Royal Palace,


City of Tellesberg,


 Kingdom of Charis


            "Your Majesty?"


            Sharleyan's head turned automatically towards the tall guardsman with the rakishly scarred cheek — Captain Athrawes — as he stepped deferentially into the private dining room. Then she realized Cayleb's head had done exactly the same thing, and she giggled.


            She hated it when she giggled. Chuckles were acceptable. So was laughter. But giggles were invincibility girlish. They made her feel as if she were twelve years old again. Worse, they made her feel as if everyone else must think the same thing, yet she'd never quite been able to eradicate them, and she felt her cheeks heating with embarrassment.


            But then she glanced at Cayleb. She saw the same devilish amusement dancing in his eyes, and that was too much. Giggles disappeared into laughter, and she shook her head at him.


            "I think getting used to the fact that I'm a visitor in someone else's court is going to be harder than I thought it would," she said.


            "Nonsense," he replied. "You may be a newcomer to this court, My Lady, but you certainly aren't a 'visitor.' Not here. What we're going to need is some new protocol so that we know which 'Your Majesty' is being majestied at any given moment."


            "Perhaps so. But at this particular moment, I'm fairly certain Captain Athrawes means you."


            "Indeed I do, Your Majesty," Athrawes said gravely.


            The guardsman bowed respectfully, but there was a twinkle in his almost unearthly sapphire-blue eyes, and Sharleyan noted it with carefully concealed curiosity.


            She'd been here in Tellesberg Palace for barely twelve hours, and she'd spent three of them locked into the inescapable, iron etiquette of the formal mid-day banquet which three-quarters of Charis seemed to have attended. Despite that, however, she'd already realized that Athrawes' relationship with Cayleb went far beyond the normal one of monarch and servant. In many ways, it reminded her of her own relationship with Edwyrd Seahamper, but Edwryd had been her personal armsman since she was barely ten years old, whereas the entire world knew Seijin Merlin Athrawes had become Cayleb's armsman less than three years ago. Besides, there was something more even than her deep personal bond with Edwryd in this one. Sharleyan had learned to analyze relationships with the keen eye of someone for whom the ability to know where people really stood might well mean the difference between retaining a throne and becoming one more deposed — and, quite possibly, disposed of — inconvenient child heir. That was one reason it bothered her that she couldn't put her mental finger on exactly what the bond between Cayleb and the seijin was, and prudence suggested that was an inability she should rectify as soon as possible.


            "What is it, Merlin?" Cayleb asked now.


            "Archbishop Maikel has just arrived at the Palace, Your Majesty," the seijin replied. "He's accompanied by an unexpected guest, and he craves a few moments of your time."


            Sharleyan's mental ears pricked. There was something peculiar about the stress the seijin had laid upon the word "unexpected." And, she realized, there was also something peculiar about Cayleb's reaction to that emphasis. It was as if he'd been particularly surprised to hear it.


            "If you need to speak with the Archbishop, I'll certainly understand, Cayleb," she said, beginning to push her chair back from the private supper table. "I'm sure the time we've already spent together today has taken you away from a great many things you needed to do. So, it's probably time –"


            "No," he interrupted her, shaking his head quickly. "I meant what I said earlier. If the Archbishop believes he requires privacy to discuss some specific matter of the Church, that's one thing, but I didn't propose marriage simply to add one more person to the list of people I can't trust. If we're going to create the marriage — and the unified realm — I think we both want, then the time to begin is now."


            "Of course," she murmured. She settled back into her chair, hoping he recognized how pleased she was by his response. It was easy to say someone was trusted; she'd discovered the hard way, very early in life, that it was harder by far to actually trust . . . and to demonstrate that one did.


            And I know how . . . imperious I can be, she thought with a mental smile. Learning to genuinely share not just trust, but authority, is going to be hard, no matter how badly we both want this to succeed. Succeed on many levels.


            "Please ask the Archbishop to join us," Cayleb continued, turning back to the seijin.


            "Of course, Your Majesty."


            Captain Athrawes bowed once more, then withdrew. A moment later, the door opened again, and the seijin returned with Archbishop Maikel and a plainly dressed woman who was probably twenty or more years older than Sharleyan.


            "Archbishop Maikel, Your Majesties," Seijin Merlin said.


            "Your Majesty." Staynair bowed to Cayleb, then again to Sharleyan. "Your Majesty," he repeated, and Sharleyan's lips twitched at the echo of her recent conversation with Cayleb. But then the archbishop straightened, and the somberness in his eyes banished any temptation to levity on her part.


            "What is it, Maikel?" Cayleb's voice was sharper, more concerned, as he, too, recognized the archbishop's mood.


            "Your Majesty, Her Majesty's ship wasn't the only one to arrive in Tellesberg today, and I'm afraid our worst fears about the fate of Archbishop Erayk have been confirmed."


            Cayleb's face went expressionless at Staynair's sober words, and Sharleyan felt her own do the same. As Cayleb, she was only too well aware of the fate the Book of Schueler prescribed for anyone judged guilty of the crimes upon which the Inquisition had arraigned Erayk Dynnys.


            "Confirmed how?" Cayleb asked after only the briefest of pauses.


            "Confirmed by this lady," Staynair replied, gesturing courteously to the woman beside him. "She witnessed his execution, and I believe you should hear what she has to say about it."


            The pleasant supper Sharleyan had consumed seemed to congeal abruptly in her stomach. The last thing she wanted to hear over a supper table — especially this supper table, on this, of all nights — were the savage details of Dynnys' grisly death. From Cayleb's expression, he felt much the same way. But, like Sharleyan herself, there were responsibilities he could not evade, and she felt a perverse satisfaction when he didn't even ask if she wanted to excuse herself from hearing those details with him.


            "If Archbishop Maikel feels we should hear you, My Lady," the king said courteously to the other woman, "then I'm more than prepared to trust his judgment."


            "Thank you, Your Majesty," Staynair said, then cleared his throat. "Your Majesties, permit me to introduce Madame Adorai Dynnys."


            Cayleb straightened abruptly in his chair, and Sharleyan stiffened.


            "Madame Dynnys!" Cayleb stood, stepping quickly around the supper table and extending his hand. "How in God's name did you manage to get here safely?"


            "I suspect He did have more than a little to do with it, Your Majesty." Madame Dynnys' voice was deeper than Sharleyan's own soprano, and echoes of loss and grief grated in its depths like broken bits of ancient boulders, but she managed to smile.


            "Please," Cayleb said, taking her hand in his and urging her towards the table, "sit down."


            "That isn't necessary, Your –"


            "I think it is necessary," he interrupted her. "And I feel certain Queen Sharleyan would agree."


            "Most definitely," Sharleyan said, standing herself and pulling back a chair with her own hands.


            "Thank you," Madame Dynnys said softly, with a small, sad smile of gratitude for both of them, as she sat in the proffered chair.


            "I can scarcely even begin to imagine what this must have been like for you, Madame," Cayleb said, pouring a glass of wine and handing it to her. "Indeed, given the charges the Inquisition leveled against your husband, we'd all feared you and your children must have been taken into custody, as well." His mouth tightened. "Given Clyntahn's . . . personality, I felt sure he'd assume you must have been 'contaminated' by mere proximity. And as for your sons. . . ."


            He let his voice trail off, and she gave a small, almost convulsive nod.


            "I don't know what would have happened to me, Your Majesty, but I think you're right about the boys. I know he called them 'That eternally damned and damnable heretic's poisonous get,' at any rate." Her mouth was a hard, bitter line. "It's possible his 'colleagues' might have attempted to intervene, I suppose, however unlikely it seems. But we definitely would have been arrested, if certain . . . friends of mine in Zion hadn't gotten warning to me in time." She sipped from the wineglass. "They not only warned me, Your Majesty, but they gave all three of us refuge until they could smuggle us out of Port Harbor."


            "To here."


            "Where else might we have gone, Your Majesty?" There was an undeniable edge of angry despair in Madame Dynnys' voice, Sharleyan realized. And who should blame her?


            "A valid question, My Lady," Cayleb acknowledged, but he met her eyes levelly. "It was never our intent for innocents to suffer, but we can't — won't — pretend we didn't know it would happen. On the other hand, my father and I — and Archbishop Maikel — had no real choice, I fear, given the fate the Group of Four had planned for all of our subjects."


            "I know that, Your Majesty. And I understand both what drove your hand and what it is you hope to accomplish. Or, at least, I believe I do, especially after meeting and speaking with Archbishop Maikel." She used Staynair's title without hesitation or reservation, Sharleyan noticed. "Indeed, that understanding is one reason I came here, instead of attempting to go into permanent hiding in the Temple Lands. But, to be completely honest, another reason was that I believe your Kingdom owes my sons refuge from the many in Zion and the Temple who would kill them simply because of who their father was."


            "My Lady, we owe that refuge not simply to your sons, and not even simply to yourself, but to anyone who finds himself or herself in danger from the corrupt men who control the Council of Vicars. In time, I hope and believe, Charis will become an openly sought refuge for all of God's children who recognize the corruption of men like the Group of Four."


            "Thank you," she repeated.


            "You're most welcome, in every sense of the word," Cayleb told her simply. Then he seemed to steel himself. "But now, My Lady," he continued gently, "may we hear what you've come so far to tell us?"