Archbishop's Palace,


City of Tellesberg,


 Kingdom of Charis


            Archbishop Maikel Staynair listened to the soft hum of the cat-lizard in his lap as he stroked the short, silky white plush of its fur. The cat-lizard lay on his back with all six feet in the air, and his golden eyes were half-slitted in shameless bliss as the archbishop's long fingers caressed his belly fur.


            "Like that, do you, Ahrdyn?" Staynair chuckled.


            The cat-lizard didn't deign to acknowledge his remark. Cat-lizards, after all, as every cat-lizard obviously knew, were the true masters of creation. Human beings existed for the sole purposes of feeding them, opening doors for them, and — above all else — petting them. At this particular moment, the world was in its proper place, so far as Ahrdyn was concerned.


            The archbishop smiled at the thought. He'd been Ahrdyn's pet (and there was no point thinking of the relationship in any other terms) for almost ten years now, since shortly after his wife's death. At the time he'd acquired Ahrdyn, he'd thought the cat-lizard was female. Even cat-lizards found it difficult to tell males from females until they were a couple of years old, and he'd named his new pet after his wife. By the time he'd realized his mistake, Ahrdyn had settled into his name and would undoubtedly have refused, with all the monumental stubbornness of his breed, to answer to anything else.


            Fortunately, Ahrdyn Staynair had been a woman of rare humor, and Staynair had no doubt she was amused by the mixup. Certainly her daughter, who now shared her name with the cat-lizard, was. The furry Ahrdyn had been her gift to her lonely father. She, too, had assumed he was female, and she knew enough of cat-lizards to refuse to waste time trying to change this one's mind. So did Staynair's son-in-law, Sir Lairync Kestair, although he had been heard to remark — mostly when his wife was absent — that Ahrdyn the cat-lizard was far less stubborn than his two-legged namesake. And that both of them were less stubborn than any one of Staynair's four grandchildren.


            The archbishop's smile softened at the memory, but then it faded into a pensive frown as thoughts of his own grandchildren reminded him of the enormous threat looming over the entire Kingdom of Charis and all of its children. Those grandchildren were hostages to fortune, and whenever he thought about them, he understood exactly why some men dared not raise their hands against the Church's corruption.


            But it's also the reason other men can't refuse to raise their hands, he thought. And neither Ahrdyn nor Lairync has ever questioned my decision.


            Knuckles rapped discreetly on his door, and Staynair stirred in his chair. Ahrdyn's eyes opened fully as his mattress shifted under him, and the archbishop picked him up.


            "Time for work, I'm afraid," he said. The cat-lizard yawned, showing off its pink, forked tongue, then gave his cheek a quick, affectionate lick.


            "Bribery will get you nothing, you furry little fiend," Staynair told him, then lowered him to the floor. Ahrdyn flowed down and padded off towards the basket in one corner, and Staynair cleared his throat.


            "Enter!" he called, and watched thoughtfully as the two unlikely visitors were escorted into his office in the archbishop's palace.


            The two men were studies in physical contrast in many ways, and other differences went far deeper. Yet the two of them had requested a joint meeting with Staynair, which suggested several interesting possibilities.


            None of which, he reminded himself, is likely to be accurate, given how little information you have upon which to base any of them.


            Bishop Executor Zherald Ahdymsyn was well past middle age, and prior to the recent . . . unpleasantness, he'd had a solid, well-fed look. In fact, he'd always enjoyed the comforts of a good table, and he'd been carrying a bit more weight than the Order of Pasquale's healer-priests would have approved. He'd been very careful of his physical appearance, as well. He'd been aware that looking the part of a bishop executor was a significant advantage, and his grooming had always been impeccable. Now, although he was still attired in the white cassock of his episcopal rank, he was leaner, and there was an odd fragility to his movements. It wasn't precisely that he'd aged, but rather that he had been forced to cope with something totally unexpected, and, in the process, had discovered that the world was not in fact the neat, well organized, controlled place he'd thought it was.


            The man with him, Father Paityr Wylsynn, was much younger, no more than a dozen years, at most, older than King Cayleb himself. Ahdymsyn's hair was dark, where the silver of age had not overtaken it, but Wilson's was a curly shade of red which was as rare as his gray, northern eyes here in Charis. Where Ahdymsyn was almost as tall as Staynair, Wylsynn was a head shorter than the archbishop, and where Ahdymsyn moved with that strangely fragile air, Wylsynn was as poised and energetic as he'd ever been.


            They were accompanied by two armsmen in the orange and white of the Archbishop's Guard. The armsmen in question walked a respectful pace behind the visitors, yet their presence was not the simple ceremonial act of respect it might have been. Especially not now, after the assassination attempt had come so close to success. Staynair's armsmen and guardians were in no mood to take addition chances where his safety was concerned, and the archbishop felt confident both his visitors were aware of that.


            Ahdymsyn and Wylsynn stopped in front of his desk, and he rose to greet them.


            "Bishop Executor," he said, inclining his head very slightly to Ahdymsyn, and then looked at Wylsynn. "Father."


            He did not offer his ring to be kissed.


            "Archbishop," Ahdymsyn replied for both of them.


            Staynair's eyebrows didn't arch, and he managed to keep any sign of surprise from touching his expression. It wasn't easy. Granting him that title, even in a private interview, would have serious consequences for Ahdymsyn if word of it ever reached the Temple.


            "Please, be seated," Staynair invited, waving at the chairs in front of the desk behind which Ahdymsyn had once sat as Erayk Dynnys' deputy here in Charis.


            Staynair had appeared before that desk more than once to be "counseled" — and reprimanded — by Ahdymsyn, and the bishop executor's awareness of the change in their respective fortunes showed in the other man's slight, ironic smile. Father Paityr, on the other hand, simply sat, with a composure and something very close to serenity which seemed almost unaware of the earthquake upheaval the Church of Charis had undergone since his last visit to this office.


            Staynair gazed at them for a moment, then nodded to the armsmen. They hesitated a moment, eyes unhappy, and the archbishop raised both hands and made shooing motions at them until they finally gave up and withdrew from the office, closing the door silently behind them.