"I rather thought he might be." Cayleb leaned back, crossing his legs, and cocked his head as he contemplated Pine Hollow.


            "On the other hand, I must admit I'm intrigued," he said. "Whatever else Prince Nahrmahn may be, I don't believe he's deaf, blind, or stupid. Nor do I believe there's much possibility that he's unaware of who was behind his marching orders, whatever the 'Knights of the Temple Lands' might choose to pretend. Consequently, I must assume he's as well aware as we are here in Charis of who our true enemy is. Which leads me to wonder just why he might be willing to bring the wrath of the Grand Inquisitor and the Group of Four down upon his own head by daring to so much as send us an official envoy."


            He eyed Pine Hollow speculatively, and the Emeraldian shrugged.


            "Your Majesty, I might say that when a man has to choose between dealing with the kraken in his bathtub and the doomwhale out beyond the harbor breakwater, he tends to focus on the kraken, first. That, in point of fact, is a thought which has borne upon my Prince's thinking at this particular time. But it isn't the only consideration which brought him to send me to you. I carry with me correspondence directly from him, setting out for your consideration his own analysis of the situation. I believe you'd find it interesting reading."


            "I'm sure I would." Cayleb smiled thinly. "May I also assume that this correspondence of his touches upon the terms he might hope to obtain?"


            "It does, Your Majesty." Pine Hollow bowed again, then straightened. "Moreover, it will inform you that I've been appointed his official plenipotentiary. Within the limits established by my binding instructions from him, I am authorized to negotiate with you in his name, and to accept any agreement which we might reach within those limitations."


            "'Agreement which we might reach,'" Cayleb repeated softly. Then he straightened in his throne, bringing his hands down as he planted his forearms firmly on its armrests and leaned forward.


            "Understand me in this much, My Lord Pine Hollow," he said quietly. "I realize your prince was constrained against his own desires to participate in the recent attack upon my Kingdom. But I also realize that his reasons for deeming that attack . . . unwise had nothing at all to do with any deep-seated love for the Kingdom of Charis. I don't believe — and never have believed — that he would have taken any joy or pleasure in the wholesale massacres, destruction, and arson the Group of Four proposed to visit upon my people, but neither do I believe he would have been dismayed by the destruction and partitioning of this Kingdom. In short, My Lord, whatever the reasons for his enmity, Prince Nahrmahn has amply declared himself the foe of Charis in times past. Now that he finds his foot firmly in the snare, he may also find himself wishing for some sort of . . . accommodation with my Kingdom and my House. Well, I won't say at the outset that any such accommodation is impossible. But I will say this. Any accommodation we may reach will be reached upon my terms, not his. And you may rest assured that any terms I will be willing to contemplate will preclude his ever again posing a threat to my people, to my Kingdom, and to my family. Do you understand that?"


            "Of course I do, Your Majesty," Pine Hollow replied, his voice equally quiet. "Were I sitting in that throne while you stood here, in front of me, my position would be exactly the same as yours. My Prince understands that as well as I do, I assure you."


            "In that case, there may be some point to your mission, after all, My Lord," Cayleb said, sitting back once more. "At any rate, I'm prepared to listen to whatever Prince Nahrmahn may have to say. If I find his proposals less than fully acceptable, there will always be time to return to the decision of the field of battle. And, to be quite honest, your point — and his — about the value of time in Charis' current situation has a certain validity."


            Pine Hollow inclined his head without speaking, and Cayleb smiled.


            "But that consideration lies in the future, My Lord. I have other pressing matters I must deal with today, and I intend to read your prince's correspondence very carefully, digest it thoroughly, before you and I speak about its contents. In the meantime, I've had a comfortable suite prepared for you in Queen Marytha's Tower. I trust you'll find it adequate to your needs, and you are, of course, welcome to install any of your own servants you may deem necessary to see to your requirements."


            "I thank you, Your Majesty."


            "Despite all that's already happened, My Lord, there's no reason we can't be civilized about these things." Cayleb's smile turned a bit warmer and more genuine. "And whatever else may be true, you came here trusting in the hospitality and protection of my House. Under the circumstances, it behooves me to demonstrate that trust wasn't misplaced, doesn't it?"


            "Since you've chosen to speak so frankly, Your Majesty," Pine Hollow replied with what might have been a shadow of an answering smile, "I'll admit that that thought — and that hope — have passed through my mind more than once since my galleon entered Charisian waters."


            "Well, rest assured that you'll receive all of the courtesy due to any envoy, despite any . . . unusual aspects of the reason for your journey here to Tellesberg."


            "Thank you, Your Majesty."


            "In this much, at least, you're quite welcome," Cayleb said, then waved one hand at the man standing to the right of his throne in the black and gold of the Charisian Royal Guard. "Captain Athrawes will escort you to your chamber, My Lord, and see to it that the tower's guard force is informed of your status and prepared to meet any of your reasonable needs."