Night had finished falling while they were talking, and Tellesberg, like every other Safeholdian city, was miserably illuminated by the standards of Nimue Alban's birth world. The only sources of light were burning wood, wax, or oil, and most of the city was an indistinguishable dark mass. Only the waterfront area, where the longshoremen continued to labor frenetically by lantern light, was what might be called well lit.


            "I don't like Hektor's resiliency," the king said after a moment. "He and Tartarian are right about how big a bite Corisande is going to be. If it turns into a conventional land war, we could be tied down there for years, despite all our advantages. And if that happens, someone like Hektor is going to figure out how to duplicate almost all of those advantages, which will only make it even bloodier in the end."


            "You could always consider a diplomatic resolution," Merlin pointed out. "He's working hard to build a matching navy, and his foundries are going to be going into full production on modern artillery any day now. But the truth is that Charis has such a commanding head start that, even with the Church's backing, he's not going to be able to build into a realistic threat for a long time. Especially not if we keep a close eye on him and you're prepared to prune back his naval strength if it starts to look threatening."


            "Forget it." Cayleb snorted. "My house has a long memory for injuries and enemies, Merlin. I suspect Hektor has an even longer one. Besides, even if I wanted to bury the hatchet with him, he'd never believe it. Just as I'd never believe it about him. And I'm not about to leave him at my back, especially not with any modern navy at all, while the Group of Four works at convincing every major realm in Haven and Howard to come at us from the front! I might settle for letting him abdicate and . . . relocate him and his entire family. I'd hate forgoing the sight of his head on a pike outside his own palace, you understand, but I don't want to get bogged down in a quagmire in Corisande any more than the next person does, so if there's another way to get him out of the kitchen, I'll probably settle for it. But that's as far as I'm prepared to stretch my forgiveness. If that means risking the complications of a long war, then so be it. I'll take the chance of giving the Group of Four time before I leave Hektor or any of his get sitting on a throne behind me."


            The last sentence came out in the voice of a man swearing a solemn oath, and Merlin nodded. The truth was that he found himself strongly in agreement with Cayleb were Hektor was concerned.


            "If that's what you want to do, Cayleb, then I think you're going to have to figure out how to move against him as quickly as you can," he said. "If Sharleyan is thinking the way I think she's thinking, and if she's as decisive about your proposals as she usually is about decisions, then you'll probably find Chisholm even more ready than you are to move against Corisande. But Tartarian's also right. Even with Chisholm, I don't see any way you can project more than one overseas offensive at a time. Not if the offensives in question both involve armies, at any rate."


            "Which brings us back to Nahrmahn," Cayleb agreed. He pursed his lips thoughtfully, then straightened.


            "I know it would give Bynzhamyn apoplexy — he doesn't trust Nahrmahn as far as he can spit — but, to be honest, I'd far rather reach a diplomatic solution with him than with Hektor. If nothing else, he's close enough, and Emerald is small enough, we could almost certainly crush him if he decided to get adventuresome again."


            "Indeed?" This was the first time Merlin had heard Cayleb even mention the possibility of any sort of negotiated resolution where Emerald was concerned.


            "Don't get me wrong," Cayleb said more grimly." I do plan to add Emerald to Charis. Nahrmahn may have been worried about that all along, but the truth is that from every perspective, especially the strategic one, we can't afford to leave Emerald independent. The only real question is how we go about changing that status. Given what Nahrmahn was just a party to, whether it was his idea or not, I'm perfectly willing to do it the hard way, if that's what it takes. On the other hand, I'm not quite as wedded to the notion of seeing his head on a pike as I am to seeing Hektor's head there."


            "From what I've seen of Nahrmahn's recent coversations, I'm not too sure he's aware of that fine distinction," Merlin observed.


            "Which doesn't bother me a bit at this point." Cayleb smiled evilly. "The more concerned he is about his head now, the more likely he is to be . . . amenable to sweet reason when the time comes, shall we say? And I want him to clearly understand that all the winning military cards are in my hand, not his. If — and note that I say if, Merlin — I end up offering him any terms short of unconditional surrender and a scaffold with a view, it won't be a discussion between equals, and I intend for him to understand that. Clearly."


            Merlin simply nodded. This was a game Cayleb had learned at his father's shoulder, and Haarahld VII had been one of the most accomplished practitioners of . . . practical diplomacy Safehold had ever produced. Obviously, Cayleb intended to continue the tradition. In fact, his version of diplomacy appeared to be considerably brawnier and more bare-knuckled than his father's had been.


            But if Haarahld had found himself in the position Cayleb's in, I think he'd be making a lot of the same decisions, Merlin reflected.


            "Be thinking about everything you've seen about what Nahrmahn and what's-his-name, Zhaztro, are up to," Cayleb said. "Tomorrow morning, you and I are going to sit down with Bryahn, and I'm going to tell him I've decided to let him go calling on Nahrmahn, after all. Between the three of us, I'm sure we can come up with a suitable way to turn up the heat in Nahrmahn's kitchen."