How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 28

          And large and sinewy hands they were, too, Coris thought approvingly.

          “Pardon me for asking, My Lord, and if it’s none of my affair, you’ve only to say so, but is it my imagination or are you feeling just a mite more nervous of late?”

          “Odd, Tobys. I never realized you had an imagination.”

          “Oh, aye, I’ve an imagination, My Lord.” Raimair smiled thinly. “And it’s been whispering to me here lately.” His smile disappeared. “I’m not so very happy about what I’m hearing out of . . . places to the north, let’s say.”

          Their eyes met. Then, after a moment, Coris nodded.

          “Point taken,” he said quietly. The Earl of Coris had learned long ago how risky it was to judge books by their covers. And he’d also learned long ago that a noncommissioned officer didn’t serve as long as Raimair had without a brain that worked. Other people, including quite a few who should know better, forgot that all too often. They came to regard soldiers as little more than unthinking pawns, enforcers in uniform who were good for killing enemies and making certain one’s own subjects were kept firmly in their places, but not for any tasks more mentally challenging than that. That blindness was a weakness Prince Hektor’s spymaster had used to his advantage more than once, and he had no intention of forgetting that now.

          “She’s not discussed it with me, you understand, My Lord,” Raimair said in an equally quiet voice, “but she’s not so good as she thinks she is at hiding the way the wind’s setting behind those eyes of hers. She’s worried, and so are you, I think. So the thing that’s working its way through my mind is whether or not the lads and I should be worried as well?”

          “I wish I could answer that.” Coris paused, gazing into the lamp flame and pursing his lips in thought for several seconds. Then he looked back at Raimair.

          “She and the Prince are valuable game pieces, Tobys,” he said. “You know that. But I’ve been receiving reports lately from home.”

          He paused again, and Raimair nodded.

          “Aye, My Lord. I saw the dispatch from Earl Anvil Rock and this Regency Council when it arrived.”

          “I’m not talking about the Earl’s official reports,” Coris said softly. “He’ll know as well as I do that any report he sends to Talkyra’s going to be opened and read by at least one set of spies before it ever reaches me or the Princess. And don’t forget — he’s in the position of someone cooperating with the Charisians. Whether he’s doing that willingly or only under duress, it’s likely he’ll bear that in mind whenever he drafts those reports he knows other people are going to read. The last thing he’d want would be for . . . certain parties to decide he’s cooperating with Charis because he wants to. I’m not saying he’d lie to me or to Princess Irys, but there are ways to tell the truth, and then there are ways to tell the truth. For that matter, simply leaving things out is often the best way of all to mislead someone.”

          “But the Earl’s her cousin, My Lord.” Raimair sounded troubled. “Are you thinking he’d be looking to feather his own nest at her expense? Hers and the boy’s? I mean, the Prince’s?”

          “I think it’s . . . unlikely.” Coris shrugged. “Anvil Rock was always sincerely attached to Prince Hektor and his children. I’m inclined to think he’s doing the very best he can under the circumstances to look after Prince Daivyn’s interests, and that’s certainly the way his correspondence reads. Unfortunately, we’re fourteen thousand miles as the wyvern flies from Manchyr, and a lot can change when a man finds himself sitting in a prince’s chair, however he got there. That’s why I left eyes and ears of my own behind to give me independent reports.”

          “And those would be the ones you’re talking about now?” Raimair’s eyes narrowed intently, and Coris nodded.

          “They are. And they accord quite well with Earl Anvil Rock’s, as a matter of fact. That’s one of the things that worries me.”

          “Now you’ve gone and lost me, My Lord.”

          “I didn’t mean to.” Coris showed his teeth in a tight smile. “It’s just that I’d rather hoped the Earl was putting a better face on things than circumstances really warranted. That there was more unrest — more resistance to the Charisians and, especially, to the ‘Church of Charis’ — than he’s reported and that he was trying to cover his backside a bit in his dispatches to us here by understating it.”

          Raimair’s eyebrows rose, and Coris shrugged.

          “I don’t want to hear about blood running in the streets any more than anyone else, Tobys. I’ll admit a part of me would like to think Corisandians would be slow to accept foreign rulers they think had Prince Hektor assassinated, but I’d sooner not get anyone killed or any towns burned to the ground, either. You’ll know better than I would how ugly suppressing rebellions can be.”

          Raimair nodded grimly, thinking about his previous prince’s punitive campaigns to Zebediah, and Coris nodded back.

          “Unfortunately, there are some people — the ones in the north you were just speaking of, for example — who aren’t going to be happy to hear there’s not widespread rebellion against Cayleb and Sharleyan. And they’re going to be even less happy to hear the Reformists are making solid progress in the Church.”

          He paused again, unwilling even here, even with Raimair, to name specific names, but the ex-sergeant nodded once more.

          “It’s in my mind that those unhappy people will see any reports of cooperation and acceptance in Corisande as dangerous. They’ll want as much as possible of the Charisians’ manpower tied down back home, and any erosion of the Temple Loyalists’ strength is going to be completely unacceptable to them. And there’s not anyone they can reach in Corisande to change the way our people are beginning to think back home.”

          Raimair’s eyes widened, then narrowed with sudden, grim understanding. He’d quietly assembled a tiny guard force — no more than fifteen men, plus himself — who were loyal not to King Zhames of Delferahk but to Princess Irys Daykyn and the Earl of Coris. He’d chosen them carefully, and the fact that Prince Hektor had established lavish accounts on the continents of Haven and Howard to support his espionage networks and that the Earl of Coris had access to them meant Raimair’s men were quite comfortably paid. And not by King Zhames.

          Or by Mother Church.

          From the outset, Raimair’s primary attention had been focused on the Delferahkans and any threat from the Charisians who’d assassinated Prince Hektor and his older son. Over the last couple of months, he’d begun to entertain a few doubts of his own about exactly who had assassinated whom, yet he’d never put together what Coris seemed to be suggesting now. But for all her youth, Princess Irys had a sometimes dismayingly sharp brain. The ex-sergeant never doubted for a moment that she’d already considered what he was considering now, whether she wanted to admit it even to herself or not.

          And that would explain a lot about the brooding darkness he’d sensed within her, especially since the Grand Inquisitor had begun his purge of the vicarate and the episcopate.

          “It would be an awful shame if something were to happen to Prince Daivyn that led to all that rebellion back in Corisande after all, wouldn’t it, My Lord?” he asked softly, and Coris nodded.

          “It would indeed,” he agreed. “So perhaps you had better have a word with the lads, Tobys. Tell them it’s especially important to be on the watch for any Charisian assassins just now. Or, for that matter” — he looked into Raimair’s eyes once more — “anyone else’s assassins.”