Trynair nodded. So did Duchairn. Despite his personal opinion of Maigwair's intellect, the Church's treasurer had to admit that when it came to implementing tasks, the captain general frequently showed the traces of genuine ability which had gotten him elevated to the vicarate in the first place.


            Of course, he thought sardonically, the fact that Allayn's uncle was Grand Vicar the year he was elevated to the orange also had just a little bit to do with it. And the problem' s never been that Maigwair can't carry out instructions; it's that he's pitiful when it comes to deciding which tasks ought to be undertaken to begin with.


            "I was afraid you were going to say that, Allayn," Trynair said. "I believe it might well be worthwhile to begin building up that workforce as quickly as possible, but I'd already assumed we'd be forced to look elsewhere in the short term. So what are our prospects in that direction?"


            "None of the mainland realms have the concentrated shipbuilding capacity Charis possesses," Maigwair replied. "Desnair certainly doesn't, and neither does Siddarmark."


            "Umpfh!" The irate grunt came from Clyntahn, and everyone looked at him. "There's no way I want to rely on Siddarmark for naval support, shipyards or no shipyards," the Grand Inquisitor said bluntly. "I don't trust Stohnar as far as I can fart. He's likely to take our money, build the ships, and then decide to throw in with Charis and use them against us!"


            Duchairn frowned. The Siddarmark Republic and its growing power and apparent territorial ambitions had concerned the Group of Four and its predecessors for decades. Indeed, Siddarmark had been considered an actual, immediate threat, potentially at least, while Charis had been regarded more as a long-term cancer which must be excised before it became a threat. And Lord Protector Greyghor Stohnar, the current ruler of Siddarmark, was a dangerously capable man. Worse, he'd been elected to the protectorship. That gave him a much broader base of support than would have been the case for many an hereditary ruler who might have aroused the Church's ire. Against that backdrop, it was scarcely surprising Clyntahn should react strongly against the possibility of actually increasing Siddarmark's military potential. Still . . . .


            "If we obviously exclude Siddarmark from any shipbuilding programs," he said in a painfully neutral tone, "Stohnar, for one, is unlikely to misconstrue our reasoning."


            "Fuck Stohnar," Clyntahn said crudely, then grimaced. "Of course he's unlikely to misunderstand," he said in somewhat more temperate tones. "On the other hand, he already knows we don't trust him. God knows we've never made any great secret of it among ourselves or in our correspondence with him. Since the enmity's already there, I'm in favor of depriving him of any additional weapons he might use against us rather than worrying about how the injury to his tender sensibilities might turn him against us."


            "Zhaspahr has a point, I think," Trynair said. "And we can still . . . soften the blow, I suppose, by spreading some of the gold we're not using on ships in Siddarmark around to Siddarmark's wheat farmers. For that matter, they have plenty of excess pikemen we could hire when the time comes."


            "All right, then," Maigwair said, "excluding Siddarmark, and leaving Desnair and Sodar aside because they have almost as little naval capacity as we do, that really leaves only Dohlar, the Empire, and Tarot. And, of course, Corisande and Chisholm."


            The last sentence was a sour afterthought, and Duchairn snorted mentally. Corisande's shipbuilding capacity was going to become a moot point as soon as Cayleb and Charis got around to dealing with Hektor, which was probably true for Tarot, as well. And unless Duchairn much missed his guess, Chisholm's building capacity was more likely to be added to that of Charis than brought to the support of Mother Church.


            Dohlar and the Empire of Harchong were very different matters, however. Dohlar, at the moment, no longer had a navy, courtesy of the Royal Charisian Navy, but King Rahnyld had been attempting to increase his shipbuilding capacity for many years. And Harchong — the largest and most populous of all Safehold's kingdoms and empires — had the biggest fleet of any of the mainland realms.


            "Rahnyld is going to want revenge for what happened to him," Maigwair continued, putting Duchairn's thoughts into words. "If we agree to subsidize the rebuilding of his navy, I'm sure he'll jump at it. And he'd be even happier to build ships expressly for Mother Church's service, since Dohlar would get to pocket every mark of their price at no cost to his own treasury.


            "As for Harchong, most of its navy is laid up. I have no idea how much of it may be serviceable and how much of it's hopelessly rotten by now. But the Empire at least has shipyards, which we don't. And I don't think any of us would have any qualms about the Emperor's reliability."


            Which was certainly true, Duchairn reflected. Harchong was the oldest, wealthiest, largest, and most conservative realm in existence. It was also arrogant, disdainful of all outsiders, and run by an efficient but deeply corrupt bureaucracy. From the Group of Four's perspective, however, what mattered just now was that the Harchong aristocracy's allegiance to Mother Church was ironclad. That aristocracy could always be relied upon to come to Mother Church's defense in return for Mother Church's validation of its privileges and power over the hapless serfs who drudged away their lives on its huge, sprawling estates.


            "I'll have to do some research before I could give you any hard and fast numbers," Maigwair said. "I believe that between Harchong and Dohlar, we could probably come close to matching Charis' present building capacity, though. Charis will probably do everything that it can to increase its capacity, of course, but it simply doesn't have the manpower — or the wealth — to match the extent to which we could expand Harchong's and Dohlar's shipyards."


            "What about Trellheim?" Clyntahn asked, and Maigwair's face tightened in scorn, or possibly disgust.


            "None of those lordlings have more than a handful of galleys apiece," he said, "and the lot of them are nothing more than common pirates. If they had the ship strength to make their raids on Harchong's coastal shipping more than a nuisance, the Emperor would already have conquered them outright long-ago."


            Clyntahn grunted again, then nodded in agreement.


            "So it would appear to me," Trynair said in his patented summarizing fashion, "that we're in agreement that one of our first steps must be to undertake a major naval expansion through Harchong and Dohlar. Until Allayn's had an opportunity to conduct his research, we don't know how long that's going to take. I'd be surprised, however, if it takes less than a year or two, at the very best. During that time, we will remain secure against attack here, but we'll be unable to take the offensive against Charis. So our immediate concern is how to address that period in which we can't effectively attack them — with fleets or armies, at least — and how to deal with our fellow vicars' reaction to these . . .  tumultuous events."


            "It's clearly our responsibility to prevent any weaker souls among the vicarate from overreacting to the current  provocation, despite the undoubted seriousness of that provocation," Clyntahn said. "Charis has bidden defiance to the Church, to the Archangels, and to God Himself. I believe we must quench any sparks of panic among those weaker souls by making it clear to the entire vicarate that we have no intention of allowing that defiance to stand. And that we intend to deal . . . firmly with any additional outbreaks of defiance. That will be the Inquisition's task."


            The Grand Inquisitor's face was hard and cold.


            "At the same time, however, we must prepare the entire Council for the reality that it will take time for us to forge the new weapons we need for our inevitable counterstroke," he continued. "That may be difficult in the face of the deep concern many of our brothers in God will undoubtedly feel, and I believe your earlier point was well taken, Zahmsyn. We must make it clear to those . . . concerned souls that Charis' apparent strength, and Charis' initial victories, are not a threat to us, but rather a sign to Mother Church. A warning we must all heed. Indeed, if one considers the situation with unclouded eyes, secure — as one ought to be — in one's faith, the hand of God Himself is abundantly clear. Only the achievement of such an apparently overwhelming triumph could have tempted the secret heretics of Charis into openly revealing themselves for what they are. By permitting them their transitory victory, God has stripped away their mask for all to see. And yet, as you say, Zahmsyn, He's done this in a way which still leaves them unable to truly threaten Mother Church or undermine her responsibility to guide and protect the souls of all His children."


            Trynair nodded again, and an icy quiver ran through Duchairn's bones. The Chancellor, he felt certain, had evolved his explanation as if he were solving a chess problem, or perhaps any of the purely secular machinations and strategies his office was forced to confront daily. It was an intellectual ploy based on pragmatism and the naked realities of politics at the highest possible level. But the glitter it had lit in Clyntahn's eyes continued to glow. Whatever the Chancellor might think, and however capable of cynical calculation the Grand Inquisitor might be when it suited his purposes, the fervent conviction in Clyntahn's tone was most definitely not feigned. He had embraced Trynair's analysis not simply out of expediency, but because he believed it, as well.


            And why does that frighten me so? I'm a Vicar of Mother Church, for God's sake! However we came to where we are, we know what God demands of us, just as we know that God is all-powerful, all-knowing. Why shouldn't He have used our own actions to reveal the truth about Charis? Show us how deep the rot truly runs in Tellesberg?


            Something happened deep in Rhobair Duchairn's heart and soul, and another thought occurred to him.


            I have to think about this, spend time in prayer and meditation, pondering the Writ and The Commentaries. Perhaps the people like the Wylsynns have been right all along. Perhaps we have grown too arrogant, too enamored of our power as secular princes. The Charisians may not be the only ones whose mask God has decided to strip away. Perhaps this entire debacle is God's mirror, held up to show us the potential consequences of our own sinful actions and overweening pride.


            It was not, he knew, a suggestion to be brought forth at this moment, in this place. It was one to be considered carefully, in the stillness and quiet of his own heart. And yet . . . .


            For the first time in far too many years, in the face of obviously unmitigated disaster, Vicar Rhobair Duchairn found himself once more contemplating the mysterious actions of God through the eyes of faith and not the careful calculation of advantage.