March, Year of God 893

Tellesberg Palace,
City of Tellesberg,
Kingdom of Charis

“I never imagined Admiral Rock Point was going to find this sort of evidence,” Sharleyan Ahrmahk said as she finished scanning the last page of the admiral’s report and laid it on the conference table in front of her.

“Neither did Clyntahn . . . or Graivyr, Your Majesty,” Baron Wave Thunder agreed. Cayleb’s old spymaster, who remained responsible for both espionage and security in the Kingdom of Charis — which was rapidly coming to be known as “Old Charis” in order to distinguish it from the new empire to which it had given its name — nodded at the sheet of paper the empress had just set aside. “Trust me, it never even occurred to them that this sort of documentary evidence might fall into anyone else’s hands, and especially not ours!”
There was considerably more satisfaction in Wave Thunder’s tone, and he smiled nastily.
“Not only that,” he continued, “but their reports about the Massacre are only the tip of the iceberg, Your Majesty. We got all of the Church’s files from Ferayd, and they were so confident that they didn’t take even the most rudimentary of precautions. We have complete copies of half a dozen of their most secure ciphers now. Obviously, they’re going to change them as quickly as they can, but it’s going to take time. And even after they change them, there’s no telling what older documents we might come into possession of. And that doesn’t even begin to consider all of the other documents and files the Admiral’s shipped home.”
He shook his head, his expression almost reverent.
“We’re going to need months just to sort through it all and catalogue it. I can already tell you, though, that there’s an incredible amount of . . . potentially embarrassing information in here.”
“I realize that, My Lord,” Sharleyan said. “At the moment, however, I’m afraid my own attention is rather more sharply focused on those reports about the Massacre. And on the consequences for the report writers.”
“Admiral Rock Point carried out his instructions from you and His Majesty to the letter, Your Majesty,” Rayjhis Yowance pointed out. The Earl of Gray Harbor was the first councilor of Old Charis, and was clearly on the way to becoming first councilor of the Empire of Charis, as well. Some people might have expected all of that to mean Cayleb had left him home in order to be certain Sharleyan didn’t get carried away by an overly inflated notion of just how much authority she truly possessed. No one seated in this council chamber was likely to make that mistake, however, and Gray Harbor’s voice was both respectful and perhaps just the tiniest bit apprehensive.
“Don’t worry, My Lord.” Sharleyan smiled at him, and that smile was cool. “I agree that the Admiral did precisely what he was instructed to do. And I approve his actions completely. I can see why Cayleb and the rest of Charis have so much faith in his judgment. I simply never anticipated that he would have such clear cut evidence upon which to proceed. Or, for that matter, that so many of Clyntahn’s inquisitors would stand self-convicted.”
“With all due respect, Your Majesty, I think that if anyone had anticipated that they would, those instructions might have been somewhat more limited,” another voice said, and she turned her head to look at the speaker.
Paityr Sellyrs, Baron White Church, sounded worried, almost querulous. In fact, Sharleyan thought sourly behind her calm expression, he sounded downright whiny. White Church was the Keeper of the Seal for Old Charis, and he had quite a few useful political allies here in Tellesberg, which she suspected helped to explain how he’d come to hold his present office. If she had anything to say about it, however (and she did), he would not be the Empire’s Keeper of the Seal.
“I disagree, My Lord,” she said now, calmly but with absolutely no hesitation. “If there had been a hundred guilty men — or a thousand — and not sixteen, the sentence would have been no less just, and its execution would have been no less appropriate. I’m surprised, My Lord. I am not dismayed.”
“Your Majesty,” White Church said, “I’m not suggesting you should be dismayed. Nor am I suggesting that these men, priests or not, didn’t amply merit the punishment visited upon them. I’m only saying that to effectively cast the heads of no less than sixteen consecrated priests at the Group of Four’s feet may not have been the most productive thing we could have done.”
Gray Harbor started to say something, then paused as the empress smiled affably at White Church. Given that smile, and what he’d seen so far of this young woman, he rather doubted that his intervention was either necessary or desirable.
Sharleyan considered White Church, her head cocked slightly to one side, for two or three heartbeats. It wasn’t so much what he’d said, as the way he’d said it. She’d heard that same patient tone of voice before, although not recently; the survivors among her councilors had learned better from the unfortunate fates of those who had adopted it. She watched him, recognizing the patronizing edge of his own smile, and wondered if he had the least idea she could see it. Probably not, she decided. He wasn’t actually stupid enough to deliberately provoke her, after all. That, unfortunately, wasn’t quite the same thing as saying he was smart, however.
He’s Cayleb’s Keeper of the Seal, Sharley, she reminded herself. You don’t know all the reasons Cayleb might have chosen him. And even if you did, you aren’t the one who appointed him to the Council. So do you really want to do this?
Yet even as she asked herself that question, she knew the answer. It was the same answer Mahrak Sahndyrs had taught a frightened girl-child so many years before. She could rule, or she could simply reign. She’d made that choice when she was barely twelve, and Cayleb Ahrmahk hadn’t married her because she was weak.
“Allow me to explain to you, My Lord,” she said, speaking coolly and precisely, “why your concern is groundless.”
White Church seemed to stiffen in his chair as her tone registered, but she continued as if she hadn’t noticed.
“As you may recall, we’ve already informed the Group of Four, and the Council of Vicars, for that matter, that we reject their authority. That we know them for who and what they are, and that we intend to hold them accountable for their crimes against not simply the people of Safehold, but against Mother Church, and even God himself. Are you suggesting that, having so informed them, the proper course of action when men of proven guilt — men whose written reports, whose own testimony, shows the pride and satisfaction they took in ordering the murder of children — fall into our hands, is that we shouldn’t execute justice upon them?”
“Your Majesty, I only –”
“Please answer my question, My Lord.” Sharleyan’s voice was noticeably frostier. “Is this a time to demonstrate weakness? To suggest not simply to the Group of Four, but to all of Safehold, that we do not truly have the strength of our own beliefs? The confidence of our own principles?”
White Church’s expression was acutely unhappy, and his eyes flitted around the council table, as if seeking someone to save him from the empress’ ire. What he saw were a great many eyes which obviously agreed with her, and his adams apple bobbed as he swallowed.
“No, Your Majesty. Of course not!” he said.
“I’m glad we find ourselves in agreement on such a fundamental principle, My Lord,” she told him, holding him impaled upon her hard, brown gaze. “I love the shedding of blood no more than the next man or woman,” she continued. “Moreover, the Emperor and I have made it as clear as humanly possible that the Empire of Charis will not simply murder people because they disagree with us, or because they are opposed to the Church of Charis and our conflict with the Group of Four. But the corollary of that must be equally clear.” She released him from her gaze at last in order to let her eyes sweep around the rest of the table. “We will punish the guilty when their guilt be proven, and the vestments they have perverted and betrayed will not protect them. Unlike them, we will not shed innocent blood, but we will hold them accountable for all of the blood they have shed. Is there some reason anyone seated around this table has failed to grasp that essential point of our policy?”