The Treasurer General reached out and drew the nearest document closer. He had no need to consult its text, of course; that much was already branded indelibly into his memory, but he ran his fingertips across the seals affixed to it.


            Under other circumstances, it would have been unexceptionable enough. The language was the same as that which had been used scores — thouands — of times before to announce the demise of one monarch, duke, or other feudal magnate and the assumption of his titles by his heir. Unfortunately, the circumstances were anything but normal in this instance, for the monarch in question, Haarahld VII of Charis, had not died in bed.


            And there is that one minor difference between this writ of succession and all the others, Duchairn reminded himself, letting his fingers trace the largest and most ornate seal of all. By both law and ancient tradition, no succession was valid or final until it had been confirmed by Mother Church, which was supposed to mean by the Council of Vicars. But this writ of succession already bore Mother Church's seal, and Duchairn's eyes slipped to the second — and, in his opinion, more dangerous — succession writ.


            Neither of them could have been more politely phrased. No one could point to a single overtly defiant statement. Yet the seal affixed to the first writ of succession belonged to the Archbishop of Charis, and in the eyes of Mother Church, there was no Archbishop of Charis. Erayk Dynnys, who had held that office, had been stripped of it and was currently awaiting execution for the crimes of treason, malfeasance, and the encouragement of heresy. The Council of Vicars had not yet even considered a replacement for him, but the Kingdom of Charis clearly had . . . as the second writ made abundantly clear.


            It was, for all the blandness of its phrasing, a clear-cut declaration of war against the entire Church of God Awaiting, and just in case anyone had failed to notice, there was always the third document. . . . the original copy of Staynair's letter to Grand Vicar Erek.


            Duchairn was certain that the blandness of the two writs of succession, the contrast between their traditional phraseology and terminology and Staynair's fiery "letter,"  was intentional. Their very everyday normality not only underscored the deadly condemnation of Staynair's accusations, but also made it clear that Charis intended to continue about its own affairs, its own concerns, without one iota of deference to the desires or commands of the Church it had chosen to defy.


            No, not simply defy. That was the reason the writs of succession had been written as they had, sent as they had. They were the proof that Charis was prepared to ignore Mother Church, and in many ways, that was even more deadly.


            Never in all of Safehold's history had any secular monarch dared to name the man of his own choice as the chief prelate of his realm. Never. That was the Council of Vicars' official position, although Duchairn was well aware of the persistent, whispered rumors that Mother Church's traditions had not always supported that view of things.


            But this was no hypothetical age which might have existed once, centuries ago. This was the present, and in the present, it was a patently illegal act. Yet the writ of appointment naming Maikel Staynair Archbishop of all Charis carried not simply Cayleb Ahrmahk's signature, but also the signatures and seals of every member of his Royal Council, the Speaker of the House of Commons . . . and of nineteen of the twenty-three other bishops of the Kingdom of Charis. The same signatures and seals had been affixed individually to Staynair's "letter," as well, which was even more frightening. This wasn't one man's, one king's, one usurping archbishop's, act of defiance; it was an entire kingdom's, and the consequences if it was allowed to stand were unthinkable.


            But how do we keep it from standing? Duchairn asked himself almost despairingly. They've defeated — as Zahmsyn says, destroyed — the navies of Corisande, Emerald, Chisholm, Tarot, and Dohlar. There's no one left, no one we can possibly send against them.


            "I think," Trynair continued into his colleagues' angry, frightened silence, "that we must begin by admitting the limitations we currently face. And, to be honest, we have no choice but to confront openly both the failure of our original policy and the difficulties we face in attempting to recover from that failure."


            "How?" Maigwair demanded, obviously still smarting from Trynair's earlier remarks.


            "The charge which is most likely to prove dangerous to Mother Church and the authority of the Council of Vicars," Trynair replied, "is that the attack directed against Charis has somehow pushed Cayleb and his adherents into this open defiance and heresy. That had we not acted against Haarahld's earlier policies as we did, Charis would not have been lost to us."


            He looked around the table one more, and Duchairn nodded back shortly. Of course that was what their enemies were going to say. After all, it was true, wasn't it?


            "I suggest to you," Trynair said, "that these documents are the clearest possible proof that there is no accuracy at all to such a charge."


            Duchairn felt his eyebrows trying to arch in astonishment, but he somehow kept his jaw from dropping.


            "It's obvious," the Chancellor continued, still sounding as if what he was saying actually had some nodding acquaintance with reality, "no matter whose name is signed to this so-called 'open letter,' that the hand truly behind it is Cayleb's. That Staynair is simply Cayleb's mouthpiece and puppet, the sacrilegious and blasphemous mask for Cayleb's determination to adhere to his father's aggressive and dangerous foreign policy. No doubt some people will see Cayleb's undeniable anger over his father's death and the attack which we supported as impelling him to take such defiant steps. However, as has been well established, it was not Mother Church or the Council of Vicars, but the Knights of the Temple Lands who supported the resort to arms against Haarahld's overweening ambition."


            Clyntahn and Maigwair swallowed that, too, Duchairn noted, even though it just happened that the "secular " magnates of the Temple Lands also all happened to the members of the Council of Vicars, as well. It was true that the legal fiction that they were two separate entities had served the purposes of the vicarate often enough over the years. Yet the very frequency with which that particular ploy had been used meant everyone recognized it as a false distinction.


            None of which seemed to faze Trynair, who simply went on speaking as if he were making some sort of genuine differentiation.


            "Nowhere in any of the correspondence or diplomatic exchanges between the Knights of the Temple Lands and any of the secular rulers involved was there any discussion of Crusade or Holy War, which would surely have been the case had Mother Church moved against apostates and heretics. Clearly, Cayleb and his supporters are in possession of much of the correspondence between the Knights of the Temple Lands' secular allies and their naval commanders. As such, they must be aware of the fact that Mother Church was never involved at all and that, in fact, the entire war had its causes in purely secular motives and rivalries. Yet their immediate response has been to impiously and heretically name an apostate bishop to the primacy of the Archbishopric of Charis in defiance of the Council of Vicars as God's chosen and consecrated stewards and to flatly reject Mother Church's God-given authority over all of God's children."


            He leaned back in his chair, his expression suitably grave, and Duchairn blinked. He'd never heard such a heap of unadulterated claptrap in his entire life. And yet . . . .


            "So what you're saying," he heard his own voice say, "is that the actions they've taken prove they were already lost to apostasy and heresy before anyone ever moved against them?"


            "Precisely." Trynair waved one hand at the documents. "Look at the number of signatures, the number of seals, on these writs and Staynair's letter. How could anyone have possibly generated such a unified, prompt response to any perception of Mother Church's hostility? At least some of the nobles of Charis must be aware of the fact that the Council of Vicars and Grand Vicar Erek never authorized, far less demanded, any attack on their kingdom. And even if they weren't, Mother Church's own bishops must know the truth! Yet here they are, supporting Cayleb's illegal and impious actions. If, in fact, it were no more than a response to the attack of a purely secular alliance, Cayleb could never have secured the support of such an overwhelming majority in so short a time. The only possible explanation is that the entire kingdom has been falling steadily into the hands of the enemies of God and that those enemies have seized upon the current situation as a pretext for open defiance of the legitimate stewards of God and Langhorne here on Safehold."


            Duchairn sat back in his own chair, his expression intent. It wasn't just claptrap — it was, in fact, outright dragon shit — but he saw where Trynair was headed.


            And so, apparently, did Clyntahn.


            "I see what you mean, Zahmsyn." There was an unpleasant glow in the Grand Inquisitor's eyes. "And you're right, of course. No doubt Cayleb and his lackeys were as surprised as anyone by the scale of their naval victories. Obviously the overconfidence and arrogance that's generated has led them to openly embrace the heretical attitudes and goals which they've been secretly nuturing for so long."


            "Precisely," Trynair said again. "Indeed, I think it's highly likely — almost a certainty — that the Ahrmahk dynasty, and others who have fallen into the same sin, have been headed in this very direction ever since Haarahld insisted Archbishop Rojyr name Staynair Bishop of Tellesberg. Obviously that insistence was part of a long-standing plan to subvert Mother Church's loyalties in Charis . . . as the rest of the Council is well aware that Zhaspahr has warned everyone so many times might be the case."


            Duchairn's eyes narrowed. He couldn't very well dispute Trynair's thesis, since Erayk Dynnys' failure to remove Staynair from his see and purge his archbishopric's ecclesiastic hierarchy of its Charisian elements had been one of the many crimes of which he had been convicted.


            On the other hand, of the nineteen bishops who had concurred in Staynair's illegal elevation, only six were nativeborn Charisians, which left the question of how Haarahld, and now Cayleb, had influenced the others into supporting the Ahrmahks' criminal actions. That was a fact to which the Group of Four would undoubtedly be well advised to avoid drawing attention, he thought.


            "Even so," he pointed out aloud, "that leaves us with the problem of how we respond. Whether they've been secretly planning this for years or not doesn't change the consequences we have to deal with."


            "True." Trynair nodded. "However, despite the gravity of the situation, there's no need for panic or overly precipitous action. Although we may not currently possess the naval strength to act directly against Charis, Cayleb has no army. His fleet may suffice — for now — to keep the armies Mother Church may summon to her banner away from the shores of his kingdom, but he cannot threaten Mother Church's own security here in Haven or Howard. And let us not forget that Charis is a small kingdom, when all's said and done, while nine in ten of all the human souls of Safehold are found in the kingdoms and empires of Haven and Howard. Even if Cayleb controlled every ship on God's seas, he could never raise the troop strength to attack here. And so, ultimately, time must be on our side. We can always build new ships, in the fullness of time; he cannot somehow create the manpower required for him to raise whole armies, however much time he may have."


            "Building fleets isn't something to be accomplished in a day, or even a five-day," Duchairn pointed out.


            "Allayn?" Trynair looked at Maigwair. The captain general straightened a bit in his chair, and his eyes lost some of their earlier sullenness. "Do we have the capacity to build a new navy?" the Chancellor continued. "And if we don't, how long will it take to create that capacity?"


            "If you're asking whether or not Mother Church and the Temple Lands have the capacity to build a navy, the answer is no, not immediately," Maigwair admitted. "We could almost certainly build that capacity, but it would require us to import the carpenters, designers, and all the other skilled workers shipyards require. Or enough of them to train our own workforce, at least." He shrugged. "The Temple Lands have never been a naval power, for obvious reasons. The only 'seacoast' we have is on Hsing-wu's Passage, and that's frozen every winter."