A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 41

There ought to be a rule that real villains aren’t allowed to look like stereotypical villains, Coris thought, and felt a tiny shiver run through him as he realized how he’d just allowed himself to describe Clyntahn. It wasn’t really a surprise; he’d been headed in that direction for years, after all. Yet there was an odd sense of commitment to the moment, as if he’d crossed some irrevocable bridge, even if he was the only one who realized he had.

And you’d damned well better make sure you stay the only one who realizes you have, Phylyp! he told himself.

From Clyntahn’s expression, he didn’t much care what might be going through Coris’ mind at the moment. Nor did he appear to feel tempted to expend any courtesy on their visitor. Where Trynair’s eyes held the cool dispassion of a chess master, Clyntahn’s glowed with the fervor of a zealot. A fervor which confirmed Coris’ long-standing opinion that Clyntahn was, by far, the more dangerous of the two.

“Please be seated, My Lord,” Trynair invited, indicating the single chair on Coris’ side of the meeting room table.

It was the simplest chair Coris had yet seen the inside the Temple — a straight-backed, apparently unpadded, utilitarian piece of furniture. It was certainly a far cry from the throne-like chairs in which Trynair and Clyntahn were ensconced, yet when he settled onto it, he almost jumped back to his feet in astonishment as what had appeared to be a simple wooden surface seemed to shift under him. It moved — flowed — and he couldn’t keep his eyes from widening as the chair shaped itself perfectly to the configuration of his body.

He looked up to see Trynair regarding him speculatively, and made himself smile at the Chancellor. It was an expression which blended an admission of surprise with a sizable dollop of boyish enjoyment, and Trynair allowed himself the small chuckle of a host who has successfully surprised a guest.

Clyntahn — predictably, probably — seemed completely oblivious to the small moment, Coris noted.

Best not to assume anything of the sort, Phylyp, he told himself. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Clyntahn’s long since figured out just how useful it can be to have potential opponents underestimate one’s powers of observation. The only thing in the world more dangerous than a fool, especially when it comes to the “great game,” is a smart man you’ve assumed is stupid. Nahrmahn should certainly have taught you that much!

“Well,” Trynair began briskly after a moment, “now that you’re here, My Lord, I suppose we ought to get right down to business. As you know, I have, as Mother Church’s Chancellor, and acting on Grand Vicar Erek’s specific instructions, formally recognized young Prince Daivyn as the rightful ruler of Corisande. Given his tender years, it struck us as unnecessary to bring him all the way to the Temple to discuss his future with him. You, on the other hand, are his legal guardian. Since we do not — and never will — recognize that travesty of a ‘Regency Council’ Cayleb and Sharleyan have foisted upon God, we also regard you as the closest thing Daivyn has at this time to a true regent.”

He paused, as if inviting comment, but Coris wasn’t about to rush into that particular snare. He contented himself with a slow nod of understanding and an attentive expression, instead.

“In light of the circumstances,” the Chancellor resumed a few seconds later, “we think it’s essential to . . . regularize Daivyn’s position. While he would appear to be safe enough for the moment under the protection of King Zhames, especially given the fact Delferahk is already at war with the apostates, there are certain aspects of his situation which we feel require formal clarification.”

He paused once more, and this time it was obvious he intended to stay paused until Coris responded.

“‘Formal clarification,’ Your Holiness?” the earl obediently repeated. “May I ask what sort of clarification?”

“Oh, come now, My Lord!” Clyntahn entered the discussion, waving one hand in a dismissive gesture. “You were Prince Hektor’s spymaster. You know how the game is played, if anyone does!”

“Your Holiness,” Coris replied, choosing his words more carefully than he’d ever chosen words in his life before, “you’re right. I was Prince Hektor’s spymaster. But, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, my perspective from a single princedom that far from the Temple couldn’t possibly be the same as your perspective from right here, at the heart of all of Mother Church’s concerns and at the focus of all of the avenues of information Mother Church possesses. I’ll admit I’ve spent a lot of time trying to analyze the information I do have in an effort to anticipate what it is you and the Chancellor have called me here to explain. I’m not foolish enough, however, to assume for a moment that I have enough information to make any sort of truly informed deductions. I can think of several aspects of Prince Daivyn’s current situation which might require ‘clarification,’ but without a better understanding of precisely how Prince Daivyn — and I, of course — can best serve Mother Church, I truly don’t know how you and Vicar Zahmsyn may wish to proceed.”

Trynair’s eyes had flickered with what might have been irritation when Clyntahn spoke up. Now the Chancellor sat back in his own chair, folding his hands together on the table before him, his expression thoughtful. Clyntahn, on the other hand, gave Coris an oddly triumphant little smile, as if the earl’s response had passed some sort of test.

“We’re naturally relieved to learn you’ve been thinking about how best Daivyn — and you yourself — can serve Mother Church,” the Grand Inquisitor said, and the emphasis on the word “you” was as unmistakable as the glow in his eyes. “I feel confident we’ll be able to rely as fully upon your intelligence and diligence as Prince Hektor ever did.”

“And we’d damned well better be able to,” eh, Your Holiness? Is that it? Coris thought trenchantly. However intelligent Clyntahn might actually be, he was dangerously transparent in at least some ways. Of course, when a man controlled all the levers of power that came together in the office of the Grand Inquisitor, he could probably afford a certain degree of transparency, at least when it suited his own purposes to come straight to the point.

“I’ll certainly do my very best to justify your confidence, Your Holiness,” he said out loud.

“Then I hope you’ll understand that what I’m about to say reflects no lack of confidence in you personally, My Lord,” Trynair said. Coris looked back at him, and the Chancellor shrugged very slightly. “Under the circumstances, the Grand Vicar deems it best to formally vest authority as Prince Daivyn’s regent in the vicarate, rather than in any secular noble. His father was martyred by the champions of apostasy and impious heresy. The Grand Vicar believes it is incumbent upon Mother Church to openly — and expressly — extend her protection to Prince Hektor’s heir.”

“Of course, Your Holiness,” Coris replied.

He was confident Trynair would assume — accurately — that he recognized that business about Grand Vicar Erek as pure fiction. Trynair had hand-selected the current Grand Vicar from a short list of suitable puppets years ago, and if Erek had ever cherished a single independent thought since assuming the Grand Vicar’s throne, that thought had undoubtedly perished of loneliness long since.

“In many ways,” Trynair continued, “that change will represent little more than a technicality. As I suggested earlier, there’s no need to further destabilize young Daivyn’s life at this time. Better to leave him where he is, under the care of someone he trusts and knows is looking out for his best interests.”

Especially if the someone he trusts is looking out for the interests of the Church– or of the Group of Four, at least — instead, Coris thought.

“And, to be frank, My Lord,” Clyntahn said, “we’re of the opinion that it won’t hurt a bit to have a man with your particular set of skills and experiences watching over him.” Coris looked at him, and the Grand Inquisitor shrugged his beefy shoulders. “After all, Cayleb’s already murdered the boy’s father. There’s no telling when someone like him — or that bitch Sharleyan — might decide the time’s come to make a clean sweep of the entire House of Daykyn. I understand they’re confronting considerable popular unrest in Corisande. They might just come to the conclusion that it would be a good idea to remove young Daivyn as a potential focus for the more restive elements of the princedom’s population.”

“I see, Your Holiness.” Coris prayed that the icicle which had just danced down his spine wasn’t apparent to either of the vicars. “Obviously, I discussed Prince Daivyn’s security with King Zhames before I left Talkyra. As you say, I don’t think we could be too careful where his safety is concerned. And I assure you that once I return to Delferahk, I’ll exercise personal oversight of his security arrangements.”

“Good!” Clyntahn smiled broadly. “I feel confident our decision to rely upon you and your judgment will prove well placed, My Lord.”

“As do I,” Trynair seconded. “In the meantime, however, we have several other points to discuss,” the Chancellor went on. “I’m sure it will take us several sessions to cover all of them, and you will, of course, remain the Temple’s honored guest until we’ve completed them. For the moment, what we’d really like to do, though, is to pick your brain a little bit. Obviously, we’ve had many reports about the situation in Corisande and the attitude of the Corisandian people, but you’re a Corisandian yourself. And one who was extremely well placed to see the consequences of Cayleb’s invasion from Corisande’s viewpoint. No doubt there have been many changes since your own departure from the Princedom, but you still represent a priceless resource from our perspective. There are many points on which we would greatly appreciate hearing anything you can tell us. For example, which of Prince Hektor’s — I mean Prince Daivyn’s, now — nobles do you think would be most likely to organize effective resistance against the Charisian occupation?”

Well, I can see this is going to take some time, Coris thought dryly. Still, best to be careful about how we proceed, especially when we don’t know how much information they’ve already got.

“That’s a complicated question, Your Holiness,” he began. “I can think of at least a dozen of Prince Hektor’s closer allies among the Corisandian Lords who are almost certainly thinking in those directions. Without a better feel than I have at this time — please do recall that I’ve been traveling for the better part of four months, which has prevented me from setting up any sort of proper network — I would suspect those farther from Manchyr would be in a better position to act upon such thoughts, however.

“Bearing that in mind, I’d be inclined to think the Earl of Storm Keep and the Earl of Craggy Hill have probably already begun to take steps along exactly those lines. None of them are going to feel particularly well disposed towards Cayleb and Sharleyan, and all of them are located well up to the north, out of easy reach from the capital.

“Moving back to the south, and west,” he continued, “I wouldn’t be dreadfully surprised to find Earl Black Water — that would be Sir Adulfo, the new Earl — is headed in the same direction. For that matter, the Duke of Barcair is probably similarly inclined, and –”

* * * * * * * * * *

“So, Master Seablanket. I see you’ve succeeded admirably in your assignment once again.”

“I’ve certainly attempted to, Your Eminence.”

Rhobair Seablanket bowed over Archbishop Wyllym Rayno’s hand, kissing the proffered ring, then straightened. His expression was politely attentive, waiting for Rayno’s questions to begin, and the archbishop smiled very slightly.

Rayno was short, dark, and slender. As always, he wore the habit of a simple monk in the Order of Schueler’s dark purple. But that habit bore the flame-crowned sword of the Schuelerite Adjutant General, which made him Vicar Zhaspahr Clyntahn’s second-in-command and a very dangerous man, indeed. He was always a bit amused by the way the Inquisition’s various agents reacted to him. More to the point, he’d learned over the years that those reactions offered a valuable yardstick for evaluating an agent’s capabilities. Take Seablanket, for example. No one who’d risen as high in the Inquisition’s service as he had was going to be foolish enough to take the adjutant general lightly, nor could he be unaware of the potential consequences of disappointing him, yet the Corisandian’s eyes met Rayno’s levelly, and his composure appeared genuine.

Maybe he really is as calm as he looks, the archbishop thought. And maybe he isn’t. I wonder which it is? If he’s really that comfortable meeting me for a face-to-face interview for the very first time, he could be more foolish than I’d expected. No one’s conscience is so clear that they shouldn’t feel at least a little anxiety under these circumstances. On the other hand, if he’s able to appear this comfortable under those same circumstances, then his ability to dissemble is even greater than his file indicates. And in that case, I’m sure I can find profitable employment for an agent of his caliber elsewhere once he’s no longer needed to keep an eye on Coris.

“I’ve read your reports,” Rayno continued out loud. “I must say that, compared to some of the accounts which cross my desk, yours have been clear, concise, and comprehensive. And the grammar’s actually been correct!”

His whimsical smile didn’t touch his eyes, and Seablanket managed to restrain any unseemly temptation to laughter.

“From those reports,” Rayno continued, “it would appear Earl Coris is both aware of the political realities of Prince Daivyn’s position and also . . . pragmatic enough, shall we say, to be aware of how those realities might impinge upon his own future. At the same time, he seems to be even more competent than I’d anticipated. I suppose I really shouldn’t be too terribly surprised by that, given how long he held his position under Prince Hektor. However, I have several specific questions I’d like to address, and I’ve discovered over the years that even the best written reports are sometimes . . . incomplete.”

Seablanket stirred slightly, and Rayno raised his right hand in a gentle, fluttering gesture.

“I’m not suggesting anything was intentionally omitted, Master Seablanket. I have seen that happen on occasion, of course,” he smiled again, thinly, “but what I really meant was that written reports are no substitute for oral reports in which questions can be asked, individual points can be more fully explained, and I can be certain I’ve actually understood what you meant to say the first time.”

He paused, head cocked slightly, expression expectant, and Seablanket nodded.

“I take your meaning, Your Eminence. And, obviously, if you have any questions or any points you’d like more thoroughly gone into, I’m at your service. I would, though, point out that the Earl will be expecting to find me in his chambers when he returns from his interview with Vicar Zahmsyn and Vicar Zhaspahr.”

“An excellent point to bear in mind,” Rayno agreed. “On the other hand, the Chancellor and the Grand Inquisitor are going to be picking his brain about Corisande’s internal politics for quite some time. I estimate that the process will take at least two or three hours, and to be frank, Master Seablanket, as important as this is in many ways, I’m afraid I don’t have two or three hours to devote to it this morning.”

“Of course, Your Eminence,” Seablanket murmured with a small bow.

Rayno nodded, satisfied the Corisandian had taken the point. It never hurt to encourage brevity and concision in an agent’s report.

“In that case, Master Seablanket, let us begin.” Rayno settled into the comfortable chair behind his desk without offering Seablanket a seat. He tipped back, resting his elbows on the chair arms, and steepled his fingers across his chest. “First,” he said, “your reports indicate Prince Daivyn seems to trust Coris implicitly. Would you care to expand briefly on why you think that?”