A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 03

“And the second reason, almost equally important,” Merlin admitted, “is to get me close enough to Eastshare to . . . interact with him.”

This time, Green Valley only nodded. Merlin wasn’t especially surprised — the baron had always been an astute and diplomatic fellow. He understood that, even with him, Merlin could scarcely come right out and say “They want me to see whether or not Eastshare is a traitor . . . too.”

The good news was that Merlin was almost certain Eastshare wasn’t. The bad news was that, despite all the seijin’s “unfair” advantages, Merlin was only almost certain he wasn’t. And, unfortunately, the fact that the duke was effectively Empress Sharleyan’s uncle by marriage, that he was the brother-in-law of the recently deceased Duke of Halbrook Hollow, and that he’d been Halbrook Hollow’s senior general, second in command of the Royal Chisholmian Army, for the better part of fifteen years, meant that “almost certain” wasn’t nearly good enough.

Not in the wake of Halbrook Hollow’s treason.

“May I ask what your impressions have been so far?” Green Valley asked politely. “In a general sense, of course. I wouldn’t want to ask you to get too specific about any particularly deserving ex-Marines — assuming there are any of those around, of course — and embarrass me with your effusive praise,” he added, and Merlin snorted.

“You know, My Lord,” the seijin said in an almost meditative tone, “I’ve always heard that a certain . . . brashness, one might say, is an integral part of any Marine’s personality. You wouldn’t happen to know how that rumor might have gotten started, would you?”

“Me?” Green Valley widened his eyes innocently. “I’m not a Marine, Seijin Merlin! I’m an officer in the Imperial Army. In fact, I’ve got a written commission around here somewhere to prove it. So what would a bluff, honest, naturally modest Army officer know about Marines and their overinflated self-images?”

“Oh, an excellent point,” Merlin agreed. “I can’t imagine what could have come over me to ask such a question.”

“I should certainly hope not,” Green Valley said a bit severely as he picked up the wine bottle and topped off Merlin’s cup once more.

“Well, at any rate, in answer to your question, my impressions so far have been just about universally good.” Merlin’s tone and expression had both turned serious once again. “To be honest, I hadn’t really realized quite how good the Chisholmian Army was. I should have, I suppose, given the role it played under King Sailys. Not to mention keeping Queen Sharleyan on the throne — and alive — after Sailys’ death, of course. I mean, two-thirds of its senior officers are veterans of Sailys’ campaigns, after all, and it’s obvious Eastshare — and Halbrook Hollow, for that matter — did an excellent job of training and equipping them in the first place.”

Green Valley nodded slowly, his gaze thoughtful, and Merlin shrugged.

“Obviously,” he continued, “their equipment hasn’t been as good as what we took to Corisande with us — but, then, no one’s has, when you come down to it. And, just as you’ve undoubtedly been discovering, their formations and drill are all oriented around tactics which have just become obsolete. But, again, they’re scarcely alone in that. Given the weapons available to everybody a few years ago, my impression is that Eastshare’s troops could at least hold their own against any of the mainland armies, man-for-man, and probably kick their arses for them, for that matter. Except for Siddarmark, of course.”

It was Green Valley’s turn to snort. The Republic of Siddarmark’s army was widely acknowledged — with good reason — as the most effective armed force in Safehold’s history. On land, at least. Siddarmark’s navy was virtually nonexistent, and the Royal Charisian Navy had reigned supreme upon Safehold’s seas even before Merlin Athrawes’ arrival in Tellesberg. Anyplace a Siddarmarkian pike phalanx could find a place to stand, though, it reigned supreme. Which explained the Republic’s successful, sustained expansion southward towards the Desnarian Empire over the past hundred and fifty Safeholdian years or so. That expansion had been halted only when the Lords of the Temple Lands guaranteed the frontiers of the Grand Duchy of Silkiah, in the Treaty of Silk Town, in 869.

Silkiah was at least nominally independent, although its grand duke paid a substantial yearly tribute to Desnair. He also paid one to the Lords of the Temple Lands every year, although that one was called a “tithe” and, until very recently, had been paid by every Safeholdian ruler. Not officially to the “Lords of the Temple Lands,” of course, but that was only because the Lords of the Temple Lands all just happened to be members of the Church of God Awaiting’s Council of Vicars, as well. Their dual role as both secular and temporal rulers gave them a significant unfair advantage, yet it imposed certain disadvantages, as well. Especially now. The Lords of the Temple Lands had been nervous for a long, long time about that magnificent Siddarmarkian army just on the other side of their shared frontier, and over the years, they’d used their power as princes of the Church to help discourage any adventurism on the part of a succession of the Republic’s lords protector. The Treaty of Silk Town might be the most flagrant example of their intervention, but it was scarcely the only one. That hadn’t exactly helped the Church’s relations with the Republic, although it had scarcely seemed likely to provoke an open breach, whatever some of the Vicars might have thought, given the Church’s unassailable supremacy.

But now . . . now that the Church’s supremacy had been assailed, all of the anxieties which had been entertained by decades of Church chancellors had just acquired an entirely new point. There was no real evidence of any general movement of Siddarmarkians to embrace the Church of Charis, yet that didn’t keep the Group of Four — the quartet of powerful vicars who truly ruled the Church — from worrying about what might yet happen.

I wish it would happen, Merlin thought more than a bit wistfully, but however much Stohnar resents the Church — or the Group of Four, at least — he’s not about to climb out on a limb with Charis. I don’t think it’s because he disagrees with Charis’ accusations of Church corruption or because he has any illusions about the “sanctity” of the Group of Four and their motivations. But he’s pragmatic as hell, and as well aware of the balance of power as anyone. In fact, he’s better aware of it than almost anyone else. Besides, from what I’ve seen, he doesn’t think any move to break with the Church would find general support in Siddarmark. And, for the moment at least, it looks like he’s right about that.

“The thing that impresses me most about the Chisholmians, to be honest,” the seijin continued out loud, “is how readily and smoothly they seem to be adapting to the new tactics.”

He raised one eyebrow at Green Valley, inviting comment, and the baron nodded.

“You’re right about that,” he agreed. “It seems to me that their officers are grasping the reasons behind the new tactics even faster than our troops did. And they’re not just going through the motions in order to keep Their Majesties happy. For that matter, they’re not even just duplicating what we’ve got to teach them, either. Instead, they’re thinking about why we made the changes we’ve made and looking for ways to make what we’ve already accomplished even more effective.”

“That’s been my impression, too,” Merlin acknowledged.

“As a matter of fact, I haven’t seen a sign of what I was most worried about,” Green Valley said. Merlin’s eyebrow rose again, and the baron shrugged. “Charis has never had anything anyone in his right mind would call an ‘army,’ Merlin. We had a navy second to none, and nobody wanted to face our Marines at sea, but in terms of anything a land power would describe as an army, Charis wasn’t even on the map.

“Here in Chisholm, though,” he continued, sitting back in his chair, his expression intent, “the Army’s clearly the senior service. It was the Army that broke the power of the great nobles and provided the stability here at home that let the Empress’ father — and her, in her turn, of course — build the Kingdom’s prosperity. King Sailys may have started building a navy as soon as he could, since Chisholm needed it to protect its commerce against Corisandian privateers, but it was only the prosperity created by the Army which let him do that. So while we Charisians have tended to lavish our admiration and pride — not to mention the dragon’s share of our wealth — on the Navy, it’s been the other way around in Chisholm.”