Prince Nahrmahn, Cayleb decided as he exchanged bows with Tohmas Symmyns, the Grand Duke of Zebediah, on Empress of Charis’ quarterdeck, had a pronounced gift for accurate thumbnail descriptions. If Zebediah could have been rendered down, his natural oil content could have lit every lamp in Tellesberg Palace for at least a year.

Which would probably be the best use to which he could possibly be put.
The grand duke was a man of average height and average build, with a prominent nose, thinning dark hair, and eyes which appeared to be only about a quarter of an inch deep. They met other people’s gazes with laudable steadiness, but there was an opacity, an armor, just under the surface, that reminded Cayleb of certain species of poisonous hedge lizards.
“It was most kind of you to come all this way to meet me, Your Grace,” Cayleb said, straightening from his own bow.
“You’re an emperor, Your Majesty,” Zebediah said, showing large, even, white teeth in a gracious smile. “Emperors, like kings, are entitled to their little quirks and foibles. And, to be completely honest,” he allowed his smile to fade into an expression of sobriety, “under the circumstances, I would have been astonished if your advisers had even considered allowing you to anchor your flagship within range of the harbor batteries of someone with whom your realm is still officially at war.”
“True enough.” Cayleb produced an expression which was almost a pout, and glanced sideways at the expressionless bodyguard towering at his shoulder in the livery of the House of Ahrmahk. Then the emperor returned his attention to the grand duke. “There are times when those ‘advisers’ of mine can be just a little . . . overprotective. It’s been even worse since Father’s death. There are times I think I’m never going to be allowed to do anything spontaneous again.”
“I’m afraid great rank and great responsibility bring with them their own limitations, Your Majesty,” Zebediah said sympathetically.
“I know.” Cayleb sighed, then drew a deep breath and straightened his shoulders.
“Forgive my manners, Your Grace,” he said. “Here I stand, keeping you talking on deck, rather than getting you into the shade and offering you some refreshment. Will you join me in my cabin?”
“I would be honored to,” Zebediah assured him.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Well, I thought that went rather well,” Cayleb remarked, some hours later as he stood on Empress of Charis’ quarterdeck once more, watching Zebediah’s ornate barge pull back towards the city.
“You did, did you?” a deep voice asked, and Cayleb smiled up at Merlin. The two of them stood by the rail, with one of the quarterdeck carronades between them and out of easy earshot of anyone else, as long as they kept their voices down.
“Of course I did,” the emperor replied, returning his attention to the departing barge. “Didn’t you?”
“I think Grand Duke Zebediah thinks you’re still a drooling teenager, at least when your ‘advisers’ aren’t around,” Merlin said.
“So do I,” Cayleb said with obvious satisfaction, and Merlin snorted.
“All well and good to be ‘underestimated,’ Cayleb. As long as someone like Zebediah doesn’t end up underestimating you so badly he does something stupid, that is. Something that gets a lot of people killed.”
“I agree.” Cayleb looked back at Merlin, his expression serious. “I think, though, in this case, that Nahrmahn was probably right. Zebediah knows he doesn’t have any choice but to give us the basing rights I demanded from him. And of course he showed more than a flicker of interest in the notion of his remaining as the first-ranking noble of Zebediah when we formally add the island to the Empire. And he fully intends to be my loyal and supportive ally and vassal right up until the first opportunity he sees to leave a dagger planted between my shoulder blades.”
“Which is precisely why it may not be a good thing for him to underestimate you too badly.”
“You’re missing my point, Merlin. It’s not a question of if he’ll see an opportunity to betray me; it’s only a question of when. And, that being the case, I’d really prefer for him to feel overconfident, rather than underconfident. I don’t want him to be so afraid of me that he actually ends up taking effective precautions. For that matter, I’d just as soon have him make his try before we’re directly engaged against the Church’s own forces. Better to have him hatch some sort of treason when we’re not distracted by a more serious threat, don’t you think?”
“You may well have a point,” Merlin said slowly. “I’m not sure I agree with your logic, but I have to admit that it is logical. It seems a bit . . . convoluted, though.”
“There are times, Merlin, when I find it easier than usual to believe you really did grow up in that ‘Terran Federation’ of yours.”
“I beg your pardon?” Merlin’s left eyebrow arched, and Cayleb chuckled harshly.
“In a more kindly and straightforward world — like the one you grew up in, at least where its politics were concerned — I’d just go ahead and quietly remove Zebediah. I’d ‘fire him’ as Grand Duke, and find someone else for the job. Preferably one of my Charisians who I know is loyal to me and deserves a proper reward for his services. Unfortunately, I can’t do that. Or, rather, I could, but only at the expense of making the next noble who might be tempted to reach an accommodation with me wonder if I plan on stripping him of his titles as a present for one of my favorites as soon as it’s convenient, as well.
“I didn’t greet Nahrmahn with open arms just because of his diplomatic contacts, or his undeniable value as an adviser, Merlin. And while it’s fortunate that he’s actually a rather likeable old bugger — when he’s not trying to assassinate me, of course — I planned on treating him as if I’d liked him even if he’d turned out to be an unmitigated pain in the arse. But I didn’t greet him so warmly or betroth Zhan to Mahrya on the basis of those things. I did it because it sent a message to other princes, other dukes and earls. And that message was that I was prepared to be reasonable and pragmatic, not to insist upon vengeance. And that so long as a man honors his promises to me, I’ll honor my promises to him . . . including the promise that he’ll be allowed to keep his titles, and to pass them on to his heirs in the fullness of time. Unless, of course, he does something which gives me legitimate grounds to attaint him for treason. If he does that — if he obviously breaks his oaths, obviously supports my enemies — then I’ll be totally justified in stripping him of his titles and crushing him like a bug. But I need him to give me that obvious justification if I don’t want others to regard me as capricious and untrustworthy.”
Merlin stroked his waxed mustachios, his expression thoughtful, then nodded slowly.
“You’re right, that aspect of it hadn’t occurred to me,” he admitted.
“That’s what I meant about believing you grew up somewhere else. It’s second nature to a dynast like me or Nahrmahn to think in those terms. Or, at least, it’s second nature to think that way if we’re reasonably intelligent dynasts. Which brings me back to my original point about the advantages of having Zebediah underestimate how smart I really am.”
“You know, Cayleb, it’s rather unsporting of you to challenge an unarmed man to a duel.”
“Oh? Is that what I’ve just done?”
“No, it isn’t. It’s just the closest analogy I can come up with . . . at least until I think of something even nastier.”