“Enough, enough, Herbert, words, however many you employ and however much honey you dip them into, will not solve this!” The Duke of Alva’s tone indicated his impatience, an emotion with which, Herbert noted, he had been struggling for the last half an hour; the Imperial Viceroy knew that the Emperor expected a decisive result, and he intended to deliver it.  Herbert, long-prepared for this to happen,, threw out his arms in a gesture of sympathy. “There are other options, your Highness, and as you will have considered them, let me outline my understanding and then  you can correct me; no honey this time.”  Alva knew the man’s reputation and smiled to himself; the Emperor had warned him that Herbert was a resourceful fellow, and that Alva should not presume he was on the side of anyone save himself. It was with a start that he heard Herbert say: “My concern here is not for this Realm, or you, but for myself. Happily, all of these things can be reconciled – if we are skilful; my question, Highness, is whether your own interests, and those of the Empire, will be advanced by this Realm descending into war?”

An audacious gambit, but as Alva’s chief advisor, Cardinal Balbo, commented later, what else would one have expected from a man with Herbert’s reputation. Balbo recapitulated the conversation for Alva’s Council, but although the secretary had taken excellent notes, Balbo noted that he had not captured Herbert’s manner, which was at once frank, collusive and sympatico. The heads of the conversation were easily summarised: if Alva and the Marridans wished to try to occupy the Realm in the way Herbert’s ancestors had, they could, no doubt, achieve the same results after a century or two; but was that what the Emperor wanted? What would be the cost if the Empire had to keep large armies across the Realm for that long? Were other options not preferable?

The secretary had tactfully omitted Alva’s response: ‘By the right hand of God, I would chastise these rogues with scorpions, and right readily, so tempt me not!” Herbert’s response had also been omitted: “This, your Highness, is a feeling most who deal with the Astrians have from time to time; they are a stiff-necked race. But the wise man does not let anger be his guide!”  Alva and Herbert understood each other, and Balbo noted that moment as the one where the pair of them moved towards a consensus.  A practical man himself, Balbo outlined the situation to the Council, looking to Alva from time to time, but as the Duke was nodding sagely, he gathered encouragement from that – and the murmurs of approval from his peers.

In truth none of them wanted a prolonged occupation of the Easterlings. They could certainly have pressed south to Eastminster to consolidate their hold on the seat of power; but what then? Or, in Herbert’s graphic comment: “A man may do anything with a sword, Highness, save sit upon its point.”  There was the truth of it. An army of occupation would have been expensive, and the occupation would have been prolonged. Had there been no alternative, then the thing would have had to be done. The Empire could not tolerate Henry’s disobedience, and His Holiness could not countenance the Realm sliding into heresy and possible schism; but Herbert was offering an alternative, and as Balbo outlined it to the Council, it became increasingly clear that it was far better than the alternative.

Herbert explained that Pembrook wanted to create a permanent Council of the Realm, and that he wished to have on it representatives from the Empire and the Church. This, he had explained, would help rein in the tendency of all monarchs save the Blessed Emperor, who had His Holiness as guide, to mistake their own will for that of God.  The two contenders to the throne had been informed of this, and the Lady of the Realm (as Isolde was already being called by her supporters) had given her assent; Henry’s son never would, but he was not a man to lead a revolt. So, if the Marridans made the right moves now, there would be, in effect, the Empire and the supporters of the Lady on one side, along with the many who feared Henry and his successor, and Stephen and a few idealists on the other. Alva had not had to ask what should be done, as Herbert had already drawn up the outline of the agreement. It was this which Balbo now recommended to the Council – not that he let slip the provenance of the document; Herbert had made it plain he was happy to let Alva have the credit. Being a clever man, Balbo saw the game: if Pembrook’s Council disliked it, Herbert would not be blamed and could negotiate further; if it accepted it and Alva got the credit, then Herbert’s stock would rise as the man who had negotiated successfully with the Imperial Duke.

The treaty put a term to the Marridan occupation – now renamed the ‘mission of assistance’.  By midsummer, the Council would have resolved the constitutional struggle, and if the Emperor’s representative on the Council and the Church accepted it, the military assistance would be at an end. The Astrians would pay a suitable sum to the Emperor to reimburse him for his trouble; subject to the ending of the Astrian Crusade, that amount might be reduced, in recognition of the costs the Realm had incurred in its well-meant but unfortunate attempt to retrieve the Holy Places. Herbert had been fond of that one: would the Council really want to pay the Emperor and the costs of the Crusade. The Emperor’s representatives would, in turn, make good any damage which might have been done, which might be done in the form of a further reduction in the monies to be paid to the Marridans.

Balbo fancied himself a man of resource, but even he had been surprised by the final twist in Herbert’s treaty. Akko, the gateway to the Holy Places, was the home of one of the greatest and oldest holy foundations in the Christian world. It was said to be the place from which the Apostle Thomas had gone to found churches in the east, and it was the centre of the greatest pilgrim route in the world. But it had long been troubled by the dispute between the different religious orders about who should preside over the Great Holiness, as the cathedral and its monastery were known. In recognition of its importance, the head of the Holiness was a Prince Cardinal of the Church, but the monks had rejected several imperial candidates on the ground that they were more princely than holy. But what, said Herbert, would they say if Stephen, a prince indeed, but a man of transparent piety and great personal holiness, was to be nominated to the post of Grand Cardinal of the Great Holiness?

As he travelled back from the Easterlings, with ‘Alva’s Treaty’ in his pocket, Herbert reflected that his hand had not lost its cunning. The Grand Cardinal had always been a high-born layman, and the last one was already being called a Saint. Stephen was immune to all worldly temptation – but how would an other-worldly one play with him?

I wonder if our gracious hostess might take our story to the next stage?