June, Year of God 892





The Temple of God,


City of Zion,


the Temple Lands


            The atmosphere in the conference chamber was less than collegial.


            All four of the men sitting around the fabulously expensive table with its inlaid ivory, rock crystal, and gems wore the orange cassocks of vicars. The silken fabric was rich with embroidery, glinting with the understated elegance of tiny, faceted jewels, and the priest caps on the table before them gleamed with gold bullion and silver lace. Any one of them could have fed a family of ten for a year just from the value of the ruby ring of office he wore, and their faces normally showed the confidence and assurance one would have expected from the princes of God's Church. None of them was accustomed to failure . . . or to having his will thwarted.


            And none of them had ever before imagined disaster on such a scale.


            "Who the fuck do these bastards think they are?" Allayn Maigwair, Captain General of the Church of God Awaiting, grated. By rights, the thick, expensive sheets of parchment on the table before him should have burst into spontaneous flame under the heat of the glare he turned upon them.


            "With all due respect, Allayn," Vicar Rhobair Duchairn said harshly, "they think they're the people who just destroyed effectively every other navy in the world. And the people who understand exactly who sent those navies to burn their entire kingdom to the ground."


            Maigwair turned his glare on Duchairn, but the Church of God Awaiting's Treasurer General seemed remarkably unfazed by his obvious anger. There was even more than a hint of "I told you so" in Duchairn's expression. After all, he'd been the only member of the "Group of Four" who'd persistently advised against taking precipitous action against the Kingdom of Charis.


            "They're fucking heretics, that's what they are, Rhobair," Zhaspahr Clyntahn half-snapped in a dangerous voice. "Don't ever forget that! I promise you the Inquisition isn't going to! The Archangel Schueler tells us how to deal with Shan-wei's foul get!"


            Duchairn's lips tightened angrily, but he didn't reply immediately. Clyntahn had been in an ugly mood for five-days, even before the messages from Charis arrived. Although he was famed for his bouts of temper and his ability to hold grudges forever, neither Duchairn nor anyone else had ever seen the Grand Inquisitor as furious — or as persistently furious — as he'd been ever since the Church's semaphore system reported the disastrous consequences of the battles off Armageddon Reef and in Darcos Sound.


            Of course we haven't, Duchairn thought disgustedly. This entire disaster is the consequence of our letting Zhaspahr rush us into his damned "final solution of the Charisian problem!" And no wonder Maigwair's just as pissed off as Zhaspahr. After all, he was the one who made it all sound so simple, so foolproof, when he laid out his brilliant plan for the campaign.


            He started to say exactly that aloud, but he didn't. He didn't say it for several reasons. First, however little he wanted to admit it, because he was frightened of Clyntahn. The Grand Inquisitor was undoubtedly the most dangerous single enemy within the Church anyone could possibly make. Second, however much Duchairn might have argued initially against taking action against Charis, it hadn't been because he'd somehow magically recognized the military danger no one else had seen. He'd argued against it because, as the Church's chief accountant, he'd realized just how much of the Church's revenue stream Clyntahn proposed to destroy along with the Kingdom of Charis. And, third, because the disaster which had resulted was so complete, so overwhelming, that the Group of Four's hold upon the rest of the Council hung by a thread. If they showed a single sign of internal disunion, their enemies among the vicarate would turn upon them in a heartbeat . . . and the rest of the vicars were just as frightened as Duchairn himself. They were going to be looking for scapegoats, and the consequences for any scapegoats they fastened upon were going to be . . . ugly.


            "They may very well be heretics, Zhaspahr," he said instead. "And no one disputes that matters of heresy come rightfully under the authority of your office. But that doesn't make anything I just said untrue, does it? Unless you happen to have another fleet tucked away somewhere that none of the rest of us know anything about."


            From the dangerous shade of puce which suffused the Grand Inquisitor's heavy face, Duchairn thought for a moment that he'd gone too far, anyway. There had always been a dangerous attack dog (some had even very quietly used the term "mad dog") edge to Zhaspahr Clyntahn, and the man had demonstrated his utter ruthlessness often enough. It was entirely possible that he might decide his best tactic in this instance lay in using the power of his office to turn upon the other members of the Group of Four and transform them into his own scapegoats.


            "No, Rhobair," a fourth voice said, preempting any response Clyntahn might have been about to make, "it doesn't make what you've just said untrue. But it does tend to put our problem rather into perspective, doesn't it?"


            Zahmsyn Trynair had an angular face, a neatly trimmed beard, and deep, intelligent eyes. He was also the only other member of the Group of Four whose personal power base was probably as strong as Clyntahn's. As Chancellor of the Council of Vicars, it was Trynair who truly formulated the policies which he then slipped into the mouth of Grand Vicar Erek XVII. In theory, that actually made him more powerful than Clyntahn, but his power was primarily political. It was an often indirect sort of power, one which was most effective applied gradually, over the course of time, whereas Clyntahn commanded the loyalty of the Inquisition and the swords of the Order of Schueler.


            Now, as Duchairn and Clyntahn both turned to look at him, Trynair shrugged.


            "Zhaspahr, I agree with you that what we've seen in the past few five-days, and even more what's contained in these –" he reached out and tapped the parchment documents which had occasioned this particular meeting " — certainly constitute heresy. But Rhobair has a point. Heretics or not, they've destroyed — not defeated, Zhaspahr, destroyed — what was for all intents and purposes the combined strength of every other navy of Safehold. At this moment, there's nothing we can do to attack them directly."


            Maigwair stirred angrily, straightening in his chair, but Trynair pinned him with a single cold stare.


            "If you know of any existing naval force which could possibly face the Charisian Navy in battle, Allayn, I suggest you tell us about it now," he said in a chill, precise tone.


            Maigwair flushed angrily, but he also looked away. He was well aware that his fellows regarded him with a certain contempt, even though they were normally careful about showing it. The truth was that it was his position as the commander of the Church's armed forces, and certainly not his inherent brilliance, which made him a member of the Group of Four. He'd enjoyed his chance to take center stage when it came to coordinating the attack on Charis precisely because it had finally allowed him to seize the limelight and assert his equality among them, but things hadn't worked out quite as well as he'd planned. Trynair watched him coolly for a handful of seconds, then returned his attention to Clyntahn.


            "There are those on the Council, as I'm sure we're all well aware, who are going to seek any opportunity to break our control, and Staynair's 'open letter' to the Grand Vicar hasn't exactly done anything to strengthen our position, has it? Some of those enemies of ours are already whispering that the current . . . unfortunate situation is entirely the result of our own precipitous action."


            "The Inquisition knows how to deal with anyone who seeks to undermine the authority and unity of the Council of Vicars in the face of such a monumental threat to the soul of every living child of God." Clyntahn's voice was colder than a Zion winter, and the zealotry which was so much a part of his complex, often self-contradictory personality glittered in his eyes.


            "I don't doubt it," Trynair replied. "But if it comes to that, then we may well find ourselves replicating this . . . this schism within the Council itself. I submit to you that any such consequence would scarcely be in the best interests of the Church or of our ability to deal with the heresy in question."


            Or of our own long-term survival, he very carefully did not add aloud, although all of his companions heard it anyway.


            Clyntahn's puffy, heavy-jowled face was like a stone wall, but, after several tense seconds, he nodded minutely.


            "Very well." Trynair managed to show no trace of the profound relief that grudging acquiescence engendered as he surveyed the other three faces around the table. "I think we have two separate but related problems. First, we must decide how Mother Church and the Council are going to deal with these." He tapped the parchment documents again. "And, second, we must decide what long-term course of action Mother Church and the Council can pursue in the face of our current military . . . embarrassment."


            Duchairn wasn't quite certain how he refrained from snorting derisively. Trynair's "separate but related problems" just happened to constitute the greatest threat the Church of God Awaiting had faced in the near-millennium since the Creation itself. Hearing the Chancellor talk about them as if they were no more than two more in the succession of minor administrative decisions the Group of Four had been required to make over the past decade or so was ludicrous.


            Yet what Trynair had said was also true, and the Chancellor was probably the only one of them who could genuinely hope to manage Clyntahn.