A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 19

He unfolded his hands and very, very gently, reverently, caressed the huge book lying closed in front of him.

“Here, my children.”

He spoke so softly those farthest from the pulpit had to strain to hear him, yet still his superbly trained voice carried clearly.

“Here,” he repeated. “In this Book. In the word of God Himself, and of the Archangels he sent into His world to do His work and to carry His Law to us. Here is where we will find truth.

“And yet,” his voice gained a little strength, a little power, “as Langhorne himself warned us would be the case, the truth is not always pleasant hearing. The truth does not always come to us in the guise we would prefer. It does not always tell us we have been correct, that it must be someone else who has been in error, and it is not always safe. It demands much, and it brooks no self-deception. If we fall from a tree, the truth may be a bruise, or a sprain, or a broken limb . . . or neck. If we do not heed the word of God in time of peace, if we ignore His truth in times of tranquility, then we must learn it in the tempest. He will send His truth in whatever form He must in order to make us — His stubborn, willful, self-absorbed children — hear it, and that form can include foreign warships, foreign swords and bayonets, and even ‘heretical’ priests forced upon us at sword’s point by foreign rulers.”

The silence was as deep, as attentive, as ever, yet it had changed, as well. It was . . . harder, tenser It was wary and watchful, holding its breath, as if the people behind that stillness were aware he was about to say something he had never before been permitted to say.

“The Holy Bédard tells us in today’s scripture that Mother Church is not the servant of Man. That she is not to be perverted and used for the vain, corrupt ambition of this world. That she is to be kept without spot or blemish. We do not wish to believe she could ever be anything else. That God would ever permit His Church to fall into evil. Permit His great lamp to become a source not of illumination, but of Darkness. We cry out in anger if anyone dares to tell us our wishes are in vain. We brand those who tell us such things can happen to Mother Church with every vile label we can conceive — blasphemer, heretic, apostate, excommunicate, accursed of God, servant of darkness, spawn of Shan-wei, child of evil . . . the list goes on forever. And yet, much though it grieves me, bitterly though my heart weeps within me, it is not the ‘heretics’ who have lied to us. It is not the Church of Charis which has become the handmaiden of Shan-wei.

“It is Mother Church.”

A deep, hoarse almost-sound of protest swept through the congregation. It was bone-deep, filled with pain, and yet no one listening to him found the words to give that protest shape and form. No one cried out in rejection. And that failure, the fact that the protest was inchoate, unformed — a cry of grief, not one of denial — told Tymahn Hahskans a great deal about the sheep of his flock.

Tears burned behind his eyes as he felt the conflicting tides sweeping through his congregation’s hearts. As he recognized their sorrow, the fear not simply of what he had already laid out before them, but of what they sensed was yet to come, and the soul-deep dread which was the precursor of acceptance.

“I am not the only one of Mother Church’s priests who has longed to cry out against her oppression,” he told them. “Not the only one of her loving children whose eyes have seen the corruption growing and festering at her very heart. There are more of us than you may ever have guessed, and yet we have been ordered to keep silence. To tell no one we’ve seen the blemishes growing, the chimney of her lamp begrimed. To pretend we haven’t seen worldly power, wealth, and the pomp and secular glory of princes become more important to those charged to keep her safe and clean of spot than their own duty to God and to the Archangels.”

His voice rose, gaining steadily in power, touched with the denunciatory power of the visionary, and his dark eyes flashed.

“We have been ordered — I have been ordered — to keep silence about all these things, yet I will keep silent no more. I will open my mouth, and I will tell you, yes. Yes! My children, I have seen all of those things, and my eyes, made sharp by sorrow and disappointment, have grown disillusioned. I have seen the evil hiding beneath the fairness of Mother Church’s surface. I have seen the men called to the orange who have turned their back upon God’s true message, given the hearts not to God but to their own power and ambition. I have seen her captivity, and heard her cries for succor, and grieved for her bondage in the dark hours of the night, as have others, and our hearts are heavy as stones, for if she can give harbor to corruption, then surely anything can. If she is not proof against evil, then surely nothing is, and there is no hope in us. No help for us, for we have failed the Holy Bédard’s great charge, and God’s own Church has been defiled. Mother Church herself has become the doorway of evil, the portal for Shan-wei’s dark poison of the soul, and we — we, my children! — are the ones who have let that terrible, terrible transformation come to pass. By our silence, by our acceptance, by our cowardice, we have become the accomplices of her defilers, and do not doubt for one moment that at the end of all things, we shall be called to account for our most grievous faults!

“And yet . . . .”

His voice trailed off into stillness, and he let that stillness linger. Let it build and hang heavily, filling Saint Kathryn’s like some throbbing thunderhead, pregnant with the very rakurai of God. And then, at last, after a tiny eternity, he spoke again.

“Oh, yes, my children. . . and yet. The great ‘and yet.’ The glorious ‘and yet’! Because God has sent us hope once more, after all. Sent it in the most unlikely guise of all. In the words of the ‘apostate,’ in the division of the ‘schismatic,’ and in the teachings of the ‘heretic.’ I know how shocked many of you must be to hear that, how dismayed. How frightened. And yet, as I examine the doctrine of this ‘Church of Charis,’ I find no evil in it. I find anger. I find rebellion. I find denunciation and defiance. But none of that, my children — none of it! — do I find directed against God. Or against the Writ. Or against what Mother Church was ordained to be and, with God’s help, will one day be again!

“I do not say the Empire of Charis came to our shores solely out of the love all children of God are called to share with one another. I will not tell you worldly ambition, the contest of princes squabbling over baubles and the illusion of power, has played no part in what has happened here . . . or in what happened in Darcos Sound when the corrupt men in Zion sent our sons and brothers to destroy those who had dared to reject their own corruption. Men are men. They are mortal, fallible, imperfect, prey to ambition and to the hatreds of this world. They are all of that. Yet even so, they live in God’s world, and God can — and will — use even their weaknesses for His great purpose. And as I look upon His world, as I meditate upon His word,” again, the hands gently caressed the great book before him, “I see Him doing precisely that. I tell you now, and no ‘foreign heretic’ has put the words into my mouth, what the Church of Charis tells you about the corruption, the decadence, the evil, of the ‘Group of Four’ and those who serve their will is God’s own truth, carried to us in the tempest of war because God’s Church would not hear Him in the time of tranquility. The men in Zion, the men who think of themselves as the masters of God’s Church, are not shepherds, but wolves. They serve not the Light, but the deepest, blackest Dark. And they are not the keepers of men’s souls, but the enemies of God Himself, set free to wreak Shan-wei’s ruin upon us all . . . unless those who do serve the Light stop them and cast them down utterly.

“God’s sword has been loosed in the world, my children. We are fated to live in the shadow of that sword, and it is up to each of us to decide where we will stand when His truth demands an accounting of us. That choice lies before each and every one of us. We ignore it at our peril, for those who do not choose to stand for the Light will find themselves, in the fullness of time, given to the Dark. I beseech you, as you face this time of tumult, choose. Choose! Take your stand for God as God gives you the power to see it, and gird yourself for the greater and still sterner test to come.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Merlin Athrawes shook himself and opened his eyes, letting the imagery recorded by the tiny sensors deployed inside Saint Kathryn’s Church slip away from him. He sat up in his chair in Cherayth, thousands of miles from Manchyr, feeling the sleeping quiet of the palace all around him, and something deep within his molycirc heart seemed to be beating against the confining cage of his chest’s synthetic composites.

The power and the passion of Tymahn Hahskans’ sermon echoed inside him, driven by the man’s personal, burning faith. A part of Merlin, even now, wanted to mock and deride that faith, because, unlike Hahskans, he knew the lie upon which it rested. He knew what Adorée Bédard had truly been like. Knew that, in many ways, Zhaspahr Clyntahn and Zahmsyn Trynair were far, far closer to Eric Langhorne than someone like Maikel Staynair could ever be. He longed — longed with a depth and a strength which shocked him more than a little, even now — to hate Tymahn Hahskans for worshiping mass murderers like Bédard and Langhorne.

Yet he couldn’t. He literally could not do it, and he smiled crookedly as he contemplated the sublime irony of it all. Adorée Bédard had been personally responsible for brainwashing every single colonist planted on the planet of Safehold into believing that he or she had been created, given the breath of life itself, in the very instant their eyes opened on this world for the first time. She’d built the entire lie, brick by brick. Every word of “The Book of Bédard,” whether she’d actually written it herself or it had simply been attributed to her after her own death, had been dedicated to supporting that lie, shoring up the coercive edifice of the Church’s tyranny.

And yet, despite all of that, it was the Order of Bédard — men like Tymahn Hahskans, like Maikel Staynair — who were the spearheads of the reformist movement. Who insisted on taking the words of Adorée Bédard and actually applying them. Insisted upon holding those who corrupted the Church’s power accountable.

Merlin Athrawes wasn’t going to make the mistake of assuming that anyone who supported the Church of Charis automatically supported the Empire of Charis, as well. The world — and the workings of the human heart — were too complicated, too complex, for that simple a parallelism to govern. Yet Merlin had also known, thanks to the unique perspective his SNARCs conferred upon him, that the anger against the Group of Four’s corruption had never been limited solely to the Kingdom of Charis. Even he had failed to fully appreciate the power of that anger as it bubbled away beneath the surface, for the coercive power of the Church — and especially of the Inquisition — had kept it beneath the surface. Unseen and unheard, where it was not permitted to challenge the authority and power of those who had made themselves masters of the Church.

There were others like Hahskans. Merlin had known that from the beginning of this struggle. He never doubted that they would demand the right to speak their minds and their hearts where the Church of Charis was concerned, as well, but he’d known they recognized the evils which afflicted the Temple. He’d hoped they would find their voices when the Inquisition’s stifling hand was lifted from their mouths, and he’d been deeply pleased when Tymahn Hahskans’ name had headed the list of reconfirmed parish priests in Klairmant Gairlyng’s first proclamation as Archbishop of Corisande. Whether Hahskans himself realized it or not, Merlin’s SNARCs had revealed to him long ago that the rector of Saint Kathryn’s was one of the most respected priests in all of Manchyr. And there was a reason that was so, a reason Hahskans deserved every bit of respect the laity of the Corisandian capital gave him, and not simply because he was a gifted preacher. He was that, of course, but the true reason he was so respected — even beloved — was that only the blindest or most cynical of people could possibly have denied the intellect, the integrity, and the limitless love which filled that man of God.

He is a man of God, too, Merlin thought now. Filtered through the prison of the Church of God Awaiting or not, Hahskans truly has found his own way to God. As he himself says, he’s not the only priest in Corisande who’s seen the corruption in Zion, but there’s damned well not another man in Manchyr who could possibly have seen it more clearly . . . or denounced it more fearlessly. And if I’d ever doubted there truly is a God, finding a man like this in a church in the middle of Manchyr, of all places, would prove there is.

The man who had once been Nimue Alban shook his head again and then, although he would never again need oxygen, drew a deep and cleansing breath.

“All right, Owl,” he murmured. “Now let’s see the take from Manchyr Cathedral. I doubt Archbishop Klairmant’s going to be able to beat that one, but let’s give him the chance to try.”

“Of course, Lieutenant Commander,” the distant AI replied obediently, and Merlin closed his eyes once more.