I don’t know why this missed its scheduled time, but here it is.


He twitched his head in the direction of the taproom’s shuttered windows, and the man who’d assumed the name of Dahryus chuckled.

“At least it should mean you’re unlikely to meet anyone who might wonder where you’ve been, Father,” he pointed out, relaxing his own security rules in recognition that all of those remaining already knew one another’s identities. “In fact, that might be the very reason God provided this little shower.”

“If He did, I’m sure He knows best, My lord,” the priest said. “On the other hand, not every task God sends us is equally enjoyable.”

“No,” Dahryus said, his tone and expression both darkening. “No, it isn’t.”

“My Lord — I mean, Master Dahryus –” one of the others began, his voice quiet in the rushing-water sound of the thunderstorm.

“I think we can be a little less circumspect at this point, Mytrahn,” Bishop Mylz Halcom said.

“Yes, My Lord. Thank you.” The other man smiled briefly, but his obvious unhappiness didn’t ease appreciably. “I was just going to ask . . . is this task really necessary?”

“Unfortunately, I believe the answer is yes,” Halcom said. “It’s not the sort of thing I ever thought God would call me to do, and I don’t expect it to be easy for any of us. Yet the truth is, my sons, that when Shan-wei works her evil in the world of mortals, sometimes men who stand for the Light find themselves called to hard tasks.”

The man who’d asked the question nodded, but his expression remained troubled, and Halcom gave him a gentle, sad smile.

“When Sharleyan voluntarily joined with Cayleb in his attack upon Mother Church, she made herself an enemy of God, Mytrahn,” he said. “I’ve never actually met her, of course. Everything I’ve ever heard of her would seem to indicate she’s always been a good ruler, with a deep interest in justice and the well-being of her people. But whatever she may have been in the past, she no longer is. It may well be she truly believes what she and Cayleb are doing is God’s will. If so, however, both of them are wrong. And, in many ways, a good and sincere person mistakenly serving Shan-wei’s ends, with absolutely no evil intention, is the most deadly threat of all. Those who openly and obviously serve corruption are easily denounced, easily discredited. Those who fall into sin through good but misguided intentions and mistaken understanding often sound reasonable and convincing. They have no evil motives, however evil the ultimate outcome of their actions may be, and people such as that are far more seductive than the open and deliberate enemies of God.

“That’s always true, but it takes on an even greater significance in Sharleyan’s case, I’m afraid. Just look at how her popularity here in Charis is already working to bolster Cayleb and the other schismatic leadership, even in the face of excommunication and interdict.”

Heads nodded around the table, and more than one face tightened. The writs of excommunication for Cayleb Ahrmahk and Maikel Staynair, along with the proclamation of the interdiction of the entire Kingdom of Charis, had arrived less than two five-days earlier. The shock, however, had been less profound than one might have anticipated, given the severity of the penalties involved, and there was very little sign of any significant reaction against the authority of the Crown or of the archbishop of the Church of Charis. Partly, no doubt, that was because Staynair and Cayleb had foreseen the probability of such an action from the very beginning and had carefully warned their supporters that it might be coming. Another major factor was that the Church itself in Charis had blithely ignored the proclamations. Despite the interdict, churches were open and sacraments were administered. When the priesthood scorned the legitimate decrees and proclamations of Mother Church, how could the laity be blamed for following suit? Especially when the very grounds for the schismatics’ rejection of Mother Church’s authority further undercut the legitimacy of those writs through their scorching condemnation of the corruption of the vicarate which had issued them?

But there was another factor, as well, Halcom felt certain. Sharleyan had not been excommunicated, obviously because no one in Zion had anticipated the possibility of her marriage to Cayleb when the writs were originally issued two months earlier. The fact that she hadn’t been, coupled with the way in which she had taken the heart of Charis by storm, made her a sort of legitimating source of the authority and fealty the Church had formally stripped away from Cayleb.

“At the moment,” he continued, “Sharleyan’s very reputation as a good and just ruler, the fact that she’s so likable, has put a smiling face on Shan-wei’s corruption. That’s bad enough. But she genuinely believes in what she’s doing. She hasn’t been misled or deceived by Cayleb, and her commitment, in my judgment, is every bit as powerful as his own. She isn’t going to allow herself to be used as a weapon against something in which she truly believes. That’s why I believe our friend in the Palace is mistaken.”

“I’m afraid you’re right about that,” the priest who’d shed the poncho said heavily. “I believe he’s sincere, although I’m also inclined to think his motivations aren’t quite as selfless as he says. In fact, I think they aren’t quite as selfless as he truly believes they are. And, of course, there are all of those other, more personal, factors involved in his thinking. But however sincere he may be, he simply doesn’t want to face hard, unpleasant facts.”