“Which ones?” the man who’d questioned Dahryus asked, and the priest raised his hand, counting off points on his fingers as he made them.

“First, I don’t think he truly wants to admit she’s become an enemy of God. He desperately wants to believe she’s only temporarily mistaken. That, given time, she’ll return to her senses. And, second, he doesn’t want to admit how deeply and sincerely attached to her the majority of her subjects actually are. I think he underestimates the importance of her support among the common born folk on this issue, probably because he’s not one of them himself. That’s more than a little ironic, in light of past events, but I suppose it’s also possible that he’s fooling himself on this point because he doesn’t want to face the logical implications.

“But whatever he may be thinking, or why ever he may be thinking it, the truth is that she’s genuinely loved. In fact, his entire plan revolves around using that love for our own ends, and superficially, it’s a very attractive concept. When she not only held the throne after her father’s death but also proved to be one of the strongest rulers in Chisholm’s history, she won their hearts as well as their loyalty. Despite how deeply they respect her, the common folk also feel actively possessive about her, almost as if she were a favorite, beautiful sister or daughter, not just their monarch. Our friend is well aware of that, but what he’s persistently overlooking is that a huge percentage of Chisholmians will follow her straight into apostasy and heresy simply because of how much they love her. Every dispatch from Green Mountain and the Queen Mother only underscores that fact. He simply doesn’t want to admit it, just as he’s underestimating, in my opinion, the degree to which the Chisholmian commons are going to be automatically suspicious of anything which holds even the slightest possible taint of some sort of aristocratic cabal. Every other scheme he’s come up with for actually discrediting her has foundered on that same rock, but he honestly believes this one will work because its supposed to discredit the reasons for her decisions, rather than the decisions themselves, and do it in a way she can’t directly counter. Unfortunately, I don’t think it will have the effect he’s predicting . . . and without Green Mountain’s active support — which even he realizes would be impossible to secure — I’m even more doubtful about his ability to manage the commons well enough to keep the situation under control in the long run.”

“So am I,” Halcom said, nodding slowly and regretfully. “And if he’s wrong, if he can’t discredit her policies and deprive her of the power to counterattack his actions, then we have no choice but to consider more . . . direct action.”

“I understand,” the man who’d asked the initial question said. “I still wish there were some way to avoid it, though.”

“So do we all,” Halcom replied. “So do we all.”

He sat silent for several seconds, then returned his attention to the priest.

“I take it you have his answer to our latest counterproposal?”

“I do. He believes what you’ve suggested should be practical, given conditions in both Charis and Chisholm. He’s agreed to help push events in the necessary direction.”

“And is he making any plans of his own to consolidate things in the aftermath?” Halcom’s eyes sharpened as he asked the question, and the other man shrugged.

“He says there’s no point in trying to do so at this time. Or, rather, that it would be unduly risky to attempt to involve anyone else in his planning at this stage. As he says, his present base of support isn’t especially strong, and he’s not completely positive who among his apparent supporters might prove less than enthusiastic if they knew the full plan. So he intends to wait until the moment comes, then ‘play it by ear.’ I think he entertains at least some hope of recruiting additional supporters when the Chisholmian delegation to this new Imperial Parliament arrives in Tellesberg. Even if he fails in that, or decides it’s too risky to attempt after all, the fact that he’s the only one in the Palace who will know ahead of time that anything is coming should allow him to capitalize upon it. That’s what he says, at any rate, and I’m strongly inclined to agree he’s telling us the truth about his plans and intentions.”

“Which tends to lend additional credence to your own comment about his motivations, doesn’t it?” Halcom said a bit sadly.

“I suppose it does. On the other hand, don’t forget that his objections, his stipulations, are completely sincere. That’s my evaluation of them, at least. There are clear limits beyond which he’s not prepared to go.”

The note of warning in the priest’s voice was clear, and Halcom nodded.

“I realize that. And, if I believed his analysis of the consequences of his own proposal was accurate, I’d be fully prepared to respect those limits. Unfortunately, he’s wrong. What he wants to do is far too likely to come crashing down around his ears, and if it does, it will come crashing down on us and upon our task, as well. In fact, I believe that ultimately his idea is likely to make things worse by actually strengthening Sharleyan’s hand in the fullness of time. Never forget, my sons, that this new Empress of ours is a formidable, intelligent, and determined woman. One who not only has enormous popular support in Chisholm, but who’s been steadily winning the hearts and loyalty of all of Charis, as well. That’s what makes her such a dangerous weapon in Cayleb’s hand, and striking her from his hand is going to be far more difficult than our friend believes.”

“I . . . regret that,” the priest said softly. “As you said a moment ago, she isn’t and never has been an evil woman, despite the horrible sin she’s fallen into.”

“Evil seduces,” Halcom replied almost equally softly. “It cannot conquer by force of arms unless godly men allow it to do so, and if its mask were not so fair and so seductive, then Hell would be empty of all save Shan-wei herself. But Hell is not empty, my son, and however good Sharleyan’s intentions may originally have been, however good she may still sincerely believe they are, she is fully in the service of Shan-wei now. And so, however likable she may be, no matter how physically or even spiritually attractive she may be, she is the enemy of God. And there can be no quarter, no compromise, with His enemies.”

The others nodded in solemn silence, and he redirected his attention to the priest once again.

“Very well. When you have the opportunity to speak to him once again, tell him it will take at least a short while to make the arrangements from our side. If he seems to be feeling impatient, point out to him that the difficulties involved in finding a secure and, if necessary, defensible location for our base after the actual strike are far from trivial. Tell him we’ll complete our preparations as quickly as possible and inform him when everything is in place. And it might be as well to suggest to him that he begin thinking of ways to bring Saint Agtha’s to the Empress’ attention.”

“With all due respect, do we want to have him do that before our preparations are complete?” the priest asked.

“I think it will be better to lay the groundwork as far in advance as possible,” Halcom replied. “Given how complicated and busy her life must be at the moment, however many of Cayleb’s advisers may still be available to assist her, it’s unlikely she’d be able to free the time in her schedule to visit the convent before we could be prepared. Even if our friend is clumsier than I would expect about mentioning Saint Agtha to her, she isn’t going to be able to go haring off on a moment’s notice.”

The priest nodded, and Halcom inhaled deeply, pushed back his chair, and stood.

“In that case, my sons,” he said, raising his hand and signing the scepter, “go now, with God’s blessing and in Langhorne’s keeping. Remember the devotion and love due to God and the Archangels, and let the strength that love brings you strengthen and guide your hands, hearts, and minds as we give ourselves to the service of God and Mother Church against all enemies of the Light.”