A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 17

“Somehow I suspect being becalmed in the Chisholm Sea is going to be one of the least of my problems in the middle of the winter,” Staynair said wryly. “I’ve been advised to pack a lot of golden-berry tea, for some reason.”

The gleam in Wave Thunder’s eyes turned into a snort of amusement. Golden-berry tea, brewed from the leaves of the golden-berry tree, which grew to a height of about ten feet and thrived in almost any climate, was the standard Safeholdian treatment for motion sickness.

“You may find the thought amusing,” Staynair said severely, “but I rather doubt I’m going to feel the same way when we’re looking at waves as high as a cathedral spire!”

“Probably not,” Wave Thunder acknowledged with a grin. He leaned back in his own chair and sipped more brandy for several moments, then looked back across at Staynair.

“And Nahrmahn?” he asked. “Have you pressed Father Zhon about that recently?”

“Not really,” Staynair confessed. “I’m still in two minds, myself, if the truth be told. I understand how valuable Nahrmahn could be, but I don’t really have a good enough feel for him yet — as a man, and not just a prince — to feel comfortable predicting how he’d react to the complete truth.”

“He’s handled the ‘Merlin has visions’ version of the truth well enough,” Wave Thunder pointed out.

“So has Rayjhis,” Staynair countered. “Oh, don’t get me wrong, Bynzhamyn. If there’s anyone who’s . . . mentally flexible enough, let’s say, to accept the truth, it’s got to be Nahrmahn. And I’m very much inclined to believe Merlin — and Cayleb, for that matter — are correct about where he’s placed his fundamental loyalties now. Maybe the problem’s just that Emerald was the enemy for so long. I mean, it’s possible I’m carrying around some kind of automatic prejudice towards all things Emeraldian, including the Prince of Emerald, myself. I don’t think I am, but that doesn’t mean I’m not. I’m just . . . uncomfortable in my own mind about how . . . stable his loyalties are. That’s not the right word.” The archbishop waved one hand, his expression that of a man unaccustomed to being unable to express himself with precision. “I guess what it comes down to is that I haven’t really been able to spend enough time with him to feel I truly know him.”

“Well, that’s fair enough,” Wave Thunder conceded. Prince Nahrmahn had spent no more than a month and a half in Tellesberg before departing for the Corisande campaign with Emperor Cayleb. He’d returned to Old Charis two months ago, but he’d stayed in Tellesberg for less than two five-days before departing for Emerald. No reasonable person could have complained about his priorities, given the fact that he’d seen neither his wife nor his children in the better part of a year, but it did mean that Staynair — and Wave Thunder, for that matter — had enjoyed precious little opportunity to truly get to know him.

“Maybe you’ll have the opportunity to get better acquainted during your pastoral visit,” the baron pointed out, and Staynair nodded.

“I plan to make a point of it,” he said. “For that matter, I think it’s entirely possible he may end up sailing back to Chisholm with me, as well. And as you so tactfully pointed out a few moments ago,” the archbishop grimaced, “that ought to give me plenty of time to get ‘ acquainted’.”

“I understand ocean cruises are supposed to be an excellent opportunity to make lifelong friendships,” Wave Thunder observed, and Staynair snorted. Then the archbishop’s expression turned a bit more thoughtful.

“Actually,” he said in the tone a man used to admit something he found at least mildly surprising, “I think a genuine friendship with Nahrmahn is definitely a possibility.” He shook his head with a bemused air. “Who would’ve thought that a year or two ago?”

“Not me, that’s for sure!” Wave Thunder shook his own head rather more forcefully, then glanced at the clock. “Well,” he set his brandy snifter back down, “I suppose I ought to be getting back home. I’d like to say Leahyn is going to be wondering where I am. Unfortunately, the truth is that she already knows where I am, and she’s probably got a pretty fair idea of what the two of us have been up to.” He grimaced. “I don’t doubt that she’s going to give my breath the ‘sniff test’ as soon as I come in the door.”

Staynair chuckled. Leahyn Raice, Lady Wave Thunder, was sometimes described as “a redoubtable female,” which was accurate enough as far as it went. She was almost as tall as her husband, and no one had ever accused her of being frail. She also had strong opinions on quite a few subjects, a sharp tongue she wasn’t at all afraid to use, and a keen intelligence which had quite often helped her husband solve a particularly perplexing problem. She was also warmhearted and deeply caring, as the priest who’d been her bishop for so long knew better than most. She went to considerable lengths to disguise the fact, however. She wasn’t really all that good at it, though. She and Bynzhamyn had been married for the better part of twenty-five years, and while Staynair knew it amused Wave Thunder to play the “wyvern-pecked husband” to his friends, everyone who knew them recognize that the truth was distinctly different. Still, there was no denying that Leahyn Raice had a distinctly proprietary attitude where the care and feeding of her husband were concerned.

“The real reason she picks on you is that heart attack, you know,” the archbishop said now, mildly.

“Of course I know that!” Wave Thunder smiled wryly. “On the other hand, that was six years ago, Maikel! The healers have all said a little wine now and then — or even whiskey, in moderation — won’t hurt me a bit. In fact, they say it’s probably good for me!”

“If I didn’t know they’d given you permission, I wouldn’t have invited you to deplete my stock,” Staynair pointed out.

“Well, I just wish one of them would have another talk with her!”

“Nonsense!” Staynair shook a finger at him. “Don’t try to mislead me. This is part of the game you two have been playing for years, and I’m really not sure which of you enjoys it more.” He eyed Wave Thunder shrewdly. “Most of the time, I think it’s you, actually.”

“That’s ridiculous.” The spymaster’s voice was less than fully convincing as he pushed himself up out of his chair, Staynair noticed. “But, in any case, I do need to be getting home.”

“I know,” Staynair replied, but something in his manner stopped Wave Thunder half way to his feet. The baron’s eyebrows rose, and then he settled back again, his head cocked.

“And what did you just decide you were going to mention to tell me after all, Maikel?” he asked.

“We have known each other for quite a while, haven’t we?” Staynair observed a bit obliquely.

“Yes, we have. And I know that expression. So why don’t you go ahead and tell me instead of sitting there while I pull something you already know you’re going to tell me about out of you by inches?”

“Actually,” Staynair’s voice was unwontedly serious, almost hesitant, “this is a bit difficult for me, Bynzhamyn.”

“Why?” Wave Thunder asked in a markedly different tone, his eyes narrowing with concern as the archbishop’s genuine — and highly unusual — discomfort registered.

“Tomorrow morning,” Staynair said, “Father Bryahn will be at your office bright and early to deliver a half-dozen crates to you. They aren’t very large, but they’re fairly heavy, because they’re packed almost solid with paper.”

“Paper,” Wave Thunder repeated. He leaned back in his chair again, crossing his legs. “What sort of paper, Maikel?”

“Documents,” Staynair replied. “Files, really. Collections of memoranda, depositions, personal letters. You can think of them as . . . evidence.”

“Evidence of what?” Wave Thunder asked intently.

“Something like twenty years worth of documented corruption within the vicarate and the Inquisition.” Staynair’s voice was suddenly very flat, his eyes cold. “Evidence of specific acts of extortion, blackmail, theft — even rape and murder. And evidence that Zhaspahr Clyntahn, at least, knew about quite a few of those acts and conspired to conceal them.”

Despite his many years of experience, Wave Thunder felt his jaw drop. He stared at his old friend for several seconds, literally speechless, then shook himself violently.

“You’re not joking, are you? You really mean it!”

“I do.” Staynair sighed. “And I really wasn’t going to tell you I had it, either. Unfortunately, accidents do happen, and I am going to be making some rather lengthy voyages in the next few months. So I decided I had to hand it to someone before I sail, just in case.”

“And how long have you had it?” Wave Thunder asked in a careful tone.

“I’ve been examining it for about a month now,” Staynair admitted. “It took a while to get here from — Well, never mind about that.”

“And you weren’t going to tell anyone about it?” Wave Thunder shook his head slowly. “Maikel, if your description of what you have is accurate, then you have to realize even better than I do just how critical that sort of evidence could be. Especially if we can document it.”

“To be honest, that’s part of the problem.” Staynair leaned back in his own chair. “What I have are duplicates of the original evidence. I’m personally completely convinced of its authenticity, but there’s no way I could prove all of it isn’t simply a clever forgery, and that definitely makes it a double-edged sword. Frankly, I think we could do ourselves enormous damage in the propaganda war between us and Zion by publishing allegations we can’t prove.”

“Maybe,” Wave Thunder conceded. “On the other hand, no matter what kind of ‘proof’ we had, the Group of Four and its mouthpieces would swear up and down that it was all a forgery, anyway. I mean, it doesn’t matter how much genuine proof we have; people on both sides are going to make their minds up based on what they already believe. Or what they’re willing to believe, at any rate.”

“I know. And I thought about that. But there’s another issue involved, as well.”

“What sort of ‘issue’?” Wave Thunder asked warily.

“This information was delivered to me under the seal of the confessional,” Staynair said. “The person who delivered it to me agreed to trust my discretion about the use I might choose to make of it, but I was told the source of the documentation in my role as a priest. And the person who gave it to me doesn’t wish the identity of the source to become known.”

“Not even to Cayleb or Sharleyan?”

“Not to anyone.” Staynair expression was somber. “I think the person who delivered this to me is probably being overly cautious, Bynzhamyn, but that isn’t my decision to make. And I have to agree, given what I’ve been told — and what I’ve already seen of the documentation itself — that if the Group of Four should suspect, even for a moment, that we have this information and — especially! — how it came into our possession, the consequences for a very courageous person would be devastating. For that matter, the consequences would be fatal, and quite probably for a large number of other people, as well.”

The archbishop’s eyes, Wave Thunder realized, were as troubled as the baron had ever seen them.

“In many ways, I really ought to hand this over to Hainryk for safekeeping, I suppose.” Staynair said slowly. “I thought about that . . . hard. But in the end, I decided this was an occasion where finding the best way to balance my responsibilities to the Empire and my responsibilities to God required very careful consideration. I’m not fully satisfied with the answer I’ve come to, but it’s the best I’ve been able to do after praying in meditating about as hard as I’ve ever prayed or meditated in my life.”

Wave Thunder nodded slowly. Hainryk Waignair, the Bishop of Tellesberg, was the second ranking member of the Church of Charis’ episcopate here in Old Charis. In fact, Waignair would be the acting Archbishop of Charis until Staynair returned. He was also a Brother of Saint Zherneau, which meant that — like Wave Thunder and Staynair — he knew the truth behind the lie of “the Archangel Langhorne” and the Church of God Awaiting. He and Staynair were very old friends, as well as colleagues and brothers of the same order, and Wave Thunder knew that Staynair trusted Waignair implicitly, both as a man and as a priest. The baron had no doubt that it must have taken a great deal of prayer and meditation, indeed, to bring the archbishop to the point of leaving this with him, and not with Waignair.

“Speaking as a member of the Imperial Council, and as the Archbishop of Charis, and as Cayleb’s and Sharleyan’s adviser, there’s absolutely no question in my mind that I should already have handed all of this information over and told you and them exactly where it came from, Bynzhamyn,” Staynair continued. “But speaking as Father Maikel — as a priest — I cannot violate the sanctity of the confession. I won’t. The Church of God Awaiting may be a lie, but God isn’t, and neither is the faith of the person who trusted me in this matter.”

Wave Thunder had started to open his mouth to argue. Now he closed it again as he recognized the unyielding armor of Maikel Staynair’s faith and integrity. Speaking purely for himself, Bynzhamyn Raice had found he was considerably less confident of the existence of God following his discovery of the truth about the Church of God Awaiting. He wasn’t comfortable admitting that, even to himself, yet there was that nagging suspicion — possibly a product of his spymaster’s necessary cynicism — that if one religion could have been deliberately fabricated, then all of them might have been. He was too intellectually self-honest to deny that doubt to himself, but it didn’t keep him up at night, unable to sleep, either. Whether God existed or not, the Empire of Charis was still locked in a death struggle with the Group of Four, and laying itself open to charges of atheism (a word Wave Thunder had never even heard of until he gained access to Owl’s computer records) would only hand someone like Clyntahn a deadly weapon.

But whatever doubts he might find himself entertaining, he knew there was no doubt at all in Maikel Staynair. The archbishop was as far removed from a fanatic as a human being could possibly be. Wave Thunder was pretty sure Staynair was aware of his own doubts, but he was even more confident that if the archbishop was aware of them, he would never condemn the baron for them. That simply wasn’t the way Staynair worked, and Wave Thunder had found himself hoping that the God Maikel Staynair believed in — the God who could produce a man like Maikel Staynair — did exist. But if Staynair had given his word as a priest, then he would die before he broke it.

Which, when you come down to it, is the real difference between him and someone like Clyntahn, isn’t it? Wave Thunder thought. Clyntahn believes in the Church. In the power of the Church, not of God, despite the fact that no one has ever shown him a scrap of evidence to cast doubt on God’s existence. Maikel knows the Church is a lie . . . but his faith in God has never wavered for a moment.

“All right, Maikel,” he said quietly. “I understand your thinking. And I respect it. But if you deliver this evidence to me, then it’s going to be my duty to make use of it. Or, at least, to examine it all very carefully. You know how much insight we got into the Church and the Inquisition from the files Domynyk captured in Ferayd. From what you’re saying, these documents could tell us a hell of a lot more — if you’ll excuse the language — than they did.”

“I realize that. It’s one of the reasons I hesitated so long about giving them to you. I even considered leaving them here to be delivered to you only in the event that something did happen to me, along with a cover letter explaining what they were. In the end, though, I decided I needed to explain to you in person, and I decided that for many of the same reasons I decided to leave it with you and not Hainryk. Hainryk is my brother in God and one of my dearest friends, and he has the courage of a great dragon, yet his deepest and truest joy lies in his priesthood, in ministering to the needs of his flock. That’s a great deal of what made him such a perfect choice as the Bishop of Tellesberg — well, to be honest, that and the fact that I knew I could place complete trust in his loyalty. But if I left this with him, it would put him in a most uncomfortable position. I think he would recognize the same issues I recognize, yet I can’t be certain of that, and I refuse to put him in the position of carrying out binding instructions from me which might violate his conscience as a priest.

“From a more practical perspective, he truly detests politics — even church politics, though he knows he has to be aware of them. Secular politics, diplomacy, and strategy are things he would far rather leave in other hands, however. Which means he’s far less well informed and aware of the . . . imperial realities, shall we say, than you or I. He would definitely not be the best person to be evaluating the information in these files for its possible significance and value to the Empire.

“You, on the other hand, have a very keenly developed sense for all of those things. If there’s a single person in all of Old Charis who could more accurately judge the value of this material, I have no idea who he might be. Which is why I decided to leave it with you . . . and to make you aware of the reasons I can’t tell you exactly where they came from, or who delivered them to us. I trust your discretion, and I know you’ll handle them with extraordinary care. And” — Staynair looked levelly into Wave Thunder’s eyes — “I know you won’t tell a soul where you got them until and unless I give you permission to do so.”

The baron wanted to argue, but he recognized an exercise in futility when he saw it. And the fact that Staynair trusted him enough to hand him something like this meant it was unthinkable that he should violate that trust.

“All right,” he said again. “You have my word, in that regard. But on one condition, Maikel!”

“And that condition is?”

“If something does happen to you — God forbid — then I’ll do what seems best in my own judgment with this evidence.” Wave Thunder held Staynair’s eyes as levelly as the archbishop had just held his. “I’ll do my best to protect your source, whoever it is, and I’ll be as cautious as I can. But I won’t accept something like this without the understanding that my own duties and responsibilities will require me to decide what to do with it if you’re no longer around to make the call. Is that understood?”

“Of course,” Staynair said simply.


There were a few moments of silence, and then Wave Thunder snorted quietly.

“What?” the archbishop asked.

“Well, it just occurred to me to wonder if you’re planning on telling Cayleb and Sharleyan about this?”

“I’m not in any tearing rush to do so,” Staynair said wryly. “I’m sure they’d respect the responsibilities of my office. That’s not the same thing as saying they’d be happy about it, though. So, if it’s all right with you, I’m just going to let that sleeping dragon lie.”

“As a matter of fact,” Wave Thunder smiled crookedly, “I think that may be the best idea I’ve heard all night!”