How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 21


The Temple,

City of Zion,

The Temple Lands


          And aren’t we four poor miserable looking sons-of-bitches for the most powerful men in the world? Vicar Rhobair Duchairn thought sourly, gazing around the conference chamber. None of the other faces were gazing back at him at the moment, and all of them wore expressions which mingled various degrees of shock, dismay, and anger.

          The atmosphere in the sumptuously furnished, indirectly lit, mystically comfortable chamber was like an echo of the bitter blizzard even then blowing through the streets of Zion beyond the Temple’s precincts. Not surprisingly, given the message they’d just received . . . and the fact that it had taken so long to reach them. Poor visibility was the greatest weakness of the Church’s semaphore system, and this winter’s weather seemed to be proving worse than usual. It certainly was in Zion itself, as Duchairn was all too well aware. His efforts to provide the city’s poor and homeless with enough warmth and food to survive had saved scores — if not hundreds — of lives so far, yet the worst was yet to come and he knew he wasn’t going to save all of them.

          At least this year, though, Mother Church was actually trying to honor her obligation to succor the weakest and most vulnerable of God’s children. And seeing that she did was eating up a lot of Duchairn’s time. It was also taking him beyond the Temple far more frequently than any of his colleagues managed, and he suspected it was giving him a far better perspective on how the citizens of Zion really felt about Mother Church’s jihad. Zhaspahr Clyntahn’s inquisitors circulated throughout the city and Clyntahn had access to all of their reports, but Duchairn doubted the Grand Inquisitor paid a great deal of attention to what Zion’s poorest inhabitants were saying. Duchairn’s own activities brought him into much more frequent contact with those same poor, however, and at least some of what they truly felt had to leak through the deference and (much as it distressed him to admit it existed) the fear his high clerical rank inspired. He might have learned still more if he hadn’t been continually accompanied by his assigned escort of Temple Guardsmen, but that was out of the question.

          Which says some pretty ugly things about how our beloved subjects regard us, doesn’t it, Rhobair? He felt his lips trying to twist in a bitter smile at the irony of it all. All he really wanted to do was reach out to the people of Zion the way a vicar of God was supposed to, yet trying to do that without bodyguards was entirely too likely to get him killed by some of those same people. And it would make sense from their perspective, I suppose. I don’t imagine some of them are differentiating very much just now amongst us, and given Zhaspahr’s idea of how to inspire obedience, somebody probably would put a knife in my ribs if only he had the chance. Not that there’s any way Allayn and Zhaspahr would let me out without my keepers even if everyone loved and cherished all four of us as much as Charis seems to cherish Staynair.

          Duchairn knew perfectly well why Allayn Maigwair and Zhaspahr Clinton regarded Captain Khanstahnzo Phandys as the perfect man to command his bodyguard . . . and keep an alert eye on his activities. As the officer who’d thwarted the Wylsynn brothers’ escape from the Inquisition — and personally killed Hauwerd Wylsynn when the “renegade” vicar resisted arrest — his reliability was beyond question.

          Of course, these days things like reliability and loyalty were almost as subject to change as Zion’s weather, weren’t they? And not just where members of the Guard were concerned. All he had to do was glance at the ugly look Clyntahn was bending upon Maigwair to realize that.

          “Tell me, Allayn,” Clyntahn said now. “Can you and the Guard do anything right?”

          Maigwair flushed darkly and started to open his mouth quickly. But then he stopped, pressing his lips together, and Duchairn felt a spasm of sympathy. As the Captain General of the Church of God Awaiting, Maigwair commanded all of her armed forces except the small, elite armed cadre of the Inquisition. That had made him responsible for building, arming, and training the Navy of God, and it had been commanded by Guard officers on its voyage to Desnair.

          A voyage which, as the dispatch which had occasioned this meeting made clear, had not prospered.

          “I think that might be a bit overly severe, Zhaspahr,” Duchairn heard himself say, and the Grand Inquisitor turned his baleful gaze upon him. Clyntahn’s heavy jowls were dark with anger, and despite himself, Duchairn felt a quiver of fear as those fuming eyes came to bear.

          “Why?” the inquisitor demanded in a harsh, ugly tone. “They’ve obviously fucked up by the numbers . . . again.”

          “If Father Greyghor’s dispatch is accurate, and we have no reason yet to believe it isn’t, Bishop Kornylys obviously encountered a new and unexpected Charisian weapon . . . again.” Duchairn kept his voice deliberately level and nonconfrontational, although he saw Clyntahn’s eyes narrow angrily at the deliberate mimicry of his last two words. “If that weapon was as destructive as Father Greyghor’s message suggests, it’s hardly surprising the Bishop suffered a major defeat.”

          “Major defeat,” he thought. My, what a delicate way to describe what must’ve been a massacre. It seems I have a gift for words after all.

The fact that Father Greyghor Searose, the commanding officer of the galleon NGS Saint Styvyn, appeared to be the senior surviving officer of Bishop Kornylys Harpahr’s entire fleet — that not a single squadron commander seemed to have made it to safety — implied all sorts of things Duchairn really didn’t want to think about. According to Searose’s semaphore dispatch, only seven other ships had survived to join Saint Styvyn in Bedard Bay. Seven out of a hundred and thirty. The fact that they’d been anticipating a very different message for five-days — the notification that Harpahr had reached his destination and united his forces and the Imperial Desnairian Navy into an irresistible armada — had only made the shock of the message they’d actually gotten even worse. No wonder Clyntahn’s nose was a little out of joint . . . especially since he was the one who’d insisted on sending them to the Gulf of Jahras in the first place instead of to Earl Thirsk in Gorath Bay.

“Rhobair has a point, Zhaspahr,” Zahmsyn Trynair put in quietly, and it was the Inquisitor’s turn to glare at the Church’s Chancellor, the final member of the Group of Four. “I’m not saying things were handled perfectly,” Trynair continued. “But if the Charisians somehow managed to actually make our ships explode in action, it’s scarcely surprising we lost the battle. For that matter,” the Chancellor’s expression was that of a worried man, “I don’t know how the people are going to react when they hear about exploding ships at sea! Langhorne only knows what Shan-wei-spawned deviltry was involved in that!

“There wasn’t any ‘deviltry’ involved!” Clyntahn snapped.  “It was probably –”

He broke off with an angry chop of his right hand, and Duchairn wondered what he’d been about to say. Virtually all of Mother Church’s spies reported to the Grand Inquisitor. Was it possible Clyntahn had received some warning of the new weapon . . . and failed to pass it on to Maigwair?

“I don’t think it was deviltry, either, Zhasphar,” he said mildly. “Zhamsyn has a point about how others may see it, however, including quite a few vicars. So how do we convince them it wasn’t?”

“First, by pointing out that the Writ clearly establishes that Shan-wei’s arts cannot prevail against godly and faithful men, far less a fleet sent out in God’s own name to fight His jihad!” Clyntahn shot back. “And, secondly, by pointing out that nothing else these goddamned heretics have trotted out has amounted to actual witchcraft or deviltry. Pressing and twisting the limits of the Proscriptions till they squeal, yes, but so far all of it’s been things our own artisans can duplicate without placing ourselves in Shan-wei’s talons!”