Rock Point turned and looked back out the stern windows at the pall of smoke swelling above Ferayd. More than a third of the city’s buildings had helped to feed that looming mushroom shape, but Rock Point had allowed Lakyr’s surrendered troops to demolish a semicircular fire break around the portion of Ferayd he’d been ordered to destroy. Emperor Cayleb’s instructions had specified that not a building was to be left standing within a two-mile radius of the Ferayd waterfront, and Rock Point had carried out his orders with precision.

And also, Lakyr admitted unwillingly, with compassion. He’d permitted civilians whose homes had lain within the decreed radius of destruction to take away their most prized possessions — assuming they were sufficiently portable — before the torch had been applied. And the Charisian admiral had permitted no excesses on the part of his troops. Which, given what had happened to the Charisian merchant crews who’d been slaughtered here in Ferayd when Vicar Zhaspahr had ordered their ships seized, was far better than anything for which Lakyr had dared to hope.
Of course, he thought, regarding Rock Point steadily, there’s still that interesting little question about exactly what Rock Point’s orders concerning the commander of the garrison who did the slaughtering might be.
“I’m sure most of your citizens will be happy to see the last of us,” Rock Point continued. “I’d like to think that with the passage of time, they’ll realize we at least tried to kill as few of them as possible. However, there was no way we could allow what happened here to pass unanswered.”
“I suppose not, My Lord,” Lakyr admitted, and braced himself. The admiral’s last sentence suggested he was about to discover precisely what Charis had in mind for the officer whose troops had committed to the atrocity which had brought Rock Point to Ferayd.
“The real reason I invited you aboard Destroyer, Sir Vyk,” Rock Point said, almost as if he had read the Delferahkan’s mind, “was to deliver my Emperor’s message to your king. This –” he gestured with one hand at the smoke-choked this invisible to the stern windows “– is a part of that message, of course, but it’s scarcely all of it.”
He paused, waiting, and Lakyr’s nostrils flared.
“And the rest of it is, My Lord?” he asked finally, obedient to the admiral’s expectant silence.
“And the rest of it is, Sir Vyk, that we know who actually ordered the seizure of our ships. We know whose agents . . . oversaw that seizure. Neither my Emperor, nor Charis, is prepared to hold Delferahk blameless over the murder of so many Charisian subjects, hence this.” He waved at the rising smoke once more. “Should more of our subjects be murdered elsewhere, be assured Emperor Cayleb will respond equally forcefully there, as well. Nor will there be any peace between any who attack Charis, or Charisians, at the orders and behest of corrupt men like Clyntahn and the rest of the Group of Four. But our true quarrel lies with the men in Zion who choose to pervert and poison God’s own Church. And that, Sir Vyk, is the real reason I asked you aboard. To tell you that although my Emperor must hold you, as any military commander, ultimately responsible for the actions of the men under your command, he understands that what happened here in Ferayd was neither of your seeking, nor what you intended. Which is why you will be returned ashore after our business this morning is concluded to deliver a written message from Emperor Cayleb to King Zhames.”
“Indeed, My Lord?” Lakyr couldn’t quite keep the surprise — and the relief — out of his voice, and Rock Point snorted in amusement.
“No doubt I would have anticipated a rather more . . . unpleasant outcome of this interview if I’d been in your shoes,” he said. But then his expression hardened. “I’m afraid, however, that the unpleasantness isn’t quite over yet. Come with me, Sir Vyk.”
Lakyr’s nerves had tightened once again at Rock Point’s ominous warning. He wanted to ask the Charisian admiral what he’d meant, but he strongly suspected that he would find out altogether too quickly, anyway, and so he followed Rock Point out of the cabin without speaking.
The admiral ascended the steep ladders to the upper deck with surprising nimbleness, despite his wooden leg. No doubt he’d had plenty of practice, Lakyr thought, following him up. But then the commander of Ferayd’s defeated garrison found himself standing once again upon the spar deck, and any thought about Rock Point’s agility disappeared abruptly.
While the two of them had been below, in Rock Point’s cabin, Destroyer’s crew had been rigging halters from the ship’s yardarms. There were six of them, one dangling from either end of the lowest yard on each of the ship’s three masts.
As Lakyr watched in stunned disbelief, deep-throated drums began to rumble like distant thunder echoing across mountain peaks. Bare feet pattered and boots clattered and thudded as seamen and Marines poured onto their ships’ upper decks in answer to that rolling summons, and then six men in priest’s cassocks badged with the purple sword and flame of the Order of Schueler were dragged across the deck towards the waiting nooses.
“My Lord –!” Lakyr began, but Rock Point waved his right hand. The gesture was sharp, abrupt, the first truly angry thing Lakyr had seen out of the Charisian, and it decapitated his nascent protest as cleanly as any sword.
“No, Sir Vyk,” Rock Point said harshly. “This is the rest of my Emperor’s message — not just to King Zhames, but to those bastards in Zion. We know who provoked this massacre, and we know who ordered it knowing his minions would do precisely what they in fact did. And those who murder Charisian subjects will answer to Charisian justice . . . whoever they may be.”
Lakyr swallowed hard, feeling the sweat suddenly beading his hairline.
I never even dreamed of this, he thought. It never even crossed my mind! Those men are priests — consecrated priests, servants of Mother Church! They can’t just —
But the Charisians not only could, they were actually doing it. And despite his horror at the impiety of what was happening, a part of Sir Vyk Lakyr discovered that he couldn’t blame them for it.
He saw Father Styvyn Graivyr, Bishop Ernyst Jynkyns’ intendant, the Office of Inquisition’s senior priest in Ferayd, among the prisoners. Graivyr looked stunned, white-faced . . . horrified. His hands were bound behind him, as were those of the other five inquisitors with him, and his shoulders twisted as his wrists fought against their bonds. He seemed almost unaware of his struggle against the cords as his eyes clung to the waiting noose, and he moved like a man trapped in the bowels of a nightmare.
He never dreamed it might come to this, either, Lakyr realized, and yet another emotion flickered through him. He was still too stunned himself to think clearly, but if he hadn’t been, he might have been shocked to realize that at least part of what he was feeling was . . . satisfaction.
Graivyr wasn’t the only inquisitor who seemed unable to believe, even now, that this could possibly be happening to them. One of them resisted far more frantically than Graivyr, flinging himself against the iron grip of the stonefaced Marines dragging him towards the waiting rope, babbling protests. And as Lakyr stared at the unbelievable events unfolding before him, he heard the rumble of other drums coming from other ships.
He wrenched his eyes away from Destroyer’s deck, and his face tightened as he saw more ropes hanging from other ships’ yardarms. He didn’t try to count them. His shocked mind probably wouldn’t have been up to the task, anyway.