Royal Palace and Monastery of Saint Zherneau,


City of Tellesberg,


Kingdom of Charis


            "A moment, if you please, Seijin Merlin."


            Merlin paused and looked up in some surprise as Archbishop Maikel laid a large, powerful hand lightly on his shoulder.


            "Yes, Your Eminence? How may I help you?"


            They stood just inside the door of the chamber the rest of the Royal Council had just left, and Cayleb looked back at them with one eyebrow raised.


            "Is there something we still need to talk about, Maikel?" the king asked.


            "Actually, Your Majesty," Staynair said, his tone more formal than usual, "I'd like to borrow the seijin for the afternoon, if I might." Cayleb's surprise showed rather more clearly than Merlin's had, and the archbishop smiled. "I promise I'll have him back in time for supper, Your Majesty. I simply have a minor matter I need to discuss with him, and since I have a pastoral errand to run in the city this afternoon, anyway, I thought I might ask him to come along with me. Just as a precaution, you understand."


            Cayleb's expression tightened abruptly. The attempt to assassinate Archbishop Maikel was entirely too fresh in his memory for him to misunderstand what sort of "precaution" Staynair had in mind. Especially in view of what had happened to the Royal College three days before.


            "If you need additional protection, Maikel –" the king began, but Staynair shook his head.


            "I'm not really especially concerned about assassins, Your Majesty," he said with a half-smile. "Not this time, at least. However, I do have a visit I want to pay this afternoon, and under the circumstances, I'd really prefer not to draw a great deal of attention to it. Unfortunately, I'd be just a tad noticeable if I take along a passel of armsmen.  Given the unfortunate events in the Cathedral, what's happened to the College, and the way feelings in general seem to be running, I'd hate for a private trip to visit an old friend who's not feeling especially well to focus any potential hostility on a simple monastery, and it's only too possible I might make certain people think I must be up to something if they realize I'm going there at all. Fortunately, I feel quite confident," his smile grew broader, "that Captain Athrawes would be more than up to the task of keeping us both intact if I made the trip . . . incognito, shall we say?"


            "Is it really important enough to risk having you running around the streets 'incognito' at a time like this?" Cayleb asked.


            "He's a very old friend, Your Majesty," Staynair replied quietly, "and his health has been failing for some time now. It isn't just a visit of friendship."


            Cayleb gazed at the prelate for a moment or two, then drew a deep breath and nodded. Merlin wasn't particularly surprised by the king's capitulation, even though the notion of anything's happening to Maikel Staynair at this particular moment in the history of Safehold was, frankly, just this side of terrifying. That was probably even truer for Merlin than it was for Cayleb, if Merlin was going to be honest, and after the earlier attempt no one — not even Staynair — could pretend the Temple Loyalists hadn't figured out the same thing. But both Merlin and Cayleb knew nothing they could possibly say would dissuade Staynair from the discharge of his priestly office. If they could have dissuaded him, he would have been someone else . . . and he wouldn't have been so vital to their hopes for the future.


            "Very well," the king said. Then he moved his eyes to Merlin. "Do try to keep him in one piece, please, Merlin. Again."


            Staynair had the grace to wince ever so slightly at the king's final word, but he didn't let it change his mind.


            "I'll do my very best, Your Majesty," Merlin assured Cayleb, and glanced at the towering Royal Guardsman who'd been waiting outside the council room door.


            Sergeant Payter Faircaster was the only member of Crown Prince Cayleb's Marine bodyguard to formally transfer to the Guard when Cayleb assumed the throne. Ahrnahld Fhalkhan and the rest of Cayleb's old bodyguards were now protecting Crown Prince Zhan, Cayleb's eleven year-old younger brother. The change of assignment had been hard on both Cayleb and the men who had protected him for so long, but the security of the heir to the Charisian throne had been a responsibility of the Royal Charisian Marines since time out of mind. Faircaster might well have stayed with the old detachment as well, but Cayleb had insisted that at least one of "his" Marines had to come along . . . in no small part because they already knew about Merlin's "visions." Having someone else along to help cover for Merlin's occasional . . . peculiarities, at least until they'd decided which of the king's new guardsmen could be admitted to that same knowledge, had struck the young king as a very good idea.


            Merlin had agreed. Besides, Faircaster's calm, competent ferocity was immensely comforting to the man — or PICA — responsible for keeping the king alive. And having someone around who'd been fishing Cayleb out of scrapes since he was nine years old wasn't exactly something to sneer at, either.


            "Payter," Merlin said now.


            "Yes, Sir," the enormous Guardsman rumbled.


            "Send a page to inform Lieutenant Ahstyn that you need another man. I think Sergeant Vynair should be available. Then keep a close eye on His Majesty until Vynair turns up. Don't let him get into any trouble."


            "Yes, Sir." Faircaster touched his right fist to his cuirass breastplate in salute and gave the king a stern glance, and Cayleb shook his head.


            "It's always so comforting to realize how much in command I am of all about me," he remarked to no one in particular.


            "That's good to know, Your Majesty." The exquisite courtesy of Merlin's response was only slightly flawed by the amusement in his strange, sapphire eyes. Then he turned back to Staynair.


            "At your convenience, Your Eminence," he murmured.