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By Schism Rent Asunder: Section Sixteen

       Last updated: Friday, January 4, 2008 01:41 EST



Grand Council Chamber,
Queen Sharleyan's Palace,
City of Cherayth,
Kingdom of Chisholm

    There was a certain undeniable tension as Queen Sharleyan and Baron Green Mountain walked into the council chamber.

    There were several reasons for that. First, every member of the Queen's Council knew the first councilor of Charis had been an honored guest in the palace for over two and a half five-days, despite the minor technicality of the state of war which still existed between the two kingdoms. Second, although all manner of rumors had been flying through Cherayth ever since Gray Harbor's arrival, their monarch had not seen fit to share with anyone — except, possibly, Green Mountain — precisely what she and the Charisian first councilor had been discussing. Third, Bishop Executor Wu-shai Tiang's imperious demand in the name of the Knights of the Temple Lands that Gray Harbor be taken into custody and handed over to him had been courteously but firmly rebuffed. And, fourth . . . fourth their slender, dark-haired queen had chosen to wear not her simple presence coronet, but the Chisholmian Crown of State.

    Sharleyan was fully aware of that tension. She'd anticipated it, and, in some ways, she'd deliberately provoked it. Politics, she'd discovered many years ago under Green Mountain's careful tutelage, was at least half a question of proper stage management. And, the higher the stakes, the more critical that management became.

    Especially with Uncle Byrtrym sitting out there, she thought unhappily as she crossed regally to the elaborately carved chair at the head of the huge, oval table. She let her eyes stray to Byrtrym Waistyn, the Duke of Halbrook Hollow, her treasurer . . . and her mother's only brother.

    She settled into her chair and turned her head to give the middle-aged man in the green cassock and brown cockaded priest's cap of an upper-priest a sharp glance.

    Carlsyn Raiyz had been Sharleyan's confessor since only a very few months after she'd taken the throne. She hadn't exactly chosen him for herself, given her youthfulness, but he'd always met the responsibilities of his position admirably. And although he had to be aware of his youthful ruler's . . . misgivings about the Church's current leadership, he'd never made an issue of them. She hoped he wasn't going to now, but she wasn't as confident of that as she would have preferred to be. On the other hand, his expression was remarkably serene for a spiritual counselor whose charge hadn't even mentioned to him what brought the first councilor of a kingdom which had rebelled against that leadership to speak with her so earnestly. Or discussed her reasons for telling a bishop executor of holy Mother Church why he couldn't have that first councilor as a prisoner.

    "Father?" she said quietly.

    Raiyz gazed at her for perhaps two heartbeats, then smiled very slightly, rose, and looked around the table at the faces of Sharleyan's councilors.

    "Let us pray," he said, and inclined his own head. "O, God, Who sent Your Archangels to teach men the truth of Your will, we beseech You to lend Your grace to our beloved Queen, and to the men gathered in this place at this time to hear her will, to bear witness to it, and to advise her. In these troubled times, You and the Archangels remain the final refuge, the final help, of all men and women of good will, and no other help is required. Bless our Queen's deliberations, grant her wisdom to choose aright in the grievous decisions which lie before her, and give her the peace of knowing Your love and guidance. In Langhorne's name, amen."

    Well, that was certainly hopeful, Sharleyan thought as she joined the members of her Council in signing themselves with Langhorne's scepter. On the other hand, he didn't exactly come out doing handsprings of delight, either, did he?

    She waited while Raiyz sat back down, then swept the faces of the men seated around the table with eyes which warned them she was in no mood to tolerate intransigence this day. She felt the tension click up another few degrees as that message went home. She was not only the youngest person in that council chamber, but also the only female person present, and she found herself suppressing a huntress' smile as she contemplated that fact and their reaction to her unyielding gaze. Some of her "advisers," she knew, had never really fully resigned themselves to having a queen, rather than a king.

    Unfortunately, she thought at them with an undeniable edge of satisfaction, Father and Mother had me, instead, didn't they? And between us, Mahrak and I — and Uncle Byrtrym — made it stand up. It's been a bumpy ride, hasn't it, My Lords? Of course, you're about to find out just how truly "bumpy" things can get.

    "My Lords," she said after a moment, into the taut silence, her voice clear and strong, "We have summoned you here today to inform you of certain matters which we have been contemplating for some days past now. As always, we will welcome your wisdom and your advice concerning the decision to which we have come."

    If the chamber had been tense before she spoke, that was nothing compared to the jolt which ran through her listeners as she used the royal we. They heard that particular usage from her very rarely, at least when they sat in council with her. Coupled with her decision to wear the Crown of State, and the phrasing of her final sentence, it told every one of them that Sharleyan had, indeed, already come to her decision about whatever it was she intended to "discuss" with them.

    It wouldn't be the first time it had happened. Sharleyan Tayt had all of her dead father's incisiveness and possibly even more strength of will. When she'd found herself on the back of the slash lizard following his death, she'd recognized that she simply could not afford to allow her councilors to regard her as a child, even though that had been precisely what she was when the crown landed on her head. There had been relatively few reigning queens in the history of Safehold. Indeed, Sharleyan was only the second in the entire history of Chisholm, and Queen Ysbell had been deposed after barely four years on the throne. That had not been an encouraging precedent after King Sailys' death, and more than one of his councilors had been prepared to "manage" his daughter for him. Some of them, Sharleyan knew, had cherished the hope she might follow in Ysbell's footsteps. Even of those who hadn't been willing to go quite that far, some had entertained notions of seeing her properly married off to someone — like themselves, perhaps, or one of their sons — who could provide the necessary masculine guidance she would undoubtedly need.

    Well, My Lords, she thought with a certain grim amusement, watching them as they tried with varying degrees of success, to hide their consternation at what she'd just said, I had all the "masculine guidance" I needed from Mahrak, didn't I?



    It had been Green Mountain who'd warned the grieving child who'd just lost a father and inherited a crown that she must choose between merely reigning and ruling. Even then, and despite her own crushing sense of loss, she'd been old enough to understand what the first councilor was telling her, and she'd had absolutely no intention of permitting Chisholm's governance to fall into the hands of any of the various great lords already licking their chops as they prepared to grapple for control of the kingdom. And the only way to prevent that potentially disastrous factional stife had been to make it abundantly clear that there was already a "faction" firmly — even ruthlessly — in control.


    Some of them had found that lesson harder to learn than others, and the most uneducable had been eased off the Queen's Council. One of them, the Duke of Three Hills, had proved sufficiently persistent in his refusal to accept that "a mere girl" had the ability to rule in her own right that she'd been forced to remove him from the Council with a minimum of gentleness and a maximum of firmness. When he'd attempted to reverse her decision by extra-legal methods, her army and navy had argued the point with him. In the end, his had been only the third death warrant Sharleyan had personally signed, and his powerbase had disintegrated with his death.

    Signing that warrant had been the hardest thing she'd ever done — then — but she'd done it. And, in a perverse sort of way, she knew she would always be grateful to Three Hills. He'd shown the one person to whom it really mattered — Sharleyan herself — that she had the steel in her spine to do what needed to be done. And what had happened to him had been sufficient to inspire the remaining holdouts to . . . reevaluate their positions in the recognition that Queen Sharleyan was not Queen Ysbell.

    Still, she wasn't surprised by the evident dismay she saw from some of them today. Obviously, the men behind those particular faces suspected that they weren't going to care for the decision she'd reached today.

    And they're right, she thought. In fact, they're far righter than they could even guess at this point.

    "As all of you are aware," she continued after several moments, "King Cayleb of Charis has sent us his own first councilor as his personal emissary. I am aware that some members of this Council felt it would be . . . imprudent, shall we say, to receive Earl Gray Harbor. Or, for that matter, any representative of Charis. I'm also aware of the reasons they had for feeling that way. But, My Lords, even the soundest of ships and even the most skilled of captains cannot survive a storm simply by ignoring it. I'm sure we would all prefer calm to storm, but we live in the times in which we live, and we can but pray for God's guidance to make the best choices we may in the face of the challenges the world sends us.

    "At this time, again as all of you are aware, we remain technically at war with Charis. Unfortunately, that war has not prospered. And I suspect it will surprise none of you to discover that the decision to join that war in the first place, was never truly our own."

    Several councilors, including her uncle, stirred uneasily in their chairs, and two or three pairs of eyes swiveled sideways to Father Carlsyn. The priest, for his part, only sat with his hands folded on the table in front of him, head cocked slightly to one side, while he listened to the queen and watched her with bright, alert eyes.

    "In fact, of course," she continued, "Chisholm 'agreed' to join the League of Corisande and the Princedom of Emerald only at the . . .  strong urging of the Chancellor of the Knights of the Temple Lands. The Knights desired us to assist Prince Hektor against Haarahld of Charis for reasons which no doubt seemed good to them, but which — let us be honest here among ourselves, My Lords — were never truly critical, or even relevant, to Chisholm's own interests. We had no just cause for enmity with Charis on our own part, and we had many reasons for regarding our 'ally' Hektor with suspicion and caution.

    "Nonetheless, we acceded to Chancellor Trynair's urging when Archbishop Zherohm delivered his message to us on behalf of the Knights of the Temple Lands." Her uncle, she observed, winced visibly at her repeated use of "Knights of the Temple Lands." She wished that could have come to her as a surprise. "There were several reasons for that, but — being honest, once again — the primary reason was fear. Fear of what the Knights might do to Chisholm if we declined to do as they 'requested' in this instance."

    She paused, with a wintry smile which should have turned every square inch of exposed skin in that council chamber blue. Her uncle's face had tightened at the word "fear," and one or two other faces had turned into blank walls.

    Well, that's scarcely a surprise, she told herself tartly.

    She was aware of a bright, singing tension deep inside her. It was a sensation she'd felt before — the taut recognition that she danced upon the edge of a sword. Every monarch must know that feeling, sometimes, at least, she thought. There had been times — like the signing of Duke Three Hills' death warrant — when she'd faced it, rendered her decision, and then retired to her private chambers to throw up. Those times had been more common in the first year or two after she took the crown, however. Now, it was something to be embraced. The proof she was doing her job, meeting the challenges the world sent to her. And, she admitted to herself, there was something almost addictive to it and to the hard-won knowledge that she was good at the task to which birth had called her. To the awareness that the issues she grappled with, the decisions she made, were important. That she had to get them right if she was going to meet her father's spirit with the ability to look into his eyes without shame. It wasn't the power itself which gave her that sense of being alive, so much as it was the determination to do her very best, the satisfaction she took from knowing that she had. It had to be the same sort of emotion a star athlete felt when he pushed himself ruthlessly in training to reach a higher plateau of performance. The satisfaction he felt within himself, not the one which came from the cheering adulation of his fans. Or perhaps, as she often thought, it must be akin to what a champion swordsman felt in that first, breathless moment when he stepped into the lists at a competition.

    Or, she admitted to herself, what a duelist feels like when his opponent draws his sword.

    "My Lords," she allowed her voice to turn chiding, "does anyone around this table pretend to truly believe that Haarahld of Charis intended to invade Corisande? That he had some sort of malign intent to seize control of all the world's commerce?"

    "With your permission, Your Majesty," Duke Halbrook Hollow said, keeping his voice almost painfully neutral, "that seems to be exactly what's happening now."

    "Yes, Your Grace," she acknowledged. "It does indeed seem to be what's happening now. But the critical word is 'now,' is it not? Charis has just beaten off the attack of no less than five navies, including our own, and King Cayleb is obviously aware of the pretext upon which the attack, and the resultant death of his father –" she let her eyes bore into her uncle's "– was orchestrated by . . . the Knights of the Temple Lands. What Charis never sought to seize in time of peace may very well have become something she has no option but to seek in time of war if she hopes to survive the attack upon her."

    Please, Uncle Byrtrym, she thought pleadingly behind the confident façade of her calm eyes and firm mouth. I know what you're thinking. Please, support me in this.

    The duke opened his mouth, then closed it once more.

    "The plain truth of the matter, My Lords," she continued as her uncle backed away from the challenge, for the moment at least, "is that I was constrained against my will to attack a peaceful neighbor. And another plain truth is that the attack which was intended to overwhelm and destroy Charis failed miserably. Those truths, among others, are what King Cayleb sent Earl Gray Harbor to Chisholm to discuss."



    The distant sound of a hunting wyvern's piercing whistle, coming through the council chamber's window, was plainly audible in the intense silence which hovered above the table. All eyes were riveted to Sharleyan, and one or two faces were undeniably pale.

    "My Lords, the... Knights of the Temple Lands decreed Charis' destruction. They failed. I believe they will continue to fail. And I believe that if they don't fail, if they can decree the destruction of one realm for arbitrary reasons of their own, they can — and will — decree the destruction of others. I used the example of a ship at sea, and I chose it deliberately, for many reasons. We've navigated through many a storm together, since that day I first came to the throne, but the hurricane which is about to sweep across the face of Safehold is unlike any other storm we have ever seen. There will be no safe harbor against it, My Lords. It must be met and survived at sea, in the very teeth of its thunder and lightning and wind. Never doubt that. Never forget it. And, My Lords," her eyes were hard as polished brown agates, "never forget who set that storm in motion."

    Duke Halbrook Hollow's shoulders tightened, and his jaw clenched. He'd been dismayed enough when she refused to hand Gray Harbor to Tiang, but he'd swallowed it. And so had Tiang, although the Harchong-born bishop executor's fury had been obvious. Unfortunately for him, he'd demanded she surrender Gray Harbor to him, as Mother Church's representative in Chisholm, without reflecting upon the fact that — as Sharleyan herself had just stressed — it was "the Knights of the Temple Lands," and not the Church of God Awaiting, which had declared war upon Charis. Without specific directions from Zion and the Temple, Tiang had been unwilling to abandon the legal fiction that there was a difference between them.

    Which doesn't mean anyone in the entire world believes there is, she told herself grimly, watching her uncle's expression and body language.

    "I'm quite certain all of you have guessed that King Cayleb sent Earl Gray Harbor to us with the proposal of an alliance," she continued, speaking clearly and unhurriedly. "He's already returned our warships — such of them as survived the battle to which we were ordered to commit them, at any rate — and he's pointed out, with reason, that Chisholm and Charis have far more in common, when it comes to threats and enemies, than could ever divide us."

    "Your Majesty, I beg you to think most carefully about these matters," Halbrook Hollow said, meeting his niece's eyes. "You've been very careful to refer only to 'the Knights of the Temple Lands,' and no one in this chamber can doubt the reason you have. Yet it isn't the Knights to whom Charis has bidden defiance. It's Mother Church herself. Whatever his reasons, and however warranted he may believe himself to be, Cayleb hasn't restricted himself to denouncing the attack launched upon him. No, Your Majesty. He's seen fit to defy Mother Church's authority to name her own archbishops. He's accused Mother Church herself of corruption and tyranny, and of betraying the will of God. He's informed the Grand Vicar himself that Charis will never again submit to the authority of Mother Church. Whatever justification he may feel he has — whatever justification we may feel he has — he's surely gone too far when he threatens the sanctity and supremacy of God's own Church."

    He started to say something more, then cut himself off with a hard, tight shake of his head. It was a sharp, abrupt gesture, and silence gripped the council chamber once again in its wake. But now that silence was brittle, broken into fragments and heaped in the corners of every councilor's mind.

    "Your Grace — Uncle," Sharleyan said softly, "I know how you feel on this issue. Believe me, I know. And I would not, for all the gold and power in the world, cause you the pain I know this is causing. Yet I have no choice. Chancellor Trynair and Vicar Zhaspahr have left me none. Either I must assist in the murder of an innocent victim, knowing Charis will be but the first of many victims, or else I must defy . . . the Knights of the Temple Lands."

    "You're talking about God's Church, Sharleyan," Halbrook Hollow half-whispered. "You can call it the Knights of the Temple Lands, if you wish, but the truth won't change."

    "And neither will the fact that they started this war, Uncle Byrtrym. Neither will the fact that they sent no warning, no demands, no tribunals to investigate. They never even bothered to truly examine the facts at all. They simply ordered five realms to destroy a sixth, as if it were of no greater concern than deciding which pair of shoes to wear. Because it wasn't even worth their time to make certain that all of the thousands upon thousands of God's children they proposed to kill really needed to die. Because it was their decision, not His. Never His. That is the truth, as well, and you know it as well as I do."

    "But even if that's all true," he replied, "think about where this must end. If you ally with Charis and Charis loses, then Chisholm will be destroyed as well. Yet terrible as that is, if you ally with Charis and Charis wins, you — you, Sharleyan — will be as responsible before God as Cayleb himself for destroying the authority of the Church Langhorne himself commanded us to obey in God's name for the preservation of our very souls."

    "Yes, Uncle, I will be," she acknowledged quietly. "But the Church Langhorne commanded us to obey lies in the grip of men, and those men have betrayed their own responsibilities to God. If I support them, I acquiesce — I become their accomplice – in the murder of innocents and the perversion of God's will in the name of God's Church. I can't do that. I won't. Before God Himself, I won't."

    Halbrook Hollow's face was drawn and white, and Sharleyan shook her own head sadly, but firmly.

    "I said King Cayleb has proposed an alliance between our kingdoms," she said then, looking around the council chamber once more. "That statement was true enough, but it falls short of the full truth. Because, My Lords, the full truth is that Cayleb has proposed not mere alliance, but marriage."

    An invisible lightning bolt struck that council chamber. Men jerked back from the table, faces startled, shocked, even frightened. Other men sat suddenly straighter, eyes brighter. But whatever their response, it was obvious not one of them had suspected what she had just told them.

    Duke Halbrook Hollow stared at his niece in horror. She looked back at him, seeing the beloved uncle who, with Green Mountain, had been her strong shield and buckler. Who had helped to raise her. Who had watched with obvious pride as the child-princess became a queen in truth.

    "Understand me, My Lords," her voice was tempered steel, "there is no burden I will not bear in the service of Chisholm and of the people God has entrusted to my care. There is no danger I will not face. There is no choice I will refuse to make. I have thought, I have pondered, I have prayed, and only one answer presents itself. There is only one decision I can make without betraying my duty to God, my duty to Chisholm, and my duty to myself, and I have made it."

    Halbrook Hollow was shaking his head mutely, again and again, his eyes like holes burned into his face. Sharleyan made herself ignore that, and her voice continued, strong and unflinching.

    "Cayleb of Charis has offered honorable marriage, complete equality between Chisholm and Charis, and I have decided to accept that offer. I have decided. I do not intend to debate that decision. I do not intend to discuss it. And I will not change it. As Cayleb has said, and as God Himself has witnessed, here I stand."

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