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By Heresies Distressed: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Wednesday, April 1, 2009 06:53 EDT



Merlin Athrawes’ Cabin,

HMS Empress of Charis,
Chisholm Sea

    Sergeant Seahamper was a natural shot, Merlin Athrawes decided as he watched Empress Sharleyan’s personal armsman at pistol practice.

    And so, he reflected wryly, is Sharleyan herself! Not very ladylike of her, I suppose. He chuckled silently. On the other hand, the lady does seem to have a style all her own, doesn’t she?

    Had anyone happened to glance into Merlin’s small, cramped cabin aboard HMS Empress of Charis, he would undoubtedly have assumed Merlin was asleep. After all, it was already two hours after sunset aboard the fleet flagship, even though there were still several hours of light left back home in Tellesberg. That might be a bit early, but Captain Athrawes had the morning watch at Emperor Cayleb’s back, so it made sense for him to get to bed as early as possible, and at the moment, he was stretched out in the box-like cot suspended from the overhead, swaying gently with the ship’s motion, eyes closed, breathing deep and regular. Except, of course, that, whatever it looked like, he wasn’t actually breathing at all. The individual known as Merlin Athrawes hadn’t done that in the last nine hundred years or so. Dead women didn’t, after all, and PICAs had no need to do anything so limiting.

    There was no real need for him to be feigning sleep — or breathing, for that matter — he supposed, either. No one was likely to barge in on Emperor Cayleb’s personal armsman during his off-duty time, and even if anyone had, Merlin’s reflexes were as inhumanly fast as his hearing was inhumanly acute. Someone whose “nervous impulses” moved a hundred times more rapidly than any organic human’s would have had plenty of time to get his eyes closed and his “breathing” started up again. But Merlin had no intention of getting sloppy about the minor details. There were sufficient peculiar tales already circulating about Seijin Merlin and his powers as it was.

    Of course, even the most peculiar tale fell far short of the reality, and he planned to keep it that way for as long as possible. Which meant forever, if he could only pull it off. That was the entire reason he had decided at the outset to assume the persona of a seijin, one of the warrior-monks who came and went through the pages of legend here on the planet Safehold. Seijin were reputed to have so many different marvelous capabilities that almost anything Merlin did could be explained away with the proper hand-waving.

    Assuming the hand-wavers in question can keep a straight face while they do it, at any rate, he reminded himself.

    So far, the tiny handful of people who knew the truth about Merlin had managed to do just that . . . helped, no doubt, by the fact that the truth would have been even more bizarre. Explaining that he was a seijin was ever so much simpler than explaining to a planet systematically indoctrinated with an antitechnology mindset that he was the Personality Integrated Cybernetic Avatar of a young woman named Nimue Alban who’d been born on a planet named Earth . . . and been dead for the better part of a thousand years. All too often, Merlin found it sufficiently difficult to wrap his own mind about that particular concept.

    His artificial body, with its fiber optic “nerves” and fusion-powered “muscles,” was now the home of Nimue’s memories, hopes, dreams . . . and responsibilities. Since those “responsibilities” included breaking the Church of God Awaiting’s anti-technology stranglehold on Safehold, rebuilding the technological society which had been renounced a thousand years ago in the name of survival, and preparing the last planet of human beings in the entire universe for the inevitable moment in which it reencountered the species which had come within an eyelash of exterminating humanity the first time they’d met, it was, perhaps, fortunate that a PICA was the next best thing to indestructible and potentially immortal.

    It was also fortunate that no more than twenty-five people in the entire world knew the full truth of who — and what — Merlin was, or about his true mission here on Safehold, he reflected, then frowned mentally. All of those twenty-five people happened to be male, and as he watched Empress Sharleyan’s personal detachment of the Imperial Charisian Guard punching bullets steadily through their targets on the place firing range, he found himself once more in full agreement with Cayleb that there should have been at least one woman who knew the truth. Unfortunately, deciding who was to be admitted to the full truth about humanity’s presence here on Safehold — and about Merlin — was not solely up to them. If it had been, Sharleyan would have been added to the ranks of those who knew both of those secrets long before Cayleb had sailed from Charis with the invasion fleet bound for the League of Corisande.

    You can’t have everything, Merlin, he reminded himself once again. And sooner or later, Maikel is going to manage to bring the rest of the Brethren of Saint Zherneau around. Of course, just who’s going to do the explaining to her with Cayleb — and you — the better part of nine or ten thousand miles away is an interesting question, isn’t it?

    Personally, Merlin was of the opinion that Archbishop Maikel Staynair, the ecclesiastic head of the schismatic Church of Charis, couldn’t possibly convince his more recalcitrant brethren soon enough. “Captain Athrawes” sympathized completely with the others’ caution, but leaving Sharleyan in ignorance was shortsighted, to say the very least. In fact, the word “stupid” suggested itself to him rather forcefully whenever he contemplated the Brethren’s hesitation. Sharleyan was far too intelligent and capable to be left out of the loop. Even without full information, she’d already demonstrated just how dangerously effective she could be against Charis’ enemies. With it, she would become even more deadly.

    Which doesn’t even consider the minor fact that she’s Cayleb’s wife, does it? Merlin grimaced behind the composed façade of his “sleeping” face. No wonder Cayleb’s mad enough to chew iron and spit nails! It’d be bad enough if he didn’t love her, but he does. And even on the most hard-boiled, pragmatic level, he’s still right. She has a right to know. In fact, given the risks she’s chosen to run, the enemies she’s chosen to make in the name of justice and the truth, there’s no one on this entire planet — including Cayleb himself — who has a better right! And if I were she, I’d be pissed off as hell when I finally found out what my husband’s advisers had been keeping from me.

    Unfortunately, he thought, returning his attention to the images of the practicing guardsmen relayed through one of his carefully stealthed reconnaissance platforms, that was one bridge they’d have no choice but to cross when they reached it. All he could do now was hope for the best . . . and take a certain comfort from the obvious efficiency of her guard detachment. They wouldn’t have the chance to explain anything to her if some of the lunatics who’d already attempted to assassinate Archbishop Maikel in his own cathedral managed to kill her, first. And given the fact that even with all of the advantages of Merlin’s reconnaissance capabilities he still hadn’t been able to determine whether or not those assassins had acted on their own, or how big any supporting organization might have been, Captain Athrawes was delighted by the evidence of Sergeant Seahamper’s competence. He would have preferred being close enough to protect Sharleyan himself, but not even he could be in two places at once, and Cayleb needed looking after, as well. And at least if he couldn’t be there in person, Seahamper made a satisfying substitute.

    While Merlin watched, the sergeant finished reloading his double-barreled flintlock pistol, cocked and primed both locks, raised it in the two-handed shooting stance Merlin had introduced, and added two more petals to the ragged flower of bullet holes he’d blown through the target silhouette’s head. He was firing from a range of twenty-five yards, and the maximum spread of the group he’d produced was no more than six inches. For someone who’d never even fired a pistol until less than four months ago, that was a remarkable performance, especially with a flintlock he had to stop and reload after every pair of shots. Merlin could have produced a much tighter group, of course, but Nimue wouldn’t have been able to when she’d still been alive. Of course, as Merlin, he had certain advantages which Seahamper — or any other mortal human being — lacked.

    The sergeant was almost as good a shot with a rifle, although it was readily apparent that he was actually more comfortable with the pistol. And while Sharleyan’s other guardsmen might not be quite up to Seahamper’s standard, all of them had become excellent marksmen. As had the Empress herself.

    Merlin never doubted that quite a few Safeholdian males would have considered Sharleyan’s interest in firearms distinctly unbecoming in a properly reared young woman of gentle birth. After all, they were noisy, smoky, dirty, smelly, and dangerous. Like all black powder weapons, they produced an enormous amount of fouling, not to mention blackening the hands — and faces — of everyone in the vicinity. And, besides, doing things like shooting holes in targets — or even in other people — was what the empress had guardsmen for.

    Unhappily for those chauvinistic sticklers, Sharleyan Tayt Ahrmahk liked guns. The recoil from the guardsmen’s rifles was undeniably on the brutal side, and the standard pistols were a bit too big and too heavy for her slender hands to manage comfortably. But Seahamper and Captain Wyllys Gairaht, the official commander of her guard detachment, had both known her since she was an imperious child-queen. They knew exactly what sort of force of nature she was. When she’d expressed a desire for weapons better sized for her not-quite-petite frame, they’d quickly commissioned just that. Besides, Merlin suspected that they found the notion that their charge could shoot considerably better than the vast majority of her guardsmen rather comforting.

    He certainly did.

    Now he spent a few more minutes, watching through his distant remotes, as Sharleyan methodically demolished her own silhouette.

    She’s going to need a bath before this evening’s council meeting, he reflected with an inner chuckle, watching her smear the powder grime on her forehead as she wiped away sweat. And when she sits down with the councilors, not a one of them would believe what she looks like right now!

    He smiled as he watched her guardsmen watching her accuracy with obvious, possessive pride, then, regretfully, turned his attention elsewhere. He was still a little surprised by how homesick he was for Tellesberg, but the city had been his home for almost three years. That was actually much longer than Nimue Alban had lived in any one spot from the day she’d graduated from the Naval Academy on Old Earth until the day of her death. Besides, home was where the people someone cared about lived.

    Unfortunately, Merlin had already discovered that no one — not even a PICA who could (at least theoretically) go indefinitely without sleeping — could possibly keep track of everything he had to keep track of. He needed to know what was going on in Tellesberg, and on a personal level, he needed an occasional “fix” of watching over the people he and Cayleb had left behind when they sailed. Yet he couldn’t afford to let himself spend too much time doing that, however tempting it might have been.

    “Do you have that summary from Chisholm, Owl?” he asked over his built-in communicator without ever moving his lips.

    “Yes, Lieutenant Commander,” the AI hidden away in “Nimue’s Cave,” the distant cavern where Nimue’s PICA had lain concealed for so many centuries, replied.

    “Then I suppose I’d better take a look at it, too, shouldn’t I?” Merlin sighed.

    “Yes, Lieutenant Commander,” Owl replied obediently.

    “Well, go ahead and began the transmission.”

    “Yes, Lieutenant Commander.”

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