A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 05

She and Cayleb were both fully aware of that, which was why, just as Cayleb had insisted Chisholmian merchants and manufacturers must have equal access to the Empire’s markets, both foreign and domestic, the two of them had decreed that it was Chisholm which would take the lead in the formation of the Imperial Army. There were those among the Royal Charisian Marines who had objected (although they’d been wise enough to do it quietly, in most cases) to that decision. Whose sense of pride in their own organization, in the way it had grown so explosively, the fashion in which it had smashed its opposition in Corisande, was deeply offended by the notion that the Marines should not only go back to being purely a shipboard and amphibious force but also transfer the majority of the Corisande campaign’s veterans to the Army.

Those who’d been sufficiently foolish to make an issue of their objections had been . . . found other duties, however.

“I think probably still another part of it,” the seijin said out loud now, “is the fact that Cayleb and Sharleyan have made it so abundantly clear that whereas Charis is reasonably going to take the lead where naval affairs are concerned, it only makes sense to give that same role to Chisholm where the Army is concerned. Which is why you’re an Army officer now, of course. The decision to fold the bulk of the Imperial Marines over into the Army — and respect the seniority of the Army’s existing officers in the process — wasn’t an easy one, but Cayleb and Sharleyan were right to insist on it, I think.”

“Absolutely!” Green Valley’s nod was more vigorous and emphatic than Merlin’s had been. “The officers I’m working with obviously see that decision as proof Their Majesties meant what they said about the organization of the Empire’s armed forces. Especially after — well . . . .”

The baron’s voice trailed off on a most unusual note of something that was almost — not quite, but almost — embarrassment, and Merlin smiled without any trace of humor.

“Especially after the Army’s top commander conspired with the Temple loyalists to murder — or at least kidnap — Sharleyan, you mean?”

“Well, yes, actually,” Green Valley admitted. He shook his head slightly. “Hard to blame them for worrying about it, really. In their place, I’d certainly have been afraid the Crown would entertain serious doubts about the Army’s basic reliability. Especially given how popular Halbrook Hollow was — with the common troopers, not just the officer corps. He’s the one who built this entire Army, Merlin. He shaped it, he commanded it in most of its critical battles, and he led its soldiers to victory in every campaign. How could they not have worried about whether or not the Crown would feel it couldn’t afford to trust their loyalty after something like that? For that matter, a lot of them felt shamed by his actions. They hadn’t done anything wrong, but he was their commander, and at least some of them feel his treason has stained them, as well.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” Merlin said soberly.

And the truth is, he told himself silently, that at least some of the Army’s officers do entertain the same doubts Halbrook Hollow did. Like the noble Earl of Swayle, for example.

Barkah Rahskail, the Earl of Swayle, was young, only thirty-seven Safeholdian years old. He was also very tall for a Safeholdian, within an inch or so of Merlin’s own height, and rakishly good-looking with his fair hair, dark eyes, and sun-bronzed complexion. Back when Merlin Athrawes had been Nimue Alban, she would definitely have given Swayle a close look.

But in addition to his good looks and noble birth, Swayle was a dyed-in-the-wool Temple Loyalist. He’d done a better job of hiding it than quite a few of his fellows, including Halbrook Hollow, but Merlin had no doubts about his fundamental beliefs. What he didn’t know yet was where Swayle’s ultimate loyalties lay. Would his repulsion against the Church of Charis’ “apostasy” and “heresy” — and, quite possibly, the death in disgrace of an army commander he’d deeply admired and respected — drive him into treason of his own? Or would his and his family’s long-standing loyalty to the House of Tayt — unusual, actually, among the high Chisholmian nobility — and his oath as an officer of the Royal Army hold firm against those forces?

Merlin was afraid he could guess which way Swayle would jump in the end. But he hadn’t jumped yet, and neither Cayleb nor Sharleyan was in the habit of punishing people for what they might do.

Which suited Merlin Athrawes just fine, when it came down to it.

I’m keeping an eye on all of the ones we know shared at least some of Halbrook Hollow’s doubts, he reminded himself. And if Cayleb and Sharleyan aren’t going to hammer anyone until and unless someone decides to emulate Halbrook Hollow, they won’t hesitate if the time ever comes to bring that hammer down, either. I know they hope they won’t have to, but they’ll do it if they do have to. And at least it looks like the ones with Temple Loyalist leanings are definitely in the minority . . . for now.

“And Duke Eastshare?” he asked out loud. “What’s your read of how he feels about all this, My Lord?”

“You’re asking me to comment about my commanding officer, Seijin Merlin,” Green Valley said with a sudden — and unaccustomed — edge of severity, and he frowned. “I understand why you’d be concerned, but, to be honest, I don’t think it’s really appropriate for me to be passing judgment on His Grace’s loyalty to the Crown.”

Merlin allowed one of his eyebrows to arch in mild surprise. He started to respond, then stopped.

Actually, he thought, Green Valley’s . . . stiffness was a judgment on Eastshare’s loyalty. Particularly since it clearly didn’t stem from any reluctance to risk antagonizing a powerful noble in the extraordinarily unlikely event that word of any criticism on his part would ever make it back to Eastshare.

What it is, is an indication of just how much he’s discovered he respects Eastshare, Merlin told himself. If he had any doubts about Eastshare’s loyalty, he wouldn’t respect him, either, no matter how flexible the Duke might be in a professional sense. So the fact that he doesn’t want to answer is an answer.

“I understand, My Lord,” he said out loud, rather more formally than had become the norm for his conversations with Green Valley. The baron looked at him for a moment, then gave an almost imperceptible nod, and his frown vanished.

“So, overall, you’re satisfied?” Merlin continued in a more normal tone, and Green Valley nodded again, more firmly.

“Overall, I’m very satisfied. I wish — and so does Duke Eastshare — that we could have provided even more Marines as cadre, but we both understand why Their Majesties had to leave General Chermyn a big enough garrison force in Corisande. I also wish we could get the new rifle shops and cannon foundries set up here in Chisholm more quickly, but Chisholm simply doesn’t have the pool of experienced mechanics and craftsmen Old Charis does. At least the first couple of shipments of rifles have already come in, so not everyone is drilling with broom handles.

“On the plus side, in addition to everything else we’ve just been talking about, I have to admit that the Duke and his officers seem to have a better grasp of the realities of fighting on land than we do — than I do, and I’m the fellow who developed all our new infantry tactics.” He snorted. “They pay me a flattering amount of attention, and they listen damned carefully to everything I say, particularly given the fact that, unlike them, I actually have field experience with the new weapons. But the truth is, they’ve already pointed out a lot of places where my ideas — and not just about tactics, either; they’ve got a lot more experience with army logistics than we have — could stand some improving. In some cases, a lot of improving.”

And it says very good things about you, My Lord, that you not only recognize the truth when you see it but that you’re willing to admit it — to others, and not just yourself, too, Merlin thought.

“So you think I’ll be able to go back to Cherayth and tell Their Majesties the great army integration project is going well?” he said out loud.

“Yes,” Green Valley said, looking steadily into the seijin’s blue eyes, making it plain just how many levels he was actually speaking on. “Yes, I think you can tell them it’s going very well.”