No one spoke. In fact, Gray Harbor thought, the odds were good that very few of them were even breathing at the moment, and he was almost certain White Church wasn’t. The empress had never even raised her voice, but the Keeper of the Seal looked remarkably like a man who wished he could melt and ooze down under the council table.

Idiot, the first councilor thought without much pity.
In some ways, it wasn’t all that difficult to sympathize with White Church. Part of his worries were easy enough to understand in terms of simple human self-interest. White Church was a wealthy man, but most of his personal and family wealth was tied up in trade, and in the sizable merchant fleet they collectively owned. No doubt he was delighted that Rock Point had managed to recover all but two of the ships originally seized in Delferahk, yet a part of him seemed unable to grasp that the confrontation between Charis and the Temple had moved into a realm which made even the trade vital to the Empire’s existence a secondary issue. Perhaps that wasn’t so surprising, since any Charisian understood, on an almost instinctual level, just how vital that commerce was. Unfortunately, deep down inside somewhere, White Church obviously wasn’t able to recognize the need to prioritize on a realistic basis. Or, at least, to set aside his own, personal interests in the interests of Charis as a whole. Anything likely to interrupt the Empire’s trade, to close ports to those ships of his, threatened his family’s future, and he’d been a persistent voice of caution from the beginning.
But there were other reasons for his position as well, and most of them were considerably less self-interested. That didn’t mean Gray Harbor agreed with them, but at least he understood the reasoning behind them.
The responsibilities of the man’s office included the official drafting and receipt of the Kingdom’s diplomatic correspondence. He was accustomed to thinking not in terms of great and sweeping struggles, but in terms of communications between a relatively small number of people whose decisions governed the fates of realms. He hadn’t yet made the transition to understanding that the forces unleashed here in Charis went far beyond the councils of kings and princes, or even priests and vicars. Those decision-makers remained vitally important, of course, but the tides against which they must contend had fundamentally changed.
Unfortunately, if White Church hadn’t already grasped that, it was unlikely he ever would. And whether he had the wit to do that or not, he was obviously tone-deaf where the realities of the new Charisian political equation were concerned.
He probably thinks Sharleyan belongs in the royal bedchamber, pregnant and punching out heirs to the throne, Gray Harbor thought bitingly. As if Cayleb would have married a mere brood mare! Or as if she were likely to put up with that kind of kraken shit!
“I’m relieved and gratified to discover we’re all in agreement upon that point, My Lords,” the empress observed now, her smile marginally warmer. “I trust we won’t find it necessary to . . . revisit it in the future.”
White Church seemed to cringe ever so slightly, although she wasn’t even looking in his direction as she spoke. Then she sat back in her chair at the head of the table.
“Clearly, Rayjhis,” she said to Gray Harbor, deliberately using his first name, “we have to consider the fact that the execution of so many priestly murderers is going to have an impact both in Zion and elsewhere. I would appreciate it if you and Baron Wave Thunder — and you, Your Eminence,” she added, glancing at Maikel Staynair “– would give some thought to that very point. I’d like your analysis of how the more immediately important rulers are likely to react.”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” Gray Harbor murmured. “Do you have any particular concerns you’d like us to consider?”
“Obviously, in many ways, I’m most interested in how the Group of Four is likely to respond. I realize, however, that any advice you could give me on that particular topic would be little more than speculation. By all means, go ahead and speculate — I have great respect for your judgment, and I’d like to hear anything you have to say about it. I’m more immediately concerned, however, with people like Lord Protector Greyghor, and perhaps King Gorjah.”
“Gorjah, Your Majesty?” Surprise startled the three-word question out of Gray Harbor, and Sharleyan actually chuckled.
“I do fully realize, My Lord, that King Gorjah isn’t particularly . . . well thought of here in Tellesberg, shall we say?”
Several of the other people seated around that table chuckled this time. The Kingdom of Tarot had been a Charisian ally for decades, and King Gorjah of Tarot had been obligated by treaty to come to Charis’ assistance against attack. Instead, he’d joined the “alliance” the Group of Four had hammered together for Charis’ destruction. And, unlike Sharleyan and Chisholm, there was precious little evidence that Gorjah had hesitated for a moment.
“All the same,” Sharleyan continued, her voice and expression both rather more serious and intent, “Prince Nahrmahn wasn’t very well thought of, either, and with a much longer history of enmity, at that. Eventually, we’re going to have to deal with Tarot, one way or another. It’s simply too close to Charis itself not to be dealt with, and it, too, is an island.”
Her eyes swept the council chamber once more.
“We lack the resources, the manpower, to establish a foothold on the mainland. Oh,” she waved one slender hand, “I don’t doubt we could seize a single port — like Ferayd, let’s say — and even hold it for an extended period of time. Given our control of the sea, we could support such a garrison indefinitely, and if the time came that supporting it seemed too costly, we would be well placed to withdraw. But we have neither the time, the manpower, nor the wealth to waste on such adventures.
“By the same token, however, we do control the sea, and if we lose that control, we’re all doomed, anyway. I think, therefore, that we should be making our plans on the basis that we will not lose control. Would you not agree with that, My Lords?”
Despite years of experience at the very highest levels of politics, Gray Harbor found himself forced to raise a hand to hide the smile he could not restrain as Empress Sharleyan’s councilors looked back at her and nodded like marionettes.
“Excellent, My Lords!” The empress’ white teeth flashed in a broad smile. “If we’re in agreement upon that point, however, it would seem to me to follow that we should be seeking every opportunity to make use of our seapower. Admittedly, we must be careful not to overreach, yet anywhere there is a strip of seawater, that water belongs not to the Group of Four, but to Charis.”
Spines straightened subtly around the table, and Gray Harbor’s temptation to smile faded into sober appreciation of the empress’ skill, her grasp of her listeners’ psychology.
“We’ve already added Emerald — and Chisholm,” she allowed herself a more rueful smile “– to the Empire. By this time, I feel confident, his Majesty has done the same with Zebediah, as he will soon do with Corisande.”
Her smile disappeared completely with the final word, and her nostrils flared slightly as she shook her head.
“With the exception of Corisande, all of those other additions were accomplished reasonably peacefully, with little or additional loss of life. And all of those lands will remain secure so long as Charisians remain masters of Safehold’s seas. As would Tarot. Inevitably, Tarot will be added to the Empire. In many ways, we have no choice in that regard, and I strongly suspect that King Gorjah understands that. Moreover, given the existence of the Tarot Channel and the Gulf of Tarot, we would be well placed to retain Tarot without greater effort than we would already be forced to expend to ensure the security of Charis itself. And at the same time, while I would never wish to appear too coldly calculating, let us not overlook the fact that Tarot’s proximity to the mainland would almost certainly make its conquest inviting to the Group of Four as a staging point for any future invasion of Charis. In short, it would provide a bait, a prize dangled before them to draw them out into the waters of the Channel and the Gulf where we could trim back their naval strength without risking the invasion of Charis itself, should they somehow manage to sneak past us.”