House of Parliament,


Kingdom of Charis


            It was the first time Merlin had seen the interior of the Charisian House of Parliament with his own eyes. Well, his own visual receptors, he supposed, if he wanted to be strictly accurate.


            The chamber's plastered walls were paneled to above head height in the exotic tropical woods with which Charis' more northern forests abounded. Ceiling fans mounted on the exposed beams turned slowly and steadily overhead, pulling the heat upward, and the louvered panes of vast skylights were opened to the morning sunlight, assisting in the cooling movement of air. More sunlight streamed in through the windows set into the typically thick, heat-resistant walls of Charisian architecture. Despite the building warmth of the young day and the number of bodies gathered into one place, it was still surprisingly cool here in the chamber, which said a great deal for the skill of the men who had designed and built it.


            There was no separation in Charis between the official homes of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Each of them had its own council chambers, where much — indeed, most — of its business was accomplished in small committee meetings, but those were Parliament's working space, not its home. Merlin wondered how long that would last, or if it would be carried over to the newer, larger Parliament waiting over the horizon. It seemed unlikely, if only because that newer and larger Parliament would have too many members to accomplish anything efficiently without dividing itself internally into its official branches. For now, though, he found the arrangement oddly reassuring. And, if neither House had its own individual Chamber, there was a distinct difference between the seating on the left and right sides of their shared House as one stood at the Speaker's lectern.


            The seats stretched away in a multi-tiered horseshoe with the lectern between the open ends of the shoe, and the Commons sat to the Speaker's left, on comfortable benches behind individual desks well appointed with inkwells, blotters, and carafes of water. But their desks were unornamented — finely crafted and polished, to be sure, but without carving or other embellishments. They were the desks and seats provided for men who held their parliamentary office on the basis of election, not inheritance.


            The Lords sat to the Speaker's right. Their benches were no more thickly padded than those of their common-born colleague, but each of the desks on that side of the House bore on its front panel the coat of arms of the man — or, in a very few cases, the woman — seated behind it. Some of those coats of arms were simple wood carvings; others were heavily gilded and painted; and a few of them were cast in gold or silver and embellished with cut gems that caught the light from the skylights and windows with dancing flickers of red, green, and blue fire.


            Despite all of that, the House wasn't really as impressive as Merlin's emotions insisted it ought to be, given his awareness of what this embryo would someday become. Of course, the British House of Parliament had always struck Nimue Alban as conspicuously modest for what had quite rightly been known as "the Mother of Parliaments." This structure, on this world, was going to claim that same title for itself, in centuries to come, assuming Charis managed to survive, so he supposed it was only appropriate that it, too, should eschew the sort of self-conscious grandeur the "archangels'" architects had designed into the Temple.


            Not that Parliament actually needed a huge home in Charis, anyway. Not yet. Despite the last few monarchs' awareness of the true history of the Terran Federation and their deliberate policy of moving in that direction, Charis was still a society which had only recently moved beyond outright feudalism. The franchise remained extraordinarily restricted, by the standards of Nimue Alban's birth country, with both property and literacy requirements. It was far larger, in proportion to its population, than that of any other Charisian realm, including the "Republic" of Siddarmark, but it was still a small body. In fact, the House of Commons, despite its nominally far larger base of representation, was only a little bigger than the House of Lords.


            Of course, Merlin thought sourly, gazing out across the assembled Parliament over Cayleb's shoulder as the king, in full court regalia for the first time since his coronation, moved regally towards the Speaker's lectern, there's a reason the Lords have so many members.


            A full third of the upper house's seats — for the most part, those with the most spectacular coats of arms of all — were held not by secular nobles, but by the bishops and senior abbots of the Church of God Awaiting. Despite whatever Haarahld or his immediate predecessors might have desired, there'd been no possible way in which they could have created a parliament without providing for the Church's massive representation within it.


            Some of the men sitting in those particular seats were not the men who had sat in them prior to the battle of Darcos Sound, however. Most of those who'd been replaced by Archbishop Maikel's new nominations and ordinations had resigned in furious protest when their fellows opted to support Cayleb and Staynair in their bid for independence from the Council of Vicars. Two of them, however, had been removed on Royal Warrant and were currently in reasonably comfortable cells awaiting trial. That was what tended to happen when the Crown had irrefutable proof that the men in question had been actively plotting the assassination of the king.


            Irrefutable proof I steered Wave Thunder to, Merlin reflected with grim satisfaction. I wish it hadn't existed — that there hadn't been any plots to kill Cayleb — but I might as well wish the sun wouldn't shine. And at least the rest of the Church took the arrest of two of its senior members by secular authorities on secular charges which carry the high probability of the death sentence, if sustained, far better than I was afraid it might.


            Cayleb reached the lectern, carrying the State Scepter (which, in Charis' case, was an ornately gilded and jeweled but still uncompromisingly effective mace), and Merlin suppressed an internal chuckle. That "Scepter" would undoubtedly have served quite handily to open any door which anyone might have had the temerity to close against its bearer. Which only underscored the fact that there was no nonsense here in Charis about who was whose equal. No requirement for the monarch to formally "request" admittance to the House of Commons. Haarahld VII and his immediate ancestors might have recognized their responsibility to prepare for a different day in Charis, but they'd been very careful to conserve the true power in the hands of the monarchy for now. Which was why every man, and the handful of women, in that chamber stood and bowed as Cayleb set the Scepter in the waiting brackets on the front of the lectern.


            "Be seated, My Lords and Ladies," the king invited after a moment, and feet and clothing scraped and rustled as Parliament obeyed. He waited until everyone had settled once more, then turned his head, surveying all of those waiting faces with a calm Merlin suspected he didn't quite feel.


            "We have summoned you in order to share with you the content and consequences of a letter we have but recently received from our trusted servant the Earl of Gray Harbor," he said then. "It concerns a decision upon the part of Her Majesty Queen Sharleyan to a proposal we committed to her by Earl Gray Harbor's personal hand."


            He paused, and every person in that entire chamber sat very, very still. That stillness was the confirmation security had held, Merlin thought. Everyone knew Gray Harbor had gone to Chisholm as Cayleb's special envoy, and it had been obvious to even the least perceptive political dullard that the first councilor himself would not have been sent unless Cayleb had something significant to say to Sharleyan. But no one outside Cayleb's immediate circle of advisers knew what that something significant had been, and Parliament's eagerness to find out was palpable.


            "We now announce to you," Cayleb said clearly, "Queen Sharleyan's acceptance of our offer for her hand in marriage."


            For a heartbeat or two, it didn't seem to register. Then it did, and the wave of astonishment rippled through Parliament like a high wind through prairie grass. Merlin could actually see it sweeping across the seated representatives and peers, and despite the king's presence, despite the solemnity of the Parliament itself, a chorus of amazed voices went with it.


            It was impossible even for Merlin's enhanced hearing to sort any individual remarks out of that spontaneous bedlam, and Cayleb didn't even try. He simply waited for several seconds, letting his audience's questions and exclamations run their course before, finally, he cleared his throat and raised his own voice.