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By Schism Rent Asunder: Section Seventeen

       Last updated: Monday, January 7, 2008 07:59 EST



Tellesberg Palace,
City of Tellesberg,
Kingdom of Charis

    It was very late — or possibly very early, depending upon one's perspective — and Merlin Athrawes sat at the desk in his modest, if comfortable, quarters in Tellesberg Palace while his long fingers skillfully reassembled the pistol on his desk. If anyone had happened to open the door at that particular moment, they might have been just a bit curious as to why Captain Athrawes had chosen to perform that intricate task in the dark. Of course, the room wasn't dark for someone with a PICA's built-in light-gathering optics, but that didn't really matter one way or the other. Despite the fact that Merlin's eyes were open and clearly gazing at the pistol upon which he was working, he was actually watching something else entirely.

    The most recent imagery from the SNARCs he had deployed across the surface of Safehold played itself behind those open eyes while he worked. As the struggle against the Group of Four and its proxies broadened and the events he found himself trying to keep track of snowballed, there was more and more of that imagery. In fact, there was quite simply too much of it for him to properly review, even with Owl's assistance. And the fact that, as the commander of Cayleb's personal guard detachment, he had even less free time in which to do the reviewing didn't help.

    The last of the current day's imagery from Emerald finished, and he grimaced.

    "Write that up for Wave Thunder, Owl," he directed. "Standard format."

    "Yes, Lieutenant Commander," the distant AI said obediently, and Merlin nodded in satisfaction. The computer would use the graphics interface in the cavern in the Styvyn Mountains which Merlin had converted into his forward base here in Charis to produce a complete summary of the day's events in Emerald, in Merlin's handwriting, on proper Safeholdian stationery, complete with the occasional, carefully inserted correction and blot. When it was done, Owl would use another of the stealthed SNARCs to deliver it (and the other summaries Merlin had asked for) through Merlin's open window via tractor beam. Owl's writing standards weren't quite up to Merlin's own, but it was one way to get the necessary information written down and delivered to Wave Thunder. By now, the baron had to be wondering just how Seijin Merlin found time to jot down so many notes, but if he was, he'd very carefully not asked.

    Merlin smiled in amusement at the thought, then refocused his attention on the pistol as he completed its reassembly. There'd really been no point in taking it apart in the first place, but he'd enjoyed the minor task. He'd discovered that he liked the way fine machinery fitted together, the way smooth and reliable function emerged from the careful assembly of all of the puzzle's many pieces. Besides, he'd wanted to see how the inside of this one actually looked.

    The pistol in his hand was a perfect duplicate of one of the pair of pistols Seamount had presented to Merlin at the same time he presented a rather more finely ornamented pair to Cayleb. Appearances, however, could be deceiving, and these pistols had been manufactured by Owl, using the same fabrication unit in Nimue's Cave which had produced Merlin's battle steel katana, wakazashi, and armor. Outwardly, they might be indistinguishable from the originals, but internally there was one significant difference.

    Every member of Cayleb's personal detachment had been issued his own pair of pistols. The decision had been made not to divert any significant manufacturing capacity away from the desperately needed rifled muskets, but given the nature of the Royal Guard's duties, Lock Island, Seamount, and Howsmyn had pretty much insisted upon producing enough of them for the Guard. They were part of the Guard's uniform now, and Seamount had designed sturdy, practical leather holsters for them. Overall, Merlin heartily approved, but even though the rifled pistols were deadly accurate, they still possessed one significant drawback. For all of its greater efficiency and reliability as compared to a matchlock, a flintlock remained vulnerable to misfires, which wasn't something Merlin was prepared to put up with when it came to protecting Cayleb Ahrmahk's life.

    Which was why his pistols, unlike those of anyone else on the entire planet, had hidden power cells built into their butts. When Merlin squeezed the trigger, the flintlock hammer snapped down, just like it was supposed to. And, at the same instant, the electronic igniter installed at the base of the pistol barrel flashed white-hot. One way or the other, Merlin reflected, that pistol would fire when he needed it to.

    He chuckled softly at the thought, then slid both pistols into their waiting holsters, got up and walked across to his chamber's window to gaze out across the darkness of Tellesberg, sleeping under the light of the large, single moon the "Archangels" had named Langhorne. It was a peaceful scene, and for just a moment, he felt a familiar, soul-deep longing for the merely mortal body of flesh and blood which had been Nimue Alban's. He could do marvelous, miraculous things with his PICA's molecular circuitry, sensors, and synthetic muscles. He could go without sleep, he could — theoretically, at least — live literally forever . . . assuming that he was, indeed, alive in the first place. But he could never again know what it was to collapse into peaceful, genuine sleep knowing it would wash away the fatigue he no longer felt. That had been taken from him forever with the death of Nimue's body.

    Oh, stop whining about it! he told himself sharply. Any time now you're going to start waxing maudlin over the fact that you're not subject to tooth decay, either!

    The thought made him chuckle, and he squared his shoulders, turning resolutely away from the window as he prepared to dive back into the SNARCs' reports once more.



    Cayleb Ahrmahk's eyes opened. He peered up into the darkness, then sat up as the crisp knock sounded again on his bedchamber door.

    "Enter!" he called before whoever it was could knock a third time.

    No one was going to get past bodyguards under the command of Merlin Athrawes unless they had a most legitimate reason for being here, and Cayleb's dignity wasn't so fragile that he had to insist on mountains of formal protocol. He climbed quickly out of bed, reaching for the robe Gahlvyn Daikyn had left in case he needed it. He was only half way into it when the door opened.

    "Your Majesty."

    Merlin stood on the threshold, bowing slightly, and Cayleb's eyes widened. Even now, he didn't know everything Merlin was up to, but the fact that Captain Athrawes needed quite a lot of time to do whatever it was had been made abundantly clear. And since it seemed so much more convenient for him to do whatever it was in the hours of darkness, the night duty outside Cayleb's bedchamber almost always went to Lieutenant Franz Ahstyn, Merlin's second-in-command in Cayleb's personal guard detail.

    Which made Merlin's sudden appearance . . . interesting.

    And I hope "interesting" is all its going to be, Cayleb reflected, remembering other midnight messages Merlin had brought him.

    "Come in, Merlin," he said out loud, for the benefit of the other guardsmen, as he finished donning the robe and tied its sash. "Close the door."

    "Of course, Your Majesty," Merlin murmured, stepping inside and pulling the door closed behind him.

    "And now," Cayleb said a bit tartly as the door closed, "suppose you tell me why you've gotten me up in the middle of the night this time?"

    "Because, Your Majesty, it isn't 'the middle of the night.' In fact, it's only about an hour until dawn, and it happens that in Chisholm, they're five hours ahead of us."

    Cayleb's spine snapped straight and his eyes widened.

    "I debated not telling you about it until after you decided to get up," Merlin continued. "Then it occurred to me that however justified I might be in waiting, you, with the impetuosity of youth, would probably fail to see it that way. Indeed, the more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that, with that undeniable degree of unreasonableness I've noted in you before, upon occasion, you might have felt I'd been remiss, somehow, not to awaken you immediately. Still, it did seem that one hour, either way, wouldn't have made that much difference. But, despite my own feelings on the matter, as a loyal servant of the Crown, it was clearly my duty to –"

    "Unless you want to discover whether or not it's possible for a mere mortal to throttle a seijin, I'd recommend telling me what you came here to say! And not what you came here to say about whether or not you should have waked me up!"

    "Well, if you're going to be that way," Merlin sniffed. Cayleb balled one hand into a remarkably sinewy fist, and Merlin smiled.

    "All right, Cayleb," he said in a much gentler voice. "I'm sorry. I just couldn't help teasing you."

    "You," Cayleb said through gritted teeth, "have a very peculiar sense of humor. Did you know that?"

    "Yes, I do." Merlin reached out and laid one hand on the king's shoulder.

    "She's decided to say yes," he said.

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