Nahrmahn's astonishment had gone far beyond mere shock as Wave Thunder calmly closed the folder once again.


            "As you can see, Your Highness," he said, "for us to have obtained this information through any avenue with which you may be familiar, both Earl Pine Hollow and Baron Shandyr would have to have been agents of Charis. Which, I assure you — and I'm quite sure you already knew it to be the truth — neither of them would have dreamed of becoming."


            "I . . . ."


            Nahrmahn's voice trailed off, and he shook himself. Then he cleared his throat and sat back in his chair, gazing intently into Wave Thunder's eyes.


            "I certainly wouldn't have believed either of them would have betrayed me," he said last. "On the other hand, I can't see any other way for you to have learned the details of two separate private conversations."


            "Your Highness, I allowed you to pick the day," Wave Thunder pointed out. "If you would care to pick another day — as, for instance, the following Friday, when you had a private conversation with Commodore Zhaztro, or perhaps Monday, when Bishop Executor Wyllys met with you to 'discuss' your suggestion that 'Mother Church's messengers creep about, like poachers or smugglers, from one wretched little rathole to another' — I'm quite prepared to share the summaries of those other days with you, as well."


            "But how –?"


            Nahrmahn chopped the question off. He stared at Wave Thunder for several more seconds, then inhaled deeply.


            "I begin to understand what you meant about 'needing to know,' My Lord. Understanding it will make my curiosity burn no less brightly, but I'm not about to ask you to compromise your access to information that detailed. And please believe me when I tell you that the realization that you and the Emperor have access to it should quite neatly depress any temptation on my part to even contemplate betraying my oath of fealty to him. After all," the Emeraldian prince showed his teeth briefly, "it's extraordinarily difficult to concoct an effective plot without even talking to your fellow conspirators!"


            "I must confess I'm relieved to hear that, Your Highness. And if I'm going to be totally honest, that was, in fact, one of the conclusions both His Majesty and I hoped you would reach. Nonetheless, I was also completely honest when I said we would all appreciate any insight into this information which you might be able to help us to gain."


            "I'll be delighted to help in any way I can," Nahrmahn assured him.


            "I'm glad. Ah, there is one other minor point I need to touch upon, however, Your Highness."


            "Which would be what, Baron?"


            "His Majesty is aware that you and Baron Shandyr did, in fact, order Hektor's assassination," Wave Thunder said rather delicately. "Now, in the normal course of things, the Emperor would shed no tears if Hektor were to . . . suffer a fatal accident, shall we say? And, to be honest, it would seem a most appropriate fate for someone like Hektor. Unfortunately, we believe any attempt upon Hektor's life would have no more than an even chance of success, at best. And, more to the point, perhaps, there's no doubt in our minds as to who the Corisandians will blame for any such attempt at this time. While we cherish no illusions about the opinions already held in Corisande where Charis is concerned, we're deeply concerned about the propaganda value the Group of Four might be able to extract from such an attempt. In fact, in many ways, Hektor's assassination — especially if it could be reasonably charged that Charis was responsible — would be more valuable to the Group of Four than Hektor himself, alive, is. With his navy neutralized, and his realm open to invasion whenever we choose to strike, he's scarcely a military asset any longer, nor is there any way the 'Knights of the Temple Lands' could come to his assistance, even if they wished to. So, since he no longer has value as a living ally, someone like Chancellor Trynair, at the very least, would be quick to recognize his greater value as a dead martyr, treacherously slain by murderous Charisian assassins."


            Nahrmahn considered that, then nodded.


            "I can see your point, My Lord," he acknowledged, not even attempting to pretend he hadn't given exactly the instructions Wave Thunder had said he had. "At the time, for obvious reasons, I was less concerned about how Hektor's demise might affect Charis than I was about how a sudden power vacuum in Corisande might have attracted Charisian attention there and away from me. Obviously, that portion of my calculations requires some rethinking under the new arrangement."


            "Oh, indeed it does, Your Highness," Wave Thunder agreed with a smile. "And your comment about 'rethinking' brings me to my final point for this meeting. You see, Prince Nahrmahn, Emperor Cayleb doesn't believe you'll find it possible to stop scheming and plotting. Oh," the Charisian raised one hand and waved it back and forth, like a man brushing away an irritating fly, "that doesn't mean he suspects you of some fell intent to betray the oath you just swore. It simply means you are who you are, Your Highness, and this is the way your mind works. More than that, you're very good at it — much better than Hektor even begins to suspect — and it would be foolish of His Majesty to allow such a sharp and serviceable sword to rust into uselessness through disuse. Which is why he has a proposal he would like you to consider."


            "What sort of proposal, My Lord?" Nahrmahn asked, his eyes narrowed in speculation.


            "His Majesty, with Her Majesty's concurrence, wishes for me to remain here, in my existing post as the Kingdom of Charis' senior spy. It makes particularly good sense in light of the fact that I'm also the man in charge of our domestic security and investigations. Given the potential for internal unrest which the schism with the Church creates, this is scarcely the time for me to be taking my finger off of that particular pulse.


            "By the same token, they wish for Baron Shandyr to retain his post in Emerald, and Sir Ahlber Zhustyn to do the same thing in Chisholm. That, however, leaves a glaring vacancy which they're considering calling upon you to fill."


            "You can't be serious, My Lord," Nahrmahn said. Wave Thunder cocked his head, raising one eyebrow, and Nahrmahn shook his head. "It's been less than three days since I swore fealty to Cayleb, and less than three years since I attempted to have him assassinated. Whatever else he may be, Cayleb is neither an idiot nor a fool!"


            "You're absolutely right, he isn't," Wave Thunder agreed. "Nonetheless, he and Empress Sharleyan propose precisely what you were thinking about. The Empire will require an imperial spymaster, and you, Your Highness, have both the aptitude and the rank and authority to fill that post admirably."


            "But only if Cayleb can trust me!" Nahrmahn protested.


            "First, His Majesty wouldn't have offered you the terms he offered you if he'd felt you'd be likely to betray him. You've just seen the sort of information upon which he based that assessment, and I assure you it wasn't a judgment which was arrived at lightly. Second, do you truly believe, given what you've just learned, that he would be unaware of any actions on your part if you should succumb to the temptation to plot against him? And, third, Your Highness, Emperor Cayleb and Empress Sharleyan — and I, for what it matters — believe you truly mean the things you've said about the Group of Four, Mother Church's corruption, and the inevitable consequences of the events Clyntahn and Trynair have set in motion. In short, we believe you have no reasonable motive to betray any trust the Crown might place in you, and every reason to support the Crown against Clyntahn and his cronies. You may rest assured that neither the Emperor nor the Empress is so foolish as to forget to . . . keep an eye on you until they're certain their judgment is accurate, of course. But as the Emperor pointed out, after so many years of 'playing the great game,' as I believe you've put it upon occasion, it's foolish to think you'll somehow be able to magically stop, however genuine your resolve to do so might be. That being the case, he prefers to channel your natural bent into a useful occupation, rather than letting it tempt you into some sort of . . .  mischief, instead."


            "'Mischief,' is it?" Nahrmahn repeated with a snort, and Wave Thunder shrugged.


            "Actually, Your Highness, I believe his exact words to the Empress were, 'We're never going to be able to shut that man's brain off, whatever we do. So, the way I see it, either we find a way to make it work for us, or else we disconnect it — and the head it lives in — from the rest of his body. And that's so messy.'"


            Despite himself, Nahrmahn sputtered with laughter. He could just see Cayleb saying exactly that, even picture the glint in the emperor's brown eyes.


            And the fact is, he's got a point. I really do intend to behave myself, but even I'm not positive I'll be able to manage that. Yet even so


            "My Lord," he said frankly, "I'm not at all certain His Majesty isn't making a very serious mistake here. And whatever I may think about it, I strongly suspect that certain of his own nobles aren't going to be any too enthralled by the notion of suddenly finding me in such a critical post. Despite all that, though, I have to confess I'm . . . intrigued by the possibility."


            "I realize it's come at you as something of a surprise," Wave Thunder said with generous understatement. "Obviously it's something you're going to have to think about, and His Majesty realizes that. In fact, he recommends you discuss it with your wife. He and the Empress have a lively respect for her intelligence, and she undoubtedly knows you better than anyone else in the world. Including, if you'll forgive me for pointing this out, yourself. See what she thinks about it before you give the Emperor your answer."


            "Now that, My Lord," Nahrmahn Baytz said with total sincerity, "sounds like a very good idea, indeed."