"Oh, don't look so surprised," Halcom half-scolded. "There was never really much hope of holding off Cayleb and that damned traitor Staynair. If I'd ever once admitted that, though, Mahntayl would have disappeared even sooner. And if there wasn't much hope of it, there was still at least a chance . . . as long as Mahntayl didn't run. But as you yourself just pointed out, there's no point deluding ourselves when reality hits us across the face. None of the other nobles in the diocese have the backbone to stand up to Cayleb, either — assuming any of them even wanted to in the first place. And, to be honest, most of them don't want to. For that matter, at least two-thirds of them probably agree with him, the traitorous bastards. At the very least, they're going to take the easy way out and give him whatever he wants. Probably they figure that if — when — Mother Church crushes him in the end, they'll be able to claim they only gave in to force majeure, despite their deep and heartfelt opposition to his apostasy. Mahntayl was the only one of them who couldn't reach an accommodation with Cayleb, even if he'd wanted to . . . assuming someone could somehow give him a sufficient infusion of guts to get him to stand and fight. That's the real reason you and I have been anchored here in Hanth ever since Darcos Sound."


            "I . . . see, My Lord," Shumay said slowly, as he found his brain reordering the events of the past few months, and what his bishop had had to say about them at the time, in light of Halcom's admission.


            "Don't misunderstand me, Ahlvyn." Halcom's face had hardened once again, this time with harsh determination. "There's no question in my mind, nor doubt in my heart, about what it is God, Langhorne, and Mother Church expect of us. The only questions are how we go about accomplishing our tasks. Obviously, Mahntayl's . . . departure strongly suggests that building any center of open resistance to this accursed 'Church of Charis' here around Margaret Bay isn't the way to do it. So the problem becomes what we do next."


            "And may I assume you have an answer to that in mind, My Lord?"


            "I had been thinking in terms of fleeing to Emerald," Halcom admitted. "Bishop Executor Wyllys could probably be counted upon to give us sanctuary, and I'm sure we could make ourselves useful to him in Emerald. But in the last few days, I've come to the conclusion that Emerald isn't our best destination, either."


            "May I ask why, My Lord?"


            "For two reasons, really. First, I'm none too certain the Bishop Executor is going to be in a position to offer anyone sanctuary for much longer." Halcom grimaced. "That pusillanimous worm Walkyr's been right about at least one thing all along, and that's the fact that Nahrmahn isn't going to be able to hold Cayleb off for long. Worse, I'm very much afraid Nahrmahn's been making plans of his own were Mother Church is concerned."


            "Surely not, My Lord!"


            "And why shouldn't he have been?" Halcom snorted. "Certainly not because you think he has some deep-seated moral fiber which is going to prevent him from seeing the same opportunities Cayleb's obviously seen! I've always suspected Nahrmahn was a lot brighter than he's chosen to encourage his enemies to believe he is. That isn't necessarily the same thing as principled, unfortunately, and a smart man without principles is dangerous. Very dangerous.


            "If Narhmahn hopes to reach any sort of accommodation with Cayleb, however unlikely that might seem, he must realize Cayleb and Staynair are going to require him to join their open defiance of Mother Church. And if he's aware of that much, then he has to have made plans to . . . neutralize anything Bishop Executor Wyllys might try to do to stop him. And, to be perfectly honest, the fact that the Bishop Executor's most recent letters to me have all insisted nothing of the sort is happening only makes me even more anxious. With all due respect to the Bishop Executor, all his confidence suggests to me is that Nahrmahn's succeeded in keeping his own preparations completely out of sight. Which means they're likely to succeed, at least in the short term."


            Shumay regarded his superior with horror, and Halcom reached out and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder.


            "Don't make the mistake of thinking Cayleb and Staynair are alone in their madness, Ahlvyn," he said gently. "Look at how quickly, and with how little resistance, the entire Kingdom's followed their blasphemous example. I'm not saying the rot's spread as widely and as deeply in Emerald as it obviously has here in Charis, but the Charis Sea and Emerald Reach aren't broad enough to prevent the poison from reaching Emerald at all. And Nahrmahn's an even greater slave to worldly ambition than Cayleb. He's not going to be blind to the opportunity to make himself master of the Church in Emerald, whatever else happens. When you add that to all of the pressure he's going to be under from Cayleb and Charis, how can you expect anything but for him to strike at the legitimate authority of Mother Church whenever the moment seems most propitious to him?"


            "But if that's the case, My Lord," Shumay said, "then what hope do we have?"


            "We have something much better than mere hope, Ahlvyn. We have God Himself on our side. Or, rather, we're on His side. Whatever may happen in the short term, the final victory will be His. Any other outcome is impossible, so long as there are men who recognize their responsibility to Him and to His Church."


            Shumay looked at Halcom for several seconds. Then he nodded — slowly, at first, and then harder, with more assurance.


            "You're right, of course, My Lord. Which brings us back to the question of exactly what we do do, since a retreat to Emerald seems much less attractive than it did before your explanation. Should we follow Mahntayl to Zion?"


            "No." Halcom shook his head. "I've given this a great deal of thought. In fact, that brings me to my second reason for deciding Emerald isn't our best destination. Where we need to be, Ahlvyn, is where God can make the best use of us, and that's right here in Charis. There are others who'll need us in the Kingdom, even — or perhaps especially — in Tellesberg itself. The ones Cayleb's and Staynair's creatures have labeled 'Temple Loyalists.' Those are the people we need to find. They're going to need all the encouragement they can get, and all the leadership they can find. More than that, they remain the true children of God in Charis, and as the good sheep they need — and deserve — shepherds worthy of their loyalty and faith."


            Shumay was nodding again, and Halcom raised one hand in a gesture of warning.


            "Make no mistake, Ahlvyn. This is another battle in the terrible war between Langhorne and Shan-wei. None of us truly expected it to erupt once again so openly, certainly not in our own lifetimes, but it would be a failure of our faith to refuse to recognize it now that it's come upon us. And just as there were martyrs, even among the Archangels themselves, in the first war with Shan-wei, there will be martyrs in this one. When we venture into Tellesberg instead of sailing to Zion, we'll be stepping into the very jaws of the dragon, and it's entirely possible those jaws will close upon us."


            "I understand, My Lord." Shumay met the bishop's gaze levelly. "And I'm no more eager to die, even for God, than the next man. If that's what God's plan and Mother Church require of us, though, what better end could any man achieve?"