Galleon Southwind,


Margaret Bay;


Gray Ship Tavern,


Hanth Town, Earldom of Hanth


            "I still say we should make for Eraystor," Tahdayo Mahntayl grumbled as the galleon Southwind left Hanth Town's smoke-smutted skies astern.


            It required a great deal of self-discipline for Sir Styv Walkyr to manage not to roll his eyes heavenward or utter any heartfelt prayers for strength. The fact that he'd at least gotten Mahntayl to finally agree it was time to go somewhere rather than kicking his heels in Hanth Town while he waited for Cayleb to get around to removing his head helped.


            Some, at least.


            "First," he said patiently, "the captain isn't too keen on trying to run the blockade into any of the Emeraldian ports. Second, it's not going to be so very much longer before Cayleb and Lock Island get around to invading Emerald, too. Do you really want to be there when he does that?"


            "I'm not so sure his precious invasion of Emerald is going to go all that smoothly," Mahntayl replied almost petulantly. "Nahrmahn's army is a lot more loyal than those traitorous bastards I had."


            "I don't really care how loyal his troops are, not in the long run," Walkyr told him. "He doesn't have enough of them, Cayleb's troops are even more loyal to him, and I strongly suspect that the Charisian Marines are going to have a few surprises of their own for Nahrmahn. Somehow it just strikes me as unlikely that Haarahld's navy got all the new toys."


            Mahntayl snorted angrily, but at least he didn't disagree, and Walkyr shrugged.


            "It's like I've been saying all along, Tahdayo. There are very few people whose heads Cayleb wants more than he wants yours. Wherever you go, it needs to be someplace he's not likely to come calling anytime soon. That doesn't exactly describe Emerald, and I don't think it's going to describe Corisande very much longer, either. So that only leaves someplace on the mainland. And if we have to go to the mainland anyway, Zion is the only logical destination."


            "I know, I know! You've certainly explained your reasoning to me often enough."


            Mahntayl's jaw clenched as he glanced back once again at the city he'd once thought would be his for the rest of his life. Which was the real root of the problem, Walkyr reflected. Not only was Mahntayl furious over having his prize snatched from his hands, but he'd been so confident of the future that he'd made no provision for what might happen if Charis actually won against the alliance the Group of Four had hammered together.


            And I have no intention of telling him about the provision I most certainly did make, he told himself once more.


            "Well, it's hard for me to think of anyone the Chancellor and the Grand Inquisitor are going to be happier to see than you," he said instead. "The proof that not all of Cayleb's nobles support his blasphemy is going to be welcome, and I'm sure they'll be willing to support your efforts to liberate Hanth as soon as possible."


            Mahntayl snorted again, but his expression also lightened. Despite his truculent mood, he wasn't immune to the reflection that the Temple's purse was more than deep enough to support him in the style to which he had become accustomed. Assuming, of course, that he could become a sufficiently valuable figurehead for them.


            "Well," he said at last, turning his back upon the shrinking vista of his one-time capital with a certain finality, "I certainly can't argue with any of that. And the truth is," he continued with the air of a man making a clean breast of it, "that I should have listened to you a lot sooner than I did."


            You've got that much right, at least, Walkyr thought sourly.


            "It's not easy to convince yourself to cut your losses," he said out loud. "I know that, and it's especially true when someone's worked as long and hard as you did for Hanth. But what you've got to focus on now is coming back again someday. And you might want to think about this, too. I'm certain you'll be the first Charisian noble to reach Zion, the first native son to put your sword at Mother Church's service. When the time finally comes to replace all those traitorous, heretical nobles who've chosen to cast their lots with Cayleb and Staynair, you may well find yourself the most senior of all the available candidates. If that's the case, Hanth isn't all you'll receive as compensation for your losses and a richly deserved reward for your loyalty."


            Mahntayl nodded again, soberly, with an expression of truly noble determination.


            "You're right, Styv. You're right." He reached out and clasped the other man's shoulder. He stood that way for several seconds, then exhaled a long breath.


            "You're right," he repeated, "and I won't forget it, if the time ever does come that I'm in a position to reward you properly, I promise. But in the meantime, I think I'm going below. Somehow," he smiled humorlessly, "I'm not enjoying the scenery very much at the moment."


* * * * * * * * * *


            "Goddamn that gutless bastard!" Mylz Halcom snarled as he watched Southwind's topsails shrinking out on the dark blue waters of the bay.


            He stood at an upper window of The Gray Ship, a none too prosperous tavern on the outskirts of Hanth Town. Its location and general air of dilapidation didn't do much to attract trade, but at least it was out of the way of most of the shooting he could still hear as the last of Tahdayo Mahntayl's mercenaries tried to get out of town. That was about the best he could say for it . . . and he couldn't say a lot more for his own state at the moment, if he was going to be honest. Very few people would have recognized the powerful Bishop Mylz if they'd seen him. His luxuriant, carefully trimmed beard had disappeared, the dramatic silver at his temples had been darkened by dye, and his exquisitely tailored cassock had been exchanged for the far simpler clothing of an only moderately successful farmer, or perhaps a minor merchant.


            "Surely we've known for five-days that this was coming, My Lord," the much younger man standing with him observed. Father Ahlvyn Shumay looked even less like the Bishop of Margaret Bay's personal aide than Halcom looked like the bishop in question. "It's been obvious from the beginning that Mahntayl's only true loyalty is to himself."


            "And that's supposed to make me feel better?" Halcom growled. He swung away from the window, turning his back on the fleeing galleon, and faced Shumay squarely.


            "Not 'better,' My Lord." Shumay actually managed a smile. "But the Writ does remind us that it's best to face the truth head-on rather than deluding ourselves with wishful thinking, even on God's behalf."


            Halcom glared at him for a moment, but then the peppery little bishop's shoulders relaxed at least marginally, and he produced a grimace that held at least a hint of an answering smile.


            "Yes, it does say that," he acknowledged. "And I suppose I need to keep reminding myself that stripping away delusion is one of your best functions, even if it does make you an intolerable young whippersnapper on occasion."


            "I try, My Lord. To serve a useful function, that is — not to be intolerable."


            "I know you do, Ahlvyn." Halcom patted him lightly on the shoulder, then inhaled deeply, with the air of a man deliberately turning his thoughts away from anger and into some more productive endeavor.


            "At least the way Mahntayl's finally cut and run simplifies our own options just a bit," he said. "Note that I didn't say it improves them; only that it simplifies them."


            "Forgive me, My Lord, but I'm afraid I don't see how anything is particularly 'simple' these days."


            "Simpler isn't the same thing as simple." Halcom showed his teeth in a brief flash of a grin. "On the other hand, there's not much question that if Mahntayl isn't going to stand and fight, we can't either. Not here, not now."


            Shumay's eyes widened ever so slightly. Halcom's insistence that they could somehow build a fortress for the true Church here in his diocese had been as unyielding as stone. The fiery sermons he'd preached in Hanth Cathedral had focused on both their responsibility and their ability to do just that.

About Eric Flint

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