It had not, Prince Nahrmahn reflected as he gazed out of the window of his family's sumptuous suite at the clouds welling up above the Styvyn Mountains to the west, lit with the crimson and gold fire of sunset, been the sort of day he'd once looked forward to spending in Tellesberg. In one way, it was a great relief. He'd come out of the conflict with a crown still on his head, even if its authority had been rather severely diminished, and with a close familial relationship with what bade fair to become one of the most — if not the most — powerful dynasties in the history of Safehold. On the other hand, it was probably at least as likely that the dynasty in question, to which his and his family's fortune was now inescapably tied, would find itself exterminated by a vengeful Church. And, he acknowledged to himself, there was also that other minor bit about who he'd expected to be swearing fealty to whom.


            "I think I rather like them, actually," a voice said from behind him, and he turned from the window to face Ohlyvya.


            "I presume you're referring to our new sovereign lord and lady?" he said, with a slightly crooked smile, and she snorted.


            "Actually, I was referring to the second and third under cooks!" she said, and he laughed.


            "I never really disliked Cayleb or his father, my dear. They were adversaries, and I'll admit — if only to you — that I found their persistence in surviving everything Hektor or I attempted rather trying, upon occasion. But it was never personal for me the way it was for Hektor. Although, to be totally fair," his smile faded slightly, "given my involvement in efforts to eliminate both of them, I'm astonished that Cayleb appears to cherish so little animosity."


            "I don't think either of them do 'cherish' much animosity," she said seriously.


            One of Nahrmahn's eyebrows rose, but he only waited for her to complete her thought. Ohlyvya Baytz was a very intelligent woman. More than that, she was the one person in the entire world Nahrmahn trusted without any reservation. Like Cayleb's and Sharleyan;s, theirs had been an arranged marriage of state, but it had become far more than that over the years, and Nahrmahn had often wished it had been possible to name Ohlyvya to his official Royal Council. That, unfortunately, had been out of the question, but that hadn't prevented him from listening very carefully to her on the infrequent occasions when she'd offered an opinion.


            And, he thought, now that we have an Empress who's also a queen in her own right, naming a woman to a mere prince's council probably just got a lot more possible, didn't it?


            "I'm not saying either of them exactly loves you yet, dear," she continued now, with a ghost of the smile, and reached up to lay one hand against his cheek. "I'm sure that once they get to know all the sterling qualities hiding under that shy and modest exterior of yours they'll come to love you, but in the meantime, there are those minor matters of assassination attempts and wars."


            "Assassination attempts?" Nahrmahn did his very best to look totally innocent . . . with a notable lack of success.


            "Oh, don't be silly, Nahrmahn!" Ohlyvya scolded. "Despite your best efforts to 'protect me' from the sordid realities, I have heard all the rumors about that assassination attempt on Cayleb, you know. And, even though I love you as both my husband and the father of my children, I've never cherished any illusions about the seriousness with which you played 'the great game,' I think you've called it."


            This time Nahrmahn's eyes widened in genuine surprise. Ohlyvya had seldom expressed herself quite so bluntly. And she was right about at least one thing. He truly had attempted to shield her from the frequently distasteful and unpleasant decisions he'd found himself compelled to make as a player of the game.


            Let's be honest with ourselves here, Nahrmahn, he told himself. Yes, you were 'compelled' to make some of those decisions, but the real reason you played the game was because you enjoyed it so much. Unfortunately, you didn't end up winning it . . . although I suppose I could also argue that I haven't exactly lost it yet, either.


            Something of his thoughts must have shown in his expression, because his wife shook her head.


            "I'm not complaining, Nahrmahn. There have been times I've been tempted to complain, that's true. In fact, there have been more than a few times when I wanted to kick you smartly in the posterior. On the whole, though, I've been able to tell myself — honestly, I think — that most of the things you've done, including the ones that have caused me the greatest concern for the state of your soul, came about as a result of the situations you faced. Conflict between Emerald and Charis, for example, was probably inevitable, whatever you wanted, just because of geography.


            "But," she continued very seriously, looking into his eyes so that he could see the truth in hers, "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't rather relieved at the way it finally worked out. I know our parents never expected it, Nahrmahn, but I truly do love you, you know. And I love our children. Knowing Cayleb isn't going to be looking for your head, or seeing the boys as a threat that needs to be . . . dealt with takes an enormous weight off of my mind and heart."


            Nahrmahn raised his left hand, cupping its palm over the hand still on his cheek. His right hand reached out to settle on the back of her neck and draw her forward as he leaned to meet her until their foreheads touched. It wasn't often she expressed her feelings for him that clearly, and he closed his eyes for a moment while he savored it.


            "It doesn't end here, you know," he told her then, his voice low. "Cayleb was right when he told Trahvys this is only the beginning. By siding with Cayleb, I've sided against the Temple, and Clyntahn's a far more vindictive enemy than Cayleb could ever be. Not to mention the fact that the Church controls many times the resources, wealth, and manpower Cayleb does, even with Chisholm added to this new 'empire' of his."


            "Clyntahn is a bigoted, fornicating, self-serving, glutinous, wine-swilling, sanctimonious pig with delusions of godhood and a self-righteous sense of zealotry," Ohlyvya said flatly, with a venom Nahrmahn had never heard from her before.


            He blinked in surprise at hearing it now and drew back far enough to look into her eyes once more. She looked back without flinching, and he saw a fire burning behind them. One he'd never suspected might be there . . . which was an oversight he for which would find it hard to forgive himself.


            "I'm not exactly blind, you know, dear," she told him tartly. "But my point at the moment is that someone like Clyntahn would have a hard enough time standing up to Cayleb and Sharleyan by themselves. With you added to the mix, that pig in Zion is as overmatched as I'd be trying to arm wrestle that Captain Athrawes of Cayleb's!"


            Despite himself, Nahrmahn smiled. She glared at him for a moment, and then she chuckled and leaned forward, resting her cheek against his chest.


            "I know you've never thought of yourself as the very image of the dashing warrior prince, love," she said. "Well, neither have I. But I've always thought of you as something rather more important than that — someone who looks at the future and his own responsibilities without flinching and without deluding himself. And, while I'd never want you to get a swelled head over it, you're also one of the smartest man I know."


            "If I'm so smart, then why did I just end up swearing fealty to Cayleb, instead of the other way around?" he asked in a half-jesting tone.


            "I didn't say you were infallible, dear; just smart. Besides, to use that charming idiom your son has picked up from those dreadful novels of his, you can only play the cards you're dealt. I believe someone's just offered you an entirely new deck, though. And from what I've seen of you this time around, I don't think you're even tempted to try dealing off the bottom."


            "Not anymore," he acknowledged, then shook his head, half in wry amusement and half in bemused disbelief. "Even if I were tempted — which, to my own considerable surprise, I'm not — it would be incredibly stupid of me. There aren't any bridges back to Zion now, love, and there's no way I could possibly take over and maintain the core of opposition to the Temple which Cayleb's been able to put together. Trying to betray him at this point would be like deciding to cut the throat of your best helmsman in the middle of a hurricane. And I'm very much afraid," his smile was tart enough to sour milk, "that this voyage is going to be long enough that I'll be completely out of practice before things ever get stabilized enough for me to contemplate any sort of treachery."


            "Good." She nestled more firmly against him. "Good," she repeated.


            "Do you know," he said softly, bending to kiss the part of her hair,"I believe I agree with you."