Tellesberg Cathedral,




Royal Palace,


City of Tellesberg,


Kingdom of Charis


            The organ began its majestic prelude, and the hundreds of people crammed into Tellesberg Cathedral rose, rose to stand in their pews. The glorious notes sped through the incense-scented air on golden wings of sound, and then the choir burst into song.


            The cathedral's doors swung open, and the familiar Wednesday morning procession of scepter-bearers, candle-bearers, and thurifers moved forward into the welcoming splendor of that majestic hymn. Acolytes and under-priests followed the procession's advance guard, and Archbishop Maikel Staynair followed behind them, in turn.


            Merlin Athrawes watched from his post in the royal box, twenty feet above the cathedral's floor, with familiar mixed feelings. The Church was so much a part of every Safeholdian's life that moments like this were inescapable, and sheer immersion seemed to be wearing away at least some of his original outrage.


            But only some of it, he told himself. Only some of it.


            The procession moved steadily, majestically forward, and the archbishop moved at its heart. But Maikel Staynair's idea of a proper procession wasn't quite like that of other archbishops, and Merlin smiled as Staynair paused to lay one hand on the curly-haired head of a little girl in blessing as her father held her up.


            Other hands reached out to touch the archbishop as he passed, and other children's heads awaited his blessing. Those sophisticated other archbishops would undoubtedly have looked down upon Staynair's "simpleminded" pastoral abandonment of an archbishop's proper dignity. Then again, those sophisticated other archbishops would never have been the focus of the intensely personal love and trust Maikel Staynair evoked from the people of his archbishopric. Of course, there were —


            Merlin Athrawes' thoughts broke off with guillotine suddenness as purposeful movement swirled abruptly in the cathedral's nave.


* * * * * * * * * *


            Archbishop Maikel laid his hand on another youngster's head, murmuring a word of blessing. He knew his frequent stops provoked generally tolerant exasperation among his acolytes and assisting clergy. On the other hand, they knew better than to protest, of course, even if it did make the proper choreography of the Church's ironclad liturgy a bit more difficult. There were some responsibilities — and joys — of any priest's calling which Maikel Staynair refused to sacrifice to the "dignity" of his ecclesiastic office.


            He turned back to the procession, bowing his head while one corner of his mind once more reviewed the day's sermon. It was time he began emphasizing that —


            The sudden coalescence of movement took him as much by surprise as it did anyone else in the Cathedral. His head snapped back up as someone's hands closed upon his arms. The two men who had abruptly forced their way into the procession jerked him around, turning him to one side, and he was far too astonished to offer any sort of resistance. No one ever laid hands upon the clergy of Mother Church. The action was so totally unheard of that every worshiper in the Cathedral was just as astounded as Staynair. Only those closest to him could actually see what was happening, but the abrupt interruption of the procession turned heads, snapped eyes around.


            The archbishop's mind worked more rapidly than most, yet he was only beginning to realize what was happening when he saw the dagger in the third man's hand. The dagger which, in defiance of every tradition of the Church of God Awaiting, had been brought into the Cathedral concealed under an assassin's tunic.


            "In the name of the true Church!" the assassin shouted, and the dagger started forward.


* * * * * * * * * *


            Cayleb Ahrmahk's mind also worked more rapidly than most. The king came to his feet, one hand reaching out in futile protest as the dagger flashed.


            "Maikel!" he cried, then flinched back as a cannon fired less than six inches from his ear.


            That was what it felt like, at any rate. Cayleb lurched away from the concussive impact hammering at his ear drum, and it fired again.


* * * * * * * * * *


            Maikel Staynair felt no fear as the dagger drove towards him. There wasn't really enough time for that, not enough time for his mind to realize what was happening and inform the rest of him that he was about to die. His stomach muscles had just begun to clench in a useless, fragile defensive reaction when, abruptly, the assassin's head disintegrated. The heavy bullet continued onward, thankfully missing anyone else as it splintered one of the pews, and a gory fan of blood, brain tissue, and splinters of bone sprayed across the pew's occupants.


            The sound of the pistol shot interrupted the organ music and the choir as if it was the organist who'd been shot. The magnificent interplay of music and voices chopped off in a welter of beginning screams and shouts of confusion. Most of those in the Cathedral still had no notion that anything was happening to the archbishop. Instead of looking in Staynair's direction, heads popped around as all eyes flew to the royal box and the tall, blue-eyed Royal Guardsman who'd vaulted onto the box's palm-wide, raised railing.


            He balanced there, impossibly steady on his precarious perch, his right hand shrouded in a thick, choking cloud of powder smoke, and then the pistol's second barrel fired.


* * * * * * * * * *


            Staynair's eyes closed in automatic reflex as his would-be killer's blood spattered across his face and white, magnificently embroidered vestments. His brain was finally beginning to realize what was happening, and his muscles tensed as he prepared to yank away from the hands which had seized him.


            Before he could move, a second thunderclap exploded through the Cathedral, and he heard a choked-off scream as the man holding his right arm released him abruptly.