King Cayleb II sat on his throne as his "guest" was escorted into the throne room by a pair of extraordinarily alert royal guardsmen. The guardsmen's bootheels sounded loudly, firmly on the blue-swirled, lapis-like Charisian marble of the vast room's polished floor, but the Earl of Pine Hollow's lighter court shoes made almost no sound at all.


            It was the first time Cayleb had ever actually laid eyes on Pine Hollow. What he saw was a typical Emeraldian, physically indistinguishable from any number of Charisians, but wearing a padded-shoulder tunic of a distinctly non-Charisian cut. The padding made his shoulders appear broader, but the truth was that the earl was broad-shouldered enough by nature to require no artificial assistance.  Pine Hollow wore a heavy gold chain around his neck, token of his status as Emerald's first councilor. His eyes were as brown as Cayleb's own, and despite his exalted rank, his hair was still dark. In fact, he looked considerably younger than Cayleb had expected. Pine Hollow was more than fifteen years older than Cayleb himself, but he looked no older than Father Paityr Wylsynn. Well, perhaps a little older, but nowhere near grizzled enough to be the first councilor of a reigning prince.


            Who may or may not be a "reigning prince" much longer, Cayleb reminded himself grimly.


            Pine Hollow approached the throne and stopped, without prompting, at exactly the right distance. He managed to look remarkably calm as he delivered a deep, respectful bow. Whatever he looked like, though, Cayleb knew he couldn't possibly be as unworried as he managed to project, and the king put a checkmark on the positive side of the mental list he was making about his visitor.


            Cayleb was in no tearing rush to get down to business, for more than one reason. One was that making Pine Hollow wait was more likely to shape any ensuing conversation in the direction Cayleb wanted it to take. A second, and less noble one, was that Cayleb took an undeniable pleasure in underscoring the relative balance of power between Charis and the prince who had attempted to have Cayleb himself assassinated. And a third had to do with another visitor whose arrival Cayleb anticipated in the next several days.


            The throne room itself was a high-ceilinged, airy chamber. Ceiling fans, powered by a small waterwheel in the palace basement, rotated smoothly, keeping the tropical air moving, and the thick, heat-shedding walls were pierced by deep-set windows which looked out across a courtyard Cayleb's deceased mother had spent several years landscaping. The entire palace represented an intermediate stage in royal architecture. Its grounds were encircled by thick, well-designed curtain walls of stone, augmented at regular intervals by bastioned towers, but those walls predated the days of artillery, and the grounds inside them had been designed and landscaped as a place to live, not the interior of a grim, gray fortress. One day, Merlin had told him — one day soon, as a matter of fact — those heavy walls would be a thing of the past. Against the artillery which would be coming soon, old-fashioned walls like the one around Tellesberg Palace would become little more than annoyances to any serious attacker.


            Cayleb twitched his mind back from the side path it had gone traipsing down and rested his elbows on the arms of his throne, steepling his fingers across his chest as he'd seen his father do so many times in the same throne room. The father whose death was at least partly the responsibility of the man in front of him and the prince that man served.


            "Well," the king said at last into the throne room's waiting quiet, "I hardly expected to see you here, My Lord. Or not, at least, as an envoy."


            That statement bore only a passing relationship to the truth, given that  Merlin's "visions" had warned Cayleb well over three five-days ago that Pine Hollow would be arriving. In fact, Cayleb knew Nahrmahn's instructions to Pine Hollow as well as the Emeraldian earl knew them himself. Not that he had any intention of allowing Pine Hollow to guess that.


            After all, it would hardly do to start giving the Inquisition genuine grounds to believe I'm dabbling in black sorcery and other forbidden arts, he thought dryly. Why, if I did that, Mother Church might decide she didn't like me anymore.


            Pine Hollow, he noticed, had winced very slightly at his last seven words. That was good.


            "Now that you're here," Cayleb continued after a brief, pregnant pause designed to underline those very words, "I suppose we should hear what you have to say."


            "Your Majesty," Pine Hollow's voice was commendably steady, under the circumstances, "I feel confident you must at least suspect the reason for this rather dramatic, unannounced visit."


            "Given the fact that you arrived in an official vessel, I don't imagine you're here to transfer your personal allegiance from Prince Nahrmahn to Charis," Cayleb said dryly.


            "No, I'm not, Your Majesty." Pine Hollow met Cayleb's eyes very levelly, and the youthful monarch felt a stir of respect as he saw the steadiness in those eyes. They were, in their own way, a rebuke of his own levity.


            "No, I don't believe you are," Cayleb acknowledged in a rather more serious tone. "In fact, given the present military balance between this Kingdom and your master's princedom — and its allies, of course — I can really think of only one thing which might have brought you here. And that, My Lord, is to discuss what sort of terms Prince Nahrmahn thinks he might be able to obtain."


            "In a general sense, that's certainly accurate, Your Majesty." Pine Hollow inclined his head in a brief bow of acknowledgment.


            "In that case, I might point out that he doesn't have a great deal with which to bargain," Cayleb said. "I truly mean no disrespect — the ships of your navy fought with courage and determination at Darcos Sound — but your princedom is defenseless before us. We've taken your offshore fortifications where and as we chose. Your major ports are under strict blockade, and as I believe we've demonstrated, we're capable of landing raiding parties to burn out any of the smaller ports where Commodore Zhaztro might be attempting to fit out his privateers. And we can land an army any time we choose, at any place we choose."


            Pine Hollow's eyes had flickered with surprise as Cayleb mentioned Zhaztro by name. Obviously the depth of Cayleb's knowledge about events inside Emerald had come as a less than pleasant revelation to him.


            Oh, if you only knew, My Lord, Cayleb thought sardonically.


            "All of that may be true, Your Majesty," the Emeraldian earl said after moment. Then he shook his head. "No," he said, "let's be honest. It is true. Yet it's also true that however inevitable your victory over my Prince may be in the end, obtaining it may prove expensive. Not simply in terms of lost life and treasure, but also in terms of lost time. Despite your current advantages, which my Prince has instructed me to tell you he fully recognizes, you have a great many enemies, and no friends. No open friends, at least. Prince Nahrmahn has no doubt you've been continuing and even accelerating your military buildup. At the same time, however, he's well aware — as you must be — that your various enemies are engaged in exactly the same process. If you find yourself forced to spend valuable time conquering Emerald by force of arms, you may find the time you've lost doing so has allowed your more inherently formidable foes time to prepare for the next, inevitable stage in your conflict."


            "Allowing, for the moment, the aptness of your analysis, My Lord," Cayleb said with an unpleasant smile, "the consequences will still be . . . less pleasant for the House of Baytz than for Charis."


            "A point, I assure you, of which my Prince is well aware, Your Majesty."