"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.




About Eric Flint

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