Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 04

The treasurer’s stomach twisted with familiar nausea as he thought about the other reports, the ones Clyntahn hadn’t had time to “adjust.” The ones about the atrocities, the rapes, the murders not simply in the Republic’s communities of expatriate Charisians, but across its length and breadth. The churches burned with priests — even entire congregations — inside them because they carried the taint of “Reformism.” The food stores deliberately burned or contaminated — or outright poisoned — in the teeth of winter. The sabotage of canal locks, despite the Book of Langhorne‘s specific prohibitions, to prevent the western harvests from being transported to the eastern cities. Clyntahn could pass all of those off as “unfortunate excesses,” unintended but unhappily inevitable in the face of Mother Church’s loyal sons’ fully justified and understandable rage, but it had happened too broadly — and far too efficiently — not to have been carefully orchestrated by the same people who’d given the order for the uprisings in the first place.

And just what does Zhaspahr think is going to happen now?

the treasurer asked himself bitterly. Siddarmarkian armies on the Border States’ frontier? A Charisian foothold on the mainland? Charisian weapons and gold pouring into Stohnar’s hands now that those hands have become Mother Church’s mortal enemy? He’s guaranteed all of those things will happen unless, somehow, we can crush the Republic before Charis can come to its rescue! If he had to do this — if he simply had to unleash this bloodshed and barbarity — couldn’t he at least have done iteffectively?

And then there was the devastating financial consequence of the effective destruction of one of the only three mainland realms which had actually been managing to pay their tithes. How did Clyntahn expect the Treasury to magically conjure the needed funds out of thin air when the Inquisition was systematically destroying them at the source?

But I can’t say that, can I? Not with Zahmsyn folding up like a pricked bladder and Allayn nodding in what has to be at least half-genuine agreement. And even if I said it, it wouldn’t make one damned bit of difference, because the blood’s already been spilled and the damage’s already been done. The best I can hope for is to find some way to mitigate at least the worst of the consequences. And maybe, just maybe, if this works out the way it could, then

He chopped that thought off, scarcely daring to voice it even to himself, and made himself admit the gall-bitter truth. However disastrous this might prove in the long term, in the short term it actually bolstered Clyntahn’s power. The dispatches coming in from Desnair, the Border States, the Temple Lands, even — especially! — the Harchong Empire made that clear. The vision of Siddarmark collapsing into ruin was terrifying enough to any mainland ruler; the mere possibility of Siddarmark becoming a portal for Charisian invasion was even worse. Those rulers didn’t care at this point whether Stohnar had truly been planning to betray them as Clyntahn claimed. Not anymore. What mattered now was that Stohnar had no choice but to betray them if he wanted his nation to survive . . . and that every one of them scented the chance to scavenge his own pound or two of flesh from the Republic’s ravaged carcass. And with the hysteria in Siddarmark — the atrocities against Mother Church which Clyntahn’s atrocities were bound to provoke — the schism would be driven even deeper into the Church’s heart, which was exactly what Clyntahn wanted. He wanted the polarization, the fear, the hatred, because that was what would give him the power to destroy his enemies forever and make Mother Church over into his own image of what she was supposed to be.

“I have to agree with Zhaspahr,” Maigwair said. Duchairn eyed him with cold contempt, and the captain general flushed. “I’m not in a position to comment on or second-guess the Inquisition’s reports,” he went on defensively, “but the reports coming to me from Guardsmen in the Republic confirm that there really were a lot more muskets — almost certainly rifled muskets — in Siddar City than there ought to’ve been. Somebody was obviously stockpiling them. And it’s certainly fortunate” — his eyes cut sideways towards the Grand Inquisitor for just a moment — “that we’ll have had time to get the Guard fully recruited up to strength and equipped with more of the new muskets by the time the snow melts. At least half of them will be rifled, as well, and I understand” — this time he looked squarely at Clyntahn — “that your agents have managed to ferret out some of the information we most desperately need.”

“The Inquisition has come into possession of quite a bit of information on the heretics’ weapons,” Clyntahn acknowledged. “We’re still in the process of determining what portions of that knowledge we may safely use without encroaching upon the Proscriptions, but I believe we’ve found ways to duplicate many of their weapons without dabbling in the demonic inspiration which led the blasphemers to them.”

He looked admirably grave, Duchairn thought bitterly. Every inch the thoughtful Inquisitor General truly finding ways to guard Mother Church against contamination rather than planning how he would justify anything that needed justifying.

“We’ve discovered how they make their round shot explode,” he continued, “and I have a pair of trusted ironmasters devising a way to duplicate the effect. It’s not simply a matter of making them hollow, and finding a way to accomplish it without resorting to proscribed knowledge has been tricky. There’s also the matter of how you detonate the ‘shells,’ as the heretics call them. It requires a carefully compounded form of gunpowder to make the ‘fuses’ function reliably. Fortunately, one of Mother Church’s most loyal sons managed to obtain that information for her — obtain it at the cost of his own life, I might add — and we should be able to begin making our own fuses within a month or two. By spring, you should have field artillery with its own exploding shells, Allayn.”

The Inquisitor smiled benignly as Maigwair’s eyes lit, and Duchairn closed his own eyes in despair. Maigwair had been in an understandable state of near panic ever since the Charisians had unveiled the existence of their exploding round shot. The possibility that he’d finally be able to put the same weapons into the hands of his own far more numerous troops had to come like a reprieve from a death sentence. He’d gladly overlook the deaths of a few hundred thousand — or even a few million — innocent Siddarmarkians if the outcome offered him an opportunity to equalize the difference between Mother Church’s combat capabilities and those of her enemies.

Especially when the possibility of a military success in the field will probably keep him out of the Inquisition’s sights, as well

, Duchairn thought bitterly.

He drew a deep, deep breath, then straightened and opened his eyes once more. It was his turn to look across the table at Clyntahn, and he saw something cold and pleased glittering in the other man’s eyes.

“I can’t argue with you or Allayn about where we are now, however we got there, Zhaspahr,” he made himself say. “I agree it’s profoundly regrettable the situation should’ve erupted so suddenly and uncontrollably. I’m deeply concerned, however, about reports of starvation — starvation among Mother Church’s loyal children, as well as the heretics. I think it will be essential for us to give priority to moving food supplies into the areas controlled by her faithful sons. I realize there will probably be some conflict between purely military and humanitarian transport needs, but we’ll have until the snow melts to make plans. I fear” — he met Clyntahn’s gaze levelly — “that we’ll lose far too many lives to starvation, cold, disease, and privation before spring, but it’s essential Mother Church show her concern for those faithful to her. That’s no more than her children deserve . . . and the very least they will expect out of us as her vicars.”

Their gazes locked, and Duchairn knew it was there between them. Knew Clyntahn recognized that this was a point from which he would not retreat. He saw the familiar contempt for his own weakness, his own softness, in the Grand Inquisitor’s eyes, saw the disdain in the twist of Clyntahn’s lips at how cheaply he could buy Duchairn’s compliance — his assumption of complicity, for that was what it would amount to. Yet it was the best bargain the treasurer could hope for at this table, in this conference room, and both of them knew that, too.

Silence hovered for a moment, and then Clyntahn nodded.

“Of course they’ll expect it from us, Rhobair.” He smiled thinly. “And you’re the perfect choice to organize it for us.”

“Thank you, Zhaspahr,” Duchairn said as Trynair and Maigwair murmured their agreement. “I’ll try to cause the least dislocation possible in purely military movements.”

He returned Clyntahn’s smile with one of his own while black murder boiled in his heart. But more than simple hatred simmered at his core. He sat back in his chair, listening to Clyntahn and Maigwair discussing the new weapons in greater detail, and his eyes were cold as he contemplated the future. It was astounding, really. Zhaspahr Clyntahn understood plots, cabals, treachery and treason. He understood lies and threats, recognized the power of terror and the sweet taste of destroying his enemies. He knew all about the iron rod, how to break the bones of his foes. Yet for all his power and his ambition and ruthless drive, he was utterly blind to the deadly power of gentleness.

Not yet, Zhaspahr

, he thought softly. Not yet. But one of these days, you may just discover that the hard way. And if God is good, He’ll let me live at least long enough to see you do it.