A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 40

“Well, I hope Coris is as smart as I’ve always heard he is,” Hauwerd said after a moment. “That boy — and his sister — are going to need every edge they can find if they’re going to survive.”

This time, Samyl only nodded, his eyes softening briefly with affection. So like his brother, he thought, to be worrying about a little boy and a teenaged girl he’d never even met. That was the Temple Guardsman in him, the pugnacious, protective streak which had driven him to serve God first with a sword, and only later with his heart and mind. He was glad Hauwerd already knew how deeply he loved him, that neither of them had to say it at this time, in this place.

“And on that note,” Hauwerd said, glancing at the clock on the wall — the clock which, like every other clock in the Temple, always kept perfect, precisely synchronized time — and then climbing out of his chair, “I’m afraid I have to be going. I’ve got a couple of errands I need to take care of tonight.”

“Anything I can help with?” Samyl asked, and Hauwerd snorted yet again, this time much more gently.

“You may not believe this, Samyl, but I’ve been buttoning my own shirt and tying my own shoes for, oh, years now.”

“Point taken.” Samyl chuckled softly. “And I know you have. So go see to your errands. Supper tomorrow night at your place?”

“It’s a date,” Hauwerd said, then nodded to his brother and left.

* * * * * * * * * *


The sneeze seemed to have taken the top right off of Vicar Rhobair Duchairn’s head. Not even the Temple’s sacred, always comfortable precincts seemed capable of defeating the common cold. This was the third cold Duchairn had already entertained this winter, and this one looked like being worse than either of its predecessors.

He paused long enough to get out his handkerchief and blow his nose — taking the opportunity to recover from the sneeze at the same time — then resumed his progress along the corridor. He was already late for the scheduled meeting, although timing wasn’t actually all that critical. He was the Church of God Awaiting’s Treasurer, after all.

The people waiting for him all reported to him, and it wasn’t as if they could start things without him. And it wasn’t as if he were really looking forward to the conference, for that matter. The Treasury had been hemorrhaging money ever since the Kingdom of Charis smashed the initial attack upon it, and he didn’t see that situation getting better any time soon. Especially not with the blow the Church’s cash flow had taken. Not only had the Kingdoms of Charis and Chisholm and the Princedoms of Emerald and Corisande — not to mention the Grand Duchy of Zebediah — abruptly stopped paying their tithes (which, in Charis’ case, had been very large tithes), but Charis’ relentless destruction of its enemies’ commerce had dealt severe damage to the economies of those enemies. And as their economies slowed, so did their ability to generate tithes. According to Duchairn’s latest estimates, the cash flow from the mainland kingdoms’ annual tithes had dropped by somewhere around ten percent . . . and total tithes, including those which should have been coming in from the lands now in rebellion against Mother Church, had fallen by over a third. It was fortunate the Church had so many other lucrative sources of income, but there was a limit to how much slack could be squeezed out of those other sources. For the first time in mortal memory, the Church of God Awaiting was spending money faster than it was taking money in, and that sort of thing couldn’t be sustained forever.

Which, unfortunately, certain of his colleagues seemed to find it difficult to grasp.

His expression darkened as he thought about those other colleagues. Neither Trynair nor Clyntahn had mentioned to him that they intended to “interview” the Earl of Coris this morning. He was fairly confident he had sources neither of those two suspected he possessed, but he wasn’t going to risk revealing those sources’ existence by challenging his “colleagues” on something he wasn’t supposed to know anything about. He doubted either of them would have been prepared to make an issue out of it if he’d suddenly turned up for their “interview,” yet he was quite positive they’d deliberately timed things so it just happened to fall opposite his already-scheduled Treasury meeting. Both of them, each for his own reasons, would have found Duchairn’s presence for the discussion they had in mind decidedly unwelcome.

And that, unfortunately, neatly underscored the differences between him and them . . . and the dangers yawning about him because of those differences.

He paused, looking out the windows which formed one entire side of the hallway. The snow had stopped shortly after dawn, and brilliant sunlight sparkled and bounced from the new, deeper layers of trackless white which had blanketed the Temple’s grounds. The mystic, unbreakable, perfectly insulated crystal of the windows muted the snow glare, however, and the icy vista’s pristine purity made him acutely aware of the warm air moving gently about him.

And made him think about all the people outside the Temple, especially the city of Zion’s many poor, who were anything but warm and comfortable this freezing cold morning, as well. That was yet another thought he was unprepared to share with his erstwhile colleagues in the Group of Four. Not because they didn’t already realize it would have occurred to him, but because it would have done no good and might do quite a lot of harm.

Zahmsyn Trynair would simply have looked at him with a certain impatient incomprehension. If the Church of God Awaiting’s Chancellor ever thought of Zion’s poor at all, it was undoubtedly to remember the passage from The Book of Langhorne in which the Archangel had warned that they would have the poor with them always. If that had been good enough for Langhorne, it was good enough for Trynair.

Allayn Maigwair, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t even notice that Duchairn had mentioned them. These days, especially, all of the Church’s captain general’s thoughts and efforts were fully concentrated on building up the fleet needed to crush the upstart Empire of Charis once and for all. The fact that he’d started out building the wrong fleet, and that Duchairn’s Treasury had disbursed a staggering sum to pay for hundreds of galleys which were effectively useless, lent a certain emphasis to his concentration, no doubt. Of course, Maigwair had never been overburdened with intellect in the first place. Concentrating the entire, scant sore of it he possessed shouldn’t require all that great an effort. He should have been able to spare at least a little thought for the men and women and children — especially the children — for whom every vicar was supposed to be responsible.

And then there was Clyntahn. The Grand Inquisitor. The one member of the Group of Four who would have regarded Duchairn’s concern over the poor with neither incomprehension nor indifference. Duchairn sometimes wished he himself had felt called to the Order of Bédard instead of the Order of Chihiro. He was pretty sure any Bédardist who wasn’t terrified of the Grand Inquisitor would have unhesitatingly diagnosed him as a paranoiac, and one whose paranoia was growing steadily deeper, as well. Of course, finding any Bédardist who was insane enough not to be terrified of Clyntahn would probably have been an impossible task. Still, Duchairn would have liked to have something besides his own layman’s opinion — where matters of the mind were concerned, at least — to go on.

Not that it mattered a great deal. He didn’t need a formal diagnosis to know Clyntahn would have taken any comment about the Writ’s injunction to care for the poor and the least fortunate of God’s children as a criticism of the Church’s record in that regard. As a matter of fact, he would have been perfectly correct if he’d done so, too, Duchairn admitted. But at this particular moment, when Zhaspahr Clyntahn had divided the entire world into just three categories — those who were his allies, those who had an at least fleeting value as tools, and those who must be exterminated without mercy — suggesting that any aspect of the Church’s stewardship might be found wanting was dangerous.

Duchairn had discovered there were times when he really didn’t care about that. When his anger, his outrage, the pain stemming from his re-found faith’s recognition of his own blood guilt, actually drove him to seek confrontation with Clyntahn. When he found himself almost yearning for destruction, even martyrdom, with all that would entail, as some sort of expiation for his own life. For his own acceptance of the vicarate’s corruption. His own lifelong eagerness to profit by that corruption. For the fact that he’d stood there and not simply accepted Clyntahn’s proposal to destroy the Kingdom of Charis utterly but actually acquiesced in it. Helped to arrange it.

Duchairn made himself resume his progress towards his waiting underlings, but his eyes were as bleak as the snow beyond the hallway’s windows as he once more admitted his guilt to himself. He wouldn’t pretend he wasn’t terrified of what Clyntahn would have done to him if it had come to an open confrontation. That he didn’t know precisely how savage an example Clyntahn would make of any member of the Group of Four who seemed to have turned against him. Yet it wasn’t that fear which drove him to bite his tongue, keep his furious denunciation of Clyntahn’s vileness lodged behind his clenched teeth. No, it was quite a different fear that kept him silent: the fear that if he allowed himself to be too easily destroyed he would commit the still more grievous sin of dying without at least trying to undo the terrible, terrible damage he had helped to unleash upon God’s own world.

Not that I’ve figured out how to go about undoing any of it yet, he admitted desolately. Maybe that’s part of my penance? Is it part of my punishment to be forced to watch things getting worse and worse without seeing any way to make them better again? But the Writ says God will always find a way, whether man can or not. So maybe what He really wants me to do is to stop trying so hard, stop being so arrogant as to think I can somehow fix a disaster on a worldwide scale. Maybe He wants me to finally accept that I need to let Him show me what to do, and then —

Rhobair Duchairn’s thoughts were abruptly interrupted as he walked full tilt into a wall someone had inconsiderately left in the exact center of the hallway.

That was what it felt like, at any rate, although the wall’s sudden “Oof!” suggested it might not actually have been the solid granite obstruction it appeared to be.

He staggered backward, almost falling. In fact, he would have fallen if someone’s hands hadn’t caught him by the upper arms and held him upright. He shook his head, cold-clogged ears ringing, and his eyes widened as they refocused on the face of the man he’d run into.

Duchairn was not a short man, but neither was he a giant. In fact, he’d always been on the slender side, and his had been a decidedly sedentary life for the last twenty or thirty years. The man with whom he’d just collided was half a head taller than he, broad-shouldered and powerfully built, and he’d obviously spent the last several years of his own life exercising to maintain the physical toughness he’d enjoyed as a senior officer of the Temple Guard. He must outweigh Duchairn by a good forty or fifty pounds, and very little of that weight advantage was fat.

And he also happened to be named Hauwerd Wylsynn.

Duchairn found himself temporarily paralyzed, staring into eyes of Wylsynn gray. They were hard, those eyes, with polished, quartz-like purpose. The eyes of a man who, unlike Rhobair Duchairn, had never compromised with the Temple’s corruption. Of a man who had every reason to fear Zhaspahr Clyntahn . . . and no reason at all to fear God.

“You want to be a bit more careful, Rhobair,” Wylsynn said, setting him fully back on his feet before he released his grip on Duchairn’s arms. He patted the smaller man almost gently, as if to be certain there was no breakage, and his smile was thin. “You might do yourself a mischief running into people like that. Life’s too short to take that sort of chance, don’t you think?”

Wylsynn cocked his head slightly with the question, and Duchairn felt an icicle run through his veins. There was something about Wylsynn’s tone, something about the glitter of those hard eyes.

He knows, Duchairn thought. He knows I warned his brother. And, God help me, he knows Clyntahn is going to kill both of them. And that I don’t have the courage to try to stop him.

The Church’s Treasurer felt his mouth open without having the least notion of what was going to come out of it, but then Wylsynn shook his head. It was a quick gesture, one that stopped whatever Duchairn might have been about to say cold.

“Of course it is,” the doomed man said. “Too short, I mean. There are too many things we all need to do to just throw away the time to do them in. Doesn’t the Writ say God sets the course for every man to run?”

“Yes,” Duchairn heard himself say. “Yes, it does.”

“Well, then I don’t imagine He’s through with any of us until we’ve finished running it. So be more careful.” He actually smiled faintly, wagging an index finger under Duchairn’s nose. “Watch where you’re walking, or else you won’t have time to do all the running God has in mind for you.”

It took every ounce of Duchairn’s self-control to clamp his mouth on what he wanted to say. He looked into those gray eyes, and he didn’t really trust himself to speak at all when he realized what was truly looking back at him out of them. Wylsynn only smiled at him again, gently this time, and gave him another pat, then turned and walked away.

* * * * * * * * * *

“The Earl of Coris, Your Holiness,” the upper-priest said, as he bowed Phylyp Ahzgood into the small, private meeting chamber.

It wasn’t very much of a bow, Coris reflected. Then again, the upper-priest was assigned to the Chancellor’s office. He probably saw dukes by the dozen and earls by the score, and God only knew how many bevies of mere barons he might encounter every year. Not to mention the fact that most of the dukes and earls who crossed his path weren’t dispossessed exiles living on someone else’s charity.

“So I see,” a voice replied. “Come in, My Lord.”

Coris obeyed the summons and found himself facing a tallish, lean man with an angular face, a closely trimmed beard, and deep, intelligent eyes. He wore the orange cassock of a vicar, and he matched the description of Vicar Zahmsyn Trynair quite well.

Trynair extended his hand, and Coris bent to kiss the sapphire ring, then straightened.

“Your Holiness,” he acknowledged.

“We appreciate the promptness with which you’ve responded to our summons, My Lord, especially at this time of the year,” Trynair said. His smile never touched his eyes. “Would that that all of Mother Church’s sons were so mindful of their duty to her.”

“I won’t pretend it wasn’t an arduous journey, Your Holiness.” Coris allowed himself a slight, wry smile of his own. “But as a boy, I was always taught that when Mother Church calls, her sons answer. And it was also interesting, especially the voyage across Lake Pei, while the opportunity to finally visit the Temple is an added blessing.”


The single, perfunctory word came not from Trynair, but from the shorter, portly, silver-haired, heavy-jowled vicar who hadn’t bothered to rise when Coris entered. There was no doubt about his identity, either, the earl thought, although he was just a bit surprised to realize Zhaspahr Clyntahn matched the descriptions he’d received so completely. Right down to the spots spilled food had left on his cassock.