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By Schism Rent Asunder: Section Forty Three

       Last updated: Monday, June 30, 2008 07:10 EDT



September, Year of God 892

Tellesberg Palace,
Kingdom of Charis

    It was odd, the Earl of Pine Hollow, thought as he was escorted into the Tellesberg Palace throne room once more. He hadn't believed he could feel more nervous than he had on the occasion of his first visit here.

    Unfortunately, I was wrong.

    He followed the pair of guardsmen, one in the black and gold of Charis and the other in the silver and blue of Chisholm, across the polished stone floor, under the silently turning fans. It was much the same room as before, he noticed . . . aside from the minor fact that the raised dais was a bit larger and that it no longer supported only a single throne.

    No wonder he wanted to time to "think about his response." Despite his own internal tension, Pine Hollow found it hard not to smile as he looked at the attractive young woman sitting in the throne to Cayleb's right. I can hardly believe the two of them managed to put this entire marriage together without anyone in Emerald catching so much as a sniff of it! Nahrmahn was right about Sharleyan all along, though. And he was right about something else, too. Cayleb is dangerous enough by himself; the two of them together are going to turn Hektor into kraken bait, and when that happens, I'd rather be in the boat with them than in the water with Hektor.

    The Earl of Gray Harbor stood between the two thrones, effectively at the shoulders of each of the two monarchs seated in them, and Archbishop Maikel stood to the king's left. Aside from the first councilor, the archbishop, and their personal bodyguards, Cayleb and Sharleyan were alone. That was interesting. The lack of additional councilors — and witnesses — argued, among other things, that the two of them intended to speak . . . frankly. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing for Emerald remained to be seen, of course.

    He stopped at the correct distance from the pair of thrones, bowed to both of the seated monarchs, then straightened and stood waiting respectfully.

    "Well, My Lord," Cayleb said after several thoughtful moments, "I did say we'd talk again, I believe."

    "Indeed, you did, Your Majesty." Pine Hollow allowed himself a small smile. "At the time, however, you allowed me to assume that there would be only one monarch present when we did."

    "As you see, our spymasters are better than yours." Cayleb smiled back, and his tone was light, almost whimsical. His eyes, however, Pine Hollow noted, didn't smile.

    "In point of fact, Your Majesty, we'd already deduced that in light of certain other small surprises we've suffered of late. I believe it had something to do with what happened to our fleet — among other people's –" he allowed his eyes to flit briefly sideways to Sharleyan "– in the recent . . . unpleasantness."

    "An interesting choice of words," Cayleb observed. He, too, glanced at the queen seated beside him. Then he looked back at Pine Hollow. "It was indeed 'unpleasant,' My Lord. And, in the event, rather more unpleasant for some than for others. If we were inclined to spend our time rehashing all of our mutual reasons for enmity, we'd still be sitting here this time next year, however. So, bearing in mind the reason your Prince sent you here, Queen Sharleyan and I propose to move forward, rather than look back. Neither of us, however, is blind to the past, My Lord. In fact, we remember everything that's passed, and it would the wise of you and your Prince to bear that in mind. And to remember what I said a moment ago. Our spymasters are very, very good."

    Pine Hollow inclined his head in silent acknowledgment of Cayleb's point. It wasn't one he or Nahrmahn was ever likely to forget.

    "You may have noted, My Lord, that I said Queen Sharleyan and I propose to move forward. Allow me to be specific, just in case the contacts I'm certain you've been cultivating here in Tellesberg have failed to provide you with the full specifics. When Her Majesty and I wed one another in a few days' time, we will lay the foundation for a new realm, the Empire of Charis. Queen Sharleyan will continue to rule Chisholm in her own right, and I will continue to rule Charis, in my own right, but both of those kingdoms will become subordinate to and included in the Empire of Charis. The crown of that empire will be held initially by me, but Queen Sharleyan will be my coruler, not simply my consort. She will become not simply my wife, not simply my senior councilor, but my regent and my deputy. Any decision she reaches in my absence will be as valid as any decision I myself might have reached. And, should I predecease her, the Empire's crown — and the crown of 'the Old Kingdom of Charis' — will pass first to her, and only after her death to our eldest child.

    "What this means for you and for Emerald, My Lord, is twofold. First, the terms which will be offered to your Prince are those which upon which Her Majesty and I have mutually agreed. They aren't the terms of Charis, and they aren't the terms of Chisholm; they are our terms, and they aren't subject to negotiation. Your choice, My Lord, is to accept them or to reject them. Is that point clear?"

    "It is, Your Majesty." Pine Hollow kept his voice even, although it was difficult. It was obvious Cayleb was doing his very best to avoid grinding Emerald's pride into the dirt any more thoroughly than he must, but the fact remained that he — and Sharleyan, Pine Hollow reminded himself — were dictating terms. The fact that they had the power to do that made the experience no more enjoyable from the other side.

    "Very well," Cayleb said. "In that case, understand the second consequence for Emerald. Your Prince's independence must come to an end and Emerald must become a part of the new Empire of Charis.

    "There are two ways in which this might be accomplished, and to be perfectly honest, the one which most appeals to me on a personal basis, for many reasons, would be to depose Prince Nahrmahn and formally annex Emerald as a part of the Kingdom of Charis. As you and I are both aware, I have many personal reasons to feel less than fond, shall we say, of your Prince, and I suppose it's only human of me to wish to make that point abundantly clear to him.

    "However, after further consideration and after discussing the matter fully with Queen Sharleyan, we've decided to adopt a second approach. Instead of adding your princedom to the territory of the Kingdom of Charis, which we would be fully entitled to do, having secured our claim by force of arms, we propose to add the Princedom of Emerald to the Empire of Charis as an intact unit."

    Pine Hollow's mental ears pricked. He felt his shoulders stiffen, but he managed to keep any hint of emotion out of his expression.

    "Assuming Prince Nahrmahn is prepared to accept the sovereignty of the Empire of Charis and its ruler, and to give expression to any requirements for domestic change that ruler may make upon him, accepting that the imperial crown has the right to issue whatever instructions it, in its own good judgment, finds most appropriate, he will be permitted to retain the crown of the Princedom of Emerald and will become the second-ranking noble of the Empire. Only the heir apparent to the imperial crown will take precedence over him."

    This time, Pine Hollow couldn't keep the astonishment — and vast relief — from showing. Cayleb noted it, and smiled thinly.

    "It would be well, My Lord, for you and Prince Nahrmahn to disabuse yourselves of any notion that this means it will be 'business as usual' for him in Emerald. The Emperor — or Empress — of Charis will be the master — or mistress — of the Empire. Your Prince will retain his throne only at the pleasure of the Emperor. He would be well advised to remember that firmly, because I assure you, Queen Sharleyan and I most definitely will."



    Pine Hollow nodded silently, and Cayleb's smile grew slightly warmer.

    "Neither the Queen nor I is blind to the realities of human nature, or to the fact that from your Prince's viewpoint, his reasons for enmity with Charis have been just as valid and just as real as Charis' reasons for enmity with him. Bearing that in mind, and rather than rely solely upon the power of the sword to enforce his obedience to our decree, we would prefer to find another means to encourage and sustain his obedience and cooperation. To be blunt, My Lord, we believe there are many ways in which Prince Nahrmahn could be of enormous value to the Empire of Charis, just as we recognize that there are many ways in which he might be tempted to create problems, instead. And so, as a means of demonstrating our sincerity when we state that Prince Nahrmahn will be the Empire's second-ranking noble, one of the conditions of any treaty between us will be the betrothal of his eldest daughter to Crown Prince Zhan of Charis."

    Pine Hollow's eyes flew wide. That was a possibility which had never occurred to him or to Nahrmahn. He knew his expression was giving away entirely too much, but Cayleb — and Sharleyan, he noticed — only smiled.

    "The Queen has no brothers or sisters," Cayleb continued after a moment. "Nor, obviously, does she have a child of her body. As such, Zhan will be our joint heir until such time as we produce children of our own. And, equally obviously, Zhan and Zhanayt will stand very close to the succession even after we do produce children of our own. As a pledge on our part that we will support and defend Prince Nahrmahn as we would any other vassal of the Crown, so long as he remains mindful of his own obligations to the Crown, we propose to unite his family with our family. We realize there are some years difference in age between Zhan and Princess Mahrya, but the difference is less than in many marriages made for far less weighty purposes. And, to be perfectly honest, we believe Princess Mahrya would be well suited to become Empress Consort of Charis should it chance that the Queen and I die without heirs of our bodies."

    "Your Majesty — Your Majesties — this is far more generous than my Prince or I dared to contemplate," Pine Hollow said, and for perhaps the first time in his life as an envoy or a councilor to the Crown, there was not even a trace of diplomatic hyperbole in his response. "To be honest, my Prince feared — and was prepared to face — your demand for his imprisonment, or even his execution. Certainly he never contemplated the possibility that you might offer to unite his house with yours — with both of your houses — instead."

    "I will be frank, My Lord," Sharleyan said, speaking for the first time. "The terms King Cayleb has just described to you originated almost entirely from his suggestions, not mine. As you, I was astounded by the generosity of his proposals. Had I been in his place, I think I would have found it far more difficult to have responded in such a way after such a long and intense period of hostility. Nonetheless, on mature reflection, I believe he's shown as much wisdom as generosity in this instance. While I would never go so far as to say I believe Prince Nahrmahn's conscience is as pure as the driven snow, I will say, as someone who was compelled, against her will, to support her kingdom's most bitter enemy in a totally unjustified war against an innocent friend, that I realize full well that not all which has passed between Emerald and Charis was of Prince Nahrmahn's doing. In that sense, at least, we've all been victims of the Group of Four and of the corruption which has so contaminated and tainted the Church. As Cayleb said to me when we discussed this matter, it's long past time for us to turn our attention to the challenges — and the great enemy — we hold in common. The Writ teaches that reconciliation is one of the godly virtues. Very well. Let us be reconciled with Prince Nahrmahn, and with Emerald, and then let us go forward together to face the great struggle of our lives."

    "Your Majesty," Pine Hollow said with a profound bow, "I see the reports of your wisdom which our admittedly inferior Emeraldian spymasters –" he allowed himself a wry smile "– have managed to bring us in Eraystor have failed to do you justice. As my Prince's plenipotentiary, I accept your most generous terms in his name. Nor do I fear that he will feel any temptation to override my acceptance."

    "So long as both of you understand this, My Lord," Cayleb reentered the conversation. Pine Hollow looked at him, and the king's eyes were hard. "First, there will be no second chance. So long as Prince Nahrmahn keeps faith with us, we will keep faith with him. But should he prove faithless, there will be no generosity, no mercy, the next time."

    "I understand, Your Majesty," Pine Hollow said quietly.

    "Then understand this second point equally clearly, My Lord. By these terms, by this marriage, we will bring an end to the enmity between the House of Ahrmahk and the House of Baytz. But in so doing, your Prince — as Queen Sharleyan and myself — will have declared his personal war — the war of our houses, not simply the war of our realms — against the Group of Four, the Council of Vicars, and the Grand Vicar, himself. There will be no going back, Earl Pine Hollow. This decision, this declaration, is forever. The only possible outcomes are victory or total destruction, and I advise you and your Prince to think long and hard upon the nature of the death the Grand Inquisitor visited upon Erayk Dynnys. That is the fate which awaits any of the Temple's enemies who fall into its power."

    "I understand that, as well, Your Majesty," Pine Hollow said even more quietly, meeting Cayleb's eyes levelly. "Indeed, Prince Nahrmahn himself said very much the same thing to me. I won't pretend I was happy to hear it, or that the thought of raising my own hand, far less my sword, against Mother Church didn't fill me with dismay. I'm a son of Mother Church, and all I ever wanted was to be loyal to her. But how can any man of conscience be loyal to someone who, as my Prince put it, 'whistled up our princedom like a hired footpad and ordered us to cut an innocent man's throat'?"

    "A valid question, My Lord," Sharleyan said softly. "Alas, there are those who will insist obedience to God's Church requires them to acquiesce even in acts such as that, when commanded to do so by men who wear the orange."

    "I was such a man, Your Majesty," Pine Hollow acknowledged. "And in some small corner of my soul, I wish I still were. My heart misses that certainty. But, as Archbishop Maikel's letter made painfully clear, there is indeed a distinction between God Himself and the Archangels, on the one hand, and mortal, corrupt men who claim to speak in God's name, upon the other. What we owe to God, we do not owe to those who pervert all He is to serve their own ends."

    "If that's truly Prince Nahrmahn's opinion as well as your own, My Lord," Cayleb said, "then Queen Sharleyan and I will welcome him warmly. Just as," he smiled suddenly, "I'm certain the Group of Four will welcome all of us 'warmly,' if, perhaps, in a somewhat different fashion, should they ever have the opportunity!"

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