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By Heresies Distressed: Chapter Twelve

       Last updated: Friday, June 5, 2009 07:59 EDT



March, Year of God 893

Tellesberg Palace,
City of Tellesberg,
Kingdom of Charis

    “I never imagined Admiral Rock Point was going to find this sort of evidence,” Sharleyan Ahrmahk said as she finished scanning the last page of the admiral’s report and laid it on the conference table in front of her.

    “Neither did Clyntahn . . . or Graivyr, Your Majesty,” Baron Wave Thunder agreed. Cayleb’s old spymaster, who remained responsible for both espionage and security in the Kingdom of Charis — which was rapidly coming to be known as “Old Charis” in order to distinguish it from the new empire to which it had given its name — nodded at the sheet of paper the empress had just set aside. “Trust me, it never even occurred to them that this sort of documentary evidence might fall into anyone else’s hands, and especially not ours!”

    There was considerably more satisfaction in Wave Thunder’s tone, and he smiled nastily.

    “Not only that,” he continued, “but their reports about the Massacre are only the tip of the iceberg, Your Majesty. We got all of the Church’s files from Ferayd, and they were so confident that they didn’t take even the most rudimentary of precautions. We have complete copies of half a dozen of their most secure ciphers now. Obviously, they’re going to change them as quickly as they can, but it’s going to take time. And even after they change them, there’s no telling what older documents we might come into possession of. And that doesn’t even begin to consider all of the other documents and files the Admiral’s shipped home.”

    He shook his head, his expression almost reverent.

    “We’re going to need months just to sort through it all and catalogue it. I can already tell you, though, that there’s an incredible amount of . . . potentially embarrassing information in here.”

    “I realize that, My Lord,” Sharleyan said. “At the moment, however, I’m afraid my own attention is rather more sharply focused on those reports about the Massacre. And on the consequences for the report writers.”

    “Admiral Rock Point carried out his instructions from you and His Majesty to the letter, Your Majesty,” Rayjhis Yowance pointed out. The Earl of Gray Harbor was the first councilor of Old Charis, and was clearly on the way to becoming first councilor of the Empire of Charis, as well. Some people might have expected all of that to mean Cayleb had left him home in order to be certain Sharleyan didn’t get carried away by an overly inflated notion of just how much authority she truly possessed. No one seated in this council chamber was likely to make that mistake, however, and Gray Harbor’s voice was both respectful and perhaps just the tiniest bit apprehensive.

    “Don’t worry, My Lord.” Sharleyan smiled at him, and that smile was cool. “I agree that the Admiral did precisely what he was instructed to do. And I approve his actions completely. I can see why Cayleb and the rest of Charis have so much faith in his judgment. I simply never anticipated that he would have such clear cut evidence upon which to proceed. Or, for that matter, that so many of Clyntahn’s inquisitors would stand self-convicted.”

    “With all due respect, Your Majesty, I think that if anyone had anticipated that they would, those instructions might have been somewhat more limited,” another voice said, and she turned her head to look at the speaker.

    Paityr Sellyrs, Baron White Church, sounded worried, almost querulous. In fact, Sharleyan thought sourly behind her calm expression, he sounded downright whiny. White Church was the Keeper of the Seal for Old Charis, and he had quite a few useful political allies here in Tellesberg, which she suspected helped to explain how he’d come to hold his present office. If she had anything to say about it, however (and she did), he would not be the Empire’s Keeper of the Seal.

    “I disagree, My Lord,” she said now, calmly but with absolutely no hesitation. “If there had been a hundred guilty men — or a thousand — and not sixteen, the sentence would have been no less just, and its execution would have been no less appropriate. I’m surprised, My Lord. I am not dismayed.”

    “Your Majesty,” White Church said, “I’m not suggesting you should be dismayed. Nor am I suggesting that these men, priests or not, didn’t amply merit the punishment visited upon them. I’m only saying that to effectively cast the heads of no less than sixteen consecrated priests at the Group of Four’s feet may not have been the most productive thing we could have done.”

    Gray Harbor started to say something, then paused as the empress smiled affably at White Church. Given that smile, and what he’d seen so far of this young woman, he rather doubted that his intervention was either necessary or desirable.

    Sharleyan considered White Church, her head cocked slightly to one side, for two or three heartbeats. It wasn’t so much what he’d said, as the way he’d said it. She’d heard that same patient tone of voice before, although not recently; the survivors among her councilors had learned better from the unfortunate fates of those who had adopted it. She watched him, recognizing the patronizing edge of his own smile, and wondered if he had the least idea she could see it. Probably not, she decided. He wasn’t actually stupid enough to deliberately provoke her, after all. That, unfortunately, wasn’t quite the same thing as saying he was smart, however.

    He’s Cayleb’s Keeper of the Seal, Sharley, she reminded herself. You don’t know all the reasons Cayleb might have chosen him. And even if you did, you aren’t the one who appointed him to the Council. So do you really want to do this?

    Yet even as she asked herself that question, she knew the answer. It was the same answer Mahrak Sahndyrs had taught a frightened girl-child so many years before. She could rule, or she could simply reign. She’d made that choice when she was barely twelve, and Cayleb Ahrmahk hadn’t married her because she was weak.

    “Allow me to explain to you, My Lord,” she said, speaking coolly and precisely, “why your concern is groundless.”

    White Church seemed to stiffen in his chair as her tone registered, but she continued as if she hadn’t noticed.

    “As you may recall, we’ve already informed the Group of Four, and the Council of Vicars, for that matter, that we reject their authority. That we know them for who and what they are, and that we intend to hold them accountable for their crimes against not simply the people of Safehold, but against Mother Church, and even God himself. Are you suggesting that, having so informed them, the proper course of action when men of proven guilt — men whose written reports, whose own testimony, shows the pride and satisfaction they took in ordering the murder of children — fall into our hands, is that we shouldn’t execute justice upon them?”

    “Your Majesty, I only –”

    “Please answer my question, My Lord.” Sharleyan’s voice was noticeably frostier. “Is this a time to demonstrate weakness? To suggest not simply to the Group of Four, but to all of Safehold, that we do not truly have the strength of our own beliefs? The confidence of our own principles?”

    White Church’s expression was acutely unhappy, and his eyes flitted around the council table, as if seeking someone to save him from the empress’ ire. What he saw were a great many eyes which obviously agreed with her, and his adams apple bobbed as he swallowed.

    “No, Your Majesty. Of course not!” he said.

    “I’m glad we find ourselves in agreement on such a fundamental principle, My Lord,” she told him, holding him impaled upon her hard, brown gaze. “I love the shedding of blood no more than the next man or woman,” she continued. “Moreover, the Emperor and I have made it as clear as humanly possible that the Empire of Charis will not simply murder people because they disagree with us, or because they are opposed to the Church of Charis and our conflict with the Group of Four. But the corollary of that must be equally clear.” She released him from her gaze at last in order to let her eyes sweep around the rest of the table. “We will punish the guilty when their guilt be proven, and the vestments they have perverted and betrayed will not protect them. Unlike them, we will not shed innocent blood, but we will hold them accountable for all of the blood they have shed. Is there some reason anyone seated around this table has failed to grasp that essential point of our policy?”



    No one spoke. In fact, Gray Harbor thought, the odds were good that very few of them were even breathing at the moment, and he was almost certain White Church wasn’t. The empress had never even raised her voice, but the Keeper of the Seal looked remarkably like a man who wished he could melt and ooze down under the council table.

    Idiot, the first councilor thought without much pity.

    In some ways, it wasn’t all that difficult to sympathize with White Church. Part of his worries were easy enough to understand in terms of simple human self-interest. White Church was a wealthy man, but most of his personal and family wealth was tied up in trade, and in the sizable merchant fleet they collectively owned. No doubt he was delighted that Rock Point had managed to recover all but two of the ships originally seized in Delferahk, yet a part of him seemed unable to grasp that the confrontation between Charis and the Temple had moved into a realm which made even the trade vital to the Empire’s existence a secondary issue. Perhaps that wasn’t so surprising, since any Charisian understood, on an almost instinctual level, just how vital that commerce was. Unfortunately, deep down inside somewhere, White Church obviously wasn’t able to recognize the need to prioritize on a realistic basis. Or, at least, to set aside his own, personal interests in the interests of Charis as a whole. Anything likely to interrupt the Empire’s trade, to close ports to those ships of his, threatened his family’s future, and he’d been a persistent voice of caution from the beginning.

    But there were other reasons for his position as well, and most of them were considerably less self-interested. That didn’t mean Gray Harbor agreed with them, but at least he understood the reasoning behind them.

    The responsibilities of the man’s office included the official drafting and receipt of the Kingdom’s diplomatic correspondence. He was accustomed to thinking not in terms of great and sweeping struggles, but in terms of communications between a relatively small number of people whose decisions governed the fates of realms. He hadn’t yet made the transition to understanding that the forces unleashed here in Charis went far beyond the councils of kings and princes, or even priests and vicars. Those decision-makers remained vitally important, of course, but the tides against which they must contend had fundamentally changed.

    Unfortunately, if White Church hadn’t already grasped that, it was unlikely he ever would. And whether he had the wit to do that or not, he was obviously tone-deaf where the realities of the new Charisian political equation were concerned.

    He probably thinks Sharleyan belongs in the royal bedchamber, pregnant and punching out heirs to the throne, Gray Harbor thought bitingly. As if Cayleb would have married a mere brood mare! Or as if she were likely to put up with that kind of kraken shit!

    “I’m relieved and gratified to discover we’re all in agreement upon that point, My Lords,” the empress observed now, her smile marginally warmer. “I trust we won’t find it necessary to . . . revisit it in the future.”

    White Church seemed to cringe ever so slightly, although she wasn’t even looking in his direction as she spoke. Then she sat back in her chair at the head of the table.

    “Clearly, Rayjhis,” she said to Gray Harbor, deliberately using his first name, “we have to consider the fact that the execution of so many priestly murderers is going to have an impact both in Zion and elsewhere. I would appreciate it if you and Baron Wave Thunder — and you, Your Eminence,” she added, glancing at Maikel Staynair “– would give some thought to that very point. I’d like your analysis of how the more immediately important rulers are likely to react.”

    “Of course, Your Majesty,” Gray Harbor murmured. “Do you have any particular concerns you’d like us to consider?”

    “Obviously, in many ways, I’m most interested in how the Group of Four is likely to respond. I realize, however, that any advice you could give me on that particular topic would be little more than speculation. By all means, go ahead and speculate — I have great respect for your judgment, and I’d like to hear anything you have to say about it. I’m more immediately concerned, however, with people like Lord Protector Greyghor, and perhaps King Gorjah.”

    “Gorjah, Your Majesty?” Surprise startled the three-word question out of Gray Harbor, and Sharleyan actually chuckled.

    “I do fully realize, My Lord, that King Gorjah isn’t particularly . . . well thought of here in Tellesberg, shall we say?”

    Several of the other people seated around that table chuckled this time. The Kingdom of Tarot had been a Charisian ally for decades, and King Gorjah of Tarot had been obligated by treaty to come to Charis’ assistance against attack. Instead, he’d joined the “alliance” the Group of Four had hammered together for Charis’ destruction. And, unlike Sharleyan and Chisholm, there was precious little evidence that Gorjah had hesitated for a moment.

    “All the same,” Sharleyan continued, her voice and expression both rather more serious and intent, “Prince Nahrmahn wasn’t very well thought of, either, and with a much longer history of enmity, at that. Eventually, we’re going to have to deal with Tarot, one way or another. It’s simply too close to Charis itself not to be dealt with, and it, too, is an island.”

    Her eyes swept the council chamber once more.

    “We lack the resources, the manpower, to establish a foothold on the mainland. Oh,” she waved one slender hand, “I don’t doubt we could seize a single port — like Ferayd, let’s say — and even hold it for an extended period of time. Given our control of the sea, we could support such a garrison indefinitely, and if the time came that supporting it seemed too costly, we would be well placed to withdraw. But we have neither the time, the manpower, nor the wealth to waste on such adventures.

    “By the same token, however, we do control the sea, and if we lose that control, we’re all doomed, anyway. I think, therefore, that we should be making our plans on the basis that we will not lose control. Would you not agree with that, My Lords?”

    Despite years of experience at the very highest levels of politics, Gray Harbor found himself forced to raise a hand to hide the smile he could not restrain as Empress Sharleyan’s councilors looked back at her and nodded like marionettes.

    “Excellent, My Lords!” The empress’ white teeth flashed in a broad smile. “If we’re in agreement upon that point, however, it would seem to me to follow that we should be seeking every opportunity to make use of our seapower. Admittedly, we must be careful not to overreach, yet anywhere there is a strip of seawater, that water belongs not to the Group of Four, but to Charis.”

    Spines straightened subtly around the table, and Gray Harbor’s temptation to smile faded into sober appreciation of the empress’ skill, her grasp of her listeners’ psychology.

    “We’ve already added Emerald — and Chisholm,” she allowed herself a more rueful smile “– to the Empire. By this time, I feel confident, his Majesty has done the same with Zebediah, as he will soon do with Corisande.”

    Her smile disappeared completely with the final word, and her nostrils flared slightly as she shook her head.

    “With the exception of Corisande, all of those other additions were accomplished reasonably peacefully, with little or additional loss of life. And all of those lands will remain secure so long as Charisians remain masters of Safehold’s seas. As would Tarot. Inevitably, Tarot will be added to the Empire. In many ways, we have no choice in that regard, and I strongly suspect that King Gorjah understands that. Moreover, given the existence of the Tarot Channel and the Gulf of Tarot, we would be well placed to retain Tarot without greater effort than we would already be forced to expend to ensure the security of Charis itself. And at the same time, while I would never wish to appear too coldly calculating, let us not overlook the fact that Tarot’s proximity to the mainland would almost certainly make its conquest inviting to the Group of Four as a staging point for any future invasion of Charis. In short, it would provide a bait, a prize dangled before them to draw them out into the waters of the Channel and the Gulf where we could trim back their naval strength without risking the invasion of Charis itself, should they somehow manage to sneak past us.”



    Gray Harbor felt his own eyes narrowing in appreciation of the empress’ analysis. Chisholm had become a significant seapower only during the reign of King Sailys, yet Sharleyan clearly appreciated the way in which the command of the sea, properly applied, could hold even the most massive land power in check. She understood, he thought — understood the mobility advantages, the defensive possibilities, the way in which seapower made the most economic use of available manpower practical.

    “Under the circumstances,” the empress continued, “I believe it behooves us to think in terms of encouraging Gorjah to accept the peaceful amalgamation of his kingdom into the Empire. I would hope that the fact that Cayleb saw fit to marry one of his adversaries, and to unite our house by marriage with that of yet another of his adversaries, as well, would already suggest to Gorjah that a resolution which leaves him not simply with his head, but even his crown as our vassal, is within the realm of possibilities. If we can contrive to offer him further motivation to consider such an outcome, I believe we certainly ought to be doing just that. Would you not agree, My Lord Gray Harbor?”

    “Most assuredly I would, Your Majesty.” Gray Harbor half-rose from his chair to bow to her across the council table. “It simply hadn’t occurred to me to consider it in quite the terms you’ve just used. Nor, to be frank, would it have occurred to me to consider whether or not what happened in Ferayd would be likely to affect his thinking.”

    “Nor to me, I confess, Your Majesty,” Archbishop Maikel said, his expression wry. “Yet, now that you’ve mentioned it, I must admit your point could be very well taken. On the one hand, what Domynyk did to Ferayd must weigh in the thinking of anyone who finds himself opposed to Charis, especially if he has cities in reach of the sea. No one will want the same thing to happen to one of his seaports, after all.

    “At the same time, however, there’s the moral dimension to consider, and despite his ready acquiescence in the Group of Four’s plans, King Gorjah has never struck me as being willfully morally blind. The evidence of the Inquisition’s direct and intentional complicity in the Ferayd Massacre, and our much more measured response to it, won’t be lost upon him. Coupled with your own marriage to His Majesty and the generous terms granted to Emerald, it is, in fact, very likely he would believe, on the one hand, that any terms you and His Majesty chose to offer him would be honored, and, on the other hand, that Ferayd proves you are not, in fact, the slavering monsters the Group of Four has sought to portray in its propaganda. And, for that matter, I have no doubt Gorjah will be personally revolted by Graivyr and his fellows’ gloating pride in their part in mass murder. I don’t say he’ll be inspired to spontaneously offer his allegiance to Charis, but I do think it’s entirely possible his mind will be inclined towards accepting Charis’ sovereignty when the time comes.”

    “I hope you’re correct about that, Your Eminence,” Sharleyan told him. “And my point is simply that if you are, the time to begin preparing the ground is now.”

    “As you say, Your Majesty,” Gray Harbor replied.

    “Excellent. Now,” she continued more briskly, “given Admiral Rock Point’s return, we find ourselves with considerably greater naval strength in home waters. It seems to me that it would be an unthrifty use of that strength to let it sit idle. I realize it’s winter, and that Charisians seem to lack a Chisholmian’s taste for winter weather,” she smiled, and this time one or two of the councilors laughed out loud, “yet it occurs to me that we might find employment for some of our cruisers completing the hunt for Delferakhan shipping wherever it may be found. In addition, however, I see no reason not to use some of them to make life as unpleasant as possible for the Group of Four in the Markovian Sea and the northern Gulf of Tarot, as well. I see no need to cast our net for Siddarmarkian merchantmen, or — especially — for those Charisian ships which seem to be flying Siddarmarkian flags these days. Nonetheless, all of our intelligence reports indicate that the Group of Four’s naval building programs are continuing to accelerate. I think it would be an excellent idea to disrupt the flow of strategic materials.”

    She turned her head to look at Ahlvyno Pawalsyn, the Baron of Ironhill. Ironhill was the Keeper of the Purse, effectively the treasurer of Charis.

    “I see from the report you handed us yesterday, My Lord, that even though Clyntahn’s distrust for Siddarmark is excluding the Republic from their building programs, they seem to be buying a great many of the naval stores they need from Siddarmarkian sources?”

    “That’s correct, Your Majesty,” Ironhill said. “And even more from Fallos.”

    “Well, in that case, I believe we should do something about that. I don’t imagine any of those naval stores are moving in those Charisian ships flying Siddarmarkian flags?”

    “Ah, no, Your Majesty,” Wave Thunder replied with a crooked grin. “I think the ‘owners’ of those particular ships feel it might be . . . impolitic. For that matter, it would appear Clyntahn’s distrust of Siddarmark extends to keeping Siddarmarkians as a group as far removed as possible from their ship building projects. At any rate, Magwair is using almost exclusively non-Siddarmarkian bottoms to move his more critical naval stores. In fact, his quartermasters are avoiding Siddarmark-owned ships even when that policy occasions significant delays in delivery times.”

    “How very thoughtful of him,” Sharleyan murmured with a lurking smile. Then she straightened in her chair and glanced at Gray Harbor again.

    “My Lord,” she said, “I realize we already have privateers operating in those waters. Nonetheless, I want you to instruct Admiral Rock Point to deploy as many of his cruisers as he deems prudent to those same waters with orders to take, burn, and destroy any shipping employed by Vicar Allayn and his associates on their naval projects.”

    “As you wish, Your Majesty.” Gray Harbor’s inclined head indicated as much approval of his instructions as obedience to them, and she smiled fleetingly at him.

    “And if we’re going to employ our Navy most profitably, My Lord Ironhill,” she said, turning back to the keeper of the purse, “we’re going to have to come up with ways to pay for it. I’ve reviewed your latest revenue proposals, and I believe most of your points are well taken. However, I’d like you to consider in somewhat greater depth the possible impact on our own carrying trade of the new export duties you’ve sketched out. My concern is that although the rate doesn’t seem excessive, it will nonetheless drive up the prices our manufactories are forced to charge to foreign customers. At the moment, given the Group of Four’s efforts to close all mainland ports against us I’m loath to adopt any measure of our own which might chill our markets. And, to be honest, I think I’d prefer to avoid setting a precedent of export duties any sooner than we have to. Had you, perhaps, considered increasing import duties rather more, instead? I suspect we would be better placed to absorb even a substantial increase in the prices of luxuries, and more moderate increases in the cost of raw materials and foodstuffs, than we would be to absorb a drop in foreign demand for our own goods.”

    Ironhill’s eyebrows arched in mingled surprise at her perceptiveness and respect for the point she’d raised, and Gray Harbor leaned back in his own chair with a faint smile. Ahlvyno Pawalsyn was one of his closer friends, and he respected the baron’s mind. At the moment, however, the Keeper of the Purse’s surprise frustrated the first councilor almost as much as it amused him.

    Come on, Ahlvyno, he thought sardonically. You’re smarter than that. God knows, you’re ten times as smart as White Church, at any rate! I know she’s young, I know she’s foreign-born, and I know she’s female. But you — and the rest of the Council — better start figuring out that it’s entirely possible she’s even smarter than Cayleb, and at least as forceful. Because, trust me, anyone who doesn’t figure that out is really, really not going to enjoy what she does to him.

    The earl propped his elbows on the arms of his comfortable chair, crossed his legs, and watched the young woman seated at the head of the table effortlessly controlling and directing almost twenty men, the youngest of whom was probably at least twice her own age.

    Those idiots in Zion haven’t got the least idea of what they turned loose against themselves when they pissed her off, he thought gratefully and perhaps — just perhaps — a tiny bit complacently. They may think they’ve seen bad, already. They’re wrong about that, though. They haven’t even begun to see bad yet . . . but it’s coming.




    “Did I push too hard, do you think, Your Eminence?” Sharleyan Ahrmahk asked much later that evening as Archbishop Maikel joined her for supper.

    “At the Council meeting, Your Majesty?” Staynair chuckled and shook his head with a small smile. “I wouldn’t worry about that. I’m sure you stepped on a few male toes here and there, but I don’t think you trod on any that didn’t need stepping on. And even those who may still be inclined to discount your ideas because of your youth and sex seem to end up accepting their logic.”

    “I wouldn’t worry about it as much back home in Cherayth,” she confessed, leaning forward to reach for her wineglass and then settling back in her chair once more. “Once upon a time I would have, of course, but I’ve had years to . . . polish my relationship with my Chisholmian Councilors.”

    “‘Polish?’” Staynair repeated with a deeper chuckle. “Beat into submission is what you really mean, isn’t it?”

    “Oh, Langhorne, no!” Sharleyan rounded her eyes and shook her head. “‘Beat into submission’ would be such an unladylike thing to do!”

    “I think there’s a very unladylike element to your personality, Your Majesty,” Staynair replied. “And thank God for it!”

    “So you don’t think I’m driving too hard to assert my own authority?” she asked more seriously. He crooked an eyebrow at her, and she shrugged. “I’m not concerned about my own ability to control the situation, Your Eminence. I suppose what I’m really concerned about is whether or not I appear to be attempting to undercut Cayleb’s authority. Or, even worse, whether or not it turns out that, without meaning to, I actually am undercutting his authority.”

    “Emperor Cayleb’s authority isn’t so fragile as all that, Your Majesty,” Staynair said dryly. “I think it will survive any unintentional chips or scratches you might inflict upon it — especially since it’s obvious to me that you have no intention of ‘usurping’ his authority. And, frankly, I believe the possibility that you might encroach upon his prerogatives — which, now that I think about it, would be difficult for you to do, since they happen to also be your prerogatives — is far less dangerous to us than it would be for you to begin vacillating, or hesitating, for fear of encroaching. Charis — the Empire, not simply ‘Old Charis’ — needs a strong, firm hand on the tiller, especially now. And at this moment, that hand is — must be — yours.”

    “I know,” she confessed, then sipped a little wine, as if buying time to sort through her own thoughts. “I know,” she continued, “and if I’m going to be honest, I suppose I should admit that there’s a part of me that doesn’t come truly alive except when I’m dealing with decisions that matter. I’ve often wondered if that’s the sin of pride speaking.”

    “And have you discussed your concerns with Father Carlsyn?” Staynair asked in a slightly more neutral tone. Carlsyn Raiyz had been Sharleyan’s personal confessor ever since she ascended to the Chisholmian throne, but Staynair, for obvious reasons, had never even met the man before he arrived in Tellesberg at Sharleyan’s side.

    “I have.” She smiled crookedly. “Unfortunately, he’s my confessor; I’m not his. He’s reassured me several times, and imposed a penance or two on the rare occasions — well, possibly not all that rare — when he feels I’ve clearly stepped on someone harder than I had to. Confidence, he says, is a good thing in a ruler. Capriciousness isn’t.”

    “Sound doctrine,” Staynair said with a smile of his own. “Good philosophy, too. And, if I may, Your Majesty, could I also ask you if you’ve discussed the schism with him?”

    “Not the way we’ve discussed other concerns,” Sharleyan admitted, her eyes darkening. “He hasn’t pressed me on it, which probably says a great deal, right there. But the truth is, I’m almost afraid to ask him how he feels about it. If he’s prepared to accept my decisions without openly condemning them, that’s better than some others have already done.”

    Her voice was far more somber, and Staynair’s expression softened sympathetically.

    “Your uncle, Your Majesty?” he asked gently.

    Sharleyan’s head snapped up. She looked at him intently across the dinner table for several seconds, and then her firm mouth seemed to quiver for a moment.

    “Yes,” she admitted softly, and the archbishop nodded.

    Very few people in Charis had been particularly well acquainted with the internal political dynamic of Chisholm prior to Sharleyan’s marriage to Cayleb. Staynair certainly hadn’t been, but he’d made it a priority to learn all he could about that dynamic since. And one thing which had become abundantly clear to him was that the Duke of Halbrook Hollow had been far more than simply one of Sharleyan’s senior nobles. Indeed, he’d been more than “just” an uncle. As the commander of the Royal Army, he’d been her sword, even as Green Mountain had been her shield. And now . . . .

    “Your Majesty,” Staynair said after a moment, “it’s easier to command fleets and armies than to command the human heart. Your uncle has already discovered that, and if it should happen that it’s a lesson you haven’t already learned, then I fear it’s one you have no choice but to master now. I believe your uncle loves you. I don’t pretend to know him well, especially since he’s kept me — as all of the ‘Church of Charis’ — at arm’s-length or beyond, but I believe he does love you. Yet you’ve asked him to accept something he can’t. When I look at him, I see a man grieving over his niece’s decisions, and one of the reasons he grieves is because he loves her.”

    “I suppose that’s reassuring,” Sharleyan said. Then she shook her head. “No, I don’t ’suppose’ it is; it is. But it doesn’t change the fact that the . . . estrangement between us over the Church is becoming increasingly evident. Or the fact that there are those here in Tellesberg Palace who think it’s dangerous to have someone with such obvious Temple Loyalist sympathies so close to the throne.”

    “They may be correct about that, Your Majesty.” Staynair’s expression was serene. “In the end, what your relationship with him is — or becomes — is a matter for your decision, however, not for anyone else’s. And it’s not as if he were attempting to dissemble, to conceal those sympathies. It would appear to me that he is who he is, and what more can one fairly ask of anyone?”

    “I’m a queen, Your Eminence — an empress. Can I afford to be ‘fair’ to someone as close to me as he is?”

    “Perhaps it does constitute a danger to do so,” Staynair replied. “Perhaps you might even argue that it’s your responsibility as a queen and an empress to put him out of the way, somewhere he can do no harm. And perhaps if you fail to do so, you may face serious consequences in the fullness of time. All of that may be true, Your Majesty. But what I know is true is that you, too, must be who you are. Too much danger, too many threats from others already confront you. I believe that the one thing you dare not do is to permit yourself to undermine who you are, who you’ve always been, with doubts from within. If you love him as deeply as you obviously do, you must listen to that love as much as to the pragmatic caution of the ruler you are. It would be better for Charis for you to risk what harm he might do than for you to maim your own spirit, your own confidence and all the good you have still to do, by hardening your heart and denying that love.”

    “But I’ve already taken steps to protect myself against him,” she confessed. “That’s the entire reason I didn’t leave him behind in Chisholm with Mahrak. I couldn’t leave him in command of the Army when he so obviously disagreed with what I was coming to Charis to do.”

    “I assumed that was the case.” Staynair shrugged. “And there, I suspect, you see the clearest proof of just how unlikely you are to allow your love for him to blind you to your duties.”

    The empress nodded slowly, and Staynair sipped from his own wineglass, watching her and wishing more strongly than ever that he, Cayleb, and Merlin had succeeded in convincing the rest of the Brethren of Saint Zherneau to allow Cayleb to tell her the truth. If she’d known, as Staynair did, how Captain Athrawes could keep an eye on even the most skilled of conspirators, it might have set her mind at ease.

    And easing her mind wherever and whenever we can is the least we can do for her, he thought sympathetically behind the serenity of his eyes. She deserves that. And even if she didn’t, simple commonsense would demand that we do it anyway. We need her — need her functioning at her best, using all that intelligence and willpower, not wasting it by belaboring herself over issues she can never hope to resolve, anyway.

    “Your uncle, in many ways, is a mirror of Safehold itself, Your Majesty,” he said out loud. “The struggle in his heart and mind is the same struggle going on in the hearts and minds and souls of every man and woman in this world. Each of us must, in the end, make our own decisions, our own choices, and the pain that will bring to altogether too many of us will be terrible. Yet we must choose. The worst sin of all, the one unforgivable sin, is to refuse to choose. And whatever we may think or believe ourselves, we cannot deny that choice to others simply because we believe they will choose differently from ourselves.

    “You understand your uncle’s inability to agree with you. Now you must accept his right to disagree with you. Don’t judge him for that disagreement. Take steps to protect yourself against it’s possible consequences, yes, but remember that he remains the uncle you loved as a child, and the army commander who served you so well for so long. If he decides, if he chooses, to allow the breach between you to damage or destroy his love for you, or even impel him to join your enemies, that, too, is his decision. Yet never forget that it truly is possible to deeply love someone with whom you fundamentally disagree, Your Majesty. I’m a Bédardist, and that’s one of the essential principles of my order’s teaching. And another principle is that it’s very difficult to love someone with whom you fundamentally disagree. Difficult, and hard on both of you. Don’t make it any harder than you must, any sooner than you must.”

    Sharleyan looked at him for a moment, then inhaled deeply, and nodded.

    “You’re right, Your Eminence,” she said softly. “It is hard. But I’ll try not to make it any harder than I have to.”

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