"How are you coming with the production problems on the iron guns?" he asked Howsmyn.


            "Actually, we haven't had anywhere near as many of those as I'd been afraid we might." Howsmyn shrugged. "Not on the cast iron ones, that is. I'm not saying it's as easy with the iron as with the bronze, but our bell-founding techniques have converted remarkably well. I'm starting to experiment with wrought iron, too, but that's incredibly expensive at the moment. It uses an enormous amount more coke, and the furnace time for the repeated firings drives up the cost even more. And then we have to hammer the slag out of the blooms, and even with the new, heavier drop-hammers, that takes an incredible amount of time, which drives costs up still higher. If I can find a way to do all that more efficiently. . . ."


            His voice broke off as he frowned thoughtfully into a vista only he could see. Then he shook himself.


            "I think we may be able to bring the wrought iron costs down, eventually. At least to something not more than twice the cost of bronze, let's say, though that may be a little overly optimistic. In the meantime, though, the cast iron's going to be a lot cheaper than bronze, and I think we just about have the problems in producing guns out of it licked."


            "I'll take your word for that," Mychail said. "Iron making isn't my area, after all."


            "I know." Howsmyn turned to look back out the window, frowning thoughtfully. "You know, one of the things Merlin's in the process of doing is changing the way all of us think about things like this," he said slowly.


            "Meaning what?" Mychail's tone was one of agreement, but he still looked sideways at the younger man and arched an eyebrow.


            "I was talking about it with Rahzhyr Mahklyn over at the Royal College," Howsmyn replied. "I've always been on the lookout for ways I could be a little more productive, a little more efficient. But it's all been . . . I don't know. Not even trial and error, but just a case of seeing obvious possibilities within the existing, allowed techniques, I suppose. Now I'm finding myself actively thinking about why one thing works better than another. What is it about a given technique that makes it superior to another? For example, I know that puddling cast iron produces wrought iron by gathering the impurities into the slag, but why does heating the iron in a hollow hearth while you stir it have that effect? And how do you take the next step into producing steel in larger, more useful ingots?"


            "And do you have answers for your questions?" Mychail asked softly.


            "Not yet — certainly not for all of them, at least! But sometimes I find the implications of just thinking such questions a little bit frightening. There's so much we do today just because it's permitted under the Proscriptions. Which is almost just another way of saying 'because that's the way we've always done it.' Like using bronze, instead of iron, for artillery. Sure, bronze has advantages of its own, but there's never been any reason we couldn't hve used iron if we'd really wanted to. We just didn't."


            "You said you've discussed this with Rahzhyr. Have you happened to mention your thoughts to someone else? Like Archbishop Maikel?"


            "Not directly, no." Howsmyn turned back from the window to face his old friend and mentor. "I don't really think it's necessary, do you? The Archbishop is a very perceptive man, Rhaiyan."


            "That's true." Mychail nodded. "On the other hand, the things you're talking about, the questions you're asking yourself . . . . You do realize how someone like Clyntahn would react to what you've just said?"


            "Of course. And I'm not going to go around saying it to just anyone, either. There's a reason it's taken me this long to mention my thoughts even to you, you know! But despite everything the Archbishop's said, he's clearly aware that before it's over, this schism between us and the Temple is going to end up being about far more than simply the corruption of the Council of Vicars. You do realize that, don't you?"


            "Ehdwyrd, I realized that the first day we sat down with Seijin Merlin and he started sharing his thoughts with us."


            "And does it bother you?" Howsmyn asked softly.


            "Sometimes," Mychail admitted. He glanced back out the window at the smoke, heat, and furious activity, then looked back at Howsmyn.


            "Sometimes," he repeated. "I'm twice your age, after all. That means I'm a lot closer to giving account to God and the Archangels than you are. But God didn't give us minds just so we could refuse to use them. Mahklyn and the College are right about that, and Archbishop Maikel is right that we have to make choices. We have to recognize what it is God expects of us. That's the reason he gave us free will — the Inquisition itself says that. And if I've made the wrong choices, it's only been after trying as hard as I possibly could to make the right ones. I'm just going to have to hope God understands that."


            "This whole war is going to go places Clyntahn and his cronies never even imagined," Howsmyn said. "In fact, it's going to go places I can't even imagine, and at least I'm trying to."


            "Of course it is. In fact, I think there are probably only two people — possibly three — in the entire Kingdom who do truly understand where we're all bound," Mychail said.


            "Oh?" Howsmyn smiled crookedly. "Let me guess — the Archbishop, the King, and the mysterious Seijin Merlin?"


            "Of course." Mychail returned his smile.


            "It has occurred to you, I suppose, that when the day finally comes that Clyntahn discovers everything Merlin's taught us, he's going to denounce the seijin as a demon?"


            "Of course he is. On the other hand, I have a far livelier respect for the judgment — and, even more, for the integrity — of Archbishop Maikel, and he's actually met Merlin. For that matter, when was the last time you knew King Haarahld to be mistaken in his judgment of someone's character?" Mychail shook his head. "I'll trust the judgments of those two men — and of King Cayleb, for that matter — over the judgment of that pig in Zion, Ehdwyrd. If I'm wrong, at least I'll find myself in better company in Hell than I would in Heaven!"


            Howsmyn's eyes widened ever so slightly at Mychail's blunt-toned forthrightness. Then he snorted.


            "Do me a favor, Rhaiyan, and don't say anything like that to anyone else, all right?"


            "I'm older than you are, Ehdwyrd; I'm not senile yet."


            "What a relief!"


            "I'm sure." Mychail chuckled dryly, then used his chin to point back out the window. "But to return to my earlier question, the iron guns are going to work out, you think?"


            "Oh, I never really had any doubt about that.  They're going to be heavier than bronze for a given weight of shot, of course, but they're also going to be a lot cheaper. Not to mention the fact that they're not going to be competing for the limited supply of copper."


            "So things are going pretty well, over all?"


            "Aside from the fact that we really need to be producing the guns at least twice as fast, you mean?" Howsmyn responded with a snort.


            "Aside from that, of course," Mychail acknowledged, smiling crookedly.