Archbishop's Palace,


City of Tellesberg,


Kingdom of Charis


            "Forgive me, Your Eminence."


            Maikel Staynair looked up from the latest stack of paperwork as Father Bryahn Ushyr opened his office door. Given the tumult and excitement of Queen Sharleyan's arrival this morning, the archbishop had managed to get very little done this day, and some of the documents on his desk simply had to be dealt with as expeditiously as possible. It hadn't been easy to carve the necessary couple of hours out of his schedule to deal with them, and Father Bryahn knew that as well as Staynair did. On the other hand, the under-priest hadn't been chosen lightly as the archbishop's personal secretary and aide. Staynair trusted his judgment implicitly, and, in normal circumstances, Ushyr was as unflappable as any archbishop might have asked. Yet there was something peculiar about his voice this afternoon. Something very peculiar.


            "Yes, Bryahn?"


            "I'm sorry to disturb you, Your Eminence. I know how busy you are. But . . . there's someone here I believe you should see."


            "'Someone'?" Staynair's eyebrows rose quizzically. "Would it happen that this someone has a name, Bryahn?"


            "Well, yes, Your Eminence. It's just that –" Ushyr paused most uncharacteristically, then shook his head. "I believe it might be better if I simply showed her in, if that's acceptable, Your Eminence."


            Staynair's curiosity was well and truly piqued. He couldn't imagine what could have flustered Ushyr this way. From what his secretary had just said, the visitor in question was obviously female, and Staynair couldn't think of a single woman in Charis — with the possible exception of Queen Sharleyan — who could have engendered that reaction in him. But he'd known the young priest long enough to accept his request, even if it wasn't exactly the normal protocol for visiting the primate of all Charis.


            "Very well, Bryahn. Give me a moment or two to tidy this up," he waved one hand at the report he'd been perusing, "and then show her in."


            "Yes, Your Eminence," Ushyr murmured, and the door closed quietly as he withdrew.


            Staynair gazed thoughtfully at that door for several heartbeats, then shrugged, inserted a slip of paper to mark his place, and began jogging the sheets of the report into order.


            Whatever might have caused his secretary's almost flustered reaction, it hadn't affected Ushyr's sense of timing, or his ability to estimate how long his archbishop needed. Staynair had exactly enough time to set the report aside, brush his desk into a semblance of neatness, and straighten himself alertly in his comfortable chair. Then the door opened, and Ushyr stepped back through it with a plainly dressed woman whose dark hair was lightly touched with silver, accompanied by two boys. The boys' features made it abundantly clear they were her sons, yet there was something else about them, as well. Something . . . familiar, although Staynair couldn't put his finger on exactly what it was. The older of them looked to be somewhere in his teens; the younger perhaps ten or eleven. That was the first thing that went through Staynair's mind, but another thought followed it almost instantly.


            They were terrified. Especially the boys, he thought. Their mother hid it better, but despite the strength of character in her face, there was fear in her eyes, as well. And something else. Something dark and passionate and ribbed with iron pride.


            "Your Eminence," Ushyr said quietly, "may I present Madame Adorai Dynnys."


            Staynair's eyes went wide, and he surged to his feet without even realizing he had. He was around the desk and across the office to her in three quick strides, and he held out his hand.


            "Madame Dynnys!" He heard the astonishment in his own voice, and it was as if he were listening to someone else. "This is most unexpected!"


            Her hand trembled slightly in his fingers, and he looked into those eyes, saw the exhaustion — and the desperation — behind the fear and the pride. How she could possibly have managed to travel all the way from the Temple Lands to Charis without being identified and taken by the Inquisition was more than he could begin to imagine.


            "Truly," he told her, squeezing her trembling hand gently as his own astonishment began to ebb at least a little, "God works His mysteries in ways beyond human understanding or prediction. You and your family have been in my prayers ever since Bishop Executor Zherald and Father Paityr received your husband's final letter, yet I never imagined that He would be gracious enough to allow you to reach Charis!"


            "Letter, Your Eminence?" she repeated. He heard the fatigue and tension in the depths of her voice, but her eyebrows rose and her eyes sharpened. "Erayk got letters out?"


            "Indeed, indeed he did," Staynair said. He extended his other hand, gripping both of hers, and shook his head. "At least one of them. I have no idea how he managed it, and I will not pretend Archbishop Erayk and I often failed to see eye-to-eye. Obviously, what's transpired here in Charis since his last visit is proof enough of that. But from the final letter he somehow arranged to have delivered to the Bishop Executor and Father Paityr, I can tell you that at the end of his life, your husband remembered the true touch of God." He shook his head again. "We've had no confirmation of his death here in Charis, but from the letter he sent — and from your own arrival here — I must assume the end he foresaw has indeed overtaken him."


            "Oh, yes," she half-whispered, chin trembling at last, tears sparkling in her eyes. "Oh, yes, Your Eminence. It has. And you're right. I believe he did feel God's finger, despite all that it cost him."


            "What do you mean?" Staynair asked gently, for there was something in her voice, in her manner, that said more than her words. She looked at him for a moment, then glanced at the two boys, who were watching her and the archbishop with wounded, anxious eyes.


            "Your Eminence," she said obliquely, "these are my sons, Tymythy Erayk and Styvyn." Tymythy, the older of the two, bobbed his head, his expression wary, as his mother introduced him, but Styvyn only stared at the archbishop. The younger boy's grief and tension cut Staynair like a knife, and he released one of Madame Dynnys' hands to reach out to the youngsters.


            "Tymythy," he said, and gripped the lad's hand in the clasp of an equal before he released it to lay that same hand lightly on the younger boy's head. "Styvyn. I know what's happened in your lives over the last few months has been frightening. I can't begin to imagine how your mother managed to get you to Charis. But know this, both of you. You're safe here, and so is she. No one will harm you, or threaten you, and I know I speak for King Cayleb when I tell you all three of you will be taken under his personal protection. And mine."


            Styvyn's lower lip quivered. Tymythy's expression was more guarded, more wary, but after a moment, he nodded again.


            "May you and I speak privately for a moment, Your Eminence?" Adorai requested. Her eyes darted once more briefly towards the boys, both of whom were still looking at Staynair, not her, and the archbishop nodded.


            "Of course." He stepped to the office door and opened it, looking out into Ushyr's office space. "Bryahn, would you please take Tymythy and Styvyn here down to the kitchen and see if Cook can't find them something to eat?" He looked back over his shoulder with a smile. "It's been quite a while since I was your age, boys, but I seem to recall that it was impossible to ever really keep me fed."


            The briefest of answering smiles flashed across Tymythy's face, then vanished. He looked anxiously at his mother for a moment, and she nodded.


            "Go with the Father," she said gently. "Don't worry about me. As the Archbishop says, we're safe now. I promise."


            "But –"


            "It's all right, Tym," she said more firmly. "I won't be long."


            "Yes, Ma'am," he said after one more moment of hesitation, and put his hand on his brother's shoulder. "Come on, Styv. I'll bet they've got hot chocolate, too."