A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 22

Staynair, on the other hand, was ensconced in the admiral’s cabin aboard HMS Dawn Wind, one of the Charisian Navy’s newer galleons. As quarters went aboard cramped, overcrowded warships, it was a spacious abode, well-suited to the archbishop’s dignity and the privacy the duties of his office — not to mention his own need for meditation and prayer — frequently required. Of course, it was aboard one of the aforementioned cramped, overcrowded warships. Which was to say that the bulkheads were thin, the doors were anything but solid nearoak, and people were likely to inadvertently intrude upon his privacy at any moment. Fortunately, he’d already firmly established a tradition of retiring to his cabin every evening to enjoy the sunset through the stern windows and meditate. By now, his staff was accustomed to protecting his privacy during those moments. As long as he kept his voice down — and the cabin skylight closed — it was extremely unlikely anyone would hear his voice over the inevitable sounds of a sailing ship underway. And even less likely that anyone who heard him speaking would be able to make out words. The logical assumption would simply be that he was praying, and anyone who thought that was what was happening would get themselves out of eavesdropping range as quickly as they could.

“In fact,” the archbishop continued now, “I think Emerald is going to be almost as happy to hear about your pregnancy as anybody in Old Charis or Chisholm, Sharleyan. They’re committed now — they know that — and they’re as eager to see the succession secured as anyone else.”

“Really?” Sharleyan said. “I think that’s been my own impression,” she admitted, “but I also have to admit I’ve been a little afraid it was my impression because that was the impression I wanted to have, if you follow me.” She grimaced slightly. “In some ways, I think, having all this access courtesy of Merlin’s SNARCs only makes it harder to figure out what people are really thinking. I’ve spent years training myself to estimate things like that accurately on the basis of second- and third-hand reports. Interpretively, I suppose you might say. Now I’m actually trying to look at people directly and decide for myself, and I’ve discovered that it’s hard to get some sort of objective feel for what that many people are really thinking from direct observation. No wonder Merlin’s tended to get himself buried under the ‘data overload.'”

Her voice softened with the final sentence, and Cayleb nodded in agreement. He still didn’t fully understand how the “high-speed data interface” Merlin’s PICA body had once possessed had functioned, but he didn’t have to understand how it had worked to understand what it had done. Or to understand how bitterly Merlin regretted its loss. Having had personal experience now of the sheer quantity of imagery and audio recordings flooding in through Merlin’s planet-circling network of reconnaissance platforms, he only wished he had a “high-speed interface.”

Fortunately, they were making at least a little progress. And while Cayleb wasn’t positive, he suspected Owl was getting progressively better at sorting and prioritizing information. Whatever Owl was doing, though, the ability to assign specific portions of what Merlin called the “intel take” to someone besides just Merlin had helped enormously. There were limitations, of course. No one else had Merlin’s built in com equipment; they had to speak out loud, instead of sub-vocalizing, if they wanted to communicate with Owl (or anyone else), which severely limited where and when they could interact with the AI. And all of them were also creatures of flesh and blood, prey to all the weaknesses of the flesh — including the need for food and at least a reasonable amount of sleep.

For that matter, even Merlin had discovered the hard way that he did need at least the equivalent of rest if he was going to maintain his mental focus. More to the point, Cayleb had figured that out, as well, and ordered him to take the “downtime” he needed to stay fresh and alert.

Which, in fact, was precisely what he was doing at this very moment. Or he’d damned well better be, at any rate, because if Cayleb or Sharleyan caught him listening in when he was supposed to be “sleeping” — and Owl had been ordered to report him, if it happened — there’d be hell to pay.

“Well, in this case, Your Majesty, I think your impression is accurate,” Staynair told her. “As a matter of fact, I suppose I might as well go ahead and admit I was hugely relieved by my own observations here.”

“Here” wasn’t actually quite the correct word anymore, Sharleyan reflected. Dawn Wind had sailed from Eraystor Bay on the afternoon tide. At the moment, she was making her way — slowly, especially for someone who had experienced Merlin’s recon skimmer — out into the western half of Dolphin Reach, and she was no wyvern, able to ignore reefs, shoals, islands, currents, and unfavorable winds. If they were lucky, and if Dawn Wind managed — oh, unlikely event!– to avoid any major storms and made a relatively quick passage for this time of year, she would cover the seventy-three hundred sea miles to Cherayth in “only” about ten five-days.

Sharleyan hated — absolutely hated — having Staynair stuck aboard a ship for that long, yet she’d been forced to agree with him that it wasn’t really as if they had a lot of choice. It was essential for the ordained head of the Church of Charis to visit all of the new empire’s lands, and unlike the Church of God Awaiting, the Church of Charis had decreed from the outset that its bishops and archbishops would be permanent residents of their sees. Instead of making brief annual visits to the souls committed to their care, they would make one — and only one — visit to the Church of Charis’ annual convocation each year. The rest of their time would be spent at home, seeing to their own and their flocks’ spiritual needs, maintaining their focus on what truly mattered. And the Church’s annual convocation would be held in a different city every year, not allowed to settle permanently into a single location which would, inevitably, become an imperial city — the Charisian equivalent of the City of Zion — in its own right.

That meant the Archbishop of Charis would be traveling most years just as surely as any of his subordinate prelates. It would have been unthinkable for any Grand Vicar to make the same sort of journey and subject himself to all the wearying effort involved in it — or, for that matter, the inescapable perils of wind and weather inherent in such lengthy voyages — but that was fine with Maikel Staynair. The greater and more numerous the differences between the Church of Charis and the Church of God Awaiting, the better, for a lot of reasons, as far as he was concerned, and he was determined to establish the pattern firmly. Firmly enough that no empire-building successor of his would find the tradition easy to subvert.

His current tour was part of building that tradition. Yet it was more than that, too, for he was determined to personally visit every capital of every political unit of the Charisian Empire — and as many more of the major cities as he could manage, as well. As Wind Thunder had so grumpily pointed out before his departure for Emerald, it was a security nightmare, in many respects. God only knew how many Temple Loyalists would simply have loved to stick something sharp and pointy between the ribs of “Arch Heretic Staynair,” as the Loyalist broadsides had dubbed him, but the number had to be enormous. The attempt had already been made once, right in his own cathedral. Who knew what kind of opportunities might arise — or might be manufactured — in someone else’s cathedral? On the other hand, he was right. He had to establish that kind of personal contact with as much as possible of the new Church’s clergy if he expected that clergy to accept that he truly cared about its worries, its concerns, its agonizing crises of conscience, as it coped with the spiritual demands of schism.

And he does care, Sharleyan thought. He truly does. He understands what he’s asking of them. I don’t believe anyone not completely blinded by intolerance and hatred could fail to recognize that after five minutes in his presence, and that’s the exact reason he has to be doing this, however much what I really want to do is lock him up safe and sound inside Tellesberg Cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace.

“So you’re satisfied about Emerald, at least. Where the Church is concerned, I mean,” Cayleb said, and Staynair nodded.

“I don’t think Prince Nahrmahn’s Emeraldians have quite as much . . . fire in their bellies, let’s say, as we have back home in Tellesberg,” he said. “On the other hand, they weren’t the people the Group of Four intended to have raped and murdered, either. At the same time, though, I was deeply gratified by how clearly people in Emerald already recognized the fundamental corruption that let the Group of Four come to power in the first place. It’s become increasingly evident to me that many — indeed, I’m tempted to say most, if that’s not a case of letting my own optimism run away with me — of Emerald’s churchmen saw the Temple’s corruption long before Nahrmahn ever decided to swear fealty to the two of you, at any rate. And, believe me, those who did recognize it know they could have been Clyntahn’s next target, even they weren’t the first time around. In fact, I’m coming to the conclusion that we may discover a larger reformist movement and commitment than we’d initially anticipated in most places.”

“A reformist commitment,” Cayleb repeated, and Staynair nodded again, far more serenely than Sharleyan suspected she would have been able to in response to the same question.

“One step at a time, Cayleb,” the archbishop said calmly. “One step at a time. Merlin was right when he said God can creep in through the cracks whenever He decides to, but we’re going to have to let Him do this in His own good time, I think. First, let us correct the gross, obvious abuses. Once we have people in the habit of actually thinking about matters of doctrine and church policy it will be time to begin suggesting . . . more substantive changes.”

“He’s right, Cayleb,” Sharleyan said quietly. Cayleb looked at her, and she reached across to touch the side of his face. It was a conversation they’d had often enough, and she knew how bitterly it grated upon his sense of responsibility that he literally dared not rip away the mask, expose the full, noisome extent of the lies and perverted faith which were the entire foundation of the Church of God Awaiting. Not doing that was going to be the true supreme challenge of his life.

“I know he is, love,” Cayleb replied. “I don’t have to like it — and I won’t pretend I do — but I know he’s right.”

“In the meantime, I’m starting to think young Saithwyk might actually make a good candidate for the inner circle, in a year or two,” Staynair said.

“You’re joking!” Sharleyan realized she was sitting bolt upright in her chair, her eyes wide.

“I don’t know why you should think anything of the sort, Your Majesty.”

Staynair’s tone was imperturbability itself, although there was a slight twinkle in his eyes, and Sharleyan felt her own eyes narrowing. Fairmyn Saithwyk was the newly consecrated Archbishop of Emerald. Barely forty years old — less than thirty-seven in Terran Standard Years, in point of fact — he came from a conservative family, and his nomination had been firmly supported by Emerald’s House of Lords. That was scarcely the pedigree of a rebellious radical, she thought. Yet as she studied Staynair’s expression —

“You’re not joking,” she said slowly.

“No, I’m not.” He smiled gently at her. “You might want to remember that I’m the one with primary responsibility for evaluating Owl’s reports about the senior clergy,” he pointed out. “Given that, I don’t suppose it should be too surprising for me to have a somewhat different perspective. On the other hand, you should also remember who it was who nominated him in the first place.”

“Nahrmahn,” Cayleb said thoughtfully.

“Precisely, Your Grace.” Staynair bobbed his head in Cayleb’s direction in a half-bow. “You, of course, were never faced with the necessity of making a nomination, given my own fortuitous — and vastly qualified — presence right there in Tellesberg.”

Cayleb made an indelicate sound, and Staynair chuckled. But then his expression sobered.

“You didn’t have that luxury in Corisande, though, Cayleb. And Sharleyan didn’t have it in Chisholm. Or Nahrmahn in Emerald. Mind you, I’ve been quite satisfied with everything I’ve seen of Braynair. Both by the way he supported me and the Crown when Sharleyan organized the Imperial Parliament here in Tellesberg, and by the way he’s supported both of you — and me — there in Cherayth, since. And I think you’ve been quite satisfied with him, too.”

He held Cayleb’s eye until the emperor nodded, then shrugged.

“We take what God gives us, and we do the best with it that we can, Cayleb,” he said simply. “And in this case, I think He’s given us some sound timber to work with. Pawal Braynair is a good, solid, reliable man. He’s loyal to God and to Sharleyan, in that order, and however much he might have wished it weren’t so, he recognizes how corrupt the vicarate’s become. I’m sorry to say I don’t think he’ll ever be ready for the complete truth, any more than Rayjhis or Baron Green Mountain, but he’s just as good a man as they are.

“Yet I’m actually inclined to think Nahrmahn may have found an even greater treasure in Saithwyk.” The archbishop’s lips seemed to twitch for a moment, and he shook his head. “I’m not at all certain, mind you, but I rather had the impression he was probing to see just how . . . revolutionary, in a doctrinal sense, I was prepared to be. I don’t have any idea yet where it is he wants to go, although I’m sure I’ll get around to figuring it out soon enough. I’ll want a little longer to watch him in action, mind you, but I’m serious. I think that ultimately he may make a very good candidate for the inner circle. And let’s face it, the more senior churchmen we can recruit, the better.”

“Well, I doubt anyone could argue with that,” Sharleyan conceded. Then she shook herself and stood.

“And on that note, Archbishop Maikel, I’m going to call this conference to an end and drag my husband off to bed before he decides to break out the whiskey and stay up all night carousing with you long distance.”

“Carousing?” Cayleb repeated in injured tones. “I’ll have you know that one doesn’t ‘carouse’ with an archbishop!”

“I didn’t say he’d be the one doing the carousing, either,” she pointed out with a stern twinkle. “And while it’s barely the twentieth hour where he is, it’s well past twenty-fourth here. An empress in my delicate condition needs her sleep, and if I’m going to get any sleep, I need my hot water bottle. I mean, my beloved husband.” She grinned at him. “I can’t imagine how I came to . . . misspeak myself that way.”

“Oh, no?” Cayleb climbed out of his own chair, eyes laughing while both of them heard Staynair chuckling over the com. Sharleyan regarded him with bright-eyed innocence and shook her head.

“Absolutely,” she assured him. “I would never think of you in such a purely utilitarian and selfish terms! I can’t imagine how a phrase like that could have somehow slipped out that way!”

“Well, I can,” he told her ominously. “And I assure you, young lady — there’s going to be a penalty.”

“Really?” She cocked her head, then batted her eyes at him. “Oh, goody! Should I ask one of the guardsmen to find us the peach preserves? After all, it’s not going to be all that much longer before I start losing the athleticism to really enjoy them, you know.”

Cayleb made a strangled sound, his face turning a rather alarming shade of red as he fought his laughter, and she giggled delightedly, then looked at the archbishop and smiled sweetly.

“And on that note, Maikel, goodnight.”