"It took me months to persuade the king to let me open a school for the squires and the pages. It will do no good if you ignore your studies."
"We have duties, sir. More immediate ones than learning about Roman comedy and the metaphysics of Aristotle. What do you think this intelligence might be about?"
"How could I possibly know? Something foul." He felt a twinge of pain and leaned on the table. "Hand me my cane, will you?"
Greffys stared at his equipment with undisguised curios ity. "May I ask what you are doing, sir?"
Merlin was annoyed at being interrupted, but the teacher in him could not be repressed. "Here, come and see. I am grinding this piece of glass into a lens. Look." He took the lens and held it above his left hand; the fingers were magni fied. Greffys watched, fascinated. "That's remarkable, sir. I've never seen anything like it."
"You remember the lenses you and Petronus used to fo cus the torchlight on the night we exposed Mark's vil lainy?"
The boy held his own fingers under the lens and wiggled them. "Yes, I do. But . . . but what is this all for?"
"The theory underlying optics goes back to the Greeks." He said this pointedly, to remind the boy of the importance of his lessons.
"But what exactly are you doing, sir? And why?"
"I have been experimenting with them. I find that if I grind them differently, they produce different effects. Some make distant objects appear closer. Others magnify what ever is held under them. And I am finding that combining them in various ways can produce the most remarkable effects. Come and look."
He led Greffys to the window and showed him how to hold the two lenses. "Look through them at that tower on top of the hill there."
"The one off on the horizon, with the lights?"
"But . . . it's too far away."
"Do it anyway, Greffys."
The boy did as he was told. It took him a moment to find
the correct distance between the lenses, and he seemed to have trouble holding them steady. "I can see it! I can see the windows clearly enough to count them."
"Precisely. I still don't know how to grind the lenses perfectly. There must be a formula for it, but so far I have to trust my hands, their experience, and hope for the best. About a quarter of the lenses I grind turn out useless. But other combinations magnify very small objects to enor mous size."
"And you say you're not a wizard."
Merlin glared. "This is science, not sorcery. I am deter mined—Arthur would say mad—to see everything in the world as it actually is. If my lenses can help me do it . . ."
Greffys was lost. "How else can we see it?"
He took a deep breath. "Look at Arthur, for instance. He takes nearly everything and everyone at face value. If a knight pledges loyalty, in Arthur's mind he must be loyal. If another country promises peace, he sees peace. But look below the surface and you see the world of men quite dif ferently."
"And so you magnify your fingers?" The boy couldn't hide his befuddlement.
"Let us just say that trying to see things properly is a hard habit to break. Look out there. See how beautiful the world appears? But I tell you, Greffys, as sure as any thing, there are forces out there that will lead to bloodshed and death. There always are. The stars are beautiful, but they are indifferent. They shine on killers and victims alike. But enough of that. Look over here. I have been studying the properties of the substance called phospho rus. It is quite fascinating. Under the right conditions, it glows."
"But, sir, Arthur wants you. Another time, perhaps. We should be going."
Merlin snorted at the boy. "Would you hand me my cane, please?"
Advancing arthritis in his right hip had brought about a rolling limp and made it necessary for Merlin to walk on a cane. Greffys looked around the room and saw it resting against the hearth. It was of dark wood, highly polished, carved elaborately with figures of mythical beasts—dragons, unicorns, griffins. A fantastical snake ran the length of it, down one side and up the other with the tip of its tail in its mouth. The boy took it up, ran his fingers along the carved surface, then handed it to Merlin. "This is really beautiful, sir."
"I agree. But I wish I did not need it." Merlin frowned. "It was a gift from King Pellenore. He actually believes in these preposterous animals."
"So did most of your Greeks, sir."
"Be quiet and hand me my stick."
"Oh." Greffys seemed uncertain how to react. "Pel lenore?"
"Yes," Merlin grumped. "Pellenore. The mad old man. The craziest man in Camelot—or the sanest. Do you know what this serpent represents?"
It was clear Greffys had no idea what he meant. Blankfaced, he stammered, "It's a snake. The king said to have you hurry, sir."
"Kings always say that." He sighed. "It would do Arthur good to have to wait a few minutes. But let's go."
Wizard's Tower was a hundred feet tall; only the tower where the king lived was taller. A stone staircase wound down the inside to the main floor of the castle. Merlin moved down it slowly, steadying himself against the wall and leaning heavily on his cane. Greffys offered a hand to help him.
"I've been working on a scheme," Merlin told the boy, "for a mechanical lift with cables, pulleys and counter weights. It is based on an invention of Hero of Alexandria. If I can get it to work, I'll never have to negotiate these stairs again."
"But if this device should fail . . ." The boy sounded dubious.
"Then I would fall to my death. What would be so terri ble about that? No more traitors, no more wars, no more 'come at once.' "
"Have you thought about moving to another part of the castle, sir?"
"Where could I move that would suit me better? Besides, all the bedrooms are on upper floors. My tower keeps me away from other people. That solitude is quite precious to me. It makes study possible. It makes life bearable."
"Oh." Again the boy was puzzled. Uncertainly, he asked, "Er . . . this is arthritis?"
"Can't you heal yourself?"
"Medical science has limits, Greffys."
"But you're a sorcerer."
Merlin glared at him and stopped moving. "I am," he said slowly and heavily, "no such thing. I am a scholar and a sometime physician. There is no such thing as magic and you ought to know it. You helped me stage the 'miracle' that exposed Mark of Cornwall. Remember?"
"Uh . . . yes, sir."
Once they reached the foot of the staircase Merlin was able to move more quickly. The main part of Camelot was busy with servants coming and going, knights clanking about in their armor and dozens of other inhabitants less easy to classify. The household staff were busy lighting torches in all the hallways.
Merlin noticed a large brown spider in a crack in the wall. "Look. Predators conceal themselves everywhere. Someone ought to do something about that."
Greffys held out a thumb and squashed the spider. "There."
"You'll be a good knight. You've already lost every trace of subtlety."
"I beg your pardon, sir?"
They moved on and in a few moments they reached the foot of the King's Tower. Merlin regarded another spiral staircase and sighed. "I was not made for an age like this. The world was a better place before large-scale building. People were content in one-room houses made of mud brick."
"You lived in Egypt. You always tell us what wonders the Pyramids are."
"The Pyramids are tombs, not houses."
"I can't imagine you in a mud-brick hut, sir. Where would you keep your books and your laboratory things?"
"I suppose a tomb would be as good a place as any. Learning
"King Arthur says you complain too much."
"Be quiet and help me up these stairs."
A guard was posted at the bottom of the staircase; it led to the king's quarters, after all. The guard extended a hand to help Merlin up the first few steps. But just as Merlin was about to go up, he saw his assistant, Nimue, in her custom ary disguise as the young man called Colin, farther along the hallway. "Colin!"
She rushed to meet him. "Merlin. Have you had dinner yet? They have the most succulent ham in the refectory, glazed with honey."
"I thought there was eel on the menu."
"I had the ham and it was wonderful."
"Well, good for you. But I want you to come up to Arthur's quarters with me. There is something afoot."
"That is as much as I know. Come on."
The three of them climbed the stairs, with Merlin lean
ing on his cane and "Colin" for support. Greffys scrambled ahead. Merlin stumbled once and winced with the pain. But they made good time and reached the top level of the tower fairly quickly.
Another guard was posted there. He saluted them and waved them past, looking suspiciously at Colin. "Did the king summon you?"
Merlin got between them. "Colin is my assistant. I asked him to come along."
"Oh. Yes, sir."
The king's rooms were bright with torchlight, brighter than anyplace else in the castle. Through the windows shone the last orange-purple glow of sunset.
Almost at once they encountered Arthur; he was pacing the corridor that connected his suite of rooms. His clothes were disarrayed and his thick blond hair was unkempt. He looked angry, or perhaps lost in unpleasant thought. Bri tomart stood at the far end of the hall, watching him and looking concerned. When she saw Merlin she waved and called to him. "Merlin! Come here."
Merlin looked at the king, who seemed not to have no ticed them. "Arthur?"
The king stopped his pacing but stared blankly into space.
"Arthur!" Merlin took his arm and shook it.
He snapped out of his reverie. "Oh. Oh, Merlin. I'm glad you've come."
"What is wrong? You look awful."
"Thank you so much. We appear to have a crisis."
"We're the government. We always have a crisis."
"Not like this. Come along. I'll let Brit explain it all to you."
"Come along, Merlin."
They moved to the study at the end of the hallway, where Britomart was waiting. Merlin kept plying Arthur with questions, to no avail. They shook hands all around and Brit said, "I knew you could bring Arthur out of it. You have such an unsettling effect on people."
"I choose to take that as a compliment."
She grinned. "It is. In a way."
Arthur harrumphed. "Go ahead and talk about me as if I weren't here."
"Sorry, Your Majesty." Brit looked properly abashed.
"Let's sit and talk about this situation and have some wine."
"What situation?" Merlin asked loudly.
Instead of answering, Arthur gestured at the table.
They arranged themselves around it and Greffys poured cups for each of them. The wine was sweet and full-bodied. Merlin tasted it and liked it. "Our vintners are getting better."
"Oh. Sorry. Anyway, what is this all about? Brit?"
She took a long drink, sighed deeply and produced a large sheet of parchment. "This. This is an intelligence re port from Guenevere's castle at Corfe. It was sent by Cap tain John Dalley, who you'll remember is the commander of our garrison at Corfe."
"Intelligence report? Do you mean to say you've set up spies there?"
"There and other places. Soon we'll have them all over the country." Brit was pleased with herself. "After the last treason, I convinced Arthur it is necessary."
Merlin didn't like the sound of this, and he didn't try to hide it. "Spies. Informers. They corrupt everyone and everything they touch. That is the sort of thing I'd expect at the Byzantine court, not Camelot. Nero used spies, and Caligula, the two worst tyrants of ancient Rome."
Nimue smiled. "So did Augustus and Hadrian, the two best."
"Be quiet, Colin." Merlin looked to Arthur for a re sponse but the king's face was stone.
"The country is in a fragile state of balance, Merlin." Brit looked at the parchment scroll, not at him. "If we're to remain in power, we must maintain that balance."
"I'm not at all certain the only way to do that is with in formers and spies making people fearful and turning them against one another. And I'm certain that is not the best way."
Arthur spoke. "We have enemies. You know that as well as anyone here. You helped me become king, Merlin. Surely you don't object to my re
Merlin looked to Brit. "And you've even managed to get people inside Corfe Castle?"
"The Spider's House. That is what the residents of Corfe call it." She nodded, grinning. "Captain Dalley managed it. He suggested to Guenevere that he should post a military attaché in her castle, for convenience of communication or some such. Naturally she suspected the attaché would be a spy, so she rejected the proposal. With her distracted by that, Dalley was able to get a real spy into the castle with no trouble."
"That is a secret."
"I'm the king's first counselor. Tell me."
Britomart fell silent and looked at Arthur. Softly, the king said, "In good time, Merlin. When you need to know."
Merlin sighed exaggeratedly. "Just so . . . And so now Guenevere is planning another insurrection, with her par ents' help, no doubt. Is that it?"
"Guenevere," Arthur said slowly and sadly, "my lady wife, who has never been much of a wife to me . . ." He paused and looked around the room. It was clear that the news in the intelligence report, whatever it was, had upset him deeply.