"Bryahn, I'm perfectly well aware that you want to exterminate Prince Nahrmahn." There was a slight but unmistakable edge of patient exasperation in Cayleb's tone. "For that matter, I'd rather enjoy the process myself. But the truth is that our own navy consists of less than sixty obsolete galleys and only thirty-four galleons, at least until more of the new construction comes forward and we get the damaged ships back from the repair yards. That's going to leave us stretched dangerously thin if we go after Nahrmahn and Hektor simultaneously."


            "Then let's go after them one at a time," Lock Island argued with respectful stubbornness. "And since Nahrmahn is the closer, and since we're already blockading Eraystor Bay, let's start with him."


            "I think you're entirely right that we need to go after them one at a time," Cayleb replied. "Unfortunately, I also think Hektor is the more dangerous of the two. Unless I miss my guess –" it was his turn to avoid looking in Merlin's direction "– he's already laying down and converting as many galleons of his own as he can. And if Black Water's reports on our new artillery got home to him, he's going to know how to arm them effectively, as well. He'll have to start from scratch with the new guns, but I trust no one in this room is foolish enough to think Hektor is stupid or that his artisans and mechanics have been stricken with some sort of mysterious incompetence overnight. Narmahn doesn't begin to have Hektor's building capacity and foundries, so if we're going to go after one of them, we need to start with Corisande, not Emerald. And then there's that little matter of the army we don't have. Taking islands away from Narmahn and sealing off Eraystor is one thing; finding enough troops to put ashore to take the rest of his princedom away from him is going to be something else, I'm afraid."


            Lock Island looked moderately rebellious, and he wasn't the only one who felt that way, Merlin decided.


            "In Bryahn's support, Your Majesty," Wave Thunder said, "don't forget who it was that tried to have you assassinated." Cayleb looked at him, and the spymaster shrugged. "He tried it before you and your father completely destroyed his navy; now that he doesn't have one anymore, there has to be even more pressure to consider . . . unconventional measures. If we give him long enough, he's likely to try it again."


            "Then it's just going to be up to you and the Guard –" this time Cayleb did glance at Merlin " — to see to it that he fails again, Bynzhamyn."


            "That may not be quite as simple a matter as we'd all prefer, Your Majesty. In fact, that's part of what I want to discuss with you later," Archbishop Maikel said, and all eyes turned to him. "Before, Nahrmahn was forced to hire mercenaries, professional assassins, if he wanted you or your father dead," the archbishop continued. "Today, alas, there are far more potential assassins in Charis than ever before. Indeed, protecting you against Nahrmahn's efforts to murder you may be the least of the Guard's concerns."


            And that, Merlin thought, is probably an understatement. Unfortunately.


            The majority of Cayleb's subjects strongly supported their youthful king and his new archbishop in his confrontation with the Church of God Awaiting. They knew precisely what the Church — or, at least, the so-called "Group of Four" which actually created and manipulated the Church's policies — had intended to happen to their kingdom and their families when they chose to break Charis' power once and for all by turning it into a wasteland of slaughtered people and burned towns. They supported the scathing indictment Maikel had sent to Grand Vicar Erek in their collective name, for they'd made a clear distinction between God Himself and the corrupt, venal men who controlled the Church.


            But if the majority of Charisians felt that way, a significant minority did not, and almost a quarter of the kingdom's clergy were outraged and furious at Cayleb's "impious" challenge to the Church's "rightful, godgiven authority." It would have been nice if Merlin had been able to convince himself that all of those people who disapproved were just as corrupt and calculating as the Group of Four themselves. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of them weren't. Their horror at the thought of schism within God's Church was completely genuine, and their outrage at the ruler who'd dared to raise his hand against God's will sprang from a deep-seated, totally honest faith in the teachings of the Church of God Awaiting. Many — most — of them saw it as their sacred duty to resist, by any means they could, the abominations King Cayleb and Archbishop Maikel sought to impose upon the kingdom.


            For the first time in living memory, there was an actual, significant, internal threat to the life of a king of Charis, and Staynair's regretful expression showed that the archbishop understood exactly why.


            "I know, Maikel," Cayleb said. "I know. But we can't undo what we've already done, and even if I thought it was what God wanted, we couldn't turn back from the journey we've begun. Which doesn't mean," he looked back at Wave Thunder, "that I want any mass arrests. I've never been very fond of iron heels, and I can't convince people who hate and fear what they think I'm doing that they're wrong about my policies or the reasons for them if I start right out trying to crush every voice of disagreement."


            "I've never suggested that we ought to, Your Highness. I only –"


            "His Majesty is right, My Lord," Staynair said quietly, and Wave Thunder looked at him.


            "It's the question of conscience, of the relationship between each individual human soul and God, which stands at the heart of the Group of Four's hostility towards us," the archbishop continued in that same firm, quiet voice. "Trynair and Clyntahn, each for reasons of his own, are determined to preserve Mother Church's total control over the thoughts, beliefs, and actions of all of God's children. They've seen fit to dress their ambition in the fine clothes of faith and concern for the salvation of souls, to pretend they're motivated only by priestly duty, and not the obscene wealth and decadent lives they live, when, in fact, their own arrogance and corruption has turned Mother Church herself into a tool of oppression and greed.


            "We know that." He looked around the suddenly quiet council chamber. "We've seen it. And we believe we're called by God to oppose that oppression. To remind Mother Church that it's the souls of God's people which matter, and not the amount of gold in her coffers, or the personal power and wealth of her vicars and the luxury in which they live. But to do that successfully, we must remind all of Mother Church's children of those same things. We cannot do that by resorting to oppression ourselves."


            "With all due respect, Your Eminence," Wave Thunder said into the stillness which seemed only deeper and quieter as thunder rumbled and rolled once more in the distance, "I don't disagree. But, by the same token, we can't protect the King if we're not willing to act strongly and publicly against those who would destroy him. And if we lose the King, we lose everything."


            Cayleb stirred, but Wave Thunder faced him stubbornly.


            "At this moment, Your Majesty, that's true, and you know it. We've already lost your father, and Zhan is still a child. If we lose you, who holds the Kingdom together? And if this Kingdom stumbles, who will be left to 'remind' Mother Church of anything? Right now, on this day, any hope of human freedom dies with you, Your Majesty. For now, at least, that statement is the terrifying truth. And it's also the reason you must let us take the necessary precautions to keep you alive."


            Cayleb looked around the table, and stark agreement with Wave Thunder looked back at him from every face. Even the archbishop nodded in grave acknowledgment of the baron's point.


            "I will, Bynzhamyn," Cayleb replied, after a moment. He glanced at Merlin again, then back at Wave Thunder.


            "I will," he repeated, "and anyone who actually lends himself to treason against the Crown, to violence against the Crown's ministers, or against any of the Kingdom's subjects, will be dealt with sternly, regardless of the reasons for his actions. But there will be no preemptive arrests because of what men might do, and no one will be punished unless their conspiracies or their crimes are first proven before the King's Bench in open court. No secret courts, no summary imprisonments or executions. I refuse to become another Clyntahn simply to protect myself against him."


            Wave Thunder's expression was a long way from anything Merlin would have called satisfied, but at least the baron let the argument drop. For now, at any rate.


            "All right," Cayleb said more briskly. "I still hear lunch calling, and it's getting louder, so let's go ahead and wrap this up. Ahlvyno, please give me a report by the end of this five-day on the exact state of the Treasury, allowing for the completion and manning of the galleons we currently have under construction.Take Ehdwyrd at his word and propose a reasonable schedule of new duties and taxes, as well, based on the assumption that our trade will at least hold level.  Bryahn, I'd like you and Baron Seamount to give me your best estimates of what we're going to need Ahlvyno to somehow figure out how to pay for after we finish the present building program. You'd better get Sir Dustyn involved in that, as well. Ehdwyrd, I'd like you and Rhaiyan to give some additional thought to what you were saying earlier about the likely consequences of any effort by the Group of Four to close Haven and Howard to our trade. Assume they're actually going to do it, then come up with the most effective ways for us to undermine any embargo and make sure their efforts don't succeed. You might also consider how we could motivate our merchants and shipping houses to fund presentation galleons for the Navy, as well. As you say, our survival depends upon their prosperity, but their prosperity depends upon our survival. I think it's fair for them to contribute a little more to protecting their shipping than we might expect out of, say, a dragon-breeder from somewhere back in the hills. And, Rayjhis, I think you'd better check with Doctor Mahklyn. I'd like the College's input on some of our estimates on shipping, trade, and taxation, as well."


            Heads nodded around the table, and Cayleb nodded back.


            "In that case, I think we're mostly done here. Rayjhis, I'd like you and Archbishop Maikel to remain behind for a moment, if you would."


            "Of course, Your Majesty," Gray Harbor murmured, and chairs moved back from the table as the others took their cue and rose.