"Bryahn is right about the necessity of dealing with Nahrmahn and Hektor," the new king continued. "There's always Gorjah, as well, but Tarot can wait. At least, though, we know where we are with Nahrmahn and Hektor. Our options there have the virtue of straightforwardness, you might say. But then there's Chisholm. Have the two of you given any more thought to my proposal?"


            "As a general rule, Your Majesty," Gray Harbor said dryly, "when the King 'requests' that his First Councilor and his Archbishop 'give some thought' to one of his proposals, they do that."


            "All right," Cayleb flashed a smile, although Merlin was well aware that in quite a few Safeholdian kingdoms, that degree of levity and informality from a first councilor might well have resulted in the summary replacement of said first councilor. "Since I'm the King, and since you've been thinking about it like dutiful servants, what conclusions have you reached?"


            "Honestly?" Gray Harbor's amusement transmuted itself into sobriety, and he raised one hand and waggled it back and forth in a gesture of uncharacteristic uncertainty. "I don't know, Cayleb. In many ways it would be an ideal solution to at least one major chunk of our problems. It would probably reassure several people who are currently concerned about the succession, at any rate, and Bynzhamyn is right about just how frightening that entire question is right now. But it would also result in some significant upheavals, and there's always the question of whether or not Sharleyan would even consider it. She's going to be in enough trouble with the Group of Four when they find out about her navy's performance against us. And, of course," he showed his teeth in a thin smile of approval, "your decision to return her surrendered vessels with no strings attached is only going to increase the suspicions of someone like Clyntahn and Trynair."


            "Trynair, at least, is likely to recognize exactly why you did it," Staynair put in. "Clyntahn, on the other hand, is more problematical. He's more than smart enough to understand. The question is whether or not his bigotry and prejudices will let him understand."


            Staynair's certainly right about that, Mervyn reflected. It would be so much simpler if we knew which Clyntahn is going to turn up at any given moment. Is it likely to be the self-indulgent glutton? Or the undeniably brilliant thinker? Or the religious fanatic zealot Grand Inquisitor? Or the cynical schemer of the Group of Four?


            "And Sharleyan and Green Mountain are going to recognize exactly the same thing," Gray Harbor pointed out. "That's going to be a factor in how they may react to your . . . modest proposal. Turning up the pressure on them may not have put them in the most receptive possible state of mind."


            "From what I've seen of Queen Sharleyan and Baron Green Mountain, I wouldn't think that would be too much of a problem," Merlin said. "Both of them understand the sorts of constraints we're facing. I won't say they're likely to be delighted by any effort on our part to manipulate them, but they're certainly going to realize there was nothing personal in it."


            Both Gray Harbor and Staynair nodded in acceptance of his observation. They were well aware that Merlin's "visions" had allowed him to follow the inner workings and private discussions of Queen Sharleyan of Chisholm and her own most trusted advisers in a way no one else could have.


            "Having said that," Merlin continued, "I don't have the least idea how she would react to what you have in mind. I don't think the possibility's even crossed her mind. Why should it have?"


            "That's certainly a reasonable question," Gray Harbor said wryly. "On the other hand, there was the way she reacted to your father's proposal for a more formal alliance, Cayleb."


            "The situation's changed just a bit since then," Cayleb replied. "And let's not forget who Father chose as his ambassador."


            The youthful monarch's jaw tightened in briefly remembered pain. Kahlvyn Ahrmahk, the Duke of Tirian and his own cousin, had represented King Haarahld in his effort to secure a defensive alliance against Corisande with the Kingdom of Chisholm. Of course, when Haarahld selected Tirian, he hadn't realized that the cousin he loved like a brother was already plotting against him in cooperation with Prince Nahrmahn of Emerald. Nor had Haarahld even begun to suspect that Kahlvyn intended to assassinate both Haarahld and Cayleb.


            "There is that," Gray Harbor acknowledged in a painfully neutral voice, and his own eyes were dark and shadowed. Kahlvyn Ahrmahk had been Cayleb's magnificent older cousin, far more of an uncle and almost a second father than a mere cousin, but he had been Rayjhis Yowance's son-in-law, the husband of Gray Harbor's daughter and the father of his two grandsons.


            And it had been Rayjhis Yowance's thrown dagger which had ended the Duke of Tirian's traitorous life.


            "So, bearing that in mind, who would you choose for your ambassador this time?" Merlin deliberately made his own voice a bit brisker than usual. "I assume you've given some thought to that?"


            "I have, indeed." Cayleb smiled. "Given the nature of the proposal — and, ungentlemanly though it may be, the desirability of maintaining enough pressure to . . . encourage Sharleyan and Green Mountain — I thought we might send them a truly senior representative. Someone like –" he turned his smile on Gray Harbor " — my esteemed First Councilor."


            "Now, just a minute, Cayleb!" Gray Harbor twitched upright in his chair, shaking his head. "I see where you're headed, but I couldn't possibly justify being absent long enough for a mission like this! It's the next best thing to ten thousand sea miles from Tellesberg to Cheryath. That's better than a month and a half's voyage just one way!"


            "I know." Cayleb's smile faded into an entirely serious expression. "Believe me, Rayjhis, I know, and I've thought long and hard about it. Unless I miss my guess, you'd be gone for at least three or four months, even assuming everything went perfectly. And you're right, the prospect of having you out of the Kingdom for that long isn't likely to help me sleep soundly. But if we could possibly make this work, it would go an enormous way towards determining whether or not we manage to survive, and you know it. God knows how much I'd miss you, but Maikel could substitute for you as First Councilor while you were gone. He knows everything you and I have discussed, and his position would put him above the normal political dogfights someone else might have to referee if they tried to temporarily take your place. In fact, he's the only other suitable candidate for ambassador I've been able to come up with, and to be totally honest, we can afford to have you out of the Kingdom at this particular moment far more than we can afford to have him out of the Archbishopric."


            Gray Harbor had opened his mouth as if to argue, but he closed it again, his expression thoughtful, with Cayleb's last sentence. Then, despite manifest reservations, he nodded slowly.


            "I see your reasoning," he acknowledged, "and you're right about Maikel covering for me. I don't think a single king or prince in the entire world has ever asked his archbishop to act as a mere first councilor, you understand, but I can see quite a few advantages to the arrangement — especially in our present circumstances. Having the Church and the Crown genuinely working in tandem certainly isn't going to hurt anything, at least! And he does know all of our plans, and Zhefry could handle all of the routine documents and procedures under his direction." The first councilor's lips twitched. "God knows, he's been doing that for me for years!"


            "The key points are that we can manage without you if we have to," Cayleb said, "and that I can't think of anyone who'd have a better chance than you of convincing Sharleyan. And the more I've thought about it, the more I think convincing her is probably at least as important as making Hektor of Corisande a foot or two shorter."


            "And the prospect of getting to help you make Hektor shorter would probably be one of the major attractions of the scheme, as far as she's concerned," Gray Harbor agreed.


            "That thought had crossed my mind." Cayleb gazed at the first councilor for another second or two, then cocked his head. "So, are you ready to go play envoy?"




About Eric Flint

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