"The servants took it upon themselves to send him for you. I instructed them not to, but they ignored me.
. If I live, they will pay dearly for their insolence."
"If you live? Be serious, Leonilla. You are made of iron. You will outlast all of us. Corfe Castle will be dust before you—"
She turned her head and looked directly at him. Her gaze was filled with malevolence; it put him off balance. Then slowly she raised her left arm, the one farther away from him. The billowing sleeve was wet; the fabric clung to her arm. A few drops of something dripped. They were red.
It took him a moment to realize what he was seeing. Then slowly she raised the hem of her robe and he could see on the floor beside her a metal basin; it was filled with blood. She peeled the damp sleeve back off of her left arm. And her wrist was slit open; blood flowed.
Alarmed, he took a step toward her. She barked the word "Stop!"
"But Leonilla, I—"
"Do not move. Do not take another step." From her sleeve she produced a knife, still another of the gold and ivory ones, and held the point to her throat. "Stop, or I will end my life now, immediately."
He froze, And he gaped at her. "I knew, or rather sus pected. But I never thought you would do a thing like this. Please, give me the knife. Let me bind up your wrist."
"They should have let me jump that night. Did I not make it sufficiently clear that I do not want to be alive? Why should
want me to live?"
Without moving, not wanting to startle her in any way, he said, "Beliveau told me that you and Jean-Michel were the only ones who had access to his workshop. I did not believe Jean-Michel was competent enough to have stolen all the knives without being caught. The thief had to be you."
"Jean-Michel was a bit of a fool. But I loved him. Loved him. Is it possible for the great man of reason to compre hend that?"
Merlin watched her blood trickle into the basin and said nothing.
"I was not about to die without knowing love. It had al ways seemed unnecessary, but the poets all suggested I was missing something. And he loved me, Merlin; he genuinely did. I have never known such a thing. I made him mine. I tried my best to love him in return. I never imagined he might die because of my crimes. So very, very young. So beautiful."
He spoke softly; he did not move. "So you did the mur ders. I suspected you must be behind them, somehow, but it seemed so unlikely you would have done them yourself. You
have been behind them; ultimately, I knew that. But in the past you have always used agents to do your foul deeds, to work your evil will. I thought that JeanMichel . . ."
The flow of blood from her wrist strengthened, quick ened, It splashed past the basin's rim and onto the floor. Unexpectedly she smiled, sighed and looked into Merlin's eyes. "If people knew how good this feels, a lot more of them would be doing it. Imagine how the world would be transformed if it were known that death brings pleasure, not suffering. This is the end I want. I will not die a useless old queen, stripped of power and majesty, an object of pity or amusement."
He wanted to keep her talking. "What a pity you did not allow Leodegrance that same choice."
"My husband was a complete fool. There has never been a greater ass. He actually told me he loved Guenevere."
His face froze. "She was his daughter. Surely such love is only natural."
"You have no idea the kind of world you are moving in, this world of kings and courtiers. Fool. I loathed Guenevere from the day she was conceived, Monarchs must of neces sity hate their children. They replace us, they make us un necessary. Looking into her face, I never saw anything but a death's head. Love a child? If someone were to show you your own burial shroud, could you love it?"
He groped for something to say. After a moment he whispered, "She is your daughter. Your flesh. Every inch of her."
"If your Arthur had been a proper king, she would be dead now. I set her about treason against him often enough. Did he act like a king—like a
and dispose of her? No, he did not. That was probably your doing."
"Leonilla, he loved her."
"Love. What does love have to do with rulership?"
"In theory, Leonilla, everything."
"It was so simple. She betrayed him. Often. Blatantly. If she lost, he would kill her, and that would be that. I would be rid of her. If she won, I would have England or a large part of it under my sway. How could I lose? I prodded her into this lunatic marriage with Lancelot, thinking that it, finally, must goad Arthur into destroying her. But I failed to reckon with my idiot son-in-law and his fanciful 'new kind of state.' " She turned to face Merlin again. "Or with the absurd advice you undoubtedly gave him. And now . . . my poor Jean-Michel. He is dead, and it is my doing. I want to be dead, too,"
From the corner of his eye he saw Petronus reenter the room. He moved quite silently. Grateful that Leonilla was not facing him, Merlin made a slight gesture to indicate that Petronus was to restrain Leonilla at his signal.
There was a long silence. Merlin was all too aware that Leonilla's life was receding, that her blood was escaping on the far side of her, but he knew that if he made a move to ward her, she would plunge the knife into her throat. He wanted to keep her talking till he saw a chance to move. Alive, she could be held to account for her crimes. "But then why kill Leodegrance? He had been your husband for, what, fifty years or more."
"He had been a fool for even longer. He opposed the marriage. But that gave Guenevere a plausible motive for killing him. I knew that if I killed him with one of the golden knives, suspicion would certainly fall on her and her jackass 'husband.' "
"Disposing of Leodegrance should have placed me firmly on the throne of Camelliard. It would be mine at long last. Then the Byzantines began to move in. Podarthes was Justinian's man in Western Europe. And that scheming slut Marthe was conspiring with him. She had to die as well. I thought feigning madness would keep you from suspecting me, but for once you were not a gull." She bur ied her face in her hands and wept. "My poor Jean-Michel. My poor, sweet boy. You'll never know how much I loved you, boy."
Softly, in a flat voice, he told her, "His supposed death was supposed to goad you into confessing. But not this. Leonilla, he is alive, in his cell. The ghost was a ruse, noth ing more."
She gaped; her eyes widened. "Alive? No! No! That cannot be! I saw him."
"It was Colin. You must have noticed they resembled one another."
"Lies! I am going to join my sweet boy. Trouble me with no more of these lies."
Suddenly Merlin shouted, "Now!"
Petronus rushed Leonilla, caught her arm and wrestled the knife from it; it clattered to the stone floor. Leonilla fought, but Petronus was younger and stronger. Merlin got to his feet, tore a strip of cloth from the hem of his cloak and moved to bind the old queen's wrist.
But Leonilla reached into her robe with her free right hand. And in a flash she produced another knife, still an other of the gold and ivory ones. She slashed at Petronus with surprising swiftness. The boy screamed and released her. His face and arm had gashes.
Then Leonilla turned to Merlin, smiled and pushed the knife cleanly into her own throat. Blood spurted across the room. He was startled there was so much left in her. An instant later she fell to the floor and lay there twitching for a moment. Then she was still.
He checked for a pulse. He put his ear to her face and listened for signs of breathing. There were none. The old queen was dead.
Sadly he whispered, "You have redeemed yourself, Petronus. At least there is that."
"The boy will be all right?"
Arthur and Merlin rode side by side at the head of a col umn returning to Camelot. There was a stiff wind; snow flakes whirled around them.
Merlin pulled his cloak more tightly around himself. "Yes, I think so. Leonilla slashed him pretty horribly. I've treated the wounds to the best of my ability. I am afraid there will be scars. But he is feeling well enough to have insisted on returning to Camelot with us. He actually told me he was looking forward to getting home. Can you be lieve he thinks of Camelot as his home?"
"It seems he hasn't known any other; not really."
"Well, to make certain he knows what home feels like, I've arranged for him to ride between Morgan and Gildas." He gestured behind them. The two of them were bickering vigorously, as usual. And Petronus was looking perfectly miserable. "Before long, I imagine he will feel nostalgic for Leonilla."
"That's a horrible thing to do to him, Merlin." Arthur sent a soldier back to summon Petronus to join him. "Stay here, Petronus. Ride beside me."
The boy's smile beamed. "Thank you. But why, Your Majesty?"
"You have been through enough. I don't know why, Petronus, but amid all the death we've seen, I'd like to know you're feeling well." He turned to Merlin. "I feel like I'm being so ironic."
Nimue and Germanicus rode just behind them, not talk ing much. Germanicus was eavesdropping idly on their conversation. "There are so many ironies, Arthur. Do you know that people are saying it was Merlin who conjured up the ghost, not Morgan? He is the wizard, after all."
Merlin harrumphed at him. "Are you leaving for Egypt anytime soon?"
"I'm thinking of staying for an extended visit. If it is agreeable to King Arthur, that is."
Arthur nodded and grinned at him. "Anyone who annoys Merlin so expertly is always welcome. You may stay as long as you like. Your administrative experience should prove valuable."
"Thank you, Your Majesty."
Alone among Arthur's circle of advisors, Britomart was not in the party. She took personal charge of a special mili tary mission to escort Lancelot and Guenevere to the north of the country, to be imprisoned in two separate castles. The castles were remote enough to make it unlikely they could find useful allies or hatch more schemes. Brit had argued that Arthur should execute them, but he resisted the idea, as always. "If I have them killed, Leonilla has won." That was all he said.
Jean-Michel really was still alive. He was released from his dungeon not long after Leonilla's self-slaughter. When Merlin explained to him what had happened, the young man went pale. "No. I loved her. She could not have done the killings. What does that say about me?"
"That you are still too young to be anything but stupid?" Merlin smiled.
Jean-Michel was put on a ship bound for France and or dered never to return to England. Later that day, at the next tide, Petronilla was sent home with a similar warning.
And the following morning the Byzantines, smirking in a superior manner, took ship for their home port. Merlin and Eudathius had one final exchange at the harbor. "You Byzantines. You came here expecting us to be pushovers. You outnumber us, to be certain. You can overwhelm us whenever you choose. But you will never grasp that strength is not the same thing as virtue."
"No, Merlin. Not strength. Power." Eudathius stepped onto the gangway and laughed at him. "Leonilla always said that you are all fools here. It seems she had a point."
Now, on the road back to Camelot, it seemed that all the evil had retreated into a distant background. Relief was quite easily visible on Arthur's face.
Nimue spoke up. "I find that I'm still quite shaken by everything that happened. A mother willing to sacrifice her own daughter to advance her schemes. It seems so . . . it seems so . . ."
Merlin turned back to answer her. "Unnatural? Leonilla was human, nothing more or less. And she was not the only villain. All of them—Guenevere, Lancelot, Petronilla— were quite fully as human as the old queen. It is as simple and disturbing as that."
"But nature, Merlin . . . I mean, even the lowest animals succor their young."
"You are young, Colin. Human nature is not only darker and more frightening than you imagine. It is darker and more frightening than you
imagine." He smiled, and Nimue was uncertain whether it was one of his ironic smiles or a genuine one, Then he added a single word: "Yet."
Nimue fell silent. But Germanicus leaned close to her and whispered, "Suddenly I'm not certain I want to stay here after all."
Merlin overheard. "You have seen enough of the world, Germanicus. Do you really believe that people are different anywhere else?"
"No. Of course not."
"Stay, then. Government isolates us. You know that. Friends, real friends, are so few . . ."
Arthur ignored this exchange. He reached over and ran a hand though Petronus's hair. Then he kissed the top of the boy's head. "England will suffer, but it will change and grow. You are the future."