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By Schism Rent Asunder: Section Forty Five

       Last updated: Wednesday, July 16, 2008 19:49 EDT



Tellesberg Palace,
City of Tellesberg,
Kingdom of Charis

    "Your Majesties, Prince Nahrmahn and Princess Ohlyvya."

    Nahrmahn Baytz stepped past the bowing chamberlain with a lifetime's aplomb. From his expression, no one could have guessed that the rotund little prince wasn't walking into his own throne room. His wife was as tall as he was and far more slender, and she, too, had a lifetime's experience as a noblewoman and a princess consort, yet she couldn't match his apparent calm. No one could have called her overtly nervous; at the same time, no one could have doubted she would much have preferred to be somewhere else.

    They crossed the same polished stone floor Baron Pine Hollow had crossed before them, and Nahrmahn considered how the throne room — or its inhabitants, at least — had changed as they halted before the same pair of thrones. Cayleb wore the Charisian Crown of State, which had recently become the imperial Crown of State, as well, while Sharleyan wore an only marginally smaller crown without the Crown of State's rubies. Despite the crowns, neither of them were in full court regalia, at least, for which Nahrmahn was profoundly — if privately — grateful. Ohlyvya looked stately and beautiful in full regalia; Nahrmahn looked like a round, fuzzy ball which had somehow acquired a head and feet.

    Stubby little feet.

    I suppose it's a good thing I decided to do this before I actually laid eyes on Cayleb in the flesh, as it were, for the first time, the Emeraldian prince thought with a touch of whimsy. If I'd had time to see how tall, broad-shouldered, and disgustingly handsome he is with my own eyes and work up a proper state of livid jealousy, I might not have been able to do it after all. Having your head chopped off is much less irritating than admitting that the man you're about to surrender to looks so much more like a king than you do.

    That thought carried him to the foot of the waiting thrones, and he bowed deeply while Ohlyvya curtsied.

    "Your Majesties," he murmured.

    "Actually, Prince Nahrmahn," Cayleb said dryly, "we've decided upon a slightly revised protocol. Since my wife and I –" Nahrmahn wondered if Cayleb himself heard the profound, proud satisfaction in the emphasis he placed upon the word "wife" "– are both reigning heads of state in our own rights, and since there's always the possibility of confusion, it's been decided that while it's correct and proper to address either of us individually as 'Majesty' in the absence of the other, the proper protocol now is that in Charis, when both of us are present, I am properly addressed as 'Your Majesty' while she is properly addressed as 'Your Grace.' In Chisholm, where we'll also be spending approximately half the year, she will be properly addressed as 'Your Majesty,' while I'll be properly addressed as 'Your Grace.'"

    "Ah, I see, Your Majesty." Nahrmahn felt his lip trying to twitch in something he suspected would have been a smile if he'd allowed it to show itself. "I can readily understand where that might have created confusion. Of course, I'm quite sure that when word of your marriage — not to mention your coronation as Emperor — reaches Zion, the reaction will be substantially worse than 'confusion.'"

    "One can only hope," Cayleb replied, then leaned back in his throne and cocked his head. "And while we're on the topic of news reaching Zion, I'm sure they'll be equally perturbed by the news of your arrival here, and the reason for your visit. May I suppose that your arrangements with Commodore Zhaztro and Duke Solomon have adequately . . . secured your rear, shall we say, against Bishop Executor Wyllys and his reaction to your decision?"

    Nahrmahn managed not to bat any eyes or let his jaw drop in slack astonishment. And, he reminded himself a moment later, Cayleb's remark didn't necessarily imply any special knowledge about his own recent activities. He'd already had ample evidence that the Ahrmahks were a dismayingly intelligent and competent dynasty. It wouldn't have taken someone as bright as Cayleb very long to reason out what Nahrmahn must have done to protect himself against the Church's reaction. And having figured out what he'd done, it would have been only a single short, simple step to deducing who he'd selected to do the doing.

    Still, it's an impressive conversational gambit, he admitted to himself.

    "I believe the good Bishop Executor is currently a guest in Eraystor Palace, Your Majesty," he said calmly. "I'm sure my staff is providing for all of his needs, and he's entirely welcome to remain our guest until such time as we manage to resolve any . . . misunderstandings."

    "Perhaps we could send Bishop Zherald to help him reason his way to the truth," Sharleyan suggested. Nahrmahn looked at her politely, and she shrugged. "Bishop Zherald has placed his services at Archbishop Maikel's disposal, following Archbishop Erayk's murder at the Inquisition's hands. It might be that his own experience in Bishop Executor Wyllys' role might enable him to lead the Bishop Executor to a more accurate understanding of what the schism between the Church of Charis and the Church of Zion truly means."

    "He might, indeed, be able to exert a beneficial influence, Your Grace." Nahrmahn bowed to her once again. "At any rate, I don't see any way it could hurt."

    "Then, if the Archbishop is willing to dispatch him to Eraystor, we'll certainly do so," Cayleb said. "In the meantime, however, there are certain formalities to be attended to."

    "Indeed there are, Your Majesty," Nahrmahn acknowledged.

    "In that case, I believe there's only one preliminary question which must be asked and answered under the eyes of our court and our advisors as well as the eye of God. And that question is whether or not you understand, fully accept, and enter without reservation upon the terms provisionally accepted upon your part by Baron Pine Hollow?"

    "Your Majesty, I do." Nahrmahn bowed again, more deeply. "And since, as you say, we stand currently under the eyes of your court and your advisors, I would also beg leave to say this. The terms which you and Her Grace have seen fit to offer to my subjects, to my House, and to me as an individual, are far more generous than I ever anticipated or might reasonably have asked for. Because of that truth, and because of my awareness of it, I wish to express my deep and profound gratitude."

    "The terms are what they are, My Lord," Cayleb replied after a moment. "I won't deny I was strongly tempted to be . . . less generous. But vengeance for past enmities is a petty thing, and a poisonous one. There are far more things happening in the world these days than the traditional squabbling and sparring between Emerald and Charis. Those things leave no time for our small, local disputes, and I don't propose to leave any festering cankers to poison all of us when we confront the greatest challenge of our lives. Her Majesty and I didn't offer these terms because of how much we love you; we offered them out of a realistic understanding of the need to make reliable allies out of past enemies in the face of the threat represented by the Group of Four."

    "The fact that generous terms may also be wise makes them no less generous, Your Majesty," Nahrmahn said.

    "Perhaps not. But now it's time to deal with those formalities."

    "Of course, Your Majesty."

    Nahrmahn gave his wife's hand a last, unobtrusive squeeze, then released it and stepped forward to the cushion in front of Cayleb's throne. He went to his knees on it as Archbishop Maikel held out a gold and gem-clasped copy of The Holy Writ. The prince kissed the book's cover, then laid his right hand upon it while he looked up into Cayleb's eyes.

    "I, Nahrmahn Hanbyl Graim Baytz, do swear allegiance and fealty to Emperor Cayleb of Charis," he said, speaking clearly and distinctly,"to be his true man, of heart, will, body, and sword. To do my utmost to discharge my obligations and duty to him, to his Crown, and to his House, in all ways, as God shall give me the ability and the wit so to do. I swear this oath without mental or moral reservation, and I submit myself to the judgment of the Emperor and of God Himself for the fidelity with which I honor and discharge the obligations I now assume before God and this company."

    "And I, Cayleb Zhan Haarahld Bryahn Ahrmahk, do accept your oath," Cayleb replied steadily, laying his own hand atop Nahrmahn's on the Writ. "I will extend protection against all enemies, loyalty for fealty, justice for justice, fidelity for fidelity, and punishment for oath-breaking. May God judge me and mine as He judges you and yours."

    For an endless moment, the two of them looked into one another's eyes at the heart of a profound silence. And then, finally, Cayleb smiled crookedly.

    "And now, My Lord, you should probably stand up. I believe you and I — and Her Grace — have quite a bit that needs discussing."




    It had not, Prince Nahrmahn reflected as he gazed out of the window of his family's sumptuous suite at the clouds welling up above the Styvyn Mountains to the west, lit with the crimson and gold fire of sunset, been the sort of day he'd once looked forward to spending in Tellesberg. In one way, it was a great relief. He'd come out of the conflict with a crown still on his head, even if its authority had been rather severely diminished, and with a close familial relationship with what bade fair to become one of the most — if not the most — powerful dynasties in the history of Safehold. On the other hand, it was probably at least as likely that the dynasty in question, to which his and his family's fortune was now inescapably tied, would find itself exterminated by a vengeful Church. And, he acknowledged to himself, there was also that other minor bit about who he'd expected to be swearing fealty to whom.

    "I think I rather like them, actually," a voice said from behind him, and he turned from the window to face Ohlyvya.

    "I presume you're referring to our new sovereign lord and lady?" he said, with a slightly crooked smile, and she snorted.

    "Actually, I was referring to the second and third under cooks!" she said, and he laughed.

    "I never really disliked Cayleb or his father, my dear. They were adversaries, and I'll admit — if only to you — that I found their persistence in surviving everything Hektor or I attempted rather trying, upon occasion. But it was never personal for me the way it was for Hektor. Although, to be totally fair," his smile faded slightly, "given my involvement in efforts to eliminate both of them, I'm astonished that Cayleb appears to cherish so little animosity."

    "I don't think either of them do 'cherish' much animosity," she said seriously.

    One of Nahrmahn's eyebrows rose, but he only waited for her to complete her thought. Ohlyvya Baytz was a very intelligent woman. More than that, she was the one person in the entire world Nahrmahn trusted without any reservation. Like Cayleb's and Sharleyan;s, theirs had been an arranged marriage of state, but it had become far more than that over the years, and Nahrmahn had often wished it had been possible to name Ohlyvya to his official Royal Council. That, unfortunately, had been out of the question, but that hadn't prevented him from listening very carefully to her on the infrequent occasions when she'd offered an opinion.

    And, he thought, now that we have an Empress who's also a queen in her own right, naming a woman to a mere prince's council probably just got a lot more possible, didn't it?

    "I'm not saying either of them exactly loves you yet, dear," she continued now, with a ghost of the smile, and reached up to lay one hand against his cheek. "I'm sure that once they get to know all the sterling qualities hiding under that shy and modest exterior of yours they'll come to love you, but in the meantime, there are those minor matters of assassination attempts and wars."

    "Assassination attempts?" Nahrmahn did his very best to look totally innocent . . . with a notable lack of success.

    "Oh, don't be silly, Nahrmahn!" Ohlyvya scolded. "Despite your best efforts to 'protect me' from the sordid realities, I have heard all the rumors about that assassination attempt on Cayleb, you know. And, even though I love you as both my husband and the father of my children, I've never cherished any illusions about the seriousness with which you played 'the great game,' I think you've called it."

    This time Nahrmahn's eyes widened in genuine surprise. Ohlyvya had seldom expressed herself quite so bluntly. And she was right about at least one thing. He truly had attempted to shield her from the frequently distasteful and unpleasant decisions he'd found himself compelled to make as a player of the game.

    Let's be honest with ourselves here, Nahrmahn, he told himself. Yes, you were 'compelled' to make some of those decisions, but the real reason you played the game was because you enjoyed it so much. Unfortunately, you didn't end up winning it . . . although I suppose I could also argue that I haven't exactly lost it yet, either.

    Something of his thoughts must have shown in his expression, because his wife shook her head.

    "I'm not complaining, Nahrmahn. There have been times I've been tempted to complain, that's true. In fact, there have been more than a few times when I wanted to kick you smartly in the posterior. On the whole, though, I've been able to tell myself — honestly, I think — that most of the things you've done, including the ones that have caused me the greatest concern for the state of your soul, came about as a result of the situations you faced. Conflict between Emerald and Charis, for example, was probably inevitable, whatever you wanted, just because of geography.

    "But," she continued very seriously, looking into his eyes so that he could see the truth in hers, "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't rather relieved at the way it finally worked out. I know our parents never expected it, Nahrmahn, but I truly do love you, you know. And I love our children. Knowing Cayleb isn't going to be looking for your head, or seeing the boys as a threat that needs to be . . . dealt with takes an enormous weight off of my mind and heart."

    Nahrmahn raised his left hand, cupping its palm over the hand still on his cheek. His right hand reached out to settle on the back of her neck and draw her forward as he leaned to meet her until their foreheads touched. It wasn't often she expressed her feelings for him that clearly, and he closed his eyes for a moment while he savored it.

    "It doesn't end here, you know," he told her then, his voice low. "Cayleb was right when he told Trahvys this is only the beginning. By siding with Cayleb, I've sided against the Temple, and Clyntahn's a far more vindictive enemy than Cayleb could ever be. Not to mention the fact that the Church controls many times the resources, wealth, and manpower Cayleb does, even with Chisholm added to this new 'empire' of his."

    "Clyntahn is a bigoted, fornicating, self-serving, glutinous, wine-swilling, sanctimonious pig with delusions of godhood and a self-righteous sense of zealotry," Ohlyvya said flatly, with a venom Nahrmahn had never heard from her before.

    He blinked in surprise at hearing it now and drew back far enough to look into her eyes once more. She looked back without flinching, and he saw a fire burning behind them. One he'd never suspected might be there . . . which was an oversight he for which would find it hard to forgive himself.

    "I'm not exactly blind, you know, dear," she told him tartly. "But my point at the moment is that someone like Clyntahn would have a hard enough time standing up to Cayleb and Sharleyan by themselves. With you added to the mix, that pig in Zion is as overmatched as I'd be trying to arm wrestle that Captain Athrawes of Cayleb's!"

    Despite himself, Nahrmahn smiled. She glared at him for a moment, and then she chuckled and leaned forward, resting her cheek against his chest.

    "I know you've never thought of yourself as the very image of the dashing warrior prince, love," she said. "Well, neither have I. But I've always thought of you as something rather more important than that — someone who looks at the future and his own responsibilities without flinching and without deluding himself. And, while I'd never want you to get a swelled head over it, you're also one of the smartest man I know."

    "If I'm so smart, then why did I just end up swearing fealty to Cayleb, instead of the other way around?" he asked in a half-jesting tone.

    "I didn't say you were infallible, dear; just smart. Besides, to use that charming idiom your son has picked up from those dreadful novels of his, you can only play the cards you're dealt. I believe someone's just offered you an entirely new deck, though. And from what I've seen of you this time around, I don't think you're even tempted to try dealing off the bottom."

    "Not anymore," he acknowledged, then shook his head, half in wry amusement and half in bemused disbelief. "Even if I were tempted — which, to my own considerable surprise, I'm not — it would be incredibly stupid of me. There aren't any bridges back to Zion now, love, and there's no way I could possibly take over and maintain the core of opposition to the Temple which Cayleb's been able to put together. Trying to betray him at this point would be like deciding to cut the throat of your best helmsman in the middle of a hurricane. And I'm very much afraid," his smile was tart enough to sour milk, "that this voyage is going to be long enough that I'll be completely out of practice before things ever get stabilized enough for me to contemplate any sort of treachery."

    "Good." She nestled more firmly against him. "Good," she repeated.

    "Do you know," he said softly, bending to kiss the part of her hair,"I believe I agree with you."




    The clouds of the evening before had turned into a solid, dark gray overcast. Rain slashed down from the wet charcoal heavens, beating on the roof of Tellesberg Palace, rushing down gutters and downspouts, gurgling down the drainage channels beside the capital's roads. Commerce in Tellesberg never stopped, of course. Even during the recent war against the Group of Four's catspaws, the purely local shipping of Howell Bay had kept a fair amount of freight moving and the ships to carry it busy. Now that the oceans of the entire world were once again open to Charisian galleons, the waterfront's activity had resumed its normal frenetic level. Even while rain pounded down, lightning flashed, and thunder rumbled, the heavy freight wagons — most drawn by dragons, although here and there a smaller wagon drawn by horses or mules moved down the smaller, narrower streets — continued to flow.

    Prince Nahrmahn was impressed. As he stood at the open window of the small, private council chamber looking out into the rain, he saw the visual evidence of the prosperity and industry which made the Kingdom of Charis so much more dangerous a foe than the simple size of its population might have suggested.

    The door opened behind him, and he turned from the window as Bynzhamyn Raice, Baron Wave Thunder, entered the chamber.

    "Your Highness," King — no, Nahrmahn corrected himself, Emperor – Cayleb's senior spy said with a bow.

    "My Lord," Nahrmahn replied with something much closer to a nod than a bow.

    "First, I'd like to thank you for making the time available to meet with me," Wave Thunder continued as the two of them walked to the smallish but beautifully polished conference table at the center of the chamber.

    "I suspect His Majesty would probably have insisted if I'd proven difficult, My Lord." Nahrmahn chuckled. "I'm quite familiar with the process of . . . 'debriefing,' I believe Baron Shandyr calls it. And in all fairness, His Majesty was quite polite about 'suggesting' I sit down for a short chat with you. Obviously, if there's anything I can tell you, I'm at His Majesty's service and yours."

    "Actually, Your Highness," Wave Thunder said, waiting until Nahrmahn had seated himself and then settling into a chair of his own on the opposite side of the table, "you may be surprised about the actual purpose of our 'short chat.' To be honest, His Majesty — and I — are less interested in the information you may possess, than in the additional insight you may be able to offer into our analysis of the information we already have."

    "Indeed?" Nahrmahn raised both eyebrows, and it was Wave Thunder's turn to chuckle.

    "Indeed," he confirmed, while a fresh, closer peal of thunder crashed overhead. "In fact, to be perfectly blunt, Your Highness, one of the secondary purposes of this meeting is to acquaint you with the intelligence capabilities we already possess."

    "Ah, I see." Nahrmahn smiled thinly. "As a pointed reminder of Cayleb's ability to . . . monitor my own activities, I presume."

    "To some extent," Wave Thunder agreed imperturbably, and his own smile was a bit broader than Nahrmahn's had been. "I hope you won't mind my saying that, despite a few initial reservations of my own, it's something of a relief to be able to discuss this with someone who understands how these things are done, Your Highness."

    "I'll take that as a compliment, My Lord — provisionally, at least."

    "Believe it or not, that was how it was intended."

    The baron opened the briefcase he'd brought with him and extracted a fairly thick stack of folders. He laid them on the table in front of him, then cocked his head at Nahrmahn.

    "I realize Baron Shandyr hasn't had much luck reestablishing your own spy networks here in Charis, Your Highness," he said. "I also know you've been quite patient with him, despite your own obvious frustration, and that his operations have continued with their normal high rate of success outside Charis."

    Nahrmahn's eyebrows rose again at the frankness in Wave Thunder's calm voice. The baron saw his expression and shook his bald head.

    "There's a reason he's been so unsuccessful here in Charis, and it has nothing to do with his competence or how hard he's tried. As you yourself are aware, Your Highness, the only way a secret can truly be kept is if it isn't told to anyone. I believe that's a practice with which you're quite familiar, just as you're also aware it can occasionally be frustrating to your subordinates. For example, Earl Pine Hollow was quite surprised some months ago to discover you'd already been in contact with King Gorjah's first councilor."

    This time Nahrmahn's eyebrows lowered suddenly, and he frowned.

    "There are two reasons I used that particular example," Wave Thunder continued calmly. "First, because it demonstrates the extent to which we've penetrated Emerald, and how long ago we managed to do it. Second, because it demonstrates that you're familiar with the idea of what we call here in Charis 'the need to know.' It's one of our fundamental policies that information is kept in individual compartments, and that only those who 'need to know' something in order to do their jobs are made privy to that information. It indicates not distrust on our part, although, as you yourself are aware, a certain degree of distrust is a necessary precaution, but rather the protection of critical information by limiting its spread."

    "You're right, My Lord," Nahrmahn said slowly, still frowning, although it was a frown of thoughtfulness now, not one of astonishment. "I am familiar with the need to keep things close, although I've never used that description of the logic. 'Need to know.'" He seemed to roll the words on his tongue, tasting them as he repeated them, and then nodded slowly. "I have to say it's an appropriate turn of phrase, though."

    "I'm glad you understand, Your Highness." Wave Thunder sat back in his chair. "One of those 'need to know' things is precisely how our spies go about gathering much of the information and knowledge which comes to us here. Frankly, we have great respect for your ability as an analyst, and we intend to make the best use of it we can. However, as often as not — and, to be honest, probably more often than not — you may never know how the information we're asking you to analyze came into our possession in the first place."

    "I trust you'll forgive me for pointing this out, Baron, but quite frequently the source of a piece of information has enormous bearing on its reliability, and that, in turn, has obvious implications for its analysis."

    "Your Highness," Wave Thunder smiled even more broadly, "it truly is a pleasure to discuss these matters with someone who understands the niceties of the spymaster's art. However, one of the reasons I brought these," he tapped the stack of folders, "is to give you a demonstration of how reliable our spies are."

    "In what way, if I may ask?" Nahrmahn inquired when the Charisian paused.

    "Pick a day — any day you wish — from the third five-day of May," Wave Thunder invited.

    Nahrmahn blinked at him, then shrugged.

    "Very well," he said. "I pick Thursday."

    "Very good, Your Highness." Wave Thunder sorted through the folders until he found the one he wanted. He separated it from the others, then laid it carefully on the table in front of him and opened it.

    "On Thursday, May the fourteenth," he said, looking down at the notes before him, "you summoned Commodore Zhaztro and Earl Pine Hollow to Eraystor Palace. You met in the Blue Salon, where you discussed the recent capture of the Church dispatch boat carrying dispatches from Bishop Executor Thomys to Bishop Executor Wyllys. Commodore Zhaztro informed you that there was no way to guarantee the safe passage of even Church dispatch boats into Eraystor Bay in the face of our blockade. He suggested, however, that not even our navy could blockade every minor port, and that it would be possible for Church couriers to use those secondary ports. You pointed out that the Bishop Executor felt using such minor ports would be undignified, but you also instructed the Commodore to draw up a list of them for future use, after which you dismissed him and had a most interesting conversation with the Earl. In the course of that conversation you shared with him your own analysis of the confrontation between Charis and the Group of Four and your belief that things would get far worse before they get better."

    Wave Thunder glanced up from his notes. Despite decades of experience at self-discipline and self-control, Nahrmahn's jaw had dropped as the Charisian spymaster continued his deliberate, devastatingly accurate summarization of the meeting at which only three men had been present.

    "I would make two points at this moment, Your Highness," the baron said calmly. "First, it was in fact your words to Earl Pine Hollow, and several other, similar conversations with him, which played a not insignificant part in the terms which Emperor Cayleb was prepared to offer Emerald. And, secondly, if you're thinking either Commodore Zhaztro or Earl Pine Hollow must have betrayed your confidence for us to have this information, let me turn to a later point in that same day."

    He turned pages unhurriedly until he found the one he wanted, then cleared his throat.

    "Later that same evening," he resumed, "you had a private meeting with Baron Shandyr. At that meeting, you touched once again, if less strongly, upon the same analysis of the Church's position you had shared with Earl Pine Hollow earlier. You also pointed out to the Baron — as, indeed, you had pointed out to the Earl earlier — that the Group of Four's entire plan had been as stupid as it was arrogant. And you pointed out that Prince Hektor was unlikely to risk his own security to come to Emerald's aid. In fact , your exact words were 'Why should that bastard risk one pimple on his precious arse for us?' After which — " the baron looked up at Nahrmahn once again "– you instructed the Baron to review his arrangements for passing the execution order, if you'll pardon the choice of words, to the assassins you have in place in Manchyr."



    Nahrmahn's astonishment had gone far beyond mere shock as Wave Thunder calmly closed the folder once again.

    "As you can see, Your Highness," he said, "for us to have obtained this information through any avenue with which you may be familiar, both Earl Pine Hollow and Baron Shandyr would have to have been agents of Charis. Which, I assure you — and I'm quite sure you already knew it to be the truth — neither of them would have dreamed of becoming."

    "I . . . ."

    Nahrmahn's voice trailed off, and he shook himself. Then he cleared his throat and sat back in his chair, gazing intently into Wave Thunder's eyes.

    "I certainly wouldn't have believed either of them would have betrayed me," he said last. "On the other hand, I can't see any other way for you to have learned the details of two separate private conversations."

    "Your Highness, I allowed you to pick the day," Wave Thunder pointed out. "If you would care to pick another day — as, for instance, the following Friday, when you had a private conversation with Commodore Zhaztro, or perhaps Monday, when Bishop Executor Wyllys met with you to 'discuss' your suggestion that 'Mother Church's messengers creep about, like poachers or smugglers, from one wretched little rathole to another' — I'm quite prepared to share the summaries of those other days with you, as well."

    "But how –?"

    Nahrmahn chopped the question off. He stared at Wave Thunder for several more seconds, then inhaled deeply.

    "I begin to understand what you meant about 'needing to know,' My Lord. Understanding it will make my curiosity burn no less brightly, but I'm not about to ask you to compromise your access to information that detailed. And please believe me when I tell you that the realization that you and the Emperor have access to it should quite neatly depress any temptation on my part to even contemplate betraying my oath of fealty to him. After all," the Emeraldian prince showed his teeth briefly, "it's extraordinarily difficult to concoct an effective plot without even talking to your fellow conspirators!"

    "I must confess I'm relieved to hear that, Your Highness. And if I'm going to be totally honest, that was, in fact, one of the conclusions both His Majesty and I hoped you would reach. Nonetheless, I was also completely honest when I said we would all appreciate any insight into this information which you might be able to help us to gain."

    "I'll be delighted to help in any way I can," Nahrmahn assured him.

    "I'm glad. Ah, there is one other minor point I need to touch upon, however, Your Highness."

    "Which would be what, Baron?"

    "His Majesty is aware that you and Baron Shandyr did, in fact, order Hektor's assassination," Wave Thunder said rather delicately. "Now, in the normal course of things, the Emperor would shed no tears if Hektor were to . . . suffer a fatal accident, shall we say? And, to be honest, it would seem a most appropriate fate for someone like Hektor. Unfortunately, we believe any attempt upon Hektor's life would have no more than an even chance of success, at best. And, more to the point, perhaps, there's no doubt in our minds as to who the Corisandians will blame for any such attempt at this time. While we cherish no illusions about the opinions already held in Corisande where Charis is concerned, we're deeply concerned about the propaganda value the Group of Four might be able to extract from such an attempt. In fact, in many ways, Hektor's assassination — especially if it could be reasonably charged that Charis was responsible — would be more valuable to the Group of Four than Hektor himself, alive, is. With his navy neutralized, and his realm open to invasion whenever we choose to strike, he's scarcely a military asset any longer, nor is there any way the 'Knights of the Temple Lands' could come to his assistance, even if they wished to. So, since he no longer has value as a living ally, someone like Chancellor Trynair, at the very least, would be quick to recognize his greater value as a dead martyr, treacherously slain by murderous Charisian assassins."

    Nahrmahn considered that, then nodded.

    "I can see your point, My Lord," he acknowledged, not even attempting to pretend he hadn't given exactly the instructions Wave Thunder had said he had. "At the time, for obvious reasons, I was less concerned about how Hektor's demise might affect Charis than I was about how a sudden power vacuum in Corisande might have attracted Charisian attention there and away from me. Obviously, that portion of my calculations requires some rethinking under the new arrangement."

    "Oh, indeed it does, Your Highness," Wave Thunder agreed with a smile. "And your comment about 'rethinking' brings me to my final point for this meeting. You see, Prince Nahrmahn, Emperor Cayleb doesn't believe you'll find it possible to stop scheming and plotting. Oh," the Charisian raised one hand and waved it back and forth, like a man brushing away an irritating fly, "that doesn't mean he suspects you of some fell intent to betray the oath you just swore. It simply means you are who you are, Your Highness, and this is the way your mind works. More than that, you're very good at it — much better than Hektor even begins to suspect — and it would be foolish of His Majesty to allow such a sharp and serviceable sword to rust into uselessness through disuse. Which is why he has a proposal he would like you to consider."

    "What sort of proposal, My Lord?" Nahrmahn asked, his eyes narrowed in speculation.

    "His Majesty, with Her Majesty's concurrence, wishes for me to remain here, in my existing post as the Kingdom of Charis' senior spy. It makes particularly good sense in light of the fact that I'm also the man in charge of our domestic security and investigations. Given the potential for internal unrest which the schism with the Church creates, this is scarcely the time for me to be taking my finger off of that particular pulse.

    "By the same token, they wish for Baron Shandyr to retain his post in Emerald, and Sir Ahlber Zhustyn to do the same thing in Chisholm. That, however, leaves a glaring vacancy which they're considering calling upon you to fill."

    "You can't be serious, My Lord," Nahrmahn said. Wave Thunder cocked his head, raising one eyebrow, and Nahrmahn shook his head. "It's been less than three days since I swore fealty to Cayleb, and less than three years since I attempted to have him assassinated. Whatever else he may be, Cayleb is neither an idiot nor a fool!"

    "You're absolutely right, he isn't," Wave Thunder agreed. "Nonetheless, he and Empress Sharleyan propose precisely what you were thinking about. The Empire will require an imperial spymaster, and you, Your Highness, have both the aptitude and the rank and authority to fill that post admirably."

    "But only if Cayleb can trust me!" Nahrmahn protested.

    "First, His Majesty wouldn't have offered you the terms he offered you if he'd felt you'd be likely to betray him. You've just seen the sort of information upon which he based that assessment, and I assure you it wasn't a judgment which was arrived at lightly. Second, do you truly believe, given what you've just learned, that he would be unaware of any actions on your part if you should succumb to the temptation to plot against him? And, third, Your Highness, Emperor Cayleb and Empress Sharleyan — and I, for what it matters — believe you truly mean the things you've said about the Group of Four, Mother Church's corruption, and the inevitable consequences of the events Clyntahn and Trynair have set in motion. In short, we believe you have no reasonable motive to betray any trust the Crown might place in you, and every reason to support the Crown against Clyntahn and his cronies. You may rest assured that neither the Emperor nor the Empress is so foolish as to forget to . . . keep an eye on you until they're certain their judgment is accurate, of course. But as the Emperor pointed out, after so many years of 'playing the great game,' as I believe you've put it upon occasion, it's foolish to think you'll somehow be able to magically stop, however genuine your resolve to do so might be. That being the case, he prefers to channel your natural bent into a useful occupation, rather than letting it tempt you into some sort of . . .  mischief, instead."

    "'Mischief,' is it?" Nahrmahn repeated with a snort, and Wave Thunder shrugged.

    "Actually, Your Highness, I believe his exact words to the Empress were, 'We're never going to be able to shut that man's brain off, whatever we do. So, the way I see it, either we find a way to make it work for us, or else we disconnect it — and the head it lives in — from the rest of his body. And that's so messy.'"

    Despite himself, Nahrmahn sputtered with laughter. He could just see Cayleb saying exactly that, even picture the glint in the emperor's brown eyes.

    And the fact is, he's got a point. I really do intend to behave myself, but even I'm not positive I'll be able to manage that. Yet even so

    "My Lord," he said frankly, "I'm not at all certain His Majesty isn't making a very serious mistake here. And whatever I may think about it, I strongly suspect that certain of his own nobles aren't going to be any too enthralled by the notion of suddenly finding me in such a critical post. Despite all that, though, I have to confess I'm . . . intrigued by the possibility."

    "I realize it's come at you as something of a surprise," Wave Thunder said with generous understatement. "Obviously it's something you're going to have to think about, and His Majesty realizes that. In fact, he recommends you discuss it with your wife. He and the Empress have a lively respect for her intelligence, and she undoubtedly knows you better than anyone else in the world. Including, if you'll forgive me for pointing this out, yourself. See what she thinks about it before you give the Emperor your answer."

    "Now that, My Lord," Nahrmahn Baytz said with total sincerity, "sounds like a very good idea, indeed."

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