"It's true, Cayleb. In fact, from what I've seen of Sharleyan, she's almost certainly the best possible match you could make. Oh, I think Rayjhis is probably right when he says there's no need for you to marry her to pull Chisholm into alliance with Charis. The truth of the matter is that neither of you has anywhere else to go, and I'm sure the logic of that will be just as compelling to Sharleyan and her Councilors as it is to you and Rayjhis.


            "Where I think he's wrong is in his argument that you shouldn't hurry to commit yourself because your . . .  marital availability, let's say, is such a valuable diplomatic card. That might be true in the normal course of politics, but in this case, and completely ignoring the fact that you need to produce an heir of your own as quickly as possible,who would you marry? Hektor's daughter Irys? She'd make a formidable Queen of Charis, and she's probably as smart as Sharleyan, but there's no way you'd be able to keep the poison out of your wine cup eventually. So, what about Nahrmahn's older daughter, Princess Mahrya? She's smart, too, although not as smart as Sharleyan or Irys, but she's also extremely attached to her father. If he winds up getting a head or so shorter, she's not going to forgive you for that. And, frankly, I don't think you're going to need a dynastic marriage to keep Emerald in line after the conquest."


            "'After the conquest,'" Cayleb repeated. "I like the sound of that, even if I do suspect that everyone's showing just a little too much blithe confidence in our ability to hammer Nahrmahn any time we feel like it. But getting back to Sharleyan –?"


            "I'm simply saying you need to realize that this young woman has an enormous amount to offer you if you're smart enough to make her your partner, not just your wife. From the handful of things your father ever said to me about your mother, I think they probably had the sort of marriage you need to forge if she does say yes. Don't ever make the mistake of thinking of this as a simple transaction to formalize an alliance, Cayleb. Listen to this woman. Despite her birth, no one handed her her throne, and from all I can see, no one expected her to keep it, either. But she's still here, and the men who thought they could control her or usurp her throne aren't. She's a formidable force in her own right, even if the Group of Four has made the mistake of taking her and her entire kingdom far too lightly, and I think your enemies will find the two of you together will be a far more dangerous combination than both of you would be separately."


            "That's exactly what I'm hoping for," Cayleb said quietly.


            "Well, I can't say for certain, obviously, but if I were an odds-maker, I'd say the odds are good that she's going to accept. It makes so much sense in so many ways, and it does, indeed, answer the question of whether or not Charis and Chisholm will both be seriously committed to the alliance between them."


            "And to squashing the sand maggot that lies between us." Cayleb's voice was considerably harsher than it had been. "I want that, too Merlin. I want it so badly I can taste it."


            "More than you want Emerald?" Merlin challenged in a neutral tone, and Cayleb barked a laugh.


            "I want Emerald, all right. For a lot of reasons. I haven't forgotten who helped Kahlvyn hire the assassins who tried to kill me. And, looking at it logically, Emerald is far more valuable to us . . . and a far more dangerous jumping-off point for future attacks on us. No to mention the fact that Emerald, unlike Corisande, falls very naturally and neatly into our sphere of trade and development. But, from everything you've said, everything Bynzhamyn's spies have told us, Hektor's always been the moving force against us."


            "I wouldn't go quite that far," Merlin said. "I'll admit he's a far more cold-blooded and ambitious sort than Nahrmahn is, though. He's an odd sort of fellow in a lot of ways, actually. At home, he's what you might think of as a benign tyrant; he won't suffer any challenge to his authority, and he's not at all averse to making that point . . . firmly, but he gives his people genuinely good government. Don't make the mistake of thinking that he's not truly popular with his own people, either, Cayleb. But when it comes to foreign policy, he's a totally different man, one who's driven by ambition and sees absolutely no reason to worry about little things like morality.


            "To be honest, I think a lot of Nahrmahn's hostility towards Charis has always been due to the fact that he's a student of history. He knows Charis has been steadily expanding in his direction for centuries, and he doesn't want to be one more swallowed-up territory. But don't ever underestimate that man. I don't think he's as naturally cold-blooded as Hektor, and his 'ambitions' have always been more modest and pragmatic — and, probably, more defensive, in a lot of ways — than Hektor's. But he's capable of being as ruthlessly cold-blooded as they come, whether it's natural for him or not, and he's also a much, much more intelligent man than most people — including your father, I think — have ever given him credit for. In fact, I think in many ways, he's been gaming and manipulating Hektor from the outset. I told you about that conversation he had with Pine Hollow about his post-war territorial ambitions. That was as clear — and accurate — an analysis of the Group of Four's actual objectives as I've ever heard. That man knew exactly what he was doing, and the fact that he didn't want to be doing it — or not, at least, with Hektor in charge — didn't keep him from playing every angle he could find."


            "Oh, I'm not going to take Nahrmahn lightly, I assure you. I suspect he's used that 'fat, indolent hedonist' image to fool a lot of people. In fact, I think you're right; he did manage to fool even Father, at least to some extent. Which, trust me, was not an easy thing to do. But, as you just pointed out yourself, he's been reacting more defensively, at least as he sees it. And let's be fair here — he's right in our backyard. It's less than seven hundred and fifty miles, as the wyvern flies, from East Cape to Eraystor Bay, but it's over five thousand miles from East Cape to Manchyr, which means Nahrmahn has a legitimate interest — an inevitable legitimate interest — in the same area we're interested in. Hektor doesn't. Like you say, he's in this solely out of ambition and greed. He wants our carrying trade to increase his own military power, and what he has in mind is a Corisandian Empire stretching from Tarot to Chisholm."


            "Well, we certainly can't have a Corisandian Empire 'stretching from Tarot to Chisholm,' can we?" Merlin murmured, and Cayleb laughed again, this time a bit less harshly.


            "At least my ambitions stem from self-defense, Merlin! And if we're seriously contemplating holding off the Church — or the Group of Four, if there's any difference — we're going to need all the manpower and resources we can get our hands on. We certainly can't afford to leave the Church any powerful potential allies inside our defensive perimeter."


            "No, you can't do that," Merlin agreed.


            "Which brings us back to exactly what Hektor is up to. Have there been any significant changes?"


            "No." Merlin shook his head. "The only real change is that Bishop Executor Thomys has gotten off the fence and agreed to underwrite the first wave of letters of credit out of his own resources. Well, out of Archbishop Borys' resources, I suppose, if we're going to sticklers for accuracy. But Thomys is right. There's no way the archbishop won't back him up on this one, and Raimynd is right about the Group of Four. The Church may not openly fund Hektor, although I'm beginning to think they're more likely to come into the open officially than we'd thought they might be. But, whatever the Church does, the 'Knights of the Temple Lands' are going to be perfectly ready to underwrite as many letters of credit as Hektor wants. Either Hektor wins, in which case every mark would be a mark well spent, from their perspective. Or else Hektor loses, in which case we conquer Corisande, and most of those letters of credit turn into waste paper and end up not costing them a hundredth-piece."


            "That does sound like them," Cayleb said sourly, then turned back to the railing, leaning forward and propping his folded arms on it.