A peculiar little tingle danced somewhere deep inside her at the thought. It was as if in that moment she had finally allowed herself to realize — or, at least, to admit — something she’d refused to face directly from the moment Cayleb’s proposal of matrimony arrived in Cherayth. Fear. Fear that the man who’d won those smashing victories, who’d threatened to sink every one of the Earl of Thirsk’s ships, without quarter or mercy, unless his surrender terms were accepted, must be as hard as his reputation. As cold as the sword at his side. Fear that her daughter had gone to wed a man as merciless, in his own way, as the kraken which was the emblem of his house. It wasn’t that she’d feared Cayleb might be evil, the monster of depravity depicted in the Group of Four’s propaganda. But a man need not be evil to be cold. To recognize all of the ways in which political calculation must trump mere human emotions when the prize was the life or death of entire kingdoms, and to act accordingly.

But she wasn’t seeing that man. Oh, she had no doubt that a man with that chin, those eyes which had seen too much blood and death already for a man of twice his years, could be just as hard and cold as any steel blade. Whatever else he might be, Cayleb Ahrmahk was no weakling, no captive to indecision or to vacillation. Yet who she was seeing in this moment was the young man — the husband — Sharleyan’s letters had described. Not the emperor. Not the invincible admiral, or merciless dictator of terms, or leader of schism against God’s Church, but her daughter’s husband.
Oh my God, a quiet voice said softly, almost prayerfully, in the back of her mind. Sharley wasn’t just trying to reassure me. She was telling me the truth. She truly loves him . . . and maybe even more importantly, he truly loves her.
Alahnah Tayt had watched her daughter sacrifice too much already on the altar of responsibility, give too much to the weight of the crown she had been forced to assume when other girls were still playing with dolls, surrender too many of the joys which should have been hers. Sharleyan had never complained, never wasted effort on self-pity or admitted she missed those things, yet Alahnah had missed them for her. In the lonely watches of the night, she had prayed for her daughter’s happiness, begged God to give her some small scrap of personal love and joy as partial compensation for all of the cold, demanding prestige, power, and wealth of her queenship. Surely God could not have condemned her to a bitter, cold marriage after all He had already demanded of her! Yet that was exactly what Alahnah had feared . . . and if Sharleyan had never admitted it, her mother had known it was what she feared, as well.
Now, for just an instant, the queen mother’s lips trembled, and then — to her astonished embarrassment — she burst into totally unanticipated tears. Green Mountain rose quickly, stepping urgently around to her, going to one knee beside her chair and taking her right hand in both of his, and she heard his soft, urgent questions. Heard him asking her why she wept. But she couldn’t answer him. She could only stare down the length of the table at the young man who had so unexpectedly, without saying a single word, told her that her daughter had found the one thing in the world her mother had most feared she would never know.
* * * * * * * * * *
Cayleb Ahrmahk watched Queen Mother Alahnah weep, listened to Green Mountain speaking softly and urgently to her. He’d been as surprised as Sharleyan’s first councilor by the queen mother’s tears, but only for a moment. Only until he’d recognized the way her eyes clung to him, even through her tears, and recognized that the one thing in which she did not weep was sorrow.
He patted his mouth with his napkin, laid the snowy linen aside, and pushed back his own chair. At his express request, he, Alahnah, and Green Mountain were dining privately. Even the servants had withdrawn, waiting to be summoned by the ringing of Queen Mother Alahnah’s bell if they were needed. Even Merlin Athrawes stood outside the private dining chamber’s door, guarding the privacy of all its occupants, and now Cayleb went to one knee at the other side of Alahnah’s chair. He took her free hand in his own, raised it to his lips and kissed its back gently, then looked up at her — or, rather, across, for he was as tall kneeling as she was sitting.
“Your Grace,” he murmured, “I feared the same thing myself, in many ways.”
“‘Feared,’ Your Majesty?” Alahnah repeated, and he nodded, then reached up with his left hand. A gentle thumb brushed tears from her cheek, and he smiled softly, almost sadly.
“You feared your daughter had been caught in a trap,” he told her. “You were afraid of a loveless marriage of state, a thing of cold calculation and ambition. From what Sharleyan’s told me, I believe you recognized the reasons for that calculation, understood the necessity behind the ambition, but still, you feared them. As did I. I had reports of your daughter, descriptions. I knew her history. But I didn’t know her, and I was afraid — so afraid — that if she accepted my proposal, I would be condemning both of us to a necessary but loveless union. That like so many other princes and princesses, kings and queens, we would be forced to sacrifice our own hopes of happiness on the altar of duty to our crowns.
“Sharleyan changed that for me. She changed it by being someone I could love, and someone who could love me. By being as brave, as warm and loving, as she was intelligent. As compassionate as she was pragmatic. As gentle as she could be ruthless at need. I would have proposed this marriage no matter what her character might have been, and I would have wed her with all honor, even if there’d been no love at all between us, just as she would have wed me. But God was good to us. We had no need to make that choice, because we truly do love one another. I wish, more than I could ever possibly say, that she were here to tell you that herself. She can’t be. God, in His mercy, may have spared us from a cold, unfeeling marriage, yet our other duties, our other responsibilities, remain. And it would be impossible for Sharleyan, as I know I need not tell you, to leave those responsibilities unmet, those duties undone. You — and Baron Green Mountain — taught her that, just as my father taught me, and neither of us will be unworthy of our teachers.”
“I know,” Alahnah half-whispered. “I know, Your Majesty, truly. And I see now that Sharley’s letters told me nothing but the simple truth when I feared she was trying desperately to offer me false comfort. Forgive me, Your Majesty, but I half-suspected — feared, at least — that the true reason she hadn’t accompanied you home to Cherayth was that it was a loveless marriage and you feared I might realize that when I finally saw the two of you together.”