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By Heresies Distressed: Chapter Six
Last updated: Friday, April 17, 2009 07:44 EDT
February, Year of God 893
Kingdom of Chisholm,
Empire of Charis
“Welcome to Cherayth, Your Majesty.”
The man who’d been waiting at the foot of the gangway bowed deeply as Cayleb Ahrmahk, Emperor of Charis, stepped off it onto the stone quay and set foot for the very first time upon the soil of the Kingdom of Chisholm. Cayleb had never met the tall, silver-haired Chisholmian with the deep, strong voice, but he’d been looking forward to making the older man’s acquaintance. Not, unfortunately, without a certain amount of trepidation. Fortunately, the Chisholmian’s greeting seemed sincere, although it was hard to be certain, since just hearing him was more than a bit difficult, under the circumstances. The harbor behind Cayleb was crowded with Charisian warships and Charisian transports packed to the gills with Charisian Marines. Even the enormous waters of Cherry Bay seemed congested and crowded well beyond their maximum capacity, and the defensive waterfront batteries were wreathed in smoke. But the fleet behind Cayleb was no invasion force come to pillage Cherayth, and the gunsmoke drifting away on the biting breeze of a northern winter (whose teeth made Cayleb’s southern blood devoutly grateful for his heavy cloak) was from the twenty-four-gun salute which had just roared its way into silence. And if the guns had fallen silent, the shouting voices of the bundled-up Chisholmians packed black and dense into every vantage point they could find had not.
There was enthusiasm in most of those shouts. Not all — Cayleb hadn’t expected that — but most. Yet however welcome that might be, they still made it hard to hear.
“Thank you, My Lord,” Cayleb replied, raising his own voice against the background tumult, then stepped forward and extended his right hand. Mahrak Sahndyrs, Baron Green Mountain and the first councilor of the Kingdom of Charis, seemed surprised at the gesture. He hesitated for a fraction of a second, then straightened from his bow and clasped forearms with the man who had become his Emperor.
The cheering redoubled, and Cayleb smiled, ever so faintly. He supposed there were rulers who would have felt it was imperative to stand upon their imperial dignity when meeting someone in Green Mountain’s position for the first time. The baron had been the mentor, protector, and, effectively, second father of Queen Sharleyan of Chisholm ever since Sharleyan had ascended to the throne as a mere child, and in many ways, he was every bit as popular with her subjects — her common-born subjects, at least — as she was. Many princes or kings who’d abruptly found themselves in Cayleb’s position would have felt legitimate concern about the ultimate loyalty of a man who’d been all of those things and enjoyed so much support and trust. The mere fact that Sharleyan had become Cayleb’s wife and the Empress of Charis, Cayleb’s coruler, might not have been enough to keep some other Green Mountain from seeking control of Chisholm for himself — especially since Sharleyan had remained behind in Charis, rather than returning with Cayleb — and too much familiarity with a man of such ambitions might all too easily prove fatal.
Yet Cayleb felt no concern about that at all. Mostly because Sharleyan didn’t, and Cayleb trusted her judgment (and her hardheaded realism) implicitly. Almost as importantly, however, Captain Merlin Athrawes shared Sharleyan’s judgment, and Captain Athrawes possessed certain . . . advantages which were not available to other men when it came to evaluating the actions and beliefs of others. If Merlin Athrawes told Cayleb a man was trustworthy, the emperor was quite prepared to take him at his word. A word which had been amply confirmed by Merlin’s reports on how firmly and ably Green Mountain and Queen Mother Alahnah had looked after Sharleyan’s affairs in Chisholm during her absence.
Of course, Green Mountain had no way to know anything of the sort, and just as Cayleb had never met Green Mountain, Green Mountain had never met him. Now Cayleb held the baron’s arm in his clasp for a few moments longer. He looked levelly across at him, letting Green Mountain look into his own eyes, and Sharleyan’s first councilor accepted that invitation as he had accepted the emperor’s proffered hand. He looked deep, and Cayleb met that searching gaze without flinching, his own eyes steady, until something inside Green Mountain’s expression — something no one could actually have seen, or described — seemed to ease somehow.
“Your Majesty, I –”
“A moment, My Lord,” Cayleb interrupted, his voice pitched just a bit lower, to form a sort of private alcove at the heart of the thunderous cheers still rising about them. Green Mountain’s eyebrows arched, and the emperor smiled at him. “There are many things I’d like to say to you at this moment,” Cayleb continued. “Unfortunately, I’m well aware that there are any number of official things we need to be discussing, instead, not to mention all of the public folderol we’re both going to have to put up with. I assure you, I have my public face ready to put on for all of that. But first, the Empress, my wife, charged me most sternly, as my very first duty in Chisholm, to give you and her Queen Mother all of her love.”
“I –” Green Mountain stopped and cleared his throat. “I thank you for that, Your Majesty,” he said after a moment, his own voice just a bit husky. His hand tightened on the emperor’s forearm for a second. Then his nostrils flared as he inhaled deeply.
“And now that you’ve delivered her message, Your Majesty, we really do have those formalities to deal with, I’m afraid.” His head twitched ever so slightly, indicating the gorgeously clad ranks of aristocrats — some of whose expressions seemed just a bit less welcoming than his own — standing behind him at a respectful distance on the jam-packed quay.
“Will you come and meet your Chisholmian subjects?”
Welcome heat poured from the vast fireplace to Queen Mother Alahnah Tayt’s left as she sat at the foot of the table, gazing up its length across the glittering silver and polished glass and china at the dark-haired young man sitting at the table’s head. For the past several months, that chair — the one at the table’s head — had been Alahnah’s, and it felt odd to see someone else sitting in it.
Especially this someone else, she thought. It wouldn’t bother me a bit to see Sharley sitting there again!
She watched Emperor Cayleb turn his head, laughing at something Baron Green Mountain had said, and she discovered that her eyes were examining his profile intensely. It was as if by staring at him she could somehow have a glimpse of her daughter once again. Then, without warning, Cayleb stopped laughing at Green Mountain’s comment and looked straight at her, and she found her eyes gazing directly into his.
They were dark in the lamplight, those eyes. Dark and deep and surprisingly warm. Almost . . . gentle.
Odd. “Gentle” was the one adjective it would never have occurred to her to apply to the victor of Rock Point, of Crag Hook and Darcos Sound. And yet it was the only one which really fitted. The young man sitting in her daughter’s chair met her gaze directly, not challengingly, but with understanding. With compassion.
A peculiar little tingle danced somewhere deep inside her at the thought. It was as if in that moment she had finally allowed herself to realize — or, at least, to admit — something she’d refused to face directly from the moment Cayleb’s proposal of matrimony arrived in Cherayth. Fear. Fear that the man who’d won those smashing victories, who’d threatened to sink every one of the Earl of Thirsk’s ships, without quarter or mercy, unless his surrender terms were accepted, must be as hard as his reputation. As cold as the sword at his side. Fear that her daughter had gone to wed a man as merciless, in his own way, as the kraken which was the emblem of his house. It wasn’t that she’d feared Cayleb might be evil, the monster of depravity depicted in the Group of Four’s propaganda. But a man need not be evil to be cold. To recognize all of the ways in which political calculation must trump mere human emotions when the prize was the life or death of entire kingdoms, and to act accordingly.
But she wasn’t seeing that man. Oh, she had no doubt that a man with that chin, those eyes which had seen too much blood and death already for a man of twice his years, could be just as hard and cold as any steel blade. Whatever else he might be, Cayleb Ahrmahk was no weakling, no captive to indecision or to vacillation. Yet who she was seeing in this moment was the young man — the husband — Sharleyan’s letters had described. Not the emperor. Not the invincible admiral, or merciless dictator of terms, or leader of schism against God’s Church, but her daughter’s husband.
Oh my God, a quiet voice said softly, almost prayerfully, in the back of her mind. Sharley wasn’t just trying to reassure me. She was telling me the truth. She truly loves him . . . and maybe even more importantly, he truly loves her.
Alahnah Tayt had watched her daughter sacrifice too much already on the altar of responsibility, give too much to the weight of the crown she had been forced to assume when other girls were still playing with dolls, surrender too many of the joys which should have been hers. Sharleyan had never complained, never wasted effort on self-pity or admitted she missed those things, yet Alahnah had missed them for her. In the lonely watches of the night, she had prayed for her daughter’s happiness, begged God to give her some small scrap of personal love and joy as partial compensation for all of the cold, demanding prestige, power, and wealth of her queenship. Surely God could not have condemned her to a bitter, cold marriage after all He had already demanded of her! Yet that was exactly what Alahnah had feared . . . and if Sharleyan had never admitted it, her mother had known it was what she feared, as well.
Now, for just an instant, the queen mother’s lips trembled, and then — to her astonished embarrassment — she burst into totally unanticipated tears. Green Mountain rose quickly, stepping urgently around to her, going to one knee beside her chair and taking her right hand in both of his, and she heard his soft, urgent questions. Heard him asking her why she wept. But she couldn’t answer him. She could only stare down the length of the table at the young man who had so unexpectedly, without saying a single word, told her that her daughter had found the one thing in the world her mother had most feared she would never know.
Cayleb Ahrmahk watched Queen Mother Alahnah weep, listened to Green Mountain speaking softly and urgently to her. He’d been as surprised as Sharleyan’s first councilor by the queen mother’s tears, but only for a moment. Only until he’d recognized the way her eyes clung to him, even through her tears, and recognized that the one thing in which she did not weep was sorrow.
He patted his mouth with his napkin, laid the snowy linen aside, and pushed back his own chair. At his express request, he, Alahnah, and Green Mountain were dining privately. Even the servants had withdrawn, waiting to be summoned by the ringing of Queen Mother Alahnah’s bell if they were needed. Even Merlin Athrawes stood outside the private dining chamber’s door, guarding the privacy of all its occupants, and now Cayleb went to one knee at the other side of Alahnah’s chair. He took her free hand in his own, raised it to his lips and kissed its back gently, then looked up at her — or, rather, across, for he was as tall kneeling as she was sitting.
“Your Grace,” he murmured, “I feared the same thing myself, in many ways.”
“‘Feared,’ Your Majesty?” Alahnah repeated, and he nodded, then reached up with his left hand. A gentle thumb brushed tears from her cheek, and he smiled softly, almost sadly.
“You feared your daughter had been caught in a trap,” he told her. “You were afraid of a loveless marriage of state, a thing of cold calculation and ambition. From what Sharleyan’s told me, I believe you recognized the reasons for that calculation, understood the necessity behind the ambition, but still, you feared them. As did I. I had reports of your daughter, descriptions. I knew her history. But I didn’t know her, and I was afraid — so afraid — that if she accepted my proposal, I would be condemning both of us to a necessary but loveless union. That like so many other princes and princesses, kings and queens, we would be forced to sacrifice our own hopes of happiness on the altar of duty to our crowns.
“Sharleyan changed that for me. She changed it by being someone I could love, and someone who could love me. By being as brave, as warm and loving, as she was intelligent. As compassionate as she was pragmatic. As gentle as she could be ruthless at need. I would have proposed this marriage no matter what her character might have been, and I would have wed her with all honor, even if there’d been no love at all between us, just as she would have wed me. But God was good to us. We had no need to make that choice, because we truly do love one another. I wish, more than I could ever possibly say, that she were here to tell you that herself. She can’t be. God, in His mercy, may have spared us from a cold, unfeeling marriage, yet our other duties, our other responsibilities, remain. And it would be impossible for Sharleyan, as I know I need not tell you, to leave those responsibilities unmet, those duties undone. You — and Baron Green Mountain — taught her that, just as my father taught me, and neither of us will be unworthy of our teachers.”
“I know,” Alahnah half-whispered. “I know, Your Majesty, truly. And I see now that Sharley’s letters told me nothing but the simple truth when I feared she was trying desperately to offer me false comfort. Forgive me, Your Majesty, but I half-suspected — feared, at least — that the true reason she hadn’t accompanied you home to Cherayth was that it was a loveless marriage and you feared I might realize that when I finally saw the two of you together.”
“Your Grace, I told you Sharleyan would never lie to you about something like that,” Green Mountain said softly, and she gave him a watery smiled.
“Dear Mahrak!” She pulled her hand out of his to touch him lightly on one cheek. “Of course you did. I know that. Just as I fully realize that you would lie Shan-wei out of Hell if that was what it took to protect Sharleyan or me.”
“Your Grace, I never –” he began, only to have her interrupt him with a soft gurgle of laughter.
“Of course you would have! And don’t make it worse by trying to convince me otherwise.”
He looked at her with an oddly hopeless expression, and she laughed again, then turned her attention back to Cayleb.
“Get up, Your Majesty! It’s not fitting that you should be on your knees to me.”
Her voice, Cayleb noticed, was much stronger than it had been, with a scolding note he had not previously heard from her. It was one he recognized, though. The last time he’d heard it — from someone besides Sharleyan herself, at least — it had been from his own mother, and he felt something warm within his heart.
“Yes, Your Grace. Immediately, Your Grace. To hear is to obey, Your Grace,” he said meekly, brown eyes twinkling with devilish delight, and she laughed again.
“That’s quite enough of that, too, Your Majesty,” she told him. You aren’t going to turn me up sweet with a few words and an easy smile! That may have worked with my young and impressionable daughter, Sir, but it won’t work with me!”
“Your Grace, I am shocked — shocked, I say — that you could possibly impute such base motives to me!”
“Of course you are,” she said dryly, then pointed firmly with her free hand at the chair he had abandoned. He held her left hand a moment longer, still smiling at her, then rose and walked obediently around to seat himself once more in the indicated chair.
“With all due respect, Your Majesty,” she continued, “I hope you’ll forgive me if I inform you that you are a charming, utterly unprincipled young rascal. No doubt you’ve found that smile of yours has always gotten you out of trouble before. I suspect you’ll find it rather less effective in my own case, however!”
“Well, there went all my hopes and plans to use my irresistible charm to . . . steer you into doing things my way.”
“Somehow,” Green Mountain said, his tone even drier than the Queen Mother’s, “I rather doubt that you’ve resorted to anything as uncertain as ‘irresistible charm’ in quite some time, Your Majesty.”
“Indeed not,” Alahnah agreed, her eyes narrowing as she considered the exotically dressed young man sitting at the far end of the table. “Mind you, it’s already obvious to me that you can be quite charming, when it suits you, Your Majesty. And to be frank, if I were twenty years or so younger, I would undoubtedly find that charm almost as ‘irresistible’ as Sharleyan obviously has. In my own case, however, you have something much more valuable and convincing.”
“I do?” Cayleb arched one eyebrow, his head cocked politely, and she snorted.
“Of course you do,” she said in a much more serious tone. “You have the truth. And you have the partnership you and Sharleyan have obviously forged. I already knew that much from her letters.”
“And does the rest of Chisholm share that belief with you, Your Grace?” Cayleb asked softly.
“Not all of it, Your Majesty,” Green Mountain answered for the queen mother. “Not all of it. But for most of your people, most of Queen Sharleyan’s subjects, there’s more than enough trust — in her and her judgment — to offset the fears of those who don’t agree. For now, at least.”
“That was the impression we’d both drawn from your letters to her, My Lord,” Cayleb said, carefully never mentioning the reports he’d had from one Merlin Athrawes, as well. “I hope this visit will help to convince at least some of those stubborn holdouts that their fears are groundless.”
“If you mean our own Temple Loyalists are going to find it a bit difficult to continue describing you as Shan-wei come back to Safehold, complete with horns, cloven hooves, and hairy tail, you’re probably right,” Green Mountain replied dryly. “On the other hand, I’m sure you don’t need me to point out that where power and politics are concerned, most men really don’t need Mother Church to inspire them with ‘distrust.’ Especially if they scent the possibility of siphoning some of that power into their own hands.”
“The fact that you left Sharley at home in Tellesberg, trusted her at your back, with all of the levers of power in your own kingdom, is going to go a long way towards reassuring those whose concerns were genuine, Your Majesty,” Alahnah said. “And, frankly, the fact that Mahrak and I accept your authority, not to mention taking both you and Sharley at your word when you claim to be true partners and coequals, is going to be just as reassuring. Unfortunately, mere reassurance isn’t going to inspire the ambitious to suddenly abandon their own designs. Nor,” her eyes darkened, “is it going to magically convince those Temple Loyalists Mahrak just mentioned to acquiesce in your ‘blasphemous’ defiance of Mother Church.”
“Perhaps not,” Cayleb agreed calmly, sitting back in his chair — the comfortably upholstered, ornately carved chair in which Sharleyan had sat so many nights — before the softly roaring fire. The priceless emeralds set into the golden chain about his neck danced with hearts of green fire as he fingered it, and he smiled. “Perhaps not. On the other hand, when all of the Charisian sailors and Marines I’ve brought with me come ashore and begin telling Sharleyan’s people how she already has every single one of my subjects eating out of her hand, I suspect those Temple Loyalists of yours may find it just a bit more difficult to foment distrust. And I’d imagine that all the marks they’re going to be spending in your taverns and taprooms — not to mention your brothels, if you’ll pardon me for bringing that up — will make them rather more welcome visitors. Which, of course,” he smile grew thnner, baring his teeth, and this time Queen Mother Alahnah felt a profound satisfaction as she saw in it all of the cold steel and ruthlessness she’d been so afraid of seeing such a short time before, “completely leaves aside the fact that if any of your Temple Loyalists — or ambitious nobles — should have been cherishing any notions about challenging Sharleyan’s decision to link Chisholm’s fate with that of Charis, it’s just remotely possible that finding forty or fifty thousand Charisian Marines in the vicinity will cause them to . . . rethink their options, shall we say?”
“Oh, I believe it’s entirely possible you’re correct about that, Your Majesty,” Green Mountain said with a satisfaction which matched Alahnah’s own. “And in the meantime,” he continued with a smile, “might I tempt you to sample just a little more of this truly excellent chicken?”
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