"What do you want to do about it?" Pine Hollow managed a wan smile. "It's not like you to drop something like this on me across the breakfast table unless you've already got a plan in mind, My Prince."


            "No, I don't suppose it is." Nahrmahn sat back again and reached for his temporarily abandoned plate. His eyes fell to his hands as he meticulously sliced the remaining melon into bite-sized pieces.


            "I need to send a message of my own to Cayleb," he said, never looking away from his knife and fork. "I need someone who can convince him I'm prepared to surrender to him. That he doesn't need to keep burning my cities and killing my subjects to make his point."


            "He's made it pretty clear he wants your head, Nahrmahn. From the tone of his comments, I don't think he's going to be very happy about settling for anything short of that."


            "I know." The prince's smile was more of a grimace than anything else, but there might have been a little actual humor in it. "I know, and I suppose that if he really insists upon it, he'll undoubtedly get it in the end, anyway. It's a pity Mahntayl decided to run off to the mainland rather than coming here. I might have been able to convince Cayleb of my sincerity by offering him the 'Earl of Hanth's' head as a substitute, as it were. Still, I may be able to demonstrate to him that a man of my talents and experience would be more valuable working for him than fertilizing a garden plot somewhere behind his palace."


            "And if you can't?" Pine Hollow asked very quietly.


            "If I can't, I can't." Nahrmahn shrugged far more philosophically than Pine Hollow felt sure he would have been able to manage under the same circumstances. "I can always hope he'll settle for life imprisonment in some only moderately unpleasant dungeon somewhere. And, even if he doesn't, at least Cayleb isn't the sort to carry out any sort of reprisals against Ohlyvya or the children. Which," he looked up and met Pine Hollow's eyes squarely, "is about the best I could hope for anyway, if he has to land an invasion force. Except that, this way, we get to skip the bit where thousands of my subjects get killed first."


            Pine Hollow sat looking into his cousin's eyes and realized that, possibly for the first time since Nahrmahn had ascended to the throne of Emerald, his prince had abandoned all pretense. It came as something of a shock, after all these years, but Nahrmahn was serious.


            "You can't just make peace with Cayleb, even surrender to him, without Graisyn and the rest of the clergy going up in flames behind you," the earl said. "You know that, don't you?"


            "Graisyn, yes. And probably most of the bishops, at the very least," Nahrmahn conceded. "On the other hand, most of our upper-priests — even our itinerant bishops — are Emeraldians. We're almost as bad as Charis in that respect. Frankly, that's one of the things that has Graisyn running so scared, and I strongly suspect he has good reason for it. At any rate, I've . . . discussed this matter with Uncle Hanbyl at some length."


            "I see." Pine Hollow leaned back, the fingers of his right hand drumming slowly, rhythmically, on the arm of his chair while he thought.


            Nahrmahn's point about the composition of the Emeraldian clergy was well taken. Whether or not the division between the lower-ranking, nativeborn clergy and their foreign-born ecclesiastical superiors would even begin to translate into the sort of support for schism which Cayleb had discovered in Charis was another, more complicated calculation. And, the first councilor admitted to himself, it wasn't one to which he himself had given the careful consideration it no doubt merited.


            Probably, he acknowledged to himself, because I didn't want to think about this possibility at all until Nahrmahn rubbed my nose in it.


            But if Nahrmahn had discussed it with Duke Solomon, and if Solomon had said what Nahrmahn appeared to be suggesting he had, then Pine Hollow was prepared to assume that the prince's estimate of how the clergy would react — and whether or not Nahrmahn could survive their reaction — was probably accurate. And when it came right down to it, the Church's reaction was the only potential domestic opposition he truly had to fear. Like the Ahrmahks in Charis, although for rather different reasons and in rather a different fashion, the House of Baytz had centralized political power in its own grasp. Nahrmahn's father had deprived the feudal magnates of their personal standing armies (not without a certain degree of bloodshed, in some cases), and Nahrmahn had gone even farther in subordinating the aristocracy to the Crown. Not only that, but the Commons in the Emeraldian parliament, such as it was and what there was of it, had strongly supported both Nahrmahn and his father in their efforts to restrict the power of their nobly born landlords. That tradition of support would probably carry over to Nahrmahn's response to the present crisis, as well.


            And in this case, both the aristocracy and the commoners of Emerald would almost certainly find themselves in general agreement. If the religious elements were subtracted from consideration, both of them would undoubtedly support a settlement with Charis — probably even an outright surrender to Charis. Despite the traditional rivalry between Emerald and Charis, the Ahrmahks had a reputation as reasonable rulers. It would be difficult to convince anyone, on a purely secular level, that finding themselves under Cayleb of Charis' rule would be any sort of personal disaster. And completely rational self-interest and the desire to avoid the destruction and bloodshed of an outright Charisian invasion would make convincing them of that even more difficult.


            That was obviously Nahrmahn's reading of the situation, at any rate, and the prince had an impressive track record when it came to assessing and accurately predicting the reactions of Emerald's usual power brokers.


            On the other hand, he has been wrong a time or two before, Pine Hollow reminded himself. Not often, though. And unlike some people, he doesn't have a tendency to convince himself that what he wants the truth to be automatically is the truth.


            Assuming he wasn't wrong, and assuming the preparations Pine Hollow had no doubt Solomon was even then very quietly making were effective, then Nahrmahn could almost certainly survive negotiating with Cayleb. Whether or not he could survive the outcome of those negotiations with his head still attached to the rest of his body was another question entirely, of course. And in all honesty, Pine Hollow wasn't prepared to offer any better than barely even odds in favor of the possibility that he could, which could have most unpleasant consequences for the first councilor, as well. Still . . . .


            "If you really mean all of that," the earl heard his own voice saying, "then I suppose you should probably send the most senior diplomat you can to open the negotiations. Someone highly enough placed in your confidence that Cayleb might actually believe anything he said for at least five seconds or so."


            "Really?" There was a most atypical warmth in Nahrmahn's smile. "Did you have anyone in mind, Trahvys?" he asked.