Since this book should be available now in hardcover, this will be the last snippet.

A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 42

“Your Eminence, the Prince is a very little boy at the moment,” Seablanket responded without hesitation. “He knows his father is dead and that his own life would be in danger if Charisian assassins could reach him.”

The agent’s eyes met Rayno’s again, and the archbishop’s respect for the other man inched up another notch. Obviously, Seablanket had his own suspicions about who’d actually been behind Hektor’s assassination. Equally obviously, he had no intention of ever voicing those suspicions aloud. Yet he was also smart enough to know what Rayno was truly interested in discovering.

“Under those circumstances, and given the fact that he’s known the Earl for his entire life — not to mention the fact that he knows his father specifically named the Earl as his legal guardian — it’s hardly surprising Daivyn should trust the man. And, frankly, the Earl’s done everything he could to encourage that trust.” Seablanket smiled ever so slightly. “He was Prince Hektor’s spymaster for years, Your Eminence. Convincing a little boy to view him as his best friend, as well as his protector, is child’s play after something like that.”

“So it’s your opinion Coris is deliberately encouraging the boy’s dependency on him?”

“I wouldn’t actually put it precisely that way, Your Eminence.” Seablanket pursed his lips slightly, eyes narrowed in thought as he searched for exactly the words he wanted.

“He doesn’t have to encourage the Prince’s dependency on him,” the agent went on after a moment. “It’s already clear to everyone, including Daivyn and Princess Irys, that both of them are completely dependent on him. King Zhames may be their official protector, but to be perfectly honest, I doubt His Majesty is even half as smart as Earl Coris.” Seablanket shrugged. “It’s only a matter of time before the Earl has the entire court at Talkyra dancing to his tune, whoever may officially be in charge. So it’s not so much a case of his encouraging Daivyn’s dependency as much as it is encouraging Daivyn’s trust. Of getting the boy to regard him as not simply his primary advisor but as his only advisor. I’m sure at least some of it is for the Prince’s own good,” Seablanket smiled piously, “but the upshot is that when the time comes for the Earl to ‘recommend’ a course of action to Prince Daivyn, the boy isn’t going to hesitate for a moment. And he’s going to take the Earl’s advice regardless of what anyone else, even his sister, might have to say about it.”

“So you believe Coris is going to be in a position to control the boy?”

“I believe he’ll be in a position to control the boy’s decisions, Your Eminence. At the moment, King Zhames controls the boy’s physical security.” Seablanket met the archbishop’s eye again. “If His Majesty should decide for some reason that it might be . . . advantageous for Prince Daivyn to fall into someone else’s hands, I doubt the Earl would be in a position to prevent it.”

“And do you believe there is some danger of King Zhames making such a decision?” Rayno’s eyes had narrowed, and Seablanket shrugged.

“Your Eminence, I’m not in King Zhames’ service, and my insight where he’s concerned is far more limited than anything I might be able to tell you about the Earl. I’m not attempting to suggest His Majesty has any plans at all for Prince Daivyn — other than any he may have already discussed you and the Grand Inquisitor, of course — but it’s no secret in Talkyra that he’s under a great deal of pressure at the moment. The Charisian navy has completely wiped out his merchant marine, and Charisian raiding parties are operating freely all along his coasts. His army isn’t being any more successful at stopping them ashore than his navy’s been at stopping them at sea, either. Under those circumstances, who can say how he might eventually be tempted to play a card like Prince Daivyn?”

Rayno nodded slowly. That was an excellent point, and the fact that Seablanket had made it was another indication of the man’s intelligence and general capability. And his suggestion that Zhames might not be the most reliable of guardians . . . that might be distressingly well taken, given what had already happened with certain other rulers (Prince Nahrmahn of Emerald came rather forcibly to mind) who’d found themselves in Cayleb of Charis’ path. Still . . . .

“I don’t think we need concern ourselves too deeply with King Zhames at the moment,” he observed, half to Seablanket and half simply thinking out loud. “I doubt very much that he’s likely to disregard any directives from the Temple where Daivyn is concerned.”

“I’m certain he wouldn’t, Your Eminence,” Seablanket agreed, yet there was something about his tone, a slight edge of . . . something. Rayno cocked his head, frowning, and then his own eyes widened. Could the Corisandian be suggesting –?

“Naturally,” the archbishop said, “we have to be at least a bit concerned about Daivyn’s current security. After all, his father’s security in Manchyr seemed quite adequate. And I suppose we really ought to be thinking in terms of multiple layers of protection for the boy. It’s sadly true that human nature is easily corrupted, and the possibility always exists that someone responsible for protecting him might be suborned by those more interested in harming him. Or in . . . transferring him to someone else’s custody, shall we say.”

“Exactly so, Your Eminence.” Seablanket bowed once more. “And, if I may be so bold, it couldn’t hurt to be doubly certain the man in charge of the Prince’s security sees his own first and primary loyalty as belonging to Mother Church.”

Rayno’s eyes narrowed again, this time with more than a little surprise. Seablanket hadn’t been chosen for his present assignment solely because he was a Corisandian who could be placed in Yu-Shai in time to be hired as Coris’ valet. He’d handled more than one politically sensitive mission for the Inquisition over the years, but the archbishop hadn’t expected him to be quite so willing to bring up that particular point.

“And do you believe Coris’ ‘first and primary loyalty’ is to Mother Church?” the adjutant general asked softly.

“I believe the Earl’s first and primary loyalty was to Prince Hektor,” Seablanket replied with the air of a man choosing his words very carefully. “I’m not prepared to speculate on how much of that loyalty might have been owed to his own ambition and the power he enjoyed as one of Prince Hektor’s closest advisers, but I believe it was genuine. Prince Hektor is dead now, however, Your Eminence, and the Earl’s lands in Corisande have been seized by Cayleb and Sharleyan. He’s a man accustomed to wielding power, and that’s been taken away from him with the fall of Corisande and his own exile. He’s not foolish enough to believe Cayleb or Sharleyan would ever trust anyone who was as close to Hektor as he was, so even if he were tempted to try to reach some sort of an arrangement with them — and I don’t believe for a moment that he is — he’d know the effort was probably pointless, at best. At worst, Cayleb might happily agree to give him whatever he asked for . . . until, at the least, he could get the Earl within reach.

“More than that, Your Eminence, it seems apparent to me that the Earl recognizes that, ultimately, Charis can’t possibly win. I don’t think he’s likely to be very tempted to sell his allegiance to the side which is bound to lose in the end. That being the case, I can’t escape the feeling that worldly ambition — in addition to spiritual loyalty — would incline him towards casting his lot with Mother Church. And he’s a very pragmatic man.” Seablanket shrugged very slightly. “I’m sure that as Hektor’s spymaster he came to realize long ago that sometimes certain . . . practical accommodations have to be made.”

“I see.”

Rayno considered Seablanket’s words for several seconds. He’d been a bit concerned himself, from time to time, about the possibility of Coris’ seeking some arrangement with Cayleb. After all, the earl was in a position to deliver Prince Daivyn to Charis, and Cayleb — and Sharleyan, damn her soul — had to be aware of how valuable a counter Daivyn had become. On the other hand, any attempt to hand the youthful prince over to Charis would be fraught with difficulty and danger, and Coris couldn’t possibly be unaware of what Mother Church would do to him if he made such an attempt and failed.

Yet Rayno hadn’t fully considered the other two points Seablanket had just raised. It truly was unlikely Cayleb, and especially Sharleyan, would ever repose an ounce of trust in the Earl of Coris. For one thing, Sharleyan was never going to forget that Coris had been Hektor’s spymaster when her father was killed — that it was Coris who’d actually arranged to hire the mercenary “pirates” responsible for King Sailys’ death. And, even leaving that consideration aside, there was Seablanket’s assessment of Coris’ estimate of who was ultimately going to win this war. Unless something happened to catastrophically shift the balance of power between the two sides, Charis couldn’t possibly win against Mother Church. It was conceivable, little though Rayno liked to admit it, that an independent Charis might survive Mother Church’s ire, but nothing short of divine intervention could create circumstances under which Charis could actually defeat the Church and its effectively limitless resources. From everything he’d ever seen or heard about the Earl of Coris, the man was certainly smart enough to have reached the conclusions Seablanket had just ascribed to him. And a man who’d lost everything he’d spent his life building had to be thinking in terms of restoring at least a little of what had been taken from him.

It’s certainly worth bearing in mind, the archbishop told himself. All my reports on Coris suggest Seablanket’s right when he says the Earl is far smarter than Zhames. Which means he’s a lot less likely to be tempted to do something outstandingly stupid. Leaving him right where he is as Daivyn’s guardian could be the smartest thing we could do. Always assuming Seablanket’s reading of his character is reliable.

He thought about it for a few more moments, then gave a mental shrug. Trynair and Clyntahn would undoubtedly be forming their own opinions about Coris and his reliability over the next few five-days. They’d probably rely more on their own judgment than on any outside advice, but it would be a good idea for Rayno to have his own recommendation ready if it should be asked for.

He put that consideration aside, tucking it into a mental pigeonhole for future contemplation, and returned his attention to Seablanket.

“Those are some very interesting observations, Master Seablanket,” he conceded. “However, there are several other points I need to discuss with you, and I’m afraid time is pressing onward. So, bearing that in mind, what can you tell me about Prince Daivyn’s own attitude towards Charis?”

“As I’ve already said, Your Eminence, he’s a very young boy whose father has been murdered, and whatever denials Cayleb and Sharleyan may have issued, I don’t believe there’s any doubt in Daivyn’s mind who was responsible. Under those circumstances, I don’t think it’s very surprising that he hates and distrusts — and fears — Cayleb with every fiber of his being. It hasn’t been difficult for Earl Coris and King Zhames to encourage those emotions, either.” Seablanket gave another of those tiny shrugs. “Under the circumstances,” he said, his tone ever so slightly edged with irony, “encouraging him to feel that way can only contribute to his own chances of survival, of course.”

He met Rayno’s gaze yet again, and this time the archbishop found himself unable to totally restrain an unwilling smile. He was definitely going to have to find future employment for Seablanket, he thought. The man was even more perceptive and (even more valuable in an agent) willing to share those perceptions than Rayno had expected.

“Having said that,” the Corisandian continued, “Daivyn’s also angry enough to be looking for any possible way to hurt Cayleb or Charis. Admittedly, he’s only a boy, but that won’t be true forever. By the time he comes to young manhood — assuming he can avoid Charisian assassins long enough for that — he’s going to be fully committed to the destruction of this ‘Charisian Empire’ and all its works. In fact, I think –”

Wyllym Rayno sat back in his chair, listening attentively. He might well have to cancel his next appointment after all, he thought. Given the acuity of Seablanket’s insight into the inner workings of the Corisandian court in exile in Talkyra, it might be very much worthwhile to get the man’s impressions of the cities and provinces through which he and Coris had passed on their way to the Temple. Rayno had plenty of reports from inquisitors and intendants throughout all of the mainland realms, but Seablanket clearly had a sharp and discerning eye, and Coris’ rank had been high enough to get Seablanket inside the highest circles of the lands through which they had traveled. True, he was only the earl’s valet, but any spymaster knew servants made the very best spies. They saw and heard everything, yet their betters tended to think of them as part of the landscape, little more than animate furniture. All of which meant Seablanket’s perspective on the reports from Rayno’s agents in place could be extremely valuable.

I really have to keep an eye on this one, the archbishop told himself, listening to Seablanket’s report. Spies who can actually think are too rare — and valuable — to waste on routine duties.

* * * * * * * * * *

Rhobair Duchairn sat back, rubbing his forehead wearily. Another half-hour, he thought, and they could finally break for lunch. He was looking forward to it, and not just because he’d skimped on breakfast that morning. His head throbbed, the congestion in his ears was worse than ever (the clerk who was currently speaking sounded as if he were in a barrel underwater), and he dearly wanted a little time in privacy to consider his unexpected encounter with Hauwerd Wylsynn.

Not that he expected to feel a great deal of comfort after he’d done the considering, he thought.

He felt his nose start to drip and muttered a short, pungent phrase which went rather poorly with the dignity of his august office. He hated blowing his nose in public, but the alternative seemed worse. So he reached into his pocket for his handkerchief —

— and froze.

For just an instant, not a single muscle moved, and then he forced himself to relax, one nerve at a time. He hoped no one had noticed his reaction. And, when he thought about it, there was no reason anyone should have, really. But that didn’t prevent him them feeling as if he had somehow, in that instant, pasted an enormous archer’s target onto his own back.

Or, perhaps, had someone else paste it there.

His fingertips explored the small but thick envelope which had somehow come to be nestled under his handkerchief. It hadn’t been there when he left his suite this morning, and he knew he hadn’t put it there since. In fact, he could think of only one person who’d been close enough to find the opportunity to slide anything unobtrusively into his pocket.

And just at this moment, he couldn’t think of a single gift that person could have given him that wouldn’t be at least potentially more deadly than its own weight in cyanide.

Odd, a corner of his brain thought. For someone who was so hungry a few seconds ago, I seem to have lost my appetite remarkably quickly.