February, Year of God 893

Kingdom of Chisholm,
Empire of Charis

“Welcome to Cherayth, Your Majesty.”
The man who’d been waiting at the foot of the gangway bowed deeply as Cayleb Ahrmahk, Emperor of Charis, stepped off it onto the stone quay and set foot for the very first time upon the soil of the Kingdom of Chisholm. Cayleb had never met the tall, silver-haired Chisholmian with the deep, strong voice, but he’d been looking forward to making the older man’s acquaintance. Not, unfortunately, without a certain amount of trepidation. Fortunately, the Chisholmian’s greeting seemed sincere, although it was hard to be certain, since just hearing him was more than a bit difficult, under the circumstances. The harbor behind Cayleb was crowded with Charisian warships and Charisian transports packed to the gills with Charisian Marines. Even the enormous waters of Cherry Bay seemed congested and crowded well beyond their maximum capacity, and the defensive waterfront batteries were wreathed in smoke. But the fleet behind Cayleb was no invasion force come to pillage Cherayth, and the gunsmoke drifting away on the biting breeze of a northern winter (whose teeth made Cayleb’s southern blood devoutly grateful for his heavy cloak) was from the twenty-four-gun salute which had just roared its way into silence. And if the guns had fallen silent, the shouting voices of the bundled-up Chisholmians packed black and dense into every vantage point they could find had not.

There was enthusiasm in most of those shouts. Not all — Cayleb hadn’t expected that — but most. Yet however welcome that might be, they still made it hard to hear.
“Thank you, My Lord,” Cayleb replied, raising his own voice against the background tumult, then stepped forward and extended his right hand. Mahrak Sahndyrs, Baron Green Mountain and the first councilor of the Kingdom of Charis, seemed surprised at the gesture. He hesitated for a fraction of a second, then straightened from his bow and clasped forearms with the man who had become his Emperor.
The cheering redoubled, and Cayleb smiled, ever so faintly. He supposed there were rulers who would have felt it was imperative to stand upon their imperial dignity when meeting someone in Green Mountain’s position for the first time. The baron had been the mentor, protector, and, effectively, second father of Queen Sharleyan of Chisholm ever since Sharleyan had ascended to the throne as a mere child, and in many ways, he was every bit as popular with her subjects — her common-born subjects, at least — as she was. Many princes or kings who’d abruptly found themselves in Cayleb’s position would have felt legitimate concern about the ultimate loyalty of a man who’d been all of those things and enjoyed so much support and trust. The mere fact that Sharleyan had become Cayleb’s wife and the Empress of Charis, Cayleb’s coruler, might not have been enough to keep some other Green Mountain from seeking control of Chisholm for himself — especially since Sharleyan had remained behind in Charis, rather than returning with Cayleb — and too much familiarity with a man of such ambitions might all too easily prove fatal.
Yet Cayleb felt no concern about that at all. Mostly because Sharleyan didn’t, and Cayleb trusted her judgment (and her hardheaded realism) implicitly. Almost as importantly, however, Captain Merlin Athrawes shared Sharleyan’s judgment, and Captain Athrawes possessed certain . . . advantages which were not available to other men when it came to evaluating the actions and beliefs of others. If Merlin Athrawes told Cayleb a man was trustworthy, the emperor was quite prepared to take him at his word. A word which had been amply confirmed by Merlin’s reports on how firmly and ably Green Mountain and Queen Mother Alahnah had looked after Sharleyan’s affairs in Chisholm during her absence.
Of course, Green Mountain had no way to know anything of the sort, and just as Cayleb had never met Green Mountain, Green Mountain had never met him. Now Cayleb held the baron’s arm in his clasp for a few moments longer. He looked levelly across at him, letting Green Mountain look into his own eyes, and Sharleyan’s first councilor accepted that invitation as he had accepted the emperor’s proffered hand. He looked deep, and Cayleb met that searching gaze without flinching, his own eyes steady, until something inside Green Mountain’s expression — something no one could actually have seen, or described — seemed to ease somehow.
“Your Majesty, I –”
“A moment, My Lord,” Cayleb interrupted, his voice pitched just a bit lower, to form a sort of private alcove at the heart of the thunderous cheers still rising about them. Green Mountain’s eyebrows arched, and the emperor smiled at him. “There are many things I’d like to say to you at this moment,” Cayleb continued. “Unfortunately, I’m well aware that there are any number of official things we need to be discussing, instead, not to mention all of the public folderol we’re both going to have to put up with. I assure you, I have my public face ready to put on for all of that. But first, the Empress, my wife, charged me most sternly, as my very first duty in Chisholm, to give you and her Queen Mother all of her love.”
“I –” Green Mountain stopped and cleared his throat. “I thank you for that, Your Majesty,” he said after a moment, his own voice just a bit husky. His hand tightened on the emperor’s forearm for a second. Then his nostrils flared as he inhaled deeply.
“And now that you’ve delivered her message, Your Majesty, we really do have those formalities to deal with, I’m afraid.” His head twitched ever so slightly, indicating the gorgeously clad ranks of aristocrats — some of whose expressions seemed just a bit less welcoming than his own — standing behind him at a respectful distance on the jam-packed quay.
“Will you come and meet your Chisholmian subjects?”
* * * * * * * * * *
Welcome heat poured from the vast fireplace to Queen Mother Alahnah Tayt’s left as she sat at the foot of the table, gazing up its length across the glittering silver and polished glass and china at the dark-haired young man sitting at the table’s head. For the past several months, that chair — the one at the table’s head — had been Alahnah’s, and it felt odd to see someone else sitting in it.
Especially this someone else, she thought. It wouldn’t bother me a bit to see Sharley sitting there again!
She watched Emperor Cayleb turn his head, laughing at something Baron Green Mountain had said, and she discovered that her eyes were examining his profile intensely. It was as if by staring at him she could somehow have a glimpse of her daughter once again. Then, without warning, Cayleb stopped laughing at Green Mountain’s comment and looked straight at her, and she found her eyes gazing directly into his.
They were dark in the lamplight, those eyes. Dark and deep and surprisingly warm. Almost . . . gentle.
Odd. “Gentle” was the one adjective it would never have occurred to her to apply to the victor of Rock Point, of Crag Hook and Darcos Sound. And yet it was the only one which really fitted. The young man sitting in her daughter’s chair met her gaze directly, not challengingly, but with understanding. With compassion.