B Y SCHISM RENT ASUNDER – snippet 118:



            Cayleb was magnificent in white breeches and a traditional Charisian tunic of tawny-amber cotton silk, trimmed in rich green and embroidered with the black and gold kraken of his house. The rubies and sapphires of the formal Crown of State glittered on his dark hair like flashes of red and blue fire; the crimson cloak of his full court regalia, trimmed in the snowy white fur of a mountain slash lizard's winter pelt, was thrown over his shoulders; and the katana Merlin had given him rode at his side in a newly made black scabbard set with faceted gems and clasped in silver.


            Sharleyan had attended the dawn mass in one of the sumptuous, tailored gowns she'd brought from Chisholm, but for this ceremony, she wore a Charisian wedding gown. The decision had been hers — Cayleb had actually been in favor of her wearing a Chisholm-style gown as a symbol of the unifcation of their two kingdoms — but as soon as she'd made her desire known, the seamstresses of Tellesberg had erupted in a virtual death match to see who would be allowed to design and craft the Queen's gown. The competition had been not simply intense, but characterized by scrupulously polite, utterly venomous exchanges. Merlin had been a little surprised when it was all settled without actual bloodshed, and he suspected there were going to be several multi-generational feuds between competing dressmakers and their progeny unto the fifth or sixth generation.


            Despite that, he — and Cayleb — had been forced to admit that the Queen's choice had been an inspired one. Word that she'd insisted on donning Charisian fashion for her wedding had gotten out, and it had quickly become yet another factor in the way her Charisian soon-to-be subjects had taken her to their collective heart.


            Not only that, Merlin thought, absorbing her appearance through the eyes of both the man he had become and the woman Nimue Alban had been, Charisian fashion suited her perfectly. Her hair was arranged in an artfully flowing style which looked simple and unpremeditated, despite the fact that it had taken Sairaih Hahlmyn, Mairah Lywkys, and two assistants literally hours to coax into position. Her gown mirrored the coloration of the white mountain spike-thorn, with a long, paneled skirt of cobalt blue that swirled and danced around her slender legs when she moved, and a bodice of almost eye-watering white, adorned with fine sprays of Charisian pearls and a delicate froth of diamonds. The bodice, like the panels of the skirt, was edged in golden thread, and the cloak over her shoulders was trimmed in the same white fur as Cayleb's, but matched the deep, rich blue of her gown's skirt. The fact that the national colors of Chisholm — and of the House of Tayt — were royal blue and silver was a happy coincidence which she had turned into a deliberate symbolism that was lost on no one. Her embroidered court shoes mirrored the blue and white of her wedding gown and flashed back sunlight from gems and silver bullion thread whenever her skirt's motion allowed them to peep into visibility, while their heels were high enough that the crown of her head just topped Cayleb's shoulder.


            I can't imagine anyone looking more like a queen, Merlin thought while fabric rustled throughout the hallway as the waiting courtiers swept deep bows and curtsies. And she certainly has the figure to carry that tailored bodice and skirt perfectly!


            Unlike the courtiers, Merlin and Sergeant Seahamper, as the two men directly responsible for keeping the bride and groom alive, neither bowed nor curtsied, and Merlin found his lips trying to twitch into a smile.


            Every single one of the Chisholmian royal guardsmen who'd accompanied Sharleyan to Tellesberg was a thoroughgoing professional, completely devoted to their queen. They'd made a deliberate and conscientious effort to fit into the existing Charisian Royal Guard's structure and procedures, and Captain Gairaht, their CO, was young, smart, and hard-working. He'd established an excellent working arrangement with Colonel Ropewalk, the Charisian Guard's commander, and with Merlin, but, just as Merlin was Cayleb's personal armsman, as well as the commander of the king's personal guard detail, Seahamper was Sharleyan's personal armsman, and Gairaht left the day-to-day details of running her guard detail in Seahamper's callused, competent hands.


            Merlin was glad he had. He'd come to like and respect Edwyrd Seahamper, and the Chisholmian guardsman's devotion to Sharleyan was absolute. Not only that, but the fact that he'd been her armsman literally since childhood also meant he was the one member of her detail who could sit her down and lecture her in approved, exquisitely polite finger-waving fashion when it was necessary. Unfortunately, Seahamper wasn't quite as unflappable and impassive as he liked to pretend. In fact, his attitude towards Sharleyan often reminded Merlin of a doting but exasperated parent, especially when she insisted on doing something foolish like walking down a ship's gangplank to a totally foreign kingdom without so much as a single bodyguard.


            At least a few members of the Charisian Royal Guard thought Seahamper was on the fussy, paranoid side. After all, it would hardly have made sense for Cayleb to invite Sharleyan to Charis in order to marry her if he — or his guardsmen — intended to let anything happen to her, and some of them were actually inclined to take offense at his apparent lack of confidence in their competence. Merlin, on the other hand, found it difficult to blame him, especially when he reflected on the fact that Seahamper lacked his own access to things like SNARCs.


            Now he and Seahamper made brief eye contact, nodded to one another, and began diplomatically chivying their youthful charges out of the palace to the waiting carriage.


            And, of course, Merlin thought sardonically, to the rest of the guard detail.