"Incognito," Staynair had said, and "incognito" he'd meant, Merlin thought more than a bit grumpily an hour or so later. In fact, Merlin was more than a little surprised by just how incognito Maikel Staynair could be when he put his mind to it. The archbishop was probably even more recognizable to the people of the capital than King Cayleb himself. For years, he'd appeared every Wednesday in Tellesberg Cathedral, celebrating high mass for the people of the capital as their city's bishop, and he'd been even more visible since becoming the entire kingdom's archbishop.

            Despite that, and despite his flowing beard and strong-featured face, he'd faded somehow into near-total anonymity when he exchanged the orange-trimmed white cassock of his exalted ecclesiastical rank for the stark, unadorned brown robe of a simple brother of the Order of Bédard (to which he was still entitled, despite his elevation) and turned the ruby ring of his office to hide the stone against his palm. With the cowl pulled up and his head bent with proper humility, the archbishop disappeared completely.


            Unfortunately, that robe was not one of the cassocks Owl and Merlin had replaced. Its normal cloth would offer no special resistance to blades or bullets, which was enough to make Merlin acutely unhappy, although he could hardly explain why that might be to Staynair. Which only made him even more unhappy, of course.


            Nor did he find much to rejoice about in the reflection that a simple brother would scarcely have been accompanied by a captain of the Royal Guard, which meant Merlin had been forced to make some adjustments to his own appearance, as well. He'd left his armor, his Guard uniform, and his wakazashi behind, and he hoped his katana didn't look peculiar enough to attract undue attention. He wasn't certain how realistic that hope might be, however, since the only two men in the entire kingdom — for that matter, on the entire face of the planet — who routinely carried katanas were His Majesty King Cayleb and the famous (or infamous) seijin, Merlin. He was also a little surprised by how much he missed his black-and-gold livery after wearing it virtually every day for the better part of two local years.


            But the hardest thing for him to disguise was his eyes. Merlin Athrawes' eyes were the same deep, sapphire blue as Nimue Alban's, and he had yet to meet a single Charisian with eyes which even approached their color.


            I wish to hell these people had at least invented sunglasses or something, he groused to himself as they made their way through the capital city's teeming, noisy, always incredibly busy streets. Of course, if he wanted to be honest, he could have done something about the eyes before he ever arrived in Charis. He couldn't simply reprogram their color, but he could have used the fabrication unit in Nimue's Cave to make himself a nice, brown pair of contacts to cover their "natural" color.


            I guess I didn't want to lose that last trace of Nimue, he admitted to himself. And to be honest, I still don't . . . even if it has turned out to be a royal pain in the ass. And one I can't just abandon now that everyone and his brother knows "Captain Athrawes" has those "unearthly blue, seijin eyes." Talk about shooting myself in the foot!


            His strong suspicion that Staynair was rather amused by his predicament  didn't help his mood one bit, either.


            "Just how much further is it to this monastery, Your Eminence, if you don't mind my asking?" He kept his voice low, and Staynair snorted.


            "About another fifteen or twenty minutes," he replied.


            "If I'd realized we were going to be hiking halfway across the city, I'd probably have insisted on a little better security," Merlin observed. He didn't quite succeed in keeping the asperity out of his voice. In fact, he didn't even try very hard, and Staynair chuckled, then shook his head.


            "It's not really all that much farther," he said soothingly. "Besides, the exercise is good for us."


            "Thank you for thinking of me, Your Eminence, but I get quite a lot of exercise, anyway."


            Staynair chuckled again, and Merlin smiled almost against his will.


            At least the inevitable mid-afternoon thunderstorms which had swept over the capital earlier had continued on their way without lingering. The air was humid in the rain's aftermath, however, and the fact that it was technically fall didn't seem to have impressed the temperature particularly. According to Merlin's built-in temperature sensors, it hovered right at thirty-two degrees on the Celsius scale no one else in the entire galaxy used any longer.


            Fortunately, neither heat nor humidity meant very much to a PICA, and Staynair had grown up right here in Tellesberg. The climate didn't bother him a bit, and if he was in need of any exercise, it certainly didn't show in the brisk pace he'd set since they left the palace behind.


            "Ah! Here we are," he said a few minutes later, and turned down a side street.


            Merlin looked around curiously. Despite the arson which had reduced the Royal College to a heap of cinders and charred brick, Tellesberg was a more law-abiding and prosperous city than many. Even so, it had its . . . less affluent neighborhoods, and this was scarcely the better side of town. The buildings around them had the rundown look of shops and warehouses whose customers were none too plump in the purse, the odors wafting about suggested that the local sewers could have used a little attention, they'd passed at least two fire department cisterns which were no more than half-filled, and the hard and hungry eyes of one or two of the loungers they'd passed in the last few blocks had convinced Merlin that Staynair had been wise to be sure he had an adequate bodyguard even if no one at all recognized him for who he truly was.


            They continued on their way for another five minutes or so, while the shops got fewer and fewer and rundown warehouses and overcrowded tenements got more and more numerous. And then, finally, Staynair turned up one last walkway to a heavy wooden door set into a distinctly battered and modest-looking wall.


            Like every major Safeholdian city, Tellesberg was liberally supplied with churches and cathedrals. Monasteries and convents were also fairly common, although most of those tended to be located outside urban areas, where they could help to support themselves by farming. But this particular monastery didn't fit that description. It looked as if it had probably been here since Tellesberg's founding, and warehouses had squeezed so tightly against it on either side that it couldn't possibly have space for anything more than a very modest kitchen garden.


            Staynair knocked, and then he and Merlin waited patiently until the slide on the small window in the stout wooden door opened and a monk looked out. To Merlin's surprise, the monk's brown habit bore the white horse of the Order of Truscott, not the oil lamp of the Order of Bédard. Somehow Merlin had had the impression that the monastery for which they were bound belonged to Staynair's order.


            The door warden's eyes lit with obvious recognition as he saw Staynair, and the sturdy, scarred portal quickly opened. Merlin had expected it to squeak loudly, given the monastery wall's general down-at-the-heels appearance, but instead, it moved with the silence of well-oiled and well-maintained hinges.


            "Welcome to the Monastery of Saint Zherneau, Seijin Merlin," Staynair said as they passed through the opening and the door closed behind them. There was a curious note in the archbishop's voice, as if somehow the words meant more than they'd said. Merlin's internal antennae twitched, but he said nothing, only nodded and followed Staynair and the door warden across the monastery's courtyard.