Mahrys withdrew with his normal quiet efficiency, and Dragoner settled his professional diplomat's expression into place as he found himself alone with his visitor.


            Rolf Khailee was a tallish man, with the light complexion and fair hair which was common in the Republic but which still seemed odd to Dragoner's Charisian eyes. He was of middle years, with a strong nose which suggested — correctly, in his case, as it happened — that he was related to the powerful Stohnar Clan. In fact, he was Lord Protector Greyghor's fourth cousin . . . and his name was not "Rolf Khailee." It was Avrahm Hywstyn — Lord Avrahm Hwystyn — and he was a mid-level official in the Republic's Foreign Ministry. Precisely what he did there was something of a mystery to most people, although his relationship with the lord protector undoubtedly suggested several interesting possibilities.


            Sir Rayjhis Dragoner didn't need any "suggestions," however. He was one of the relatively small number of people who knew that Lord Avrahm was his powerful cousin's finger on the pulse of the Republic's relations with the realms which were most important to it. And he was also the conduit through which the Republic's ruler sometimes passed particularly sensitive messages or bits of information to someone else's ambassador. Of course, no one, not even — or especially — Lord Protector Greyghor was going to admit anything of the sort, and so Hwystyn's alternative persona as Master Rolf Khailee. Dragoner knew perfectly well that the masquerade never fooled anyone, but that wasn't really the point. It provided a degree of official separation. It was certainly no more farfetched than the pretense that the Knights of the Temple Lands weren't also the Council of Vicars, at any rate, and no one was likely to press the Lord Protector of Siddarmark too hard on any diplomatic fictions he chose to maintain.


            Besides, the real reason Avrahm uses Khailee is to underscore the fact that whatever he's about to tell me is important . . . and that he was never here.


            "This is an unexpected pleasure, 'Master Khailee,'" he said calmly. "May I offer you some refreshment?"


            "That's very kind of you, Ambassador," his guest said. "Unfortunately, I'm rather pressed for time this afternoon. Perhaps some other day."


            "Of course," Dragoner murmured, and gestured courteously at the comfortable chair facing his desk. He waited until "Khailee" had seated himself, then settled back into his own chair. "May I ask what brings you here this afternoon?" he asked politely.


            "As a matter of fact," the Siddarmarkian said, "a rather remarkable message crossed my desk this morning. A message from Chancellor Trynair to Lord Frahnklyn."


            Dragoner managed to keep his face only politely attentive, despite the quiver of shock which went through him. Lord Frahnklyn Wallyce was the Republic's Chancellor, Earl Gray Harbor's equivalent here in Siddarmark. The fact that "Khailee" was here instead of an official messenger from the Chancellor's office sounded all sorts of warning bells. And the fact that "Khailee" was here about a message between Wallyce and the Chancellor of the Council of Vicars was the next best thing to terrifying.


            The hell with the "next best thing," Rayjhis, he told himself. It damned well is terrifying, and you know it!


            "Indeed?" he said, as calmly as he could.


            "Indeed." His guest sat very straight, his eyes intent. "It was transmitted by semaphore for the Lord Protector's urgent attention. Unfortunately, the Lord Protector is out of the city this afternoon. He won't be returning until quite late this evening."


            "I hadn't heard that," Dragoner said, listening very carefully to what "Khailee" wasn't saying, as well as what he was.


            "Chancellor Trynair requested that his message be presented to the Lord Protector as quickly as possible, and with the utmost confidentiality. Unfortunately, that leaves us with something of a problem. Since we're not entirely certain where the Lord Protector is at this particular moment — we know his schedule, but we can't be certain he's managed to keep it — we can hardly send a copy of it racing about, trying to find him. So, in order to comply with the Chancellor's request for confidentiality and security, we've transmitted the message to Protector's Palace to await his return and sent messengers looking for him to tell him that it's arrived."


            "That sounds commendably thorough," Dragoner said.


            "Thank you. However, that's also what brings me here today — as one of those messengers, as it were. It just happens that the Lord Protector had mentioned he might be dropping by your embassy on his way home. Obviously, his schedule isn't exactly written in stone, so I can't be certain he actually will be visiting you. If you should happen to see him, however, would you pass on a message for me?"


            "I'd be delighted to be of service in any way I could," Dragoner assured him.


            "I appreciate that, Ambassador." The Siddarmarkian's mouth smiled, but his eyes never did. "Would you please tell him we've received a directive from the Chancellor, transmitted on behalf of the Grand Inquisitor. Obviously, I can't go into the details of such a confidential communique, but if you could also inform him that we require his authorization for the harbor master, director of customs, and the port admiral to enforce the Grand Inquisitor's directive. And –" he looked directly into Dragoner's eyes "– we also need his instructions as to where and how he would that like us to house the crews and officers of the merchant ships involved in the enforcement of that directive until the Church is able to make her own arrangements for them."


            Dragoner's stomach muscles clenched into a constricted knot. He knew his expression was giving away entirely too much, but his professional diplomat's reflexes had deserted him for the moment.


            "Of course," he heard himself say.


            "Thank you." "Master Khailee" pushed back his chair and stood. "Well, Ambassador, as always, it's been a pleasure. However, I'm afraid I must go. There are several other places I need to leave messages for the Lord Protector, just in case he should happen by. And I'm afraid it's rather urgent. We really need his decision on these matters no later than dawn tomorrow."


            "I understand." Dragoner rose and escorted his guest to the door. "I hope you find him in time, and if I should happen to see him, I'll certainly pass on your message."


            "In that case, Ambassador, I'll bid you good day," the Siddarmarkian said. He bobbed his head in a courteous little bow, then he stepped through the door and it closed behind him.


            Dragoner gazed at the closed door for several taut seconds, then shook himself. He knew — or, at least, he was reasonably certain he knew — why Lord Protector Greyghor had seen to it that he received "Khailee's" warning, despite the very real risk he and his cousin had both run. And, as the Charisian Ambassador, there was no doubt in Dragoner's mind about precisely what he ought to do with that warning. But even as he thought that, the son of the Church within him recoiled from the thought of deliberately sabotaging a direct order from the Grand Inquisitor speaking for the Council of Vicars.


            But he isn't speaking for the entire Council, Dragoner told himself almost despairingly. He's speaking for the Group of Four, and God only knows what their final objective is now! Yet, even if that's true, it doesn't magically absolve me of my responsibility to honor the expressed will and decrees of Mother Church. But, if I do, if I don't act on this information, then . . . .


            He leaned forward, pressing his forehead against the door's cool wood while conscience fought with duty and conviction warred with unwilling recognition. And then, finally, he drew a deep breath, straightened his spine, and opened the door. Young Mahrys was waiting, and Dragoner smiled at him.


            "Find me some messengers, Zheryld," he said. "People you can trust to keep their mouths shut afterward."


            "Yes, Sir. Ah, what message will they have to carry?" Mahrys asked, and Dragoner's smile turned into something entirely too much like a rictus.


            "Let's just say that any Charisian vessel here in Siddar          is about to discover she has urgent business somewhere else. Anywhere else, if you take my meaning."


            Despite himself, Mahrys' eyes widened. Then the color seemed to drain out of his face, and he swallowed hard.


            "Yes, Sir," he said, after a long, tense moment. "As a matter of fact, I think I know just the men we need."