BY SCHISM RENT ASUNDER – snippet 54:
City of Tellesberg,
Kingdom of Charis
"So you're certain it was deliberately set?" King Cayleb asked grimly.
He and Merlin sat in comfortable chairs in the sitting room of the king's personal suite in Tellesberg Palace, and Merlin's black and gold uniform smelled of smoke. No, actually it reeked of smoke, Cayleb corrected himself, which wasn't all that surprising. Despite the firemen's best efforts, the entire block around the Royal College had burned along with it, and after he'd handed Mahklyn over to the half-squad of the Guard which Cayleb had sent in his wake by more . . . conventional methods, Merlin had been deeply involved in trying to save what could be saved.
"Yes." Merlin sighed and rubbed his mustachios, which seemed a little singed on one side. "I'm certain it was. The buildings were tinderboxes stuffed full of kindling, but they wouldn't have gone up that quickly without some help. I'd say the fire started in at least four or five places simultaneously. Probably from burning lanterns thrown in through the ground-floor windows." He shook his head. "Those savants of your father's didn't even have bars on the windows, for God's sake! Talk about babes in a boat . . . ."
"I know." Cayleb ran the fingers of both hands through his dark hair, then shook his own head half-helplessly. "I know! But Father was never able to convince them that anybody could possibly hate them just because they insisted on asking questions."
"Well, I'd say they're convinced now," Merlin replied. "And I should've seen this coming. I should've been keeping a closer eye on them, especially after what almost happened to Maikel, because Mahklyn's right. We've just finished losing an enormous stockpile of knowledge and information. I told him it could be re-created, and probably it can — or a lot of it, at any rate. But we've lost years of lead time, Cayleb. It would be hard for me to think of any other target they could have attacked — aside from Maikel, of course — which would have hurt us equally badly."
"I know," Cayleb repeated yet again. "But don't feel too badly about not having seen it coming ahead of time. Not even your 'visions' –" he grinned crookedly at Merlin "– can see everything. We're going to be surprised more than once before this is over, so we might as well start getting used to it now. And at least you were able to get there — and please note that I am not asking how! — in time to save Dr. Mahklyn. That's a huge blessing right there."
Merlin nodded, although he still looked distinctly unhappy with himself, and then Cayleb's nostrils flared as he inhaled deeply.
"And while we're busy looking for silver linings, there's not going to be be any more nonsense about where their precious College is going to be located from now on, either. I want them inside these walls, and I want bodyguards assigned to every member of the faculty, and to their families, whether they want them are not!"
"That's going to be a lot of bodyguards," Merlin observed mildly.
"Do you disagree?" Cayleb challenged.
"I didn't say that. I only said it was going to be a lot of bodyguards, and it is. As a matter of fact, I think it's probably a very good idea, at least for the faculty members and their immediate families. But you're going to have to draw a line somewhere, Cayleb. Right now, I suspect, these Temple Loyalists are still trying to make a point, to convince all of us that the schism was a terrible mistake we should undo as quickly as possible. But they're going to get even more violent as they begin to realize how irrelevant their 'message' is as far as most of your subjects are concerned. The more isolated they become, the more powerless they feel, the more likely they are to do things like tonight. And once it truly begins sinking in that they aren't going to change enough minds to matter, no matter what they do, they're going to go looking for ways to punish people, not for ways that might simply frighten them into heeding 'the true will of God.' Which means that, sooner or later, you're going to reach a point at which you simply can't provide bodyguards for all of their likely targets."
"Then what should I do instead?" Merlin felt certain Cayleb would not have let any of his other advisors hear that particular note of frustration and semi-despair. "Go ahead and take Bynzhamyn's advice and start arresting people on suspicion? Crack down on anyone who disagrees with me? Prove I'm some sort of tyrant, intent on usurping the Church's rightful authority for purely selfish reasons of my own?"
"I didn't say that, either," Merlin replied gently. "I only said there are limits, which is true. And the corollary of that, whether we like it or not, is that we simply can't protect everyone. You just said it yourself, Cayleb. There are going to be more incidents like tonight and, eventually, people are going to get killed when they happen. You're going to have to accept that. And you're going to have to decide whether or not trying to limit the damage justifies resorting to repression, after all."
"I don't want to. As God is my witness, I don't want to."
"Which probably says good things about you as a person. And, in my opinion, for what it's worth, it says good things about you as a king, as well. Justice isn't something to be lightly bartered away, Cayleb, and the faith your subjects have in your own and your family's sense of justice is one of the greatest legacies your father left you. I can't say you'll never reach a time when you have no option but to arrest first and figure out what to do second, but I will say that I think you have to avoid it for as long as you can without compromising your safety, or the safety of the Kingdom as a whole. And that's going to be a judgment call — one you'll have to make."
"Oh, thanks," Cayleb said with a sardonic smile.
"Well, you are the king. I'm only a lowly bodyguard."
"Of course you are, Master Traynyr."
Merlin chuckled just a bit sadly as he remembered the first time King Haarahld had used that title for him. And, in all fairness, there were times he did feel like a puppetmaster. The problem was that he could never forget his "puppets" were flesh and blood, or that they had minds, wills, and destinies of their own.
And that, in the end, they all have the right to make up their own minds, he reminded himself. Don't you ever forget that, Merlin Athrawes, or Nimue Alban, or whoever you really are.
"I did see to it that Dr. Mahklyn got bedded down here in the Palace tonight," he said aloud after a moment. "With your permission, I think it might not be a bad idea to offer quarters here to his daughter and his son-in-law, as well. At least until we're confident that the people who set the College on fire tonight really didn't know he was in his office."
"So you do think there's at least a possibility they were deliberately trying to kill him?"
"Of course there's a possibility of it, Cayleb. I just don't think the people behind this could have known he was sitting there like a wyvern on the pond, and if they didn't know he was there, they couldn't exactly have set out deliberately to kill him. I'm not saying they would have shed any tears if they'd managed to catch him in their little sausage roast, because I'm damned sure they wouldn't have. I'm only saying I don't think they set out to do that on purpose. This time."
"I hope you're right about that. And while we're on the little matter of things I hope, is Dr. Mahklyn likely to be doing any mental sums about your . . . opportune arrival and peculiar abilities, shall we say?"
"Oh, I think you can count on it, after he's had a chance to get his brain put back into order. That's a very, very bright man, Cayleb. I don't think his brain every really shuts down, and sooner or later — probably sooner — he's going to want to know how I got there, how I got onto the roof, and how we got down the outside of the building."
"And is there any disconcerting evidence I need to worry about concealing? Any more krakens with harpoons driven completely through them, for instance?"
"I don't think you need to worry about that this time around," Merlin said reassuringly. "The walls were already coming down before I left, and the Fire Brigade's planning on demolishing the rest of them as soon as the embers cool enough. I'm fairly sure that any . . . peculiarities I might have left behind have been thoroughly consumed by the fire, and if they haven't, they'll be gone when the demolition's done."
"Well, that's a relief, at least. Now all we have to do is worry about how we fob off one of the smartest men in Charis, who also happens to be the head of the Royal College, whose full-blooded support, I remind you, we're going to need in the not so distant future. Any suggestions on how to go about doing that, Merlin?"
"Actually, I do have a suggestion."
"Spit it out, then!"
"I don't think you should try to fob him off at all," Merlin said seriously. "We're both in agreement that he's an extraordinarily smart fellow. Probably smarter than either of us, when you get right down to it. So, the odds are he's going to figure out a lot of it on his own over the next several five-days. I think we should just go ahead and tell him."
"Tell him what? How much? After all," Cayleb observed wryly, "it's not as if you've told me everything."
"I know." Merlin's expression was apologetic, and he shook his head. "And I promise, I really will tell you as much as I can as soon as I can. But as far as Dr. Mahklyn is concerned, I think we need to tell him at least as much as Rayjhis and Bynzhamyn know. Probably as much as Ahrnahld and the rest of your personal detail know. And, eventually, I'd like him to know as much as you know, if it turns out that he's . . . philosophically flexible enough to handle it."
"'Philosophically flexible,'" Cayleb repeated with an almost dreamy expression. "Now there's a handy term for it. You have a way with words, I see, Seijin Merlin."
"One tries, Your Majesty. One tries."