The archbishop paused, and Merlin pursed his lips thoughtfully. What Staynair was describing was quite different from the vast majority of monastic communities Merlin had studied since awakening in Nimue's Cave. Most Safeholdian monasteries and convents were very definitely the property of one or another of the great orders, and those orders were zealous about defending their ownership.  Once one got beyond the borders of the Temple Lands, the competition between orders was seldom as fierce as it was inside the precincts of the Temple and the city of Zion. But it always existed, and their monasteries, convents, manors, and estates represented more than simple tokens in the competition. Those institutions were the sinews and wealth which made that competition possible.


            Of course, Saint Zherneau's didn't exactly strike Merlin as one of the great monastic communities. Despite its obvious age and lovingly landscaped grounds, it was, as Staynair had said, a relatively small monastery. It wasn't likely that it produced a great deal of wealth, which might well explain how it had avoided the great orders' attention, as well as the greater inclusiveness and diversity of its membership.


            Somehow, though, Merlin rather doubted the explanation was quite that simple.


            "I, myself, came here to Saint Zherneau's as a very young man," Staynair said. "At the time, I was unsure whether or not I truly had a vocation, and the Brethren helped me address my doubts. They were a great comfort to me when my spirit needed that comfort badly, and like many others, I became one of them. Indeed, although the population of the monastery itself at any moment is usually quite small, a great many of the Brethren, like myself, maintain our membership even after we've moved on formally to one or another of the great orders. We remain family, one might say, which means we have far more members than one might think from the size of the monastary itself, and most of us return at intervals to the monastery for spiritual retreats and to draw strength from the support of our fellow brothers.


            "Interestingly enough," the archbishop's eyes drilled into Merlin's once more, "the confessors of six of the last eight kings of Charis have all been Brothers of Saint Zherneau, as well."


            Had Merlin still been a creature of flesh and blood, he would have inhaled a deep breath of surprise and speculation. But he wasn't, of course, and so he simply tilted his head to one side.


            "That sounds like a remarkable . . . coincidence, Your Eminence," he observed.


            "Yes, it does, doesn't it?" Staynair smiled at him, then glanced at the abbot. "I told you he was quick, didn't I, Zhon?"


            "So you did," Byrkyt agreed, and smiled somewhat more broadly than his ecclesiastic superior. "As a matter of fact, he rather reminds me of another young man I once knew, although he seems rather less . . . rebellious."


            "Really? And who might that have been?"


            "Fishing for compliments is a most unbecoming trait in an archbishop," Byrkyt replied serenely, but his sharp brown eyes had never wavered from Merlin's face. Now he turned to face him fully.


            "What Maikel is getting at, in his somewhat indirect fashion, Seijin Merlin, is that the Brethren of Saint Zherneau haven't, as I'm sure you've already guessed, produced that many confessors for that many monarchs by accident."


            "I'm sure they haven't. The question in my mind, Father, is exactly why they've done it, and how, and why you and the Archbishop should choose to make me aware of it."


            "The question?" Byrkyt said. "By my count, that's at least three questions, Seijin." He chuckled. "Well, no matter. I'll answer the last one first, if you don't mind."


            "I don't mind at all," Merlin said, although, to be honest, he wasn't absolutely certain that was the truth.


            "The reason Maikel decided to bring you here to meet me today, seijin, has to do with a letter he received from King Haarahld. It was written shortly before the King's death, and it dealt primarily with his underlying strategy for keeping Duke Black Water's fleet in play until Cayleb — and you, of course — could return from Armageddon Reef to deal with it. In fact," if Staynair's eyes had bored into Merlin like drills, Byrkyt's were diamond-cutting lasers, "it had to do with how he knew how long he had to keep Black Water occupied."


            Merlin found himself sitting very, very still. He'd never explained to either Cayleb or Haarahld exactly how he'd physically traveled four thousand miles in less than two hours to carry the warning about Black Water's new strategy to Haarahld. He'd been astounded and immensely relieved, to say the very least, by how calmly Haarahld had taken his "miraculous" appearance on the stern gallery of the king's flagship in the middle of the night, but in all honesty, he'd been so focused on the immediate threat that he hadn't really tried to nail down why the king had reacted with so little outward consternation.


            And he'd never suspected for a moment that Haarahld might have told anyone else, even his confessor, about it.


            Silence lingered in the quiet office-library. In an odd sort of way, it was almost as if Staynair and Byrkyt were the PICAs, sitting silently, waiting with absolute patience while Merlin tried to absorb the implications of what Byrkyt had just said . . . and think of some way to respond.


            "Father," he said finally, "Your Eminence, I don't know exactly what King Haarahld may have written to you. I can only assume, however, that whatever it was, it was not to denounce me as some sort of demon."


            "Hardly that, Merlin." Staynair's voice was gentle, almost comforting, and as Merlin watched, he smiled as if in fond memory. "He was excited, actually. There was always that piece of a little boy down inside him, that sense of wonder. Oh," the archbishop waved one hand, "he wasn't totally immune to the possibility that he was making a mistake in trusting you. That you might actually turn out to be a 'demon.' After all, we're speaking here of matters of faith, where reason is but one support, and that sometimes a frail one. Still, Merlin, there comes a time when any child of God must gather up in his hands all that he is, all that he can ever hope to be, and commit it. After all the thought, all the prayer, all the meditation, that moment of decision comes to all of us. Some never find the courage to meet it. They look away, try to ignore it or simply pretend it never came to them. Others turn away, take refuge in what others have taught them, what others have commanded them to think and believe, rather than making the choice, accepting the test, for themselves.


            "But Haarahld was never a coward. When the moment came, he recognized it, and he met it, and he chose to place his trust in you. He wrote me about that decision, and he said –" Staynair's eyes went slightly out of focus as he recited from memory " –' He may be a demon, after all, Maikel. I don't think so, but as we all know, I've been wrong a few times in my life. Quite a few, actually. But either way, the time has finally come. I won't fail the trust God has placed in all of us by refusing the choice. And so, I've placed my own life, my son's life, the lives of my other children, my people, and yours — and all the souls that go with them — in his hands. If I'm wrong to do so, then surely I will pay a terrible price after this life. But I'm not. And if it should happen that God chooses for me never to return home, know this. I accept His decision, and I pass to you and to my son the completion of the task I agreed to undertake so long ago.'"


            The archbishop fell silent once more. Merlin felt the dead king's words echoing within him. It was as if he and Haarahld stood together on that sternwalk once again, and his PICA eyes burned as they faithfully mimicked the autonomous responses of their original human models.


            "What task, Your Eminence?" he asked softly.


            "The task of teaching his people, and all of Safehold, the truth," Staynair said. "The truth about God, about the Church, about our world and all the work of God's hands. The truth that the Church has spent so many centuries systematically suppressing and choking out of existence."


            "The truth?" Merlin stared at the archbishop. Even now, even after hearing Haarahld's words literally from beyond the grave, he had never expected to hear anything like that, and his thoughts spun like a man dancing on ice while he fought for balance. "What truth?"


            "This one," Byrkyt said quietly. "It begins, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are . . . .'"