Something was wrong in Camelot; his every instinct told him so. Slowly, heavily, he descended to the castle's main floor. He had not thought to bring a light; dim torches at wide intervals along the walls gave the only illumination.
Then ahead of him he saw someone approaching, carry ing a brightly blazing torch. And it was Arthur. He was staggering—drunk as nearly always at night.
The king stopped. Swaying, he steadied himself against the wall and asked, "Who's there?"
"It's me, Arthur, Merlin."
"Oh. What are you doing up?"
"I heard something, or I think I did. Where are your guards?"
"I gave them the slip. They always follow me on these late-night walkabouts, and I hate it. I need to be alone to think."
"You are in no condition to think."
"You sound like Britomart."
"She is right, then. Did that attempt on your life teach you nothing?"
He lowered his torch; his face was in shadow. "I don't much care if I'm killed. I don't want to be alive."
"Stop talking like that."
"It's true. Merlin, if someone were to kill me, I would die happy, knowing that the end had come and that I am through with the human race."
"I sympathize with your view. But what advantage do you see in expressing it at this hour?"
Footsteps clattered up the hall behind Arthur. Two of his guards. "Your Majesty, come with us, back to your tower."
"No. Leave me alone."
"Britomart told us to keep watch on you. She'll demote us if she knows you got away from us."
"Get away from me."
"Please, sir. We have wives and children. We can't afford to be demoted."
Merlin spoke up. "You both know me?"
"Yes, sir," they said in unison.
"Good. Then I want you to take the king back to his rooms. Do not worry, there will be no trouble. I will take the responsibility."
"Use force on him if you must."
They took Arthur by the arms and began to push him back in the direction he'd come from. He fought for a mo ment then resigned himself to it.
"Good night, men. Good night, Arthur."
"Merlin," Arthur cried, "I've always loved you. When I was a boy you seemed the wisest man possible. I revered you. I think you know that I still do. Please, tell them to release me."
"Then you must know that I love you, too, Arthur. I love you much too much to leave you open to another attack, even if you lack that much sense yourself. Go to bed, Ar thur. And, for heaven's sake, don't drink anymore. We will talk in the morning."
Arthur, deflated, stopped resisting his guards. Merlin watched them go, then went back to his own tower and began slowly to climb the steps.
When he reached his room he noticed that the ravens were gone. That was not unusual; they often came and went all night long. But then . . .
There was something on the hearth. He went and looked. And it was two of his birds. They had been be headed; their severed heads lay near their bodies, facing grotesquely backward.
"No," he whispered. "No, not this."
Their bodies were still warm. He wrapped the corpses in soft cloth; in the morning he would bury them.
There came a knock at the door. "Yes?"
It was one of Arthur's guards. "Something . . . strange has happened, sir."
He was holding the cloth with the corpses of his pets. "What? What else?"
"We got the king back to his bedchamber. He insisted on undressing himself. When we went back a few moments later to put him to bed, I pulled back the covers. And there in the bed was a bloody knife. Bloody and with . . . with . . . well, I know it sounds odd, sir, but . . ."
"Get to the point, will you?"
"Well . . . there were black feathers sticking to the blade."
It was a warning; Merlin knew it. But a warning to who—to him, or to Arthur? Or both? He thanked the guard and sent him back to the king's tower. Then he crawled into bed.
But sleep would not come. After a time he sat up and cradled the dead birds in his arms. And softly he murmured over and over again, "I must think. I must think."
Summer stretched on, and as fall approached the prepara tions for the queen's birthday became more and more in tense, more and more focused.
No one had seen anyone awake and moving about the castle the night the birds were killed. The killer might have been anyone. Brit increased Arthur's security again and assigned a bodyguard to Merlin as well. Arthur remem bered nothing of that night, nothing at all.
It was the warmest, loveliest summer anyone could re member. Crops were abundant; the grape harvest was the largest ever, with the plumpest, sweetest grapes on record; beehives overflowed with honey. Even the fishing fleets at Corfe and Dover reported larger than average catches. The assembled diplomats would not want for good food and drink.
Nimue made frequent trips between Camelot and Corfe, overseeing the repair work, making certain sufficient stores were laid in for the event, monitoring the activities of Guenevere and Lancelot, and coordinating everything with Captain Dalley, who had proved resourceful and efficient. Britomart was there frequently, too, planning security and meeting secretly with Dalley and Petronilla.
The would-be royal couple had been complacent, for the most part, except for Lancelot's halfhearted attempts at escape and a few peculiar letters to Guenevere's parents in France. Once Lancelot tried to sneak out of the castle in the cart of a fishmonger, under a load of mackerel that had been rejected by the castle cook. He was caught at the front gate of the castle by one of Captain Dalley's guards, who no ticed that the dead fish seemed to be moving. The jokes at the French knight's expense didn't let up for weeks.
At Camelot Merlin took over the diplomatic end of things as the conference drew closer and the various mat ters became more pressing. Assisted by Nimue, he kept up an active correspondence with the various courts who were sending legates. As the event began to draw near, their de mands became more and more supercilious. This king de manded fresh bottles of wine for his people every second hour; that petty ruler wanted chambermaids with blond hair; and on and on. Merlin handled it all as delicately as he could without making any promises. Everyone, he assured them, would be treated with due deference, dignity and respect.
From Byzantium and Podarthes there had been no fur ther correspondence directed to Guenevere at Corfe. No one knew what to make of that. Was it possible Justinian had learned somehow that she and Lancelot had been jailed? It seemed the likeliest explanation; Byzantine spies were everywhere.
All of this happened despite Arthur, who was drinking regularly and heavily. He kept late hours and often woke this courtier or that one in the middle of the night to be reassured that he was a good king, that his polices were just, that he was loved by all his people if not by his wife. Merlin tried repeatedly to talk to him about what he was doing to himself—not to mention the court and the coun try—without much success.
He complained about it privately to Nimue. "Our king," he said heavily, "is a lovesick schoolboy. What can I do with him?"
"Make him stay after class. Spank him. Paddle him. Send him to bed without his dessert."
"You make my mouth water. If only it were that simple."
Then in mid-October a dispatch arrived from Captain Dalley at Corfe. "King Leodegrance and Queen Leonilla are here. Come at once."
And so Merlin and Nimue, accompanied by a long line of soldiers, made the ride from Camelot to Corfe. Arthur was to follow in a few days' time, with Britomart, Simon of York, Petronus and others who would be needed. They avoided the main roads and took a more direct route, which involved using a combination of cow paths, footpaths and paths that were so vague they barely existed and defied simple categorization. "No sense making ourselves too easy for assassins to find," Brit said ruefully.
"I've never met Leodegrance and Leonilla." Nimue kept her eyes on the road.
"You're young, Colin." Merlin laughed. "You've never met anyone of any real note. But the king and queen are in their seventies. They rule one of the poorest of the French provinces, Camelliard, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. And they have been scheming to increase their territory and their power for as long as anyone can remember, without much success. Leodegrance is ruthless and Leonilla more so; but as political strategists they have always been ineffectual. They arranged Guenevere's marriage to Arthur in hopes that it would give them a foothold in England. Of course, we had our eyes on France, as well. So at best they had created a stalemate."
"Arthur fell for that?" Nimue sounded genuinely star tled. "I mean, you permitted Arthur to fall for that?"
"He was young and in love. They seemed relatively harmless, as the French go. Not strong enough to make real trouble."
"'Seemed.'" Her tone was heavily ironic. "How many times has Leodegrance been in and out of England— always unofficially, of course—trying to move his daugh ter to treason?"
"It appears he was finally successful in an undeniable way."
Nimue asked, "What about his wife?"
"I hardly know her. When our king and queen became betrothed Arthur asked me to handle all the negotiations with Leonilla, but that is my only experience with her. The marriage was a diplomatic event. So I shuttled back and forth across the Channel, negotiating, treating, bargaining. Of course it was all for nothing. Each side knew the other's ambition. We were very frank about it all.
"Poor Arthur. He actually believed it was a love match. He actually thought a royal wedding could be made out of affection and not political ambition."
"What is Leonilla like?"
"In Egypt, you know, they dry out the bodies of the dead, wrap them with spices and keep them lying around. Leonilla looks more like a living mummy than anyone I have ever seen. Or she did back then, and that was ten years ago. I cannot imagine the passage of time has helped. But do not be fooled by her frail appearance. Leodegrance rules Camelliard, but Leonilla rules him. Anyone who gets in her way dies mysteriously. She does not even use poison, like a good English queen. Her enemies die the most horrible deaths."
"But—aren't they Christians? I thought their religion taught—"
"Don't be naïve, Colin. No god and no religion—not Apollo, not Isis, not the god of the Christians—has ever turned politicians into decent human beings, or ever could. If there actually
any gods, they are quite derelict in their duty."
Nimue thought for a moment. "No wonder Arthur is dragging his feet. He should be with us."
"He will come, Colin. I've managed for Brit to sober him up and persuade him it was time to behave royally. And he knows that anyway. But you know how drinkers come to love their wine . . . I've set Petronus to keep an eye on him and to travel down here with him."
"Petronus is coming to Corfe?" Nimue couldn't hide her concern.
"Yes. Is that a problem for some reason?"
"Of course not. I just— Will Arthur listen to a boy his age?"
"Not likely. But Brit is there, too, and at least we will have someone to let us know what he is up to."
She lapsed into silence.
"What is wrong, Colin?"
"I know you better than that. Tell me."
"Well, it's only that . . ." She glanced at him then looked quickly away. "It's only that . . . Do you trust Petronus?"
He narrowed his eyes. "Why would you ask that?"
"Do you know where he was the night the ravens were killed?"
"Asleep in his room." He added with emphasis, "Like you."
"Do you know that for a fact?"
"I wasn't in bed with him. What are you suggesting?"
"Petronus came to us from Guenevere's court."
There was a long, awkward pause. "You are suggesting that his defection was a ruse? A way to plant an agent among us? They tried to kill him, remember? He was badly injured."
"It seems a terribly elaborate way to plant a spy. Guenevere and Lancelot have been to Camelot often enough. And agents representing them even more fre quently. They would have had every opportunity to bribe someone—or blackmail someone—into acting for them. A plot like the one you're suggesting . . . it is too complex to be believable. For that matter, it is too subtle for Guenevere. Her coat of arms should feature a sledge hammer." He laughed. "And it is certainly too subtle for Lancelot."