Tellesberg Palace,


City of Tellesberg,


 Kingdom of Charis


            "Your Majesties, Prince Nahrmahn and Princess Ohlyvya."


            Nahrmahn Baytz stepped past the bowing chamberlain with a lifetime's aplomb. From his expression, no one could have guessed that the rotund little prince wasn't walking into his own throne room. His wife was as tall as he was and far more slender, and she, too, had a lifetime's experience as a noblewoman and a princess consort, yet she couldn't match his apparent calm. No one could have called her overtly nervous; at the same time, no one could have doubted she would much have preferred to be somewhere else.


            They crossed the same polished stone floor Baron Pine Hollow had crossed before them, and Nahrmahn considered how the throne room — or its inhabitants, at least — had changed as they halted before the same pair of thrones. Cayleb wore the Charisian Crown of State, which had recently become the imperial Crown of State, as well, while Sharleyan wore an only marginally smaller crown without the Crown of State's rubies. Despite the crowns, neither of them were in full court regalia, at least, for which Nahrmahn was profoundly — if privately — grateful. Ohlyvya looked stately and beautiful in full regalia; Nahrmahn looked like a round, fuzzy ball which had somehow acquired a head and feet.


            Stubby little feet.


            I suppose it's a good thing I decided to do this before I actually laid eyes on Cayleb in the flesh, as it were, for the first time, the Emeraldian prince thought with a touch of whimsy. If I'd had time to see how tall, broad-shouldered, and disgustingly handsome he is with my own eyes and work up a proper state of livid jealousy, I might not have been able to do it after all. Having your head chopped off is much less irritating than admitting that the man you're about to surrender to looks so much more like a king than you do.


            That thought carried him to the foot of the waiting thrones, and he bowed deeply while Ohlyvya curtsied.


            "Your Majesties," he murmured.


            "Actually, Prince Nahrmahn," Cayleb said dryly, "we've decided upon a slightly revised protocol. Since my wife and I –" Nahrmahn wondered if Cayleb himself heard the profound, proud satisfaction in the emphasis he placed upon the word "wife" "– are both reigning heads of state in our own rights, and since there's always the possibility of confusion, it's been decided that while it's correct and proper to address either of us individually as 'Majesty' in the absence of the other, the proper protocol now is that in Charis, when both of us are present, I am properly addressed as 'Your Majesty' while she is properly addressed as 'Your Grace.' In Chisholm, where we'll also be spending approximately half the year, she will be properly addressed as 'Your Majesty,' while I'll be properly addressed as 'Your Grace.'"


            "Ah, I see, Your Majesty." Nahrmahn felt his lip trying to twitch in something he suspected would have been a smile if he'd allowed it to show itself. "I can readily understand where that might have created confusion. Of course, I'm quite sure that when word of your marriage — not to mention your coronation as Emperor — reaches Zion, the reaction will be substantially worse than 'confusion.'"


            "One can only hope," Cayleb replied, then leaned back in his throne and cocked his head. "And while we're on the topic of news reaching Zion, I'm sure they'll be equally perturbed by the news of your arrival here, and the reason for your visit. May I suppose that your arrangements with Commodore Zhaztro and Duke Solomon have adequately . . . secured your rear, shall we say, against Bishop Executor Wyllys and his reaction to your decision?"


            Nahrmahn managed not to bat any eyes or let his jaw drop in slack astonishment. And, he reminded himself a moment later, Cayleb's remark didn't necessarily imply any special knowledge about his own recent activities. He'd already had ample evidence that the Ahrmahks were a dismayingly intelligent and competent dynasty. It wouldn't have taken someone as bright as Cayleb very long to reason out what Nahrmahn must have done to protect himself against the Church's reaction. And having figured out what he'd done, it would have been only a single short, simple step to deducing who he'd selected to do the doing.


            Still, it's an impressive conversational gambit, he admitted to himself.


            "I believe the good Bishop Executor is currently a guest in Eraystor Palace, Your Majesty," he said calmly. "I'm sure my staff is providing for all of his needs, and he's entirely welcome to remain our guest until such time as we manage to resolve any . . . misunderstandings."


            "Perhaps we could send Bishop Zherald to help him reason his way to the truth," Sharleyan suggested. Nahrmahn looked at her politely, and she shrugged. "Bishop Zherald has placed his services at Archbishop Maikel's disposal, following Archbishop Erayk's murder at the Inquisition's hands. It might be that his own experience in Bishop Executor Wyllys' role might enable him to lead the Bishop Executor to a more accurate understanding of what the schism between the Church of Charis and the Church of Zion truly means."


            "He might, indeed, be able to exert a beneficial influence, Your Grace." Nahrmahn bowed to her once again. "At any rate, I don't see any way it could hurt."


            "Then, if the Archbishop is willing to dispatch him to Eraystor, we'll certainly do so," Cayleb said. "In the meantime, however, there are certain formalities to be attended to."


            "Indeed there are, Your Majesty," Nahrmahn acknowledged.


            "In that case, I believe there's only one preliminary question which must be asked and answered under the eyes of our court and our advisors as well as the eye of God. And that question is whether or not you understand, fully accept, and enter without reservation upon the terms provisionally accepted upon your part by Baron Pine Hollow?"


            "Your Majesty, I do." Nahrmahn bowed again, more deeply. "And since, as you say, we stand currently under the eyes of your court and your advisors, I would also beg leave to say this. The terms which you and Her Grace have seen fit to offer to my subjects, to my House, and to me as an individual, are far more generous than I ever anticipated or might reasonably have asked for. Because of that truth, and because of my awareness of it, I wish to express my deep and profound gratitude."


            "The terms are what they are, My Lord," Cayleb replied after a moment. "I won't deny I was strongly tempted to be . . . less generous. But vengeance for past enmities is a petty thing, and a poisonous one. There are far more things happening in the world these days than the traditional squabbling and sparring between Emerald and Charis. Those things leave no time for our small, local disputes, and I don't propose to leave any festering cankers to poison all of us when we confront the greatest challenge of our lives. Her Majesty and I didn't offer these terms because of how much we love you; we offered them out of a realistic understanding of the need to make reliable allies out of past enemies in the face of the threat represented by the Group of Four."


            "The fact that generous terms may also be wise makes them no less generous, Your Majesty," Nahrmahn said.


            "Perhaps not. But now it's time to deal with those formalities."


            "Of course, Your Majesty."


            Nahrmahn gave his wife's hand a last, unobtrusive squeeze, then released it and stepped forward to the cushion in front of Cayleb's throne. He went to his knees on it as Archbishop Maikel held out a gold and gem-clasped copy of The Holy Writ. The prince kissed the book's cover, then laid his right hand upon it while he looked up into Cayleb's eyes.


            "I, Nahrmahn Hanbyl Graim Baytz, do swear allegiance and fealty to Emperor Cayleb of Charis," he said, speaking clearly and distinctly,"to be his true man, of heart, will, body, and sword. To do my utmost to discharge my obligations and duty to him, to his Crown, and to his House, in all ways, as God shall give me the ability and the wit so to do. I swear this oath without mental or moral reservation, and I submit myself to the judgment of the Emperor and of God Himself for the fidelity with which I honor and discharge the obligations I now assume before God and this company."


            "And I, Cayleb Zhan Haarahld Bryahn Ahrmahk, do accept your oath," Cayleb replied steadily, laying his own hand atop Nahrmahn's on the Writ. "I will extend protection against all enemies, loyalty for fealty, justice for justice, fidelity for fidelity, and punishment for oath-breaking. May God judge me and mine as He judges you and yours."


            For an endless moment, the two of them looked into one another's eyes at the heart of a profound silence. And then, finally, Cayleb smiled crookedly.


            "And now, My Lord, you should probably stand up. I believe you and I — and Her Grace — have quite a bit that needs discussing."