The distant sound of a hunting wyvern's piercing whistle, coming through the council chamber's window, was plainly audible in the intense silence which hovered above the table. All eyes were riveted to Sharleyan, and one or two faces were undeniably pale.


            "My Lords, the . . . Knights of the Temple Lands decreed Charis' destruction. They failed. I believe they will continue to fail. And I believe that if they don't fail, if they can decree the destruction of one realm for arbitrary reasons of their own, they can — and will — decree the destruction of others. I used the example of a ship at sea, and I chose it deliberately, for many reasons. We've navigated through many a storm together, since that day I first came to the throne, but the hurricane which is about to sweep across the face of Safehold is unlike any other storm we have ever seen. There will be no safe harbor against it, My Lords. It must be met and survived at sea, in the very teeth of its thunder and lightning and wind. Never doubt that. Never forget it. And, My Lords," her eyes were hard as polished brown agates, "never forget who set that storm in motion."


            Duke Halbrook Hollow's shoulders tightened, and his jaw clenched. He'd been dismayed enough when she refused to hand Gray Harbor to Tiang, but he'd swallowed it. And so had Tiang, although the Harchong-born bishop executor's fury had been obvious. Unfortunately for him, he'd demanded she surrender Gray Harbor to him, as Mother Church's representative in Chisholm, without reflecting upon the fact that — as Sharleyan herself had just stressed — it was "the Knights of the Temple Lands," and not the Church of God Awaiting, which had declared war upon Charis. Without specific directions from Zion and the Temple, Tiang had been unwilling to abandon the legal fiction that there was a difference between them.


            Which doesn't mean anyone in the entire world believes there is, she told herself grimly, watching her uncle's expression and body language.


            "I'm quite certain all of you have guessed that King Cayleb sent Earl Gray Harbor to us with the proposal of an alliance," she continued, speaking clearly and unhurriedly. "He's already returned our warships — such of them as survived the battle to which we were ordered to commit them, at any rate — and he's pointed out, with reason, that Chisholm and Charis have far more in common, when it comes to threats and enemies, than could ever divide us."


            "Your Majesty, I beg you to think most carefully about these matters," Halbrook Hollow said, meeting his niece's eyes. "You've been very careful to refer only to 'the Knights of the Temple Lands,' and no one in this chamber can doubt the reason you have. Yet it isn't the Knights to whom Charis has bidden defiance. It's Mother Church herself. Whatever his reasons, and however warranted he may believe himself to be, Cayleb hasn't restricted himself to denouncing the attack launched upon him. No, Your Majesty. He's seen fit to defy Mother Church's authority to name her own archbishops. He's accused Mother Church herself of corruption and tyranny, and of betraying the will of God. He's informed the Grand Vicar himself that Charis will never again submit to the authority of Mother Church. Whatever justification he may feel he has — whatever justification we may feel he has — he's surely gone too far when he threatens the sanctity and supremacy of God's own Church."


            He started to say something more, then cut himself off with a hard, tight shake of his head. It was a sharp, abrupt gesture, and silence gripped the council chamber once again in its wake. But now that silence was brittle, broken into fragments and heaped in the corners of every councilor's mind.


            "Your Grace — Uncle," Sharleyan said softly, "I know how you feel on this issue. Believe me, I know. And I would not, for all the gold and power in the world, cause you the pain I know this is causing. Yet I have no choice. Chancellor Trynair and Vicar Zhaspahr have left me none. Either I must assist in the murder of an innocent victim, knowing Charis will be but the first of many victims, or else I must defy . . . the Knights of the Temple Lands."


            "You're talking about God's Church, Sharleyan," Halbrook Hollow half-whispered. "You can call it the Knights of the Temple Lands, if you wish, but the truth won't change."


            "And neither will the fact that they started this war, Uncle Byrtrym. Neither will the fact that they sent no warning, no demands, no tribunals to investigate. They never even bothered to truly examine the facts at all. They simply ordered five realms to destroy a sixth, as if it were of no greater concern than deciding which pair of shoes to wear. Because it wasn't even worth their time to make certain that all of the thousands upon thousands of God's children they proposed to kill really needed to die. Because it was their decision, not His. Never His. That is the truth, as well, and you know it as well as I do."


            "But even if that's all true," he replied, "think about where this must end. If you ally with Charis and Charis loses, then Chisholm will be destroyed as well. Yet terrible as that is, if you ally with Charis and Charis wins, you — you, Sharleyan — will be as responsible before God as Cayleb himself for destroying the authority of the Church Langhorne himself commanded us to obey in God's name for the preservation of our very souls."


            "Yes, Uncle, I will be," she acknowledged quietly. "But the Church Langhorne commanded us to obey lies in the grip of men, and those men have betrayed their own responsibilities to God. If I support them, I acquiesce — I become their accomplice — in the murder of innocents and the perversion of God's will in the name of God's Church. I can't do that. I won't. Before God Himself, I won't."


            Halbrook Hollow's face was drawn and white, and Sharleyan shook her own head sadly, but firmly.


            "I said King Cayleb has proposed an alliance between our kingdoms," she said then, looking around the council chamber once more. "That statement was true enough, but it falls short of the full truth. Because, My Lords, the full truth is that Cayleb has proposed not mere alliance, but marriage."


            An invisible lightning bolt struck that council chamber. Men jerked back from the table, faces startled, shocked, even frightened. Other men sat suddenly straighter, eyes brighter. But whatever their response, it was obvious not one of them had suspected what she had just told them.


            Duke Halbrook Hollow stared at his niece in horror. She looked back at him, seeing the beloved uncle who, with Green Mountain, had been her strong shield and buckler. Who had helped to raise her. Who had watched with obvious pride as the child-princess became a queen in truth.


            "Understand me, My Lords," her voice was tempered steel, "there is no burden I will not bear in the service of Chisholm and of the people God has entrusted to my care. There is no danger I will not face. There is no choice I will refuse to make. I have thought, I have pondered, I have prayed, and only one answer presents itself. There is only one decision I can make without betraying my duty to God, my duty to Chisholm, and my duty to myself, and I have made it."


            Halbrook Hollow was shaking his head mutely, again and again, his eyes like holes burned into his face. Sharleyan made herself ignore that, and her voice continued, strong and unflinching.


            "Cayleb of Charis has offered honorable marriage, complete equality between Chisholm and Charis, and I have decided to accept that offer. I have decided. I do not intend to debate that decision. I do not intend to discuss it. And I will not change it. As Cayleb has said, and as God Himself has witnessed, here I stand."