This was Rayjhis Yowance's third visit to Cheryath, although both of his earlier trips had been made as an officer in the Royal Charisian Navy, not as the kingdom's first councilor. First councilors, after all, never left home. That was why kingdoms had little things called "ambassadors" to do the traveling instead, since first councilors were far too busy, and their duties were far too important, for them to go haring off on quixotic quests.


            Of course they are! he snorted mentally. Which is how you happen to be here, isn't it, Rayjhis?


            His lips twitched at the thought, but he suppressed the smile reflex sternly as he followed the chamberlain down the palace corridor. However accommodating Sharleyan had been, it would never do to suggest that he saw anything humorous in her agreeing to meet with him. Especially in her agreeing to meet with him privately, accompanied only by her own first councilor. And especially not when she'd had less than a five-day's notice he was coming, given how closely he'd followed on the original messenger's heels.


            Cayleb's like his father in a lot of ways, but he has his own inimitable style . . . and far too much energy for an old man like me, Gray Harbor reflected. I'm beginning to appreciate what Merlin and Domynyk had to say about trying to ride herd on him at sea. He's not really anywhere near as . . . impulsive as he sometimes seems, but Merlin's right. Given two possible approaches to any problem, he'll always opt for the more audacious one. And once he's made up his mind, he's not about to waste time, is he?


            There were worse traits a king could have, especially when he was engaged in a battle for survival. But it did make keeping up with him more than a little wearing.


            The chamberlain slowed, looked over his shoulder at the Charisian with an expression which had been carefully trained to conceal any trace of what its owner might have thought about his monarch's decisions, and then turned a final bend and stopped.


            There were two guardsmen, sergeants, in the silver and royal blue of Chisholm posted in front of the door, and their expressions weren't quite as neutral as the chamberlain's. They clearly nursed significant reservations about allowing the first councilor of the kingdom whose navy had just smashed a sizable portion of the Chisholmian fleet into firewood into their queen's presence. The fact that they'd been ordered to stay outside the small presence chamber didn't make them any happier, and the fact that they'd been expressly forbidden to search Gray Harbor or relieve him of any weapons made them unhappier still.


            The earl was well aware of what they must be feeling. In fact, he sympathized deeply with it, and he made a quick decision.


            "Just a moment, please," he said, stopping the chamberlain just before the man knocked on the polished door. The chamberlain looked surprised, and Gray Harbor smiled crookedly. Then he carefully lifted his dress sword's baldric over his head and passed the sheathed weapon to the nearer of the two guardsmen. The Chisholmian's eyes widened slightly as he accepted it, and then Gray Harbor unhooked his belt dagger and passed it across, as well.


            The guardsmen's expressions changed as he voluntarily surrendered the blades they'd been forbidden to take from him. They still didn't look especially cheerful about the entire notion of this meeting, but the senior of them bowed deeply to him, acknowledging his concession.


            "Thank you, My Lord," he said, then straightened and personally knocked on the door.


            "Earl Gray Harbor has arrived, Your Majesty," he announced.


            "Then by all means, let him in, Edwyrd," a musical soprano replied, and the guardsman opened the door and stood aside.


            Gray Harbor stepped past him with a murmured word of thanks and found himself in a paneled presence chamber. There were no windows, but it was brightly lit by hanging lamps, and a fire crackled quietly on a hearth. It wasn't a particularly large fire, especially for one burning in a hearth which could easily have accommodated most of a topsail yard, but its heat was surprisingly welcome. It was technically spring here in Chisholm, but Cheryath was over two thousand miles above the equator, and Gray Harbor's Charisian blood found it distinctly cool.


            He made his way calmly down the runner of royal blue carpet, and his eyes were busy. Sharleyan's chair was just too simple to call a throne, but a small platform elevated it just enough to make it clear this was a crowned head of state, even if she had chosen to receive him rather informally. Baron Green Mountain stood beside her, watching alertly as Gray Harbor approached. Then Sharleyan frowned.


            "My Lord," she said before he could speak, her voice less musical and considerably sharper than it had been, "I gave strict instructions that you were to be permitted your weapons for this meeting!"


            "I realize that, Your Majesty." Gray Harbor stopped in front of her and bowed, then straightened. "I deeply appreciate your graciousness in that regard, too. However, when I arrived here, I could tell your guardsmen were uneasy. They couldn't possibly have been more courteous, and neither of them gave any sign, by word or deed, that they intended to disobey your instructions," he hastened to add, "but I felt it would have been churlish on my part to cause them distress. Their devotion to you was readily apparent — I've seen its like before — and I chose to offer them my weapons, even though they hadn't requested it."


            "I see." Sharleyan sat back in her chair, gazing at him thoughtfully, then smiled slightly. "That was a gracious gesture on your part," she observed. "And if, in fact, no insult was offered to you, then on behalf of my guardsmen — who are, as you observed, devoted to me — I thank you."


            Gray Harbor bowed again, and Sharleyan glanced at Green Mountain for a moment. Then she returned her attention to the Charisian.


            "I trust you'll understand, My Lord, that Baron Green Mountain and I must view your presence here with mixed emotions. While I'm deeply grateful for the return of my ships and sailors, for the honorable treatment they were given as Charis' prisoners, and for your King's decision against seeking any sort of reparations, I'm also aware that all his decisions were made with a full awareness of their practical consequences. Particularly, shall we say, where the demands — and suspicions — of certain rather insistent 'Knights of the Temple Lands' are concerned."


            She smiled tightly as she acknowledged openly for the first time that the Group of Four had compelled her to join Charis' enemies, and Gray Harbor smiled back.


            "It pains me to say it, Your Majesty," he said, "but honesty compels me to admit that His Majesty thought about that rather carefully before he returned your vessels. Indeed, he was fully aware that it would have the consequences you've just mentioned. It may have been . . . ungallant of him to put you in that position, but it's also true that when he made the decision, you were part of an alliance which had attacked his Kingdom without warning or provocation and –" he looked her squarely in the eye, his smile fading "– killed his father."