A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 21

November, Year of God 893

Imperial Palace,
City of Cherayth,
Kingdom of Chisholm;
HMS Dawn Wind, 54,
Dolphin Reach

“What do you think about Merlin’s and Owl’s latest reports on Corisande, Maikel?” Sharleyan asked.

She and Cayleb sat in Prince Tymahn’s Suite, the rooms just down the hall from their own suite which had been converted into a combined library and office. It lacked the remodeled, heated floors of their bedroom, but a brand-new cast-iron stove from the Howsmyn Ironworks had been installed, and the coal fire in its iron belly gave off a welcome warmth.

“You’ve both seen the same imagery I have from Merlin’s SNARCs,” Maikel Staynair pointed out over the plug in her right ear. His voice sounded remarkably clear for someone better than four thousand miles, as the wyvern flew, from Cherayth. “What do you think?”

“No you don’t,” Cayleb shot back with a grin. “We asked you first!”

“Harumpf!” Staynair cleared his throat severely, and Sharleyan grinned at her husband. Their contact lenses brought them the archbishop’s image as he sat in his shipboard cabin, looking out over a sunset sea, with Ahrdyn draped across his lap. His own lenses showed him her grin, as well, and he made a face at her. But then he shrugged, and his tone was more serious as he continued.

“As far as the Church goes, I think we’ve been extremely blessed with Gairlyng and — especially — men like Father Tymahn,” he said very soberly. “We’re not going to find any Charisian ‘patriots’ in Corisande, even among the clergy, any time soon, but the reform element in the Corisandian hierarchy’s proved rather stronger than I’d dared hope before the invasion. And the really good news, in many ways, is how many of those reformists are nativeborn Corisandians, like Father Tymahn. That puts a Corisandian face on voices of reason, and that’s going to be incredibly valuable down the road.

“From a more purely political perspective,” the archbishop continued, “I think General Chermyn and Anvil Rock and Tartarian are about as on top of things as we could reasonably ask, Your Majesty. That’s Bynzhamyn’s opinion, too, for that matter. Neither of us sees how anybody could be doing a better job, anyway, given the circumstances of Hektor’s murder and the fact that there probably aren’t more than a half dozen people in all of Corisande — even among the most reform-minded members of the priesthood — who think Cayleb wasn’t behind it.”

“Agreed,” Cayleb said, his own expression sober. “All the same, I have to admit I’d feel a lot better if the Brethren would let us go ahead and bring Hauwyl fully inside. If we’d been able give somebody in Corisande one of Merlin’s coms, I’d sleep a lot more soundly at night.”

Sharleyan nodded, although, truth to tell, she wasn’t entirely certain she would have been in favor of giving Hauwyl Chermyn a communicator. It wasn’t that she doubted the Marine general’s loyalty, intelligence, or mental toughness in the least. No, the problem was that despite Chermyn’s genuine hatred for the Group of Four, he still believed — deeply and completely — in the Church’s doctrine. As with Rayjhis Yowance and Mahrak Sahndyrs, there was simply no way to know how he might react if they tried to tell him the truth.

And it’s not as if they’re the only ones that’s true of, she acknowledged unhappily to herself. Or as if they were the only ones who could be so much more capable if we only dared to tell them everything we know.

Unfortunately, they couldn’t, despite the difficulties that created. It was bad enough that they couldn’t tell Gray Harbor, given his position as the effective First Councilor of the Charisian Empire, but Sahndyrs, the Baron of Green Mountain, was at least equally important in light of his duties as First Councilor of the Kingdom of Chisholm.

Not to mention the tiny fact that he’s Mother’s lover (whether I’m supposed to know that or not) and the man who taught me everything I know about being a queen, she thought unhappily. Why, oh why, couldn’t the two political advisers Cayleb and I both lean most heavily upon have just a little bit less integrity . . . where the Church is concerned, at least?

“I’ve done my best to ginger up Zhon and the others, Your Grace,” Staynair told Cayleb, his tone a bit wry. “And I have to say, in the interests of fairness, that they’ve actually become much more flexible about approving additions to your inner circle. After being so miserly with their approval for so long — for so many entire generations of the Brethren, when you come down to it — that’s really quite remarkable, when you think about it.”

“Agreed,” Cayleb said once more, acknowledging his archbishop’s slightly pointed but unmistakably admonishing tone. “Agreed! And however irritating it may sometimes be, I have to admit that having someone put the brakes on my own occasional bursts of . . . excessive enthusiasm isn’t exactly a bad thing.” The emperor made a face. “I think all monarchs have a tendency to fall prey to expediency, if they aren’t careful. And sometimes I think the rest of the Brethren might’ve had a point when they worried about that ‘youthful impatience’ of mine while they debated telling me about it.”

“I don’t think I’d go quite that far,” Staynair replied. “At the same time, though, I won’t pretend I’m not relieved to hear you say that, either.”

“Oh, I’m maturing, I am,” Cayleb assured him dryly. “Having Merlin and Sharley right here at hand to whack me over the head at the drop of a hat tends to have that effect, you know.”

“Maybe it would, if your skull wasn’t quite so thick,” his wife told him, smiling as she ran her fingers through his hair. He smiled back at her, and she snorted in amusement. But then she leaned back in her own chair and shook her head.

“At least, where Corisande is concerned, you and I are closer than Tellesberg, at the moment,” she pointed out aloud. “And even with the over-water links, the semaphore between here and there — or from here to Eraystor, for that matter — works for us now, not the Group of Four. We can get dispatches to Manchyr a lot quicker from Cherayth.”

“That helps,” Cayleb agreed. “In fact, as far as the semaphore’s concerned, we’re actually better placed here than we would be in Tellesberg, since Cherayth’s much closer to our geographic center. It’s not the same as being there to keep an eye on things in Corisande myself, though. And, for that matter, I’m none too delighted at having to send them overland through Zebediah, even if we did personally vet the semaphore managers,” he added a bit sourly.

“No, it’s not the same as being there,” she acknowledged. On the other hand, they both knew why he wasn’t still in Manchyr, personally overseeing the restive princedom’s incorporation into the Empire. And completely leaving aside all of the personal reasons she was glad he wasn’t — including the one which was just beginning to affect her figure — the cold-blooded political calculation which had brought him “home” to Cherayth seemed to be proving out in practice. Sharleyan wasn’t foolish enough to think Earl Anvil Rock and Earl Tartarian were going to keep the lid nailed down on the conquered princedom’s many and manifold boiling resentments forever. The “spontaneous” street demonstrations in Manchyr — and quite a few of them truly were spontaneous, she admitted, completely independent of the activities of people like Paitryk Hainree — were an ominous indication of heavy weather just over the horizon. But it was obvious from Merlin’s SNARCs that it would have been even worse if Cayleb had remained in Corisande. At least, unlike Cayleb, Anvil Rock and Tartarian were also Corisandians themselves. And at least they were governing Corisande (officially, at any rate) as the regents of Prince Daivyn, not in the name of a foreign conqueror. Everyone might still see that foreign conqueror lurking just behind Daivyn’s (empty) throne, yet it still gave them a degree of legitimacy in Corisandian eyes which Viceroy General Chermyn simply could not have enjoyed.

Of course, that was its own jar of worms. And a particularly squirmy jar it was, too.

I wish I didn’t sympathize with Irys as much as I do, she thought grimly. And I know I can’t afford to let that sympathy influence me. But I also know what it’s like to have your father murdered. I know exactly what that can do to someone, and however much I may have loathed and hated Hektor Daykyn, he was her father. She loved him, loved him as much as I loved mine, and she’s never going to forgive Cayleb for having him assassinated any more than I ever forgave Hektor for buying my father’s murder.

Sharleyan Ahrmahk was only too well aware of the bitterly ironic parallels between herself and Irys Daykyn, and despite her own burning hatred for Hektor of Corisande, she truly did feel a deep, pain-laced sympathy for Hektor’s surviving, orphaned children. And if there was one person on the face of Safehold who would never underestimate just how dangerous a “mere girl’s” blazing determination to avenge that murder could truly be, it was Sharleyan of Chisholm.

Which only makes me worry even more about Larchros, Storm Keep, and all of their damned friends and neighbors. If only we could just go ahead and arrest them all for what we know they’re doing.

That, however, was the one thing they absolutely couldn’t do. Cayleb had been right when he’d decided he couldn’t simply replace conquered princes and nobles with people who would inevitably be seen as his favorites. No, he had to leave legitimate nobles who had sworn fealty to him in place . . . unless and until he had incontrovertible proof the princes and nobles in question had been guilty of treason. Which, since they couldn’t possibly present evidence from the SNARCs in any open court, meant all they could do was to keep a wary eye on what Merlin had christened the “Northern Conspiracy.”

And, if she were honest, she wished even more passionately that they could move openly even against the street agitators. She supposed there really wasn’t any reason they couldn’t arrest commoners “on suspicion,” assuming there’d been some way to identify them to General Chermyn. Or to Koryn Gahrvai. But just how did one go about indentifying them to anyone outside the inner circle without raising all sorts of potentially disastrous questions? And even leaving aside that not-so-minor consideration, did they really want to start down that road? She didn’t doubt there might come a time when they’d have no choice, but as Cayleb had just pointed out, it was always tempting (and seldom wise) to succumb to expediency. As far as she was concerned, she’d prefer to delay that time when they had no choice for as long as possible.

Of course, there were some other weighty, purely pragmatic arguments in favor of their current “hands-off” approach, as well. The “database” of agitators Merlin had Owl building continued to grow steadily, and there were many advantages in letting that proceed undisturbed . . . up to a point, at least. Not only would they know where to find their organized enemies when the moment finally came, but letting the other side do its recruiting undisturbed also served to draw the most dangerous opposition together in one group, to give them a single target they could decapitate with a single strike.

And, she reflected, sifting through Owl’s reconnaissance “take,” as Merlin calls it, helps us evaluate why someone joined the resistance. I never realized how valuable that could be, until he pointed it out. Knowing what motivates people to actively oppose you is incredibly useful when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of your policies. Or how other people perceive those policies, at any rate. And it doesn’t hurt to be able to judge the character of your opponents, either. Not everyone who joins up with people like Hainree and Waimyn belongs in the same basket with them. There are good and decent people on the other side — people who genuinely think what they’re doing is the right thing, what God wants them to do. It’s hard enough remembering that even with the proof right in front of us. Without it, I don’t think I’d be able to remember at all when sentencing time rolls around.

At least the effort wasn’t burning up as much of their time as it might have. Now that Merlin had gotten the process up and running, Owl routinely assigned parasite sensors to each additional anti-Charis activist as he was identified. At this point, neither Merlin nor Cayleb or Sharleyan were trying to keep track of everyone being added to the files. If the “filters” Merlin had put in place were doing their jobs, Owl would identify any important Corisandian churchman, noble, or member of Parliament who crossed the path of anyone in the database. At that point, those involved would be brought to Merlin’s attention and flagged for closer future observation. Several of the more important (or more active, at least) of the street agitators had also been added to the “special watch” list, and Owl routinely notified Merlin of anyone new who crossed those people’s paths, regardless of the newcomer’s rank. For the most part, though, all they were really doing was to develop their list of active opponents and continue to chart the slowly growing, steadily more sophisticated organization those opponents were putting in place. And hard as it was watching it grow when they couldn’t nip it in the bud, none of them were foolish enough to think they could have prevented it from happening, in one form or another, whatever they did.

And sooner or later, we will be in a position to break their organization, too, Sharleyan thought. In fact, sooner or later we’ll have to, and not just in Manchyr, either. The “Northern Conspiracy” is going to be on our little list, too. Eventually, they will give us evidence we can use, once we “discover it” through more acceptable avenues. And when we do, they’ll discover just how efficient our headsmen are.

She was rather looking forward to that day, actually.

“Well,” she said, “at least it doesn’t look like Corisande’s going up in flames tomorrow morning. It doesn’t hurt that you’re on your way for your first pastoral visit both here and in Corisande, either, Maikel. And I imagine” — her voice turned just a bit smug, undeniably it turned smug — “that once word gets out that we’re finally about to produce an heir it’s going to upset certain people I could mention almost as much as it’s going to reassure all of our people.”

“Oh, I’m sure it is,” Cayleb agreed in a tone of profound satisfaction. “I’m sure it is.”

“And neither is Emerald,” Staynair told them both. “Going up in flames, I mean.”

None of them were speaking loudly, but the archbishop’s voice was lower pitched than either Cayleb’s or Sharleyan’s. They had the advantage of thick, stone walls, and of a heavy door of solid nearoak, warded by two imperial guardsmen personally selected for their duty by Merlin Athrawes and Edwyrd Seahamper. No one was going to get close enough to eavesdrop on them.