Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

By Schism Rent Asunder: Section Twenty Seven

       Last updated: Wednesday, March 19, 2008 07:36 EDT



King Cayleb's private dining salon,
Royal Palace,
City of Tellesberg,
Kingdom of Charis

    "May I refill your glass, Maikel?" King Cayleb asked late that evening, still holding the bottle of wine from which he had just refilled his own glass.

    "Yes, Your Majesty. Please." The archbishop extended his glass and smiled almost mischievously. "At least one good thing's come out of Corisande," he remarked, looking at the label on the bottle.

    "Something good has to come out of almost anywhere," Cayleb replied as he filled the glass. He seemed totally focused on the minor task, as if he found its mundaneness reassuring. Or perhaps distracting.

    He finished, set the bottle back on the table, and sat back in his chair.

    Officially, this was simply a private supper with his archbishop, at Maikel's request. With Gray Harbor out of the kingdom, and Staynair acting as first councilor in his place, there had been several such suppers. At which, of course, Captain Athrawes had always been the king's chosen bodyguard. That precedent had come in handy tonight.

    "All right," he said quietly. "I've had at least a few hours to think over what the two of you have told me. I have to admit that it . . . hurts a little bit to discover there was a secret this profound that Father never shared with me, but I understand why he wasn't free to make that decision by himself."

    "Cayleb," Staynair's voice was equally quiet, "it was never a matter of trust or distrust. It was only a matter of the procedures which had been set up four hundred years ago. Procedures which have served the Brethren of Saint Zherneau — and, I think, the entire Kingdom — well."

    "I said I understand, Maikel." Cayleb met the archbishop's eyes with a steady, level gaze. "And I think the real reason it hurts is that Father never had a chance to tell me the secret on my thirtieth birthday, after all."

    "I wish he had had that opportunity," Merlin said softly, contemplating his own wineglass, watching the ruby light pool at its heart. "Your father was one of the finest men I've ever known, Cayleb. In fact, he was an even better man than I ever would have realized without the Archbishop's little revelation."

    "Ah, yes. His 'revelation.' An excellent word for it, Merlin. Almost –" Cayleb switched that level gaze to Merlin "– as astonishing a revelation as your own."

    "Well," Merlin's smile was lopsided, "I did tell you I'd explain everything if the day ever came when I could."

    "Which, in this case," Cayleb said rather pointedly, "was more a case of the day when you had to, wouldn't you say?"

    "Fair enough." Merlin nodded. "On the other hand, there's also this. With Archbishop Maikel and the journal of Saint Zherneau to vouch for me, I figured you were a lot less likely to decide I was a lunatic. Or that you'd been wrong to trust me, after all."

    "There is that," Cayleb agreed, and folded his arms across his chest. The intensity of his gaze faded into something else, a look of wonder, almost reverence, with what might have been still just a lingering trace of fear. Or, at least, apprehension.

    "I can hardly believe it even now," he said slowly, contemplating Merlin from head to toe. "To be honest, I don't know which . . . confuses me more — the fact that you're dead, or the fact that you're a woman."

    "In point of fact," Staynair said mildly, "I'm not at all certain Merlin — or Nimue — is dead."

    "Oh, trust me, Your Eminence," Merlin said in a tone that blended wryness with a lingering, aching grief, "Nimue Alban is dead. Has been, for over nine hundred of your years. As dead as all of her friends . . . and as dead as the Terran Federation."

    "I've tried to visualize what you must have seen, experienced." Staynair shook his head. "I can't, of course. I don't suppose anyone could."

    "In some ways, it's not that different from what you and Cayleb — and King Haarahld, of course — have faced right here in Charis," Merlin pointed out. "If we lose, everything that matters to you will be destroyed. Although, mind you, I'm hoping for a rather happier outcome this time around."

    "As are we all," Staynair said dryly.

    "Well, of course we are," Cayleb said, still gazing at Merlin with those perplexed and wondering eyes. "I have to say, though, Merlin, that however hard I try, I just can't visualize you as a woman."

    "Which speaks well of my chosen disguise," Merlin said, then surprised himself with a chuckle. "On the other hand, that first rugby game you and Ahrnahld got me involved in was almost my undoing."

    "What?" Cayleb's eyebrows knitted. "What are you talking about?"

    "Cayleb," Merlin said patiently, "think about it. A PICA is fully functional, and I do mean fully functional. It can do anything, mimic any response, an organic human body can do . . . and I spent twenty-seven years — almost thirty of your years — being a woman. Trust me. There are some things that just don't change all that easily. Finding myself in the water, naked as the day I was born, and surrounded by all of those nice, equally naked, muscular, slithery male bodies . . . . I discovered that there's this physical response men have. I'd always realized, in an intellectual sort of way, that it happened, of course, but I'd never expected to experience it, you might say."

    Cayleb stared at him for a moment, and then he began to laugh. It started out quietly, but it didn't stay that way, and there was something deeply cleansing about the hilarity. Something that chased that lingering trace of fear — if that was what it had been — out of his eyes forever.

    "Oh, my God!" he managed to gasp between roars of laughter. "That was why you stayed in the water! Why you were so damned careful about that towel!"

    "Yes, it was," Merlin agreed rather repressively. "There've been other adjustments, but I have to admit that that one's probably been the most . . . interesting."



    Staynair had begun chuckling himself as he realized what Merlin and Cayleb were talking about. Now he shook his head.

    "Merlin," he said, still smiling, "somehow I don't think a dead woman — or a ghost — would have a sense of humor."

    "I'm not so sure about that, Your Eminence."

    "Then let me pose it this way. What constitutes being 'alive' for a human being?"

    "I suspect most people would think breathing was a reasonably important criterion."

    "Perhaps 'most people' would, but I'm not asking them. I'm asking you."

    "I truly don't know," Merlin admitted. He looked back down into his wineglass. "Maybe it's because I've worried about it so much, chewed the problem up one side and down the other so often that I can't stand back and think about it with any sort of detachment. I've just decided that even if I'm not — alive, I mean — I might as well act as if I were. Too many people made too many sacrifices to put me here on this world, at this particular time, for me to do anything else."

    "And that's why I'm certain you are alive, Merlin. Nimue Alban," Staynair said softly. "You were one of the ones who made those sacrifices. And you haven't done what you've already done here on Safehold out of some lingering sense of responsibility to people who have been dead for almost a thousand years. Oh, those people are important to you, and I understand that for you it hasn't been a thousand years since they died, either. But as Haarahld once told you, a man must be judged by his actions. And for all the lies heaped together in the Writ, there are truths, as well. Including the truth that a man's innermost nature will inevitably be known and revealed by his deeds.

    "You've shouldered your burden out of personal outrage, Merlin Athrawes. I haven't watched you, talked to you, learned from you for two years now without taking the measure of the man — or the woman — you truly are. You feel the pain which is so much a part of life, just as you feel the joys. I've always thought you were a profoundly lonely man, and now I know why. But I have never, for one moment, doubted that you were a good man, and despite what those fools in Zion believe, God is a god of love, Merlin, not a god of savage discipline and mindless rejection. His way may be hard sometimes, and He may demand much from some of His servants, but whatever else He may be, He isn't stupid. He knows what He's asked of people like you, over the ages. And whether you realize it or not, God knows you as one of His own, as well. I have no doubt that when Nimue Alban's physical body died, God had another task, another duty, waiting for her. There are too few great souls for Him to waste one which burned that brightly. And so, He let that soul sleep until the day a machine, a . . . PICA awoke in a cave here on Safehold. You have Nimue Alban's soul, Merlin Athrawes. Never doubt it. Never question it . . . or yourself."

    Merlin looked at the archbishop for endless seconds. And then, finally, he nodded once. He didn't say a single word. He didn't have to.

    The others let his silence linger for a time. Then Cayleb cleared his throat.

    "For what it's worth, Merlin, I agree with Maikel. Maybe it's just as well — no, it is just as well — you didn't try to explain all of that to me aboard Dreadnought before Darcos Sound. But it's like I told you that day in King's Harbor, when you killed the krakens. You may be able to conceal what you are, but you can't hide who you are, what you feel. I'm sorry, but you're just not very good at it."

    "Gosh, thanks," Merlin said wryly.

    "Don't mention it." Cayleb grinned at him. "On the other hand, it's going to be quite some time, I imagine, before I really manage to come to grips with all of this. It's going to change a lot of my assumptions."

    "I'm sure it is," Merlin acknowledged. "Still, it's not really going to change most of the constraints we face. There's still that kinetic bombardment system, floating up there in orbit. And there are still those power sources under the Temple I haven't been able to identify. Between the two of them, I think they constitute a damned good argument in favor of maintaining the secret just the way the Brethren have been maintaining it for the last four centuries. I, for one, have absolutely no desire to turn Charis into a second Armageddon Reef."

    "Granted." Cayleb nodded. "But from what you've said, there's an enormous number of things you can teach us, show us."

    "Yes and no." Merlin took another sip of wine, then set his glass aside and leaned forward in his chair, resting his folded forearms on the table.

    "I can teach you, but I can't just hand you the knowledge. For a lot of reasons, including concealment from the Church and whatever remote sensors might be reporting to those power sources under the Temple. But even if I wasn't worried about that particular aspect of it, I couldn't just replace the Church as the source of all authority. People all over Safehold have to learn to do what you already do here in Charis, Cayleb. They have to learn to think. To reject the automatic acceptance of dogma and restrictions simply because someone else — whether it's the Church of God Awaiting or some all-knowing oracle from the lost past — tells them they must accept them. We have to transform Safehold into a world of people who want to understand the physical universe around them. People who are comfortable innovating, thinking of new ways to do new things on their own. That's one reason — the main reason, in a lot of ways — I've made suggestions, pointed out possibilities, and then stood back and let people like Baron Seamount, Ehdwyrd Howsmyn, and Rhaiyan Mychail figure out how to apply them.

    "And –" he looked Cayleb straight in the eye "– it's equally important for everyone on Safehold, even Charis' enemies, to do the same thing."

    Cayleb frowned, and Merlin shook his head.

    "Think about it, Cayleb. Who's your real enemy? Hektor of Corisande? Or the Inquisition?"

    "At the moment," Cayleb said after a thoughtful pause, "I'm rather more focused on Hektor. I hope you won't find that too difficult to understand." He smiled thinly. "On the other hand, I understand the point you're making. If it weren't Hektor, Clyntahn and the Group of Four would have found someone else to use as their tool."

    "Exactly. And how will you defeat the Church? Can you do it with navies and armies?"

    "No," Cayleb said slowly.

    "Of course not," Merlin said simply. "Your true enemy is a belief system, a doctrine, a way of thinking. You can't kill ideas with a sword, and you can't sink belief structures with a broadside. You defeat them by making them change, and the Church has only two options for confronting the challenge you and Charis present. Either they refuse to change, in which case they can't possibly defeat you militarily. Or they decide they have no choice but to change, to adopt the new weapons, the new technologies. And once they do that, they'll discover they have to change their belief structure, as well. And when that happens, Cayleb, you'll have won, because your true enemy will have committed suicide."

    "You make it sound so easy," Cayleb observed with a twisted smile.

    "No," the archbishop said, and the king looked at him. "Not 'easy,' Cayleb. Only simple."

    "Exactly." Merlin nodded. "There was a military philosopher back on Old Earth before anyone had ever dreamed about spaceflight, or suspected that something like the Gbaba might be out there waiting for us. He said that in war, everything was very simple . . . but even the simplest things were hard to do."

    "Really?" Cayleb's smile eased a bit. "That's interesting. Father said almost exactly the same thing to me more than once. Did he get it from one of those books of Saint Zherneau's?"

    "I doubt it very much. Your father was one of the smartest men I ever met, Cayleb. I don't think he needed Clausewitz to explain that to him."



    "All right," Cayleb said, after a moment. "I guess I can see what you're saying. Speaking purely as the King of Charis, I'm not especially enthusiastic about it, you understand, but I see what you're saying and why. On the other hand, if the 'inner circle' of the Brethren already know the truth about how we got here, and why, can't we at least begin spreading some of your additional knowledge around among them?"

    "For those who already know about Saint Zherneau's journal, yes." Merlin shrugged. "The fact that the Inquisition didn't burn Charis to the ground years ago is pretty convincing proof that they, at least, know how to keep a secret. In fact, I'm tempted to use them to set up some additional caches of books and documents, just in case the Church gets lucky. I'm not sure that's a good idea, mind you, but I think it at least bears thinking on.

    "The problem is that once we get beyond the group we already know has managed to maintain good security, every person we add to that 'inner circle' of yours constitutes a fresh risk. Whatever we may think, we can't know how someone is going to react to the truth, and it would take only one person who went running to the Inquisition to do enormous damage — quite possibly fatal damage — to everything we're all trying to accomplish."

    "All right, that's obviously a valid point." Cayleb cocked his head to one side, scratching the tip of his nose gently while he thought hard. "At the same time, eventually you're going to have to start making the truth known to a larger number of people. I can certainly recognize the reasons for being cautious about that, but there are some people here in Charis who I think could probably weather the shock better than you might expect. And some of them could be far more useful and productive if they had more of your knowledge to work from. I'm thinking about people like Seamount, and possibly Howsmyn. Or, for that matter, Dr. Mahklyn."

    Merlin nodded slowly, remembering his conversation with Cayleb the night the Royal College was burned.

    "You're right about that. And you are the King of Charis. It's your kingdom, they're your people, and you're the one responsible for their safety and survival. I have my mission, over and beyond the survival of Charis, but you have yours, as well."

    "I may be King, but I'm not arrogant enough to believe my judgment is infallible. If it were, I wouldn't have gotten quite as many beatings as a boy." Cayleb chuckled again, then sobered. "Fortunately, there are other people here in Charis who've already demonstrated good judgment — not just about how to keep secrets, but about when to reveal them, too."

    "You're thinking about the Brethren," Staynair said.

    "That's exactly who I'm thinking about, Maikel. I have a proposal for you and the Brethren — and Merlin. I believe it's time you set up a formal process designed to actively identify and vet possible candidates for admission into the 'inner circle.' Perhaps what we really need to do is to borrow from Saint Zherneau's model and set up both inner and outer circles. I don't know about that. But I do know some sort of process needs to be in place, one that lets me make use of the Brethren's collective judgment about this sort of decision the same way I make use of the Council's, and of Parliament's, for other decisions. Except that in this case, I'll pledge to be bound by the majority recommendation of whatever 'Council of Saint Zherneau' we set up."

    "There may be instances in which there's no time to ask anyone else," Merlin pointed out. "For example, I had no choice but to show you at least a part of the truth the night I took your message to your father."

    "No system is perfect, Merlin. All we can do is the best we can do. Beyond that, we'll simply have to trust God."

    Merlin gazed at the youthful king thoughtfully.

    "What?" Cayleb said after a moment.

    "I'm just . . . pleased," Merlin said.

    "Pleased about what?"

    "Well, one of the things I've wondered about — and worried about, to be honest — is how this planet is going to react when everyone finds out that the Church of God Awaiting has been a total fraud based on a stupendous lie."

    "You're concerned that having discovered the Church is a lie, they may decide God Himself is a lie," Staynair said softly.

    "Exactly, Your Eminence." Merlin turned his eyes to the archbishop. "While it may not seem likely to someone raised in a theology like the one Langhorne set up, there were plenty of people back on Old Earth — many of them good, moral, compassionate people — who rejected the existence of God for a whole range of reasons they found convincing. From the Church's perspective, that's the one downside of encouraging the sort of freedom of conscience and thought you've been proclaiming here in Charis. And in a lot of ways, rejecting God's very existence would be an intensely logical reaction once the truth finally comes out. After all, these people — your people — will have had the most convincing evidence anyone could possibly imagine that religion can be used as the most devastating tyranny in the universe."

    "That's a point we've considered at Saint Zherneau's over the centuries." Staynair's slight shrug was eloquent. "Some of the Brethren have been deeply concerned over it, to be honest. But, for myself, I have no real fear on that head, Merlin."

    "In that case, I envy the depth of your faith, Your Eminence."

    "It isn't a matter of faith. It's a matter of logic." Merlin's eyebrows rose, and Staynair laughed softly. "Of course it is! Either God exists, or He doesn't, Merlin. Those are really the only two possibilities. If He does exist, as I believe all three of us believe He does, then, ultimately, anything which promotes truth will only tend to demonstrate His existence. And even if that weren't true, if He exists, then whatever happens will be what He chooses to allow to happen — even if, for some reason beyond my comprehension, what He chooses is to have mankind turn against Him, at least for a time."

    "And if He doesn't exist?" Merlin asked quietly.

    "If He doesn't, He doesn't. But if He doesn't, then none of it will matter, anyway, will it?"

    Merlin blinked, and Staynair laughed again.

    "I'm quite confident about which of those two possibilities apply, Merlin. But as I believe I've already told you, men must have the right to refuse to believe before they truly can believe. And if it turns out I've been wrong all my life, what have I really lost? I will have done my best to live as a good man, loving other men and women, serving them as I might, and if there is no God, then at the end of my life I'll simply close my eyes and sleep. Is there truly anything dreadful, anything to terrify any man, in that possibility? It isn't that I fear oblivion, Merlin — it's simply that I hope for and believe in so much more."

    "Your Eminence, I don't know about the rest of Safehold, but I'm coming to the conclusion that you are almost disturbingly sane. And you remind me of an old folk saying from Earth. I believe you have a variant of it here on Safehold, as well. 'In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man will be king.'"

    "We do, indeed, have that particular cliché," Staynair agreed. "And, of course, we have the corollary. 'The one-eyed man will be king . . . unless all of the blind men decide to kill him, instead.'" The archbishop smiled whimsically. "It puts rather an interesting perspective on things, doesn't it?"

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image