Telleberg Cathedral,


City of Tellesberg,


Kingdom of Charis


            Tropical sunlight poured through Tellesberg Cathedral's stained-glass clerestory, spilling down over the richly adorned statuary and the towering mosaic of the Archangels Langhorne and Bédard which reared high above the worshipers. Organ music had filled the huge cathedral virtually without interruption since an hour after dawn, and superbly trained choirs, drawn from the entire Kingdom of Charis, had taken their turns, lifting their voices in hymns of praise, of supplication, and blessing. The walls were trimmed with the white blossoms of the mountain spike-thorn which was the traditional bridal flower of Charis, and more of the gorgeous blossoms were heaped and piled in and around the sanctuary.


            Most mountain spike-thorn came in various shades of deep, rich red, but the white spike-thorn's trumpet-shaped blossoms boasted throats of deep, almost cobalt blue, fading to purest white, edged in deep golden yellow, at the trumpet's "bell." It was part of the Charisian marriage tradition for family and well-wishers to bring their own sprays of spike-thorn, and the packed cathedral was filled with drifts of flowers whose sweetly scented perfume overpowered even the incense.


            King Cayleb and Queen Sharleyan had attended a private pre-dawn mass, before the cathedral was opened to the public. Now, six hours later, the enormous structure was packed to overflowing, and a tense aura of anticipation hovered in its air like smoke. The waiting worshipers were a sea of brilliant fabrics, gems, and jewelry, but there were plainer strands woven through that richly textured matrix. By long tradition, a third of the cathedral's seating was reserved for commoners on a first-arrival basis whenever a member of the royal family was married, baptized, or buried. Most of the "commoners" who took advantage of that tradition were themselves at least moderately wealthy, but there were always some who were not, and today, those of humbler status seemed to be in the ascendant.


            Well, of course they are, Merlin Athrawes thought as he waited patiently for King Cayleb and his bride and watched the imagery superimposed on his field of view. The sensors he and Owl had sown so thickly throughout the cathedral in the wake of the failed assassination attempt drove that display, giving him a panoramic view of the entire cathedral which he could manipulate and study as he chose.


            The people of this kingdom genuinely love Cayleb and his family, his thought continued, and Sharleyan's taken them by storm. She's young, she's exotically foreign, she's beautiful (or the next best thing, at least!), and she's come thousands of miles to marry their king, even if that means standing up against the Church and the Grand Vicar himself beside him . . . and them. The balladeers and the newspapers and public broadsides have turned her into the next best thing to an icon, and in her case, it didn't even take a lot of exaggeration. This time, even the poorest people in Tellesberg want to be there, want to see her marry Cayleb.


            He made one last careful examination of the cathedral's  interior, then nodded mentally in approval. The other members of the Royal Guard were exactly where they were supposed to be, the Marine sharpshooters Cayleb had permanently detailed to the Cathedral were in position, and all of the security plans and measures he and Colonel Ropewalk had devised seemed to be in place. It grieved him that they had to take such additional pains to guarantee Cayleb's security, but Staynair's attempted assassination and the fire which had gutted the Royal College's original home left them no choice. And Merlin's position as the commander of Cayleb's personal guard detail made him, in effect, the second-in-command of the entire Royal Guard, despite his relatively junior official rank.


            However much most people may love Cayleb, the ones who don't really don't these days, Merlin reflected gloomily. And I'd be a lot happier if I thought the "Temple Loyalists" weren't getting themselves organized. Or if I at least knew enough about who they are and where they're doing the organizing to keep an eye on them That attempt on Staynair was bad enough, and it came within a whisker of succeeding . . . largely because I didn't (and don't) know enough about them and the people like them to spot it coming ahead of time.


            Actually, he would have preferred not having to spy on any of Cayleb's subjects, for a lot of reasons, including the fact that it felt like a violation, especially when there was absolutely nothing anyone could have done about it, even if they'd realized it was happening. Keeping an eye on political figures like Nahrmahn or Hektor was one thing; playing the role of Peeping Tom on private citizens was something else again, and the fact that he saw no alternative didn't make him one bit happier. In fact, it made him less happy. "Necessity" was a poisonously seductive argument, however genuinely unanswerable it might be upon occasion, and Merlin didn't want to get into the habit of justifying the abuse of his capabilities.


            That bit about "power corrupting" worries me, he admitted to himself. The Group of Four's proof enough that it really does, and, in some ways, my "power" is even greater than theirs. Or it could be, at any rate. It's bad enough knowing that I'm for all intents and purposes potentially immortal without giving myself any easy rationalizations for treating people who aren't immortal as if I'm somehow "naturally superior" to them. I don't want to be giving away pieces of my soul that way . . . assuming Maikel's right about my still having one, of course.


            I wonder if


            His introspection was abruptly interrupted as the door opened and Cayleb and Sharleyan came through it.