Sharleyan's face tightened. Not with anger, although Gray Harbor saw anger in it, but in pain. The pain of memory at his oblique reminder of how her own father had died in battle against "pirates" subsidized by Hektor of Corisande when she was still a girl.


            "Nonetheless," he continued, "it is, as I'm certain Sir Samyl has made clear, His Majesty's earnest desire to see Chisholm as a friend and an ally, rather than a foe. Your realm and his have much in common and little cause for enmity, beyond the machinations and demands of those who are the natural enemies of both. To speak frankly, both His Majesty and Your Majesty have ample reasons to hate Hektor of Corisande and to regard him as a mortal threat to your own security. And, to speak even more frankly –" he looked into her eyes once more "– Grand Inquisitor Clyntahn regards both Charis and Chisholm with deep suspicion and distrust. If Charis is destroyed for no better reason than the arrogance, bigotry, and blind intolerance of the so-called 'Group of Four,' it can be only a matter of time before Chisholm follows."


            Sharleyan's tight expression smoothed into total non-expression as Gray Harbor took her own open acknowledgment of how she had been compelled to join with Hektor to an entirely new level.


            "My King has instructed me to be forthright in this matter, Your Majesty," he told her — quite unnecessarily, he was certain, after his last sentence. "For whatever reason, the Group of Four, on behalf of of the Church, has decided Charis must be destroyed. We were not informed of any point of doctrine or practice in which we were deemed to be in error. We weren't summoned to explain any actions,weren't charged with any violation of Church law or of the Proscriptions. Nor were we offered any opportunity to defend ourselves before any tribunal or court. They simply decided to destroy us. To burn our cities. To rape and murder our people. And they compelled you to join with your own Kingdom's worst enemy and assist him in carrying out that onslaught.


            "His Majesty understands why you felt you had no choice but to acquiesce in the demands levied upon you. He neither faults you for your decision, nor believes for a moment that you felt anything but regret and unhappiness at the idea of attacking his Kingdom.


            "But His Majesty also knows that if the Group of Four can do what it's already done, then no kingdom, no realm, is safe. If corrupt and venal men can use the power of God's own Church, whatever legal technicalities they may use to mask the Church's participation in an act of murder and rapine, to destroy one blameless kingdom, then in the fullness of time they will, as inevitably as the sun rises in the east, use it to destroy other kingdoms. Including your own."


            He paused, watching the queen and her first councilor. Chisholm was as distant from the Temple and the Temple Lands as Charis, and Sharleyan and Green Mountain both knew that Clyntahn's automatic suspicion of Chisholm ran almost as deep as his suspicion of Charis. That suspicion, after all, was precisely what Cayleb's return of her surrendered ships had been calculated to play upon, and neither the queen nor her first councilor could possibly be unaware of it.


            "The truth is, Your Majesty," he said after a moment, "that once a kraken tastes blood, there's no stopping its attack. Once the Group of Four — once Vicar Zhaspahr — has broken one kingdom, he'll see no reason he shouldn't apply the same technique to every other realm he distrusts or fears. That's the road upon which the Group of Four has set out, and their final destination lies in the smoldering ruins of Charis and Chisholm . . . unless they can somehow be stopped."


            "And you — your King — believe they can be stopped?" Green Mountain spoke for the first time, his eyes intent, and Gray Harbor nodded.


            "He does, and so do I. We have this advantage, which Chisholm shares, in that no army can simply march across our frontiers. The Group of Four cannot attack either of us without a navy, and as you and your own 'allies' have recently discovered, the sheer distances involved favor the defense. You and your captains and admirals have seen what our new ships and artillery can accomplish, as well. My King believes that together, Charis and Chisholm can indeed defy the Group of Four."


            "Let's be honest here, My Lord," Sharleyan said, leaning forward, her own eyes narrow. "Whatever Archbishop Maikel's letter to the Grand Vicar may have said, or how it may have said it, we're not speaking solely of the Group of Four. For reasons which undoubtedly seemed good to them, and with which, to be honest, I find myself sharing a certain agreement, your King and his archbishop have effectively bidden defiance to the entire Church, to the Grand Vicar himself. If Chisholm joins with Charis in an alliance against Hektor — and the Group of Four — it will inevitably, in the fullness of time, become an alliance against Mother Church herself. Against the Council of Vicars and the Grand Vicar, Langhorne's anointed steward here on Safehold. Is your King prepared for that? Prepared to defy the entire Church, embrace an unhealable, permanent schism within the body of God's people?"


            "Your Majesty," Gray Harbor said quietly, "Safehold has already selected its own archbishop. For the first time in over five hundred years, a kingdom of Safehold has practiced the ancient right of our forefathers and named an archbishop of its own choosing. If that constitutes schism, then so be it. We do not defy God, Your Majesty; we simply defy the corruption, the decadence, which has infested God's Church, and that we will fight to the death. Indeed, my King bade me say this to you about his decision and all which will inevitably flow from it: 'Here I stand. I can do no other.'"


            Silence filled the presence chamber as Sharleyan and Green Mountain gazed at him. Then, finally, Green Mountain cleared his throat.


            "What you say about our distance from the Temple, about our ability — joined together — to defend ourselves against attack, may be true. The Church's reaction to the defiance you propose to bid it will certainly put that truth to the test, however. And in the face of that storm, only the strongest tree could hope to survive. It's one thing to speak of alliances in the normal sense of the world, My Lord, for the truth is, as we all know, that in the normal sense of the world, there will always be a tomorrow. Interests change, objectives flow, this month's or this year's ally becomes next month's or next year's foe, and so the dance continues, with partners changing as the music changes.


            "But what you propose, what your King proposes, can have only one tomorrow. The Group of Four, and the Church, will never forget or forgive someone who bids them defiance, and not simply because of the calculation of corrupt men. Since the day of Creation, the Church has been the keeper of men's souls, the proclaimer of God's will, and there are men and women of good faith within the Church who will fight to the death to preserve her overlordship in God's name, not the name of corrupt ambition. The war you propose to fight will have to end not in treaties and negotiations between diplomats dancing the measures we all know, but in utter defeat or victory. There can be no lesser end for either side than that, for the Church will never yield, never accept any other victory than the restoration of her supremacy as God's bride, and she will be no normal alliance, with changing partners. Which means that if Charis is to have any hope of final victory, her alliances must be equally firm, equally final."


            "My Lord," Gray Harbor said, "this isn't a war we 'propose to fight.' It's a war which has already begun, whether we ever wanted to fight it, or not. But  even though you're entirely correct about the stakes, about the way in which the Church will view its nature and the way in which she will fight it, we hope and believe that, in time, there can be an end. That it need not continue unabated until all of those on one side are dead or enslaved. What that end may be, or when it will come, is more than anyone in Charis would dare to predict, yet my King agrees that any alliances must be strong and permanent enough to endure that sort of bitter test. In fact, he believes that what is truly needed isn't an alliance at all."


            "It isn't?" Despite her best effort, Sharleyan couldn't quite keep her surprise out of her tone, and Gray Harbor smiled.


            "As Baron Green Mountain just said, Your Majesty, alliances come and go. Which is why I wasn't sent to you to propose an alliance at all. Instead, my King proposes a marriage."


            Sharleyan jerked upright in her chair, her eyes wide, and Green Mountain inhaled sharply. The queen's surprise was obvious, but as Gray Harbor watched her first councilor, he found himself wondering if Green Mountain hadn't suspected where Cayleb was headed from the outset.


            "I've brought with me King Cayleb's personal letters and documents setting forth his proposals, Your Majesty," the earl continued, still watching Green Mountain's expression. "Fundamentally, however, they're very simple. Stipped of all the high-flown legal language, what King Cayleb proposes is the unification of Charis and Chisholm through marriage. You would retain the crown of Chisholm for the remainder of your life; he would retain the crown of Charis for the remainder of his life. Should either of you predecease the other, the surviving spouse would hold both crowns for the remainder of his or her life, and upon his or her death, both crowns would pass as one to the heirs of your joint bodies. An imperial parliament, navy, and army would be created to govern and protect both kingdoms in concert during your lifetimes and afterward. The peers of Charis and Chisholm would be seated in the House of Lords of that parliament, and both Charis and Chisholm would elect members to the House of Commons."


            He paused, once more meeting Sharleyan's gaze levelly, then bowed.


            "I fully realize, as does His Majesty, that no one in Chisholm has ever contemplated such a . . . sweeping change in the relationship between your Kingdom and Charis. Clearly, this isn't the sort of decision which can be made by a single person in a single day, even if that person be a king or a queen, and the nature of the threat your Kingdom would be embracing is not one to be lightly shouldered.


            "But that threat already looms over both Chisholm and Charis. We can either confront it together, or separately. His Majesty believes our chance of survival and victory is far greater together, and this proposal is the strongest surety he can offer that if, indeed, we face this peril together, we will go on together to whatever victory or other end awaits us."