A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 16

Archbishop’s Palace,
City of Tellesberg,
Kingdom of Charis

“Another glass, Bynzhamyn?” Archbishop Maikel Staynair invited, reaching out a long arm to lift the brandy decanter and arching one salt-and-pepper eyebrow suggestively.

“I suppose, under the circumstances, it couldn’t hurt, Your Eminence,” Bynzhamyn Raice, Baron Wave Thunder, agreed.

The baron was a large man, with a completely bald head and a powerful nose, who had risen from humble beginnings to his present position on the Royal Council of Old Charis. Although Prince Nahrmahn of Emerald had become the official Imperial Councilor for Intelligence, Wave Thunder had been King Haarahld’s spymaster before Cayleb ascended to the Charisian throne, and he continued to hold what was almost certainly the most sensitive of the new Empire of Charis’ intelligence positions. He held that position because he was so very good at what he did, although he’d recently acquired certain advantages he had never previously dreamed might exist.

He and Staynair sat in the cleric’s third-floor study in the Archbishop’s Palace beside Tellesberg Cathedral, listening to the background sounds of the benighted city through the study’s open windows. The night was relatively cool — for Tellesberg in October, at any rate — which was a relief after the day’s heat, and the city noises were muted this late in the evening. They would never quite cease, of course. Not in Tellesberg, the city that never quite slept. But they were definitely diminishing as the night deepened, and the palace was far enough from the eternally-busy docks for the noises which continued to be hushed by distance.

The archbishop’s official residence sat in a stately park of just under three wooded, beautifully landscaped acres, which were worth a not-so-small fortune in their own right, given the price of real estate in Tellesberg. The palace itself was a magnificent building, having been built of golden-hued Ahrmahk marble and designed to house one of Mother Church’s archbishops in the splendor appropriate to his high office, but Staynair’s tastes were rather simpler than those of most of Old Charis’ previous prelates. The magnificent furnishings with which his immediate predecessor had filled this study, for example, had been removed early in Staynair’s tenure. He’d replaced them with furniture he and Ahrdyn Staynair, his years-dead wife, had assembled during their lives together. All of that was tasteful enough, but it was also old, comfortable, and (obviously) well loved.

At the moment, Staynair lay tipped back, half-lying in a recliner his wife, Ahrdyn had commissioned for him when he was first ordained a bishop. He’d had it recovered at least twice since then, and from the condition of the fabric, he was going to have to have it reupholstered yet again sometime soon. The reason he was going to have to do that (this time) lay contentedly curled in his lap, purring in happy possessiveness. The snow-white cat-lizard whose claws had shredded the upholstery of the recliner-shaped scratching post with which he had been so obligingly provided — and whose name was also Ahrdyn, despite the fact that he happened to be male — was clearly in no doubt as to who owned who, whatever any silly humans might think.

Now Ahrdyn-the-lizard interrupted himself in mid-purr and raised his head to look disapprovingly up at Staynair as the archbishop leaned far enough to the side to pour fresh brandy into Wave Thunder’s proffered glass. Fortunately for the cat-lizard’s view of the proper organization of the universe, the refilling process didn’t take long, and his mattress’ anatomy settled back into the appropriate position relatively quickly. Better yet, the hands which been distracted from their proper function resumed their dutiful stroking.

“It’s such a relief to realize that the Empire’s spiritual shepherd is made of such stern stuff,” Wave Thunder observed dryly, gesturing with his glass at the large, powerful hands rhythmically stroking the cat-lizard’s silky pelt. “I’d hate to think you could be readily manipulated — or, God forbid, allow yourself to be dominated!”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Staynair replied with a serene smile.

“Oh, of course not!” Wave Thunder snorted, then allowed a fresh sip of brandy to roll across his tongue and send its honeyed fire sliding down his throat. He savored the sensation, but then his expression sobered as he returned his attention to the true reason for this evening’s visit.

“I understand the logic behind your travel plans, Maikel,” he said soberly, “but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I have some significant reservations about them, as well.”

“I don’t see how the man charged with your responsibilities could feel any other way.” Staynair shrugged very slightly. “In fact, in many ways, I’d really prefer to stay right here at home, myself. And not just because of the possibility of lurking assassins, or any of the more mundane hazards involved in the trip, or even of the fact that I anticipate spending quite a bit of it being ineffably bored.” He grimaced. “On the other hand, and even giving all of those reasons I should stay home their just weight, I still can’t possibly justify not going. First, because it’s my spiritual responsibility as Archbishop of the Church of Charis. We’ve had more than enough of absentee archbishops who visit their archbishoprics for a single month or two each year! God’s children deserve better than that, and I intend to see that — to the best of my own ability — they get it.”

Staynair’s lips tightened, and his eyes darkened. Wave Thunder knew better than most that Maikel Staynair was one of the most naturally gentle men the human race had ever produced. At that moment, though, looking into those eyes, seeing that expression, he realized yet again what a vast gulf lay between the words “gentle” and “weak.”

“And even if that weren’t true — which it is, and you know it as well as I do,” Staynair resumed after a moment, “it’s absolutely essential that people outside Old Charis have a face to put with my name. Or, rather, with my office. It’s not going to be very much longer before the Group of Four does manage a counter attack. When it does, the Church of Charis will face the first true test of its strength and stability. And, frankly, at this particular moment, the extent of that strength and stability is still very much an unknown quantity. I’m confident about the state of the Church here in Old Charis, and I’m optimistic about Emerald and Chisholm, given my correspondence and the . . . other intelligence avenues available to us. But it would be terribly unfair to people like Archbishop Fairmyn in Emerald or Archbishop Pawal in Chisholm to expect them to stand firm in the face of a tempest like that one is going to be — and hold their own clergy with them — without at least having had the opportunity to meet their Archbishop face to face.”

“I said I understood the logic,” Wave Thunder pointed out. “But I may be just a bit more focused on those assassination possibilities than you are. I know you’re going to have your own guardsmen along, and frankly, the fact that you’ll be a moving target is actually going to make any sort of coordinated attack, like the one on Sharleyan, more difficult to put together. It could still happen, though, Maikel, and I’m not going to be very happy about that possibility until you’re either safely under Merlin’s eye in Chisholm or back here, where I can keep an eye on you. There are too many people, completely exclusive of the Group of Four, who’d really, really like to see you dead about now. If I have my way, though, they’re going to go on being disappointed in that regard, if you don’t object to strongly.”

He gave the archbishop a stern look, which turned into something a bit more like a glower when Staynair answered it with one of complete tranquility. They looked at one another for a second or two, and it was Wave Thunder who abandoned the struggle first.

“In addition to that little area of concern, however,” he continued, “having you out of the Kingdom for so long is going to cause its own share of problems that don’t relate directly to the Church — or any potential assassins — in any way, and you know it. For one thing –”

He tapped the lobe of his right ear with an index finger, and Staynair nodded, his own expression rather more sober than it had been. Like Wave Thunder’s, his own ear held the almost invisible earplug for one of Merlin Athrawes’ security coms. The baron had been one of his own very first nominees to be added to Cayleb’s “inner circle” when Merlin made the devices available after the attempt to assassinate Sharleyan had come so terrifyingly close to success.

In the almost five months since the assassination attempt, both Staynair and Wave Thunder had become accustomed to the many advantages the coms provided. Indeed, the archbishop often thought Wave Thunder found those advantages even greater than he himself did, which was hardly surprising, given the nature of the baron’s duties. As a priest, Staynair couldn’t be entirely happy about the degree of intrusiveness into others’ lives which Merlin’s SNARCs made possible, but he also knew that Merlin, with Cayleb’s and Shareyan’s strong approval, had set up “filters” (whatever they might be, which was a subject still well beyond Staynair’s current understanding) to limit that as much as possible. For that matter, and despite the fact that any man might have been tempted by expediency after spending as long as Wave Thunder had spent managing all of the Charisian spy networks, Staynair trusted the baron’s integrity enough to not spend too many nights lying awake worrying over what privacies he might be violating. He knew the baron habitually spent at least an hour every night now conferring with Owl and reviewing the day’s intelligence information, but he also knew he was more than content to leave the actual monitoring of the various reconnaissance platforms up to the computer. If Wave Thunder looked at something, it was only because it fell into the parameters he’d defined for Owl — parameters designed to insure it was really important — and not out of any sort of voyeurism.

Unfortunately, the number of other people in Old Charis who had been cleared for the level of information available to the two of them literally could have been counted on the fingers of one hand. (Assuming Ahrdyn had been prepared to relinquish one of Staynair’s hands long enough for the computation to be accomplished.) In fact, the only people so far equipped with the communication devices were Staynair himself; Wave Thunder; Dr. Rahzhyr Mahklyn at the Royal College; Admiral Sir Domynyk Staynair, the Baron of Rock Point (and Maikel Staynair’s brother); Sir Ehdwyrd Howsmyn, who was undoubtedly the Empire of Charis’ wealthiest single subject; and Father Zhon Byrkyt, the Prior of the Monastery of Saint Zherneau. There were others Staynair would desperately have preferred to see added to that list, but that decision was neither his, nor Cayleb’s and Sharleyan’s, alone. And, despite his own impatience, he had to agree with Cayleb’s original decision to set things up that way. Maddening though it might so often be, he was prepared to admit the overwhelming force of the arguments in favor of proceeding with almost insane caution where the expansion of the inner circle was concerned.

Which is about the only thing that lets me maintain a semblance of patience with Zhon and the rest of the Brethren, he reminded himself. The fact is, though, that someone has to be that voice of caution. And let’s be honest with ourselves, Maikel. At this point, it’s a lot more important we not tell someone it turns out we couldn’t trust after all than that we add everybody we’d like to the list.

“Domynyk is already out of the Kingdom,” Wave Thunder continued, “Howsmyn is pretty much anchored to his foundry right now — which, I might point out, is the next best thing to eleven hundred miles from where we happen to be sitting at the moment, in case it’s slipped your mind — and Father Zhon is about as close to a hermit as someone living in the middle of Tellesberg gets. So when you leave the Kingdom, that will leave the Emperor or Empress with direct access only me and Rahzhyr, here in the capital. Rahzhyr isn’t a member of the Council at all — yet, at least — and, to be brutally frank, I don’t have the amount of influence with Rayjhis that you do. He and I are friends and colleagues, and he trusts my judgment in a lot of specific areas. But I don’t begin to have the status you have with him. Or with the rest of the Council, for that matter. If they head off in some wrong direction, I’m not going to be able to rein them in the way you could.”


Staynair nodded, and his eyes darkened for a moment. Wave Thunder was entirely correct about his own influence with Sir Rayjhis Yowance, the Earl of Gray Harbor and First Councilor of the Kingdom of Old Charis. The two of them had known one another almost literally since boyhood, and they trusted one another implicitly. Yet that wasn’t the only reason why Gray Harbor trusted Archbishop Maikel Staynair’s judgment so deeply.

Just as it isn’t the only reason I haven’t even considered suggesting Rayjhis be added to the “inner circle,” he thought with more than a trace of sorrow, then grimaced at his own perversity. It’s really pretty stupid for an archbishop to regret the depth of a kingdom’s first councilor’s personal faith, he told himself severely.

Perhaps it was, yet he did regret it, in some ways, and he was too self-honest to deny it, especially in the privacy of his own thoughts. Like every other living Safeholdian, Gray Harbor had been brought up in the Church of God Awaiting, and despite his burning hatred for the Group of Four and the other men who had corrupted that Church, his faith ran deep. It was an absolutely essential part of who he was, of what made him such a strong and honorable man.

And it was the reason Sir Rayjhis Yowance could never be told the truth about “the Archangel Langhorne” and the entire, perverted lie upon which Langhorne’s Church rested. It would destroy him. Or perhaps it wouldn’t. He was a strong man, and his faith was powerful. He might weather the storm . . . but Staynair was certain the struggle would be a terrible one. One which would, at the very least, thrust him into an agonizing crisis of conscience that would paralyze the strong, confident decisiveness which was so much a part of him — the very things which had made him so very outstanding in his present position.

Personally, Staynair would have breathed a deep, heartfelt prayer of gratitude if all it cost them was the most effective first councilor to have served the Kingdom of Charis in at least two generations. Perhaps that was shortsighted of him as an archbishop, but he’d been a priest long before he was a bishop, and he prayed nightly that he would never become more concerned with “matters of state” than with individual souls. Yet the priest in him was dreadfully afraid that a first councilor would not be all it cost them . . . and in that fact lay a microcosm of Maikel Staynair’s true quandary as a man of God.

There was no question in Staynair’s mind that God had to recognize the strength and passion of the faith of a man like Rayjhis Yowance, however that faith had been distorted by the very people who’d been charged with nurturing his soul. As Staynair himself had once told Merlin Athrawes, God might demand much from some of His servants, but whatever else He might be, He wasn’t stupid. He would never condemn a man like Rayjhis for believing as he had been taught to believe.

Yet when — and how — did Staynair and the others like him, who knew the truth, proclaim that truth? That day must eventually come. Ultimately, faith could not be based upon a deliberate lie, and those who knew the lie had been told must expose it. But how? When? And at what cost to those who had been reared to believe the lie? Despite his own faith, Maikel Staynair never doubted for a moment that when the truth was told, there would be many who decided God Himself must be a lie, as well. He dreaded that moment, dreaded the possible cost to all of those souls, yet he knew it must be done, anyway. Just as he knew that the religious conflict which that schism would bring to life would, in many ways, dwarf the present one.

Which was why they first had to destroy the Group of Four and break the Church of God Awaiting’s stranglehold on all of Safehold.

Which, in turn, brought him back to the problem of his own impending departure and the hole that would leave in the Council.

“To tell the absolute truth, Bynzhamyn, I’m not really that worried about Rayjhis,” he said. “It’s not as if you and I have had to spend all of our time ‘steering him’ into doing the things we know Cayleb and Sharleyan want done, after all. I mean, he’s already doing them, and God knows he’s demonstrated often enough how competent he actually is. Besides, there are practical limits to the amount of ‘steering’ we could do. Unless you want to stand up in the middle of the next Council meeting and announce that you ‘hear voices’?”

“Not likely!” Wave Thunder snorted.

“Well, there it is, then, when you come down to it.” Staynair shrugged again. “Rayjhis isn’t the sort to go charging off in some idiosyncratic direction without at least discussing it with the rest of the Council first. When that happens, if you think, based on something you know that he doesn’t, that he’s about to make a mistake, you’re just going to have to do the best you can. I wouldn’t push it too hard, if I were you, until you’ve had a chance to discuss it directly with Cayleb and Sharleyan, in any case. It may well be that if we all put our heads together, we can come up with some way to . . . restrain his enthusiasm, let’s say. And, knowing Rayjhis, even if we can’t find a way to do that, he’s hardly likely to do anything stupid or risky enough to create a genuine danger.”

“You’re probably right about that,” Wave Thunder conceded. “No, you are right about that. All the same, I really don’t like having the Court in Cherayth this way.” He grimaced. “I’m sure Green Mountain and Queen Mother Alahnah felt pretty much the same way when the Court was here in Tellesberg, and I know it’s something we’re all going to have to get used to, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy it.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Staynair agreed. “In fact, sheer distance — and how long it takes for messages to cross between its various parts, openly, at least — is the Empire’s biggest weakness, and we all know it. I’m pretty sure the Group of Four does, too, and I imagine anyone as smart as Trynair and Clyntahn is going to do his best to take advantage of it. Of course,” Staynair showed his teeth in a most un-archbishop-like smile, “they don’t know quite everything, do they? We may be sitting here fretting about how to ‘steer’ Rayjhis, but they don’t have a clue of the fact that you or I can discuss a situation ‘face-to-face’ with Cayleb and Sharleyan anytime we have to!”

“Which only makes it even more frustrating when we can’t talk to someone else anytime we have to,” Wave Thunder growled, and the archbishop chuckled.

“The Writ says patience is one of the godly virtues,” he pointed out. “Interestingly enough, so do all of the other religions Owl and I have been reading about. So you’re not going to get a lot of sympathy from me just because it’s a virtue which you notably lack, Bynzhamyn!”

“I hope you still find it humorous when you’re sitting on a becalmed galleon in the middle of the Chisholm Sea,” Wave Thunder replied, dark eyes gleaming. “Patience, I mean.”