your Eminence,” Seablanket agreed, yet there was something about his tone, a slight edge of . . . something. Rayno cocked his head, frowning, and then his own eyes widened. Could the Corisandian be suggesting –?

    “Naturally,” the archbishop said, “we have to be at least a bit concerned about Daivyn’s current security. After all, his father’s security in Manchyr seemed quite adequate. And I suppose we really ought to be thinking in terms of multiple layers of protection for the boy. It’s sadly true that human nature is easily corrupted, and the possibility always exists that someone responsible for protecting him might be suborned by those more interested in harming him. Or in . . . transferring him to someone else’s custody, shall we say.”

    “Exactly so, Your Eminence.” Seablanket bowed once more. “And, if I may be so bold, it couldn’t hurt to be doubly certain the man in charge of the Prince’s security sees his own first and primary loyalty as belonging to Mother Church.”

    Rayno’s eyes narrowed again, this time with more than a little surprise. Seablanket hadn’t been chosen for his present assignment solely because he was a Corisandian who could be placed in Yu-Shai in time to be hired as Coris’ valet. He’d handled more than one politically sensitive mission for the Inquisition over the years, but the archbishop hadn’t expected him to be quite so willing to bring up that particular point.

    “And do you believe Coris’ ‘first and primary loyalty’ is to Mother Church?” the adjutant general asked softly.

    “I believe the Earl’s first and primary loyalty was to Prince Hektor,” Seablanket replied with the air of a man choosing his words very carefully. “I’m not prepared to speculate on how much of that loyalty might have been owed to his own ambition and the power he enjoyed as one of Prince Hektor’s closest advisers, but I believe it was genuine. Prince Hektor is dead now, however, Your Eminence, and the Earl’s lands in Corisande have been seized by Cayleb and Sharleyan. He’s a man accustomed to wielding power, and that’s been taken away from him with the fall of Corisande and his own exile. He’s not foolish enough to believe Cayleb or Sharleyan would ever trust anyone who was as close to Hektor as he was, so even if he were tempted to try to reach some sort of an arrangement with them — and I don’t believe for a moment that he is — he’d know the effort was probably pointless, at best. At worst, Cayleb might happily agree to give him whatever he asked for . . . until, at the least, he could get the Earl within reach.

    “More than that, Your Eminence, it seems apparent to me that the Earl recognizes that, ultimately, Charis can’t possibly win. I don’t think he’s likely to be very tempted to sell his allegiance to the side which is bound to lose in the end. That being the case, I can’t escape the feeling that worldly ambition — in addition to spiritual loyalty — would incline him towards casting his lot with Mother Church. And he’s a very pragmatic man.” Seablanket shrugged very slightly. “I’m sure that as Hektor’s spymaster he came to realize long ago that sometimes certain . . . practical accommodations have to be made.”

    “I see.”

    Rayno considered Seablanket’s words for several seconds. He’d been a bit concerned himself, from time to time, about the possibility of Coris’ seeking some arrangement with Cayleb. After all, the earl was in a position to deliver Prince Daivyn to Charis, and Cayleb — and Sharleyan, damn her soul — had to be aware of how valuable a counter Daivyn had become. On the other hand, any attempt to hand the youthful prince over to Charis would be fraught with difficulty and danger, and Coris couldn’t possibly be unaware of what Mother Church would do to him if he made such an attempt and failed.

    Yet Rayno hadn’t fully considered the other two points Seablanket had just raised. It truly was unlikely Cayleb, and especially Sharleyan, would ever repose an ounce of trust in the Earl of Coris. For one thing, Sharleyan was never going to forget that Coris had been Hektor’s spymaster when her father was killed — that it was Coris who’d actually arranged to hire the mercenary “pirates” responsible for King Sailys’ death. And, even leaving that consideration aside, there was Seablanket’s assessment of Coris’ estimate of who was ultimately going to win this war. Unless something happened to catastrophically shift the balance of power between the two sides, Charis couldn’t possibly win against Mother Church. It was conceivable, little though Rayno liked to admit it, that an independent Charis might survive Mother Church’s ire, but nothing short of divine intervention could create circumstances under which Charis could actually defeat the Church and its effectively limitless resources. From everything he’d ever seen or heard about the Earl of Coris, the man was certainly smart enough to have reached the conclusions Seablanket had just ascribed to him. And a man who’d lost everything he’d spent his life building had to be thinking in terms of restoring at least a little of what had been taken from him.

    It’s certainly worth bearing in mind, the archbishop told himself. All my reports on Coris suggest Seablanket’s right when he says the Earl is far smarter than Zhames. Which means he’s a lot less likely to be tempted to do something outstandingly stupid. Leaving him right where he is as Daivyn’s guardian could be the smartest thing we could do. Always assuming Seablanket’s reading of his character is reliable.

    He thought about it for a few more moments, then gave a mental shrug. Trynair and Clyntahn would undoubtedly be forming their own opinions about Coris and his reliability over the next few five-days. They’d probably rely more on their own judgment than on any outside advice, but it would be a good idea for Rayno to have his own recommendation ready if it should be asked for.

    He put that consideration aside, tucking it into a mental pigeonhole for future contemplation, and returned his attention to Seablanket.

    “Those are some very interesting observations, Master Seablanket,” he conceded. “However, there are several other points I need to discuss with you, and I’m afraid time is pressing onward. So, bearing that in mind, what can you tell me about Prince Daivyn’s own attitude towards Charis?”

    “As I’ve already said, Your Eminence, he’s a very young boy whose father has been murdered, and whatever denials Cayleb and Sharleyan may have issued, I don’t believe there’s any doubt in Daivyn’s mind who was responsible. Under those circumstances, I don’t think it’s very surprising that he hates and distrusts — and fears — Cayleb with every fiber of his being. It hasn’t been difficult for Earl Coris and King Zhames to encourage those emotions, either.” Seablanket gave another of those tiny shrugs. “Under the circumstances,” he said, his tone ever so slightly edged with irony, “encouraging him to feel that way can only contribute to his own chances of survival, of course.”

    He met Rayno’s gaze yet again, and this time the archbishop found himself unable to totally restrain an unwilling smile. He was definitely going to have to find future employment for Seablanket, he thought. The man was even more perceptive and (even more valuable in an agent) willing to share those perceptions than Rayno had expected.

    “Having said that,” the Corisandian continued, “Daivyn’s also angry enough to be looking for any possible way to hurt Cayleb or Charis. Admittedly, he’s only a boy, but that won’t be true forever. By the time he comes to young manhood — assuming he can avoid Charisian assassins long enough for that — he’s going to be fully committed to the destruction of this ‘Charisian Empire’ and all its works. In fact, I think –”

    Wyllym Rayno sat back in his chair, listening attentively. He might well have to cancel his next appointment after all, he thought. Given the acuity of Seablanket’s insight into the inner workings of the Corisandian court in exile in Talkyra, it might be very much worthwhile to get the man’s impressions of the cities and provinces through which he and Coris had passed on their way to the Temple. Rayno had plenty of reports from inquisitors and intendants throughout all of the mainland realms, but Seablanket clearly had a sharp and discerning eye, and Coris’ rank had been high enough to get Seablanket inside the highest circles of the lands through which they had traveled. True, he was only the earl’s valet, but any spymaster knew servants made the very best spies. They saw and heard everything, yet their betters tended to think of them as part of the landscape, little more than animate furniture. All of which meant Seablanket’s perspective on the reports from Rayno’s agents in place could be extremely valuable.

    I really have to keep an eye on this one, the archbishop told himself, listening to Seablanket’s report. Spies who can actually think are too rare — and valuable — to waste on routine duties.



    Rhobair Duchairn sat back, rubbing his forehead wearily. Another half-hour, he thought, and they could finally break for lunch. He was looking forward to it, and not just because he’d skimped on breakfast that morning. His head throbbed, the congestion in his ears was worse than ever (the clerk who was currently speaking sounded as if he were in a barrel underwater), and he dearly wanted a little time in privacy to consider his unexpected encounter with Hauwerd Wylsynn.

    Not that he expected to feel a great deal of comfort after he’d done the considering, he thought.

    He felt his nose start to drip and muttered a short, pungent phrase which went rather poorly with the dignity of his august office. He hated blowing his nose in public, but the alternative seemed worse. So he reached into his pocket for his handkerchief –

    – and froze.

    For just an instant, not a single muscle moved, and then he forced himself to relax, one nerve at a time. He hoped no one had noticed his reaction. And, when he thought about it, there was no reason anyone should have, really. But that didn’t prevent him them feeling as if he had somehow, in that instant, pasted an enormous archer’s target onto his own back.

    Or, perhaps, had someone else paste it there.

    His fingertips explored the small but thick envelope which had somehow come to be nestled under his handkerchief. It hadn’t been there when he left his suite this morning, and he knew he hadn’t put it there since. In fact, he could think of only one person who’d been close enough to find the opportunity to slide anything unobtrusively into his pocket.

    And just at this moment, he couldn’t think of a single gift that person could have given him that wouldn’t be at least potentially more deadly than its own weight in cyanide.

    Odd, a corner of his brain thought. For someone who was so hungry a few seconds ago, I seem to have lost my appetite remarkably quickly.

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