Grand Council Chamber,


Queen Sharleyan's Palace,


City of Cherayth,


Kingdom of Chisholm


            There was a certain undeniable tension as Queen Sharleyan and Baron Green Mountain walked into the council chamber.


            There were several reasons for that. First, every member of the Queen's Council knew the first councilor of Charis had been an honored guest in the palace for over two and a half five-days, despite the minor technicality of the state of war which still existed between the two kingdoms. Second, although all manner of rumors had been flying through Cherayth ever since Gray Harbor's arrival, their monarch had not seen fit to share with anyone — except, possibly, Green Mountain — precisely what she and the Charisian first councilor had been discussing. Third, Bishop Executor Wu-shai Tiang's imperious demand in the name of the Knights of the Temple Lands that Gray Harbor be taken into custody and handed over to him had been courteously but firmly rebuffed. And, fourth . . . fourth their slender, dark-haired queen had chosen to wear not her simple presence coronet, but the Chisholmian Crown of State.


            Sharleyan was fully aware of that tension. She'd anticipated it, and, in some ways, she'd deliberately provoked it. Politics, she'd discovered many years ago under Green Mountain's careful tutelage, was at least half a question of proper stage management. And, the higher the stakes, the more critical that management became.


            Especially with Uncle Byrtrym sitting out there, she thought unhappily as she crossed regally to the elaborately carved chair at the head of the huge, oval table. She let her eyes stray to Byrtrym Waistyn, the Duke of Halbrook Hollow, her treasurer . . . and her mother's only brother.


            She settled into her chair and turned her head to give the middle-aged man in the green cassock and brown cockaded priest's cap of an upper-priest a sharp glance.


            Carlsyn Raiyz had been Sharleyan's confessor since only a very few months after she'd taken the throne. She hadn't exactly chosen him for herself, given her youthfulness, but he'd always met the responsibilities of his position admirably. And although he had to be aware of his youthful ruler's . . . misgivings about the Church's current leadership, he'd never made an issue of them. She hoped he wasn't going to now, but she wasn't as confident of that as she would have preferred to be. On the other hand, his expression was remarkably serene for a spiritual counselor whose charge hadn't even mentioned to him what brought the first councilor of a kingdom which had rebelled against that leadership to speak with her so earnestly. Or discussed her reasons for telling a bishop executor of holy Mother Church why he couldn't have that first councilor as a prisoner.


            "Father?" she said quietly.


            Raiyz gazed at her for perhaps two heartbeats, then smiled very slightly, rose, and looked around the table at the faces of Sharleyan's councilors.


            "Let us pray," he said, and inclined his own head. "O, God, Who sent Your Archangels to teach men the truth of Your will, we beseech You to lend Your grace to our beloved Queen, and to the men gathered in this place at this time to hear her will, to bear witness to it, and to advise her. In these troubled times, You and the Archangels remain the final refuge, the final help, of all men and women of good will, and no other help is required. Bless our Queen's deliberations, grant her wisdom to choose aright in the grievous decisions which lie before her, and give her the peace of knowing Your love and guidance. In Langhorne's name, amen."


            Well, that was certainly hopeful, Sharleyan thought as she joined the members of her Council in signing themselves with Langhorne's scepter. On the other hand, he didn't exactly come out doing handsprings of delight, either, did he?


            She waited while Raiyz sat back down, then swept the faces of the men seated around the table with eyes which warned them she was in no mood to tolerate intransigence this day. She felt the tension click up another few degrees as that message went home. She was not only the youngest person in that council chamber, but also the only female person present, and she found herself suppressing a huntress' smile as she contemplated that fact and their reaction to her unyielding gaze. Some of her "advisers," she knew, had never really fully resigned themselves to having a queen, rather than a king.


            Unfortunately, she thought at them with an undeniable edge of satisfaction, Father and Mother had me, instead, didn't they? And between us, Mahrak and I — and Uncle Byrtrym — made it stand up. It's been a bumpy ride, hasn't it, My Lords? Of course, you're about to find out just how truly "bumpy" things can get.


            "My Lords," she said after a moment, into the taut silence, her voice clear and strong, "We have summoned you here today to inform you of certain matters which we have been contemplating for some days past now. As always, we will welcome your wisdom and your advice concerning the decision to which we have come."


            If the chamber had been tense before she spoke, that was nothing compared to the jolt which ran through her listeners as she used the royal we. They heard that particular usage from her very rarely, at least when they sat in council with her. Coupled with her decision to wear the Crown of State, and the phrasing of her final sentence, it told every one of them that Sharleyan had, indeed, already come to her decision about whatever it was she intended to "discuss" with them.


            It wouldn't be the first time it had happened. Sharleyan Tayt had all of her dead father's incisiveness and possibly even more strength of will. When she'd found herself on the back of the slash lizard following his death, she'd recognized that she simply could not afford to allow her councilors to regard her as a child, even though that had been precisely what she was when the crown landed on her head. There had been relatively few reigning queens in the history of Safehold. Indeed, Sharleyan was only the second in the entire history of Chisholm, and Queen Ysbell had been deposed after barely four years on the throne. That had not been an encouraging precedent after King Sailys' death, and more than one of his councilors had been prepared to "manage" his daughter for him. Some of them, Sharleyan knew, had cherished the hope she might follow in Ysbell's footsteps. Even of those who hadn't been willing to go quite that far, some had entertained notions of seeing her properly married off to someone — like themselves, perhaps, or one of their sons — who could provide the necessary masculine guidance she would undoubtedly need.


            Well, My Lords, she thought with a certain grim amusement, watching them as they tried with varying degrees of success, to hide their consternation at what she'd just said, I had all the "masculine guidance" I needed from Mahrak, didn't I?