Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 26

“Welcome to Tellesberg, Prince Daivyn,” Cayleb said after a moment, meeting the boy’s gaze. “Sharleyan and I are well aware that you and your sister have to be deeply anxious.” He smiled slightly. “That’s one reason we arranged to greet you here, rather than under more . . . formal circumstances.” He looked up briefly, his eyes meeting Irys’ and Coris’, then looked back down at Daivyn. “The situation’s very . . . complicated, Daivyn, and I know your life’s been turned upside down, that frightening things have happened to you — and to your sister. You’re very young to’ve all of this happening to you. But my cousin Rayjhis was very young for some of the things that happened to him, too. It’s one of the tragedies of the world that things like this can happen to people far too young to deserve any of it.

“My father and I were your father’s enemies,” Cayleb continued unflinchingly, and the boy found the courage to look back at him unwaveringly. “I don’t know what would have happened if he and I had met across the peace table the way we were supposed to. It might’ve turned out almost as badly as it actually did. But I tell you now, on my own honor, and on the honor of the House of Ahrmahk, and under the eyes of God, I did not order, or authorize, or buy your father’s and your older brother’s murders. I think you know by now who actually did.” He looked up again, meeting Irys’ and Coris’ eyes once more before he turned back to the boy. “I can’t prove what actually happened in the past, but Sharleyan and I can and intend to prove our fidelity in the future. And that’s why, now, before your sister and Earl Coris, your guardian and your protector, we formally acknowledge you as the rightful Prince of Corisande.”

Irys inhaled sharply, astonished despite herself that Cayleb would say such a thing before he’d even begun laying out the conditions under which Daivyn might be permitted to claim his father’s crown. For a moment, her mind insisted it had to be no more than a ploy, something to set the two of them at ease until the actual demands could be deployed. But then she looked away from Cayleb, her eyes met Sharleyan’s, and she knew. Knew Cayleb truly meant what he’d just said.

“I don’t know how this will all work out in the end, Daivyn,” Cayleb went on. “The world’s a messy place, and bad things can happen. You’ve already had too much proof of that, and I can’t guarantee what will happen in Corisande, or how soon you’ll be able to go home, or what will happen when you get there. But Sharleyan and I can promise you this: you’re safe here in Tellesberg or anywhere else in our realm. No one will harm you, no one will threaten you, and no one will try to force you to do anything you don’t choose to do. Except,” he added with a sudden grin, “for the sorts of things grown-ups are constantly insisting that kids do. I’m afraid you don’t get a free pass on brushing your teeth and washing behind your ears, Your Highness.”

Irys felt her lips twitch, and Daivyn actually laughed. Then Cayleb turned directly to Irys and Coris.

“I’m sure we’ll all have a great deal to discuss over the next few days and five-days. In the meantime, all of you are welcome guests in the Palace, but Sharleyan and I feel it would be better from a great many perspectives for you to be Archbishop Maikel’s houseguests rather than quartered here. In your place, we’d feel more secure there, and we have complete faith in Maikel’s ability to keep you safe. We will ask you to follow his armsmen’s instructions fully in light of the terrorist attacks and assassination attempts Clyntahn and his butchers have launched here in Tellesberg but you are most emphatically not prisoners. You’re free to come and go as you please, assuming you take adequate security with you. For obvious reasons, it won’t be possible for any of you to leave Old Charis without our having made careful arrangements, but we understand Lady Hanth has invited Daivyn and you to visit her at Breygart House. We have no objection at all to that, nor to any other travel here in the kingdom. Indeed, we’d be delighted for you to see more of our Empire and our people than you possibly could locked up in a palace somewhere.

“It’s our hope that you — that all of you — will recognize in time where your true enemies lie, and that those enemies are our enemies, as well. Neither of us will try to pretend we don’t have all the pragmatic, calculating reasons in the world to want you to come to that conclusion. You and the Earl have both been too close to a throne for too long not to realize that has to be the case, and I’m sure both of you already see how advantageous that would be for us. But that doesn’t change the truth, and it doesn’t mean we or anyone else have the right to dictate to your conscience. We’ll do all we may to convince you; we will not compel you. What you decide may determine what choices and decisions we have to make in regards to you and to Corisande. We can’t change that, and we won’t pretend we can. Yet we also believe it would be far more foolish of us, and far more dangerous, in the fullness of time, to attempt to force you to do our bidding. Not only would you inevitably become a weapon that would turn in our hand at the first opportunity, but you’d have every right to do just that, and the truth is that we have too many foes already to add such potentially formidable ones to them. We’d prefer to have you as friends; we definitely don’t want you as enemies. I believe King Zhames and certain members of the Inquisition have already learned what having you as foes can cost.”

He smiled very faintly, then stepped back beside Sharleyan and waved at the rattan chairs scattered comfortably about the terrace.

“And now, having said all of that depressing, formal stuff, would the lot of you please join us? We thought we’d have lunch out here on the terrace — assuming we can keep Zhanayt’s damned parrot from swooping down and stealing everything! — and Zhan and Zhanayt will be joining us shortly. Before they descend upon us, however, we have quite a lot we’d like to discuss with you. For example, we’ve had Merlin’s report on your escape from Talkyra, but the seijin has a tendency to . . . underplay his own role in that sort of daring do. We’d like to have your version of it, and we’d like the opportunity to answer as many of your questions as we can in a suitably informal atmosphere, as well. I’m afraid we are going to have to have a formal reception, and eventually we’re going to have to have ministers and members of Parliament in to talk to both of you — and to you, My Lord,” he added, glancing at Coris again. “But there’s no need to dive into that immediately. We thought we’d give you at least a five-day or so to get settled with the Archbishop before anyone starts dragging you around like some sort of trophies. Would that be satisfactory to you?”

Recognized as rightful ruling Prince of Corisande or not, Daivyn looked up quickly at Irys, who smiled just a bit crookedly.

“I think that’s not just satisfactory but quite a bit more graceful than we’d — than I’d — expected, Your Majesty. Or Your Majesties, I suppose I should say.”

“It does get complicated sometimes,” Sharleyan told her, speaking for the first time, and smiled back at her. “Actually, here in Old Charis, Cayleb is ‘Your Majesty’ and I’m ‘Your Grace.’ In Chisholm, we flip.” The empress shrugged with an infectious chuckle. “It helps us keep track of who’s talking to whom, at least!”

“I see . . . Your Grace.” Irys dropped her another curtsy. “I’ll try to keep the distinction in mind.”

“I’m sure you will,” Sharleyan said. Then her smile faded and she cocked her head. “And before we get to all of that informal conversation, let me say formally that everything Cayleb just said he truly did say in both our names. I know — I know, Irys — what you felt when your father was murdered. And I know all the hatred which lay between me and him had to play a part in your thinking. But that hatred was between me and him, not between me and you or me and Daivyn. You aren’t him, and imperfect as I am in many ways, I do try to remember the Writ‘s injunctions. I have no intention of holding a father’s actions against his children, and you truly are as safe here in Tellesberg as you could ever be in Manchyr. I’ve lost my father; Cayleb’s lost his; you and Daivyn have lost yours, and a brother as well. I think it would be well for all of us to learn from those losses, to try and find a way to create a world in which children don’t have to worry about losing the ones they love so early. I can’t speak for God, but I think it would make Him smile if we managed to accomplish a little good out of so much pain and loss.”

Irys looked into those huge brown eyes and something — some last, cold residue of fear and distrust — melted as she saw nothing but truth looking back at her. That recognition didn’t magically fill her with confidence for the future, nor did she think all the goodwill in the world, however sincere, could guarantee what the future might bring. Any ruler’s daughter learned those realities early, for the world was a hard instructor, and her lessons had been harsher than most. Only time could tell what political demands she and Daivyn would face, what decisions might yet force them into fresh conflict with the House of Ahrmahk, and she knew it. But unlike Zhaspahr Clyntahn, Cayleb and Sharleyan Ahrmahk were neither monsters nor liars. Enemies they might yet be, or become once more, but honorable ones. They meant what they’d just said, and they would stand by it in the teeth of hell itself.

“I’d like that, Your Grace,” she heard herself say, and her own lips trembled just a bit. “We’ve made Him weep more than enough,” she went on, and saw recognition of her deliberate choice of words flicker in Sharleyan’s eyes. “Surely it’s time we made Him smile a bit, instead.”