Queen Sharleyan's Palace,


City of Cheryath,


Kingdom of Chisholm


            Trumpets sounded and the batteries protecting the Cherry Bay waterfront blossomed with smoke as they thudded their way through a sixteen-gun salute. Indignant sea birds and wyverns made their opinion of the goings-on abundantly clear as they wheeled, screeched, and scolded across a sky of springtime blue. The brisk wind out of the east lofted them easily as it blew across the sheltering peninsula known as The Sickle, which shielded Cherry Bay and the city of Cherayth from the often rough weather of the North Chisholm Sea, and the air was refreshingly cool.


            Queen Sharleyan of Chisholm stood at a window high up in Lord Gerait's Tower on the seaward side of the palace which had been her family's home for two centuries, looking out over the orderly stone houses, streets, warehouses, and docks of her capital as she watched the four galleons sailing majestically into its harbor. The winged tenants of Cherry Bay might be filled with indignation at the disturbance of their normal routine, but they had no idea just how disturbing she found all this, she reflected.


            Sharleyan was a slender, not quite petite young woman who'd just turned twenty-four. Despite the occasional fawning versification of particularly inept court poets, she wasn't a beautiful woman. Striking, yes, with a determined chin, and a nose which was just a bit too prominent (not to mention a bit too hooked). But her dark hair, so black it had blue highlights in direct sunlight and so long it fell almost to her waist when it was unbound, and her huge, sparkling brown eyes somehow deceived people into thinking she was beautiful. Today, Sairah Hahlmyn, her personal maid since she was nine, and Lady Mairah Lywkys, her senior lady-in-waiting, had dressed that hair in an elaborate coiffure, held in place by jeweled combs and the light golden circlet of a presence crown, and those lively eyes were dark and still and wary.


            The man at her side, Mahrak Sahndyrs, Baron Green Mountain, was at least eight or nine inches taller than she was, with blunt, strong features and thinning silver hair. Sharleyan had been Queen of Chisholm for almost twelve years, despite her youth, and Green Mountain had been her first councilor all that time. They'd weathered many a political storm together, although neither of them had ever anticipated one like the hurricane which had swept across half of Safehold in the last six months.


            "I can't quite believe we're doing this," she said, eyes on the lead galleon as it followed a flag-bedecked galley of the Royal Chisholmian Navy towards its assigned anchorage. "We have to be insane, you know that, don't you, Mahrak?"


            "I believe that was the point I made to you when you decided we were going to do it, anyway, Your Majesty," Green Mountain replied with a crooked smile.


            "A proper first councilor would have already taken the blame for his monarch's temporary lapse into insanity onto his own shoulders," Sharleyan said severely.


            "Oh, I assure you, I will in public, Your Majesty."


            "But not privately, I see." Sharleyan smiled at him, but her expression couldn't hide her tension from someone who'd known her literally since she'd learned to walk.


            "No, not privately," he agreed gently, and reached out to rest one hand lightly on her shoulder. That wasn't the sort of gesture he would have allowed himself in public, but in private there was no point pretending his youthful queen had not long ago become the daughter he'd never had.


            "Have you had any further thoughts about what this is all about?" she asked after a moment.


            "None we haven't already discussed to death," he told her, and she grimaced, never taking her eyes away from the arriving ships.


            They had, indeed, "discussed it to death," she thought, and neither of them — nor any of the other councilors and advisers she truly trusted — had been able to come up with a satisfactory theory. Some of those advisers, the ones who had argued most strenuously in favor of refusing this meeting, were certain it was simply one more trap designed to drag (or push) Chisholm deeper into the Charisian quagmire. Sharleyan wasn't certain why she didn't agree with that interpretation herself. Certainly, it made sense. The "spontaneous" return of her surrendered warships must have already tainted Chisholm with suspicious distrust in the eyes of the Group of Four. The fact that she'd dared to receive Sir Samyl Tyrnyr as King Cayleb of Charis' ambassador, despite the minor fact that she was still technically at war with Cayleb's kingdom, could only have underscored that distrust. And now this.


            Somehow, I doubt that rendering formal honors to Charisian warships here in my own capital's harbor while receiving the First Councilor of Charis as Cayleb's personal envoy is going to do a thing for me in that pig Clyntahn's eyes, she thought. The doomsayers are right about that much, at least. On the other hand, how much worse can it get?


            It was a more than academic question, under the circumstances. She had no doubt at all that the Group of Four must have realized she and her admirals had dragged their heels in every possible way after receiving their orders to support Hektor of Corisande against Charis. Indeed, it would have been amazing if Sharleyan hadn't, given the fact that she was probably the only monarch Hektor hated more than he'd hated Haarahld VII, or the fact that she probably hated him even more than he hated her. Still, the fact that so many of her navy's warships had surrendered intact had probably been going a bit too far, even for someone as experienced in the cynical realities of politics as Chancellor Trynair. And Cayleb's "generosity" in returning those surrendered ships to her without even seeking reparations for her part in the attack which had killed his father, along with several thousand of his subjects, had been a shrewd move on his part.


            She wanted to resent the way he'd deliberately maneuvered her into a position which could not but make the Group of Four furious with her. What had started as a simple move to conserve her own military power by 'cooperating' with Hektor as grudgingly as possible started to look dangerously like active collusion with Charis in the wake of Cayleb's "spontaneous" gesture. No one in the Temple was likely to forgive that, which could all too easily have fatal consequences for her own kingdom in the fullness of time.


            But she could scarcely complain over the fact that Cayleb had done precisely what she would have done, had their roles been reversed. Anything which might divert at least some of the Group of Four's attention and resources from Charis had to be worthwhile from Cayleb's perspective. And, again from his perspective, any lever he could use to . . . encourage Chisholm into some sort of active alliance with Charis, rather than against it, had to be tried. Indeed, what she felt far more strongly than any sort of resentment was an unbegrudged admiration for how well Cayleb clearly understood that.


            And be honest, Sharleyan, she thought. From the very beginning, you would have preferred aligning yourself with Charis to finding yourself "allied" with Hektor and Nahrmahn. If you'd thought Haarahld had a single chance of surviving, you would have proposed an alliance to him, and you know it. That's the real reason you accepted Cayleb's "gift" when he returned your galleys. And it's the real reason you let him send Tyrnyr to Cheryath, as well. There's a part of you that still prefers Charis to Hektor, isn't there? And it's just possible Cayleb does have a chance of surviving — maybe even winning — after all.


            She watched the galleons which represented that chance of victory moving sedately towards their anchorage, and wondered what the Earl of Gray Harbor had come all this way to say to her.