I claim no ownership rights to any of the works of Rumiko Takahashi, or anything I've borrowed and modified from the Banestorm setting published by Steve Jackson Games.

Sir Geoffrey, Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller, stalked into his second's suite, fists clenched, still dressed in his dress chainmail and tabard, his finery contrasting with the plain robe his subordinate preferred when not training at in the field.

Sir Tristanus rose to his feet for his superior, both spiritual and temporal, from the table he sat, then looked over at the Order brother standing in the hallway and pulling the door closed. He wisely waited until the door was fully closed, then said as he sat back down, "So the good archbishop is on his way home?"

As he'd expected, Sir Geoffrey exploded into a long rant as he strode back and forth as he expounded on the dietary and sexual habits of the Archbishop of Raphael, the Duke of Craine and the legates in charge of the imperial legions in Megalos's western territories, and the sad impact said habits had on their ability to comprehend simple Anglish.

Sir Tristanus stacked the reports he'd been reviewing of New Jerusalem's stores of food and equipment and pushed them to the side (silently cursing yet again whatever brilliant idiot had invented preprinted forms shortly after the introduction of the printing press — yes, the efficiency and security the added paperwork provided were nice, but the time they ate up!). Estimating with long practice that his superior was nearing the end of his tirade, he poured wine from a crystal decanter into a pair of gold, jewel-encrusted goblets and placed one in front of the padded chair across the table.

Sir Geoffrey glared at the goblet for a long moment before dropping into the chair and grabbing it up to gulp down the wine.

"Careful, that silk tabard isn't cheap," Sir Tristanus warned. "The show you need to put on occasionally won't be enhanced by wine stains."

Sir Geoffrey surprised himself with a chuckle at his subordinate's ostentatiously dry comment, but took rather more care with his drink before setting down the now empty goblet.

As Sir Tristanus refilled the goblet, he commented, "You know, Duke Bran and the legates do have a point."

"King Conall is up to something," Sir Geoffrey insisted.

Sir Tristanus shrugged. "Of course he's up to something. I don't know if he has the mind of a snake or just listens to the advice of Myrrdin who definitely does, but that pair is always up to something. But I don't care how well the Keldara are trained," — and they would be very well trained indeed; their lord might be nothing but a jumped up sergeant, but he'd been a very good sergeant in the only professional army in the world — "mercenaries don't handle bloody frontal assaults well, and it's too late in the year for anything else."

"I know," Sir Geoffrey agreed sourly, "and so does King Conall — which means that Myrrdin's trips up into the mountains probably involve more than just hiring some imperial-trained mercenary foot. But they'd have to think twice if we could just get a legion posted on Caithness's southeast border, and even if they didn't we'd be in a better position to intervene."

"True." Sir Tristanus shrugged again. "But that's where Duke Bran and the legates have a point. King Conall might be up to something, but the Dark Elves in Blackwood definitely are — and that is right in the middle of the western Empire, not on its western border. That expanding forest and the monstrosities hiding within it at the Dark Elves' beck and call are more urgent than suppressing a nascent heresy in another kingdom."

Sir Geoffry glared at his subordinate. "I am concerned with men's souls, not their paltry earthly lives," he ground out.

"I know," Sir Tristanus agreed, "but if we overrun Caithness only for the Dark Elves to expand the Blackwoods behind us enough to cut off all land routes between us and the rest of Megalos we'll likely just lose it again, and may well find Raphael and Craine overrun and ourselves besieged in New Jerusalem when the heathens of al-Wazif take advantage of the situation. We need to deal with the rot at our core before we deal with the rot on our border."

Sir Geoffrey maintained his glare for another long, fulminating minute before slumping with a sigh. "I know, I know, I'm just kicking against the pricks," he agreed. "Where's your map?"

Sir Tristanus bolted upright in his chair, slamming down his goblet and ignoring the wine he splashed on his plain brown robe in the process. "Wait, you think we should intervene ourselves?"

"Of course, who else is there?" Sir Geoffrey asked. "This might be our only chance to nip this heresy in the bud!"

"How so?" Sir Trstanus asked, frowning.

"I'll show you, fetch your map."

Sir Tristanus quickly moved his paperwork and the decanter and goblets aside, used a sleeve to mop up the spilled wine, and spread out his map of Caithness and western Megalos.

Sir Geoffrey frowned as he studied it. "The more I think about it, the more I believe that we are only looking at Keldaran mercenaries," he mused. "Whatever's going on up in those mountains can't have anything to do with wizardry, the dwarven kings have made it clear that they won't tolerate human wizards in their territory and King Conall isn't going to risk their armies invading his kingdom from the north while he's trying to reconquer his south. And since all the more powerful wizards sitting on those tiny plots of land in Caithness where magic flows naturally have refused to involve themselves in the civil war, that means Conall still lacks a door knocker for dealing with rebel castles. So he'll bring down his new, untested mercenaries late in the season, use them to clear resistance in the field and intercept any relieving armies, and assault the rebel castle with his own blooded household troops and whatever personal troops of his loyal nobles he can gather in a hurry — his target will be Wallace along the western border on the Great Desert if he's being conservative, Sterling in the center if he's ambitious. Then he'll use the Keldara to garrison his conquest and use it for a jumping off point next year."

Sir Tristanus studied the map and slowly nodded. "You could be right," he said. "If so, it'll be Sterling — Conall may be as twisty as a snake but he's a plunger, he'll go for the quick win."

"That sounds like him," Sir Geoffrey agreed with a fierce grin, "and if you're right that means he'll be bringing Redhall's levies when he makes his move, and that means we have an opportunity — here." He ran a finger from New Jerusalem west along the River Conn across the border into Caithness to the tiny castle labeled 'Durham'. "Redhall's the only lording close enough to support Durham if we move fast, and with those levies in Sterling there won't be any. And once the Baroness of Durham runs away, we'll have a clean run up the river. If Conall has called up the levies of Fordham and Deerhall as well, we may even have an open road all the way to Carrick Town!"

Sir Tristanus stared at the map, then look up to match his superior's fierce grin. "And if that happens, then next year the rebels roll north, and it's all over. We put a puppet on the throne, within a decade or so the emperor can declare he's a duke again under the emperor's direct authority, and when Archbishop Siccius dies either our puppet or the emperor can recommend a replacement to the Curia that can root out the heresy corrupting Caithness's people."

"Exactly!" Sir Geoffrey enthused, then frowned as the expression on his subordinate's face turned thoughtful. "What is it?"

Slowly, Sit Tristanus asked, "How do you think will the Curia react? Yes, this may be our only chance to stop this heresy without declaring a crusade and wiping it away with fire and sword, but it is a rather blatant interference with a Christian kingdom's internal affairs. And the Curia hasn't labeled Archbishop Siccius's teaching a heresy — it doesn't even have a name yet."

"True," Sir Geoffrey agreed with a shrug, "but enough of the Curia will go along once we've won, if only because a majority of the Curia is under the emperor's thumb and the emperors have wanted Caithness back in the fold ever since Earl Conall took it away from them."

"But what if we lose? Or even only get as far as Durham? What then?"

Sir Geoffrey bolted to his feet, knocking his chair back. Slamming his fist on the table, he shouted, "We are on God's business, we can't lose!"

But Sir Tristanus just shook his head in the face of his superior's anger. "God's ways are mysterious," he replied. "It may well serve Him better to allow this canker to fester for a time, perhaps to test His children and make its evil all the more plain. If so, what then?"

Sir Geoffrey paused, then righted his chair and slowly sat back down. "You may have a point," he reluctantly admitted. He leaned back, deep in thought, then nodded. "When Conall makes his move and we move in response, I'll leave you here, with hints that you don't approve but ostensibly in case something drastic changes with the Blackwood. That way if our intercession fails the responsibility will fall on my head alone, and when I'm packed off to a monastery somewhere the Order will accept you as its new grand master."

Sir Tristanus considered the plan, and reluctantly nodded. "God grant it does not come to that, but if it does that should work." Taking a deep breath, he rolled up the map and set it aside, and picked up the stack of papers he'd been reading when Sir Geoffrey was first ushered in. "When you came in I was just going over the stores we'll need for the campaign. We'll want to quietly shift supplies down to the docks so they can be loaded on boats at a moment's notice..."

The whole thing with the Blackwood? Fully canonical for the setting. Of course, they don't know the full story... ^_^

When I wrote the last chapter I got some reviewers asking if Nabiki was pregnant. The answer is no, she isn't, she was reacting to the death she'd just ordered — I went back into the chapter and made that more clear. As for why tough, cynical Nabiki would be so badly affected, my own thinking is that it isn't so much that she's really that tough but rather that up until now she's been living in a consequence-free world. Up till now she could do pretty much what she pleased, and nobody would really be hurt — Ranma and her sister could get into the craziest situations, Nabiki could ramp up the craziness for her personal entertainment, and at the end of the day everything would go back to the status quo. Not even Judgment Day on Earth really changed that, it was just too big and impersonal — it hit everyone. But essentially ordering a hit on someone for being good at his job, personally loyal to his lord, and on the the wrong side is very personal, very permanent, and very much her responsibility, and she's only nineteen and never dreamed she'd be in a position to make that kind of call.

And yeah, Nabiki's delight in playing with people does make her a natural for political shenanigans, though she may still lack something in thinking long-term. Of course, if you don't take care of the short-term there may not be a long-term...