“Your Grace, I told you Sharleyan would never lie to you about something like that,” Green Mountain said softly, and she gave him a watery smiled.

“Dear Mahrak!” She pulled her hand out of his to touch him lightly on one cheek. “Of course you did. I know that. Just as I fully realize that you would lie Shan-wei out of Hell if that was what it took to protect Sharleyan or me.”
“Your Grace, I never –” he began, only to have her interrupt him with a soft gurgle of laughter.
“Of course you would have! And don’t make it worse by trying to convince me otherwise.”
He looked at her with an oddly hopeless expression, and she laughed again, then turned her attention back to Cayleb.
“Get up, Your Majesty! It’s not fitting that you should be on your knees to me.”
Her voice, Cayleb noticed, was much stronger than it had been, with a scolding note he had not previously heard from her. It was one he recognized, though. The last time he’d heard it — from someone besides Sharleyan herself, at least — it had been from his own mother, and he felt something warm within his heart.
“Yes, Your Grace. Immediately, Your Grace. To hear is to obey, Your Grace,” he said meekly, brown eyes twinkling with devilish delight, and she laughed again.
“That’s quite enough of that, too, Your Majesty,” she told him. You aren’t going to turn me up sweet with a few words and an easy smile! That may have worked with my young and impressionable daughter, Sir, but it won’t work with me!”
“Your Grace, I am shocked — shocked, I say — that you could possibly impute such base motives to me!”
“Of course you are,” she said dryly, then pointed firmly with her free hand at the chair he had abandoned. He held her left hand a moment longer, still smiling at her, then rose and walked obediently around to seat himself once more in the indicated chair.
“With all due respect, Your Majesty,” she continued, “I hope you’ll forgive me if I inform you that you are a charming, utterly unprincipled young rascal. No doubt you’ve found that smile of yours has always gotten you out of trouble before. I suspect you’ll find it rather less effective in my own case, however!”
“Well, there went all my hopes and plans to use my irresistible charm to . . . steer you into doing things my way.”
“Somehow,” Green Mountain said, his tone even drier than the Queen Mother’s, “I rather doubt that you’ve resorted to anything as uncertain as ‘irresistible charm’ in quite some time, Your Majesty.”
“Indeed not,” Alahnah agreed, her eyes narrowing as she considered the exotically dressed young man sitting at the far end of the table. “Mind you, it’s already obvious to me that you can be quite charming, when it suits you, Your Majesty. And to be frank, if I were twenty years or so younger, I would undoubtedly find that charm almost as ‘irresistible’ as Sharleyan obviously has. In my own case, however, you have something much more valuable and convincing.”
“I do?” Cayleb arched one eyebrow, his head cocked politely, and she snorted.
“Of course you do,” she said in a much more serious tone. “You have the truth. And you have the partnership you and Sharleyan have obviously forged. I already knew that much from her letters.”
“And does the rest of Chisholm share that belief with you, Your Grace?” Cayleb asked softly.
“Not all of it, Your Majesty,” Green Mountain answered for the queen mother. “Not all of it. But for most of your people, most of Queen Sharleyan’s subjects, there’s more than enough trust — in her and her judgment — to offset the fears of those who don’t agree. For now, at least.”
“That was the impression we’d both drawn from your letters to her, My Lord,” Cayleb said, carefully never mentioning the reports he’d had from one Merlin Athrawes, as well. “I hope this visit will help to convince at least some of those stubborn holdouts that their fears are groundless.”
“If you mean our own Temple Loyalists are going to find it a bit difficult to continue describing you as Shan-wei come back to Safehold, complete with horns, cloven hooves, and hairy tail, you’re probably right,” Green Mountain replied dryly. “On the other hand, I’m sure you don’t need me to point out that where power and politics are concerned, most men really don’t need Mother Church to inspire them with ‘distrust.’ Especially if they scent the possibility of siphoning some of that power into their own hands.”
“The fact that you left Sharley at home in Tellesberg, trusted her at your back, with all of the levers of power in your own kingdom, is going to go a long way towards reassuring those whose concerns were genuine, Your Majesty,” Alahnah said. “And, frankly, the fact that Mahrak and I accept your authority, not to mention taking both you and Sharley at your word when you claim to be true partners and coequals, is going to be just as reassuring. Unfortunately, mere reassurance isn’t going to inspire the ambitious to suddenly abandon their own designs. Nor,” her eyes darkened, “is it going to magically convince those Temple Loyalists Mahrak just mentioned to acquiesce in your ‘blasphemous’ defiance of Mother Church.”
“Perhaps not,” Cayleb agreed calmly, sitting back in his chair — the comfortably upholstered, ornately carved chair in which Sharleyan had sat so many nights — before the softly roaring fire. The priceless emeralds set into the golden chain about his neck danced with hearts of green fire as he fingered it, and he smiled. “Perhaps not. On the other hand, when all of the Charisian sailors and Marines I’ve brought with me come ashore and begin telling Sharleyan’s people how she already has every single one of my subjects eating out of her hand, I suspect those Temple Loyalists of yours may find it just a bit more difficult to foment distrust. And I’d imagine that all the marks they’re going to be spending in your taverns and taprooms — not to mention your brothels, if you’ll pardon me for bringing that up — will make them rather more welcome visitors. Which, of course,” he smile grew thnner, baring his teeth, and this time Queen Mother Alahnah felt a profound satisfaction as she saw in it all of the cold steel and ruthlessness she’d been so afraid of seeing such a short time before, “completely leaves aside the fact that if any of your Temple Loyalists — or ambitious nobles — should have been cherishing any notions about challenging Sharleyan’s decision to link Chisholm’s fate with that of Charis, it’s just remotely possible that finding forty or fifty thousand Charisian Marines in the vicinity will cause them to . . . rethink their options, shall we say?”
“Oh, I believe it’s entirely possible you’re correct about that, Your Majesty,” Green Mountain said with a satisfaction which matched Alahnah’s own. “And in the meantime,” he continued with a smile, “might I tempt you to sample just a little more of this truly excellent chicken?”