King Cayleb's private dining salon,


Royal Palace,


City of Tellesberg,


 Kingdom of Charis


            "May I refill your glass, Maikel?" King Cayleb asked late that evening, still holding the bottle of wine from which he had just refilled his own glass.


            "Yes, Your Majesty. Please." The archbishop extended his glass and smiled almost mischievously. "At least one good thing's come out of Corisande," he remarked, looking at the label on the bottle.


            "Something good has to come out of almost anywhere," Cayleb replied as he filled the glass. He seemed totally focused on the minor task, as if he found its mundaneness reassuring. Or perhaps distracting.


            He finished, set the bottle back on the table, and sat back in his chair.


            Officially, this was simply a private supper with his archbishop, at Maikel's request. With Gray Harbor out of the kingdom, and Staynair acting as first councilor in his place, there had been several such suppers. At which, of course, Captain Athrawes had always been the king's chosen bodyguard. That precedent had come in handy tonight.


            "All right," he said quietly. "I've had at least a few hours to think over what the two of you have told me. I have to admit that it . . . hurts a little bit to discover there was a secret this profound that Father never shared with me, but I understand why he wasn't free to make that decision by himself."


            "Cayleb," Staynair's voice was equally quiet, "it was never a matter of trust or distrust. It was only a matter of the procedures which had been set up four hundred years ago. Procedures which have served the Brethren of Saint Zherneau — and, I think, the entire Kingdom — well."


            "I said I understand, Maikel." Cayleb met the archbishop's eyes with a steady, level gaze. "And I think the real reason it hurts is that Father never had a chance to tell me the secret on my thirtieth birthday, after all."


            "I wish he had had that opportunity," Merlin said softly, contemplating his own wineglass, watching the ruby light pool at its heart. "Your father was one of the finest men I've ever known, Cayleb. In fact, he was an even better man than I ever would have realized without the Archbishop's little revelation."


            "Ah, yes. His 'revelation.' An excellent word for it, Merlin. Almost –" Cayleb switched that level gaze to Merlin "– as astonishing a revelation as your own."


            "Well," Merlin's smile was lopsided, "I did tell you I'd explain everything if the day ever came when I could."


            "Which, in this case," Cayleb said rather pointedly, "was more a case of the day when you had to, wouldn't you say?"


            "Fair enough." Merlin nodded. "On the other hand, there's also this. With Archbishop Maikel and the journal of Saint Zherneau to vouch for me, I figured you were a lot less likely to decide I was a lunatic. Or that you'd been wrong to trust me, after all."


            "There is that," Cayleb agreed, and folded his arms across his chest. The intensity of his gaze faded into something else, a look of wonder, almost reverence, with what might have been still just a lingering trace of fear. Or, at least, apprehension.


            "I can hardly believe it even now," he said slowly, contemplating Merlin from head to toe. "To be honest, I don't know which . . . confuses me more — the fact that you're dead, or the fact that you're a woman."


            "In point of fact," Staynair said mildly, "I'm not at all certain Merlin — or Nimue — is dead."


            "Oh, trust me, Your Eminence," Merlin said in a tone that blended wryness with a lingering, aching grief, "Nimue Alban is dead. Has been, for over nine hundred of your years. As dead as all of her friends . . . and as dead as the Terran Federation."


            "I've tried to visualize what you must have seen, experienced." Staynair shook his head. "I can't, of course. I don't suppose anyone could."


            "In some ways, it's not that different from what you and Cayleb — and King Haarahld, of course — have faced right here in Charis," Merlin pointed out. "If we lose, everything that matters to you will be destroyed. Although, mind you, I'm hoping for a rather happier outcome this time around."


            "As are we all," Staynair said dryly.


            "Well, of course we are," Cayleb said, still gazing at Merlin with those perplexed and wondering eyes. "I have to say, though, Merlin, that however hard I try, I just can't visualize you as a woman."


            "Which speaks well of my chosen disguise," Merlin said, then surprised himself with a chuckle. "On the other hand, that first rugby game you and Ahrnahld got me involved in was almost my undoing."


            "What?" Cayleb's eyebrows knitted. "What are you talking about?"


            "Cayleb," Merlin said patiently, "think about it. A PICA is fully functional, and I do mean fully functional. It can do anything, mimic any response, an organic human body can do . . . and I spent twenty-seven years — almost thirty of your years — being a woman. Trust me. There are some things that just don't change all that easily. Finding myself in the water, naked as the day I was born, and surrounded by all of those nice, equally naked, muscular, slithery male bodies . . . . I discovered that there's this physical response men have. I'd always realized, in an intellectual sort of way, that it happened, of course, but I'd never expected to experience it, you might say."


            Cayleb stared at him for a moment, and then he began to laugh. It started out quietly, but it didn't stay that way, and there was something deeply cleansing about the hilarity. Something that chased that lingering trace of fear — if that was what it had been — out of his eyes forever.


            "Oh, my God!" he managed to gasp between roars of laughter. "That was why you stayed in the water! Why you were so damned careful about that towel!"


            "Yes, it was," Merlin agreed rather repressively. "There've been other adjustments, but I have to admit that that one's probably been the most . . . interesting."