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By Schism Rent Asunder: Section Six

       Last updated: Friday, November 2, 2007 19:10 EDT




Royal Palace,
City of Eraystor,
Princedom of Emerald

    Prince Nahrmahn of Emerald was not a happy man.

    There were many reasons for that, starting with what had happened to his navy, followed by the fact that he no longer had control even of Eraystor Bay, beyond the reach of the waterfront's defensive batteries. And by the fact that he could hardly expect King Cayleb to overlook his own attempted assassination or the part one Prince Nahrmahn had played in arranging it. Then there was the way in which he and his entire princedom had been forced to become the junior partners — almost the vassals — of Hektor of Corisande under the Group of Four's master plan for the destruction of Charis.

    And, of course, there'd been his morning's delightful interview with Bishop Executor Wyllys.

    He stood gazing out the palace window at the vast blue expanse of the bay. Emerald's merchant marine had never been very large, compared to that of Charis, or even Corisande, but these days the waterfront wharves were crowded with merchant ships which dared not put to sea, and more of them lay to anchors and buoys further out. The naval yard's anchorages and slips, on the other hand, were virtually empty. Nine galleys — the total surviving strength of Nahrmahn's navy — huddled pathetically together, as if for some sort of mutual comfort.

    There were two additional galleys anchored off to one side, and Nahrmahn glowered at the big, twin-masted ships. They were the only prizes the Duke of Black Water's fleet had managed to capture before Haarahld and Cayleb of Charis annihilated his own ships in return. They'd just happened to be here in Eraystor when the hammer came down on Black Water, although Nahrmahn didn't expect any of his erstwhile "allies" to believe in the coincidence which had "fortuitously" left him in possession.

    Nahrmahn had gone down to examine the captured ships personally the day they'd arrived. He was no experienced naval officer himself, but even he'd been able to follow the explanations about the peculiar Charisian artillery mountings and the reasons for the new weapons' effectiveness. Not that understanding made him feel any better, especially when he reflected upon the fact that as the geographically closest member of the alliance against Charis, he was virtually certain to be the first recipient of King Cayleb's attention. As, indeed, the seizure of his capital city's outlying island defenses only emphasized.

    He turned as the chamber door opened and Ohlsyn Trahvys, the Earl of Pine Hollow, and Commodore Hainz Zhaztro came through it.

    Pine Hollow was Nahrmahn's cousin, as well as his first councilor, and one of the relatively few courtiers whose loyalty the prince truly trusted. Zhaztro, on the other hand, was the senior — in fact, the only – Emeraldian squadron commander to have returned from the Battle of Darcos Sound. There were those, Nahrmahn knew, who cherished suspicions about Zhaztro — about his courage, as well as his loyalty — simply because he was the most senior officer to come home again. Nahrmahn himself, somewhat to the surprise of many, did not. The fact that Zhaztro's flagship had suffered over thirty percent casualties and was so badly damaged that she'd gradually settled to the bottom after she'd managed to claw her way back to the naval yard was all the recommendation the commodore had needed as far as Nahrmahn was concerned.

    "You wanted to see both of us, My Prince?" Pine Hollow said with a bow, and Nahrmahn nodded.

    "Yes," he said with uncharacteristic shortness, and waved for the two of them to join him by the window.

    Pine Hollow and Zhaztro obeyed the beckoned command, and the first councilor wondered if the naval officer realized how atypical Nahrmahn's attitude had been for the past several five-days. Unless Pine Hollow was mistaken, his short, round prince was actually losing weight. Some people probably wouldn't have been particularly surprised to find a prince in Nahrmahn's position doing that, but Pine Hollow had known his cousin from childhood, and he couldn't remember anything that had ever managed to put Nahrmahn off his feed. Nor did the prince fit the image of a depressed man sinking listlessly into despair. As a matter of fact, Nahrmahn actually seemed more focused, more energetic, than Pine Hollow had ever before seen him.

    "I've just finished entertaining Bishop Executor Wyllys," the prince told his two subordinates as he looked back out the window. "He was here to express his . . . unhappiness over what happened to his dispatch boat yesterday."

    Pine Hollow glanced at Zhaztro, but the commodore only gazed calmly and attentively at Nahrmahn. The naval officer's phlegmatic personality was part of what had commended him so strongly to Nahrmahn, the first councilor suspected.

    "I explained to His Eminence," Nahrmahn continued, "that this sort of thing happens when someone else's navy is in control of one's home waters. He responded to that by telling me that it had never before happened to one of Mother Church's vessels, a fact of which," he turned to smile thinly at the others, "it may astound you to learn, I was already aware."

    Despite himself, Pine Hollow felt his eyes widen at Nahrmahn's desert-dry tone.

    "The question I have for you, Commodore," the prince said, "is whether or not there's any way you can think of that we could somehow guarantee the security of future Church dispatch vessels arriving here at Eraystor?"

    "Honestly? No, Your Highness," Zhaztro said without hesitation. "Up until yesterday, I would have said there was at least an even chance the Charisians would allow Church-flagged couriers to pass through the blockade unhindered. In fact, I would have said the chances were considerably better than even, frankly." He shrugged very slightly. "Apparently, I would have been wrong. And given their presence here in the bay, and their obvious willingness to risk the Church's anger, I don't see any way we can prevent them from doing exactly the same thing over again any time they want to."

    "I see." Nahrmahn's tone was calm, Pine Hollow noted, without even a hint of displeasure at Zhaztro's devastating frankness.

    "If I might make a suggestion, Your Highness?" the commodore said after a moment, and Nahrmahn nodded for him to continue.

    "Eraystor isn't the only port in Emerald," Zhaztro pointed out. "And Cayleb doesn't begin to have enough ships to shut down every fishing port along our coasts, as we're already demonstrating. There are several places where I feel confident couriers could make a safe landfall and send any dispatches overland to the capital."

    "That's exactly what I was thinking myself," Nahrmahn agreed. "In fact, I've already made that suggestion to the Bishop Executor. He didn't seem overly pleased by the prospect." The prince's thin smile showed the tips of his teeth. "I think he feels it comports poorly with the Church's dignity to require her messengers to 'creep around in the shadows like poachers avoiding the bailiff,' as he put it."

    Nahrmahn's voice was even drier than before, Pine Hollow noticed, and the first councilor felt a distinct flicker of uneasiness. Nahrmahn's position was grim enough without his openly antagonizing the Church's official representative in Emerald.

    And, of course, the position of Emerald's first councilor depended almost entirely upon that of its prince.

    "I'm sorry to hear His Eminence feels that way," Zhaztro said politely, and Nahrmahn actually chuckled.

    "I'm sure you are, Commodore."

    The prince shook his head, then shrugged.

    "Well, Commodore, that was really the only question I had for you. I can't say your answer surprises me, but that's certainly not your fault. Would you be so good as to draw up a list of the best alternate landing sites for future Church messengers so that I could get it to the Bishop Executor by tomorrow morning?"

    "Of course, Your Highness."

    Zhaztro bowed, clearly recognizing his dismissal, and withdrew. Nahrmahn watched the door close behind him, then looked at his cousin.

    "I can't say I'm delighted about the attached price tag, Trahvys," he observed almost whimsically, "but at least the reaming Haarahld and Cayleb gave us has brought one worthwhile officer to my attention."

    Pine Hollow nodded. Zhaztro's apparent immunity to the gloom, doom, and despair which had sent most of the Emeraldian Navy's surviving senior officers' morale plunging was remarkable. The commodore had to be aware of the near hopelessness of Emerald's position, but instead of dwelling upon it, he was actively seeking ways to strike back at Charis. As he had just finished pointing out, the Royal Charisian Navy lacked sufficient ships to blockade every Emeraldian port, and Zhaztro was busy fitting out light, jury-rigged cruisers as commerce raiders in every harbor with a boatyard. Most of them would be little more than lightly armed, outsized rowing skiffs or hastily converted — and even more lightly armed — merchantmen. Neither type could hope to stand up to any sort of regular man-of-war, even one without the devilish new Charisian artillery, but they could capture and destroy lumbering, lightly armed — or completely unarmed – merchantmen, and commerce raiding was probably the one way in which Emerald could hope to actually hurt — or inconvenience, at least — Charis.

    Not that it was going to do any good in the end, of course.



    Nahrmahn continued to gaze out the window for two or three more minutes without speaking. Pine Hollow knew the prince's eyes were following the grayish-tan pyramids of the Charisian galleons' weathered sails as they glided slowly, slowly across Eraystor Bay.

    "You know," Nahrmahn said finally, "the more I think about how we got into this mess, the more pissed off I get."

    He turned away from the Charisian warships and looked his cousin in the eye.

    "It was stupid," he said, and that, Pine Hollow knew, was the deepest, most damning condemnation in Nahrmahn's vocabulary. "Even if Haarahld hadn't been building all those damned galleons, with all those damned new guns of his, it would still have been stupid. It's obvious Trynair and Clyntahn never even tried to find out what was actually happening in Charis, because they didn't really care. They had their own agenda, and their own objectives, and so they simply said the hell with thinking things through and started moving their chess pieces around like blind, fumbling idiots. Even if things had worked out the way they'd expected, it would have been using a sledgehammer to crack an egg. And the way it did work out, they only pushed Haarahld into smashing everyone who could have hurt him! Oh," he made an impatient gesture, "we didn't know what he was up to, either, before he handed us all our heads. I'll admit that. But we at least knew he was up to something, which was more than that idiot Hektor seemed aware of! And who did Trynair and Clyntahn decide to back? Hektor, that's who!"

    Pine Hollow nodded, and Nahrmahn's lips worked as if he wanted to spit on the floor. Then the prince drew a deep breath.

    "But there's another reason it was stupid, too, Trahvys," he said in a much softer voice, as if he were afraid someone else might hear him. "It was stupid because it shows all the world exactly what 'the Group of Four's' precious members really think."

    His eyes had gone very still, dark and cold, and Pine Hollow's stomach muscles tightened.

    "What they think, My Prince?" he asked very carefully.

    "They think they can destroy anyone they want to," Nahrmahn told him. "They whistled up — what was it Earl Thirsk said Cayleb called us? Ah, yes. They whistled up a pack of 'hired stranglers, murderers, and rapists' and ordered us to cut Charis' throat. They couldn't have cared less what that meant — for us, as well as for Charis. They decided to burn an entire kingdom to the ground and kill thousands of people — and to use me to do it, Shan-wei take their souls! — as if the decision were no more important than choosing what bottle of wine to order with supper, or whether to have the fish or the fowl for the main course. That's how important the decision was for them."

    He'd been wrong, Pine Hollow thought. Nahrmahn's eyes weren't cold. It was simply that the lava in them burned so deep, so hot, that it was almost – almost — invisible.

    "Nahrmahn," the earl said, "they're the Church. The vicarate. They can do whatever –"

    "Can they?" Nahrmahn interrupted him. The pudgy prince of Emerald raised his right hand, jabbing his index finger at the window. "Can they?" he repeated, pointing at the Charisian galleons' sails. "I don't know about you, Trahvys, but I'd have to say their plans didn't work out exactly the way they'd intended, did they?"

    "No, but –"

    "It's not going to end here, you know." Nahrmahn's voice was calm again, and he seated himself on the padded window seat with his back to the wall, gazing up at his taller cousin. "Given even the Church's purely secular power, the odds against Charis' survival are high, of course. But Cayleb's already proven Charis isn't going down easily. I would rather have preferred being here myself to see how it all works out, of course. But even though I won't be, I can tell you this much already. It's going to take years for anyone to overcome the defensive advantages Charis already enjoys, and it's going to take a lot more ships, and a lot more men, and a lot more gold than the Group of Four ever imagined in their worst nightmares. Cities are going to be burned, Trahvys. There are going to be murders, atrocities, massacres and reprisals . . . . I can't even begin to imagine everything that's going to happen, and at least I'm trying to, unlike the 'Group of Four.' And when it's all over, there won't be a single prince or king in all of Safehold who doesn't know his crown depends not on the approval of God, or even the acceptance of the Church, but on the whim of petty, corrupt, greedy, stupid men who think they're the archangels themselves come back to Safehold in glory."

    Trahvys Ohlsyn had never before heard anything like that out of his prince, and hearing it now frightened him. Not just because of its implications for his own power and survival, either. He'd always known, despite the way his rotund little ruler's allies and opponents alike persistently tended to underestimate him, that Nahrmahn of Emerald was a dangerously, dangerously intelligent man. Now it was as if his own impending defeat and probable demise had cracked some inner barrier, loosed some deep, hidden spring of prophecy, as well.

    "Nahrmahn, think about what you're saying, please," the earl said quietly. "You're my Prince, and I'll follow wherever you may take Emerald. But remember that, whatever else they may be, they speak with Mother Church's voice, and they control all the rest of the entire world. In the end, Charis can't –"

    "Charis doesn't have to," Nahrmahn interrupted again. "That's the very point I'm making! Whatever happens to Charis, whatever the Group of Four may think, this is only beginning. Even if they manage to completely crush Charis, it's still only beginning. This isn't God's will, it's theirs, and that's going to be obvious to everyone, not just to someone like me, or like Greyghor Stohnar in Siddarmark. And when it becomes obvious, do you really think the other princes and kings are simply going to go back to sleep, as if this never happened? As if Trynair and Clyntahn hadn't proved no crown is secure, no city is safe, if it's foolish enough to rouse the ire of the Group of Four or whoever replaces them on the Council of Vicars?"

    He shook his head slowly, his expession grim.

    "The one thing in the entire world the Church simply can't afford to lose is its moral authority as God's voice, His steward among His people, Trahvys." His voice was very, very soft. "That's been the true basis for the world's unity — and the Church's power — since the Day of Creation itself. But now the Group of Four has just thrown that away, as if it were so unimportant, so trivial, that it wasn't worth so much as a second thought. Only they were wrong. It wasn't unimportant; it was the only thing that could have saved them. Now it's gone, and that, Trahvys — that — is something they will never, ever be able to get back again."

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