Royal Palace,


City of Tellesberg,


Kingdom of Charis


            Merlin Athrawes stood just inside the council chamber door, wearing the black and gold of the Charisian Royal Guard, and watched a young man gaze out a window across the Tellesberg waterfront at the latest in the line of rain squalls marching towards the city across Howell Bay. The youngster in question was dark-haired, dark-eyed, and on the tall side for an inhabitant of the planet of Safehold, and especially of the Kingdom of Charis. He was also barely twenty-three years old, which came to only twenty-one in the years of the planet on which (though he did not know it) his species had actually evolved. That made him very young indeed to wear the emerald-set golden chain whose glittering green fire was the emblem of a king.


            Many people would no doubt have been struck by his youthfulness, the fact that, despite his already powerful physique, he clearly had filling out still to do. Others might have noted the restless energy which had driven him to the window after the better part of two hours of discussion and planning. They might have confused that restlessness with boredom or lack of interest . . . but only until they saw his eyes, Merlin thought. They were no longer as young as once they had been, those eyes, and the mouth below them was thinner, with the set of a man far older — wiser, tougher, and more ruthless — than his years. They were the eyes and mouth of Cayleb Zhan Haarahld Bryahn Ahrmahk, King Cayleb II, ruler of Charis, who had — in the space of barely three local months — won the three most crushing, one-sided naval victories in the entire history of Safehold, lost his father, inherited a crown, and thrown his defiance of the four most powerful men in the entire world into the teeth of God's own Church.


            And they were also the eyes and mouth of a king whose kingdom still faced the short end of a battle of extinction unless he and his advisers could think of a way to avert that outcome.


            Cayleb watched the distant rain for several more moments, then turned back to several of the advisers in question.


            The group of men seated around the massive table weren't the entire Royal Council. In fact, they weren't even most of the Council . . . and they did include several people who weren't Council members at all. Cayleb was well aware that some of the Councilors who weren't present resented — or would resent — their exclusion when they discovered it. If they discovered it. But while his father's tutelage had seen to it that he was far from oblivious to the political imperatives of maintaining a broad base of support, especially in the present circumstances, he was also perfectly willing to live with that resentment for the moment.


            "All right," he said, "I think that deals with all of the immediate domestic reports?"


            He looked around the table, one eyebrow quirked, and the compact, distinguished looking man sitting at its far end nodded. Rayjhis Yowance, the Earl of Gray Harbor, had served Cayleb's father as Charis' First Councilor for the better part of fourteen years; now he served his new king in the same role.


            "For the moment, at any rate, Your Majesty," he said. Despite the fact that  he'd known Cayleb literally all his life — or possibly because of it — he had made it a point to address his youthful monarch with a greater degree of formality since Cayleb's ascension to the throne. "I believe Maikel here has at least one additional point he wishes to address, although I understand he's waiting for a few more reports before he does so." Gray Harbor's rising inflection turned the final part of the statement into a question, and he raised one eyebrow at the man sitting at the far end of the council table from the king in the white cassock of the episcopate.


            "I do," Archbishop Maikel confirmed. "As you say, however, Rayjhis, I'm still waiting for two reports I've requested. With your permission, Your Majesty, I'd like to reserve a few minutes of your time tomorrow or the next day to discuss this."


            "Of course," Cayleb told the man who had been his father's confessor and who — despite certain . . . technical irregularities — had been elevated to Archbishop of all Charis.


            "I also expect additional reports from Hanth in the next few days," Gray Harbor continued, and smiled thinly. "Current indications are that Mahntayl is considering a rather hasty relocation to Eraystor."


            "Probably the smartest move the bastard's made in years," someone murmured so softly even Merlin's ears had trouble overhearing him. The voice, Merlin noted, sounded remarkably like that of the Earl of Lock Island.


            If Cayleb had heard the comment, he gave no indication. Instead, he simply nodded.


            "Well," he said, "in that case, I suppose it's about time we considered breaking up. It's coming up on lunch, and I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm hungry. Is there anything else we need to look at before we eat?"


            "Zhefry reminded me of several items this morning, Your Majesty," Gray Harbor replied with a slight smile. Zhefry Ahbaht was the first councilor's personal secretary, and his ability to "manage" Gray Harbor's schedule was legendary.


            "Despite his insistence, I think most of them can probably wait until after lunch," the earl continued. "He did, however, point out that the Group of Four ought to be getting their copies of the writs in the next five-day or so."


            One or two faces tightened at the reminder. Cayleb's wasn't one of them.


            "He's right," the king agreed. "And I wish I could be a fly on the wall when Clyntahn and Trynair open them." His smile was thinner — and much colder — than Gray Harbor's had been. "I don't imagine they'll be particularly pleased. Especially not with your personal log for the fire, Maikel."


            Several of the other men sitting around the table smiled back at him. Some of their expressions were even more kraken-like than his own, Merlin noted.


            "I don't imagine they've been 'particularly pleased' about anything that's happened in the past few months, Your Majesty," Gray Harbor agreed. "Frankly, I can't think of any message you could have sent them that could possibly have changed that."


            "Oh, I don't know, Rayjhis." Admiral Bryahn Lock Island was the commander of the Royal Charisian Navy. He was also one of Cayleb's cousins. "I imagine that if we were to send them a mass suicide note, that would probably cheer them up immensely."


            This time there were a few outright chuckles, and Cayleb shook his head admonishingly at Lock Island.


            "You're a bluff, unimaginative sailor, Bryahn. Remarks like that demonstrate exactly why it's such a good idea for us to keep you as far away as possible from the diplomatic correspondence!"


            "Amen to that!" Lock Island's pious tone was at least eight-tenths sincere, Merlin judged.


            "Speaking of 'bluff, unimaginative sailors,'" Ahlvyno Pawalsyn said, "I have to say, although I'd really rather not bring this up, that your current plans for expanding the Navy worry me, Bryahn."


            Lock Island looked at the other man and cocked his head. Ahlvyno Pawalsyn was also Baron Ironhill . . . and Keeper of the Purse. That made him effectively the treasurer of the Kingdom of Charis.


            "I assume that what you mean is that figuring out how to pay for the expansion worries you," the admiral said after a moment. "On the other hand, what's likely to happen if we don't continue the expansion worries me a lot more."


            "I'm not trying to suggest it isn't necessary, Bryahn," Ironhill replied mildly. "As the fellow who's supposed to come up with a way to finance it, however, it does leave me with some . . . interesting difficulties, shall we say?"


            "Let Nahrmahn pay for it," Lock Island suggested. "That fat little bugger's still got plenty tucked away in his treasury, and he's got damn-all for a navy at the moment. We're already camped in his front yard, and he can't be any too happy about the way we've sewed Eraystor Bay shut like a sack. So why don't I just make his day complete by taking a couple of squadrons in close and sending a few Marines ashore to deliver a polite request from His Majesty here that he finance our modest efforts before we burn his entire miserable waterfront around his ears?"


            "Tempting," Cayleb said. "Very tempting. I'm not sure it's a very practical solution, though."


            "Why not?" Lock Island turned back to the king. "We won; he lost. Well, he will lose, whenever we finally get around to actually kicking his fat arse off his throne, and he knows it."


            "No doubt," Cayleb agreed. "Assuming we add Emerald to the Kingdom, however, we're going to have to figure out how to pay for its administration. Looting its treasury doesn't strike me as a particularly good way to get started. Besides, it would be a one-time sort of thing, and just expanding the Navy isn't going to solve our problems, Bryahn. Somehow we've got to pay for maintaining it, too. With the Church openly against us, we don't dare lay up large numbers of ships. We'll need them in active commission, and that means we'll have a heavy, ongoing commitment on the Treasury. We couldn't rely on regular 'windfalls' the size of Nahrmahn's treasury even if we wanted to, so we 're going to have to figure out a long-term way to pay for it out of our own ongoing revenue stream."


            Lock Island's eyebrows rose as he gave his young monarch a look of respect. Ironhill, on the other hand, positively beamed, as did Gray Harbor, and Merlin nodded mentally in satisfaction, as well. All too many rulers twice Cayleb's age would have settled for whatever got them the ships they needed in the shortest possible time and let the future take care of itself.


            "Actually, Your Majesty," another of the men seated at the table said, "I think paying for the Navy isn't going to be quite as difficult as it might first appear. Not, at least, as long as we're not trying to raise mainland-sized armies, at the same time."