The clouds of the evening before had turned into a solid, dark gray overcast. Rain slashed down from the wet charcoal heavens, beating on the roof of Tellesberg Palace, rushing down gutters and downspouts, gurgling down the drainage channels beside the capital's roads. Commerce in Tellesberg never stopped, of course. Even during the recent war against the Group of Four's catspaws, the purely local shipping of Howell Bay had kept a fair amount of freight moving and the ships to carry it busy. Now that the oceans of the entire world were once again open to Charisian galleons, the waterfront's activity had resumed its normal frenetic level. Even while rain pounded down, lightning flashed, and thunder rumbled, the heavy freight wagons — most drawn by dragons, although here and there a smaller wagon drawn by horses or mules moved down the smaller, narrower streets — continued to flow.


            Prince Nahrmahn was impressed. As he stood at the open window of the small, private council chamber looking out into the rain, he saw the visual evidence of the prosperity and industry which made the Kingdom of Charis so much more dangerous a foe than the simple size of its population might have suggested.


            The door opened behind him, and he turned from the window as Bynzhamyn Raice, Baron Wave Thunder, entered the chamber.


            "Your Highness," King — no, Nahrmahn corrected himself, Emperor — Cayleb's senior spy said with a bow.


            "My Lord," Nahrmahn replied with something much closer to a nod than a bow.


            "First, I'd like to thank you for making the time available to meet with me," Wave Thunder continued as the two of them walked to the smallish but beautifully polished conference table at the center of the chamber.


            "I suspect His Majesty would probably have insisted if I'd proven difficult, My Lord." Nahrmahn chuckled. "I'm quite familiar with the process of . . . 'debriefing,' I believe Baron Shandyr calls it. And in all fairness, His Majesty was quite polite about 'suggesting' I sit down for a short chat with you. Obviously, if there's anything I can tell you, I'm at His Majesty's service and yours."


            "Actually, Your Highness," Wave Thunder said, waiting until Nahrmahn had seated himself and then settling into a chair of his own on the opposite side of the table, "you may be surprised about the actual purpose of our 'short chat.' To be honest, His Majesty — and I — are less interested in the information you may possess, than in the additional insight you may be able to offer into our analysis of the information we already have."


            "Indeed?" Nahrmahn raised both eyebrows, and it was Wave Thunder's turn to chuckle.


            "Indeed," he confirmed, while a fresh, closer peal of thunder crashed overhead. "In fact, to be perfectly blunt, Your Highness, one of the secondary purposes of this meeting is to acquaint you with the intelligence capabilities we already possess."


            "Ah, I see." Nahrmahn smiled thinly. "As a pointed reminder of Cayleb's ability to . . . monitor my own activities, I presume."


            "To some extent," Wave Thunder agreed imperturbably, and his own smile was a bit broader than Nahrmahn's had been. "I hope you won't mind my saying that, despite a few initial reservations of my own, it's something of a relief to be able to discuss this with someone who understands how these things are done, Your Highness."


            "I'll take that as a compliment, My Lord — provisionally, at least."


            "Believe it or not, that was how it was intended."


            The baron opened the briefcase he'd brought with him and extracted a fairly thick stack of folders. He laid them on the table in front of him, then cocked his head at Nahrmahn.


            "I realize Baron Shandyr hasn't had much luck reestablishing your own spy networks here in Charis, Your Highness," he said. "I also know you've been quite patient with him, despite your own obvious frustration, and that his operations have continued with their normal high rate of success outside Charis."


            Nahrmahn's eyebrows rose again at the frankness in Wave Thunder's calm voice. The baron saw his expression and shook his bald head.


            "There's a reason he's been so unsuccessful here in Charis, and it has nothing to do with his competence or how hard he's tried. As you yourself are aware, Your Highness, the only way a secret can truly be kept is if it isn't told to anyone. I believe that's a practice with which you're quite familiar, just as you're also aware it can occasionally be frustrating to your subordinates. For example, Earl Pine Hollow was quite surprised some months ago to discover you'd already been in contact with King Gorjah's first councilor."


            This time Nahrmahn's eyebrows lowered suddenly, and he frowned.


            "There are two reasons I used that particular example," Wave Thunder continued calmly. "First, because it demonstrates the extent to which we've penetrated Emerald, and how long ago we managed to do it. Second, because it demonstrates that you're familiar with the idea of what we call here in Charis 'the need to know.' It's one of our fundamental policies that information is kept in individual compartments, and that only those who 'need to know' something in order to do their jobs are made privy to that information. It indicates not distrust on our part, although, as you yourself are aware, a certain degree of distrust is a necessary precaution, but rather the protection of critical information by limiting its spread."


            "You're right, My Lord," Nahrmahn said slowly, still frowning, although it was a frown of thoughtfulness now, not one of astonishment. "I am familiar with the need to keep things close, although I've never used that description of the logic. 'Need to know.'" He seemed to roll the words on his tongue, tasting them as he repeated them, and then nodded slowly. "I have to say it's an appropriate turn of phrase, though."


            "I'm glad you understand, Your Highness." Wave Thunder sat back in his chair. "One of those 'need to know' things is precisely how our spies go about gathering much of the information and knowledge which comes to us here. Frankly, we have great respect for your ability as an analyst, and we intend to make the best use of it we can. However, as often as not — and, to be honest, probably more often than not — you may never know how the information we're asking you to analyze came into our possession in the first place."


            "I trust you'll forgive me for pointing this out, Baron, but quite frequently the source of a piece of information has enormous bearing on its reliability, and that, in turn, has obvious implications for its analysis."


            "Your Highness," Wave Thunder smiled even more broadly, "it truly is a pleasure to discuss these matters with someone who understands the niceties of the spymaster's art. However, one of the reasons I brought these," he tapped the stack of folders, "is to give you a demonstration of how reliable our spies are."


            "In what way, if I may ask?" Nahrmahn inquired when the Charisian paused.


            "Pick a day — any day you wish — from the third five-day of May," Wave Thunder invited.


            Nahrmahn blinked at him, then shrugged.


            "Very well," he said. "I pick Thursday."


            "Very good, Your Highness." Wave Thunder sorted through the folders until he found the one he wanted. He separated it from the others, then laid it carefully on the table in front of him and opened it.


            "On Thursday, May the fourteenth," he said, looking down at the notes before him, "you summoned Commodore Zhaztro and Earl Pine Hollow to Eraystor Palace. You met in the Blue Salon, where you discussed the recent capture of the Church dispatch boat carrying dispatches from Bishop Executor Thomys to Bishop Executor Wyllys. Commodore Zhaztro informed you that there was no way to guarantee the safe passage of even Church dispatch boats into Eraystor Bay in the face of our blockade. He suggested, however, that not even our navy could blockade every minor port, and that it would be possible for Church couriers to use those secondary ports. You pointed out that the Bishop Executor felt using such minor ports would be undignified, but you also instructed the Commodore to draw up a list of them for future use, after which you dismissed him and had a most interesting conversation with the Earl. In the course of that conversation you shared with him your own analysis of the confrontation between Charis and the Group of Four and your belief that things would get far worse before they get better."


            Wave Thunder glanced up from his notes. Despite decades of experience at self-discipline and self-control, Nahrmahn's jaw had dropped as the Charisian spymaster continued his deliberate, devastatingly accurate summarization of the meeting at which only three men had been present.


            "I would make two points at this moment, Your Highness," the baron said calmly. "First, it was in fact your words to Earl Pine Hollow, and several other, similar conversations with him, which played a not insignificant part in the terms which Emperor Cayleb was prepared to offer Emerald. And, secondly, if you're thinking either Commodore Zhaztro or Earl Pine Hollow must have betrayed your confidence for us to have this information, let me turn to a later point in that same day."


            He turned pages unhurriedly until he found the one he wanted, then cleared his throat.


            "Later that same evening," he resumed, "you had a private meeting with Baron Shandyr. At that meeting, you touched once again, if less strongly, upon the same analysis of the Church's position you had shared with Earl Pine Hollow earlier. You also pointed out to the Baron — as, indeed, you had pointed out to the Earl earlier — that the Group of Four's entire plan had been as stupid as it was arrogant. And you pointed out that Prince Hektor was unlikely to risk his own security to come to Emerald's aid. In fact , your exact words were 'Why should that bastard risk one pimple on his precious arse for us?' After which — " the baron looked up at Nahrmahn once again "– you instructed the Baron to review his arrangements for passing the execution order, if you'll pardon the choice of words, to the assassins you have in place in Manchyr."