The heavy pistol in Merlin's right hand bucked with his second shot.


            He'd had no option but to go for the head shot the first time he fired. He'd had to put the dagger wielder out of action permanently and instantly, despite the very real danger that the heavy bullet would continue onward to kill or wound some innocent bystander. Neither of Staynair's other assailants had so far produced a weapon, however, and he'd dropped the glowing dot of the aim point projected across his vision onto the second man's back. The bullet smashed into his target's spine and drove downward through his torso at the sharp angle imposed by Merlin's elevated firing position. The resistance of bone and human tissue slowed the big, mushrooming projectile, and his target released Staynair, staggered half a stride forward, and went down.


            Merlin's left hand came up, holding the second pistol. The cloud of gunsmoke spewed out by the two shots he'd already fired hung in front of him. It would have been all but totally blinding to a human being, but Merlin Athrawes wasn't a human being. His eyes saw through the smoke with perfect clarity as he balanced on the royal box's rail, and his left hand was as inhumanly rock-steady as his right.


            His aim point tracked across onto the remaining attacker. This one, he wanted alive. A leg shot ought to do the job, he thought grimly, then swore mentally as the final assailant produced a dagger of his own. The other members of the procession had finally realized what was happening. Two of them turned to grapple with the third man, but they weren't going to have time. The attacker's left hand was still clamped on to Staynair's left arm as the dagger rose, and no one could possibly reach him before that blade came down once more.


* * * * * * * * * *


            Staynair felt the grip on his right arm disappear and shifted his weight, preparing to yank away from the grip on his left arm. But then there was a third explosion, and abruptly there were no more hands upon him.


* * * * * * * * * *


            Merlin began to vault over the railing to the floor below, then paused.


            Let's not do anything outright impossible in front of this many witnesses unless we really have to, he told himself.


            The little voice in his brain seemed preposterously calm to him, but it made sense, and he slid the still-smoking pistol in his right hand into its holster. Then he crouched, gripping the box railing in his right hand and lowered himself over the edge. He let his fingers slide down a smooth, waxed upright until his feet were only five or six feet above the Cathedral's marble floor, then let himself drop with cat-like grace.


            He landed on the seat of a pew which had magically cleared itself when its occupants saw him coming. They shrank back, staring at him, eyes huge, as he descended out of the hovering cloud of powder smoke, and he nodded courteously back to them.


            "Excuse me," he said politely, and stepped out into the nave.


            The Cathedral was filled with shouts of confusion — confusion that was tinged with gathering anger as people began to realize what had happened — but Merlin ignored the background bedlam as he made his way up the nave.


            His uniform would have been enough to clear a path for him under most circumstances. Under these circumstances, the pistol still in his left hand, one hammer still cocked while smoke still plumed from the fired barrel, was even more effective, and he reached Staynair's side quickly.


            The archbishop was down on one knee, ignoring the under-priest trying to urge him back to his feet as he turned the second of his assailants up on his side. As Merlin watched, Staynair felt the side of the fallen man's throat, obviously searching for a pulse. He didn't find one, of course, and he shook his head slowly, heavily, and reached up to close the corpse's staring, surprised-looking eyes.


            "Are you all right, Your Eminence?" Merlin demanded, and Staynair looked up at him with an expression of regret.


            "Yes." His voice was a little shaky. Merlin had never heard that particular note in it before, but under the circumstances, he supposed it was reasonable that even Maikel Staynair's monumental calm should be just a bit frayed. The archbishop cleared his throat and nodded.


            "Yes," he said more firmly. "I'm fine, Merlin. Thanks to you."


            "Then unless you want a riot, I think you'd better stand back up and show yourself to the congregation before they decide you're dead, too," Merlin suggested as gently as he could through the steadily growing roar of angry, frightened, confused voices.


            "What?" Staynair gazed at him for a moment, obviously still more than a bit confused himself. Then his eyes cleared with understanding, and he nodded again, more crisply.


            "You're right," he said, and stood.


            "We have to get you to someplace safe, Your Eminence!" one of the under-priests said ugently. Merlin found himself in strong agreement, but Staynair shook his head. The gesture was vigorous, purposeful.


            "No," he said firmly.


            "But, Your Eminence –!"


            "No," he repeated, even more firmly. "I appreciate the thought, Father, but this –" one hand waved at the Cathedral and the ripples of fury spreading steadily outward as those closest to the attempted assassination shouted explanations to those farther away "– is where I need to be."


            "But –"


            "No," Staynair said a third time, with a note of finality. Then he turned, pushed his way through the scepter-bearers and candle-bearers still standing in shocked immobility, and started back up the nave.


            The other members of the procession stared at one another, still too badly shaken and confused to know exactly what to do, but Merlin straightened his shoulders and started after the archbishop. His own thoughts were still only beginning to catch up with Staynair's, but as they did, he realized the archbishop was right. This was where he needed to be . . . in more than one way.


            Merlin carefully closed the priming pan and lowered the hammer on his remaining pistol's single unfired barrel. He holstered the weapon without breaking stride and continued down the nave behind Staynair, watching the worshipers to either side narrowly. The odds of there being a second assassination team were undoubtedly slim, yet Merlin intended to take nothing — nothing else, at least, he told himself grimly — for granted where Maikel Staynair's safety was concerned.