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The Earl of Thirsk’s Townhouse,
City of Gorath,
Kingdom of Dohlar.
“Forgive me for intruding, My Lord, but you and I need to talk.”
The Earl of Thirsk stared at the black-haired, blue-eyed guardsman in his townhouse study. Sheer, disbelieving shock froze him in his chair—a shock deep enough to reach even through the agony of his dead family—because he knew that sapphire-eyed man, and that man couldn’t possibly be here. Not in the middle of the city of Gorath. That man was with his emperor in Siddar City, thirty-four hundred miles from this spot. Everyone knew that. And even if he hadn’t been, there was no conceivable way a man in the livery of the House of Ahrmahk could have traveled into the very heart of the Kingdom of Dohlar’s capital city without being spotted and accosted.
Yet there he stood, and Thirsk felt his good hand fumble at his belt, seeking the dagger that wasn’t there.
“I assure you I intend no harm to anyone under this roof,” Merlin Athrawes continued. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t raise a hue and cry, though.” He stroked one fierce mustachio with a quick smile. “That would get messy, and I’m afraid quite a lot of people would be harmed under those circumstances.”
Rain pelted against the study windows, gurgled in waterfalls from eaves and gutters, swirled down paved streets or cascaded into storm drains, and distant thunder rumbled somewhere beyond the thick clouds of midnight. Streetlights in Gorath were both dim and few and far between, even on nights when pounding rain didn’t reduce visibility still further. Perhaps that might explain how he could have passed through those same streets unnoted. Yet even as the earl thought that, it only created its own preposterous questions, for Athrawes’ blackened chain mail and the black tunic beneath it were dry, and so was his raven-dark hair.
Of course they are, a voice said in the back of Thirsk’s brain. After all, what’s a minor impossibility like that if he can be here at all?
That inner voice sounded preposterously clear, given how much whiskey he’d consumed that evening.
Athrawes closed the door behind him and crossed the study floor, and his gleaming dry boots were silent on the thick carpet. He stopped fifteen feet away, and Thirsk drew a deep breath as lamplight gleamed on the “revolvers” holstered at both hips and the curved blade sheathed across the seijin’s back. God alone knew how many men those weapons had killed, and a chill ran through him as he thought of how the Inquisition would explain how this man might have come to stand before him.
“Does that ‘no harm to anyone under this roof’ apply to me, too?” he heard himself ask, and his voice sounded almost as unnaturally calm as his … visitor’s. “I don’t imagine there’d be many more legitimate targets.”
“Oh, trust me, My Lord.” Athrawes’ smile was thinner this time. “I can think of dozens of targets more ‘legitimate’ than you. Which isn’t to say—” the smile disappeared “—that Charis doesn’t have a few bones to pick with you, too.”
“I imagine.” Thirsk settled back in his chair and his good hand rose to the fresh pain that stabbed through his healing shoulder as he moved. “I won’t blame Cayleb if he’s sent you to deliver the same sentence he’s passed on inquisitors taken in the field. And to be honest, I won’t really mind, either. Not anymore.” His lips twitched in a parody of a smile. “At least I could trust you to be quick, Master Seijin, ‘demon’ or no. That’s more than I could say for some ‘godly’ men I might mention. And it’s not as if you wouldn’t be doing me a favor.”
The other pain, infinitely worse than any physical hurt, roused to ravenous life as the anesthesia of shock began to fade, and the anguish of his family’s death ripped at him with claws of fire and ice.
“I can understand why you might feel that way.”
There was no anger in Athrawes’ tone. Indeed, there was … compassion, and that only made Thirsk’s pain worse. He didn’t deserve any Charisian’s sympathy, not after what he’d allowed to happen to the men who’d surrendered to his navy. He damned well knew that, and he remembered a passage from the Book of Bédard: “Do good to those who despise you and return kindness to those who smite you, and so you will heap coals of fire upon their heads.” He’d heard that scripture countless times in his life, yet until this very moment, he’d never truly understood what the Archangel had meant. But now—as he heard the simple compassion in Merlin Athrawes’ voice, received the gift of sympathy from someone he’d given so many reasons to hate him—his own sense of guilt, the knowledge of how much Athrawes ought to hate and despise him, crashed down upon his soul like Shan-wei’s hammer.
“I can understand it,” Merlin repeated, “but that might be premature. You still have things to do, My Lord.”
“I have nothing to do, Seijin!” Thirsk snapped with a sudden flare of fury spawned by grief … and guilt. “That bastard in Zion’s seen to that!”
“Maybe he hasn’t … quite,” Athrawes replied.
Thirsk stared at him. Athrawes had to know what had happened to his family—the entire world knew that! He opened his mouth to spit back a reply, his face dark with anger, but Merlin raised one hand.
“I’m not here tonight only for Cayleb and Sharleyan, My Lord. I have a message for you from someone else, as well.”
“And who might that be?” Thirsk’s demand was harsh.
“Your daughters, My Lord,” Athrawes said very quietly.
“How dare you come into this house with that kind of—?!”
Thirsk got that far before words failed him entirely. He thrust himself up out of his chair, heedless of the pain in his mending shoulder, confronting the armed and armored seijin—a foot and more taller than he—with no other weapon than his rage.
“My Lord, your daughters are alive,” Athrawes told him unflinchingly. “So are your grandchildren and your sons-in-law. All of them.”
Lywys Gardynyr raised a clenched fist, prepared to assault the towering seijin physically as the Charisian mocked his pain. But Athrawes made no move to deflect the blow. He simply stood there, arms folded unthreateningly across his breastplate, and his unflinching eyes froze the earl’s fist in mid-strike.
They were very dark, those blue eyes, Thirsk thought, a sapphire so deep it was almost black in the lamplight, but they met his fiery gaze without flinching. That was what stopped him, for there was no lie in those eyes, no mockery … and no cruelty.
And yet Athrawes’ words were the cruelest trap of all, for they held the whisper of possibility, an invitation to breach the armor of acceptance, to open his heart once more, delude himself into hoping.…
“So are you going to tell me now that Charis can bring people back from the dead?” he demanded bitterly, grinding that deadly temptation under his heel. “Not even Langhorne could do that! But they do call Shan-wei Mother of Lies, don’t they?”
“Yes, they do. And I don’t blame you for a certain … skepticism, My Lord. But your family wasn’t aboard Saint Frydhelm when she blew up. They were aboard a schooner, with two of my … colleagues.”
Thirsk blinked. Then he stood there for a heartbeat or two before he shook his head like a weary, bewildered bear.
The one-word question came out almost calmly—too calmly. It was the calm of shock and confusion too deep to express. And the calm of a man who dared not—would not—allow himself to believe what he’d just been told.
Merlin reached into his belt pouch. His hand came back out of it, and the earl sucked in a deep, shocked breath as gold glittered across a calloused swordsman’s palm. Disbelief and fear froze the earl and he stood as if struck to stone, listening to the pound of rain, the crackle of the hearth fire, eyes locked to the miniature he’d known he’d never see again. He couldn’t—for at least ten seconds, he literally couldn’t—make himself touch it. Yet then, finally, he held out a trembling hand and Athrawes turned his wrist, spilling the miniature and its fine golden chain into his cupped fingers.
He held its familiar, beloved weight, looking down at the face of a gray-eyed, golden-haired woman—a very young woman. Then his stunned gaze rose again to Merlin Athrawes’ face, and the compassion which had edged the seijin’s tone filled his sapphire eyes, as well.
“I’m sure there are all sorts of ways that might’ve come into my possession, My Lord. And many of them would be little better than what you thought actually happened to Lady Mahkzwail. But I could hardly have obtained it if it had gone to the bottom of the Gulf of Dohlar, could I?”
Thirsk turned the miniature in his hand, seeing the intertwined initials engraved into its back. It was hard, with only one working hand, but he managed to wedge a thumbnail into the thin crack, and the back of the glass-fronted locket sprang open. He turned it to catch the light, and his own face—as young as his beloved Kahrmyncetah’s—looked back at him from the reverse of her portrait.
He stared at that image of a long-ago Lywys Gardynyr, then closed the locket and gripped it tightly enough to bruise his fingers. It was possible someone in Charis might have known his daughter Stefyny wore that miniature around her neck day and night. They might even have known about the initials on its back. But no mortal hand could have so perfectly forged its duplicate. So unless Cayleb and Sharleyan of Charis truly served demons.…
“How?” His legs collapsed abruptly, refusing to support him, and he thudded back down in his chair, scarcely noticing the white-hot stab from his shoulder. “How?!”
“My Lord, Cayleb and Sharleyan have known for years how the Group of Four’s held your family’s lives over your head. It’s hardly surprising Clyntahn would do something so contemptible, and you’re scarcely the only one to whom he’s done it. If he understood how to inspire the Church’s children a tenth as well as he understands how to terrify them, perhaps the Temple wouldn’t be losing this jihad! But there’s a problem with terror; if the threat’s removed, it becomes useless. Is it really so hard to believe Cayleb and Sharleyan would strike that sort of weapon from Clyntahn’s hand if they could?”
“You may have noticed that our spies are very good.” For a moment, Athrawes’ smile turned almost impish. “We knew about Clyntahn’s plans to move your family to Zion even before you did, My Lord. It took longer to discover how he meant to transport them, but once we did, my companions intercepted Saint Frydhelm. The weather was on their side, and they managed to board undetected.”
Thirsk had suffered too many shocks in far too short a time, but he’d been a seaman for well over half a century. He knew exactly how preposterous that statement was, and Athrawes snorted as he saw the incredulity in his expression.
“My Lord, the world insists on calling me a seijin. That being the case, my fellows and I might as well act the part from time to time, don’t you think? And there is that little matter of Irys and Daivyn, you know. With all due modesty, this was no harder for Gwyliwr and Cleddyf than that was. It was certainly over sooner! And it seems to be becoming something of a specialty of ours. I’m thinking that after the jihad we seijins might go into the people-retrieving business. Just to keep our hands in, you understand.”
Thirsk blinked in incipient outrage that the seijin could find anything amusing at a moment like this! But then he drew another deep breath, instead.
“A point, Seijin Merlin. Definitely a point,” he conceded. “However, there was still the matter of a war galleon’s entire crew to deal with.”
“Which they did.” The amusement of an instant before vanished, and Athrawes’ face tightened. “Seijin Gwyliwr saw to your family’s transfer to their fishing boat—where, I might add, she says your sons-in-law and young Ahlyxzandyr and Gyffry made themselves very useful—while Seijin Cleddyf … prevented the crew from intervening.”
Thirsk looked at that grim expression for a long, silent moment, then nodded slowly. He’d heard the stories about the bloody path Merlin Athrawes had carved through the crews of no less than three Corisandian galleys. How he’d cut his way single-handed through a wall of swords and pikes, leaving no man alive behind him, as he’d raced to save Haarahld of Charis’ life. How he’d held Royal Charis’ quarterdeck alone against twice a hundred enemies while his mortally wounded king died behind him in a midshipman’s arms. They were incredible tales, whispered to close friends over tankards of beer or glasses of whiskey when there were no Inquisition ears to hear, and Thirsk had seen far too much of battle and death to believe the half of their wild exaggerations … until tonight.
“They deserved better, those men,” Athrawes said now, harshly. “But the moment Clyntahn put your family aboard that ship, he signed their death warrants.”
“You blew her up, didn’t you?” Thirsk said softly, and it wasn’t truly a question.
“We did.” Merlin’s nostrils flared, but he refused to look away. “We had no choice. If Clyntahn had suspected for a moment that your family was alive—far less that they might be in Charisian hands—you and I would never have had a chance for this conversation. You know that as well as I do.”
“Yes.” Thirsk’s voice was barely audible, but he nodded slowly. “Yes, I do.”
Silence fell, perfected by the backdrop pound of winter rain. It lingered for several seconds before Thirsk straightened in his chair, still clutching the miniature of his long-dead wife.
“And now you intend to hold them over my head,” he said. “I don’t suppose I can blame you. God knows your Emperor has reason enough to hate me! In his place, I’d be remembering the mercy he showed off Armageddon Reef and comparing it to what happened to his men when they fell into Dohlaran hands.”
“I think you can take it as a given that neither he nor Sharleyan—nor I, for that matter—are likely to forget that, My Lord,” Merlin said bleakly. “But you’ve met Cayleb. Do you really see him using your daughters and their children as weapons? He’d die before he became Zhaspahr Clyntahn!”
The blue eyes were fierce this time, and shame twisted in Lywys Gardynyr’s soul, because he had met Cayleb, knew the man who lived behind the Charisian Emperor’s larger-than-life legend. Yet he knew too much of the necessities and imperatives of war, as well.
“Seijin Merlin, if I lived to twice my age, I could never express the gratitude I feel at this moment. You—and Cayleb—have given my family back their lives, and I genuinely believe you did it because it was the right thing to do.” He shook his head, faintly surprised to realize he truly meant that. “But Cayleb’s an emperor, and he’s at war with Mother Church. He can’t possibly fail to see the opportunity—the necessity—of compelling me to do his will. No ruler worthy of his crown could simply ignore that! And he wouldn’t have to threaten to harm them to accomplish that, either.”
“Of course not.” Athrawes nodded. “All he’d have to do is inform the world they’re alive and in Charisian hands. Clyntahn would no doubt deny that, given how it cuts against the narrative he’s constructed. But that wouldn’t keep him from recognizing that you’d just become a potentially deadly weapon in Charis’ hands, one he could no longer hope to control. At which point, his reaction would become a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately for that scenario, Cayleb and Sharleyan would really rather keep you alive and un-martyred.”
“Out of the goodness of their hearts, I’m sure,” Thirsk said dryly.
“Actually, there is quite a bit of goodness in those hearts. But, no, you’re right. They do have responsibilities of their own, and they’re as well aware of them as you are of yours. But they aren’t going to threaten your children, and they aren’t going to reveal the fact of their survival. I’m afraid they aren’t going to do what Lady Stefyny asked us to do, either, though.”
“What Stefyny—” Thirsk began, then stopped and shook his head. “Of course. She would ask you to ‘retrieve’ me, as well, wouldn’t she?”
“She loves you very much,” Athrawes replied, and the earl smiled at the seeming non sequitur.
“Unfortunately, though, that’s not why I’m here,” the seijin continued, and there was an edge of genuine regret in his deep voice. “I do have this for you.” He reached into his pouch once more and extracted a thick envelope, sealed with wax. “It’s briefer than I’m sure she would have liked it to be, because she knew the person who delivered it might not be able to spend a great deal of time in Gorath and she wanted time for you to write at least a brief reply. I’m afraid I do need to be gone before much longer, but I think I can give you a quarter hour or so in which to reply. And—” he held out the envelope “—I’ll also ask you to be sure you burn it afterward. Letting it fall into the Inquisition’s hands would probably be a bad idea.”
Thirsk glanced at the envelope, then almost snatched it from Athrawes’ hand as he recognized his daughter’s handwriting.
“I’m sure she’ll give you her own version of what happened that night, My Lord. Seijin Cleddyf promised her I’d deliver it unread, which I have, so I can’t be certain, but I doubt her account will differ much from the one he shared with me. Not that I expect it to be identical to his. She’ll have a rather different perspective, after all.” The seijin smiled again, briefly. But then the smile disappeared. “I’m afraid Cayleb’s asked me to deliver a rather different message to you, however.”
“What sort of message?”
“It’s a fairly simple one, actually. Just as you once sat across a table from Cayleb, he sat across that same table from you, and he’s almost frighteningly good at taking the measure of other men, He took yours, and he knows how little you’ve relished some of the actions the Church has demanded of you. Notice that I said the Church, not God. There’s a difference, and I think you know what it is.”
“I won’t pretend I don’t know what you mean. But the fact that Clyntahn’s vile and corrupt doesn’t automatically grant Cayleb and Maikel Staynair license to destroy Mother Church and defy God’s will.”
“And you don’t believe for a moment they are defying God’s will,” Athrawes countered. “I doubt you ever did. And even if you did once, you stopped believing it long ago.”
The seijin’s riposte lay between them, a steely challenge Thirsk declined to pick up. He only looked back at the other man steadily, refusing to admit the charge … or to deny it.
“My Lord, as I say, time is pressing, you have a letter to read and another to write, and I still have a long way to go tonight, so I’ll be brief. Cayleb and Sharleyan make no demands in return for your family’s safety. And they fully understand that not only were you raised a son of Mother Church but that you take your oaths to the Crown of Dohlar and your responsibilities to the navy you command seriously. A man of honor has no choice about that … unless an even greater duty, an even deeper responsibility, is used against him. That deeper responsibility’s been lifted from you now, yet neither Cayleb nor Sharleyan would expect you to act against what you believe are the best interests of your kingdom and your own soul. If they tried to force you to, they’d be no better than the Group of Four, and because they refuse to be that, they’ve sent me to give you the deadliest gift of all, instead.”
His level gaze held Thirsk’s in the lamplight.
“Freedom, My Lord. That’s Charis’ gift to you. The freedom to do what you think is right … whatever the consequences.”
Copyright © 2016 by David Weber