Tellesberg Harbor,


Kingdom of Charis


            Merlin wondered if Cayleb realized he was slowly, rhythmically shifting his weight from foot to foot as he stood at dockside, surrounded by a storm of banners. Not to mention several score Royal Guardsmen, honor guards from both the Royal Charisian Navy and the Royal Charisian Marines, most of his Royal Council, the bejeweled ranks of what looked like at least half the House of Lords, a sizable delegation from the House of Commons, and every private citizen of his capital who could beg, borrow, buy, or steal a spot close enough to see the most momentous single arrival in Tellesberg in at least the past fifty years.


            As a proper bodyguard, Merlin stood impassively behind the youthful king, watching alertly for potential threats. It was, he reflected, as he listened to the harbor batteries' saluting guns pounding out their welcome in spurts of smoke, a good thing no one had yet gotten around to perfecting the sort of artillery with which Seamount was beginning to experiment. A single howitzer shell in the middle of this dockside gathering would have had catastrophic consequences for the future history of Safehold.


            Of course, he thought with a sense of profound satisfaction as the oared tugs maneuvered the stately galleon flying the royal blue banner with the silver doomwhale of Charis alongside the wharf, if the Group of Four only knew, what's actually about to land on this dock going to have even more catastrophic consequences than that for someone.


            He was hard put to avoid breaking into an enormous grin as he watched Cayleb. At this particular moment, the king's mind obviously wasn't on future political and military consequences, despite his commendable job of concentrating on those aspects of the proposed marriage when he'd presented it to Parliament. It was painfully clear that, for now, at least, those consequences had taken second place in the thoughts of a very youthful bridegroom about to meet his bride for the very first time.


* * * * * * * * * *


            Sharleyan of Chisholm commanded herself to stand still and stately on the high poop deck of her galleon. The very high poop deck, as it happened. HMS Doomwhale was, in fact, one of only four galleons her navy had possessed prior to the ill-fated campaign which had ended in Darcos Sound, and unlike the Royal Charisian Navy galleons which had escorted her to Tellesberg, Doomwhale retained both her original cumbersome sail plan and the towering height of her massive, multi-deck castles, fore and aft. Those sleek, low-slung vessels had disposed of those features in their ruthless drive to reduce topweight and improve seaworthiness and weatherliness, and that drive had obviously succeeded. Sharleyan was far from a professional seaman herself, but her captain's envy of the Charisians' handiness had been evident even to her, despite his best efforts to conceal it.


            At the moment, however, she was far less concerned with the relative merits of galleon designs than with the young man awaiting her arrival.


            I am not going to run to the rail like some sort of overeager schoolgirl. I'm a reigning queen, for God's sake! I have a queen's dignity to maintain . . . and absolutely no business having all these butterflies dancing around in my middle.


            She told herself that quite firmly.


            It didn't seem to help a great deal.


            Now stop that! You know why you made this decision, despite the opposition of people like Uncle Byrtrym. Compared to all those reasons, what does it matter what he looks like, for goodness sake?!


            She snorted mentally at the direction of her own thoughts and glanced at the young woman standing on the poop deck with her.


            Lady Mairah Lywkys was the only lady-in-waiting she'd brought along. Partly, that was because one of Sharleyan's first acts had been to reduce the number of ladies-in-waiting which would normally have been retained by a queen consort as a deliberate tactic to reduce her nobles' tendency to think of their teenaged queen as a fluttering girl in need of coddling . . . and subject to a "suitable marriage," manipulation, or removal. The same logic had applied when choosing the guest list for this voyage, and there'd never been any question as to which of her relatively short list of ladies she would choose. Mariah Lywkys wasn't simply her closest friend among the Chisholmian nobility; she was also Baron Green Mountain's niece.


            But Mairah wasn't really who was on her mind at the moment, and her mouth tightened ever so slightly as she thought about the man who should have been standing at her side.


            Mahrak Sahndyrs was the closest thing she'd had to a father since King Sailys' death. If anyone was going to be present for her wedding day, it should have been Mairah's uncle, she thought. But he couldn't be here. Nor was he the only person whose presence she was going to miss. She'd had no choice but to leave him behind, just as she'd been forced to leave Queen Mother Alahnah to function as her regent, while she sailed off to meet her bridegroom for the first time. They'd been the only two candidates whose ability and loyalty she'd been able to fully trust.


            And the fact that that was true also explained the reason she'd been forced to bring the Duke of Halbrook Hollow with her.


            She didn't really believe her uncle would have fomented rebellion against her in her absence, especially with his own sister sitting as her regent, but she couldn't quite convince herself she was positive of that. Much as she knew he loved her, she also knew that in this decision, she had pushed him too far. His faith — not simply in God, but in God's Church — would never let him approve of this marriage. Of the policy her acceptance of Cayleb's offer had made crystal clear for all the world to see. There had to be a dividing line somewhere between what the uncle's love for her could endure without active opposition and what Mother Church would demand of her faithful son despite that love, and Sharleyan had no intention of leaving him in a position which would compel him to face that decision now.


            She wished he'd been able to bring himself to join her on deck. But he'd pleaded "seasickness," despite the calm waters of Tellesberg Bay, and retired to his cabin, instead. Which was why the man who actually was standing beside her was the Earl of Gray Harbor, instead of any Chisholmian.


            She considered his profile from the corner of her eye. His pleasure at returning home was obvious, and she saw his eyes eagerly searching the colorful mob crowding the wharf. The wharf's timbers had been covered in rich, thick carpets — carpets, she realized, of Chisholmian blue, and wondered where Cayleb had found enough of them. Banners of both kingdoms popped and snapped in the breeze, and the honor guards were drawn up in perfect order. Yet Gray Harbor's expression made it obvious that he cared nothing for all of that pomp and circumstance. His eyes were looking for someone — one specific someone — and she saw them narrow as he found what he sought.


            "There, Your Majesty," he said quietly, although, given the tumultuous cheers echoing from the shore, it was unlikely anyone more than three feet away could have heard him even if he'd shouted. His right hand moved very slightly, the gesture almost more imagined than seen. "To the left of the royal standard," he added, and Sharleyan felt herself color ever so slightly as she followed his directions.


            "Was it truly that obvious, My Lord?"


            "Probably not, Your Majesty." The earl turned his head and smiled at her. "On the other hand, I have a daughter of my own."


            "I will not be a nervous maiden," she told him, putting her earlier thoughts into words, and saw Mairah's lips twitching in an almost-smile as Gray Harbor chuckled.


            "If Your Majesty will permit me to point this out, that's a little silly of you. You're still very young, you know. Older than Cayleb, true, but still young. All the world has had ample opportunity to learn that, young or not, both of you are formidable rulers. But just this once, Your Majesty, remember your throne has already robbed you of countless pleasures less nobly born young women and men are allowed to enjoy. Enjoy this one. All matters of state aside, however true all of the arguments I've used pursuing my responsibility to persuade you of the statecraft and wisdom of making this decision, I assure you that the young man waiting for you over there is a very good young man. He'll make you happy, if any man can, and I'll promise that you'll never have to doubt his honor or feel ashamed of any decision he may make."


            "God grant you're right, My Lord," she said quietly, sincerely.


            "I believe He will," he replied. "Of course, I'm prejudiced. I'd be a poor first councilor if I weren't, I suppose. But I've watched Cayleb grow up, Your Majesty. I had the privilege of knowing both his father and his mother, of seeing the sort of marriage they had . . . and taught him to desire."


            Sharleyan nodded, but her eyes were on the figure Gray Harbor had discreetly pointed out to her.


            They were still too far away for her to make out any details, but she could see he was taller than almost any of the men standing around him. Indeed, she observed with a certain satisfaction, only the black-and-gold clad guardsman standing alertly at his back seemed to be taller.


            She saw the chain Charisian custom used in place of her own presence crown glittering about his neck in gold and green fire and felt a distinct sense of relief that Cayleb had foregone court regalia. She'd expected that, but as they'd approached the harbor and she'd found herself looking for things to worry about, it had occurred to her that she might have been wrong. After all, whatever could go wrong usually did, and the last thing she needed would have been to appear underdressed beside her prospective groom. And the next worst thing would have been to appear over dressed.


            Will you stop this nattering! she scolded herself. Even if Gray Harbor's right, you're still a queen. You still have responsibilities, appearances to maintain.


            Besides, he can't possibly be as good-looking as that painting.


            Despite herself, a gurgle of laughter escaped her as she finally permitted herself to think the ridiculous thought. Of all the stupid, silly things she could be worrying about at a moment like this, that had to be the most empty-headed, fluttery, useless one of all.


            Which didn't make it go away.


            Gray Harbor glanced sideways at her when she laughed, and she shook her head with a smile. It would never do for her to explain her amusement to him. Even if he did have a daughter of his own.


            Oddly enough, the laughter seemed to have helped. Or perhaps it was simply that she'd finally allowed herself to admit that even a reigning queen could nurse at least a few romantic fantasies.


            But I bet he really isn't as cute as his painting.