September, Year of God 892





Tellesberg Palace,




Kingdom of Charis


            It was odd, the Earl of Pine Hollow, thought as he was escorted into the Tellesberg Palace throne room once more. He hadn't believed he could feel more nervous than he had on the occasion of his first visit here.


            Unfortunately, I was wrong.


            He followed the pair of guardsmen, one in the black and gold of Charis and the other in the silver and blue of Chisholm, across the polished stone floor, under the silently turning fans. It was much the same room as before, he noticed . . . aside from the minor fact that the raised dais was a bit larger and that it no longer supported only a single throne.


            No wonder he wanted to time to "think about his response." Despite his own internal tension, Pine Hollow found it hard not to smile as he looked at the attractive young woman sitting in the throne to Cayleb's right. I can hardly believe the two of them managed to put this entire marriage together without anyone in Emerald catching so much as a sniff of it! Nahrmahn was right about Sharleyan all along, though. And he was right about something else, too. Cayleb is dangerous enough by himself; the two of them together are going to turn Hektor into kraken bait, and when that happens, I'd rather be in the boat with them than in the water with Hektor.


            The Earl of Gray Harbor stood between the two thrones, effectively at the shoulders of each of the two monarchs seated in them, and Archbishop Maikel stood to the king's left. Aside from the first councilor, the archbishop, and their personal bodyguards, Cayleb and Sharleyan were alone. That was interesting. The lack of additional councilors — and witnesses — argued, among other things, that the two of them intended to speak . . . frankly. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing for Emerald remained to be seen, of course.


            He stopped at the correct distance from the pair of thrones, bowed to both of the seated monarchs, then straightened and stood waiting respectfully.


            "Well, My Lord," Cayleb said after several thoughtful moments, "I did say we'd talk again, I believe."


            "Indeed, you did, Your Majesty." Pine Hollow allowed himself a small smile. "At the time, however, you allowed me to assume that there would be only one monarch present when we did."


            "As you see, our spymasters are better than yours." Cayleb smiled back, and his tone was light, almost whimsical. His eyes, however, Pine Hollow noted, didn't smile.


            "In point of fact, Your Majesty, we'd already deduced that in light of certain other small surprises we've suffered of late. I believe it had something to do with what happened to our fleet — among other people's –" he allowed his eyes to flit briefly sideways to Sharleyan "– in the recent . . . unpleasantness."


            "An interesting choice of words," Cayleb observed. He, too, glanced at the queen seated beside him. Then he looked back at Pine Hollow. "It was indeed 'unpleasant,' My Lord. And, in the event, rather more unpleasant for some than for others. If we were inclined to spend our time rehashing all of our mutual reasons for enmity, we'd still be sitting here this time next year, however. So, bearing in mind the reason your Prince sent you here, Queen Sharleyan and I propose to move forward, rather than look back. Neither of us, however, is blind to the past, My Lord. In fact, we remember everything that's passed, and it would the wise of you and your Prince to bear that in mind. And to remember what I said a moment ago. Our spymasters are very, very good."


            Pine Hollow inclined his head in silent acknowledgment of Cayleb's point. It wasn't one he or Nahrmahn was ever likely to forget.


            "You may have noted, My Lord, that I said Queen Sharleyan and I propose to move forward. Allow me to be specific, just in case the contacts I'm certain you've been cultivating here in Tellesberg have failed to provide you with the full specifics. When Her Majesty and I wed one another in a few days' time, we will lay the foundation for a new realm, the Empire of Charis. Queen Sharleyan will continue to rule Chisholm in her own right, and I will continue to rule Charis, in my own right, but both of those kingdoms will become subordinate to and included in the Empire of Charis. The crown of that empire will be held initially by me, but Queen Sharleyan will be my coruler, not simply my consort. She will become not simply my wife, not simply my senior councilor, but my regent and my deputy. Any decision she reaches in my absence will be as valid as any decision I myself might have reached. And, should I predecease her, the Empire's crown — and the crown of 'the Old Kingdom of Charis' — will pass first to her, and only after her death to our eldest child.


            "What this means for you and for Emerald, My Lord, is twofold. First, the terms which will be offered to your Prince are those which upon which Her Majesty and I have mutually agreed. They aren't the terms of Charis, and they aren't the terms of Chisholm; they are our terms, and they aren't subject to negotiation. Your choice, My Lord, is to accept them or to reject them. Is that point clear?"


            "It is, Your Majesty." Pine Hollow kept his voice even, although it was difficult. It was obvious Cayleb was doing his very best to avoid grinding Emerald's pride into the dirt any more thoroughly than he must, but the fact remained that he — and Sharleyan, Pine Hollow reminded himself — were dictating terms. The fact that they had the power to do that made the experience no more enjoyable from the other side.


            "Very well," Cayleb said. "In that case, understand the second consequence for Emerald. Your Prince's independence must come to an end and Emerald must become a part of the new Empire of Charis.


            "There are two ways in which this might be accomplished, and to be perfectly honest, the one which most appeals to me on a personal basis, for many reasons, would be to depose Prince Nahrmahn and formally annex Emerald as a part of the Kingdom of Charis. As you and I are both aware, I have many personal reasons to feel less than fond, shall we say, of your Prince, and I suppose it's only human of me to wish to make that point abundantly clear to him.


            "However, after further consideration and after discussing the matter fully with Queen Sharleyan, we've decided to adopt a second approach. Instead of adding your princedom to the territory of the Kingdom of Charis, which we would be fully entitled to do, having secured our claim by force of arms, we propose to add the Princedom of Emerald to the Empire of Charis as an intact unit."


            Pine Hollow's mental ears pricked. He felt his shoulders stiffen, but he managed to keep any hint of emotion out of his expression.


            "Assuming Prince Nahrmahn is prepared to accept the sovereignty of the Empire of Charis and its ruler, and to give expression to any requirements for domestic change that ruler may make upon him, accepting that the imperial crown has the right to issue whatever instructions it, in its own good judgment, finds most appropriate, he will be permitted to retain the crown of the Princedom of Emerald and will become the second-ranking noble of the Empire. Only the heir apparent to the imperial crown will take precedence over him."


            This time, Pine Hollow couldn't keep the astonishment — and vast relief — from showing. Cayleb noted it, and smiled thinly.


            "It would be well, My Lord, for you and Prince Nahrmahn to disabuse yourselves of any notion that this means it will be 'business as usual' for him in Emerald. The Emperor — or Empress — of Charis will be the master — or mistress — of the Empire. Your Prince will retain his throne only at the pleasure of the Emperor. He would be well advised to remember that firmly, because I assure you, Queen Sharleyan and I most definitely will."