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By Schism Rent Asunder: Section Twenty

       Last updated: Wednesday, January 30, 2008 08:53 EST



Tellesberg Cathedral,
Royal Palace,
City of Tellesberg,
Kingdom of Charis

    The organ began its majestic prelude, and the hundreds of people crammed into Tellesberg Cathedral rose, rose to stand in their pews. The glorious notes sped through the incense-scented air on golden wings of sound, and then the choir burst into song.

    The cathedral's doors swung open, and the familiar Wednesday morning procession of scepter-bearers, candle-bearers, and thurifers moved forward into the welcoming splendor of that majestic hymn. Acolytes and under-priests followed the procession's advance guard, and Archbishop Maikel Staynair followed behind them, in turn.

    Merlin Athrawes watched from his post in the royal box, twenty feet above the cathedral's floor, with familiar mixed feelings. The Church was so much a part of every Safeholdian's life that moments like this were inescapable, and sheer immersion seemed to be wearing away at least some of his original outrage.

    But only some of it, he told himself. Only some of it.

    The procession moved steadily, majestically forward, and the archbishop moved at its heart. But Maikel Staynair's idea of a proper procession wasn't quite like that of other archbishops, and Merlin smiled as Staynair paused to lay one hand on the curly-haired head of a little girl in blessing as her father held her up.

    Other hands reached out to touch the archbishop as he passed, and other children's heads awaited his blessing. Those sophisticated other archbishops would undoubtedly have looked down upon Staynair's "simpleminded" pastoral abandonment of an archbishop's proper dignity. Then again, those sophisticated other archbishops would never have been the focus of the intensely personal love and trust Maikel Staynair evoked from the people of his archbishopric. Of course, there were –

    Merlin Athrawes' thoughts broke off with guillotine suddenness as purposeful movement swirled abruptly in the cathedral's nave.



    Archbishop Maikel laid his hand on another youngster's head, murmuring a word of blessing. He knew his frequent stops provoked generally tolerant exasperation among his acolytes and assisting clergy. On the other hand, they knew better than to protest, of course, even if it did make the proper choreography of the Church's ironclad liturgy a bit more difficult. There were some responsibilities — and joys — of any priest's calling which Maikel Staynair refused to sacrifice to the "dignity" of his ecclesiastic office.

    He turned back to the procession, bowing his head while one corner of his mind once more reviewed the day's sermon. It was time he began emphasizing that –

    The sudden coalescence of movement took him as much by surprise as it did anyone else in the Cathedral. His head snapped back up as someone's hands closed upon his arms. The two men who had abruptly forced their way into the procession jerked him around, turning him to one side, and he was far too astonished to offer any sort of resistance. No one ever laid hands upon the clergy of Mother Church. The action was so totally unheard of that every worshiper in the Cathedral was just as astounded as Staynair. Only those closest to him could actually see what was happening, but the abrupt interruption of the procession turned heads, snapped eyes around.

    The archbishop's mind worked more rapidly than most, yet he was only beginning to realize what was happening when he saw the dagger in the third man's hand. The dagger which, in defiance of every tradition of the Church of God Awaiting, had been brought into the Cathedral concealed under an assassin's tunic.

    "In the name of the true Church!" the assassin shouted, and the dagger started forward.



    Cayleb Ahrmahk's mind also worked more rapidly than most. The king came to his feet, one hand reaching out in futile protest as the dagger flashed.

    "Maikel!" he cried, then flinched back as a cannon fired less than six inches from his ear.

    That was what it felt like, at any rate. Cayleb lurched away from the concussive impact hammering at his ear drum, and it fired again.



    Maikel Staynair felt no fear as the dagger drove towards him. There wasn't really enough time for that, not enough time for his mind to realize what was happening and inform the rest of him that he was about to die. His stomach muscles had just begun to clench in a useless, fragile defensive reaction when, abruptly, the assassin's head disintegrated. The heavy bullet continued onward, thankfully missing anyone else as it splintered one of the pews, and a gory fan of blood, brain tissue, and splinters of bone sprayed across the pew's occupants.

    The sound of the pistol shot interrupted the organ music and the choir as if it was the organist who'd been shot. The magnificent interplay of music and voices chopped off in a welter of beginning screams and shouts of confusion. Most of those in the Cathedral still had no notion that anything was happening to the archbishop. Instead of looking in Staynair's direction, heads popped around as all eyes flew to the royal box and the tall, blue-eyed Royal Guardsman who'd vaulted onto the box's palm-wide, raised railing.

    He balanced there, impossibly steady on his precarious perch, his right hand shrouded in a thick, choking cloud of powder smoke, and then the pistol's second barrel fired.



    Staynair's eyes closed in automatic reflex as his would-be killer's blood spattered across his face and white, magnificently embroidered vestments. His brain was finally beginning to realize what was happening, and his muscles tensed as he prepared to yank away from the hands which had seized him.

    Before he could move, a second thunderclap exploded through the Cathedral, and he heard a choked-off scream as the man holding his right arm released him abruptly.



    The heavy pistol in Merlin's right hand bucked with his second shot.

    He'd had no option but to go for the head shot the first time he fired. He'd had to put the dagger wielder out of action permanently and instantly, despite the very real danger that the heavy bullet would continue onward to kill or wound some innocent bystander. Neither of Staynair's other assailants had so far produced a weapon, however, and he'd dropped the glowing dot of the aim point projected across his vision onto the second man's back. The bullet smashed into his target's spine and drove downward through his torso at the sharp angle imposed by Merlin's elevated firing position. The resistance of bone and human tissue slowed the big, mushrooming projectile, and his target released Staynair, staggered half a stride forward, and went down.

    Merlin's left hand came up, holding the second pistol. The cloud of gunsmoke spewed out by the two shots he'd already fired hung in front of him. It would have been all but totally blinding to a human being, but Merlin Athrawes wasn't a human being. His eyes saw through the smoke with perfect clarity as he balanced on the royal box's rail, and his left hand was as inhumanly rock-steady as his right.

    His aim point tracked across onto the remaining attacker. This one, he wanted alive. A leg shot ought to do the job, he thought grimly, then swore mentally as the final assailant produced a dagger of his own. The other members of the procession had finally realized what was happening. Two of them turned to grapple with the third man, but they weren't going to have time. The attacker's left hand was still clamped on to Staynair's left arm as the dagger rose, and no one could possibly reach him before that blade came down once more.



    Staynair felt the grip on his right arm disappear and shifted his weight, preparing to yank away from the grip on his left arm. But then there was a third explosion, and abruptly there were no more hands upon him.



    Merlin began to vault over the railing to the floor below, then paused.

    Let's not do anything outright impossible in front of this many witnesses unless we really have to, he told himself.

    The little voice in his brain seemed preposterously calm to him, but it made sense, and he slid the still-smoking pistol in his right hand into its holster. Then he crouched, gripping the box railing in his right hand and lowered himself over the edge. He let his fingers slide down a smooth, waxed upright until his feet were only five or six feet above the Cathedral's marble floor, then let himself drop with cat-like grace.

    He landed on the seat of a pew which had magically cleared itself when its occupants saw him coming. They shrank back, staring at him, eyes huge, as he descended out of the hovering cloud of powder smoke, and he nodded courteously back to them.

    "Excuse me," he said politely, and stepped out into the nave.

    The Cathedral was filled with shouts of confusion — confusion that was tinged with gathering anger as people began to realize what had happened — but Merlin ignored the background bedlam as he made his way up the nave.

    His uniform would have been enough to clear a path for him under most circumstances. Under these circumstances, the pistol still in his left hand, one hammer still cocked while smoke still plumed from the fired barrel, was even more effective, and he reached Staynair's side quickly.

    The archbishop was down on one knee, ignoring the under-priest trying to urge him back to his feet as he turned the second of his assailants up on his side. As Merlin watched, Staynair felt the side of the fallen man's throat, obviously searching for a pulse. He didn't find one, of course, and he shook his head slowly, heavily, and reached up to close the corpse's staring, surprised-looking eyes.

    "Are you all right, Your Eminence?" Merlin demanded, and Staynair looked up at him with an expression of regret.

    "Yes." His voice was a little shaky. Merlin had never heard that particular note in it before, but under the circumstances, he supposed it was reasonable that even Maikel Staynair's monumental calm should be just a bit frayed. The archbishop cleared his throat and nodded.

    "Yes," he said more firmly. "I'm fine, Merlin. Thanks to you."

    "Then unless you want a riot, I think you'd better stand back up and show yourself to the congregation before they decide you're dead, too," Merlin suggested as gently as he could through the steadily growing roar of angry, frightened, confused voices.

    "What?" Staynair gazed at him for a moment, obviously still more than a bit confused himself. Then his eyes cleared with understanding, and he nodded again, more crisply.

    "You're right," he said, and stood.

    "We have to get you to someplace safe, Your Eminence!" one of the under-priests said ugently. Merlin found himself in strong agreement, but Staynair shook his head. The gesture was vigorous, purposeful.

    "No," he said firmly.

    "But, Your Eminence –!"

    "No," he repeated, even more firmly. "I appreciate the thought, Father, but this –" one hand waved at the Cathedral and the ripples of fury spreading steadily outward as those closest to the attempted assassination shouted explanations to those farther away "– is where I need to be."

    "But –"

    "No," Staynair said a third time, with a note of finality. Then he turned, pushed his way through the scepter-bearers and candle-bearers still standing in shocked immobility, and started back up the nave.

    The other members of the procession stared at one another, still too badly shaken and confused to know exactly what to do, but Merlin straightened his shoulders and started after the archbishop. His own thoughts were still only beginning to catch up with Staynair's, but as they did, he realized the archbishop was right. This was where he needed to be . . . in more than one way.

    Merlin carefully closed the priming pan and lowered the hammer on his remaining pistol's single unfired barrel. He holstered the weapon without breaking stride and continued down the nave behind Staynair, watching the worshipers to either side narrowly. The odds of there being a second assassination team were undoubtedly slim, yet Merlin intended to take nothing — nothing else, at least, he told himself grimly — for granted where Maikel Staynair's safety was concerned.



    Those closest to the nave saw the archbishop walking past them, alone, followed only by the single grim-faced, blue-eyed guardsman, and waves of relief rippled outward from them, following on the heels of the shocked confusion and anger which had already swept the Cathedral. Staynair's face was less grim than Merlin's, and he seemed to find it rather easier than Merlin would have to keep himself from flinching as more hands than ever reached out, touching him as their owners sought physical reassurance that he was unharmed.

    Letting those people reach out to the archbishop, actually touch him, was one of the hardest things Merlin had ever done, yet he forced himself not to interfere. And not just because he knew Staynair would not have thanked him for the interference. Merlin would have found it remarkably easy to live with the archbishop's subsequent ire, if only he hadn't realized Staynair was right about that, too.

    It's not even as if he'd reasoned it out, Merlin thought. It's who he is — what he is. Pure instinct. Well, instinct and faith.

    Staynair reached the sanctuary rail, unclipped the gate in it — probably the first time in at least a decade that one of his acolytes hadn't performed that task for him — and stepped through it into the chancel itself. Merlin stopped at the rail, turning back to face the rest of the Cathedral, but he also watched through the remotes his SNARCs had deployed throughout the enormous structure as Staynair genuflected to the enormous mosaics of Langhorne and Bédard, then stood to face the assembled congregation himself.

    The bedlam faded slowly and unwillingly as the worshipers saw him standing there. The blood spray from his would-be killers showed dark across his vestments, and there was still blood on his face, as well, yet it was obvious that none of it was his blood, and several people cried out in relief as they realized that.

    Relief, however, did nothing to cancel anger, and Merlin could feel the rage crouched in the hearts and minds of those hundreds of people as they realized how close to assassination their archbishop had truly come. There were more shouts, now — shouts of more clearly articulated, more sharply directed, anger.

    "My children!" Staynair said, pitching his own powerful voice to break through the gathering storm swell of vengeful outrage. "My children!"

    His words rang out, cutting through the background noises, and quiet descended upon the Cathedral once more. It wasn't silence – there was still too much anger, too much shock, for that — but at least the noise level dropped, and Staynair raised his hands.

    "My children," he said in a marginally quieter voice, "this is a house of God. In this place, in this time, surely vengeance must be His, not ours."

    A fresh ripple went through the Cathedral, as if the people listening to him couldn't quite believe what they'd just heard, and he shook his head sadly.

    "Whatever others may believe, my children, God is a god of love," he told them. "If justice must be dealt, then let it be dealt, but don't poison yourselves with vengeance. Surely it's tragic enough that three of God's children should already have died here in His house without the rest of them staining themselves with hatred!"

    "But they tried to kill you!" someone, lost in the vast depths of the Cathedral, shouted back, and Staynair nodded.

    "They did," he acknowledged, "and they have already paid the price for that." The regret, the sadness, in his voice was completely genuine, Merlin realized. "The men who made that attempt are already dead, my son. So who would you have us take vengeance upon for their crime?"

    "The Temple Loyalists!" someone else replied hotly, but Staynair shook his head once more.

    "No," he said firmly. "We know only that three men made this attempt. We know nothing as yet of who they were, why they attempted such a thing, or of whether or not they acted on their own. We know nothing about them, my children, not even — whatever some of you may think — that they had any connection whatsoever with the Temple Loyalists here in Tellesberg. In the absence of that knowledge, there can be no justification for striking out at anyone, and even if there could, vengeance is not the proper province of any child of God, under any circumstances. Justice may be, but justice is the province of the Crown. We will leave justice to our King, confident in his ability to know and to do that which is right. We will not seek vengeance. We will not turn ourselves into something we would never wish to be."

    Voices murmured, some of them still with more than a hint of rebellion, yet no one dared to disagree with their archbishop.

    "My children," Staynair said more softly, "I know you're angry. I understand why. But this is a time for sorrow, not anger. Whatever you may think of the men who made this attempt today, they were still your fellow children of God. I have no doubt that they did what they did because of their own faith in God. I don't say I believe it truly was what God desired of them, but it was what they have been told God wants. Shall we condemn them for acting as their faith demanded, when our own faith has demanded that we turn our faces away from the Council of Vicars and the Temple? We may find it necessary to oppose men who believe as they believed. In the war which the Group of Four has declared against us, it may even be necessary for us to slay men who believe as they believed. But despite that grim necessity, never let yourselves forget that they who oppose you are just as human, just as much God's children, as you yourselves. What they do may be evil in our eyes, and wrong in God's eyes, but if you let yourselves be filled with hate, if you turn them into something less than human in order to make it easier to kill them, then you open yourself to the very evil which you have condemned in them."

    The murmuring voices had faded into stillness as he spoke, and he gazed out at them sadly.

    "We live in a time when godly men and women must make choices, my children. I beg of you, as you love me — as you love yourselves, love your wives and husbands and children, as you love God Himself — make the right choices. Choose to do that which must be done, but do it without poisoning yourselves, your souls, or your ability to love one another."

    The silence was almost absolute now, and Staynair looked to where the stalled procession still clustered about the bodies. A half-dozen of Merlin's fellow guardsmen had joined the procession. Now, as they stooped to lift and remove the bodies, Staynair beckoned to the acolytes and under-priests.

    "Come," he told them, standing before the congregation, splashed with the drying blood of the men who had attempted to kill him. "Come, we have a mass to celebrate, brethren."




    "Maikel," King Cayleb said very, very seriously, "you realize what they took advantage of when they planned this, don't you?"

    "Of course I do, Your Majesty," the archbishop replied serenely. They sat on the balcony of Cayleb's personal suite in the palace, looking out over the city in the golden light of early evening, and Merlin stood behind the king's chair. "But, to anticipate your argument, I'm far too old and set in my ways to start trying to change them now."

    "Maikel, they tried to kill you," Cayleb said, sounding like someone trying very hard not to sound exasperated . . . and failing.

    "I know," Staynair said in that same, serene tone.

    "Well, exactly what do you think is going to happen to the Church of Charis — and this Kingdom — if the next time they try, they succeed?" Cayleb demanded.

    "If that happens, you'll just have to choose my successor, Your Majesty. You'll find a complete list of nominees in my desk. Father Bryahn knows where to find it."


    "Calmly, Your Majesty," Staynair said with a small smile. "I truly realize what you're saying. And I'm not trying to minimize the impact my death would have on our efforts to defy the Grand Vicar and the Group of Four. Nor, for that matter, am I unaware of the way in which my death at the hands of real or supposed Temple Loyalists would inflame public opinion. Nonetheless, I'm a priest before I'm a politician. Even before I'm an archbishop. I serve God; I don't ask Him to serve me, and I refuse to live my life in fear of my enemies. Moreover, I refuse to allow my enemies — or my friends — to believe I live in fear of them. This is a time for boldness, Cayleb, not for timidity. You've grasped that well enough in your own case. Now you have to understand that it applies to my case, as well."

    "That's all very well and good, Your Eminence," Merlin put in respectfully. "For that matter, I don't disagree with you. But there is one distinction between you and the King."

    "And that 'distinction' is precisely what, Seijin Merlin?" Staynair asked.

    "His Majesty is constantly and openly surrounded by bodyguards," Merlin replied. "It may be time for him to take risks, even bold ones, but reaching him with an assassination attempt would be extraordinarily difficult. I leave it to you to . . . evaluate just how difficult it would be to reach you. Again."

    "As always, you make a valid point," Staynair conceded. "It doesn't change my own reasoning, however. And, I might also point out, that outside the Cathedral during services, I'm constantly protected by the Archbishop's Guard, myself."

    "Which doesn't address Merlin's point at all," Cayleb said sternly. He sat back in his chair, glowering at his archbishop. "I'm strongly inclined to order you to change your procedures."

    "I earnestly hope you'll be able to resist that temptation, Your Majesty. It would grieve me deeply to disobey a royal command."

    "And you would, too," Cayleb growled. "That's the only reason I'm still 'inclined' to give you the order instead of just going ahead and doing it!"

    "It's not my intention to make problems for you, Your Majesty. It is my intention to discharge my pastoral duties in the fashion in which I believe God expects me to discharge them. I recognize the risks involved. I simply refuse to allow them to tempt me into being less of God's priest than He demands."

    Cayleb's expression turned even more sour, and his nostrils flared. But then he shook his head.

    "All right. All right!" He threw up his hands. "You know you're being an idiot. I know you're being an idiot. But if I can't stop you, I can't. The one thing I am going to do, however, is to take a few precautions of my own."

    "Such as, Your Majesty?" Staynair asked a trifle warily.

    "First, I'm placing a permanent guard around the Cathedral," Cayleb said grimly. "I may not be able to stop people from smuggling daggers into mass with them, but I can damned well keep anyone from smuggling in a barrel or two of gunpowder when no one's looking!"

    Staynair looked a bit unhappy, but he nodded in acquiescence.

    "And, second, Maikel — and I warn you now, I'll entertain no arguments from you on this point — I'm placing a couple of General Chermyn's scout-snipers inside the Cathedral itself."

    The archbishop seemed to stiffen, but Cayleb stuck a finger under the older man's nose and shook it.

    "I told you I'm not listening to any arguments," he said sternly, "and I'm not. I'll keep them as much out of sight as I can, probably in one of the upper balconies. But they're going to be there, Maikel. They won't be seijins, of course, so don't expect them to duplicate Merlin's little feat without managing to kill any innocent bystanders, but at least they'll be, there just in case."

    For a long, tense moment it looked as if Staynair were going to argue, anyway. Then his shoulders slumped slightly, and he sighed.

    "Very well, Cayleb," he said. "If you truly insist."

    "I do."

    Cayleb's voice, like his expression, was unyielding, and Merlin agreed with him. Of course, it was unlikely, to say the least, that two or three marksmen — or even a dozen of them — could have prevented this morning's assassination attempt from succeeding. Only Merlin's enhanced reaction time and the fact that he'd seeded the Cathedral with remote sensors had let him realize what was happening in time to do anything about it. Marksmen limited to their natural senses and reflexes were unlikely, to say the least, to duplicate his accomplishment.

    On the other hand, he told himself grimly, there are a few additional precautions I can take. And His Eminence Archbishop Too-Stubborn-for-His-Own-Good isn't going to be able to do anything about them, either, because unlike Cayleb, I have absolutely no intention of discussing them with him in the first place!

    He allowed no sign of his thoughts to show in his own expression, despite a certain sense of satisfaction at having found a way around Staynair's stubbornness. Owl was already redeploying and beefing up the sensor net inside and around Tellesberg Cathedral. King Cayleb's guardsmen might not be able to tell which of the archbishop's parishioners had decided to attend mass tastefully accoutered with the latest thing in hidden daggers, but Owl's sensors certainly could. And one Merlin Athrawes would have absolutely no hesitation about confronting anyone who'd absent- mindedly brought one along.

    That was the easy part, but he had no intention of stopping there.

    Owl was already busy duplicating Staynair's vestments on a stitch-by-stitch, gem-by-gem basis. When he was done, it would be literally impossible for even Staynair to tell the difference between the AI's handiwork and the originals. Even any tiny, darned spots would be exactly duplicated. But unlike the originals, the copies would be made of the latest in antiballistic fabrics, seeded with nanotech which would literally transform any portion of their surface into plate armor in the face of any impact. And once his vestments had been replaced, it would be time to start on his regular cassocks, as well. Owl ought to have the entire project finished by the end of the current five-day.

    And then, Your Eminence, the next son-of-a-bitch who tries to stick a knife into you is going to find himself confronted with a 'miracle' Clyntahn and his friends will find difficult to explain away, Merlin thought coldly.

    Of course, I doubt that the son-of-a-bitch in question will live long enough to realize just how surprised he really is.

    Which suited Merlin Athrawes just fine.

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