The emperor swung down from his saddle, accompanied by the sharp-eyed, handpicked Imperial Guard troopers of Merlin’s detachment. Those guardsmen were even more alert than usual, Cayleb noticed. None of them were oblivious to just how convenient certain parties would find it if something fatal were to overtake one Cayleb Ahrmahk.

Despite the cold temperature, which struck Cayleb and the majority of his Charisian-born bodyguards as outright frigid, a substantial crowd had assembled outside Parliament Hall. The overwhelming majority of the spectators standing there amid steamy clouds of exhaled breath were commoners, probably because most of the nobles in the capital were already sitting snugly in their seats inside the Hall, Cayleb thought just a bit enviously as the cheers began to rise. The crowd’s enthusiasm meant he had to proceed slowly, graciously, acknowledging their greetings rather than scurrying towards the Hall’s waiting warmth.
His guardsmen almost certainly shared his desire to get inside and out of the wind as quickly as possible, but they allowed no sign of that eagerness to distract them from their duties. They formed a loose ring around him, wide enough to keep anyone who might break through the Army cordon from getting to him with a knife. Ranged weapons were more problematical, of course, but Cayleb took a certain satisfaction from the knowledge that Merlin and Owl, the seijin’s computer henchman, had provided him with garments made out of the the same sort of “antiballistic smart fabric” (whatever that was) from which they’d made Archbishop Maikel’s vestments. Even if some unfriendly soul with an arbalest or a rifle were crouched behind one of the windows overlooking Parliament Hall, nothing he could do was likely to leave Cayleb with anything more than a painful bruise or two.
Well, that and the need for some fairly inventive explanations, I suppose.
His lips quirked at the thought, and then he heaved a surreptitious sigh of relief as he managed to get inside the building’s comforting warmth at last.
It was much quieter inside Parliament Hall than it had been outside, although he wasn’t certain it was all that much of an improvement. However happy the members of the Commons seated on the western side of the Hall’s grand meeting chamber might be to see him, the Lords seated on its eastern side appeared to find it remarkably easy to restrain any unseemly enthusiasm they might be experiencing.
I suppose it’s hard to blame them for that, Cayleb thought as the Speaker came towards him to offer formal greeting. They must have been unhappy enough with only Sharleyan to worry about. Now there’s me, as well . . . and any of them who have been awake enough to smell the chocolate have to be aware of how Charis’ Parliament operates. Whatever else they may be expecting out of me, it’s not going to be anything that will improve their position here in Chisholm.
“Somehow,” he heard Merlin murmur very, very softly into his ear, “I don’t feel all warm and loved.”
“You don’t?” Cayleb snorted back, then adjusted his face into an expression of proper formality as the Speaker bowed to him in greeting.
“Welcome! Welcome, Your Majesty!”
“Thank you, My Lord Speaker,” Cayleb replied graciously.
“Both Houses await your pleasure with eagerness,” the Speaker continued more diplomatically, Cayleb was certain, than accurately, at least where the Lords were concerned.
“Then let us not keep them waiting,” Cayleb said.
* * * * * * * * * *
He looks like an emperor, Mahrak Sahndyrs thought from his place among his fellow nobles as the Speaker ushered Cayleb to the lectern which had been draped in the new imperial flag to await him. Personally, Sahndyrs would have preferred to be seated on the western side of the Hall, among the commoners who were his staunchest allies. Unfortunately, he was a peer of the realm, and tradition demand that he be seated among his fellow aristocrats.
Besides, it gives them all the opportunity to remind themselves — and me, of course — that while I may be First Councilor, I’m also still a mere baron.
Sharleyan had offered several times to do something about that, but Green Mountain had always declined. He could put up with the pretensions of snobbish earls and dukes all day long, if he must, and his decision to remain a “mere baron” was important to his commoner allies. They understood that the Queen’s senior minister had to be a nobleman, but they found a “mere baron” far more acceptable than they would have found an earl or a duke. Now he watched the young man in the embroidered thigh- length tunic and loose-fitting breeches which still looked undeniably exotic to most Chisholmians standing where Sharleyan had stood so often, the emerald-set chain of a Charisian king flashing about his neck, and leaned back comfortably in his own chair. He’d half-expected Cayleb to come in full imperial regalia, and he still wasn’t sure the younger man’s decision not to hadn’t been a mistake, but the baron had to admit that he’d never seen a more kingly young man in his life.
Clothes don’t make the man, nor a crown a king, he reminded himself. Not really, whatever certain other people my think. That has to come from within, from a man’s own strength, confidence, and willpower, and this young man has those qualities in plenty.
Somehow, he expected to enjoy the next half hour or so rather more than one of those earls or dukes he wasn’t one of.