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By Schism Rent Asunder: Section Four

       Last updated: Wednesday, October 24, 2007 07:16 EDT



Royal Palace,
City of Tellesberg,
Kingdom of Charis

    Merlin Athrawes stood just inside the council chamber door, wearing the black and gold of the Charisian Royal Guard, and watched a young man gaze out a window across the Tellesberg waterfront at the latest in the line of rain squalls marching towards the city across Howell Bay. The youngster in question was dark-haired, dark-eyed, and on the tall side for an inhabitant of the planet of Safehold, and especially of the Kingdom of Charis. He was also barely twenty-three years old, which came to only twenty-one in the years of the planet on which (though he did not know it) his species had actually evolved. That made him very young indeed to wear the emerald-set golden chain whose glittering green fire was the emblem of a king.

    Many people would no doubt have been struck by his youthfulness, the fact that, despite his already powerful physique, he clearly had filling out still to do. Others might have noted the restless energy which had driven him to the window after the better part of two hours of discussion and planning. They might have confused that restlessness with boredom or lack of interest . . . but only until they saw his eyes, Merlin thought. They were no longer as young as once they had been, those eyes, and the mouth below them was thinner, with the set of a man far older — wiser, tougher, and more ruthless — than his years. They were the eyes and mouth of Cayleb Zhan Haarahld Bryahn Ahrmahk, King Cayleb II, ruler of Charis, who had — in the space of barely three local months — won the three most crushing, one-sided naval victories in the entire history of Safehold, lost his father, inherited a crown, and thrown his defiance of the four most powerful men in the entire world into the teeth of God's own Church.

    And they were also the eyes and mouth of a king whose kingdom still faced the short end of a battle of extinction unless he and his advisers could think of a way to avert that outcome.

    Cayleb watched the distant rain for several more moments, then turned back to several of the advisers in question.

    The group of men seated around the massive table weren't the entire Royal Council. In fact, they weren't even most of the Council . . . and they did include several people who weren't Council members at all. Cayleb was well aware that some of the Councilors who weren't present resented — or would resent — their exclusion when they discovered it. If they discovered it. But while his father's tutelage had seen to it that he was far from oblivious to the political imperatives of maintaining a broad base of support, especially in the present circumstances, he was also perfectly willing to live with that resentment for the moment.

    "All right," he said, "I think that deals with all of the immediate domestic reports?"

    He looked around the table, one eyebrow quirked, and the compact, distinguished looking man sitting at its far end nodded. Rayjhis Yowance, the Earl of Gray Harbor, had served Cayleb's father as Charis' First Councilor for the better part of fourteen years; now he served his new king in the same role.

    "For the moment, at any rate, Your Majesty," he said. Despite the fact that  he'd known Cayleb literally all his life — or possibly because of it — he had made it a point to address his youthful monarch with a greater degree of formality since Cayleb's ascension to the throne. "I believe Maikel here has at least one additional point he wishes to address, although I understand he's waiting for a few more reports before he does so." Gray Harbor's rising inflection turned the final part of the statement into a question, and he raised one eyebrow at the man sitting at the far end of the council table from the king in the white cassock of the episcopate.

    "I do," Archbishop Maikel confirmed. "As you say, however, Rayjhis, I'm still waiting for two reports I've requested. With your permission, Your Majesty, I'd like to reserve a few minutes of your time tomorrow or the next day to discuss this."

    "Of course," Cayleb told the man who had been his father's confessor and who — despite certain . . . technical irregularities — had been elevated to Archbishop of all Charis.

    "I also expect additional reports from Hanth in the next few days," Gray Harbor continued, and smiled thinly. "Current indications are that Mahntayl is considering a rather hasty relocation to Eraystor."

    "Probably the smartest move the bastard's made in years," someone murmured so softly even Merlin's ears had trouble overhearing him. The voice, Merlin noted, sounded remarkably like that of the Earl of Lock Island.

    If Cayleb had heard the comment, he gave no indication. Instead, he simply nodded.

    "Well," he said, "in that case, I suppose it's about time we considered breaking up. It's coming up on lunch, and I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm hungry. Is there anything else we need to look at before we eat?"

    "Zhefry reminded me of several items this morning, Your Majesty," Gray Harbor replied with a slight smile. Zhefry Ahbaht was the first councilor's personal secretary, and his ability to "manage" Gray Harbor's schedule was legendary.

    "Despite his insistence, I think most of them can probably wait until after lunch," the earl continued. "He did, however, point out that the Group of Four ought to be getting their copies of the writs in the next five-day or so."

    One or two faces tightened at the reminder. Cayleb's wasn't one of them.

    "He's right," the king agreed. "And I wish I could be a fly on the wall when Clyntahn and Trynair open them." His smile was thinner — and much colder — than Gray Harbor's had been. "I don't imagine they'll be particularly pleased. Especially not with your personal log for the fire, Maikel."

    Several of the other men sitting around the table smiled back at him. Some of their expressions were even more kraken-like than his own, Merlin noted.

    "I don't imagine they've been 'particularly pleased' about anything that's happened in the past few months, Your Majesty," Gray Harbor agreed. "Frankly, I can't think of any message you could have sent them that could possibly have changed that."

    "Oh, I don't know, Rayjhis." Admiral Bryahn Lock Island was the commander of the Royal Charisian Navy. He was also one of Cayleb's cousins. "I imagine that if we were to send them a mass suicide note, that would probably cheer them up immensely."

    This time there were a few outright chuckles, and Cayleb shook his head admonishingly at Lock Island.

    "You're a bluff, unimaginative sailor, Bryahn. Remarks like that demonstrate exactly why it's such a good idea for us to keep you as far away as possible from the diplomatic correspondence!"

    "Amen to that!" Lock Island's pious tone was at least eight-tenths sincere, Merlin judged.

    "Speaking of 'bluff, unimaginative sailors,'" Ahlvyno Pawalsyn said, "I have to say, although I'd really rather not bring this up, that your current plans for expanding the Navy worry me, Bryahn."

    Lock Island looked at the other man and cocked his head. Ahlvyno Pawalsyn was also Baron Ironhill . . . and Keeper of the Purse. That made him effectively the treasurer of the Kingdom of Charis.

    "I assume that what you mean is that figuring out how to pay for the expansion worries you," the admiral said after a moment. "On the other hand, what's likely to happen if we don't continue the expansion worries me a lot more."

    "I'm not trying to suggest it isn't necessary, Bryahn," Ironhill replied mildly. "As the fellow who's supposed to come up with a way to finance it, however, it does leave me with some . . . interesting difficulties, shall we say?"

    "Let Nahrmahn pay for it," Lock Island suggested. "That fat little bugger's still got plenty tucked away in his treasury, and he's got damn-all for a navy at the moment. We're already camped in his front yard, and he can't be any too happy about the way we've sewed Eraystor Bay shut like a sack. So why don't I just make his day complete by taking a couple of squadrons in close and sending a few Marines ashore to deliver a polite request from His Majesty here that he finance our modest efforts before we burn his entire miserable waterfront around his ears?"

    "Tempting," Cayleb said. "Very tempting. I'm not sure it's a very practical solution, though."

    "Why not?" Lock Island turned back to the king. "We won; he lost. Well, he will lose, whenever we finally get around to actually kicking his fat arse off his throne, and he knows it."

    "No doubt," Cayleb agreed. "Assuming we add Emerald to the Kingdom, however, we're going to have to figure out how to pay for its administration. Looting its treasury doesn't strike me as a particularly good way to get started. Besides, it would be a one-time sort of thing, and just expanding the Navy isn't going to solve our problems, Bryahn. Somehow we've got to pay for maintaining it, too. With the Church openly against us, we don't dare lay up large numbers of ships. We'll need them in active commission, and that means we'll have a heavy, ongoing commitment on the Treasury. We couldn't rely on regular 'windfalls' the size of Nahrmahn's treasury even if we wanted to, so we 're going to have to figure out a long-term way to pay for it out of our own ongoing revenue stream."

    Lock Island's eyebrows rose as he gave his young monarch a look of respect. Ironhill, on the other hand, positively beamed, as did Gray Harbor, and Merlin nodded mentally in satisfaction, as well. All too many rulers twice Cayleb's age would have settled for whatever got them the ships they needed in the shortest possible time and let the future take care of itself.

    "Actually, Your Majesty," another of the men seated at the table said, "I think paying for the Navy isn't going to be quite as difficult as it might first appear. Not, at least, as long as we're not trying to raise mainland-sized armies, at the same time."



    All eyes turned to the speaker. Ehdwyrd Howsmyn was short, stout, and very well-dressed. At forty-one years of age (thirty-seven and a half, standard, Merlin automatically translated mentally), he was the youngest man in the council chamber after Cayleb himself. He was also, almost certainly, the wealthiest. It was his foundries which had produced the artillery and the copper sheathing for the galleons Cayleb and his captains had used to smash the recent attack upon the kingdom. In fact, his shipyards had built half a dozen of those galleons, as well. Howsmyn was not officially a member of the Royal Council, or even of Parliament. Neither, for that matter, was Rhaiyan Mychail, the sharp-eyed (and almost equally wealthy) man sitting next to him. Mychail was at least twice Howsmyn's age, but the two of them were business partners of long standing, and Mychail's textile manufactories and ropewalks had produced virtually all of the canvas for those same galleons' sails, not to mention most of the cordage for their standing and running rigging.

    "Unless you and Master Mychail intend to build ships gratis, we're still going to have to figure out how to pay for them," Ironhill pointed out. "And without access to Desnair's gold mines, we can't just coin money whenever we need it."

    "Oh, I'm well aware of that, Ahlvyno, And, no, I'm not planning on building them gratis. Sorry." Howsmyn grinned, and his eyes twinkled. "Neither Rhaiyan nor I have any intention of gouging the Treasury, of course. That'd be an outstandingly stupid thing for either of us to be doing at this particular moment. But we do have to manage to pay our own workers and our suppliers, you know. Not to mention showing at least a modest profit for ourselves and our partners and shareholders.

    "What I was getting at, though, was that as long as the Navy can keep merchant shipping moving, the balance of trade is going to provide quite a healthy cash flow. And under the circumstances, I don't see me or any of my fellow shipowners complaining if the Crown decides to tack on a few extra duties and taxes on the Navy's behalf so that it can keep trade moving."

    "I'm not as certain as you seem to be about that cash flow, Ehdwyrd." Ironhill's expression was far more somber than Howsmyn's. "If I were the Group of Four, the very first thing I'd do would be to demand that all of Haven's and Howard's harbors be closed to our shipping immediately." He shrugged. "They have to be as aware as we are that the Kingdom's prosperity hinges entirely on our merchant marine. Surely they're going to do everything they can to cripple it."

    Gray Harbor frowned, and some of the others went so far as to nod in sober agreement. Howard and Haven, the two main continents of Safehold, contained at least eighty percent of the planetary population. The kingdoms, principalities, and territories in which that population lived were the markets upon which Charis' merchant marine and manufactories had built the kingdom's wealth. If those markets were taken away, Charisian prosperity would be doomed, but Howsmyn only chuckled.

    "The Group of Four can demand whatever they want, Ahlvyno. I doubt they're going to be stupid enough to issue that particular decree, but, then, they've already done some spectacularly stupid things, so it's always possible I'm wrong. In fact, I rather hope I am and that they do try it. Even if they do, though, it's not going to happen."

    "No?" Ironhill sat back in his chair. "Why?"

    "Why do I wish they would? Or why do I think it's not going to happen even if they do?"


    "I wish they would because giving orders you know won't be obeyed is one of the best ways I know to destroy your own authority. And the reason an order like that wouldn't be obeyed is that no one in Haven or Howard can possibly provide the goods those markets require. I don't mean just that they can't provide them as cheaply as we can, Ahlvyno, although that's certainly true, as well. What I mean is that they literally don't have the capacity to provide them at all. And that even if they had the capacity, or developed it as quickly as possible, they still wouldn't have the ability to transport those goods at anything like the economies of cost we can achieve." Howsmyn shook his head. "That's one of the minor details the Group of Four left out of their calculations, actually. I'm astonished Duchairn didn't warn the other three what would happen if they succeeded in what they had in mind."

    "Would it really have been that bad for them, Ehdwyrd?" Gray Harbor asked, and Howsmyn shrugged.

    "It would've been bad, Rayjhis. Maybe not as bad as I think it would have been, I suppose, if I'm going to be fair. After all, my perspective is bound to be shaped by my own business interests and experience. Still, I think most people — including a lot of people right here in the Kingdom — don't understand how thoroughly we've come to dominate the world's markets. There was a reason Trynair chose King Haarahld's supposed ambition to control the entire world's merchant traffic as his pretext for supporting Hektor and Nahrmahn against us. He knows there are plenty of people in Dohlar, Desnair, Harchong — even the Republic — who deeply resent our domination of the carrying trade. And quite a few of them — the smarter ones, to be honest — resent their own growing dependency on our manufactories, as well.

    "All of that's true, but their resentment can't change the reality, and the reality is that better than half — probably closer to two-thirds, actually — of the world's merchant galleons fly the Charisian flag. And another reality is that somewhere around two-thirds of the manufactured goods those galleons transport are made right here in Charis, as well. And a third reality is that it takes four times as long and costs five or six times as much to transport the same goods to their ultimate destinations overland as it does to ship them by sea. If, of course, it's even possible to ship them overland in the first place. It's just a bit difficult to get something from Siddarmark to Tarot by wagon, after all. There's this little thing called the Tarot Channel in the way."

    One or two of the others looked dubious. Not at his analysis of the manufacture and transport of goods. That was something any Charisian understood on an almost instinctual level. Some of them clearly thought Howsmyn's assumptions were overly optimistic, however. Ironhill appeared to be one of them; Gray Harbor and Cayleb did not, and behind his own outwardly expressionless guardsman's face, Merlin frowned thoughtfully. He wasn't certain of Howsmyn's actual numbers. No one on Safehold kept that sort of statistics, so anything Howsmyn said could be no more than an informed estimate. On the other hand, he wouldn't be very surprised to discover that those estimates were, in fact, very close to accurate. No one got as wealthy as Ehdwyrd Howsmyn from international trade without a keen grasp of the realities of finance, shipping, and manufacturing.

    And, Merlin reminded himself, Charis was already well along the way towards a purely waterpowered Industrial Revolution, despite the Church's proscriptions against advanced technology, even before I put in my own two cents worth.

    "Over the past year and a half or so," Howsmyn continued, very carefully not looking in Merlin's direction, "our ability to produce goods, especially textiles, quickly and at even lower cost has increased dramatically. No one in Haven or Howard is going to be able to match our productivity for a long time to come, and that assumes that nothing happens –" he was even more careful not to glance at Merlin " — to further increase our manufactories' efficiency. And as I say, even if they could produce the goods we can produce, trying to transport them overland instead of shipping them by water would add enormously to their expenses. No." He shook his head. "If the Group of Four had succeeded in destroying Charis and our merchant marine, they would have created a huge problem for themselves. It truly would have been a case of killing the wyvern that fetched the golden rabbit."

    "Even assuming all of that's true, that doesn't mean they won't try to do exactly what Ahlvyno's just suggested anyway," Gray Harbor pointed out, dutifully playing the role of Shan-wei's advocate. "They already tried to destroy us, after all, despite all of the dire consequences you're saying they would have faced as a result."

    "I also admitted that they've already done some spectacularly stupid things," Howsmyn reminded the earl. "And they may try to close their ports to us, as well. But if they do, those ports are going to leak like sieves. There are going to be entirely too many people — including quite a few of the vicars' own bailiffs, for that matter — who want and need our goods for it to work. Not even the Church has ever really been able to control smuggling, you know, and trying to do something like that would be much, much harder than chasing a few independent smugglers."

    "You probably have a point, Master Howsmyn," Archbishop Maikel said. "However, I suspect the Group of Four — and especially Grand Inquisitor Clyntahn — are, indeed, likely to make the attempt."

    "I bow to your greater familiarity with the Council of Vicars' thinking, Your Eminence," Howsmyn said. "I stand by my analysis of what will happen if they do, however."

    "Rahnyld of Dohlar's always wanted to increase his own merchant marine," Bynzhamyn Raice, Baron Wave Thunder, pointed out.

    The bald, hook-nosed Wave Thunder had been King Haarahld VII's spymaster. He served Cayleb in the same role, and he seldom spoke up in meetings like this unless it had something to do with those duties. When he did open his mouth, though, he was almost always worth listening to, Merlin thought, and this time was no exception. The King of Dohlar was hemmed in on all sides by much more powerful neighbors like the Harchong Empire and Republic of Siddarmark. His chances of territorial expansion were effectively nil, which was why he'd attempted for years to emulate the maritime prosperity of Charis, instead.

    "That was one of the pretensions which made Rahnyld such an enthusiastic supporter of the Group of Four's plans, after all," Wave Thunder continued. "Well, that and those loans of his from the Church. Under the circumstances, I'm sure the Church would be willing to forgive even more of his loans and actively subsidize his efforts to build up a merchant fleet big enough to cut into our own carrying trade, and the Church has a lot of money. If the Group of Four decides to make a major commitment to helping him, he could launch a lot of galleons."

    "Unless my memory fails me, Bynzhamyn," Lock Island said, "we're still at war with Dohlar, and likely to remain so for quite some time. Something about our demand for Rahnyld's head, I believe."

    Quite a few of the men around the table chuckled at that observation, Merlin noticed.

    "Until and unless that state of war is terminated," the admiral continued, "any Dohlaran-flagged vessel is a legitimate prize of war. And even if, for some reason, peace should disastrously break out between us and Rahnyld, there've always been problems with piracy in the waters around Howard. I'd be astonished if some of those 'pirates' didn't somehow manage to come into possession of some nice little schooners, possibly even with some of the new guns on board."

    The chuckles were louder this time.

    "We're getting too far ahead of ourselves," Cayleb said. He looked at Howsmyn. "I'm inclined to think your analysis is basically sound, Ehdwyrd. That doesn't mean things won't change, and we've seen for ourselves over the last two years just how quickly they can change. Still, I think one of the other points you made is almost certainly valid. Navies are expensive, but as long as we have one and our enemies don't, we don't need a huge army to go with it, so at least we can avoid that expense. And under the circumstances, I think we can count on being able to finance the fleet somehow."

    "For now, at least, we can, Your Majesty," Ironhill conceded. "The funds are there for the thirty additional ships Admiral Lock Island has under construction at the moment, at any rate. We can't lay down many more than that until we've launched the current vessels to clear the building ways, anyhow. But completing those ships is going to effectively finish the total elimination of the treasury surplus your father and grandfather had managed to build up before the current emergency."

    "I understand." Cayleb nodded.

    "Which, if Your Majesty will pardon me," Lock Island said with greater than usual formality, "brings us to the question of just what we do with the ships we already have while we wait for the new ones."

    "You mean besides making certain the Church isn't able to land an overwhelming army to slaughter our people, burn our cities to the ground, and remove all of our heads?" Cayleb inquired mildly.

    "Besides that, of course, Your Majesty."



    "Bryahn, I'm perfectly well aware that you want to exterminate Prince Nahrmahn." There was a slight but unmistakable edge of patient exasperation in Cayleb's tone. "For that matter, I'd rather enjoy the process myself. But the truth is that our own navy consists of less than sixty obsolete galleys and only thirty-four galleons, at least until more of the new construction comes forward and we get the damaged ships back from the repair yards. That's going to leave us stretched dangerously thin if we go after Nahrmahn and Hektor simultaneously."

    "Then let's go after them one at a time," Lock Island argued with respectful stubbornness. "And since Nahrmahn is the closer, and since we're already blockading Eraystor Bay, let's start with him."

    "I think you're entirely right that we need to go after them one at a time," Cayleb replied. "Unfortunately, I also think Hektor is the more dangerous of the two. Unless I miss my guess –" it was his turn to avoid looking in Merlin's direction "– he's already laying down and converting as many galleons of his own as he can. And if Black Water's reports on our new artillery got home to him, he's going to know how to arm them effectively, as well. He'll have to start from scratch with the new guns, but I trust no one in this room is foolish enough to think Hektor is stupid or that his artisans and mechanics have been stricken with some sort of mysterious incompetence overnight. Narmahn doesn't begin to have Hektor's building capacity and foundries, so if we're going to go after one of them, we need to start with Corisande, not Emerald. And then there's that little matter of the army we don't have. Taking islands away from Narmahn and sealing off Eraystor is one thing; finding enough troops to put ashore to take the rest of his princedom away from him is going to be something else, I'm afraid."

    Lock Island looked moderately rebellious, and he wasn't the only one who felt that way, Merlin decided.

    "In Bryahn's support, Your Majesty," Wave Thunder said, "don't forget who it was that tried to have you assassinated." Cayleb looked at him, and the spymaster shrugged. "He tried it before you and your father completely destroyed his navy; now that he doesn't have one anymore, there has to be even more pressure to consider . . . unconventional measures. If we give him long enough, he's likely to try it again."

    "Then it's just going to be up to you and the Guard –" this time Cayleb did glance at Merlin " — to see to it that he fails again, Bynzhamyn."

    "That may not be quite as simple a matter as we'd all prefer, Your Majesty. In fact, that's part of what I want to discuss with you later," Archbishop Maikel said, and all eyes turned to him. "Before, Nahrmahn was forced to hire mercenaries, professional assassins, if he wanted you or your father dead," the archbishop continued. "Today, alas, there are far more potential assassins in Charis than ever before. Indeed, protecting you against Nahrmahn's efforts to murder you may be the least of the Guard's concerns."

    And that, Merlin thought, is probably an understatement. Unfortunately.

    The majority of Cayleb's subjects strongly supported their youthful king and his new archbishop in his confrontation with the Church of God Awaiting. They knew precisely what the Church — or, at least, the so-called "Group of Four" which actually created and manipulated the Church's policies — had intended to happen to their kingdom and their families when they chose to break Charis' power once and for all by turning it into a wasteland of slaughtered people and burned towns. They supported the scathing indictment Maikel had sent to Grand Vicar Erek in their collective name, for they'd made a clear distinction between God Himself and the corrupt, venal men who controlled the Church.

    But if the majority of Charisians felt that way, a significant minority did not, and almost a quarter of the kingdom's clergy were outraged and furious at Cayleb's "impious" challenge to the Church's "rightful, godgiven authority." It would have been nice if Merlin had been able to convince himself that all of those people who disapproved were just as corrupt and calculating as the Group of Four themselves. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of them weren't. Their horror at the thought of schism within God's Church was completely genuine, and their outrage at the ruler who'd dared to raise his hand against God's will sprang from a deep-seated, totally honest faith in the teachings of the Church of God Awaiting. Many — most – of them saw it as their sacred duty to resist, by any means they could, the abominations King Cayleb and Archbishop Maikel sought to impose upon the kingdom.

    For the first time in living memory, there was an actual, significant, internal threat to the life of a king of Charis, and Staynair's regretful expression showed that the archbishop understood exactly why.

    "I know, Maikel," Cayleb said. "I know. But we can't undo what we've already done, and even if I thought it was what God wanted, we couldn't turn back from the journey we've begun. Which doesn't mean," he looked back at Wave Thunder, "that I want any mass arrests. I've never been very fond of iron heels, and I can't convince people who hate and fear what they think I'm doing that they're wrong about my policies or the reasons for them if I start right out trying to crush every voice of disagreement."

    "I've never suggested that we ought to, Your Highness. I only –"

    "His Majesty is right, My Lord," Staynair said quietly, and Wave Thunder looked at him.

    "It's the question of conscience, of the relationship between each individual human soul and God, which stands at the heart of the Group of Four's hostility towards us," the archbishop continued in that same firm, quiet voice. "Trynair and Clyntahn, each for reasons of his own, are determined to preserve Mother Church's total control over the thoughts, beliefs, and actions of all of God's children. They've seen fit to dress their ambition in the fine clothes of faith and concern for the salvation of souls, to pretend they're motivated only by priestly duty, and not the obscene wealth and decadent lives they live, when, in fact, their own arrogance and corruption has turned Mother Church herself into a tool of oppression and greed.

    "We know that." He looked around the suddenly quiet council chamber. "We've seen it. And we believe we're called by God to oppose that oppression. To remind Mother Church that it's the souls of God's people which matter, and not the amount of gold in her coffers, or the personal power and wealth of her vicars and the luxury in which they live. But to do that successfully, we must remind all of Mother Church's children of those same things. We cannot do that by resorting to oppression ourselves."

    "With all due respect, Your Eminence," Wave Thunder said into the stillness which seemed only deeper and quieter as thunder rumbled and rolled once more in the distance, "I don't disagree. But, by the same token, we can't protect the King if we're not willing to act strongly and publicly against those who would destroy him. And if we lose the King, we lose everything."

    Cayleb stirred, but Wave Thunder faced him stubbornly.

    "At this moment, Your Majesty, that's true, and you know it. We've already lost your father, and Zhan is still a child. If we lose you, who holds the Kingdom together? And if this Kingdom stumbles, who will be left to 'remind' Mother Church of anything? Right now, on this day, any hope of human freedom dies with you, Your Majesty. For now, at least, that statement is the terrifying truth. And it's also the reason you must let us take the necessary precautions to keep you alive."

    Cayleb looked around the table, and stark agreement with Wave Thunder looked back at him from every face. Even the archbishop nodded in grave acknowledgment of the baron's point.

    "I will, Bynzhamyn," Cayleb replied, after a moment. He glanced at Merlin again, then back at Wave Thunder.

    "I will," he repeated, "and anyone who actually lends himself to treason against the Crown, to violence against the Crown's ministers, or against any of the Kingdom's subjects, will be dealt with sternly, regardless of the reasons for his actions. But there will be no preemptive arrests because of what men might do, and no one will be punished unless their conspiracies or their crimes are first proven before the King's Bench in open court. No secret courts, no summary imprisonments or executions. I refuse to become another Clyntahn simply to protect myself against him."

    Wave Thunder's expression was a long way from anything Merlin would have called satisfied, but at least the baron let the argument drop. For now, at any rate.

    "All right," Cayleb said more briskly. "I still hear lunch calling, and it's getting louder, so let's go ahead and wrap this up. Ahlvyno, please give me a report by the end of this five-day on the exact state of the Treasury, allowing for the completion and manning of the galleons we currently have under construction.Take Ehdwyrd at his word and propose a reasonable schedule of new duties and taxes, as well, based on the assumption that our trade will at least hold level.  Bryahn, I'd like you and Baron Seamount to give me your best estimates of what we're going to need Ahlvyno to somehow figure out how to pay for after we finish the present building program. You'd better get Sir Dustyn involved in that, as well. Ehdwyrd, I'd like you and Rhaiyan to give some additional thought to what you were saying earlier about the likely consequences of any effort by the Group of Four to close Haven and Howard to our trade. Assume they're actually going to do it, then come up with the most effective ways for us to undermine any embargo and make sure their efforts don't succeed. You might also consider how we could motivate our merchants and shipping houses to fund presentation galleons for the Navy, as well. As you say, our survival depends upon their prosperity, but their prosperity depends upon our survival. I think it's fair for them to contribute a little more to protecting their shipping than we might expect out of, say, a dragon-breeder from somewhere back in the hills. And, Rayjhis, I think you'd better check with Doctor Mahklyn. I'd like the College's input on some of our estimates on shipping, trade, and taxation, as well."

    Heads nodded around the table, and Cayleb nodded back.

    "In that case, I think we're mostly done here. Rayjhis, I'd like you and Archbishop Maikel to remain behind for a moment, if you would."

    "Of course, Your Majesty," Gray Harbor murmured, and chairs moved back from the table as the others took their cue and rose.



    The council chamber door closed behind the others, and Cayleb looked at Merlin.

    "Why don't you come over and join us, now that it's safe?" he asked with a smile, and Gray Harbor chuckled.

    "As you command, Your Majesty," Merlin replied mildly, and crossed to settle himself into the chair Howsmyn had occupied a few minutes before.

    Had anyone else been present, that hypothetical other observer probably would have been more than a bit surprised to see King Cayleb's bodyguard sitting at the council table along with the king's two most trusted official advisers as if he were their equal in the king's eyes. After all, it was clearly Captain Athrawes' responsibility to keep Cayleb alive, and not – despite his recent promotion, in keeping with his position as the king's personal armsman — to advise him on high matters of state.

    Of course, that same hypothetical other observer would be operating on the mistaken assumption that Captain Merlin Athrawes of the Charisian Royal Guard was alive. Well, that he was a human being, at least. He might actually be alive after all; Merlin's internal jury was still out on that particular question.

    Not even Gray Harbor and Staynair knew the complete truth about him. For that matter, Cayleb himself didn't know the complete truth. The king knew Merlin was considerably more than human, but not that he was in fact a PICA — a Personality Integrated Cybernetic Avatar — whose artificial body was home to the electronically recorded personality, memories, emotions, hopes and fears of a young woman named Nimue Alban who had been dead for the last eight or nine centuries.

    But what Gray Harbor and Staynair did know, and what they, along with Cayleb and the handful of others who shared the same knowledge went to great lengths to keep anyone else from discovering, was how central Captain Athrawes' "visions" and bits and pieces of esoteric knowledge had been to Charis' ability to survive the Group of Four's massive onslaught. Everyone in the kingdom knew Merlin was a seijin, of course — one of the deadly warrior-monk martial artists and sometime spiritual visionaries who came and went (usually apocryphally) through the pages of Safeholdian history. Merlin had chosen that particular persona carefully before he ever arrived in Charis, and his reputation as one of the deadliest warriors in the world (although, to be strictly accurate, he wasn't simply one of the deadliest warriors in the world, given his . . . abilities) made him the perfect choice for Cayleb's personal armsman. Which just happened to put him permanently at the king's elbow, deep at the heart of all of Cayleb's councils and plans, and yet simultaneously made him almost a piece of the furniture. Constantly available for advice or consultation, yet so invisible to outside eyes that no one ever wondered just what he was doing there.

    Now Cayleb looked at him and arched an eyebrow.

    "What did you think of Ehdwyrd's analysis?" he asked.

    "I think I'm not equipped to argue with him in that particular area of expertise," Merlin replied. "I doubt anyone in the entire Kingdom is, at least until Mahklyn's passion for recording numbers gives us an objective base of statistics. I'd have to agree with him, though, that it would be extraordinarily difficult for the Group of Four to effectively close Howard and Haven to our merchants. How successful their efforts would be in the end if they decided to try anyway, and whether or not Baron Wave Thunder's concerns about subsidies to Rahnyld are realistic, is more than I'm prepared to say, however."

    Napoleon tried it against England, with his "Continental System," Merlin reflected. It didn't work out all that well for him, which is probably a good sign for Howsmyn's theories. Then again, there was a lot more to Earth at that point than just Europe. In this case, it would be as if Napoleon controlled all the major ports of North America, South America, and Asia, including Russia, China, and the Ottoman Empire, as well. And, for that matter, the Church's control goes a lot deeper than Napoleon's did. Which is only going to get worse as the religious aspect of this confrontation gets clearer and clearer to everyone involved.

    "I'm inclined to agree with Ehdwyrd," Gray Harbor offered. Cayleb and Staynair both looked at him, and the first councilor shrugged. "I don't doubt the consequences here in Charis would be . . . serious if the Group of Four could pull it off. In fact, they could well turn out to be catastrophic. But I'm inclined to think Ehdwyrd's arguments about the availability and cost of our goods would make things almost as bad for the mainland realms, as well. Almost certainly bad enough to lead to major covert resistance to any such decree, in fact. For that matter, it could well lead to open resistance in a lot of cases. Unless, of course, the Church goes ahead and declares Holy War. Under those circumstances, things could get a lot dicier."

    "Maikel?" Cayleb turned to his archbishop, and there was rather more concern in the king's brown eyes than he would have let most people see.

    "My opinion hasn't changed, Cayleb," Staynair said with a serenity Merlin envied, even as he wondered how justifiable it was. "Given the way the Group of Four approached this entire bungled affair, they're going to be feeling a lot of internal pressure. Remember, they've always had enemies of their own in the Council of Vicars. They haven't forgotten that, at any rate, and some of those enemies have significant power bases of their own. Our little note to the Grand Vicar is going to both weaken them and embolden their enemies, as well. Against that backdrop, they're going to have to move at least a bit cautiously, unless they choose to risk everything on some dramatic, do-or-die gesture of defiance. They've never done that in the past. Indeed, if they'd had the least notion their attack on the Kingdom could possibly turn into the diaster it has, they would never have undertaken it. Or, at least, never so offhandedly and casually. Having already fed one hand to the slash lizard, I believe they're unlikely to want to raise the stakes any higher than they absolutely must, for a time at least."

    "I hope you're right about that," the king said. "I really do hope you're right about that."

    So do I, Merlin thought dryly. Which is why I hope you and Maikel were both right about setting forth your position vis-a-vis the Church quite so . . . forthrightly.

    "My hope is the same as yours, Your Majesty." The archbishop smiled slightly. "Time will tell, of course. And," his smile broadened and his eyes twinkled, "I'm very well aware that the nature of my own concerns lends itself to operating on the basis of faith rather better than yours does."

    "My own impression is that His Eminence is probably right about the Group of Four's disinclination to rush into some sort of white-hot religious confrontation, at least in the short term," Merlin said, and saw Cayleb's almost subliminal grimace. Merlin hadn't actually advised against Staynair's letter to the Grand Vicar, but he hadn't exactly been one of its stronger supporters, either.

    "I think that's inevitably where we're headed, unfortunately," he continued now. "Completely ignoring our own correspondence with them, the mere fact that we're no longer obeying their orders would push them into that, and things are going to get extraordinarily ugly when it happens. For now, though, habit, if nothing else, is going to keep them trying to 'game the situation' the way they've always done it in the past. That's how they got themselves into this mess, of course, but I think it's going to take at least a few more months for it to penetrate just how completely the rules have changed. Which means we should have at least a little time to press our own preparations."

    "Which brings me to the real reason I asked you and Rayjhis to stay behind, Maikel," Cayleb said.

    He leaned back in his chair and ran the fingers of his left hand across the emerald sets of the chain he had inherited so recently from his father. He did that a lot, as if the chain were a sort of talisman, a comforting link between his father and himself. Merlin was confident that it was an unconscious mannerism on his part, but the seijin felt a familiar pang of personal grief as it reminded him of the old king's death.



    "Bryahn is right about the necessity of dealing with Nahrmahn and Hektor," the new king continued. "There's always Gorjah, as well, but Tarot can wait. At least, though, we know where we are with Nahrmahn and Hektor. Our options there have the virtue of straightforwardness, you might say. But then there's Chisholm. Have the two of you given any more thought to my proposal?"

    "As a general rule, Your Majesty," Gray Harbor said dryly, "when the King 'requests' that his First Councilor and his Archbishop 'give some thought' to one of his proposals, they do that."

    "All right," Cayleb flashed a smile, although Merlin was well aware that in quite a few Safeholdian kingdoms, that degree of levity and informality from a first councilor might well have resulted in the summary replacement of said first councilor. "Since I'm the King, and since you've been thinking about it like dutiful servants, what conclusions have you reached?"

    "Honestly?" Gray Harbor's amusement transmuted itself into sobriety, and he raised one hand and waggled it back and forth in a gesture of uncharacteristic uncertainty. "I don't know, Cayleb. In many ways it would be an ideal solution to at least one major chunk of our problems. It would probably reassure several people who are currently concerned about the succession, at any rate, and Bynzhamyn is right about just how frightening that entire question is right now. But it would also result in some significant upheavals, and there's always the question of whether or not Sharleyan would even consider it. She's going to be in enough trouble with the Group of Four when they find out about her navy's performance against us. And, of course," he showed his teeth in a thin smile of approval, "your decision to return her surrendered vessels with no strings attached is only going to increase the suspicions of someone like Clyntahn and Trynair."

    "Trynair, at least, is likely to recognize exactly why you did it," Staynair put in. "Clyntahn, on the other hand, is more problematical. He's more than smart enough to understand. The question is whether or not his bigotry and prejudices will let him understand."

    Staynair's certainly right about that, Mervyn reflected. It would be so much simpler if we knew which Clyntahn is going to turn up at any given moment. Is it likely to be the self-indulgent glutton? Or the undeniably brilliant thinker? Or the religious fanatic zealot Grand Inquisitor? Or the cynical schemer of the Group of Four?

    "And Sharleyan and Green Mountain are going to recognize exactly the same thing," Gray Harbor pointed out. "That's going to be a factor in how they may react to your . . . modest proposal. Turning up the pressure on them may not have put them in the most receptive possible state of mind."

    "From what I've seen of Queen Sharleyan and Baron Green Mountain, I wouldn't think that would be too much of a problem," Merlin said. "Both of them understand the sorts of constraints we're facing. I won't say they're likely to be delighted by any effort on our part to manipulate them, but they're certainly going to realize there was nothing personal in it."

    Both Gray Harbor and Staynair nodded in acceptance of his observation. They were well aware that Merlin's "visions" had allowed him to follow the inner workings and private discussions of Queen Sharleyan of Chisholm and her own most trusted advisers in a way no one else could have.

    "Having said that," Merlin continued, "I don't have the least idea how she would react to what you have in mind. I don't think the possibility's even crossed her mind. Why should it have?"

    "That's certainly a reasonable question," Gray Harbor said wryly. "On the other hand, there was the way she reacted to your father's proposal for a more formal alliance, Cayleb."

    "The situation's changed just a bit since then," Cayleb replied. "And let's not forget who Father chose as his ambassador."

    The youthful monarch's jaw tightened in briefly remembered pain. Kahlvyn Ahrmahk, the Duke of Tirian and his own cousin, had represented King Haarahld in his effort to secure a defensive alliance against Corisande with the Kingdom of Chisholm. Of course, when Haarahld selected Tirian, he hadn't realized that the cousin he loved like a brother was already plotting against him in cooperation with Prince Nahrmahn of Emerald. Nor had Haarahld even begun to suspect that Kahlvyn intended to assassinate both Haarahld and Cayleb.

    "There is that," Gray Harbor acknowledged in a painfully neutral voice, and his own eyes were dark and shadowed. Kahlvyn Ahrmahk had been Cayleb's magnificent older cousin, far more of an uncle and almost a second father than a mere cousin, but he had been Rayjhis Yowance's son-in-law, the husband of Gray Harbor's daughter and the father of his two grandsons.

    And it had been Rayjhis Yowance's thrown dagger which had ended the Duke of Tirian's traitorous life.

    "So, bearing that in mind, who would you choose for your ambassador this time?" Merlin deliberately made his own voice a bit brisker than usual. "I assume you've given some thought to that?"

    "I have, indeed." Cayleb smiled. "Given the nature of the proposal — and, ungentlemanly though it may be, the desirability of maintaining enough pressure to . . . encourage Sharleyan and Green Mountain — I thought we might send them a truly senior representative. Someone like –" he turned his smile on Gray Harbor " — my esteemed First Councilor."

    "Now, just a minute, Cayleb!" Gray Harbor twitched upright in his chair, shaking his head. "I see where you're headed, but I couldn't possibly justify being absent long enough for a mission like this! It's the next best thing to ten thousand sea miles from Tellesberg to Cheryath. That's better than a month and a half's voyage just one way!"

    "I know." Cayleb's smile faded into an entirely serious expression. "Believe me, Rayjhis, I know, and I've thought long and hard about it. Unless I miss my guess, you'd be gone for at least three or four months, even assuming everything went perfectly. And you're right, the prospect of having you out of the Kingdom for that long isn't likely to help me sleep soundly. But if we could possibly make this work, it would go an enormous way towards determining whether or not we manage to survive, and you know it. God knows how much I'd miss you, but Maikel could substitute for you as First Councilor while you were gone. He knows everything you and I have discussed, and his position would put him above the normal political dogfights someone else might have to referee if they tried to temporarily take your place. In fact, he's the only other suitable candidate for ambassador I've been able to come up with, and to be totally honest, we can afford to have you out of the Kingdom at this particular moment far more than we can afford to have him out of the Archbishopric."

    Gray Harbor had opened his mouth as if to argue, but he closed it again, his expression thoughtful, with Cayleb's last sentence. Then, despite manifest reservations, he nodded slowly.

    "I see your reasoning," he acknowledged, "and you're right about Maikel covering for me. I don't think a single king or prince in the entire world has ever asked his archbishop to act as a mere first councilor, you understand, but I can see quite a few advantages to the arrangement — especially in our present circumstances. Having the Church and the Crown genuinely working in tandem certainly isn't going to hurt anything, at least! And he does know all of our plans, and Zhefry could handle all of the routine documents and procedures under his direction." The first councilor's lips twitched. "God knows, he's been doing that for me for years!"

    "The key points are that we can manage without you if we have to," Cayleb said, "and that I can't think of anyone who'd have a better chance than you of convincing Sharleyan. And the more I've thought about it, the more I think convincing her is probably at least as important as making Hektor of Corisande a foot or two shorter."

    "And the prospect of getting to help you make Hektor shorter would probably be one of the major attractions of the scheme, as far as she's concerned," Gray Harbor agreed.

    "That thought had crossed my mind." Cayleb gazed at the first councilor for another second or two, then cocked his head. "So, are you ready to go play envoy?"

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