Pine Hollow nodded silently, and Cayleb's smile grew slightly warmer.


            "Neither the Queen nor I is blind to the realities of human nature, or to the fact that from your Prince's viewpoint, his reasons for enmity with Charis have been just as valid and just as real as Charis' reasons for enmity with him. Bearing that in mind, and rather than rely solely upon the power of the sword to enforce his obedience to our decree, we would prefer to find another means to encourage and sustain his obedience and cooperation. To be blunt, My Lord, we believe there are many ways in which Prince Nahrmahn could be of enormous value to the Empire of Charis, just as we recognize that there are many ways in which he might be tempted to create problems, instead. And so, as a means of demonstrating our sincerity when we state that Prince Nahrmahn will be the Empire's second-ranking noble, one of the conditions of any treaty between us will be the betrothal of his eldest daughter to Crown Prince Zhan of Charis."


            Pine Hollow's eyes flew wide. That was a possibility which had never occurred to him or to Nahrmahn. He knew his expression was giving away entirely too much, but Cayleb — and Sharleyan, he noticed — only smiled.


            "The Queen has no brothers or sisters," Cayleb continued after a moment. "Nor, obviously, does she have a child of her body. As such, Zhan will be our joint heir until such time as we produce children of our own. And, equally obviously, Zhan and Zhanayt will stand very close to the succession even after we do produce children of our own. As a pledge on our part that we will support and defend Prince Nahrmahn as we would any other vassal of the Crown, so long as he remains mindful of his own obligations to the Crown, we propose to unite his family with our family. We realize there are some years difference in age between Zhan and Princess Mahrya, but the difference is less than in many marriages made for far less weighty purposes. And, to be perfectly honest, we believe Princess Mahrya would be well suited to become Empress Consort of Charis should it chance that the Queen and I die without heirs of our bodies."


            "Your Majesty — Your Majesties — this is far more generous than my Prince or I dared to contemplate," Pine Hollow said, and for perhaps the first time in his life as an envoy or a councilor to the Crown, there was not even a trace of diplomatic hyperbole in his response. "To be honest, my Prince feared — and was prepared to face — your demand for his imprisonment, or even his execution. Certainly he never contemplated the possibility that you might offer to unite his house with yours — with both of your houses — instead."


            "I will be frank, My Lord," Sharleyan said, speaking for the first time. "The terms King Cayleb has just described to you originated almost entirely from his suggestions, not mine. As you, I was astounded by the generosity of his proposals. Had I been in his place, I think I would have found it far more difficult to have responded in such a way after such a long and intense period of hostility. Nonetheless, on mature reflection, I believe he's shown as much wisdom as generosity in this instance. While I would never go so far as to say I believe Prince Nahrmahn's conscience is as pure as the driven snow, I will say, as someone who was compelled, against her will, to support her kingdom's most bitter enemy in a totally unjustified war against an innocent friend, that I realize full well that not all which has passed between Emerald and Charis was of Prince Nahrmahn's doing. In that sense, at least, we've all been victims of the Group of Four and of the corruption which has so contaminated and tainted the Church. As Cayleb said to me when we discussed this matter, it's long past time for us to turn our attention to the challenges — and the great enemy — we hold in common. The Writ teaches that reconciliation is one of the godly virtues. Very well. Let us be reconciled with Prince Nahrmahn, and with Emerald, and then let us go forward together to face the great struggle of our lives."


            "Your Majesty," Pine Hollow said with a profound bow, "I see the reports of your wisdom which our admittedly inferior Emeraldian spymasters –" he allowed himself a wry smile "– have managed to bring us in Eraystor have failed to do you justice. As my Prince's plenipotentiary, I accept your most generous terms in his name. Nor do I fear that he will feel any temptation to override my acceptance."


            "So long as both of you understand this, My Lord," Cayleb reentered the conversation. Pine Hollow looked at him, and the king's eyes were hard. "First, there will be no second chance. So long as Prince Nahrmahn keeps faith with us, we will keep faith with him. But should he prove faithless, there will be no generosity, no mercy, the next time."


            "I understand, Your Majesty," Pine Hollow said quietly.


            "Then understand this second point equally clearly, My Lord. By these terms, by this marriage, we will bring an end to the enmity between the House of Ahrmahk and the House of Baytz. But in so doing, your Prince — as Queen Sharleyan and myself — will have declared his personal war — the war of our houses, not simply the war of our realms — against the Group of Four, the Council of Vicars, and the Grand Vicar, himself. There will be no going back, Earl Pine Hollow. This decision, this declaration, is forever. The only possible outcomes are victory or total destruction, and I advise you and your Prince to think long and hard upon the nature of the death the Grand Inquisitor visited upon Erayk Dynnys. That is the fate which awaits any of the Temple's enemies who fall into its power."


            "I understand that, as well, Your Majesty," Pine Hollow said even more quietly, meeting Cayleb's eyes levelly. "Indeed, Prince Nahrmahn himself said very much the same thing to me. I won't pretend I was happy to hear it, or that the thought of raising my own hand, far less my sword, against Mother Church didn't fill me with dismay. I'm a son of Mother Church, and all I ever wanted was to be loyal to her. But how can any man of conscience be loyal to someone who, as my Prince put it, 'whistled up our princedom like a hired footpad and ordered us to cut an innocent man's throat'?"


            "A valid question, My Lord," Sharleyan said softly. "Alas, there are those who will insist obedience to God's Church requires them to acquiesce even in acts such as that, when commanded to do so by men who wear the orange."


            "I was such a man, Your Majesty," Pine Hollow acknowledged. "And in some small corner of my soul, I wish I still were. My heart misses that certainty. But, as Archbishop Maikel's letter made painfully clear, there is indeed a distinction between God Himself and the Archangels, on the one hand, and mortal, corrupt men who claim to speak in God's name, upon the other. What we owe to God, we do not owe to those who pervert all He is to serve their own ends."


            "If that's truly Prince Nahrmahn's opinion as well as your own, My Lord," Cayleb said, "then Queen Sharleyan and I will welcome him warmly. Just as," he smiled suddenly, "I'm certain the Group of Four will welcome all of us 'warmly,' if, perhaps, in a somewhat different fashion, should they ever have the opportunity!"