"There are two separate things to consider here, Trahvys," Nahrmahn said, in response to his question. "Well, three, actually."


            He pushed his plate aside and leaned forward, his face and body language both unwontedly serious.


            "First, from a political and military standpoint, Emerald is fucked," he said bluntly. "And, no, I didn't need Uncle Hanbyl to tell me that. Any time Cayleb wants to put troops ashore, supported from the sea, he can do it. That's one of the things that little business in North Bay was supposed to bring to my attention, in case it had managed to escape me this far. For the moment, he's probably still building up his troop strength; God knows the Charisian Marines are good, but he didn't have a lot of them when this whole business started. On the other hand, we have even less in the way of an army, don't we? Especially given how much of it was serving as Marines when our navy suffered it's little mishap. It's not going to be all that much longer before he's ready to come calling here in Eraystor, probably with a siege train of artillery in tow to knock on any doors that get in his way, and I doubt very much that Uncle Hanbyl is going to be able to do much more than inconvenience him when he does.


            "Second, from a diplomatic standpoint, our good friend Hektor isn't about to stick his neck out to help us in any way. And I'll be deeply surprised if Sharleyan doesn't decide she'd rather be allied to Charis than to us or to Hektor, under the circumstances. Which means we're . . . 'swinging in the wind,' is the term I want, I believe. We're the most exposed, we're the ones who tried to assassinate Cayleb, and we're the ones who don't have a single hope this side of Hell that anyone is going to come sailing to our rescue.


            "And, third . . . third, Trahvys, every single word Staynair and Cayleb have said about the Group of Four, the Grand Vicar, and the Church herself is true. You think that just because I recognize the corruption of men like Clyntahn and Trynair and their sycophants on the Council of Vicars I don't believe in God?" The prince's laugh was a harsh bark. "Of course I believe in Him — I just don't believe in the bastards who've hijacked His Church! In point of fact, I think Staynair and Cayleb have the right idea . . .  if they can make it stand up. And that's exactly why Graisyn is so concerned, the reason he keeps pushing us so hard to figure out some way to take the offensive, keeps probing to see how 'loyal' I am to Hektor."


            "And how loyal are you, My Prince?" Pine Hollow asked softly.


            "To Hektor?" Nahrmahn's lip curled. "About as loyal as he is to us — which is to say I'm just as loyal as it will take to get into reach of his throat with a nice, sharp knife. Or do you mean to the Church?"


            Pine Hollow said nothing. He didn't need to, for his expression said it all.


            "My loyalty to the Church extends exactly as far as the reach of the Inquisition," Nahrmahn said flatly. "It's time we stop confusing the Church with God, Trahvys. Or do you think God would have permitted Charis to completely gut the combined fleets of an alliance that outnumbered it five-to-one if Haarahld had actually been defying His will?"


            Pine Hollow swallowed hard, and the pit of his stomach was a hollow, singing void. Deep inside him somewhere a schoolboy was repeating the catechism in a desperate gabble of a voice while he hunched down and stuffed his fingers into his ears.


            "Nahrmahn," he said very, very quietly, "you can't be thinking what I think you're thinking."


            "No?" Nahrmahn tilted his head to one side. "Why not?"


            "Because, in the end, Charis is going to lose. It can't be any other way. Not when the Church controls all of the great kingdoms completely. Not when its purse is so deep and so much of the world's total population lives on Haven and Howard."


            "Don't be too certain of that." Nahrmahn leaned back, his eyes intent. "Oh, I know the 'Group of Four' sees it that way. Then again, we've just had a rather pointed lesson in the fallibility of their judgement, now haven't we? I suspect they're about to find out that the world is less monolithic than they'd been assuming, and that's going to come as an even more unpleasant shock to them. All Cayleb really needs to do is to survive long enough for his example to spread, Trahvys. That's what has Graisyn running so scared. I'm not the only ruler or noble who understands what's going on in the Council of Vicars right now. If Charis is able to defy the Church, others are going to be tempted to follow Cayleb's example. And if that happens, the Church is going to find herself much too busy putting out local forest fires to put together the kind of fleet it would take to break through the Royal Charisian Navy. And that assumes Charis is trying to stand off the Church all by itself."


            "But –"


            "Think about it, Trahvys," Nahrmahn commanded, overriding Pine Hollow's attempt to object. "It's not going to be long before Sharleyan becomes at least Charis' de facto ally. For all I know, she may choose to make it official and join him in openly defying Clyntahn and his cronies. When that happens, Hektor is going to find himself flanked by enemies, cut off from anything the Church could do to help him. And when Sharleyan and Cayleb split Corisande and Zebediah up between them, and when Cayleb adds us to Charis, proper, he and Sharleyan between them will control over a third of the total surface of Safehold. Of course they won't have anywhere near as large a fraction of the world's people, but they will have most of the world's naval power, a lot of room to expand into, and all of the resources they'll need for their economies . . . or their military power.  How easy do you think the Church is going to find it to squash him after that?"


            Pine Hollow sat silent, his eyes worried, and Nahrmahn waited while his cousin worked his way through the same logic chain. The earl, Nahrmahn knew, was cautious by nature. More than that, Pine Hollow's younger brother was an upper-priest of the Order of Pasquale, serving in the Republic of Siddarmark and about due to be elevated to the episcopate. It was entirely possible that Nahrmahn's frankness was more than Pine Hollow was prepared to accept.


            "No," the earl said finally. "No, the Church isn't going to find it easy. Not if it works out the way you're predicting."


            "And should the Church find it easy?" Nahrmahn asked softly, deliberately pushing his cousin still further.


            "No," Pine Hollow sighed, and his expression was no longer uncertain, although Nahrmahn doubted the profound sorrow it mirrored struck Pine Hollow as an improvement. "No. You're right about that, too, Nahrmahn. The Group of Four aren't the true problem, are they? They're the symptom."


            "Exactly." Nahrmahn reached out and placed one plump hand on Pine Hollow's forearm. "I don't know whether or not it's possible for the Church to reform herself internally. I do know that before the Group of Four and the other vicars like them allow that to happen, there's going to be bloodshed and slaughter on a scale no one's ever seen since the overthrow of Shan-wei."