Clyntahn's jowls had darkened, and he'd opened his mouth to retort angrily, but Trynair's slow, calm, reasonable tone had stopped him. Now he glowered at the Chancellor for another few heartbeats, then shrugged.


            "Oh, very well," he growled.


            Duchairn simply folded his hands in front of him on the table and waited patiently. He remained wary of the Grand Inquisitor's power and increasingly irascible temper, but he no longer feared Clyntahn. Which was probably at least a little unreasonable of him, given what Clyntahn had already done to Erayk Dynnys. And, he realized as he sat waiting, the fact that he was no longer afraid of the Grand Inquisitor quite probably explained Clyntahn's increasing impatience with him. Zhaspahr Clyntahn didn't like the thought of not being feared.


            There's something I need to consider more deeply in that, the Church's treasurer thought. It says something about him, but it says something about me, too.


            "At any rate, we are all here now," Trynair continued. "And since you were the one who requested this meeting, Zhaspahr, why don't you go ahead and tell us why?"


            "Two things, really," Clyntahn replied. The Grand Inquisitor's irritation remained evident, but he straightened in his chair and some of the petulance faded from his expression. "One is a message from Bishop Executor Wyllys, and the other is a message from Father Styvyn in Delferahk."


            "Father Styvyn?" Allayn Maigwair repeated the name, then grimaced. "Which 'Father Styvyn,' Zhaspahr?"


            "He's Bishop Ernyst's intendant in Ferayd," Clyntahn said, and Duchairn's weren't the only eyebrows which rose in surprise.


            "And what exactly makes this message from . . . Father Styvyn, was it?" Trynair looked at Clyntahn, who bobbed his head in a curt nod. "Well, what makes this message from him so important?"


            "I'll get to that in a moment." Clyntahn waved his right hand as if he were pushing something aside on the table in front of him. "It's important, but I think we need to look at the Bishop Executor's message first."


            Trynair nodded, and Duchairn braced himself. He had no illusions about any message Wyllys Graisyn might have sent. Given the tenor of the Emeraldian bishop executor's recent correspondence, it was obvious Emerald's military position was about as close to hopeless as mere mortals could expect to come. And Graisyn's more recent analyses of Prince Nahrmahn's options — and inclinations — hadn't exactly provided cheerful bedtime reading.


            "Well, it isn't official yet — or, at least, it wasn't when Graisyn composed his message — but there's not much question that Nahrmahn's turning his coat," Clyntahn growled. All of his listeners sat up in their chairs, eyes narrowing, and he shrugged heavy shoulders. "I know Graisyn's been telling us for months that Emerald wouldn't be able to hold out long once Cayleb put his troops ashore, but I don't think even he saw this coming."


            "How good is his information?" Maigwair asked.


            "That's always the question, isn't it?" Clyntahn showed his teeth in a tight grin. "Apparently, neither he nor his intendant could confirm or deny the rumors swirling around Eraystor, but they were able to confirm that Pine Hollow's been sent off somewhere. And most of the rumors agree that there's only one logical place for Nahrmahn to be sending him. And now, apparently, Nahrmahn himself has sailed off somewhere, as well. Would any of you care to place a small wager on what his destination might have been?"


            Duchairn's face tightened in dismay. As Clyntahn said, there'd been little doubt the Charisians could conquer Emerald anytime they got around to it. But having Emerald conquered, bad as it might have been, was a very different prospect from having Emerald voluntarily align itself with the House of Ahrmahk's defiance of Mother Church's authority.


            "I can't believe Nahrmahn would do such a thing," Maigwair said, but his tone was that of a man trying to convince himself, and Clyntahn snorted again.


            "I can." The Grand Inquisitor's eyes glowed with anger. "Why shouldn't Nahrmahn follow Charis' example? They're right next to each other; they're both halfway around the world from Zion, which leaves them ripe for any heresy that comes along; and Nahrmahn's always had the moral character of a dockside whore."


            It was typical of Clyntahn, Duchairn reflected sourly, that he could condemn someone else's moral character with absolutely no sense of hypocrisy.


            "I'm afraid Zhaspahr has a point," Trynair said. "And, in some ways, it's probably difficult to blame Nahrmahn if he has sought an accommodation with Cayleb."


            "I can damned well blame him," Clyntahn retorted.


            "I didn't say he shouldn't be condemned for it, Zhaspahr," Trynair pointed out. "What I said was that it's difficult to blame him, and on a purely secular level, that's nothing but the simple truth. In fact, that's what's truly dangerous about this."


            "The fact that it neatly removes one distraction we were counting on to keep Charis occupied is scarcely a minor consideration, I'd think," Maigwair put in.


            "Actually, it is," Trynair disagreed coolly. Maigwair bristled, but the Chancellor shook his head. "Think it through, Allayn," he said. "Emerald was never going to be a serious 'distraction' for Charis without a navy to prevent its invasion. Not really, or not for very long, at least. But now Nahrmahn — assuming Graisyn's suspicions prove accurate — has made a political accommodation with Cayleb. I'm not sure how well it's going to work out for him, but I'm assuming that since he sent Pine Hollow ahead, and then followed himself, the terms have to be at least livable. As a matter of fact, if Cayleb is as clever as his father was, he'll probably have offered Nahrmahn remarkably generous terms. He's got a big enough stick in this new navy of his that he can afford to offer some very juicy carrots with his other hand. And if he does, then he's going to make it increasingly tempting for other potential Nahrmahns to reach understandings with him instead of trying to fight him."


            "Zahmsyn has a point," Duchairn said unhappily. The other three turned to look at him, and he shrugged. "If Nahrmahn's really done this, then it strikes directly at the reliability of all of the secular lords. He's made a political calculation and acted upon it in what can only be construed as deliberate, open defiance of Mother Church. He's put politics and his own personal survival in front of his overriding duty to protect Mother Church's sanctity and authority. Don't think for a moment that there aren't other secular rulers who'd feel exactly the same way in his place. And now they're going to have an example of someone who actually did jettison his loyalty and responsibilities to the Church out of pure political expediency. Do you truly think, assuming he gets away with it, that his example's going to be lost on the next 'Nahrmahn' on Charis' list?"


            "Exactly." Trynair nodded vigorously. "This is something which was probably going to rear its head inevitably, whatever happened. Given all the reasons for bad blood between Charis and Emerald, I didn't expect to see it quite this soon, but that only makes the example even worse. If Nahrmahn does this successfully, especially when all the world knows Haarahld and Cayleb both held him responsible for attempting Cayleb's assassination, it's going to tell everyone that Cayleb is willing to be 'reasonable.' And if we can't punish Nahrmahn effectively for it, that example is going to generate a lot of temptation to do exactly the same thing when the Royal Charisian Navy comes calling on other princes and kings."


            "Then stop it in its tracks," Clyntahn growled.


            "And precisely how do you propose to do that, Zhaspahr?" Trynair asked, and his tone was rather more tart then he normally used when addressing the Grand Inquisitor. "If Graisyn's correct, and Nahrmahn's already sailed, he's already accepted Cayleb's terms. He'd hardly sail off to Tellesberg while he's still at war with Charis if he hadn't already accepted them, now would he? And do you truly believe he wouldn't have taken precautions against anything Graisyn might do in his absence? In fact, I'm astonished Graisyn got a message off to us at all."


            "Don't be too astonished," Clyntahn told him. "The despatch boat from Emerald to Hammer Island left from Shalmar Keep, not Eraystor."


            The Grand Inquisitor grimaced, and Duchairn knew why. Shalmar Keep, the capital of the Duchy of Shalmar, was at the extreme northern end of Emerald Island, more than nine hundred miles from Nahrmahn's capital. 


            "And Graisyn's message wasn't even complete," Clyntahn continued in a harsh voice. "The transmission was interupted somewhere between Eraystor and Shalmar . . . assuming it wasn't cut off in Eraystor itself."


            "Wonderful." Maigwair expression could have been used to ferment beer, Duchairn thought. "So now you're telling us Nahrmahn's seized the semaphore in Emerald."


            "At the very least," Clyntahn agreed. "And I think we can safely assume he wouldn't have seized just the semaphore towers, now can't we?"


            "I'm sure you're right about that, too, Zhaspahr," Trynair said. "Which makes my own point even more urgent."


            "Agreed." Duchairn nodded. "On the other hand, Zhaspahr, you said you had two messages — one from Emerald and one from Delferahk. Why don't we set Nahrmahn aside for the moment? We're going to have to make some hard decisions in his case, but it might be as well to let that pot simmer away in the backs of our brains for a few minutes. Besides, if these messages are going to have an impact on one another, we probably need to hear both of them before we get too deeply involved with figuring out what to do about one of them."


            "That makes sense," Trynair agreed, and turned back to Clyntahn. "What about this message from Ferayd, Zhaspahr?"


            "I'm not sure it has any bearing at all on Nahrmahn and Emerald." Clyntahn sounded irritated all over again, as if he resented having his ire redirected.


            "Perhaps not," Trynair said patiently. "On the other hand, we have to hear it sooner or later, so we might as well go ahead and hear it now."


            "Oh, very well." Clyntahn leaned back in his chair. "According to Father Styvyn, the seizure of the Charisian merchant ships in Ferayd didn't go what one might call smoothly."


            "What does that mean, exactly?" Duchairn asked, feeling a familiar unpleasant tightening sensation in his stomach muscles.


            "It means the frigging heretics were too fucking stupid to do the smart thing," Clyntahn grunted. "When the Delferahkan troops tried to board their ships, they resisted. Which was stupid of them. Terminally stupid, as a matter of fact."


            "Some of them were killed, you mean?" Duchairn pressed.


            "No, I don't mean 'some of them' were killed," Clyntahn half-sneered. "I mean all of them were."


            "What?" The one-word question came from Trynair, not Duchairn, and Clyntahn looked at the Chancellor.


            "I mean that once they started killing Delferahkans, the gloves came off," he said, and shrugged. "That's the sort of thing that happens when you're stupid enough to piss off armed troops in someone else's port."


            "Are you saying there were no Charisian survivors at all?" Duchairn demanded.


            "There may have been a handful." Clyntahn shrugged again. "According to Father Styvyn, there couldn't have been any more than that. Not aboard the ships the Delferahkans managed to keep from leaving port, at any rate."


            "You mean some of them got away?" Trynair sounded even unhappier than he had a moment before.


            "A half-dozen or so," Clyntahn confirmed. "Apparently, they were the ships anchored too far out to be boarded directly from dockside. And at least one of them was apparently one of the Charisians' damned privateers, presumably in disguise. At any rate, it was heavily armed with the new artillery, and it covered the others while they ran for it."