The space inside the outer wall turned out to be larger than Merlin would have estimated from the outside. It was considerably deeper, and it wasn't the cobbled square or packed dirt courtyard he would have expected from the general dilapidation of the surrounding neighborhood. Instead, he found himself surrounded by greenery, ancient lichen-covered walls, and the liquid, waterfall-music magic of ornamental fish ponds. Wyverns and terrestrial songbirds perched in the branches of dwarf fruit trees which appeared to be almost as ancient as the monastary itself, and their soft whistles and chirps made a soothing contrast to the city noises outside the wall.


            Staynair and he followed their guide into the chapter house and down a series of whitewashed corridors. The brick floors had been worn smooth and gullied by centuries of passing feet, and the walls were a combination of stone and brick, with the transition between building materials indicating where later additions joined the original structure. They were also quite thick, and it was cool and quiet inside them.


            Their guide paused at last outside another door. He glanced over his shoulder at Staynair, then knocked once, gently.


            "Enter," a voice called from the other side, and the monk opened the door and stood aside.


            "Thank you, Brother," Staynair murmured, then stepped past him with a slight "follow me" head twitch at Merlin.


            They found themselves in what was obviously an office, although at first glance one might have been forgiven for thinking it was a library, instead. Or possibly an outsized storage closet. The slightly musty smell of paper and ink filled the air, bookshelves filled what would otherwise have been a high-ceilinged, airy chamber almost claustrophobically full, and the desk under its single skylight sat in a shelf-surrounded space, like a clearing hacked out of a towering rain forest canopy, that looked much too small for it and the two chairs sitting in front of it.


            Judging from the heap of books and papers stacked on the floor, Merlin suspected that the chairs normally served as convenient holding spots for reference works and documents. Somehow he didn't think they "just happened" to have been cleared of their burdens before he and the archbishop arrived so unexpectedly.


            "Seijin Merlin," Staynair said, "allow me to introduce Father Zhon Byrkyt, the Abbot of Saint Zherneau's."


            "Father," Merlin responded with a slight bow. Byrkyt was an elderly man, obviously at least several years older than Staynair, who wasn't precisely an infant himself. In his youth, he'd probably been somewhere between Staynair's height and Merlin's, which would have made him a veritable giant for Charis, although advancing years and a curving spine had changed that, and he looked almost painfully frail. He wore the green cassock of an over-priest, rather than the brown habit the door warden had worn. And, Merlin noted with slightly narrowed eyes, his cassock carried the quill pen of Chihiro rather than the horse of Truscott or the lamp of Bédard.


            "Seijin," the abbot replied. His voice sounded as if it had once been far more robust — even as he had — but his eyes were clear and sharp. They were also at least as intense as Merlin's own, and there was a curiously eager light in their brown depths. He gestured at the chairs in front of his desk. "Please, be seated, both of you," he invited.


            Merlin waited until Staynair had taken one of the chairs before he sat himself. Then he settled down, standing his scabbarded katana upright against the edge of Byrkyt's desk and hoping he looked rather more relaxed than he actually felt. He didn't need a PICA's sensors to feel the strange, almost anticipatory tension which hovered about him.


            That tension stretched out in silence for several seconds before Staynair broke it.


            "First," the archbishop said, "allow me to apologize, Merlin. I'm reasonably certain you've already deduced that I was guilty of a certain amount of . . . misdirection, let's say, when I 'invited you' to accompany me this afternoon."


            "Some slight suspicion along that line had occurred to me, Your Eminence," Merlin conceded, and Staynair chuckled.


            "I'm not surprised," he said. "On the other hand, there are certain things which will be easier to explain here at Saint Zherneau's than they would have been in the Palace. Things which, I feel certain," his eyes bored suddenly into Merlin's, "will come as something of a surprise to you."


            "Somehow, I don't doubt that in the least," Merlin said dryly.


            "What I said to Cayleb was the truth," Staynair told him. "Zhon," he nodded at Byrkyt, "is indeed a very old friend of mine. And, alas, his health isn't good. I'm fairly confident he won't find himself in need of extreme unction this afternoon, however."


            "I'm relieved to hear that, Your Eminence."


            "So am I," Byrkyt agreed with a smile of his own.


            "Well, yes." Staynair might actually have looked just a little embarrassed, Merlin thought, however unlikely it seemed. If he did, it didn't slow him down for long.


            "At any rate," the archbishop continued, "my real objective, obviously, was to get you here."


            "And the reason you wanted me here was precisely what, Your Eminence?" Merlin inquired politely.


            "That's probably going to take a little explaining." Staynair leaned back in his chair, crossing his legs, and regarded Merlin steadily.


            "The Monastery of Saint Zherneau is quite ancient, actually," he said. "In fact, tradition has it — and I believe the tradition is accurate, in this case, for several reasons — that the monastery stands upon the site of the oldest church in Tellesberg. It dates back literally to within a very few years of the Creation. Indeed, there are some indications that the original church was built on the Day of Creation itself."


            Merlin nodded, and reminded himself that unlike any of the terrestrial religions with which he was familiar, the Church of God Awaiting truly was able to assign an exact day, hour, and minute to the moment of creation. A date and time amply substantiated by not simply the Holy Writ itself, but also by The Testimonies, the first-hand recollections of the eight million literate Adams and Eves who had experienced it. Of course, none of the people who'd left those written journals, letters, and accounts had remembered that they'd volunteered as colonists only to have their memories completely scrubbed and reprogrammed to believe the colony command crew's personnel were archangels.


            "Saint Zherneau's isn't well known outside Charis," Staynair continued. "It isn't a large monastery, and the Brethren of Zherneau have never been particularly numerous compared to any of the mainstream orders. Of course, there are quite a few small monasteries and convents, and they tend to come and go. Most of them grow out of the life and example of a particularly pious and devout spiritual leader who attracts a following of like-minded individuals during his or her own lifetime. Mother Church has always permitted such small religious communities, and the majority of them, frankly, don't often last more than a single generation or so after their founders' deaths. Generally, they're sponsored and supported by one of the major orders, and when they fade away, their holdings and manors — if any — escheat to the sponsoring order.


            "Saint Zherneau's, however, is . . . unique in several respects. First, its charter was established right here in Tellesberg, not in Zion, under the authority of the first bishop of Tellesberg, even before any archbishop had been appointed to us. Secondly, it's never been sponsored by — or restricted to the membership of — a single order. The Brethren are drawn from virtually every order of Mother Church. The monastery is a place of spiritual retreat and renewal open to all, and its brethren bring a wide diversity of perspectives with them."