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By Schism Rent Asunder: Section Twenty One

       Last updated: Wednesday, February 6, 2008 20:46 EST



July, Year of God 892

Royal College,
City of Tellesberg,
Kingdom of Charis

    Rahzhyr Mahklyn squinted at the sheet of paper on his desktop. Despite the best lenses the opticians could grind, his nearsightedness was growing steadily worse, and the lighting didn't help. The oil lamps were filled with the finest first-grade kraken oil, and the reflectors behind them had been burnished to mirror brightness, but it was still a dim substitute for natural sunlight.

    Of course, if I'd just go home at a reasonable hour, I could work on this during daylight and not have to worry about lamps, couldn't I?

    His lips twitched at the thought, especially given the fact that he knew every one of his colleagues would have said exactly the same thing to him, although probably somewhat more acerbically than he just had. Still, the nascent smile faded, it wasn't as if there were anything waiting for him at home since his wife's death. Ysbet had been his constant companion, fellow scholar, collaborator, and best friend, as well as his wife, for over thirty years, and if he was going to be honest, her death was one of the main reasons he didn't go home when the rest of the Royal College of Charis shut down for the night.

    He sighed and sat back, pushing his wireframe glasses up onto his forehead and massaging the bridge of his nose wearily. The new system of "Arabic numerals" Merlin Athrawes had introduced to the kingdom had been an incredible boon to Charis' merchant houses and manufactories. In some ways, the "abacus" had been an even greater boon, yet Mahklyn was virtually certain no one outside the Royal College had yet begun to grasp all of the other things they made possible. There were even a handful of statements in the Holy Writ and The Testimonies which were beginning to make sense to him for the first time, with their hints of mathematical operations he'd never been able to make work using the old, cumbersome system of notations. The possibilities were literally dazzling, although he suspected that only a batch of old fogies like himself and his College colleagues could appreciate the vistas he saw opening before him.

    Yet, at least. Unless he was very mistaken, that was about to change radically.

    Just the ability to keep accurate records and actually understand what the numbers mean, how they change over time, is going to completely change the way kings and emperors think. In fact, I wonder if even Cayleb and Ironhill appreciate the advantage for his clerks and his quartermasters, far less the Treasury!

    Well, if anyone would, it would be Cayleb. For all of his own lack of interest in pure scholarship, he was his father's son in so many ways it was almost frightening, and he'd already made his continued commitment to the Royal College abundantly clear. In fact, he'd offered to move the entire College out of its tall, narrow, shabby, teetering converted waterfront  counting house and its attached warehouse and into luxurious new quarters in Tellesberg Palace.

    To be honest, Mahklyn thought, puffing out his cheeks and then dropping his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose, the offer was tempting. If nothing else it would keep him from climbing all those stairs every morning! But the Royal College had been in the same buildings ever since Cayleb's grandfather first founded it. By now, Mahklyn and his fellows knew every cranny, exactly where every record was filed or tucked away. Besides, despite the Crown's patronage, and despite its very name, Haarahld VI had insisted when he first endowed it that it must be independent of the royal government. That it was not to become a mere adjunct or tool of the House of Ahrmahk, but rather serve the kingdom as a whole. Mahklyn wasn't afraid Cayleb wanted to change that, but he was afraid that such close proximity to the throne would inevitably lead to a greater degree of dependence upon it.

    Still, does it really matter all that much? he asked himself. There's so much happening now, so many things that have broken loose in the last couple of years. I doubt half a dozen people in the entire Kingdom, outside the College itself, even begin to suspect all that's about to break loose, either. Or, thank God, how much of that we owe to Seijin Merlin. If any of those "Temple Loyalist" idiots knew about him, there'd be Hell to pay, and no mistake. But with so much happening, so much coming together, I doubt we'd have time to become "subservient" to the Crown!

    He chuckled dryly at the thought and bent over his desk once more, frowning as he contemplated the formula he'd been playing with for the last several hours. He tapped his teeth gently with the end of his pen holder, then dipped the nib and started writing slowly once again.

    He never quite identified the sound which pulled him out of his reverie an hour or so later. It hadn't been very loud, whatever it was. Probably, he decided later, it had been the sound of breaking glass.

    At the time, all he knew was that he'd heard something which wasn't part of the old building's normal nighttime creaks and groans. Space near the harbor was always at a premium in Tellesberg, which helped explain why the city had so many tall buildings. Some of them were even taller than the College, in fact, and many of them were even older structures. But some of the builders had been a little less than scrupulous in their building practices. Certainly the College was constantly showing new cracks in its walls and emitting nocturnal sounds which could be downright alarming. In this case, however, and even though it didn't sound especially threatening (whatever it was), it wasn't supposed to be there, and Rahzhyr Mahklyn was a naturally curious man.



    He sat for several seconds, waiting for the sound to repeat itself, but it didn't. Finally, he shrugged and returned his attention to his work, but he wasn't able to slide back into it the way he usually could. The oddity of that unidentifiable sound continued to pick at one corner of his mind, continued to challenge him to figure out where it had come from.

    Oh, all right, Rahzhyr! he told himself finally. You know you're not going to get anything else done until you go and find out.

    He laid his pen down once again, stood, walked across his small fourth-floor office, and opened the door onto the building's central stairwell.

    The blast of heated air roaring up the hollow core of that stairwell nearly knocked him off his feet.

    Rahzhyr Mahklyn stared in disbelief at the dense torrents of smoke already funneling up like the fumes from one of Ehdwyrd Howsmyn's furnaces. The brick building was close to eighty years old. Its wooden framing timbers, walls, and floors were bone-dry and heavily painted, its hollow core was like one, vast chimney, and the hungry, crackling roar of the voracious flames told Mahklyn the structure was already doomed.

    And so, a small, still voice told him in the back of his mind as he slammed the door shut once again, was he. His office was on the College's top floor. That stairwell was the only way out, and if anything in this world was clear, it was that he couldn't possibly get down those stairs through that inferno.

    I suppose I'm coming after all, Ysbet, he thought almost calmly as he backed up against the office's outer wall.

    Smoke was beginning to curl under the office door, as if the fact that he'd opened it had shown the fiery monster the path in, and he thought he could feel the searing heat on the far side of that flimsy portal radiating against his face. Perhaps it was only his imagination. But if it was, it wouldn't be imaginary heat for long, and Mahklyn made up his mind.

    It's better than burning to death, he thought grimly, and opened his office window wide. The cobblestone street below was already lit with the hellish red glare of the flames consuming the College's lower floors. The cobbles didn't look very inviting, to say the least, but at least it ought to be quicker and less painful than burning.

    Yet he hesitated. Perhaps it didn't make any sense, but somehow these last few moments of life were unutterably precious. Or perhaps it was simply that his excellent imagination insisted on projecting what would happen when his frail, elderly body slammed into that stony street.

    A contrarian to the end, aren't you, Rahzhyr? Still, when the flame actually eats through that door, I think you'll find it easier. And, of course, you can always plan on landing headfirst and

    "I beg your pardon, Dr. Mahklyn, but don't you think we should be going?"

    Rahzhyr Mahklyn jumped at least a foot straight up as the deep, calm voice seemed to speak out of the thin air beyond his window. Then, as he stared in disbelief, Captain Merlin Athrawes of the Charisian Royal Guard swung easily down and through the open window from the edge of the building's roof. His boots thumped on the office floor, and Mahklyn gaped at him as the seijin stroked his waxed mustachio thoughtfully.

    "Yes, definitely time we were going," he said, as if he were simply observing that it looked like they might have rain.

    "How –? Where –?"

    "I'm afraid we're a little short on time for detailed explanations, Doctor. In fact, we're a little short on time for anything except –"

    Mahklyn squawked in astonishment as King Cayleb's personal bodyguard snatched him up in what another era on another planet would have called a "fireman's carry." Mahklyn was elderly, and he knew he was growing frail, but he also knew he weighed far more than Merlin seemed to realize. The shoulder under him could have been carved out of marble for all that it gave under his weight, and then Merlin was clambering back out through the window opening.

    Well, you were going to jump anyway, weren't you? a lunatic voice gibbered in the back of his brain, and he screwed his eyes tightly shut as Merlin calmly turned sideways and reached for the side of the building.

    Later, Mahklyn was unable to reconstruct exactly what happened next. Possibly that was because of the way his all-too-rational mind insisted on trying to make sense of something which was patently impossible. Or, possibly, it was because smoke inhalation had already begun to blur his perceptions, caused him to begin imagining things. Of the two, he considerably preferred the second explanation. Probably because he was confident it wasn't the right one.

    At any rate, he found himself smoothly descending the outside of the Royal College's home over that impossibly strong shoulder. It was as if Captain Athrawes were actually driving his fingers and toes through the outer wall as easily as if it were made of paper or thatch instead of bricks and mortar. That was the only explanation for how he could possibly have found purchase points exactly where he needed them all the way down that sheer wall. Except, of course, that it wasn't possible . . . was it?

    Possible or not, it obviously worked. Only minutes after Merlin had miraculously appeared in his office, Rahzhyr Mahklyn found himself standing in the street watching the building which contained the better part of his life's work go up in a roaring torrent of flame.



    "My God, my God," he heard himself muttering over and over again. "What a disaster! My God, how did something like this happen? We never allowed lit lamps or candles unless someone was actually using them! Never!"

    "You didn't this time, either, Doctor," Captain Athrawes said grimly.

    "What?" Mahklyn blinked at him. "What did you say?"

    "I said you didn't leave any lit candles behind, Doctor." The seijin turned to look at him levelly. "And this was no accident, either. That fire was deliberately set."

    "What?" Mahklyn shook his head violently. "No, that's not possible. It couldn't be!"

    "Why not? This building, your College," Merlin waved one hand at the roaring, crackling inferno as the first of the city's fire pumps came thundering up behind a pair of foothill dragons, "has been denounced by the Temple Loyalists from the very beginning, Doctor. It's one of their pet horrors, the home of all that 'unclean knowledge' that 'led the Crown into apostasy,' isn't it? Why shouldn't one of their zealots decide to burn it to the ground?"

    Mahklyn stared at him as the firemen began coupling hoses between the pump and the closest fire department cistern while others took their places at the pump handles. It was obvious they couldn't save the College, but they might save the buildings to either side if they could get enough water on them quickly enough.

    "Surely it hasn't come to the point that people are willing to murder one another so casually!" the doctor exclaimed.

    "You think not?" Merlin raised an eyebrow, and his eyes were hard. "You may, perhaps, remember the fact that less than three five-days ago they tried to murder Archbishop Maikel in the nave of his own cathedral?"

    "Well, yes, of course it was, but he's the Archbishop! If anyone's going to be a logical target — assuming there could be any such thing for something like this — then obviously it would be him. But to murder someone like me? A no one? As if it were no more than swatting a fly? Surely not!"

    "If it hasn't come to that yet, it soon will." Merlin's deep voice was harsh as crushed stone. "And you're scarcely 'a no one,' either, Doctor! I'll grant you, whoever set this particular fire probably didn't have murder on his mind, but not because they wouldn't think killing you was worthwhile. I simply doubt that they could have realized the opportunity even existed. How many people outside the College itself know the hours you keep?"

    "Not very many," Mahklyn conceded, swinging away from the other man to stare at the flames once again.

    "Then probably our friend with the tinderbox didn't know it, either. He probably thought the building would be empty at this time of night."

    "I suppose that makes me feel a little better," Mahklyn said bleakly. "But if whoever it was wanted to destroy the College, he's succeeded. All our records, all our documents, all our work is inside that building, Seijin Merlin. Everything, you understand? Gone."

    "The records and the documents, yes, Doctor." Mahklyn turned back to look at Merlin once more, startled by the gentleness which had suddenly infused the guardsman's voice. Merlin looked back steadily, and his shoulders twitched in an odd little shrug. "The records may be gone, but the minds which created them, or studied them, or worked with them, are still here."

    "We can't possibly reconstitute all of that –"

    "Probably not, but at least you can make a start on it. And, if you'll permit me to say so, what you really need is to find yourselves some youngsters with the same mindset. Get them involved. Give them some starting points and some guidance, then stand back and see where they take it. You might be surprised. And at least you know Cayleb is prepared to support and fund you openly. Let him, Doctor. You've got too much rebuilding to do to worry about the independence from the Crown that might have been so important forty years ago."

    Mahklyn stared at him, listening to the mocking roar of the furnace consuming his life's work. The insulating effect of shock and the first outriders of grief were already beginning to pass, and as he met Merlin's eyes in the lurid glare of the flames, he knew why that was. They were being displaced by another emotion — rage. Raw, bloody-fanged rage. Rage such as he had never before felt in his entire life.

    "Yes, Doctor," Captain Athrawes said, nodding almost as if he could read Mahklyn's mind. "Whatever else happens, you can't let these people –" he gestured at the booming flames " — win, can you?"



    Bishop Mylz Halcom watched the additional fire engines charging through the city streets. Despite the lateness of the hour, the seething torrent of crimson flame and midnight-black smoke had summoned quite a crowd out into the streets, as well. Many of the spectators were hurrying forward to assist the firemen in fighting the flames, although it must be obvious to all of them that the Royal College itself was already doomed. The majority were simply gawking in awe at the holocaust. It wouldn't be long until they figured out exactly how the fire had started, though, and Halcom nodded to himself in satisfaction.

    All the loyal sons of Mother Church had needed was a little leadership, a little direction to point the way for their outraged faith to strike back at the abomination of the so-called "Church of Charis'" schismatic heresy.

    And what could have been a more suitable target? he asked himself. It's time Cayleb and his sycophants discover just how hot the true faithful's rage really burns. That accursed seijin may have managed to save that tratior Staynair's life, but they know now that one setback isn't going to cause us to just give up!  Perhaps this little bonfire will help them . . . reassess their decision to raise impious hands against God's true Church.

    And if it doesn't, I'm sure we'll be able to find one that will . . . eventually.

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