Charisian Embassy,


City of Siddar,


Republic of Siddar


            Sir Rayjhis Dragoner tried hard to feel grateful for his posting as he gazed pensively out the window.


            Usually, he didn't find that a particularly difficult task. Of all the embassies to which an ambitious diplomat might find himself assigned, the one in the city of Siddar was probably the plum. Any Charisian was still going to have to put up with the fundamental, almost unconscious arrogance mainlanders displayed to almost anyone from what even the best of them had a tendency to refer to as "the out islands," of course. The Siddarmarkians weren't quite as bad about that as most of their fellows, but they were still quite bad enough to go on with.


            Yet all minor complaints aside, the Republic was the most comfortable fit any Charisian was going to find among the mainland realms. Siddarmark was firmly addicted to its ancient, republican form of government, and its society and social customs were far less rigidly stratified than most of Safehold's more powerful states could boast. That didn't prevent the Republic from sustaining its own great dynasties — in effect, if not in name, an hereditary nobility as powerful as anyone else's — and although there was considerably less prejudice here against those whose wealth came from "trade" than there was in the other mainland realms, there was still more than there was in Charis. Yet despite all that, Siddarmarkians were more comfortable than most with Charis' sometimes outrageous social notions, and their shared identity as Siddarmarkians included a powerful, self-aware strand of stubborn independence of mind which they embraced consciously and deliberately as a defining aspect of their national personality.


            No doubt, Dragoner thought, that independence explained much of the traditional tension between the Republic and the Temple Lands. Despite the nightmares which obviously plagued the Knights of the Temple Lands from time to time, no Siddarmarkian lord protector had ever been likely to seriously contemplate launching a war of conquest against them, however tempting a target their wealth might make them. That hadn't kept generations of Church chancellors from worrying about the possibility that one day some lunatic lord protector would, however. And even worse, in some ways (mostly because it was a considerably more realistic possibility), was the Church's fear that the stubbornly intransigent Siddarmarkians might someday refuse to submit to some Church decree. If that ever happened, the well-trained, professional, well-equipped pikemen of the Republican Army would make a fearsome foe. And unlike Charis, it would be a foe which literally lived right next door to the Temple Lands themselves.


            That independence of mind was also one of the reasons Siddarmark, traditionally, had maintained close commercial ties with Charis. The Siddarmarkian merchant class was heavily represented in the Republic's elected Assembly of the People. In fact, coupled with the wealthy farming class, they dominated the Assembly, thanks in no small part to the rigorous property requirements of the franchise. The merchants' interest in supporting friendly relations with Charis were obvious, and despite a certain traditional prejudice against bankers and merchants in general, the farmers' interest was even stronger. No one in Siddarmark was able to supply manufactured goods at anything remotely like the price Charisians could offer, and Charis was Siddarmark's largest single market, by far, for raw cotton silk, tea, tobacco, and wheat. It was a lucrative trading relationship which both nations had every reason to preserve.


            All of which explained why the Charisian Ambassador to the Republic had an easier job than most diplomats could ever hope for. Under normal circumstances, at least.


            Circumstances, however, were no longer "normal," and Sir Rayjhis rather doubted they ever would be again.


            He grimaced while he continued gazing out his office window across the sunlit roofs of Siddar to the dark blue, sparkling waters of North Bédard Bay.  North Bédard Bay — normally called simply "North Bay," to distinguish it from the even broader waters of Bédard Bay proper, to the south — was over two hundred miles wide, and the passage between the two bodies of water was little more than thirty miles across. The shipping channels were even narrower than that, and the Republic, at enormous expense, had built Castle Rock Island (and the powerfully gunned fortifications on it) in the shoal water between the two main channels where they approached one another most closely. In many ways, Castle Rock was the Republic's Lock Island, although neither lobe of Bédard Bay had ever been as critical to the Republic's development as Howell Bay had been to that of Charis.


            It still made Siddar a remarkably secure harbor, however. Piracy had never been much of a problem here, and the waterfront and warehouse district were usually bustling hives of almost Charisian-like activity. And as one of the premier ports of West Haven, Siddar was also home to one of the largest communities of Charisians outside the kingdom itself.


            All of which had made the city a prey to conflicting, dangerous tides of public opinion ever since the conflict between Charis and her enemies had exploded into open warfare. Tension had run high enough when everyone had been busy trying to pretend the Knights of the Temple Lands and the Council of Vicars — or, at least, the Group of Four — were two separate entities. Since Archbishop Maikel's denunciatory letter had arrived in Zion (and, so far as Sir Rayjhis could tell, every port city on Safehold simultaneously), that pretense had been stripped away like the frail mask it was. And the level of tension in the Republic had soared accordingly.


            Even people who don't like the Group of Four are worried as hell, Dragoner thought. And it's a lot worse than that where the hardline Temple Loyalists are concerned. The only good thing is that the more extreme Loyalists had already made themselves thoroughly unpopular with the Siddarmarkians before this whole mess ever blew up. Unfortunately, there's no way this is going to get any way but worse. What in God's name did Cayleb and Staynair think they were doing?!


            His grimace deepened as he faced an unpalatable truth. Despite his own reservations about the Group of Four, his own certainty that whatever else they might represent, it wasn't God's will, Sir Rayjhis Dragoner was one of the Charisians who was horrified by the sudden open schism between Tellesberg and the Temple. Conflicting loyalties pulled him in two different directions, and he found himself hoping — and praying regularly — that somehow the inevitable confrontation between the kingdom he loved and the Church he revered might somehow be averted.


            But it's not going to be, he thought sadly. Not with the lunatics on both sides pushing so hard. Still, he admitted almost grudgingly, I suppose it's hard to blame Cayleb, given what the Group of Four tried to do. And whatever else I may think of Staynair's letter, he's right about the abuses and corruption in the Church. But surely there has to be a better way to reform those abuses! Mother Church has ministered to men's souls ever since the Creation itself. Can't anyone see where splitting the Church is bound to lead?


            It was a question which had a certain burning significance for him in more than one way. Like himself, the entire Charisian community here in Siddar found itself split between enthusiastic supporters of what were already being called the Church of Charis and the Temple Loyalists. He suspected that Siddar's distance from Tellesberg had a great deal to do with the nature of the division here. Unless he was sadly mistaken, the Loyalists constituted only a relatively tiny minority of the kingdom's home population, whereas they constituted at least half of the Charisians living here in Siddar.


            Unfortunately, most Siddarmarkians don't seem able to distinguish between one group of Charisians and another one, he reflected glumly. What's worse, I'm not sure the Church can, either. It's bad enough that Charisians, even individual families, are split and divided. That the division is turning into anger, even hatred, between people who used to be friends, between brothers, between parents and children. But if those who want to remain loyal to the Church find themselves lumped in with the Church's enemies by the Group of Four, any possibility of reconciliation is going right down the toilet. And then what do I do?


            He had no answer for that question. No answer besides the oaths of loyalty he'd sworn, the duties he'd agreed to accept when he became King Haarahld's ambassador to Lord Protector Greyghor.


            He was still gazing out the window when someone knocked quietly on his office door. His eyebrows rose, and he turned with a frown. It was late afternoon, and his calendar had been thankfully clear for a change. But the pattern of knocks — two, one, three, two — was his secretary's warning code that he had an important visitor.


            He turned away from the window, crossed quickly to his desk, and settled into the chair behind it.


            "Come!" he called in a pleasant tone, preparing to rise in artful surprise as his unexpected guest was ushered in.


            As it happened, he didn't have to pretend to be surprised, after all.


            "Ambassador, Master Khailee would like a few moments of your time," Zheryld Mahrys, his secretary, said.


            "Of course," Dragoner said automatically. "Thank you, Zheryld."


            "You're welcome, Ambassador."