"My Lords and Ladies!" he said sharply. "Is this interruption seemly?"


            The king's voice cut through the hubbub, which ceased with remarkable rapidity. More than a few faces looked embarrassed by their owners' outbursts, but even in those cases, surprise and intense speculation were the overriding emotions.


            "Thank you, My Lords and Ladies," Cayleb said as quiet fell once more. Then he allowed himself a small smile. "We can hardly blame you for your surprise, we suppose. Her Majesty's agreement to our offer of marriage was not an easy decision. It required a high courage, and great wisdom, to look past the inevitable rage her decision will evoke in those corrupt individuals who currently control the Temple. There can be no doubt that in her acceptance, she has irrevocably wedded –" he smiled again at his own choice of verb "– the fate of her realm to our own. She has agreed, of her own free will, to stand with us and our people in the death struggle for the soul of Mother Church and our own survival. Make no mistake, this is a battle she has chosen to join, and there will be no going back from this moment for her, or for Chisholm, anymore than there can be for Charis. All of this she has knowingly and willingly accepted along with our hand in marriage."


            The stillness and silence was profound.


            "Under the terms of our proposal to her, which we intend to disclose to you today, and which will be made available to each of you in written form, following this address, the crowns of Charis and Chisholm shall be coequal to one another for the remainder of Her Majesty's life and our own. Upon our deaths, those crowns will be united, in the persons of our children, into that of a single Charisian Empire.


            "In the meantime, we and Her Majesty will be submitting to both kingdoms' parliaments the terms upon which we propose to create a new, common and shared Imperial Parliament to advise and assist us in the equitable governance of both kingdoms in their new imperial relationship to one another. The Navies and Armies of our respective realms will be merged into a new Imperial Navy and Imperial Army, and commissions within the common armed forces of this, our new and greater realm, will be open to Charisians and Chisholmians alike. There shall be an Imperial Treasury, to which both kingdoms shall contribute, and our law masters, in concert with those of Chisholm, shall so reconcile the law of these two realms that the subjects of one shall enjoy all the rights, privileges, responsibilities, and duties of subjects of the other.


            "And because there will always be the threat of the relationship our realms becoming an unequal partnership, in which one kingdom becomes — or believes it has become — the servant of the other, rather than its equal, Tellesberg and Cherayth shall be coequal as capitals. For four months of each year — that is, for half the year, allowing for voyage time between Charis and Chisholm — Her Majesty and I will reside in Tellesberg, and govern both kingdoms from that city, and for four months of each year, she and I will reside in Cherayth, and govern both kingdoms from that city. No doubt it will be a difficult adjusment for both cities, but it will happen, My Lords and Ladies."


            Cayleb paused, looking out into the stunned silence, and his face looked far less young in that moment. His eyes were as hard as his face, and when he spoke once more, his voice came crisply, clearly, ribbed with granite determination and iron purpose.


            "Understand us well, My Lords and Ladies," he told his Parliament. "This will be no union of unequals. We did not offer marriage to Queen Sharleyan as anything less than a full and complete merger of our realms. As our Queen, she will share our authority in Charis, as we shall share hers in Chisholm. She will be our regent, if we be called away by war. She will have our full authority to act here in Charis as she, in her own good judgment, advised by our Council Royal and this Parliament and its imperial successor, shall see fit, and her decisions and actions shall stand approved in advance by us.


            "This is no figurehead we bring you, My Lords and Ladies. This is a Queen, in all the power and accomplishment of her own reign, in her own kingdom. One who, like us, and like our father before us, has matched herself against powerful foes, and who has met the stern test and demands of the throne to which she was called, at an even earlier age than we were, with wisdom, courage, and determination. She will be greeted, deferred to, and obeyed as if she had been Charisian born."


            The sound of a tumbling pin would have been deafening, Merlin thought, watching the youthful king's words sink home.


            "We feel sure that even a little reflection will make clear to all of you the military advantage this brings to us. The impact Queen Sharleyan's willingness to stand with us in our denunciation of the corruption of the Council of Vicars must have upon the thinking of other realms and other rulers will also require no explanation, no embellishment, from us. The advantages this will bestow for operations against our common enemies in Corisande must be equally obvious, as must the fashion in which the strength and power of our merchant marine will be reinforced and broadened.


            "All of those things are true. Yet we would have you know that in our view, the greatest advantage of all which this marriage will bring to us, to our realm, and to all of Safehold, in days to come, will be the courage, the wisdom, and the intelligence of our Queen . . . and yours. Never doubt it, My Lords and Ladies. And rest assured that if any of you should doubt, those doubts will vanish quickly in the face of experience."


            He paused once more, gazing out at the silent ranks of representative, noble, and priests.


            "Great and terrible days are upon us all, My Lords and Ladies," he said then, quietly. "Times to test and try the mettle of any man or woman's soul. Times in which each of us — king, bishop, noble, or commoner — must stand for those things which we hold sacred, those causes for which we will lay down our lives, if God so requires of us. In our hands lies the future of Mother Church, of Safehold, of the lives and souls and freedom of every man, woman, and child in God's vast creation. If we falter, if we fail, then the corruption which has already enveloped the Council of Vicars, already tainted Mother Church with the hunger and secular ambition of the Dark, will conquer all.


            "We, Cayleb Ahrmahk, King of Charis, will die before we see that happen. We would not have brought you any Queen whose determination and courage we feared might prove unworthy of this moment, this time, in this place, and we have no fear that Queen Sharleyan's will. As Charis stands against the Darkness, so will Chisholm. So will Queen Sharleyan. And, as God is our witness, we will not cease, nor pause, nor rest, until those who would unleash warfare, rapine, and destruction upon peaceful realms out of vast and corrupt personal ambition, cloaked in the authority of Mother Church, have been purged forever from this world. To that end, we pledge our life, our fortune, and our sacred honor."