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By Schism Rent Asunder: Section Fourteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, December 19, 2007 16:39 EST



Royal Palace,
City of Tellesberg,
Kingdom of Charis

    "So, Merlin, what interesting things have you been seeing lately?"

    King Cayleb's smile was crooked as he and his personal bodyguard stood on the palace balcony while night settled in. Cayleb often dined in his chambers, and his valet, Gahlvyn Daikyn, had just finished supervising the removal of the supper table. He'd be back shortly to oversee Cayleb's preparations for bed. Neither Cayleb nor his father had ever seen any reason to maintain the army of personal servants some other rulers, especially on the mainland, required to wait upon their every need, but Daikyn had been with Cayleb since he was a boy. Breaking him of the habit of making certain "the young master" had brushed his teeth before turning in was a far more formidable challenge than the mere bagatelle of dealing with the Group of Four!

    Now Cayleb shook his head in fond exasperation, then drew a deep, lung-swelling breath as he and Merlin gazed out over his capital city. Whatever might be happening in the Temple, and whatever might be happening in the halls of diplomacy throughout Safehold, the Tellesberg waterfront was a hive of activity. The destruction of their enemies' fleets had freed the merchant ships which had been huddled at wharf-side and lying to anchor off the idled port while they waited out the war. Now all of those ships' owners were frantic to get them back out to sea with the cargoes which had accumulated in Tellesberg's warehouses. And the possibility that the ports of Haven and Howard might be closed against them undoubtedly played a part in their thinking, Merlin thought. They wanted to get their cargoes landed, sold, and paid for before any embargo was proclaimed.

    It's going to be interesting to see if Howsmyn's predictions about trade patterns hold up, he reflected.

    "Actually, I've seen quite a few 'interesting things,'" he said aloud in a mild tone. "I'm planning on writing most of them up for Bynzhamyn. I assume you want the summary version?"

    "You assume correctly."

    Cayleb turned, leaning back against the balcony's waist-high balustrade and propping his elbows on it, to gaze at Merlin. He'd never heard of Self-Navigating Autonomous Reconnaissance and Communication platforms, nor had he ever heard of the almost microscopically small parasite sensors a SNARC could deploy. But, like his father before him, he'd come to rely on the accuracy of Merlin's "visions." And, unlike most of the other handful of people who knew about those visions, Cayleb had a very shrewd notion that there was nothing particularly "miraculous" about them, although there was the tiny problem that Merlin had explained they violated the Proscriptions of Jwo-jeng. Which, miraculous or no, would have made them — and Merlin — anathema in the eyes of the Inquisition.

    Continuing to accept Merlin's aid after discovering that minor fact hadn't been the easiest thing Cayleb Ahrmahk had ever done in his life, but he was no more inclined than his father had ever been to look back and second-guess his decisions.

    "Where would you like me to start?" Merlin asked politely.

    "Well, you could begin with Queen Sharleyan, I suppose. If, of course, there's not something more interesting you want to tell me about."

    Cayleb's expression was almost as pointed as his tone, and Merlin chuckled. Marriage of state or no, Cayleb was remarkably nervous about the Chisholmian queen's reaction to his proposal. The fact that he'd never even seen a portrait of her didn't appear to make his internal butterflies any smaller or better behaved, either.

    He really is very young for a reigning king, isn't he? Merlin thought. Then his chuckle faded. And he's awfully young to be making a cold-blooded political marriage. Of course, I think he's going to be pleasantly surprised when he finally gets a look at her.

    "Actually," he said, "I think she's considering the notion very carefully. And favorably, I suspect, although she's playing that very close to her tunic at the moment. She hasn't openly committed herself one way or the other, even with Green Mountain, and he's the closest thing to a father she has. But she's been spending quite a bit of time in her chamber reading over your letters. And," Merlin's sapphire eyes gleamed, "she's been spending quite a bit of time looking at that painting of you we sent along, too."

    "Oh God!" Cayleb rolled his eyes. "I knew I should never have let you and Rayjhis talk me into sending her that thing! If she thinks that absolutely vacuous expression is an accurate reflection of my mental processes, she's going to run the other way as quickly as she can — probably screaming as she goes!"

    "Nonsense!" Merlin said bracingly. "I think it's a very good likeness, myself. Of course, I'm not a young and beautiful princess."

    Not anymore, at least, he added mentally. But trust me, Cayleb. You're obviously not the best judge of how any female is going to react to that portrait. And it's not even particularly prettied-up.

    "Are you saying she is?" Despite Cayleb's light tone, Merlin knew the question was more serious than the youthful king wanted to admit, and he decided to take pity upon the young man.

    "To be completely honest, I wouldn't say she's 'beautiful,' Cayleb. She's an extraordinarily handsome young woman, though, and I very much doubt any man could fault her figure, or the way she carries herself. And if she isn't beautiful, she has something far more important than that: character and intelligence. This is no pretty little doll you're talking about, believe me. I strongly suspect that most people forget she isn't beautiful when they spend much time in her company . . . and that's going to be as true when she's an old woman as it is right now."

    "Really?" Something in Merlin's voice told Cayleb he was being completely candid, and the king let down his own guard, accordingly. "Is that really true, Merlin? You're not just trying to make me feel better about this?"



    "It's true, Cayleb. In fact, from what I've seen of Sharleyan, she's almost certainly the best possible match you could make. Oh, I think Rayjhis is probably right when he says there's no need for you to marry her to pull Chisholm into alliance with Charis. The truth of the matter is that neither of you has anywhere else to go, and I'm sure the logic of that will be just as compelling to Sharleyan and her Councilors as it is to you and Rayjhis.

    "Where I think he's wrong is in his argument that you shouldn't hurry to commit yourself because your . . .  marital availability, let's say, is such a valuable diplomatic card. That might be true in the normal course of politics, but in this case, and completely ignoring the fact that you need to produce an heir of your own as quickly as possible,who would you marry? Hektor's daughter Irys? She'd make a formidable Queen of Charis, and she's probably as smart as Sharleyan, but there's no way you'd be able to keep the poison out of your wine cup eventually. So, what about Nahrmahn's older daughter, Princess Mahrya? She's smart, too, although not as smart as Sharleyan or Irys, but she's also extremely attached to her father. If he winds up getting a head or so shorter, she's not going to forgive you for that. And, frankly, I don't think you're going to need a dynastic marriage to keep Emerald in line after the conquest."

    "'After the conquest,'" Cayleb repeated. "I like the sound of that, even if I do suspect that everyone's showing just a little too much blithe confidence in our ability to hammer Nahrmahn any time we feel like it. But getting back to Sharleyan –?"

    "I'm simply saying you need to realize that this young woman has an enormous amount to offer you if you're smart enough to make her your partner, not just your wife. From the handful of things your father ever said to me about your mother, I think they probably had the sort of marriage you need to forge if she does say yes. Don't ever make the mistake of thinking of this as a simple transaction to formalize an alliance, Cayleb. Listen to this woman. Despite her birth, no one handed her her throne, and from all I can see, no one expected her to keep it, either. But she's still here, and the men who thought they could control her or usurp her throne aren't. She's a formidable force in her own right, even if the Group of Four has made the mistake of taking her and her entire kingdom far too lightly, and I think your enemies will find the two of you together will be a far more dangerous combination than both of you would be separately."

    "That's exactly what I'm hoping for," Cayleb said quietly.

    "Well, I can't say for certain, obviously, but if I were an odds-maker, I'd say the odds are good that she's going to accept. It makes so much sense in so many ways, and it does, indeed, answer the question of whether or not Charis and Chisholm will both be seriously committed to the alliance between them."

    "And to squashing the sand maggot that lies between us." Cayleb's voice was considerably harsher than it had been. "I want that, too Merlin. I want it so badly I can taste it."

    "More than you want Emerald?" Merlin challenged in a neutral tone, and Cayleb barked a laugh.

    "I want Emerald, all right. For a lot of reasons. I haven't forgotten who helped Kahlvyn hire the assassins who tried to kill me. And, looking at it logically, Emerald is far more valuable to us . . . and a far more dangerous jumping-off point for future attacks on us. No to mention the fact that Emerald, unlike Corisande, falls very naturally and neatly into our sphere of trade and development. But, from everything you've said, everything Bynzhamyn's spies have told us, Hektor's always been the moving force against us."

    "I wouldn't go quite that far," Merlin said. "I'll admit he's a far more cold-blooded and ambitious sort than Nahrmahn is, though. He's an odd sort of fellow in a lot of ways, actually. At home, he's what you might think of as a benign tyrant; he won't suffer any challenge to his authority, and he's not at all averse to making that point . . . firmly, but he gives his people genuinely good government. Don't make the mistake of thinking that he's not truly popular with his own people, either, Cayleb. But when it comes to foreign policy, he's a totally different man, one who's driven by ambition and sees absolutely no reason to worry about little things like morality.

    "To be honest, I think a lot of Nahrmahn's hostility towards Charis has always been due to the fact that he's a student of history. He knows Charis has been steadily expanding in his direction for centuries, and he doesn't want to be one more swallowed-up territory. But don't ever underestimate that man. I don't think he's as naturally cold-blooded as Hektor, and his 'ambitions' have always been more modest and pragmatic — and, probably, more defensive, in a lot of ways — than Hektor's. But he's capable of being as ruthlessly cold-blooded as they come, whether it's natural for him or not, and he's also a much, much more intelligent man than most people — including your father, I think — have ever given him credit for. In fact, I think in many ways, he's been gaming and manipulating Hektor from the outset. I told you about that conversation he had with Pine Hollow about his post-war territorial ambitions. That was as clear — and accurate — an analysis of the Group of Four's actual objectives as I've ever heard. That man knew exactly what he was doing, and the fact that he didn't want to be doing it — or not, at least, with Hektor in charge — didn't keep him from playing every angle he could find."

    "Oh, I'm not going to take Nahrmahn lightly, I assure you. I suspect he's used that 'fat, indolent hedonist' image to fool a lot of people. In fact, I think you're right; he did manage to fool even Father, at least to some extent. Which, trust me, was not an easy thing to do. But, as you just pointed out yourself, he's been reacting more defensively, at least as he sees it. And let's be fair here — he's right in our backyard. It's less than seven hundred and fifty miles, as the wyvern flies, from East Cape to Eraystor Bay, but it's over five thousand miles from East Cape to Manchyr, which means Nahrmahn has a legitimate interest — an inevitable legitimate interest — in the same area we're interested in. Hektor doesn't. Like you say, he's in this solely out of ambition and greed. He wants our carrying trade to increase his own military power, and what he has in mind is a Corisandian Empire stretching from Tarot to Chisholm."

    "Well, we certainly can't have a Corisandian Empire 'stretching from Tarot to Chisholm,' can we?" Merlin murmured, and Cayleb laughed again, this time a bit less harshly.

    "At least my ambitions stem from self-defense, Merlin! And if we're seriously contemplating holding off the Church — or the Group of Four, if there's any difference — we're going to need all the manpower and resources we can get our hands on. We certainly can't afford to leave the Church any powerful potential allies inside our defensive perimeter."

    "No, you can't do that," Merlin agreed.

    "Which brings us back to exactly what Hektor is up to. Have there been any significant changes?"

    "No." Merlin shook his head. "The only real change is that Bishop Executor Thomys has gotten off the fence and agreed to underwrite the first wave of letters of credit out of his own resources. Well, out of Archbishop Borys' resources, I suppose, if we're going to sticklers for accuracy. But Thomys is right. There's no way the archbishop won't back him up on this one, and Raimynd is right about the Group of Four. The Church may not openly fund Hektor, although I'm beginning to think they're more likely to come into the open officially than we'd thought they might be. But, whatever the Church does, the 'Knights of the Temple Lands' are going to be perfectly ready to underwrite as many letters of credit as Hektor wants. Either Hektor wins, in which case every mark would be a mark well spent, from their perspective. Or else Hektor loses, in which case we conquer Corisande, and most of those letters of credit turn into waste paper and end up not costing them a hundredth-piece."

    "That does sound like them," Cayleb said sourly, then turned back to the railing, leaning forward and propping his folded arms on it.



    Night had finished falling while they were talking, and Tellesberg, like every other Safeholdian city, was miserably illuminated by the standards of Nimue Alban's birth world. The only sources of light were burning wood, wax, or oil, and most of the city was an indistinguishable dark mass. Only the waterfront area, where the longshoremen continued to labor frenetically by lantern light, was what might be called well lit.

    "I don't like Hektor's resiliency," the king said after a moment. "He and Tartarian are right about how big a bite Corisande is going to be. If it turns into a conventional land war, we could be tied down there for years, despite all our advantages. And if that happens, someone like Hektor is going to figure out how to duplicate almost all of those advantages, which will only make it even bloodier in the end."

    "You could always consider a diplomatic resolution," Merlin pointed out. "He's working hard to build a matching navy, and his foundries are going to be going into full production on modern artillery any day now. But the truth is that Charis has such a commanding head start that, even with the Church's backing, he's not going to be able to build into a realistic threat for a long time. Especially not if we keep a close eye on him and you're prepared to prune back his naval strength if it starts to look threatening."

    "Forget it." Cayleb snorted. "My house has a long memory for injuries and enemies, Merlin. I suspect Hektor has an even longer one. Besides, even if I wanted to bury the hatchet with him, he'd never believe it. Just as I'd never believe it about him. And I'm not about to leave him at my back, especially not with any modern navy at all, while the Group of Four works at convincing every major realm in Haven and Howard to come at us from the front! I might settle for letting him abdicate and . . . relocate him and his entire family. I'd hate forgoing the sight of his head on a pike outside his own palace, you understand, but I don't want to get bogged down in a quagmire in Corisande any more than the next person does, so if there's another way to get him out of the kitchen, I'll probably settle for it. But that's as far as I'm prepared to stretch my forgiveness. If that means risking the complications of a long war, then so be it. I'll take the chance of giving the Group of Four time before I leave Hektor or any of his get sitting on a throne behind me."

    The last sentence came out in the voice of a man swearing a solemn oath, and Merlin nodded. The truth was that he found himself strongly in agreement with Cayleb were Hektor was concerned.

    "If that's what you want to do, Cayleb, then I think you're going to have to figure out how to move against him as quickly as you can," he said. "If Sharleyan is thinking the way I think she's thinking, and if she's as decisive about your proposals as she usually is about decisions, then you'll probably find Chisholm even more ready than you are to move against Corisande. But Tartarian's also right. Even with Chisholm, I don't see any way you can project more than one overseas offensive at a time. Not if the offensives in question both involve armies, at any rate."

    "Which brings us back to Nahrmahn," Cayleb agreed. He pursed his lips thoughtfully, then straightened.

    "I know it would give Bynzhamyn apoplexy — he doesn't trust Nahrmahn as far as he can spit — but, to be honest, I'd far rather reach a diplomatic solution with him than with Hektor. If nothing else, he's close enough, and Emerald is small enough, we could almost certainly crush him if he decided to get adventuresome again."

    "Indeed?" This was the first time Merlin had heard Cayleb even mention the possibility of any sort of negotiated resolution where Emerald was concerned.

    "Don't get me wrong," Cayleb said more grimly." I do plan to add Emerald to Charis. Nahrmahn may have been worried about that all along, but the truth is that from every perspective, especially the strategic one, we can't afford to leave Emerald independent. The only real question is how we go about changing that status. Given what Nahrmahn was just a party to, whether it was his idea or not, I'm perfectly willing to do it the hard way, if that's what it takes. On the other hand, I'm not quite as wedded to the notion of seeing his head on a pike as I am to seeing Hektor's head there."

    "From what I've seen of Nahrmahn's recent coversations, I'm not too sure he's aware of that fine distinction," Merlin observed.

    "Which doesn't bother me a bit at this point." Cayleb smiled evilly. "The more concerned he is about his head now, the more likely he is to be . . . amenable to sweet reason when the time comes, shall we say? And I want him to clearly understand that all the winning military cards are in my hand, not his. If — and note that I say if, Merlin — I end up offering him any terms short of unconditional surrender and a scaffold with a view, it won't be a discussion between equals, and I intend for him to understand that. Clearly."

    Merlin simply nodded. This was a game Cayleb had learned at his father's shoulder, and Haarahld VII had been one of the most accomplished practitioners of . . . practical diplomacy Safehold had ever produced. Obviously, Cayleb intended to continue the tradition. In fact, his version of diplomacy appeared to be considerably brawnier and more bare-knuckled than his father's had been.

    But if Haarahld had found himself in the position Cayleb's in, I think he'd be making a lot of the same decisions, Merlin reflected.

    "Be thinking about everything you've seen about what Nahrmahn and what's-his-name, Zhaztro, are up to," Cayleb said. "Tomorrow morning, you and I are going to sit down with Bryahn, and I'm going to tell him I've decided to let him go calling on Nahrmahn, after all. Between the three of us, I'm sure we can come up with a suitable way to turn up the heat in Nahrmahn's kitchen."                

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