The Temple,


City of Zion,


The Temple Lands


            "Very well, Allayn," Zahmsyn Trynair's voice showed rather more irritation than he normally permitted it to as Rhobair Duchairn seated himself at the council table, "we're all here now. Now can you tell us what this is all about?"


            Allayn Maigwair might not have been Trynair's intellectual equal, but he had no difficulty recognizing the asperity in the Chancellor's tone, and his lips tightened briefly. Then he turned his head to look directly at Trynair.


            "I've just received additional dispatches about the situation in the Gulf of Dohlar, Zahmsyn." He permitted a trace of deliberate patience to color his own tone. "I thought you might be interested in what the Duke of Fern has to say about them. I assure you, they made . . . interesting reading. But, of course, if you're too pressed for time . . . ."


            One would have had to look carefully to notice the slightly heightened color in Trynair's cheeks, Duchairn noted. Even that, however, was a revelation of far more anger than he would ever have permitted himself to feel for such a childish provocation under normal circumstances. Then again, these circumstances were anything but normal, weren't they?


            "Of course we have time to listen to any information that seems pertinent and important, Allayn," the Church's treasurer heard his own voice saying. Both of the other vicars looked at him, and he smiled ever so faintly. "I'm sure you wouldn't have requested a meeting of all four of us unless you thought the dispatches you've received are both of those things," he continued. "On the other hand, all of us have sufficiently pressing commitments on our time to make us all a bit more . . . irritable then God would probably prefer."


            Magwair gazed at him for another second or two, then nodded, and Trynair's momentary anger seemed to fade.


            "Thank you, Rhobair," the Chancellor said. "As always, you make a very valid point. Allayn," Trynair moved his gaze back to Magwair, "if I sounded overly brisk, I apologize. Rhobair is right. We do all have far too many things which require our immediate attention, but that doesn't excuse any lack of courtesy on my part."


            "Don't worry about it." Magwair half-chuckled wryly. "To be honest, I've bitten off a few heads of my own in the last couple of months. It's hard to be patient when so many things are going wrong at once."


            "Then it's our job as God's stewards to make sure they go the right way again," Zhaspahr Clyntahn said. As usual, the Grand Inquisitor didn't seem particularly concerned with pouring any oil on troubled waters. "Which, I assume, your request for a meeting has something to do with?"


            "You might say that." Magwair sat back in his comfortable chair. "Or, you might say it has to do with identifying something else that's gone wrong."


            "Then tell us about it," Duchairn said before Clyntahn could open his mouth again.


            "I've had copies prepared for all of you, of course," Magwair said, indicating the sheafs of notes lying on his companions' blotters. "These arrived by messenger wyvern, not via the semaphore, so there's considerably more detail. And it's the details that concern me the most. Especially in conjunction with what we're hearing from other sources.


            "Basically, the situation is even worse than we'd originally thought. The Charisians are operating so-called 'privateers' on both coasts of Howard now, as well as the east coast of Haven as far north as the Passage of Storms. There must be hundreds of them, and it seems as if every one of them has the new-design artillery. So even though they may technically be calling themselves privateers, what they really are is cruisers of the Charisian Navy. And, not to put too fine a point on it, they're wreaking havoc."


            Duchairn frowned slightly. He'd found immense comfort in his renewed personal faith over the past months, which had given him a certain serenity in the face of all the calamities God seemed to be permitting to afflict His Church. Some of the other vicars — those who weren't clamoring for (or the far more numerous vicars who wished they had the courage to clamor for) the Group of Four's dismantlement — appeared to be withdrawing into a sort of insulated cocoon, where they could pretend their world wasn't in a state of violent upheaval. Duchairn's renewed reading of the Writ, however, had actually restored him to a far stronger awareness of his responsibility to meet those violent upheavals head-on. And of the entire Group of Four, he, as the Church's chief financial officer, was undoubtedly the best aware of the implications of the massive onslaught Charis had launched upon the commercial traffic of its enemies.


            "Pouncing on a few merchant ships may be irritating, but it's scarcely likely to pose any sort of true danger," Clyntahn said dismissively, as if determined to illustrate that very point. "And whatever your reports may seem to indicate, not even heretics could put their accursed new weapons on 'hundreds' of privateers this quickly. No doubt people are panicking and exaggerating wildly."


            Magwair started to open his mouth, but Duchairn raised one hand in a courteous gesture and turned towards the Grand Inquisitor.


            "First, Zhaspahr," he said, "no one is saying all of the privateers have the new guns. Most Charisian merchant galleons have always carried at least a few guns, if only to discourage pirates, and it doesn't take a lot of firepower to force a merchant ship to heave-to and surrender. So the 'old style' artillery is probably all the vast majority of them need, and it's not as if old style guns are particularly hard for them to come by these days. God knows there're plenty of them lying around in Charis after Darcos Sound!"


            Clyntahn glowered at him, but Duchairn met his gaze calmly until, finally, the Grand Inquisitor gave a grumpy, irritated nod.


            "Secondly," he continued then, "if it were only 'a few merchant ships,' you might be right about how important the losses are. But it isn't 'a few,' and Allayn is perfectly correct to be concerned over the potential consequences."


            Clyntahn's face tightened, but Duchairn had emerged as the Group of Four's internal peacemaker, and the beefy Inquisitor made himself nod a second time, however little he wanted to.