"I think I want to return to Egypt with you, Germanicus. I was happy there, as I have never been in any other place."
Merlin and his friend walked the less-frequented corri dors of Corfe Castle, lost in idle conversation. Merlin's cane tapped softly on the stones as they walked, giving their talk a rhythm.
"This is getting to me." He avoided looking his friend in the eye. "All this nurder, vice, duplicity . . . I have never much liked the human race. It has been my misfortune to fall into a profession that brings me face-to-face with its most repellent qualities."
Germanicus smiled at him. "You're a fine one to talk about human duplicity."
"What on earth do you mean?" Merlin stopped walking for a moment, then went on.
"I mean you invited me here for precisely this reason— so you could return to Egypt with me. Or at any rate to luxuriate in the thought of it."
After a long moment Merlin said, "You are probably right. No, I confess it—you are perfectly right. I have used you ill, not like a true friend."
"Merlin, don't give it a thought. I have spent my life in politics.
politics. Everyone uses everyone else, not always in obvious ways. In Byzantine terms, everyone in England is an amateur."
"When I was young," Merlin went on, "I traveled every where I could, eagerly. As if gadding from one place to the next could make life more bearable. Now it is time for me to retire, to know peace or what passes for it in human existence."
Germanicus listened to him, smiling faintly. "You were not in our country very long, Merlin. Was it even two years? It must be easy for you to think of it as a kind of paradise. But believe me, it is not. We have factions, both political and religious. Christians poison pagans and vice versa. Partisans of one party in Byzantium jockey for ad vantage over the others. And you should see how vicious the various parties in the Hippodrome can be. Nothing erodes the human character faster than sports.
"It only seems different to you in Egypt because of all the ancient monuments. Their timelessness makes all the squabbling seem small. But even they have a negative ef fect. Every crackpot in the Mediterranean world comes to Egypt, looking for the supposed wisdom of the ancients. As if stones could be wise."
"Perhaps the men who placed them were."
"That is rubbish and you know it. They were stone masons, nothing more."
Merlin sighed. "I say again, when I lived in Egypt I was happy. I was free to study at the great library in Alexandria. There is nothing to study here but fog and rain. This damned murder . . . Why did Leodegrance not stay at home?"
"Murder and politics can teach you at least as much as piles of old stones." He sighed in frustration. "Look at what you've accomplished here, you and Arthur. You have built, or are building, a society based on fairness and justice for everyone, not just a handful of nobles. All across the Medi terranean world, people talk about it."
"Nonsense. You are refusing to acknowledge what is happening here. Not since Athens in its glory days has there been such a society. You are working wonders here, genu ine wonders as impressive as the Pyramids."
"Then why does it all seem so futile?" Merlin brushed aside a piece of rubble with the tip of his cane. "If I could peel away one thin sliver of the world's evil, how much would still remain?"
"Stop talking like that. You are doing some good, even if it seems minimal to you. Other people will do the same, in time. You are showing them the way."
A serving woman rushed past them, carrying a bundle of something; it was impossible to tell what. She barely ac knowledged them as she hurried past.
"This current business—the murder of Leodegrance— that is what is weighing me down. For as long as I can re member he has been part of our world, and now . . . I need to go someplace where I will never have to deal with such affairs again."
"The North Pole?"
"Stop it, Germanicus. I am serious."
"So am I. The only place you can find no problems is a place where there are no human beings. Personally, I relish all the problems. They keep my mind fresh; they keep me alive."
"You are a politician. I am a scholar, or try to be. That is the difference."
"You are precisely right, Merlin. All the squabbles and infights, all the plots and schemes, even the occasional murder—they excite me. I am engaged with humanity in a very vital way. I would never trade that for a stack of books."
"People have been having this discussion since before the time of Homer. And it keeps resurfacing, like the plague."
"Like the—? I don't follow you."
"Never mind. Your colleague Podarthes has more or less admitted to us that the peculiar Lithuanian man is in his service, by the way."
"Really? I tried to engage the man in conversation last night. But it was no use. Greek, Latin, English, French—he was impervious to them all."
"Your Byzantine court is not capable of directness. You must be aware that 'Byzantine' is becoming a watchword for complex deviousness. He has been here, pretending to understand nothing but doubtless taking in everything that is said in his earshot. I think some of the other delegates must have known, or suspected. I can only imagine what intelligence he must have been able to give to Podarthes. Germanicus, I want you to understand that I am serious. I want to go back to Egypt, to live the rest of my life there in quiet contemplation. Take me back with you."
"My old minister, Cathacticus, died last month. I haven't found anyone to replace him. Do you want the job? I may have to require that you accept it."
"You would do that?"
"You are too intelligent, too resourceful, to be permitted to retire from pubic service."
Merlin stopped walking and leaned against a wall. "There is never any rest, is there?"
"Of course not."
"So that I might help you remain engaged with human ity, I must do the same."
Germanicus thought for a moment. "I'm not certain I'd phrase it that way, but yes."
Softly Merlin said, "I need to be alone. Do you mind?"
"I don't like seeing you in this kind of mood."
"You are the second person who has said that to me to day. Leave me alone, will you please? The mood will pass."
Looking concerned, Germanicus headed off to the refec tory.
Wanting solitude, Merlin made his way to one of the cas tle's ruined "arms" and proceeded to walk along it. A guard was posted to keep delegates from drifting into the ruin by mistake. There was no one else in sight, which pleased him. The guard saluted him and he walked past the man without saying a word.
Almost at once he felt like he was in another place, an other world, quiet and empty. The floor was littered with scraps of stone which had evidently flaked off the walls and ceiling; there were cobwebs everywhere. From ahead of him came the sound of running water.
Halfway along, the roof had partially collapsed. Rain water poured in, then vanished through cracks in the floor. Wind blew in and ruffled his clothing. He looked back over his shoulder. No, he could not go back and face more people.
Ahead of him, the roof was intact and no more rain and wind got in. He moved quickly past the gap in the stones, covering his face with his cloak to fend off the rainwater, then resumed a more leisurely pace.
At the end of each of the eight arms was a tower. They were octagonal in shape, like the heart of the castle itself, and narrow, unglazed windows looked out from them. This place was as far as he could get from the occupied part of the castle without actually going out into the storm. He headed directly to the window opposite the entrance and gazed out at the drowned world.
"You'd think the rain would come in, wouldn't you?"
The voice came from behind him. Merlin turned, alarmed, and thought it was Nimue. But it was a young man, standing in an angle of the walls. He was dressed in court finery and he was vaguely familiar, but it took Merlin a moment to place him. He was Jean-Michel, Leonilla's servant, or gigolo, or whatever he was.
"There are enough cracks. But somehow the elements stay out. The ancients knew more about building securely than we do." The young man smiled. "But then I'm no ar chitect. Hello, Merlin."
"Jean-Claude," Merlin was not at all happy to find him there.
"Jean-Michel. You recognize me. At least somewhat."
"I came here to be alone." He said it pointedly, hoping the boy would take the cue and leave.
"So did I." Touché.
"Is it not your job to tend Leonilla? Frankly, she seems to need a lot of tending."
"She has disappeared on another of her little walk abouts. There are a dozen servants looking for her. Marthe, the head maid, doesn't like me. I decided to come here instead."
"You sound as if you know this place. How did you get past the guard?"
"I've been coming here every day. Sometimes more than once a day. The guard knows me; I bring him sweets. It is so lovely to be away from people."
"You could be myself as a young man."
"I will take that as a compliment. And what is King Ar thur's chief minister doing here, may I ask?"
"The same as you. Seeking solitude. If it were not for this bloody rain, I would be outside, walking in the woods, studying the trees and the animals."
"There we differ, then." Jean-Michel smiled. "I have nothing to learn from rabbits and badgers."
"But damp stones and drafty corridors can teach you what, exactly?"
"The sweet, sweet pleasure of solitude. Euripides aban doned Athens to live in a cave. I could happily do the same."
"Your mood echoes my own."
"Perhaps I should become a minister, then."
Merlin rested his cane against the wall. "Instead of what? What exactly are your duties?"
The young man laughed. "You want to know if I sleep with the queen?"
"She is old enough to be your grandmother. No, your great-grandmother."
"I love her."
"Er, yes. I suppose someone has to."
This puzzled the boy, and it showed.
"Leonilla is a formidable woman." Merlin adopted the tone of a lecturer. "People respect her, fear her. But I have never heard anyone mention her and love in the same sen tence. Not even her daughter."
"She took me in when my parents died. I was twelve. You know what happens to orphans—nothing. No pros pects, no future, none at all. Leonilla decided she liked me and raised me as her own."
"I don't recall seeing you at her court."
"I was there, keeping quietly to the background." He hesitated. "I know what people think of her. But she has been like a mother to me."
"A loving mother." Merlin's voice dripped with irony.
"We—yes. I—what would be the word?—I like older women. I have always beeen attracted to them. My earliest memory is of attraction to a schoolmistress. And Leonilla, I love. Is that a crime?"
"Flaunting your 'love' as you do is a lapse of taste, to say the least. And would be for even a more conventional couple. I would appreciate it if you would leave now, JeanLouis. I want to be alone."
"Jean-Michel." He turned to go.
"No, wait. There is something I would like to ask you."
Merlin took his cane and crossed the room to a stone bench. Sitting down heavily, he patted the seat beside him. "Sit here. Let us talk."
"Isn't that what we've been doing? But you want to be alone. I'll just go now."
In an instant Merlin turned from tired old man to royal minister. "Sit here. Let us talk."
Compliant, Jean-Michel sat.
"There is a young woman, Petronilla. You know her?"
"Yes, of course. Her mother is an intimate of the queen."
"Tell me about her."
Jean-Michel's eyes narrowed. "You think she was in volved in the murder."
"No." Merlin hoped the lie was convincing.
"You think she was working secretly for Leonilla."
"That had not occurred to me. Thank you for the in sight."
The young man jumped to his feet. "And you are inves tigating the murder. Why would Leonilla have her own husband killed? What would she gain?"
"I am only concerned with Petronilla, not with your . . . adoptive mother. Tell me about her."
"There is not much to tell, really." He shrugged and sat. "Her mother and Leonilla are old friends. There is a little brother, too, a boy named Petrus or something."
"Yes, that's it. He was . . ." He groped for the memory. "He was sent here to Guenevere's court. Then he disap peared. Nobody seemed to care much. But if you're look ing for a suspect, he would be a likely one." His eyes narrowed. "He is here, isn't he?"
"But the girl." Merlin was not about to be drawn from his inquiry.
He sighed. "She was groomed to be one of Leonilla's at tendants when she came of age. Good education, every luxury . . ."
"What about lovers?"
"You do have a curious mind."
"It is my job."
Jean-Michel wrinkled his nose and went on. "There were stories. Gossip. People said she had a vindictive na ture. She took lovers, then treated them horribly when they lost interest in her, or she in them. I never paid much atten tion."
"I see. Do you have any idea why she was sent to En gland?"
"To be Guinevere's secretary, I think. What is this in aid of?"
"Nothing. Just an old man's curiosity, no more."
Jean-Michel leaned back against the wall. "You expect me to believe that?"