A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 23

Archbishop’s Palace,
City of Manchyr,
Princedom of Corisande

“So, My Lord,” Archbishop Klairmant Gairlyng kept his tone rather lighter than he actually felt at this particular moment, “now that you’ve been here for a five-day, what do you think?”

“In what regard, Your Eminence?” Bishop Zherald Ahdymsyn responded blandly as the archbishop and his two guests stepped into Gairlyng’s study.

“Zherald . . .” Bishop Kaisi Mahkhynroh said, raising one chiding index finger, and Ahdymsyn chuckled. Then he looked back at Gairlyng.

“Forgive me, Your Eminence.” There was an edge of contrition in his voice. “I’m afraid my sense of humor sometimes betrays me into unbecoming levity. I think that’s at least partly a response to the fact that I used to take myself much too seriously. And, as the Writ says, God made Man to smile, as well as to weep.”

“That’s true enough, My Lord,” Gairlyng agreed. “And sometimes, laughter is the only way to avoid weeping, I think.” He walked around the desk to the comfortable swivel chair behind it, and a courteous sweep of his right hand indicated the even more comfortable armchairs facing it. “Please, My Lords. Make yourselves easy. May I offer you any refreshment?”

“Not for me, thank you, Your Eminence.” Ahdymsyn seated himself in one of the indicated chairs. “After we’ve finished our discussions here, I’m dining with Earl Anvil Rock and his son. I understand Earl Tartarian and at least one or two other members of the Regency Council will be joining us, as well.” He grimaced humorously. “As a bishop executor of Mother Church, I developed a remarkably hard head. Now, as a lowly bishop once more, and given to somewhat more abstemious habits, I don’t seem to have quite the capacity where alcohol is concerned before my jokes become a bit too loud and my judgment becomes somewhat less reliable than I think it is.” He frowned thoughtfully, rubbing one eyebrow. “Or that’s one possibility, at any rate. Another is that I never was quite as immune to its effects as I thought I was, but no one had the nerve to point it out to me.”

He smiled broadly, but then his expression sobered and he looked very levelly into Gairlyng’s eyes across the archbishop’s desk.

“Odd, isn’t it, how no one seems to want to challenge the judgment of Mother Church’s senior clergy?”

Silence hovered for a moment or two, and then Gairlyng looked up at the aide who had escorted him and his guests from Manchyr Cathedral to the Archbishop’s Palace.

“I think that will be all, Symyn,” he said. “If I need you, I’ll call.”

“Of course, Your Eminence.”

The dark-haired, dark-complexioned young under-priest’s brown cassock bore the Scepter of the Order of Langhorne, as did Gairlyng’s orange-trimmed white cassock, and there was a sort of familial resemblance about them, although the under-priest was obviously a nativeborn Corisandian. Had he been several years younger, or had Gairlyng been several years older, he might have been the archbishop’s son. As it was, Ahdymsyn was relatively certain it was simply a case of a young man modeling his own behavior and demeanor upon that of a superior whom he deeply respected.

And it would appear there’s quite a bit to respect about the Archbishop, Ahdymsyn thought. Rather more than there was to respect about me in the good old days, at any rate!

His lips twitched again, remembering certain conversations which had once passed between him and then-Bishop Maikel Staynair. It was, he reflected (for far from the first time), a very fortunate thing that Staynair’s sense of humor was as lively as his compassion was deep.

The door closed behind the departing aide, and Gairlyng returned his attention to his guests. He’d gotten to know Mahkhynroh surprisingly well over the past month or two. Or perhaps not surprisingly well, given how closely he’d been compelled to work with the other man since his own elevation to the primacy of Corisande and Mahkhynroh’s installation as the Bishop of Manchyr. He wouldn’t have gone quite so far as to describe the two of them as friends yet. “Colleagues” was undoubtedly a better term, at least this far. They shared a powerful sense of mutual respect, however, and he’d come to appreciate that Mahkhynroh had been chosen for his present position at least in part because he combined a truly formidable intellect with a deep faith and a remarkably deep well of empathy. Despite his installation by a “foreign, heretical, schismatic church,” he’d already demonstrated a powerful ability to listen to the priests — and laity — of his bishopric. Not simply to listen, but to convince them he was actually hearing what they said . . . and that he would not hold frank speaking against them. No one would ever accuse him of weakness or vacillation, but neither could any honest person accuse him of tyranny or intolerance.

Ahdymsyn, on the other hand, was so far a complete unknown. Gairlyng knew at least the bare bones of his official history, yet it was already obvious there were quite a lot of things that “official history” had left out. He knew Ahdymsyn had been Archbishop Erek Dynnys’ bishop executor in Charis before Dynnys’ fall from grace and eventual execution for heresy and treason. He knew Ahdymsyn came from a merely respectable Temple Lands family, with considerably fewer — and lower placed — connections than Gairlyng’s own family could boast. He knew Ahdymsyn, as bishop executor, had more than once reprimanded and disciplined Archbishop Maikel Staynair when Staynair had been simply the Bishop of Tellesberg, and that he had been imprisoned — or, at least, placed under “house arrest” — following the Kingdom of Charis’ decision to openly defy the Church of God Awaiting. And he knew that since that time, Ahdymsyn had become one of Staynair’s most trusted and valued “troubleshooters,” which explained his current presence in Corisande.

What Gairlyng did not know, and what it was becoming rapidly evident to him he’d been mistaken about, was how — and why — Zherald Ahdymsyn had made that transition. He thought about that for a few seconds, then decided forthrightness was probably the best policy.

“Forgive me, My Lord,” he said now, returning Ahdymsyn’s level regard, “but I’ve begun to suspect that my original assumptions about how you . . . come to hold your present position, shall we say, may have been somewhat in error.”

“Or, to put it another way,” Ahdymsyn said dryly, “your ‘original assumptions’ were that, having seen the way the wind was blowing in Charis, and realizing that, whatever defense I might present, the Grand Inquisitor and the Chancellor were unlikely to be overjoyed to see me again in the Temple or Zion, I decided to turn my coat — or would that be my cassock? — while the turning was good. Would that be about the size of it, Your Eminence?”

That, Gairlyng decided, was rather more forthrightness than he’d had in mind. Unfortunately . . .

“Well, yes, actually,” he confessed, reminding himself that however he’d become one, he was an archbishop while Ahdymsyn was merely a bishop. “As I say, I’ve begun to think I was wrong to believe that, but while I don’t believe I’d have phrased it quite that way, that was more or less my original assumption.”

“And, no doubt, exactly the way it was presented to you here in Corisande before the invasion,” Ahdymsyn suggested.

“Yes,” Gairlyng said slowly, his tone rather more thoughtful, and Ahdymsyn shrugged.

“I don’t doubt for a minute that the Group of Four’s presented things that way, whatever they truly think. But neither, in this case, do I doubt for a moment that that’s exactly what they think happened.” He grimaced once more. “Partly, I’m confident, because that’s precisely the way they would have been thinking under the same circumstances. But also, I’m very much afraid, because they’ve spoken with people who actually knew me. I hate to admit it, Your Eminence, but my own attitudes — the state of my own faith — at the time this all began ought to make that a very reasonable hypothesis for those who were well acquainted with me.”

“That’s a remarkably forthright admission, My Lord,” Gairlyng said quietly, his chair squeaking ever so softly as he leaned back in it. “One I doubt comes easily to someone who once sat as close to an archbishop’s chair as you did.”

“It comes more easily than you might think, Your Eminence,” Ahdymsyn replied. “I don’t say it was a pleasant truth to face when I first had to, you understand, but I’ve discovered the truth is the truth. We can hide from it, and we can deny it, but we can’t change it, and I’ve spent at least two thirds of my allotted span here on Safehold ignoring it. That doesn’t give me a great deal of time to work on balancing the ledger before I’m called to render my accounts before God. Under the circumstances, I don’t think I should waste any of it in pointless evasions.”

“I see,” Gairlyng said. And I’m beginning to think I see why Staynair trusted you enough to send you here in his name, the archbishop added silently. “But since you’ve been so frank, My Lord, may I ask what actually led you to ‘face the truth,’ as you put it, in the first place?”

“Quite a few things,” Ahdymsyn replied, sitting back in his own chair and crossing his legs. “One of them, to be honest, was the fact that I realized what sort of punishment I would face if I ever did return to the Temple Lands. Trust me, that was enough to give anyone pause . . . even before that butcher Clyntahn had Archbishop Erek tortured to death.” The ex-bishop executor’s face tightened for a moment. “I doubt any of us senior members of the priesthood ever actually gave much thought to having the Penalty of Schueler levied against us. That was a threat — a club — to hold over the heads of the laity in order to frighten them into doing God’s will. Which of course, had been revealed to us with perfect clarity.”

Ahdymsyn’s biting tone could have chewed chunks out of the marble façade of Gairlyng’s palace, and his eyes were hard.

“So I hadn’t actually anticipated that I might be tortured to death on the very steps of the Temple,” he continued. “I’d accepted that my fate was going to be unpleasant, you understand, but it never crossed my mind to fear that. So I’d expected, at least initially, that I’d be incarcerated somewhere in Charis, probably until the legitimate forces of Mother Church managed to liberate me, at which point I would be disciplined and sent to rusticate in disgrace, milking goats and making cheese in some obscure monastic community up in the Mountains of Light. Trust me, at the time I expected that to be more than sufficient punishment for someone of my own exquisite epicurean tastes.”

He paused and looked down, and his eyes softened briefly, as if at some memory, as he stroked one sleeve of his remarkably plain cassock. Then he looked back up at Gairlyng, and the softness had vanished.

“But then we learned in Tellesberg what had happened to the Archbishop,” he said flatly. “More than that, I received a letter from him — one he managed to have smuggled out before his execution.” Gairlyng’s eyes widened, and Ahdymsyn nodded. “It was written on a blank page he’d taken from a copy of the Holy Writ, Your Eminence,” he said softly. “I found that remarkably symbolic, under the circumstances. And in it, he told me his arrest — his trial and his conviction — had brought him face-to-face with the truth . . . and that he hadn’t liked what he’d seen. It was a brief letter. He had only the single sheet of paper, and I think he was writing in haste, lest one of his guards surprise him at the task. But he told me — ordered me, as my ecclesiastic superior — not to return to Zion. He told me what his own sentence had been, and what mine would undoubtedly be if I fell into Clyntahn’s hands. And he told me Clyntahn’s inquisitors had promised him an easy death if he would condemn Staynair and the rest of the ‘Church of Charis” hierarchy for apostasy and heresy. If he would confirm the Group of Four’s version of the reason they’d chosen to lay waste to an innocent kingdom. But he refused to do that. I’m sure you’ve heard what he actually said, and I’m sure you’ve wondered if what you heard was the truth or some lie created by Charisian propagandists.” He smiled without any humor at all. “It would certainly have occurred to me to wonder about that, after all. But I assure you, it was no lie. From the very scaffold on which he was to die, he rejected the lies the Group of Four had demanded of him. He rejected the easy death they’d promised him because that truth he’d finally faced was more important to him, there at the very end of his life, than anything else.”

It was very quiet in Gairlyng’s study. The slow, measured ticking of the clock on one of the archbishop’s bookcases was almost thunderous in the stillness. Ahdymsyn let that silence linger for several moments, then shrugged.

“Your Eminence, I knew the reality of the highest levels of Mother Church’s hierarchy . . . just as I’m sure you’ve known them. I knew why Clyntahn had the Archbishop sentenced, why for the first time ever the Penalty of Schueler was applied to a senior member of the episcopate. And I knew that, whatever his faults — and Langhorne knows they were almost as legion as my own! — Erek Dynnys did not deserve to die that sort of death simply as a way for a hopelessly corrupt vicarate to prop up its own authority. I looked around me in Charis, and I saw men and women who believed in God, not in the corrupt power and ambition of men like Zhaspahr Clyntahn, and when I saw that, I saw something I wanted to be. I saw something that convinced me that, even at that late a date, I — even I — might have a true vocation. Langhorne knows, it took God a while to find a hammer big enough to pound that possibility through a skull as thick as mine, but He’d managed it in the end. And, in my own possibly long-winded way, that’s the answer to your question. It’s not the answer to all of my questions — not yet — I’m afraid, but it’s something just as important. It’s the start of all my questions, and I’ve discovered that, unlike the days when I was Mother Church’s consecrated vice regent for Charis, with all the pomp and power of that office, I’m eager to find answers to those questions.”

Ahdymsyn drew a deep breath, then he shrugged.

“I’m no longer a bishop executor, Your Eminence. The Church of Charis doesn’t have those, but even if it did, I wouldn’t be one again. Assuming anyone would trust me to be one after the outstanding job I did last time around!”

It was no smile, this time. It was a broad, flashing grin, well suited to any youngster explaining that fairies had just emptied the cookie jar. Then it faded again, but now the eyes were no longer hard, the voice no longer burdened with memories of anger and guilt. He looked at Gairlyng from a face of hard-won serenity, and his voice was equally serene.

“I’m something far more important than a ‘bishop executor,’ now, Your Eminence. I’m a priest. Perhaps for the first time in my entire life, really, I’m a priest.” He shook his head. “Frankly, that would be far too hard an act for any high episcopal office to follow.”

Gairlyng gazed back at him for a long, thoughtful moment, then looked at Mahkhynroh. None of that had been the answer he’d expected out of Zherald Ahdymsyn, yet somehow it never occurred to him for a moment to doubt the other man’s sincerity.