The galleon nuzzled to a halt alongside the wharf under the ministrations of the oared tugboats. Hawsers came ashore, tightened about the waiting bollards as the crew took tension on them, and an ornate gangplank, its spotless white hand ropes gleaming in the sunlight, was maneuvered smoothly into position. The final saluting gun thudded, the gunsmoke drifted away through the sunlight, and there was a brief moment of near total silence, broken only by the sounds of sea birds, wyverns, and the voice of a young child loudly asking his mother what was happening. And then, as a slender, regal figure appeared at the top of the gangway at the entry port in the galleon's tall side, the trumpets massed behind Cayleb sounded their rich, golden fanfare of welcome.


            Sharleyan paused as the trumpets sounded, and Merlin wondered if she realized the fanfare they were playing was reserved for the royal house of Charis alone. He didn't know about that, but his enhanced vision brought her expression to within arm's reach. He saw her eyes widen slightly, saw her head rise with even more pride, saw the color in her cheeks. And then she was coming down the gangway.


            No one escorted her. Her own guardsmen hovered behind her, their faces expressionless despite an anxiety which could almost be physically touched. Thanks to the SNARC which had been keeping a protective watch over Sharleyan from the moment Gray Harbor arrived in Chisholm, Merlin knew she had specifically ordered her guard to remain aboard Doomwhale while she advanced by herself to meet her new husband and greet her new people.


            None of them had liked it, and, indeed, Captain Wyllys Gairaht, their commander, had argued against her decision until she'd told him — in a most uncharacteristic display of temper — to shut up. And she'd told Sergeant Edwyryd Seahamper, her personal armsman since childhood, the same thing, albeit a bit less forcefully.  If, she had pointed out acidly to both of her guardians, any of her proposed husband's subjects were so crazed with hate against a queen they had never even met to attempt a suicidal assassination in the face of all of the guardsmen Cayleb was going to have present, then no one would be able to protect her in the long run, whatever they did.


            Captain Gairaht and Sergeant Seahamper, clearly hadn't been concerned with "the long run." They'd been concerned with keeping her alive right now, and Merlin found himself in ungrudging sympathy with them. Despite that, Merlin knew, as the Charisians' cheers redoubled in strength and volume, that Sharleyan's instincts had not played her false. As that solitary, slender figure made its way down the gangway to greet her prospective husband's people for the first time, the symbolism of her gesture was not lost upon those people.


            She's got them in the palm of her hand, Merlin thought admiringly. And maybe the best thing about it is that she made the decision first, and got around to figuring out why only second.


            Nor was the gesture lost on Cayleb.


            "Stay here — everyone!" he half-shouted through the bedlam of cheers, whistles, and shouts.


            More than a few of the people among the designated official greeting party turned their heads as the king's command was relayed to them. One or two of those people's faces showed resentment, but most of them only blinked in astonishment as he summarily jettisoned the entire carefully choreographed ceremony which had been planned to welcome Queen Sharleyan.


            Get used to it, people, Merlin thought with sardonic delight as Cayleb stepped forward all by himself. These two are both bad enough by themselves where protocol is concerned. Wait until you see the two of them in action at the same time!


* * * * * * * * * *


            My God, he's better looking than the painting!


            The thought flared through the back of Sharleyan's brain as Cayleb advanced to the foot of the ceremonial gangway, smiling up at her, extending a powerful, muscular hand that glittered with gem-set rings. He stood tall and straight, broad-shouldered in his thigh-length linen tunic and loose cotton silk breeches. The tunic flashed back the morning sunlight from gold and silver bullion embroidery. Tiny gems flickered amidst the traditional, swirling, wave-like patterns, and his belt of intricately decorated, seashell-shaped plaques of hammered silver gleamed with near-mirror brightness.


            But it was his eyes, she truly saw. Those smiling, brown eyes that met hers not with the duty of a monarch marrying to serve his people's need, but with the genuine welcome of a young man greeting his awaited bride.


* * * * * * * * * *


            Merlin was out of his mind. She is so beautiful!


            Cayleb knew he was staring like some oafish, backwater idiot, but he couldn't help it. Despite everything Merlin had said to him, he'd dreaded this moment, in many ways. Part of it, he'd come to suspect, was that a corner of his mind couldn't dismiss the stubborn pessimism that anything this important, this crucial to his people's survival, had to be solely a thing of cold political calculation. And sacrifice.


            But the young woman reaching out her slender, fine-boned hand to him was not the stuff of calculation and sacrifice. Her black hair gleamed in the sunlight under her golden presence crown, and her huge eyes sparkled with intelligence. Her deceptively simple gown was woven of steel thistle silk, even lighter and smoother than cotton silk, and cut to an unfamiliar pattern. Charisian styles, for both men and women, favored loose-fitting, swirling garments well-suited to the equatorial climate. Sharleyan's gown was far more closely tailored, revealing a richly curved figure, despite her slenderness, and she tilted back her head as he took her fingers carefully, almost delicately, between his own and raised her hand to his lips.


            "Welcome to Charis, Your Majesty," he said as the cheers from the shore behind him redoubled yet again.


* * * * * * * * * *


            "Welcome to Charis, Your Majesty."


            Sharleyan could scarcely hear him through the tumult of voices surging all about them like some hurricane of human energy. Her own hand tightened on his, feeling the sword calluses on his fingers, the strength of his grip, and an odd sense of pleasure filled her as she realized her head didn't quite come as high as his shoulder. Earl Gray Harbor's wardrobe had prepared her for the exoticness of Charisian styles, and as she gazed at Cayleb, she realized that those loose, colorful garments were perfectly suited to his muscular figure.


            Which was undoubtedly a silly thing for her to be thinking about at this particular moment.


            "Thank you, Your Majesty," she said, raising her voice against the crowd sound. "Your people's welcome is . . . overwhelming."


            "They've awaited you eagerly ever since your letter arrived," Cayleb explained. Then his eyes softened. "As have I."


            It could have been a courtier's polite, flattering nothing. It wasn't, and Sharleyan smiled as she heard the genuine welcome, the pleasure, in his tone.


            "Your portrait didn't do you justice, Your Majesty," she replied with a devilish sparkle, and saw him color slightly. Then he laughed and shook his head.


            "If you can say that after actually seeing me, perhaps we'd better have the royal optician check your eyes!"


            His own eyes brimmed with humor, and she laughed back. Then it was her turn to shake her head.


            "Your Majesty — Cayleb — I'm sure we'll find time to know one another. For now, though, I believe your people are waiting for us."


            "No, Sharleyan," he said, stepping beside her and tucking her hand into his elbow as he turned to escort her the rest of the way down the gangway. "No, our people are waiting for us."