Royal Palace,


City of Eraystor,


 Princedom of Emerald


            Prince Nahrmahn looked up from the latest dispatch and grimaced.


            "Well," he said mildly, "that's irritating."


            The Earl of Pine Hollow couldn't quite hide his disbelief as he looked across the table at his cousin. Nahrmahn saw his expression and snorted in harsh amusement. Then he laid the dispatch on the tabletop beside his plate and reached for a fresh slice of melon.


            "I take it you were expecting a somewhat . . . stronger reaction, Trahvys?"


            "Well . . . yes," Pine Hollow admitted.


            "Why?" Nahrmahn popped a bite of melon into his mouth and chewed. "Aside from the fact that Bishop Executor Wyllys' permission to use the church semaphore network means we got the news a little quicker than we might have, there's no real surprise here. Is there?"


            "I suppose not," Pine Hollow said slowly, trying to analyze Nahrmahn's mood. There was something . . . peculiar about it.


            "Militarily, burning North Bay to the ground — although, mind you, I expect we'll find the damage is less extensive than these first reports might indicate — doesn't make a lot of sense," Nahrmahn acknowledged. "Politically, though, it makes perfect sense."


            "Meaning what, My Prince?"


            Personally, Pine Hollow couldn't see any sense in the attack at all. Aside from two small war galleys which had been anchored there, and a half a dozen of the merchantmen Commodore Zhaztro had been converting into light cruisers for commerce-raiding purposes, most of the damage which had been inflicted struck him as pure, wanton destruction. The merchant ships tied up at North Bay's wharves and the idle warehouses, filled with goods which were simply collecting dust in the face of the Charisian navy's blockade, hadn't been what he would have considered militarily important targets, at any rate. Not only that, but North Bay was the next best thing to seven hundred miles from Eraystor, and not exactly the largest and most important town in the princedom, either.


            "Meaning that Cayleb — or, more probably, Admiral Rock Point, acting within the general scope of Cayleb's instructions — is sending me a message."


            Nahrmahn cut another piece of melon and regarded it critically for a moment before sending it after its predecessor. Then he looked back across at Pine Hollow.


            "They're demonstrating that as long as they have control of the sea, they can do this to us whenever they want. You might think of it as a pointed reminder that despite everything Commodore Zhaztro can do, we can't really hurt them, but they can certainly hurt us. It's a point I was discussing with Bishop Executor Wyllys just yesterday, as a matter of fact."


            "Really?" Pine Hollow's eyes had narrowed speculatively. He'd known about the meeting between Nahrmahn and Bishop Executor Wyllys Graisyn, the highest ranking churchman in the princedom, given Archbishop Lyam Tyrn's abrupt decision to return to Zion to . . . confer with his colleagues as soon as word of Darcos Sound reached Eraystor. But his cousin hadn't told him what that meeting had been about. Until now, at least, he thought as Nahrmahn gave him a somewhat off-center smile.


            "The good Bishop Executor is concerned about the degree of our commitment to the ongoing war against Charis."


            "Commitment?" Pine Hollow blinked, then shook his head in disbelief. "He thinks that after Darcos Sound and Haarahld's death we think Cayleb is going to welcome us as allies?" he asked incredulously, and Nahrmahn chuckled mirthlessly.


            "I think that letter from Archbishop Maikel — excuse me, from the apostate heretic and traitor, Maikel Staynair — to the Grand Vicar has Graisyn a bit . . . rattled, let's say. I don't think he put any more credence in the reports about Haarahld's violations of the Proscriptions than we ever did. Not, at least, as long as it was supposed to be a nice, simple matter of wrecking Charis from one end to the other accordng to Clyntahn's timetable. Now that the boot is on the other foot and those idiots in the Group of Four have managed to drive Cayleb into outright public defiance, he's feeling just a tad exposed here in our welcoming bosom."


            "Nahrmahn," Pine Hollow's tone was as worried as his expression as his initial incredulity faded into something else, "it's not safe to be –"


            "What?" The prince's eyes challenged him across the table. "Honest? Straightforward?"


            "I'm only saying I'd be astonished if the Inquisition didn't have ears closer to you than you know," Pine Hollow said soberly.


            "I know exactly who the Inquisition's chief agent here in the Palace is, Trahvys. In fact, he's been reporting exactly what I wanted reported for about three years now."


            "You bribed an agent of the Inquisition?"


            "Oh, don't be so shocked!" Nahrmahn scolded. "Why shouldn't Clyntahn's spies be bribable? Only a drooling idiot who was also blind and deaf — which no agent of the Inquisition is likely to be, I think you'll agree — could be unaware of the graft and bribery that goes on every day in the Temple itself! When the entire Church hierarchy is as corrupt and venal as a batch of dockside pimps selling their own sisters, why shouldn't their agents be just as corruptible as their masters in Zion?"


            "You're talking about God's Church," Pine Hollow pointed out stiffly.


            "I'm not talking about God, and I'm not talking about His Church," Nahrmahn shot back. "I'm talking about the Church that's been taken over by people like Zhaspahr Clyntahn, Allayn Maigwair, and Zahmsyn Trynair. Do you really think for a moment that the Group of Four gives a good goddamn what God wants the Church to be doing? Or that anyone else on the Council of Vicars is going to risk his own sweet, rosy arse by standing up to Clyntahn and the others just because they happen to be lying, self-serving bastards?"


            Pine Hollow was considerably more than simply shocked. Nahrmahn had grown steadily more open in his disgruntlement with the Temple since Darcos Sound, but he'd never before expressed himself that frankly about the Church and the men who controlled its policies. Oh, he'd never made any secret of his opinion of Vicar Zhaspahr and his cronies, either, at least with his cousin, but he'd never openly extended his contempt for the Grand Inquisitor and the Group of Four to the entire Church hierarchy!


            "What's the matter, Trahvys?" Nahrmahn asked more gently. "Are you shocked by my lack of piety?"


            "No," Pine Hollow said slowly.


            "Yes, you are," Nahrmahn corrected in that same gentle voice. "You think I don't believe in God, or that I've decided to reject His plan for Safehold. And you're afraid that if Graisyn or the Inquisition figure out the way I actually feel, they'll decide to make an example out of me . . . and maybe out of you, as well, since you're not only my first councilor but my cousin."


            "Well, when you put it that way, you may have a point," Pine Hollow conceded even more slowly.


            "Of course I do. And I'm not surprised that you're surprised to hear me say it, either. It's the first time I've ever expressed myself quite this frankly to anyone, except possibly Ohlyvya. But I think it's time I discussed the matter with someone besides my wife, under the circumstances. Well, someone besides my wife and Uncle Hanbyl, I suppose, if I'm going to be completely accurate."


            "Under which circumstances?" Pine Hollow asked warily, and there was active alarm in his eyes now.


            There was a reason his anxiety level had just soared to entirely new heights, because Hanbyl Baytz, the Duke of Solomon, was not simply his and Nahrmahn's uncle. Despite the fact that he was over seventy, Solomon remained vigorous and sharp as a razor. Physically, he was very nearly Nahrmahn's antithesis; in every other sense, he and the prince were very much alike, except for the fact that, unlike his nephew, Solomon abhorred politics. Little though he might like the "great game," though, there'd never been the least question about either his competence or his loyalty to the family interests, or to Nahrmahn himself. Which was why he was the commander of the Emeraldian army. It was a post to which he was well suited, and one which allowed him to spend as little time as humanly possible in Eraystor, dealing with politics.


            Which, Pine Hollow reflected now, has served Nahrmahn well upon occasion. Uncle Hanbyl is the dagger in his sheath, but he's so much "out of sight, out of mind" that even clever people have a tendency to leave him out of their calculations.