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By Heresies Distressed: Chapter Sixteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, July 1, 2009 07:35 EDT



The Laughing Bride Tavern,
City of Tellesberg,
Kingdom of Charis

    The man who stepped through the Laughing Bride’s front door was plainly dressed. The hot, humid February night was blacker than the inside of a boot, but thunder rumbled out over Howell Bay, and occasional flashes of lightning lit the banks of heavy cloud rolling steadily in across the city of Tellesberg. Even though no rain had fallen yet, the fact that the visitor wore a poncho was certainly understandable, despite the temperature, under the circumstances.

    “Can I help you?” the tavern’s owner asked as he stepped across to personally greet the newcomer. It was late, and with the threatening weather, the Laughing Bride was scarcely packed.

    “I’m looking for someone,” the man in the poncho said. “I was told to ask for Master Dahryus.”

    “Ah.” Something might have flickered deep inside the publican’s eyes. If so, it disappeared as quickly as it had come, like one of the cloud-buried lightning flashes out over the Bay, and he nodded. “He’s taken the private taproom for the evening. Through that arch,” he pointed, “and down the hallway. Last door on the right.”

    “Thank you.” The man in the poncho nodded and headed down the indicated hallway. He paused outside the door of the taproom for just a moment, almost as if he were drawing a deep breath. Then he knocked once, crisply.

    The door opened quickly, and he found himself facing a youngish man dressed like a moderately successful merchant or shop owner.

    “Yes?” the younger man said courteously.

    “I have a message for Master Dahryus,” the man in the hallway said once more.

    If there might have been a flicker of something in the tavern-owner’s eyes, the brief tightening of the younger man’s expression was unmistakable. But he stepped back courteously enough, inviting the other man into the small taproom, then closed the door behind him. There were just under a dozen other men present, and all of them turned their heads, looking at the newcomer with expressions which varied from calmness to obvious uneasiness. In some cases, possibly even fear.

    “Ah, there you are!” another voice greeted the new arrival as yet another man — this one considerably older and rather better dressed than the fellow who had opened the door for him — looked up from a quietly intense conversation with one of the others seated around the small tables.

    “I apologize for my tardiness . . . Master Dahryus,” the newcomer said. “It was a bit difficult to get away without raising any questions.”

    “That wasn’t a criticism,” the man called “Master Dahryus” said reassuringly. “I’m just happy and relieved to see you after all.”

    The man in the poncho bowed slightly, and Master Dahryus’ waving hand invited him over to take a seat.

    “Seriously,” Dahryus continued as the late arrival obeyed his unspoken invitation, “I was beginning to feel a bit anxious. Baron Wave Thunder’s agents have proven even more effective than I’d anticipated.”

    “I’ve noticed the same thing, My Lord.”

    “I believe we might stay with simple ‘Master Dahryus,’ even here,” Dahryus said.

    “Of course.” The man in the poncho colored very slightly, and Dahryus chuckled and reached across the table to pat him on the shoulder.

    “Don’t worry about it so much, my son. Old habits die hard, and this isn’t exactly something any of us expected to be facing, now is it?”

    “No, it isn’t,” the other man said feelingly, and this time two or three of the others snorted or chuckled in harsh agreement.

    “Unfortunately, we are facing it,” Dahryus continued, “and given that we’ve all just agreed that Wave Thunder’s agents appear to be everywhere, we’d all best get into the habits of successful conspirators. Which is why, even though I realize one or two of you already know one another, I think we’ll avoid using any names tonight. Agreed?”

    Everyone nodded, and he smiled thinly.

    “Very well, my friends. In that case, it’s time we were getting down to business. We have much to discuss — much which will come as a surprise to many of you, I suspect. And, as I promised when first we came together, the time to strike draws rapidly closer. Indeed, if tonight’s meeting goes as planned, that time is almost upon us.”

    The others looked back at him in silence, their expressions a blend of excitement, anticipation, determination, and fear, and his smile grew broader and warmer.

    “Yes, we do indeed have much to discuss and to plan. But first, will you join me in a moment of prayer?”



    “– confident you can see why the arrangements near the convent are critical to our success,” Master Dahryus said some hours later. “And given the location of your manor, you’re definitely the one of us best placed to see to those details. So, if you’re willing to shoulder the responsibility — and the risk — we’ll leave their arrangement in your hands. The most important thing to remember is that none of the rest of us can play our part until those arrangements are solidly in place. If any problem should arise, or if you should discover that you require additional funds or any other assistance, you must let us know promptly so we can adjust our schedule. Father Tairyn will know how to contact me at any time, should there be need. It may take some days for any message from him to reach me, but be assured that it will.”

    “Of course, Master Dahryus,” the man to whom he’d been speaking said, and pushed back his chair. He stood, bowed to Dahryus and the two others who were still present, then left the taproom.

    Even as he stepped through the doorway, the abrupt, torrential rush of a thunderstorm came pounding down on the Laughing Bride’s roof. Thunder crashed suddenly almost directly overhead, shaking the tavern about its bones, and Dahryus shook his head as the door closed behind the departing man.

    “I fear Langhorne is providing an appropriate backdrop for this evening’s meeting,” he said.

    “In more ways than one,” the man who’d arrived late agreed dourly.

    “I’m not looking forward to the walk clear back to the Palace through this.”



    He twitched his head in the direction of the taproom’s shuttered windows, and the man who’d assumed the name of Dahryus chuckled.

    “At least it should mean you’re unlikely to meet anyone who might wonder where you’ve been, Father,” he pointed out, relaxing his own security rules in recognition that all of those remaining already knew one another’s identities. “In fact, that might be the very reason God provided this little shower.”

    “If He did, I’m sure He knows best, My lord,” the priest said. “On the other hand, not every task God sends us is equally enjoyable.”

    “No,” Dahryus said, his tone and expression both darkening. “No, it isn’t.”

    “My Lord — I mean, Master Dahryus –” one of the others began, his voice quiet in the rushing-water sound of the thunderstorm.

    “I think we can be a little less circumspect at this point, Mytrahn,” Bishop Mylz Halcom said.

    “Yes, My Lord. Thank you.” The other man smiled briefly, but his obvious unhappiness didn’t ease appreciably. “I was just going to ask . . . is this task really necessary?”

    “Unfortunately, I believe the answer is yes,” Halcom said. “It’s not the sort of thing I ever thought God would call me to do, and I don’t expect it to be easy for any of us. Yet the truth is, my sons, that when Shan-wei works her evil in the world of mortals, sometimes men who stand for the Light find themselves called to hard tasks.”

    The man who’d asked the question nodded, but his expression remained troubled, and Halcom gave him a gentle, sad smile.

    “When Sharleyan voluntarily joined with Cayleb in his attack upon Mother Church, she made herself an enemy of God, Mytrahn,” he said. “I’ve never actually met her, of course. Everything I’ve ever heard of her would seem to indicate she’s always been a good ruler, with a deep interest in justice and the well-being of her people. But whatever she may have been in the past, she no longer is. It may well be she truly believes what she and Cayleb are doing is God’s will. If so, however, both of them are wrong. And, in many ways, a good and sincere person mistakenly serving Shan-wei’s ends, with absolutely no evil intention, is the most deadly threat of all. Those who openly and obviously serve corruption are easily denounced, easily discredited. Those who fall into sin through good but misguided intentions and mistaken understanding often sound reasonable and convincing. They have no evil motives, however evil the ultimate outcome of their actions may be, and people such as that are far more seductive than the open and deliberate enemies of God.

    “That’s always true, but it takes on an even greater significance in Sharleyan’s case, I’m afraid. Just look at how her popularity here in Charis is already working to bolster Cayleb and the other schismatic leadership, even in the face of excommunication and interdict.”

    Heads nodded around the table, and more than one face tightened. The writs of excommunication for Cayleb Ahrmahk and Maikel Staynair, along with the proclamation of the interdiction of the entire Kingdom of Charis, had arrived less than two five-days earlier. The shock, however, had been less profound than one might have anticipated, given the severity of the penalties involved, and there was very little sign of any significant reaction against the authority of the Crown or of the archbishop of the Church of Charis. Partly, no doubt, that was because Staynair and Cayleb had foreseen the probability of such an action from the very beginning and had carefully warned their supporters that it might be coming. Another major factor was that the Church itself in Charis had blithely ignored the proclamations. Despite the interdict, churches were open and sacraments were administered. When the priesthood scorned the legitimate decrees and proclamations of Mother Church, how could the laity be blamed for following suit? Especially when the very grounds for the schismatics’ rejection of Mother Church’s authority further undercut the legitimacy of those writs through their scorching condemnation of the corruption of the vicarate which had issued them?

    But there was another factor, as well, Halcom felt certain. Sharleyan had not been excommunicated, obviously because no one in Zion had anticipated the possibility of her marriage to Cayleb when the writs were originally issued two months earlier. The fact that she hadn’t been, coupled with the way in which she had taken the heart of Charis by storm, made her a sort of legitimating source of the authority and fealty the Church had formally stripped away from Cayleb.

    “At the moment,” he continued, “Sharleyan’s very reputation as a good and just ruler, the fact that she’s so likable, has put a smiling face on Shan-wei’s corruption. That’s bad enough. But she genuinely believes in what she’s doing. She hasn’t been misled or deceived by Cayleb, and her commitment, in my judgment, is every bit as powerful as his own. She isn’t going to allow herself to be used as a weapon against something in which she truly believes. That’s why I believe our friend in the Palace is mistaken.”

    “I’m afraid you’re right about that,” the priest who’d shed the poncho said heavily. “I believe he’s sincere, although I’m also inclined to think his motivations aren’t quite as selfless as he says. In fact, I think they aren’t quite as selfless as he truly believes they are. And, of course, there are all of those other, more personal, factors involved in his thinking. But however sincere he may be, he simply doesn’t want to face hard, unpleasant facts.”



    “Which ones?” the man who’d questioned Dahryus asked, and the priest raised his hand, counting off points on his fingers as he made them.

    “First, I don’t think he truly wants to admit she’s become an enemy of God. He desperately wants to believe she’s only temporarily mistaken. That, given time, she’ll return to her senses. And, second, he doesn’t want to admit how deeply and sincerely attached to her the majority of her subjects actually are. I think he underestimates the importance of her support among the common born folk on this issue, probably because he’s not one of them himself. That’s more than a little ironic, in light of past events, but I suppose it’s also possible that he’s fooling himself on this point because he doesn’t want to face the logical implications.

    “But whatever he may be thinking, or why ever he may be thinking it, the truth is that she’s genuinely loved. In fact, his entire plan revolves around using that love for our own ends, and superficially, it’s a very attractive concept. When she not only held the throne after her father’s death but also proved to be one of the strongest rulers in Chisholm’s history, she won their hearts as well as their loyalty. Despite how deeply they respect her, the common folk also feel actively possessive about her, almost as if she were a favorite, beautiful sister or daughter, not just their monarch. Our friend is well aware of that, but what he’s persistently overlooking is that a huge percentage of Chisholmians will follow her straight into apostasy and heresy simply because of how much they love her. Every dispatch from Green Mountain and the Queen Mother only underscores that fact. He simply doesn’t want to admit it, just as he’s underestimating, in my opinion, the degree to which the Chisholmian commons are going to be automatically suspicious of anything which holds even the slightest possible taint of some sort of aristocratic cabal. Every other scheme he’s come up with for actually discrediting her has foundered on that same rock, but he honestly believes this one will work because its supposed to discredit the reasons for her decisions, rather than the decisions themselves, and do it in a way she can’t directly counter. Unfortunately, I don’t think it will have the effect he’s predicting . . . and without Green Mountain’s active support — which even he realizes would be impossible to secure — I’m even more doubtful about his ability to manage the commons well enough to keep the situation under control in the long run.”

    “So am I,” Halcom said, nodding slowly and regretfully. “And if he’s wrong, if he can’t discredit her policies and deprive her of the power to counterattack his actions, then we have no choice but to consider more . . . direct action.”

    “I understand,” the man who’d asked the initial question said. “I still wish there were some way to avoid it, though.”

    “So do we all,” Halcom replied. “So do we all.”

    He sat silent for several seconds, then returned his attention to the priest.

    “I take it you have his answer to our latest counterproposal?”

    “I do. He believes what you’ve suggested should be practical, given conditions in both Charis and Chisholm. He’s agreed to help push events in the necessary direction.”

    “And is he making any plans of his own to consolidate things in the aftermath?” Halcom’s eyes sharpened as he asked the question, and the other man shrugged.

    “He says there’s no point in trying to do so at this time. Or, rather, that it would be unduly risky to attempt to involve anyone else in his planning at this stage. As he says, his present base of support isn’t especially strong, and he’s not completely positive who among his apparent supporters might prove less than enthusiastic if they knew the full plan. So he intends to wait until the moment comes, then ‘play it by ear.’ I think he entertains at least some hope of recruiting additional supporters when the Chisholmian delegation to this new Imperial Parliament arrives in Tellesberg. Even if he fails in that, or decides it’s too risky to attempt after all, the fact that he’s the only one in the Palace who will know ahead of time that anything is coming should allow him to capitalize upon it. That’s what he says, at any rate, and I’m strongly inclined to agree he’s telling us the truth about his plans and intentions.”

    “Which tends to lend additional credence to your own comment about his motivations, doesn’t it?” Halcom said a bit sadly.

    “I suppose it does. On the other hand, don’t forget that his objections, his stipulations, are completely sincere. That’s my evaluation of them, at least. There are clear limits beyond which he’s not prepared to go.”

    The note of warning in the priest’s voice was clear, and Halcom nodded.

    “I realize that. And, if I believed his analysis of the consequences of his own proposal was accurate, I’d be fully prepared to respect those limits. Unfortunately, he’s wrong. What he wants to do is far too likely to come crashing down around his ears, and if it does, it will come crashing down on us and upon our task, as well. In fact, I believe that ultimately his idea is likely to make things worse by actually strengthening Sharleyan’s hand in the fullness of time. Never forget, my sons, that this new Empress of ours is a formidable, intelligent, and determined woman. One who not only has enormous popular support in Chisholm, but who’s been steadily winning the hearts and loyalty of all of Charis, as well. That’s what makes her such a dangerous weapon in Cayleb’s hand, and striking her from his hand is going to be far more difficult than our friend believes.”

    “I . . . regret that,” the priest said softly. “As you said a moment ago, she isn’t and never has been an evil woman, despite the horrible sin she’s fallen into.”

    “Evil seduces,” Halcom replied almost equally softly. “It cannot conquer by force of arms unless godly men allow it to do so, and if its mask were not so fair and so seductive, then Hell would be empty of all save Shan-wei herself. But Hell is not empty, my son, and however good Sharleyan’s intentions may originally have been, however good she may still sincerely believe they are, she is fully in the service of Shan-wei now. And so, however likable she may be, no matter how physically or even spiritually attractive she may be, she is the enemy of God. And there can be no quarter, no compromise, with His enemies.”

    The others nodded in solemn silence, and he redirected his attention to the priest once again.

    “Very well. When you have the opportunity to speak to him once again, tell him it will take at least a short while to make the arrangements from our side. If he seems to be feeling impatient, point out to him that the difficulties involved in finding a secure and, if necessary, defensible location for our base after the actual strike are far from trivial. Tell him we’ll complete our preparations as quickly as possible and inform him when everything is in place. And it might be as well to suggest to him that he begin thinking of ways to bring Saint Agtha’s to the Empress’ attention.”

    “With all due respect, do we want to have him do that before our preparations are complete?” the priest asked.

    “I think it will be better to lay the groundwork as far in advance as possible,” Halcom replied. “Given how complicated and busy her life must be at the moment, however many of Cayleb’s advisers may still be available to assist her, it’s unlikely she’d be able to free the time in her schedule to visit the convent before we could be prepared. Even if our friend is clumsier than I would expect about mentioning Saint Agtha to her, she isn’t going to be able to go haring off on a moment’s notice.”

    The priest nodded, and Halcom inhaled deeply, pushed back his chair, and stood.

    “In that case, my sons,” he said, raising his hand and signing the scepter, “go now, with God’s blessing and in Langhorne’s keeping. Remember the devotion and love due to God and the Archangels, and let the strength that love brings you strengthen and guide your hands, hearts, and minds as we give ourselves to the service of God and Mother Church against all enemies of the Light.”

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