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By Schism Rent Asunder: Section Twenty Four

       Last updated: Monday, February 25, 2008 07:51 EST



Royal Palace and Monastery of Saint Zherneau,
City of Tellesberg,
Kingdom of Charis

    "A moment, if you please, Seijin Merlin."

    Merlin paused and looked up in some surprise as Archbishop Maikel laid a large, powerful hand lightly on his shoulder.

    "Yes, Your Eminence? How may I help you?"

    They stood just inside the door of the chamber the rest of the Royal Council had just left, and Cayleb looked back at them with one eyebrow raised.

    "Is there something we still need to talk about, Maikel?" the king asked.

    "Actually, Your Majesty," Staynair said, his tone more formal than usual, "I'd like to borrow the seijin for the afternoon, if I might." Cayleb's surprise showed rather more clearly than Merlin's had, and the archbishop smiled. "I promise I'll have him back in time for supper, Your Majesty. I simply have a minor matter I need to discuss with him, and since I have a pastoral errand to run in the city this afternoon, anyway, I thought I might ask him to come along with me. Just as a precaution, you understand."

    Cayleb's expression tightened abruptly. The attempt to assassinate Archbishop Maikel was entirely too fresh in his memory for him to misunderstand what sort of "precaution" Staynair had in mind. Especially in view of what had happened to the Royal College three days before.

    "If you need additional protection, Maikel –" the king began, but Staynair shook his head.

    "I'm not really especially concerned about assassins, Your Majesty," he said with a half-smile. "Not this time, at least. However, I do have a visit I want to pay this afternoon, and under the circumstances, I'd really prefer not to draw a great deal of attention to it. Unfortunately, I'd be just a tad noticeable if I take along a passel of armsmen.  Given the unfortunate events in the Cathedral, what's happened to the College, and the way feelings in general seem to be running, I'd hate for a private trip to visit an old friend who's not feeling especially well to focus any potential hostility on a simple monastery, and it's only too possible I might make certain people think I must be up to something if they realize I'm going there at all. Fortunately, I feel quite confident," his smile grew broader, "that Captain Athrawes would be more than up to the task of keeping us both intact if I made the trip . . . incognito, shall we say?"

    "Is it really important enough to risk having you running around the streets 'incognito' at a time like this?" Cayleb asked.

    "He's a very old friend, Your Majesty," Staynair replied quietly, "and his health has been failing for some time now. It isn't just a visit of friendship."

    Cayleb gazed at the prelate for a moment or two, then drew a deep breath and nodded. Merlin wasn't particularly surprised by the king's capitulation, even though the notion of anything's happening to Maikel Staynair at this particular moment in the history of Safehold was, frankly, just this side of terrifying. That was probably even truer for Merlin than it was for Cayleb, if Merlin was going to be honest, and after the earlier attempt no one — not even Staynair — could pretend the Temple Loyalists hadn't figured out the same thing. But both Merlin and Cayleb knew nothing they could possibly say would dissuade Staynair from the discharge of his priestly office. If they could have dissuaded him, he would have been someone else . . . and he wouldn't have been so vital to their hopes for the future.

    "Very well," the king said. Then he moved his eyes to Merlin. "Do try to keep him in one piece, please, Merlin. Again."

    Staynair had the grace to wince ever so slightly at the king's final word, but he didn't let it change his mind.

    "I'll do my very best, Your Majesty," Merlin assured Cayleb, and glanced at the towering Royal Guardsman who'd been waiting outside the council room door.

    Sergeant Payter Faircaster was the only member of Crown Prince Cayleb's Marine bodyguard to formally transfer to the Guard when Cayleb assumed the throne. Ahrnahld Fhalkhan and the rest of Cayleb's old bodyguards were now protecting Crown Prince Zhan, Cayleb's eleven year-old younger brother. The change of assignment had been hard on both Cayleb and the men who had protected him for so long, but the security of the heir to the Charisian throne had been a responsibility of the Royal Charisian Marines since time out of mind. Faircaster might well have stayed with the old detachment as well, but Cayleb had insisted that at least one of "his" Marines had to come along . . . in no small part because they already knew about Merlin's "visions." Having someone else along to help cover for Merlin's occasional . . . peculiarities, at least until they'd decided which of the king's new guardsmen could be admitted to that same knowledge, had struck the young king as a very good idea.

    Merlin had agreed. Besides, Faircaster's calm, competent ferocity was immensely comforting to the man — or PICA — responsible for keeping the king alive. And having someone around who'd been fishing Cayleb out of scrapes since he was nine years old wasn't exactly something to sneer at, either.

    "Payter," Merlin said now.

    "Yes, Sir," the enormous Guardsman rumbled.

    "Send a page to inform Lieutenant Ahstyn that you need another man. I think Sergeant Vynair should be available. Then keep a close eye on His Majesty until Vynair turns up. Don't let him get into any trouble."

    "Yes, Sir." Faircaster touched his right fist to his cuirass breastplate in salute and gave the king a stern glance, and Cayleb shook his head.

    "It's always so comforting to realize how much in command I am of all about me," he remarked to no one in particular.

    "That's good to know, Your Majesty." The exquisite courtesy of Merlin's response was only slightly flawed by the amusement in his strange, sapphire eyes. Then he turned back to Staynair.

    "At your convenience, Your Eminence," he murmured.




    "Incognito," Staynair had said, and "incognito" he'd meant, Merlin thought more than a bit grumpily an hour or so later. In fact, Merlin was more than a little surprised by just how incognito Maikel Staynair could be when he put his mind to it. The archbishop was probably even more recognizable to the people of the capital than King Cayleb himself. For years, he'd appeared every Wednesday in Tellesberg Cathedral, celebrating high mass for the people of the capital as their city's bishop, and he'd been even more visible since becoming the entire kingdom's archbishop.

    Despite that, and despite his flowing beard and strong-featured face, he'd faded somehow into near-total anonymity when he exchanged the orange-trimmed white cassock of his exalted ecclesiastical rank for the stark, unadorned brown robe of a simple brother of the Order of Bédard (to which he was still entitled, despite his elevation) and turned the ruby ring of his office to hide the stone against his palm. With the cowl pulled up and his head bent with proper humility, the archbishop disappeared completely.

    Unfortunately, that robe was not one of the cassocks Owl and Merlin had replaced. Its normal cloth would offer no special resistance to blades or bullets, which was enough to make Merlin acutely unhappy, although he could hardly explain why that might be to Staynair. Which only made him even more unhappy, of course.

    Nor did he find much to rejoice about in the reflection that a simple brother would scarcely have been accompanied by a captain of the Royal Guard, which meant Merlin had been forced to make some adjustments to his own appearance, as well. He'd left his armor, his Guard uniform, and his wakazashi behind, and he hoped his katana didn't look peculiar enough to attract undue attention. He wasn't certain how realistic that hope might be, however, since the only two men in the entire kingdom — for that matter, on the entire face of the planet — who routinely carried katanas were His Majesty King Cayleb and the famous (or infamous) seijin, Merlin. He was also a little surprised by how much he missed his black-and-gold livery after wearing it virtually every day for the better part of two local years.

    But the hardest thing for him to disguise was his eyes. Merlin Athrawes' eyes were the same deep, sapphire blue as Nimue Alban's, and he had yet to meet a single Charisian with eyes which even approached their color.

    I wish to hell these people had at least invented sunglasses or something, he groused to himself as they made their way through the capital city's teeming, noisy, always incredibly busy streets. Of course, if he wanted to be honest, he could have done something about the eyes before he ever arrived in Charis. He couldn't simply reprogram their color, but he could have used the fabrication unit in Nimue's Cave to make himself a nice, brown pair of contacts to cover their "natural" color.

    I guess I didn't want to lose that last trace of Nimue, he admitted to himself. And to be honest, I still don't . . . even if it has turned out to be a royal pain in the ass. And one I can't just abandon now that everyone and his brother knows "Captain Athrawes" has those "unearthly blue, seijin eyes." Talk about shooting myself in the foot!

    His strong suspicion that Staynair was rather amused by his predicament  didn't help his mood one bit, either.

    "Just how much further is it to this monastery, Your Eminence, if you don't mind my asking?" He kept his voice low, and Staynair snorted.

    "About another fifteen or twenty minutes," he replied.

    "If I'd realized we were going to be hiking halfway across the city, I'd probably have insisted on a little better security," Merlin observed. He didn't quite succeed in keeping the asperity out of his voice. In fact, he didn't even try very hard, and Staynair chuckled, then shook his head.

    "It's not really all that much farther," he said soothingly. "Besides, the exercise is good for us."

    "Thank you for thinking of me, Your Eminence, but I get quite a lot of exercise, anyway."

    Staynair chuckled again, and Merlin smiled almost against his will.

    At least the inevitable mid-afternoon thunderstorms which had swept over the capital earlier had continued on their way without lingering. The air was humid in the rain's aftermath, however, and the fact that it was technically fall didn't seem to have impressed the temperature particularly. According to Merlin's built-in temperature sensors, it hovered right at thirty-two degrees on the Celsius scale no one else in the entire galaxy used any longer.

    Fortunately, neither heat nor humidity meant very much to a PICA, and Staynair had grown up right here in Tellesberg. The climate didn't bother him a bit, and if he was in need of any exercise, it certainly didn't show in the brisk pace he'd set since they left the palace behind.

    "Ah! Here we are," he said a few minutes later, and turned down a side street.

    Merlin looked around curiously. Despite the arson which had reduced the Royal College to a heap of cinders and charred brick, Tellesberg was a more law-abiding and prosperous city than many. Even so, it had its . . . less affluent neighborhoods, and this was scarcely the better side of town. The buildings around them had the rundown look of shops and warehouses whose customers were none too plump in the purse, the odors wafting about suggested that the local sewers could have used a little attention, they'd passed at least two fire department cisterns which were no more than half-filled, and the hard and hungry eyes of one or two of the loungers they'd passed in the last few blocks had convinced Merlin that Staynair had been wise to be sure he had an adequate bodyguard even if no one at all recognized him for who he truly was.

    They continued on their way for another five minutes or so, while the shops got fewer and fewer and rundown warehouses and overcrowded tenements got more and more numerous. And then, finally, Staynair turned up one last walkway to a heavy wooden door set into a distinctly battered and modest-looking wall.

    Like every major Safeholdian city, Tellesberg was liberally supplied with churches and cathedrals. Monasteries and convents were also fairly common, although most of those tended to be located outside urban areas, where they could help to support themselves by farming. But this particular monastery didn't fit that description. It looked as if it had probably been here since Tellesberg's founding, and warehouses had squeezed so tightly against it on either side that it couldn't possibly have space for anything more than a very modest kitchen garden.

    Staynair knocked, and then he and Merlin waited patiently until the slide on the small window in the stout wooden door opened and a monk looked out. To Merlin's surprise, the monk's brown habit bore the white horse of the Order of Truscott, not the oil lamp of the Order of Bédard. Somehow Merlin had had the impression that the monastery for which they were bound belonged to Staynair's order.

    The door warden's eyes lit with obvious recognition as he saw Staynair, and the sturdy, scarred portal quickly opened. Merlin had expected it to squeak loudly, given the monastery wall's general down-at-the-heels appearance, but instead, it moved with the silence of well-oiled and well-maintained hinges.

    "Welcome to the Monastery of Saint Zherneau, Seijin Merlin," Staynair said as they passed through the opening and the door closed behind them. There was a curious note in the archbishop's voice, as if somehow the words meant more than they'd said. Merlin's internal antennae twitched, but he said nothing, only nodded and followed Staynair and the door warden across the monastery's courtyard.



    The space inside the outer wall turned out to be larger than Merlin would have estimated from the outside. It was considerably deeper, and it wasn't the cobbled square or packed dirt courtyard he would have expected from the general dilapidation of the surrounding neighborhood. Instead, he found himself surrounded by greenery, ancient lichen-covered walls, and the liquid, waterfall-music magic of ornamental fish ponds. Wyverns and terrestrial songbirds perched in the branches of dwarf fruit trees which appeared to be almost as ancient as the monastary itself, and their soft whistles and chirps made a soothing contrast to the city noises outside the wall.

    Staynair and he followed their guide into the chapter house and down a series of whitewashed corridors. The brick floors had been worn smooth and gullied by centuries of passing feet, and the walls were a combination of stone and brick, with the transition between building materials indicating where later additions joined the original structure. They were also quite thick, and it was cool and quiet inside them.

    Their guide paused at last outside another door. He glanced over his shoulder at Staynair, then knocked once, gently.

    "Enter," a voice called from the other side, and the monk opened the door and stood aside.

    "Thank you, Brother," Staynair murmured, then stepped past him with a slight "follow me" head twitch at Merlin.

    They found themselves in what was obviously an office, although at first glance one might have been forgiven for thinking it was a library, instead. Or possibly an outsized storage closet. The slightly musty smell of paper and ink filled the air, bookshelves filled what would otherwise have been a high-ceilinged, airy chamber almost claustrophobically full, and the desk under its single skylight sat in a shelf-surrounded space, like a clearing hacked out of a towering rain forest canopy, that looked much too small for it and the two chairs sitting in front of it.

    Judging from the heap of books and papers stacked on the floor, Merlin suspected that the chairs normally served as convenient holding spots for reference works and documents. Somehow he didn't think they "just happened" to have been cleared of their burdens before he and the archbishop arrived so unexpectedly.

    "Seijin Merlin," Staynair said, "allow me to introduce Father Zhon Byrkyt, the Abbot of Saint Zherneau's."

    "Father," Merlin responded with a slight bow. Byrkyt was an elderly man, obviously at least several years older than Staynair, who wasn't precisely an infant himself. In his youth, he'd probably been somewhere between Staynair's height and Merlin's, which would have made him a veritable giant for Charis, although advancing years and a curving spine had changed that, and he looked almost painfully frail. He wore the green cassock of an over-priest, rather than the brown habit the door warden had worn. And, Merlin noted with slightly narrowed eyes, his cassock carried the quill pen of Chihiro rather than the horse of Truscott or the lamp of Bédard.

    "Seijin," the abbot replied. His voice sounded as if it had once been far more robust — even as he had — but his eyes were clear and sharp. They were also at least as intense as Merlin's own, and there was a curiously eager light in their brown depths. He gestured at the chairs in front of his desk. "Please, be seated, both of you," he invited.

    Merlin waited until Staynair had taken one of the chairs before he sat himself. Then he settled down, standing his scabbarded katana upright against the edge of Byrkyt's desk and hoping he looked rather more relaxed than he actually felt. He didn't need a PICA's sensors to feel the strange, almost anticipatory tension which hovered about him.

    That tension stretched out in silence for several seconds before Staynair broke it.

    "First," the archbishop said, "allow me to apologize, Merlin. I'm reasonably certain you've already deduced that I was guilty of a certain amount of . . . misdirection, let's say, when I 'invited you' to accompany me this afternoon."

    "Some slight suspicion along that line had occurred to me, Your Eminence," Merlin conceded, and Staynair chuckled.

    "I'm not surprised," he said. "On the other hand, there are certain things which will be easier to explain here at Saint Zherneau's than they would have been in the Palace. Things which, I feel certain," his eyes bored suddenly into Merlin's, "will come as something of a surprise to you."

    "Somehow, I don't doubt that in the least," Merlin said dryly.

    "What I said to Cayleb was the truth," Staynair told him. "Zhon," he nodded at Byrkyt, "is indeed a very old friend of mine. And, alas, his health isn't good. I'm fairly confident he won't find himself in need of extreme unction this afternoon, however."

    "I'm relieved to hear that, Your Eminence."

    "So am I," Byrkyt agreed with a smile of his own.

    "Well, yes." Staynair might actually have looked just a little embarrassed, Merlin thought, however unlikely it seemed. If he did, it didn't slow him down for long.

    "At any rate," the archbishop continued, "my real objective, obviously, was to get you here."

    "And the reason you wanted me here was precisely what, Your Eminence?" Merlin inquired politely.

    "That's probably going to take a little explaining." Staynair leaned back in his chair, crossing his legs, and regarded Merlin steadily.

    "The Monastery of Saint Zherneau is quite ancient, actually," he said. "In fact, tradition has it — and I believe the tradition is accurate, in this case, for several reasons — that the monastery stands upon the site of the oldest church in Tellesberg. It dates back literally to within a very few years of the Creation. Indeed, there are some indications that the original church was built on the Day of Creation itself."

    Merlin nodded, and reminded himself that unlike any of the terrestrial religions with which he was familiar, the Church of God Awaiting truly was able to assign an exact day, hour, and minute to the moment of creation. A date and time amply substantiated by not simply the Holy Writ itself, but also by The Testimonies, the first-hand recollections of the eight million literate Adams and Eves who had experienced it. Of course, none of the people who'd left those written journals, letters, and accounts had remembered that they'd volunteered as colonists only to have their memories completely scrubbed and reprogrammed to believe the colony command crew's personnel were archangels.

    "Saint Zherneau's isn't well known outside Charis," Staynair continued. "It isn't a large monastery, and the Brethren of Zherneau have never been particularly numerous compared to any of the mainstream orders. Of course, there are quite a few small monasteries and convents, and they tend to come and go. Most of them grow out of the life and example of a particularly pious and devout spiritual leader who attracts a following of like-minded individuals during his or her own lifetime. Mother Church has always permitted such small religious communities, and the majority of them, frankly, don't often last more than a single generation or so after their founders' deaths. Generally, they're sponsored and supported by one of the major orders, and when they fade away, their holdings and manors — if any — escheat to the sponsoring order.

    "Saint Zherneau's, however, is . . . unique in several respects. First, its charter was established right here in Tellesberg, not in Zion, under the authority of the first bishop of Tellesberg, even before any archbishop had been appointed to us. Secondly, it's never been sponsored by — or restricted to the membership of — a single order. The Brethren are drawn from virtually every order of Mother Church. The monastery is a place of spiritual retreat and renewal open to all, and its brethren bring a wide diversity of perspectives with them."



    The archbishop paused, and Merlin pursed his lips thoughtfully. What Staynair was describing was quite different from the vast majority of monastic communities Merlin had studied since awakening in Nimue's Cave. Most Safeholdian monasteries and convents were very definitely the property of one or another of the great orders, and those orders were zealous about defending their ownership.  Once one got beyond the borders of the Temple Lands, the competition between orders was seldom as fierce as it was inside the precincts of the Temple and the city of Zion. But it always existed, and their monasteries, convents, manors, and estates represented more than simple tokens in the competition. Those institutions were the sinews and wealth which made that competition possible.

    Of course, Saint Zherneau's didn't exactly strike Merlin as one of the great monastic communities. Despite its obvious age and lovingly landscaped grounds, it was, as Staynair had said, a relatively small monastery. It wasn't likely that it produced a great deal of wealth, which might well explain how it had avoided the great orders' attention, as well as the greater inclusiveness and diversity of its membership.

    Somehow, though, Merlin rather doubted the explanation was quite that simple.

    "I, myself, came here to Saint Zherneau's as a very young man," Staynair said. "At the time, I was unsure whether or not I truly had a vocation, and the Brethren helped me address my doubts. They were a great comfort to me when my spirit needed that comfort badly, and like many others, I became one of them. Indeed, although the population of the monastery itself at any moment is usually quite small, a great many of the Brethren, like myself, maintain our membership even after we've moved on formally to one or another of the great orders. We remain family, one might say, which means we have far more members than one might think from the size of the monastary itself, and most of us return at intervals to the monastery for spiritual retreats and to draw strength from the support of our fellow brothers.

    "Interestingly enough," the archbishop's eyes drilled into Merlin's once more, "the confessors of six of the last eight kings of Charis have all been Brothers of Saint Zherneau, as well."

    Had Merlin still been a creature of flesh and blood, he would have inhaled a deep breath of surprise and speculation. But he wasn't, of course, and so he simply tilted his head to one side.

    "That sounds like a remarkable . . . coincidence, Your Eminence," he observed.

    "Yes, it does, doesn't it?" Staynair smiled at him, then glanced at the abbot. "I told you he was quick, didn't I, Zhon?"

    "So you did," Byrkyt agreed, and smiled somewhat more broadly than his ecclesiastic superior. "As a matter of fact, he rather reminds me of another young man I once knew, although he seems rather less . . . rebellious."

    "Really? And who might that have been?"

    "Fishing for compliments is a most unbecoming trait in an archbishop," Byrkyt replied serenely, but his sharp brown eyes had never wavered from Merlin's face. Now he turned to face him fully.

    "What Maikel is getting at, in his somewhat indirect fashion, Seijin Merlin, is that the Brethren of Saint Zherneau haven't, as I'm sure you've already guessed, produced that many confessors for that many monarchs by accident."

    "I'm sure they haven't. The question in my mind, Father, is exactly why they've done it, and how, and why you and the Archbishop should choose to make me aware of it."

    "The question?" Byrkyt said. "By my count, that's at least three questions, Seijin." He chuckled. "Well, no matter. I'll answer the last one first, if you don't mind."

    "I don't mind at all," Merlin said, although, to be honest, he wasn't absolutely certain that was the truth.

    "The reason Maikel decided to bring you here to meet me today, seijin, has to do with a letter he received from King Haarahld. It was written shortly before the King's death, and it dealt primarily with his underlying strategy for keeping Duke Black Water's fleet in play until Cayleb — and you, of course — could return from Armageddon Reef to deal with it. In fact," if Staynair's eyes had bored into Merlin like drills, Byrkyt's were diamond-cutting lasers, "it had to do with how he knew how long he had to keep Black Water occupied."

    Merlin found himself sitting very, very still. He'd never explained to either Cayleb or Haarahld exactly how he'd physically traveled four thousand miles in less than two hours to carry the warning about Black Water's new strategy to Haarahld. He'd been astounded and immensely relieved, to say the very least, by how calmly Haarahld had taken his "miraculous" appearance on the stern gallery of the king's flagship in the middle of the night, but in all honesty, he'd been so focused on the immediate threat that he hadn't really tried to nail down why the king had reacted with so little outward consternation.

    And he'd never suspected for a moment that Haarahld might have told anyone else, even his confessor, about it.

    Silence lingered in the quiet office-library. In an odd sort of way, it was almost as if Staynair and Byrkyt were the PICAs, sitting silently, waiting with absolute patience while Merlin tried to absorb the implications of what Byrkyt had just said . . . and think of some way to respond.

    "Father," he said finally, "Your Eminence, I don't know exactly what King Haarahld may have written to you. I can only assume, however, that whatever it was, it was not to denounce me as some sort of demon."

    "Hardly that, Merlin." Staynair's voice was gentle, almost comforting, and as Merlin watched, he smiled as if in fond memory. "He was excited, actually. There was always that piece of a little boy down inside him, that sense of wonder. Oh," the archbishop waved one hand, "he wasn't totally immune to the possibility that he was making a mistake in trusting you. That you might actually turn out to be a 'demon.' After all, we're speaking here of matters of faith, where reason is but one support, and that sometimes a frail one. Still, Merlin, there comes a time when any child of God must gather up in his hands all that he is, all that he can ever hope to be, and commit it. After all the thought, all the prayer, all the meditation, that moment of decision comes to all of us. Some never find the courage to meet it. They look away, try to ignore it or simply pretend it never came to them. Others turn away, take refuge in what others have taught them, what others have commanded them to think and believe, rather than making the choice, accepting the test, for themselves.

    "But Haarahld was never a coward. When the moment came, he recognized it, and he met it, and he chose to place his trust in you. He wrote me about that decision, and he said –" Staynair's eyes went slightly out of focus as he recited from memory " –' He may be a demon, after all, Maikel. I don't think so, but as we all know, I've been wrong a few times in my life. Quite a few, actually. But either way, the time has finally come. I won't fail the trust God has placed in all of us by refusing the choice. And so, I've placed my own life, my son's life, the lives of my other children, my people, and yours – and all the souls that go with them — in his hands. If I'm wrong to do so, then surely I will pay a terrible price after this life. But I'm not. And if it should happen that God chooses for me never to return home, know this. I accept His decision, and I pass to you and to my son the completion of the task I agreed to undertake so long ago.'"

    The archbishop fell silent once more. Merlin felt the dead king's words echoing within him. It was as if he and Haarahld stood together on that sternwalk once again, and his PICA eyes burned as they faithfully mimicked the autonomous responses of their original human models.

    "What task, Your Eminence?" he asked softly.

    "The task of teaching his people, and all of Safehold, the truth," Staynair said. "The truth about God, about the Church, about our world and all the work of God's hands. The truth that the Church has spent so many centuries systematically suppressing and choking out of existence."

    "The truth?" Merlin stared at the archbishop. Even now, even after hearing Haarahld's words literally from beyond the grave, he had never expected to hear anything like that, and his thoughts spun like a man dancing on ice while he fought for balance. "What truth?"

    "This one," Byrkyt said quietly. "It begins, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are . . . .'"

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