“Did I push too hard, do you think, Your Eminence?” Sharleyan Ahrmahk asked much later that evening as Archbishop Maikel joined her for supper.

“At the Council meeting, Your Majesty?” Staynair chuckled and shook his head with a small smile. “I wouldn’t worry about that. I’m sure you stepped on a few male toes here and there, but I don’t think you trod on any that didn’t need stepping on. And even those who may still be inclined to discount your ideas because of your youth and sex seem to end up accepting their logic.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it as much back home in Cherayth,” she confessed, leaning forward to reach for her wineglass and then settling back in her chair once more. “Once upon a time I would have, of course, but I’ve had years to . . . polish my relationship with my Chisholmian Councilors.”
“‘Polish?'” Staynair repeated with a deeper chuckle. “Beat into submission is what you really mean, isn’t it?”
“Oh, Langhorne, no!” Sharleyan rounded her eyes and shook her head. “‘Beat into submission’ would be such an unladylike thing to do!”
“I think there’s a very unladylike element to your personality, Your Majesty,” Staynair replied. “And thank God for it!”
“So you don’t think I’m driving too hard to assert my own authority?” she asked more seriously. He crooked an eyebrow at her, and she shrugged. “I’m not concerned about my own ability to control the situation, Your Eminence. I suppose what I’m really concerned about is whether or not I appear to be attempting to undercut Cayleb’s authority. Or, even worse, whether or not it turns out that, without meaning to, I actually am undercutting his authority.”
“Emperor Cayleb’s authority isn’t so fragile as all that, Your Majesty,” Staynair said dryly. “I think it will survive any unintentional chips or scratches you might inflict upon it — especially since it’s obvious to me that you have no intention of ‘usurping’ his authority. And, frankly, I believe the possibility that you might encroach upon his prerogatives — which, now that I think about it, would be difficult for you to do, since they happen to also be your prerogatives — is far less dangerous to us than it would be for you to begin vacillating, or hesitating, for fear of encroaching. Charis — the Empire, not simply ‘Old Charis’ — needs a strong, firm hand on the tiller, especially now. And at this moment, that hand is — must be — yours.”
“I know,” she confessed, then sipped a little wine, as if buying time to sort through her own thoughts. “I know,” she continued, “and if I’m going to be honest, I suppose I should admit that there’s a part of me that doesn’t come truly alive except when I’m dealing with decisions that matter. I’ve often wondered if that’s the sin of pride speaking.”
“And have you discussed your concerns with Father Carlsyn?” Staynair asked in a slightly more neutral tone. Carlsyn Raiyz had been Sharleyan’s personal confessor ever since she ascended to the Chisholmian throne, but Staynair, for obvious reasons, had never even met the man before he arrived in Tellesberg at Sharleyan’s side.
“I have.” She smiled crookedly. “Unfortunately, he’s my confessor; I’m not his. He’s reassured me several times, and imposed a penance or two on the rare occasions — well, possibly not all that rare — when he feels I’ve clearly stepped on someone harder than I had to. Confidence, he says, is a good thing in a ruler. Capriciousness isn’t.”
“Sound doctrine,” Staynair said with a smile of his own. “Good philosophy, too. And, if I may, Your Majesty, could I also ask you if you’ve discussed the schism with him?”
“Not the way we’ve discussed other concerns,” Sharleyan admitted, her eyes darkening. “He hasn’t pressed me on it, which probably says a great deal, right there. But the truth is, I’m almost afraid to ask him how he feels about it. If he’s prepared to accept my decisions without openly condemning them, that’s better than some others have already done.”
Her voice was far more somber, and Staynair’s expression softened sympathetically.
“Your uncle, Your Majesty?” he asked gently.
Sharleyan’s head snapped up. She looked at him intently across the dinner table for several seconds, and then her firm mouth seemed to quiver for a moment.
“Yes,” she admitted softly, and the archbishop nodded.
Very few people in Charis had been particularly well acquainted with the internal political dynamic of Chisholm prior to Sharleyan’s marriage to Cayleb. Staynair certainly hadn’t been, but he’d made it a priority to learn all he could about that dynamic since. And one thing which had become abundantly clear to him was that the Duke of Halbrook Hollow had been far more than simply one of Sharleyan’s senior nobles. Indeed, he’d been more than “just” an uncle. As the commander of the Royal Army, he’d been her sword, even as Green Mountain had been her shield. And now . . . .
“Your Majesty,” Staynair said after a moment, “it’s easier to command fleets and armies than to command the human heart. Your uncle has already discovered that, and if it should happen that it’s a lesson you haven’t already learned, then I fear it’s one you have no choice but to master now. I believe your uncle loves you. I don’t pretend to know him well, especially since he’s kept me — as all of the ‘Church of Charis’ — at arm’s-length or beyond, but I believe he does love you. Yet you’ve asked him to accept something he can’t. When I look at him, I see a man grieving over his niece’s decisions, and one of the reasons he grieves is because he loves her.”
“I suppose that’s reassuring,” Sharleyan said. Then she shook her head. “No, I don’t ‘suppose’ it is; it is. But it doesn’t change the fact that the . . . estrangement between us over the Church is becoming increasingly evident. Or the fact that there are those here in Tellesberg Palace who think it’s dangerous to have someone with such obvious Temple Loyalist sympathies so close to the throne.”
“They may be correct about that, Your Majesty.” Staynair’s expression was serene. “In the end, what your relationship with him is — or becomes — is a matter for your decision, however, not for anyone else’s. And it’s not as if he were attempting to dissemble, to conceal those sympathies. It would appear to me that he is who he is, and what more can one fairly ask of anyone?”
“I’m a queen, Your Eminence — an empress. Can I afford to be ‘fair’ to someone as close to me as he is?”
“Perhaps it does constitute a danger to do so,” Staynair replied. “Perhaps you might even argue that it’s your responsibility as a queen and an empress to put him out of the way, somewhere he can do no harm. And perhaps if you fail to do so, you may face serious consequences in the fullness of time. All of that may be true, Your Majesty. But what I know is true is that you, too, must be who you are. Too much danger, too many threats from others already confront you. I believe that the one thing you dare not do is to permit yourself to undermine who you are, who you’ve always been, with doubts from within. If you love him as deeply as you obviously do, you must listen to that love as much as to the pragmatic caution of the ruler you are. It would be better for Charis for you to risk what harm he might do than for you to maim your own spirit, your own confidence and all the good you have still to do, by hardening your heart and denying that love.”
“But I’ve already taken steps to protect myself against him,” she confessed. “That’s the entire reason I didn’t leave him behind in Chisholm with Mahrak. I couldn’t leave him in command of the Army when he so obviously disagreed with what I was coming to Charis to do.”
“I assumed that was the case.” Staynair shrugged. “And there, I suspect, you see the clearest proof of just how unlikely you are to allow your love for him to blind you to your duties.”
The empress nodded slowly, and Staynair sipped from his own wineglass, watching her and wishing more strongly than ever that he, Cayleb, and Merlin had succeeded in convincing the rest of the Brethren of Saint Zherneau to allow Cayleb to tell her the truth. If she’d known, as Staynair did, how Captain Athrawes could keep an eye on even the most skilled of conspirators, it might have set her mind at ease.
And easing her mind wherever and whenever we can is the least we can do for her, he thought sympathetically behind the serenity of his eyes. She deserves that. And even if she didn’t, simple commonsense would demand that we do it anyway. We need her — need her functioning at her best, using all that intelligence and willpower, not wasting it by belaboring herself over issues she can never hope to resolve, anyway.
“Your uncle, in many ways, is a mirror of Safehold itself, Your Majesty,” he said out loud. “The struggle in his heart and mind is the same struggle going on in the hearts and minds and souls of every man and woman in this world. Each of us must, in the end, make our own decisions, our own choices, and the pain that will bring to altogether too many of us will be terrible. Yet we must choose. The worst sin of all, the one unforgivable sin, is to refuse to choose. And whatever we may think or believe ourselves, we cannot deny that choice to others simply because we believe they will choose differently from ourselves.
“You understand your uncle’s inability to agree with you. Now you must accept his right to disagree with you. Don’t judge him for that disagreement. Take steps to protect yourself against it’s possible consequences, yes, but remember that he remains the uncle you loved as a child, and the army commander who served you so well for so long. If he decides, if he chooses, to allow the breach between you to damage or destroy his love for you, or even impel him to join your enemies, that, too, is his decision. Yet never forget that it truly is possible to deeply love someone with whom you fundamentally disagree, Your Majesty. I’m a Bédardist, and that’s one of the essential principles of my order’s teaching. And another principle is that it’s very difficult to love someone with whom you fundamentally disagree. Difficult, and hard on both of you. Don’t make it any harder than you must, any sooner than you must.”
Sharleyan looked at him for a moment, then inhaled deeply, and nodded.
“You’re right, Your Eminence,” she said softly. “It is hard. But I’ll try not to make it any harder than I have to.”