"This is getting depressingly familiar," Cayleb Ahrmahk said as he turned up the wick of the bedside lamp.


            "I'm sorry about that." Merlin quirked a brief, lopsided smile. "I'm afraid it's getting a bit harder to find opportune moments to pass unobtrusive messages now that you're a king, instead of a mere crown prince."


            "Or, at least, to pass them without anyone else noticing that you're doing it," Cayleb agreed with a yawn. He swung his legs over the side of his bed and stood, then grimaced. "And I imagine it's going to get even worse after the wedding," he said sourly.


            "Cayleb –"


            "I understand!" Cayleb interrupted Merlin's response, and his grimace turned into a lopsided smile of his own. "Little did I think when I agreed to abide by the Brethren's decision about who we could tell that it was going to turn around and bite me on the arse this quickly."


            "No one wants to make this any more difficult than it already is," Merlin began. "And you know –"


            "Yes, I do know you and Maikel both think we should go ahead and tell her. Well, so do I. And, frankly, I'm going to find it very difficult to justify not telling her once we're married. I can't quite shake the feeling that this is going to come under the heading of one of those interesting little secrets of state joint rulers are expected to share with one another, Merlin."


            Merlin nodded. In fact, he knew Cayleb really did understand that Merlin strongly agreed with him. This was something Sharleyan had to be told about, even if it was only the "By the way, did we mention that the seijin has visions?" version. Unfortunately, the more cautious among the Brothers of Saint Zherneau also had a point. However intelligent, however committed, Sharleyan might be — however flexible she might appear, or actually be — they simply hadn't had long enough to get a feel for how she might react to the shattering implications of Saint Zherneau's journal.


            Personally, Merlin felt confident she would handle it far better than others might fear. But that was at least in part because he'd spent the last two years watching her through his SNARCs. He'd seen her, listened to her, and observed her ability to keep necessary secrets of state, and he'd developed a lively respect for both her intelligence and her intellectual resilience. For her moral courage and ability to face even unexpected realities. And, as the man who had once been Nimue Alban, he had an even more lively respect for her ability to do all of that in a kingdom where reigning queens had never before prospered. The Brethren, lacked that particular avenue of insight, however, and they were only too well aware of their responsibilities as the keepers of Saint Zherneau's secret.


            Cayleb had known Sharleyan literally only for a few days. It was obvious to everyone, though, that the two of them were delighted by the mutual discoveries they were making, and Merlin had no doubt many of the Brethren suspected that Cayleb's judgment was . . . less than fully impartial, as a consequence. As for Cayleb, he'd managed to remind himself it was entirely possible the Brethren's concerns were well founded. Getting himself to believe they were was something else, of course.


            On the other hand, he's like his father in a lot of ways, Merlin reflected. Including the fact that when he gives his word, it means something.


            "Oh, don't worry, Merlin," Cayleb said a bit gruffly, as if he'd been reading Merlin's mind. He waved one hand in an impatient gesture, then crossed from the pool of lamplight around his bed to the bedchamber's window. He gazed out through the gauzy, gently stirring drapes for several seconds at a night drenched in moonlight, then turned back.


            "And now that I'm over my waked-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night snit, what did you come to tell me about this time?"


            "It's not good," Merlin said. Cayleb's face tightened at his tone, but he didn't look very surprised, Merlin observed. "Somehow, I suspect you'd already figured that out, though," he added.


            "Let's just say I don't expect you to be dragging me out of bed at this hour to tell me something that's not important. And that I can think of relatively few things we might reasonably describe as both 'important' and 'pleasant news' these days."


            "Unfortunately," Merlin agreed. Then he inhaled deeply. "I've just been reviewing Owl's take from the SNARCs," he continued, reflecting upon what  a great relief it was to no longer worry about circumlocutions when he told Cayleb about something like this. The youthful King of Charis was still working his way through to a genuine understanding of what advanced technology implied, but he'd amply demonstrated his resiliency, and what he already understood only whetted his appetite to understand still more. That was the good news; the bad news was that even with Owl to help monitor, there was simply too much going on in the world for any single being — even a PICA — to keep track of, and it was getting worse as events snowballed. The fact that Merlin still didn't know what those unidentified power sources under the Temple were, and that because he didn't, he didn't dare insert a SNARC into the Group of Four's council chambers, didn't help any, either. Thanks to him, Cayleb's intelligence resources were incomparably better than those of anyone else on the planet, but they still weren't perfect, and he was picking up too late on too many things. Or even missing them altogether, he thought with a harsh self-anger he knew was unreasonable, as the images of massacre and burning ships replayed themselves behind his artificial eyes.


            Too many things like this, for example.


             "There are several things you need to know about," he continued aloud, "but the most important are from Siddarmark and Delfarahk."


            "Siddarmark and Delfarahk?" Cayleb repeated, then snorted when Merlin nodded. "Those two are just a little far apart to be ganging up on us, aren't they?"


            "Yes and no, unfortunately," Merlin said grimly. "And it wasn't exactly their idea, either. You see –"