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By Schism Rent Asunder: Section Thirty Six

       Last updated: Wednesday, May 7, 2008 19:30 EDT



Tellesberg Harbor,
Kingdom of Charis

    Merlin wondered if Cayleb realized he was slowly, rhythmically shifting his weight from foot to foot as he stood at dockside, surrounded by a storm of banners. Not to mention several score Royal Guardsmen, honor guards from both the Royal Charisian Navy and the Royal Charisian Marines, most of his Royal Council, the bejeweled ranks of what looked like at least half the House of Lords, a sizable delegation from the House of Commons, and every private citizen of his capital who could beg, borrow, buy, or steal a spot close enough to see the most momentous single arrival in Tellesberg in at least the past fifty years.

    As a proper bodyguard, Merlin stood impassively behind the youthful king, watching alertly for potential threats. It was, he reflected, as he listened to the harbor batteries' saluting guns pounding out their welcome in spurts of smoke, a good thing no one had yet gotten around to perfecting the sort of artillery with which Seamount was beginning to experiment. A single howitzer shell in the middle of this dockside gathering would have had catastrophic consequences for the future history of Safehold.

    Of course, he thought with a sense of profound satisfaction as the oared tugs maneuvered the stately galleon flying the royal blue banner with the silver doomwhale of Charis alongside the wharf, if the Group of Four only knew, what's actually about to land on this dock going to have even more catastrophic consequences than that for someone.

    He was hard put to avoid breaking into an enormous grin as he watched Cayleb. At this particular moment, the king's mind obviously wasn't on future political and military consequences, despite his commendable job of concentrating on those aspects of the proposed marriage when he'd presented it to Parliament. It was painfully clear that, for now, at least, those consequences had taken second place in the thoughts of a very youthful bridegroom about to meet his bride for the very first time.



    Sharleyan of Chisholm commanded herself to stand still and stately on the high poop deck of her galleon. The very high poop deck, as it happened. HMS Doomwhale was, in fact, one of only four galleons her navy had possessed prior to the ill-fated campaign which had ended in Darcos Sound, and unlike the Royal Charisian Navy galleons which had escorted her to Tellesberg, Doomwhale retained both her original cumbersome sail plan and the towering height of her massive, multi-deck castles, fore and aft. Those sleek, low-slung vessels had disposed of those features in their ruthless drive to reduce topweight and improve seaworthiness and weatherliness, and that drive had obviously succeeded. Sharleyan was far from a professional seaman herself, but her captain's envy of the Charisians' handiness had been evident even to her, despite his best efforts to conceal it.

    At the moment, however, she was far less concerned with the relative merits of galleon designs than with the young man awaiting her arrival.

    I am not going to run to the rail like some sort of overeager schoolgirl. I'm a reigning queen, for God's sake! I have a queen's dignity to maintain . . . and absolutely no business having all these butterflies dancing around in my middle.

    She told herself that quite firmly.

    It didn't seem to help a great deal.

    Now stop that! You know why you made this decision, despite the opposition of people like Uncle Byrtrym. Compared to all those reasons, what does it matter what he looks like, for goodness sake?!

    She snorted mentally at the direction of her own thoughts and glanced at the young woman standing on the poop deck with her.

    Lady Mairah Lywkys was the only lady-in-waiting she'd brought along. Partly, that was because one of Sharleyan's first acts had been to reduce the number of ladies-in-waiting which would normally have been retained by a queen consort as a deliberate tactic to reduce her nobles' tendency to think of their teenaged queen as a fluttering girl in need of coddling . . . and subject to a "suitable marriage," manipulation, or removal. The same logic had applied when choosing the guest list for this voyage, and there'd never been any question as to which of her relatively short list of ladies she would choose. Mariah Lywkys wasn't simply her closest friend among the Chisholmian nobility; she was also Baron Green Mountain's niece.

    But Mairah wasn't really who was on her mind at the moment, and her mouth tightened ever so slightly as she thought about the man who should have been standing at her side.

    Mahrak Sahndyrs was the closest thing she'd had to a father since King Sailys' death. If anyone was going to be present for her wedding day, it should have been Mairah's uncle, she thought. But he couldn't be here. Nor was he the only person whose presence she was going to miss. She'd had no choice but to leave him behind, just as she'd been forced to leave Queen Mother Alahnah to function as her regent, while she sailed off to meet her bridegroom for the first time. They'd been the only two candidates whose ability and loyalty she'd been able to fully trust.

    And the fact that that was true also explained the reason she'd been forced to bring the Duke of Halbrook Hollow with her.

    She didn't really believe her uncle would have fomented rebellion against her in her absence, especially with his own sister sitting as her regent, but she couldn't quite convince herself she was positive of that. Much as she knew he loved her, she also knew that in this decision, she had pushed him too far. His faith — not simply in God, but in God's Church — would never let him approve of this marriage. Of the policy her acceptance of Cayleb's offer had made crystal clear for all the world to see. There had to be a dividing line somewhere between what the uncle's love for her could endure without active opposition and what Mother Church would demand of her faithful son despite that love, and Sharleyan had no intention of leaving him in a position which would compel him to face that decision now.

    She wished he'd been able to bring himself to join her on deck. But he'd pleaded "seasickness," despite the calm waters of Tellesberg Bay, and retired to his cabin, instead. Which was why the man who actually was standing beside her was the Earl of Gray Harbor, instead of any Chisholmian.

    She considered his profile from the corner of her eye. His pleasure at returning home was obvious, and she saw his eyes eagerly searching the colorful mob crowding the wharf. The wharf's timbers had been covered in rich, thick carpets — carpets, she realized, of Chisholmian blue, and wondered where Cayleb had found enough of them. Banners of both kingdoms popped and snapped in the breeze, and the honor guards were drawn up in perfect order. Yet Gray Harbor's expression made it obvious that he cared nothing for all of that pomp and circumstance. His eyes were looking for someone — one specific someone — and she saw them narrow as he found what he sought.

    "There, Your Majesty," he said quietly, although, given the tumultuous cheers echoing from the shore, it was unlikely anyone more than three feet away could have heard him even if he'd shouted. His right hand moved very slightly, the gesture almost more imagined than seen. "To the left of the royal standard," he added, and Sharleyan felt herself color ever so slightly as she followed his directions.

    "Was it truly that obvious, My Lord?"

    "Probably not, Your Majesty." The earl turned his head and smiled at her. "On the other hand, I have a daughter of my own."

    "I will not be a nervous maiden," she told him, putting her earlier thoughts into words, and saw Mairah's lips twitching in an almost-smile as Gray Harbor chuckled.

    "If Your Majesty will permit me to point this out, that's a little silly of you. You're still very young, you know. Older than Cayleb, true, but still young. All the world has had ample opportunity to learn that, young or not, both of you are formidable rulers. But just this once, Your Majesty, remember your throne has already robbed you of countless pleasures less nobly born young women and men are allowed to enjoy. Enjoy this one. All matters of state aside, however true all of the arguments I've used pursuing my responsibility to persuade you of the statecraft and wisdom of making this decision, I assure you that the young man waiting for you over there is a very good young man. He'll make you happy, if any man can, and I'll promise that you'll never have to doubt his honor or feel ashamed of any decision he may make."

    "God grant you're right, My Lord," she said quietly, sincerely.

    "I believe He will," he replied. "Of course, I'm prejudiced. I'd be a poor first councilor if I weren't, I suppose. But I've watched Cayleb grow up, Your Majesty. I had the privilege of knowing both his father and his mother, of seeing the sort of marriage they had . . . and taught him to desire."

    Sharleyan nodded, but her eyes were on the figure Gray Harbor had discreetly pointed out to her.

    They were still too far away for her to make out any details, but she could see he was taller than almost any of the men standing around him. Indeed, she observed with a certain satisfaction, only the black-and-gold clad guardsman standing alertly at his back seemed to be taller.

    She saw the chain Charisian custom used in place of her own presence crown glittering about his neck in gold and green fire and felt a distinct sense of relief that Cayleb had foregone court regalia. She'd expected that, but as they'd approached the harbor and she'd found herself looking for things to worry about, it had occurred to her that she might have been wrong. After all, whatever could go wrong usually did, and the last thing she needed would have been to appear underdressed beside her prospective groom. And the next worst thing would have been to appear over dressed.

    Will you stop this nattering! she scolded herself. Even if Gray Harbor's right, you're still a queen. You still have responsibilities, appearances to maintain.

    Besides, he can't possibly be as good-looking as that painting.

    Despite herself, a gurgle of laughter escaped her as she finally permitted herself to think the ridiculous thought. Of all the stupid, silly things she could be worrying about at a moment like this, that had to be the most empty-headed, fluttery, useless one of all.

    Which didn't make it go away.

    Gray Harbor glanced sideways at her when she laughed, and she shook her head with a smile. It would never do for her to explain her amusement to him. Even if he did have a daughter of his own.

    Oddly enough, the laughter seemed to have helped. Or perhaps it was simply that she'd finally allowed herself to admit that even a reigning queen could nurse at least a few romantic fantasies.

    But I bet he really isn't as cute as his painting.



    The galleon nuzzled to a halt alongside the wharf under the ministrations of the oared tugboats. Hawsers came ashore, tightened about the waiting bollards as the crew took tension on them, and an ornate gangplank, its spotless white hand ropes gleaming in the sunlight, was maneuvered smoothly into position. The final saluting gun thudded, the gunsmoke drifted away through the sunlight, and there was a brief moment of near total silence, broken only by the sounds of sea birds, wyverns, and the voice of a young child loudly asking his mother what was happening. And then, as a slender, regal figure appeared at the top of the gangway at the entry port in the galleon's tall side, the trumpets massed behind Cayleb sounded their rich, golden fanfare of welcome.

    Sharleyan paused as the trumpets sounded, and Merlin wondered if she realized the fanfare they were playing was reserved for the royal house of Charis alone. He didn't know about that, but his enhanced vision brought her expression to within arm's reach. He saw her eyes widen slightly, saw her head rise with even more pride, saw the color in her cheeks. And then she was coming down the gangway.

    No one escorted her. Her own guardsmen hovered behind her, their faces expressionless despite an anxiety which could almost be physically touched. Thanks to the SNARC which had been keeping a protective watch over Sharleyan from the moment Gray Harbor arrived in Chisholm, Merlin knew she had specifically ordered her guard to remain aboard Doomwhale while she advanced by herself to meet her new husband and greet her new people.

    None of them had liked it, and, indeed, Captain Wyllys Gairaht, their commander, had argued against her decision until she'd told him — in a most uncharacteristic display of temper — to shut up. And she'd told Sergeant Edwyryd Seahamper, her personal armsman since childhood, the same thing, albeit a bit less forcefully.  If, she had pointed out acidly to both of her guardians, any of her proposed husband's subjects were so crazed with hate against a queen they had never even met to attempt a suicidal assassination in the face of all of the guardsmen Cayleb was going to have present, then no one would be able to protect her in the long run, whatever they did.

    Captain Gairaht and Sergeant Seahamper, clearly hadn't been concerned with "the long run." They'd been concerned with keeping her alive right now, and Merlin found himself in ungrudging sympathy with them. Despite that, Merlin knew, as the Charisians' cheers redoubled in strength and volume, that Sharleyan's instincts had not played her false. As that solitary, slender figure made its way down the gangway to greet her prospective husband's people for the first time, the symbolism of her gesture was not lost upon those people.

    She's got them in the palm of her hand, Merlin thought admiringly. And maybe the best thing about it is that she made the decision first, and got around to figuring out why only second.

    Nor was the gesture lost on Cayleb.

    "Stay here — everyone!" he half-shouted through the bedlam of cheers, whistles, and shouts.

    More than a few of the people among the designated official greeting party turned their heads as the king's command was relayed to them. One or two of those people's faces showed resentment, but most of them only blinked in astonishment as he summarily jettisoned the entire carefully choreographed ceremony which had been planned to welcome Queen Sharleyan.

    Get used to it, people, Merlin thought with sardonic delight as Cayleb stepped forward all by himself. These two are both bad enough by themselves where protocol is concerned. Wait until you see the two of them in action at the same time!



    My God, he's better looking than the painting!

    The thought flared through the back of Sharleyan's brain as Cayleb advanced to the foot of the ceremonial gangway, smiling up at her, extending a powerful, muscular hand that glittered with gem-set rings. He stood tall and straight, broad-shouldered in his thigh-length linen tunic and loose cotton silk breeches. The tunic flashed back the morning sunlight from gold and silver bullion embroidery. Tiny gems flickered amidst the traditional, swirling, wave-like patterns, and his belt of intricately decorated, seashell-shaped plaques of hammered silver gleamed with near-mirror brightness.

    But it was his eyes, she truly saw. Those smiling, brown eyes that met hers not with the duty of a monarch marrying to serve his people's need, but with the genuine welcome of a young man greeting his awaited bride.



    Merlin was out of his mind. She is so beautiful!

    Cayleb knew he was staring like some oafish, backwater idiot, but he couldn't help it. Despite everything Merlin had said to him, he'd dreaded this moment, in many ways. Part of it, he'd come to suspect, was that a corner of his mind couldn't dismiss the stubborn pessimism that anything this important, this crucial to his people's survival, had to be solely a thing of cold political calculation. And sacrifice.

    But the young woman reaching out her slender, fine-boned hand to him was not the stuff of calculation and sacrifice. Her black hair gleamed in the sunlight under her golden presence crown, and her huge eyes sparkled with intelligence. Her deceptively simple gown was woven of steel thistle silk, even lighter and smoother than cotton silk, and cut to an unfamiliar pattern. Charisian styles, for both men and women, favored loose-fitting, swirling garments well-suited to the equatorial climate. Sharleyan's gown was far more closely tailored, revealing a richly curved figure, despite her slenderness, and she tilted back her head as he took her fingers carefully, almost delicately, between his own and raised her hand to his lips.

    "Welcome to Charis, Your Majesty," he said as the cheers from the shore behind him redoubled yet again.



    "Welcome to Charis, Your Majesty."

    Sharleyan could scarcely hear him through the tumult of voices surging all about them like some hurricane of human energy. Her own hand tightened on his, feeling the sword calluses on his fingers, the strength of his grip, and an odd sense of pleasure filled her as she realized her head didn't quite come as high as his shoulder. Earl Gray Harbor's wardrobe had prepared her for the exoticness of Charisian styles, and as she gazed at Cayleb, she realized that those loose, colorful garments were perfectly suited to his muscular figure.

    Which was undoubtedly a silly thing for her to be thinking about at this particular moment.

    "Thank you, Your Majesty," she said, raising her voice against the crowd sound. "Your people's welcome is . . . overwhelming."

    "They've awaited you eagerly ever since your letter arrived," Cayleb explained. Then his eyes softened. "As have I."

    It could have been a courtier's polite, flattering nothing. It wasn't, and Sharleyan smiled as she heard the genuine welcome, the pleasure, in his tone.

    "Your portrait didn't do you justice, Your Majesty," she replied with a devilish sparkle, and saw him color slightly. Then he laughed and shook his head.

    "If you can say that after actually seeing me, perhaps we'd better have the royal optician check your eyes!"

    His own eyes brimmed with humor, and she laughed back. Then it was her turn to shake her head.

    "Your Majesty — Cayleb — I'm sure we'll find time to know one another. For now, though, I believe your people are waiting for us."

    "No, Sharleyan," he said, stepping beside her and tucking her hand into his elbow as he turned to escort her the rest of the way down the gangway. "No, our people are waiting for us."

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