The council chamber door closed behind the others, and Cayleb looked at Merlin.


            "Why don't you come over and join us, now that it's safe?" he asked with a smile, and Gray Harbor chuckled.


            "As you command, Your Majesty," Merlin replied mildly, and crossed to settle himself into the chair Howsmyn had occupied a few minutes before.


            Had anyone else been present, that hypothetical other observer probably would have been more than a bit surprised to see King Cayleb's bodyguard sitting at the council table along with the king's two most trusted official advisers as if he were their equal in the king's eyes. After all, it was clearly Captain Athrawes' responsibility to keep Cayleb alive, and not — despite his recent promotion, in keeping with his position as the king's personal armsman — to advise him on high matters of state.


            Of course, that same hypothetical other observer would be operating on the mistaken assumption that Captain Merlin Athrawes of the Charisian Royal Guard was alive. Well, that he was a human being, at least. He might actually be alive after all; Merlin's internal jury was still out on that particular question.


            Not even Gray Harbor and Staynair knew the complete truth about him. For that matter, Cayleb himself didn't know the complete truth. The king knew Merlin was considerably more than human, but not that he was in fact a PICA — a Personality Integrated Cybernetic Avatar — whose artificial body was home to the electronically recorded personality, memories, emotions, hopes and fears of a young woman named Nimue Alban who had been dead for the last eight or nine centuries.


            But what Gray Harbor and Staynair did know, and what they, along with Cayleb and the handful of others who shared the same knowledge went to great lengths to keep anyone else from discovering, was how central Captain Athrawes' "visions" and bits and pieces of esoteric knowledge had been to Charis' ability to survive the Group of Four's massive onslaught. Everyone in the kingdom knew Merlin was a seijin, of course — one of the deadly warrior-monk martial artists and sometime spiritual visionaries who came and went (usually apocryphally) through the pages of Safeholdian history. Merlin had chosen that particular persona carefully before he ever arrived in Charis, and his reputation as one of the deadliest warriors in the world (although, to be strictly accurate, he wasn't simply one of the deadliest warriors in the world, given his . . . abilities) made him the perfect choice for Cayleb's personal armsman. Which just happened to put him permanently at the king's elbow, deep at the heart of all of Cayleb's councils and plans, and yet simultaneously made him almost a piece of the furniture. Constantly available for advice or consultation, yet so invisible to outside eyes that no one ever wondered just what he was doing there.


            Now Cayleb looked at him and arched an eyebrow.


            "What did you think of Ehdwyrd's analysis?" he asked.


            "I think I'm not equipped to argue with him in that particular area of expertise," Merlin replied. "I doubt anyone in the entire Kingdom is, at least until Mahklyn's passion for recording numbers gives us an objective base of statistics. I'd have to agree with him, though, that it would be extraordinarily difficult for the Group of Four to effectively close Howard and Haven to our merchants. How successful their efforts would be in the end if they decided to try anyway, and whether or not Baron Wave Thunder's concerns about subsidies to Rahnyld are realistic, is more than I'm prepared to say, however."


            Napoleon tried it against England, with his "Continental System," Merlin reflected. It didn't work out all that well for him, which is probably a good sign for Howsmyn's theories. Then again, there was a lot more to Earth at that point than just Europe. In this case, it would be as if Napoleon controlled all the major ports of North America, South America, and Asia, including Russia, China, and the Ottoman Empire, as well. And, for that matter, the Church's control goes a lot deeper than Napoleon's did. Which is only going to get worse as the religious aspect of this confrontation gets clearer and clearer to everyone involved.


            "I'm inclined to agree with Ehdwyrd," Gray Harbor offered. Cayleb and Staynair both looked at him, and the first councilor shrugged. "I don't doubt the consequences here in Charis would be . . . serious if the Group of Four could pull it off. In fact, they could well turn out to be catastrophic. But I'm inclined to think Ehdwyrd's arguments about the availability and cost of our goods would make things almost as bad for the mainland realms, as well. Almost certainly bad enough to lead to major covert resistance to any such decree, in fact. For that matter, it could well lead to open resistance in a lot of cases. Unless, of course, the Church goes ahead and declares Holy War. Under those circumstances, things could get a lot dicier."


            "Maikel?" Cayleb turned to his archbishop, and there was rather more concern in the king's brown eyes than he would have let most people see.


            "My opinion hasn't changed, Cayleb," Staynair said with a serenity Merlin envied, even as he wondered how justifiable it was. "Given the way the Group of Four approached this entire bungled affair, they're going to be feeling a lot of internal pressure. Remember, they've always had enemies of their own in the Council of Vicars. They haven't forgotten that, at any rate, and some of those enemies have significant power bases of their own. Our little note to the Grand Vicar is going to both weaken them and embolden their enemies, as well. Against that backdrop, they're going to have to move at least a bit cautiously, unless they choose to risk everything on some dramatic, do-or-die gesture of defiance. They've never done that in the past. Indeed, if they'd had the least notion their attack on the Kingdom could possibly turn into the diaster it has, they would never have undertaken it. Or, at least, never so offhandedly and casually. Having already fed one hand to the slash lizard, I believe they're unlikely to want to raise the stakes any higher than they absolutely must, for a time at least."


            "I hope you're right about that," the king said. "I really do hope you're right about that."


            So do I, Merlin thought dryly. Which is why I hope you and Maikel were both right about setting forth your position vis-a-vis the Church quite so . . . forthrightly.


            "My hope is the same as yours, Your Majesty." The archbishop smiled slightly. "Time will tell, of course. And," his smile broadened and his eyes twinkled, "I'm very well aware that the nature of my own concerns lends itself to operating on the basis of faith rather better than yours does."


            "My own impression is that His Eminence is probably right about the Group of Four's disinclination to rush into some sort of white-hot religious confrontation, at least in the short term," Merlin said, and saw Cayleb's almost subliminal grimace. Merlin hadn't actually advised against Staynair's letter to the Grand Vicar, but he hadn't exactly been one of its stronger supporters, either.


            "I think that's inevitably where we're headed, unfortunately," he continued now. "Completely ignoring our own correspondence with them, the mere fact that we're no longer obeying their orders would push them into that, and things are going to get extraordinarily ugly when it happens. For now, though, habit, if nothing else, is going to keep them trying to 'game the situation' the way they've always done it in the past. That's how they got themselves into this mess, of course, but I think it's going to take at least a few more months for it to penetrate just how completely the rules have changed. Which means we should have at least a little time to press our own preparations."


            "Which brings me to the real reason I asked you and Rayjhis to stay behind, Maikel," Cayleb said.


            He leaned back in his chair and ran the fingers of his left hand across the emerald sets of the chain he had inherited so recently from his father. He did that a lot, as if the chain were a sort of talisman, a comforting link between his father and himself. Merlin was confident that it was an unconscious mannerism on his part, but the seijin felt a familiar pang of personal grief as it reminded him of the old king's death.