Tahdayo Mahntayl, who would have been the Earl of Hanth for two years in exactly one more month, stood with Sir Styv Walkyr on one of Breygart House's balconies glaring west towards the smoke and tumult rising between them and the Hanth Town waterfront. The broad waters of Margaret Bay stretched as far as the eye could see beyond the wharves and warehouses. The bay could be as stormy a body of water as anyone was likely to find, Walkyr thought, but today, it was far calmer than Hanth Town.


            "Goddamn them!" Mahntayl snarled. "I'll teach them better this time!"


            Walkyr bit his tongue rather firmly. The "earl" obviously hadn't managed to school his unruly subjects in the last two years. Exactly what made him think he was going to manage it in the next two days escaped Walkyr.


            "Who the hell do they think they are?" Mahntayl went on. "This is all that bastard Cayleb's fault!"


            "Well," Walkyr said as reasonably as he could, "it's hardly a surprise, is it? I mean, you know how it must have stuck in his and his father's craws when the Church rammed the decision in your favor down their throats."


            "What d'you mean, 'the decision in my favor'?" Mahntayl snarled. "I had the better claim!"


            It was even harder for Walkyr to hold his tongue this time around. The truth, as Mahntayl surely knew inside, was that his claim had been as completely and totally specious as Sir Hauwerd Breygart and his supporters had insisted all long. Walkyr had no idea where Mahntayl had gotten hold of the forged correspondence which purported to establish his claim to the earldom, but that it was a forgery was beyond question, whatever the Church had decided after receiving sufficient inducement from Nahrmahn of Emerald and Hektor of Corisande.


            Apparently, Mahntayl had begun to entertain a few delusions upon that head, however. For years, as Walkyr knew perfectly well, all the so-called "Earl of Hanth" had really hoped for was that he'd be a big enough nuisance that Breygart — or possibly Haarahld of Charis — would decide to buy him off just to make him go away. But then, contrary to all expectations, the Church had abruptly and unexpectedly decided in favor of his obviously fraudulent claim, and his horizons had suddenly expanded. Now that he'd had two years in Hanth, he wasn't prepared to give up his purloined title. In fact, he was no longer prepared even to admit that it had been fraudulently obtained in the first place.


            Unfortunately, Walkyr thought dryly, his loving subjects — and Cayleb Ahrmahk — aren't in agreement with him on that minor point. And if Tahdayo still had the sense God gave a slash lizard, he'd already have taken Cayleb's offer and found a fast ship to somewhere else.


            Which is exactly what I ought to be doing, whatever he finally chooses.


            "I only meant to say," he said now, mildly, wondering what crossgrained, quixotic instinct kept him here in Hanth still trying to save Mahntayl's hide, "that Haarahld and Cayleb took the decision against Breygart personally. We both knew that at the time, Tahdayo." He shrugged. "Obviously, now that he's come to the point of open conflict with the Church, he doesn't see any reason to pussyfoot around where a situation in his own backyard is concerned. And with Emerald and Corisande's navies mostly either at the bottom of the sea or anchored off Tellesberg as prizes, there's no one who's going to be able to stop him.


            "So, after coming this far, I should just cut and run with my tail between my legs?" Mahntayl demanded harshly.


            "I prefer to think of it as salvaging what you can now that the luck's turned against you. If there's any way you could stand off Cayleb's entire navy — and his Marines — I don't know what it is."


            "Bishop Mylz swears the Church will protect us."


            From his expression, even Mahntayl must have recognized how lame his own tone sounded, Walkyr thought. Bishop Mylz Halcom was one of only four of the Archbishopric of Charis' bishops who had refused the summons to Tellesberg to endorse Maikel Staynair's elevation. His diocese included Hanth and most of the other earldoms and baronies along the eastern shore of Margaret Bay. Clearly, he had hopes of establishing some sort of citadel for what he insisted on referring to as the "true Church" here in Margaret's Land until the Council of Vicars could somehow come to his aid.


            Which only means he's as delusional as Tahdayo. Maybe even more so.


            "I'm sure Bishop Mylz means what he says," he said aloud. After all, one couldn't exactly call a bishop of Mother Church a frigging lunatic even if — or perhaps especially if — he was one." But whatever his intentions and hopes may be, I'm not sure he fully understands the gravity of the situation, Tahdayo."


            "So you think Cayleb can successfully defy even God Himself, do you?"


            "I didn't say that," Walkyr replied patiently. "What I said was that the situation is grave, and it is. Does Bishop Mylz have an army tucked away somewhere? Does he have the troops and warships to support us against the Royal Charisian Navy and the entire Kingdom? Because, if he doesn't, then in the short term, yes — Cayleb can defy God's Church."


            Which isn't quite the same thing as defying "God Himself," is it?


            "I'm not going to run like a whipped cur! I'm the Earl of Hanth! If I have to, I can still die like an earl!" Mahntayl snarled, then turned and stormed off the balcony back into Breygart House.


            Walkyr watched him go, then turned back to the smoke rising from the warehouse district. All reports indicated that Mahntayl's dwindling cadre of loyalists had already lost control of Mountain Keep and Kiarys, two of the three major towns outside the earldom's capital of Hanth Town, itself. And the reports from Zhorjtown suggested that the situation wasn't much better there. Worse, both Mountain Keep and Kiarys backed up against the Hanth Mountains, and Mountain Keep controlled the Hanth end of the one really practicable pass from the Earldom of Lochair, on Howell Bay. Which meant the best overland escape route had already been closed . . . not to mention the fact that it gave Cayleb control of yet another potential invasion route.


            I don't care what Bishop Mylz and the other Temple Loyalists may think, Styv Walkyr thought grimly. However things work out in the end, Cayleb's defiance of the Church is already an established fact here in Charis. And, frankly, the way Tahdayo's spent the last two years squeezing the people of "his" earldom, they'd be ready to sign on with Shan-wei herself if it meant getting his arse kicked out of Breygart House!


            Walkyr had no idea how the tempest sweeping across Safehold would finally end — or, for that matter, if it ever would end. But of one thing he was absolutely certain. Whatever finally happened, Tahdayo Mahntayl would not be the Earl of Hanth when it was over.


            And Tahdayo knows that, somewhere inside, whether he's willing to admit it or not.


            The smoke seemed to be thicker, he observed. And he heard more than a few gunshots. Obviously, Colonel Zhorj's troopers had missed at least a few matchlocks, which had apparently come out of hiding. It wouldn't be enough to take Hanth Town away from the present management — not today, at least. But the time limit Cayleb had given Mahntayl was running out fast. In fact, it had only two five-days to go.


            Whether Tahdayo accepts it in the end or not, I'm not going to be here when his time runs out. Cayleb's obviously willing to let him run rather than risk higher casualties — especially civilians ones — here in Hanth if he decides to fight. But if Tahdayo doesn't accept the offer, Cayleb will come in here and kick his arse out of Breygart House. And in the process, he'll undoubtedly make him a head shorter. Which is probably the same thing that will happen to me, if I hang around.


            He shook thehead which was still (for the moment, at least) attached to his neck and wondered why in the world he was even hesitating. It wasn't as if he'd ever seen Tahdayo as anything more than a way to make a few marks, himself. Still, he'd been with Tahdayo for almost seven years now. Obviously, that meant more to him than he'd previously suspected.


            Which is remarkably stupid of me.


            Well, he still had at least one fivre-day in hand to work on restoring "the Earl of Hanth's" sanity. And he'd had the forethought to send quite a bit of his own share of the loot he and Mahntayl had squeezed out of Hanth to bankers in the Desnarian Empire. If he had to run without Mahntayl, he had a sufficient nest egg to keep him in comfort for the remainder of his life. Which would be a considerably longer life if he departed in time.


            Maybe I can convince him the Church really will restore him — eventually — to "his" earldom. For that matter, Walkyr's eyes narrowed, he probably really would be of considerable value to the Church as the pretender to — no, not the pretender to, the "legitimate Earl of" — Hanth. Especially if the reason he was driven out had nothing to do with the fact that his loving subjects hate his guts and had everything to do with his persecution for his steadfast loyalty to Mother Church.


            Walkyr's lips pursed thoughtfully. That really was an excellent notion, he thought. And the possibility of Mahntayl's still being recognized as the Earl of Hanth (by someone, at least) and probably being supported as befitted his title might well be enough to let Walkyr convince the man it was time to go.


            And if the Church does decide to support his claim, I can probably make the Group of Four see that it would be worth their while to keep someone who can manage him riding herd on him. For a price, of course.


            Walkyr's eyes brightened at the prospect, and he scratched his chin thoughtfully, still gazing at the smoke and listening to the gunshots, while he considered the best way to present his argument to the "earl."