It had been Green Mountain who'd warned the grieving child who'd just lost a father and inherited a crown that she must choose between merely reigning and ruling. Even then, and despite her own crushing sense of loss, she'd been old enough to understand what the first councilor was telling her, and she'd had absolutely no intention of permitting Chisholm's governance to fall into the hands of any of the various great lords already licking their chops as they prepared to grapple for control of the kingdom. And the only way to prevent that potentially disastrous factional stife had been to make it abundantly clear that there was already a "faction" firmly — even ruthlessly — in control.




            Some of them had found that lesson harder to learn than others, and the most uneducable had been eased off the Queen's Council. One of them, the Duke of Three Hills, had proved sufficiently persistent in his refusal to accept that "a mere girl" had the ability to rule in her own right that she'd been forced to remove him from the Council with a minimum of gentleness and a maximum of firmness. When he'd attempted to reverse her decision by extra-legal methods, her army and navy had argued the point with him. In the end, his had been only the third death warrant Sharleyan had personally signed, and his powerbase had disintegrated with his death.


            Signing that warrant had been the hardest thing she'd ever done — then — but she'd done it. And, in a perverse sort of way, she knew she would always be grateful to Three Hills. He'd shown the one person to whom it really mattered — Sharleyan herself — that she had the steel in her spine to do what needed to be done. And what had happened to him had been sufficient to inspire the remaining holdouts to . . . reevaluate their positions in the recognition that Queen Sharleyan was not Queen Ysbell.


            Still, she wasn't surprised by the evident dismay she saw from some of them today. Obviously, the men behind those particular faces suspected that they weren't going to care for the decision she'd reached today.


            And they're right, she thought. In fact, they're far righter than they could even guess at this point.


            "As all of you are aware," she continued after several moments, "King Cayleb of Charis has sent us his own first councilor as his personal emissary. I am aware that some members of this Council felt it would be . . . imprudent, shall we say, to receive Earl Gray Harbor. Or, for that matter, any representative of Charis. I'm also aware of the reasons they had for feeling that way. But, My Lords, even the soundest of ships and even the most skilled of captains cannot survive a storm simply by ignoring it. I'm sure we would all prefer calm to storm, but we live in the times in which we live, and we can but pray for God's guidance to make the best choices we may in the face of the challenges the world sends us.


            "At this time, again as all of you are aware, we remain technically at war with Charis. Unfortunately, that war has not prospered. And I suspect it will surprise none of you to discover that the decision to join that war in the first place, was never truly our own."


            Several councilors, including her uncle, stirred uneasily in their chairs, and two or three pairs of eyes swiveled sideways to Father Carlsyn. The priest, for his part, only sat with his hands folded on the table in front of him, head cocked slightly to one side, while he listened to the queen and watched her with bright, alert eyes.


            "In fact, of course," she continued, "Chisholm 'agreed' to join the League of Corisande and the Princedom of Emerald only at the . . .  strong urging of the Chancellor of the Knights of the Temple Lands. The Knights desired us to assist Prince Hektor against Haarahld of Charis for reasons which no doubt seemed good to them, but which — let us be honest here among ourselves, My Lords — were never truly critical, or even relevant, to Chisholm's own interests. We had no just cause for enmity with Charis on our own part, and we had many reasons for regarding our 'ally' Hektor with suspicion and caution.


            "Nonetheless, we acceded to Chancellor Trynair's urging when Archbishop Zherohm delivered his message to us on behalf of the Knights of the Temple Lands." Her uncle, she observed, winced visibly at her repeated use of "Knights of the Temple Lands." She wished that could have come to her as a surprise. "There were several reasons for that, but — being honest, once again — the primary reason was fear. Fear of what the Knights might do to Chisholm if we declined to do as they 'requested' in this instance."


            She paused, with a wintry smile which should have turned every square inch of exposed skin in that council chamber blue. Her uncle's face had tightened at the word "fear," and one or two other faces had turned into blank walls.


            Well, that's scarcely a surprise, she told herself tartly.


            She was aware of a bright, singing tension deep inside her. It was a sensation she'd felt before — the taut recognition that she danced upon the edge of a sword. Every monarch must know that feeling, sometimes, at least, she thought. There had been times — like the signing of Duke Three Hills' death warrant — when she'd faced it, rendered her decision, and then retired to her private chambers to throw up. Those times had been more common in the first year or two after she took the crown, however. Now, it was something to be embraced. The proof she was doing her job, meeting the challenges the world sent to her. And, she admitted to herself, there was something almost addictive to it and to the hard-won knowledge that she was good at the task to which birth had called her. To the awareness that the issues she grappled with, the decisions she made, were important. That she had to get them right if she was going to meet her father's spirit with the ability to look into his eyes without shame. It wasn't the power itself which gave her that sense of being alive, so much as it was the determination to do her very best, the satisfaction she took from knowing that she had. It had to be the same sort of emotion a star athlete felt when he pushed himself ruthlessly in training to reach a higher plateau of performance. The satisfaction he felt within himself, not the one which came from the cheering adulation of his fans. Or perhaps, as she often thought, it must be akin to what a champion swordsman felt in that first, breathless moment when he stepped into the lists at a competition.


            Or, she admitted to herself, what a duelist feels like when his opponent draws his sword.


            "My Lords," she allowed her voice to turn chiding, "does anyone around this table pretend to truly believe that Haarahld of Charis intended to invade Corisande? That he had some sort of malign intent to seize control of all the world's commerce?"


            "With your permission, Your Majesty," Duke Halbrook Hollow said, keeping his voice almost painfully neutral, "that seems to be exactly what's happening now."


            "Yes, Your Grace," she acknowledged. "It does indeed seem to be what's happening now. But the critical word is 'now,' is it not? Charis has just beaten off the attack of no less than five navies, including our own, and King Cayleb is obviously aware of the pretext upon which the attack, and the resultant death of his father –" she let her eyes bore into her uncle's "– was orchestrated by . . . the Knights of the Temple Lands. What Charis never sought to seize in time of peace may very well have become something she has no option but to seek in time of war if she hopes to survive the attack upon her."


            Please, Uncle Byrtrym, she thought pleadingly behind the confident façade of her calm eyes and firm mouth. I know what you're thinking. Please, support me in this.


            The duke opened his mouth, then closed it once more.


            "The plain truth of the matter, My Lords," she continued as her uncle backed away from the challenge, for the moment at least, "is that I was constrained against my will to attack a peaceful neighbor. And another plain truth is that the attack which was intended to overwhelm and destroy Charis failed miserably. Those truths, among others, are what King Cayleb sent Earl Gray Harbor to Chisholm to discuss."