"Princess Sharina, we're so pleased by your presence!" said the plump man wearing an ermine-trimmed red cloak, three gold chains, and a gold or gilt crown cast in the form of a laurel wreath. Lantern-light gleamed from his regalia and the sweat beading his forehead and ruddy cheeks. "No greater honor has ever been done the proud community of West Sesile."


            "His title's Chief Burgess," said Mistress Masmon, one of the Chancellor's aides, into Sharina's ear. She was trying to speak loudly enough for Sharina to hear but still keep the words private from the chief burgess and the clutch of lesser officials standing just behind him. Bands were playing in three of the four corners of the town square and the whole community had turned out to celebrate. "His names Clane or Kane; I'm sorry, I can't read my clerk's notes. I'll have his nose cropped for this!"


            If Sharina'd thought the threat was serious, she'd have protested. From the Chancellor's aide it was merely a form of words indicating that she was frustrated and over-tired. Everybody in the government was frustrated and over-tired, of course.


            Sharina grinned. They'd been frustrated and over-tired dealing with one crisis after another for the past two years. The Change had made the problem only marginally worse when it tore everything apart.


            Tenoctris said there'd be no further shifts for at least a thousand years. The future looked bright if the kingdom and mankind could survive the immediate present.




            "Thank you, Master K'ane," Sharina said, letting her amusement broaden into a gracious smile. She hoped her slurring would cover the uncertainty over the fellow's name. "Prince Garric regrets he was unable to attend the Founder's Day festival because of his duties with the army, but he begged me to convey his appreciation for West Sesile's demonstrated loyalty to the kingdom."


            The burgesses began to chatter volubly. Because of the music and the fact they were all speaking at the same time, Sharina couldn't understand any of them clearly–at best the accents of this region were difficult–but from the words she caught she remained confident she wasn't missing much.


            West Sesile had been a prosperous market town during the Old Kingdom, but during the thousand years following the death of King Carus the sea'd risen and covered the site. Because Valles had grown when the Dukes of Ornifal became the Kings of the Isles, the displaced population had moved to the capital instead of rebuilding West Sesile on higher ground. The town hadn't existed in Sharina's day.


            Since the Change, West Sesile had reappeared as a suburb of the greatly expanded Valles, now landlocked and well back from the coast of the continent which'd displaced the Inner Sea. In the past ships had held the scattered islands together. There'd have to be a different system in the future and probably a different capital, but for now the government remained in Valles.


            The lives of the citizens of West Sesile had been even more completely overturned than had those of New Kingdom residents, but they'd responded in a remarkably intelligent way. When the first officials of Garric's government had arrived to assess taxes, West Sesile had paid immediately and had added a pledge of hearty loyalty. Clane/Kane and his fellows didn't have the faintest notion of what'd happened, but they knew their only chance to survive was by obeying folks who did.


            Sharina–Princess Sharina of Haft–hoped their confidence wasn't misplaced. At least the community was getting a royal visit for its support.


            The Chief Burgess turned to face the crowd. The lugubrious man beside him raised a staff of office. Its finial was a silvered crest of two fish joined at the mouth; Sharina'd initially seen it as a bird with its wings spread.


            "Citizens!" Clane/Kane shouted. The man with the staff waved it, and the rest of the burgesses–and their wives, all wearing black and white but in a variety of styles–began screaming. The bands stopped playing; the dancers paused expectantly in their rounds.


            "Citizens!" Clane/Kane repeated "We are blessed by the presence of Princess Sharina, the very sister of our lord and master King Garric. All hail Princess Sharina!"


            The cheers that followed were enthusiastic enough for anybody. Even Masmon, worn by the task of extending the government's reach into a land that hadn't existed two months earlier, smiled.


            Sharina stepped forward and raised her hands. She was wearing court robes with sleeves of layered silk brocade; the gesture made her feel their weight.


            Sharina and Garric's father Reise had been landlord of a rural inn on Haft, an island which'd remained a backwater throughout the thousand years since the fall of the Old Kingdom. Sharina went barefoot in the summer and wore an outer tunic over the simple inner one only when cold weather demanded it; she found the court robes she had to wear now both unfamiliar and uncomfortable.


            But Reise had taught them to do their jobs. In the past that meant Sharina had washed linen, emptied night soil onto the manure pile, and waited tables when the inn was full of strangers during the Sheep Fair in the Fall–many of them drunk and almost all determined to chance their hand at least once in hope of luring the stunning blond inn-servant into their beds.


            Sharina smiled brightly. Court robes were a necessary part of her present duties. She didn't like wearing them, but it was better than navigating the bustling common room with her arms laden with trenchers so that she couldn't slap away the gropers.


            "Citizens!" she called, wondering if her accent was as hard for the locals to understand as she found theirs to be. "It's my pleasure to join you in celebrating the day your community was founded, because you in turn have joined the Kingdom in its new foundation."


            They'd have to come up with a name to replace "the Kingdom of the Isles." Of course even in the past most people hadn't been citizens of the Isles. Sharina'd lived in Barca's Hamlet or perhaps "the borough" around it. Haft was a geographical concept, not her home, and kingdoms were familiar only from the ancient epics which Reise'd taught his children to read.


            "In the name of King Garric and of your thousands of fellows who stand firm for peace and unity," Sharina said, "thank you! May you and the Kingdom prosper. Now, resume your revels!"


            The people crowding the square cheered again. Most of them were in what was apparently formal wear for the community, black and white combinations for the women and, for the men, an embroidered woolen apron over a pair of tunics, but a few were masked and in costume. Near Sharina stood a man with a sea wolf's scaly head and a tail of stiffened fabric, and toward the center of the throng was a giant bear animated by a man on stilts.


            Sharina grinned. The fur costume must've been even more uncomfortable than her robes.


            The bands took up their music again. Each played a different tune. According to Masmon, West Sesile had almost eight hundred citizens–that is, adult males. That was big enough to have neighborhood rivalries, so the three bands playing simultaneously weren't a surprise. Regrettable, perhaps, but not surprising.


            "If I may be so bold as to ask, your highness?" Kane–probably–said. He paused hopefully; he wasn't in fact bold enough to go on without prompting.


            Sharina nodded graciously. She and Masmon were here to encourage people who were willing to consider themselves part of the kingdom. That included the awe-struck and tongue-tied people like the burgesses of West Sesile.


            "Ah, your highness," Kane resumed, his eyes moving in awkward ovals so as never to meet Sharina's. "Is the kingdom united now? That is, in our day there was trouble, you know. Or so we heard."


            The sad-faced official banged his staff down in emphasis. "The Earl of Sandrakkan had revolted!" he said in a nasal voice. "That's what we heard."


            Sharina nodded. "Our day" to him was the end of the Old Kingdom, the collapse of civilization throughout the Isles. These folk had missed the worst of it when the Change mixed eras–though Ornifal hadn't been as badly wracked by the cataclysm as the western isles. The Dukes of Ornifal had become Kings of the Isles almost by default.


            "The Change has caused great disruption," she said, "but for the most part what you and I think of as the kingdom is as united now as it ever was. We've exchanged couriers with Sandrakkan and Blaise, whose rulers are fully committed to restoring order."


            "Which I frankly don't understand," said Masmon, kneading her forehead with both hands. "I'd have expected Sandrakkan at least to claim independence. The Lady knows the Earls have done that twice in two generations, and this'd seem a perfect opportunity."


            "The Change was too overwhelming for that," Sharina said crisply. The aide, a fifty-year-old spinster, was letting fatigue loosen her tongue. While Sharina couldn't exactly blame her, neither could she permit Masmon's despair to infect this community. "The Earl–and all the citizens of Sandrakkan and the other former islands–are clinging to the best hope they have in such uncertainty."


            She smiled. "We're that hope," she said. "We're the only hope mankind has."