Royal Palace,


City of Tellesberg,


Kingdom of Charis


            "So, Merlin, what interesting things have you been seeing lately?"


            King Cayleb's smile was crooked as he and his personal bodyguard stood on the palace balcony while night settled in. Cayleb often dined in his chambers, and his valet, Gahlvyn Daikyn, had just finished supervising the removal of the supper table. He'd be back shortly to oversee Cayleb's preparations for bed. Neither Cayleb nor his father had ever seen any reason to maintain the army of personal servants some other rulers, especially on the mainland, required to wait upon their every need, but Daikyn had been with Cayleb since he was a boy. Breaking him of the habit of making certain "the young master" had brushed his teeth before turning in was a far more formidable challenge than the mere bagatelle of dealing with the Group of Four!


            Now Cayleb shook his head in fond exasperation, then drew a deep, lung-swelling breath as he and Merlin gazed out over his capital city. Whatever might be happening in the Temple, and whatever might be happening in the halls of diplomacy throughout Safehold, the Tellesberg waterfront was a hive of activity. The destruction of their enemies' fleets had freed the merchant ships which had been huddled at wharf-side and lying to anchor off the idled port while they waited out the war. Now all of those ships' owners were frantic to get them back out to sea with the cargoes which had accumulated in Tellesberg's warehouses. And the possibility that the ports of Haven and Howard might be closed against them undoubtedly played a part in their thinking, Merlin thought. They wanted to get their cargoes landed, sold, and paid for before any embargo was proclaimed.


            It's going to be interesting to see if Howsmyn's predictions about trade patterns hold up, he reflected.


            "Actually, I've seen quite a few 'interesting things,'" he said aloud in a mild tone. "I'm planning on writing most of them up for Bynzhamyn. I assume you want the summary version?"


            "You assume correctly."


            Cayleb turned, leaning back against the balcony's waist-high balustrade and propping his elbows on it, to gaze at Merlin. He'd never heard of Self-Navigating Autonomous Reconnaissance and Communication platforms, nor had he ever heard of the almost microscopically small parasite sensors a SNARC could deploy. But, like his father before him, he'd come to rely on the accuracy of Merlin's "visions." And, unlike most of the other handful of people who knew about those visions, Cayleb had a very shrewd notion that there was nothing particularly "miraculous" about them, although there was the tiny problem that Merlin had explained they violated the Proscriptions of Jwo-jeng. Which, miraculous or no, would have made them — and Merlin — anathema in the eyes of the Inquisition.


            Continuing to accept Merlin's aid after discovering that minor fact hadn't been the easiest thing Cayleb Ahrmahk had ever done in his life, but he was no more inclined than his father had ever been to look back and second-guess his decisions.


            "Where would you like me to start?" Merlin asked politely.


            "Well, you could begin with Queen Sharleyan, I suppose. If, of course, there's not something more interesting you want to tell me about."


            Cayleb's expression was almost as pointed as his tone, and Merlin chuckled. Marriage of state or no, Cayleb was remarkably nervous about the Chisholmian queen's reaction to his proposal. The fact that he'd never even seen a portrait of her didn't appear to make his internal butterflies any smaller or better behaved, either.


            He really is very young for a reigning king, isn't he? Merlin thought. Then his chuckle faded. And he's awfully young to be making a cold-blooded political marriage. Of course, I think he's going to be pleasantly surprised when he finally gets a look at her.


            "Actually," he said, "I think she's considering the notion very carefully. And favorably, I suspect, although she's playing that very close to her tunic at the moment. She hasn't openly committed herself one way or the other, even with Green Mountain, and he's the closest thing to a father she has. But she's been spending quite a bit of time in her chamber reading over your letters. And," Merlin's sapphire eyes gleamed, "she's been spending quite a bit of time looking at that painting of you we sent along, too."


            "Oh God!" Cayleb rolled his eyes. "I knew I should never have let you and Rayjhis talk me into sending her that thing! If she thinks that absolutely vacuous expression is an accurate reflection of my mental processes, she's going to run the other way as quickly as she can — probably screaming as she goes!"


            "Nonsense!" Merlin said bracingly. "I think it's a very good likeness, myself. Of course, I'm not a young and beautiful princess."


            Not anymore, at least, he added mentally. But trust me, Cayleb. You're obviously not the best judge of how any female is going to react to that portrait. And it's not even particularly prettied-up.


            "Are you saying she is?" Despite Cayleb's light tone, Merlin knew the question was more serious than the youthful king wanted to admit, and he decided to take pity upon the young man.


            "To be completely honest, I wouldn't say she's 'beautiful,' Cayleb. She's an extraordinarily handsome young woman, though, and I very much doubt any man could fault her figure, or the way she carries herself. And if she isn't beautiful, she has something far more important than that: character and intelligence. This is no pretty little doll you're talking about, believe me. I strongly suspect that most people forget she isn't beautiful when they spend much time in her company . . . and that's going to be as true when she's an old woman as it is right now."


            "Really?" Something in Merlin's voice told Cayleb he was being completely candid, and the king let down his own guard, accordingly. "Is that really true, Merlin? You're not just trying to make me feel better about this?"