"A queen by virtue of your marriage—which you have dissolved." He couldn't resist adding, "In favor of this lump."
Lancelot growled like an angry dog and lunged at Arthur but four knights caught him and restrained him.
To Simon, Arthur said, "Install them in the North Tower. See that they're kept there, under tight guard." He smiled a cordial smile. "Until I want them."
Simon clapped his hands loudly and a group of atten dants ushered Guenevere and Lancelot inside the castle at swordpoint.
Merlin joined Arthur. "Your loving wife. When she was still a girl in her teens they used to call her the She-Wolf of France. Yet you let yourself fall in love with her."
"Don't remind me."
"Why did you ever marry her? I've never understood it."
"I was young. She was beautiful. I thought she loved me." He shrugged, then glanced at Merlin and looked quickly away. "And I thought she'd give me an entrée to France. You always told me to expand my kingdom when I could."
"I meant solidify your position here in Britain, not across the Channel. And I certainly never advised you to marry the daughter of a minor French king to do it. One of Guenevere's uncles or one of the petty warlords will inherit the province, not her. Let us hope it takes years to sort out. Marriage is about politics and strategy, Arthur, not love or beauty."
"Is it? Aren't they the same thing, sometimes?"
"For heaven's sake, Arthur, have I taught you nothing? You still talk like a green schoolboy at times. You've seen her mother, Leonilla. A face like a rusty axe and a personal ity to match. But she was a princess, heiress to a small yet mildly desirable French province. So Leodegrance gritted his teeth and married her. It was politics—it was power. Not love."
"And he's been miserable ever since, the poor oaf." Ar thur laughed. "Are you telling me I should have wanted a wife and a marriage like that?"
Merlin made a vague gesture at the door the queen had been taken through. "You got her daughter. And you got such a marriage anyway. Has Guenevere stopped plotting against you for even a minute since the day you married her? She wants to deliver England into her father's hands. Or to hold it in her own."
"At least Guenevere is beautiful. Was. When I looked at her in bed beside me, at least I didn't shudder."
"Shut up, Merlin. Let's go and have some lunch."
For a full week Geuenvere and Lancelot stewed in their confinement while Arthur and his advisors tried to decide what to do with her.
"Arthur, you should let her out," Simon of York advised him. "At least give her the freedom of the castle. She is a queen, after all."
"Don't remind me, Simon. And don't stand on proto col."
"She is entitled to consideration. She is not a common criminal."
"No, she is quite uncommon. Nevertheless, she will re main confined where she is."
Simon let out a sigh. "At least move her to a more liv able part of the castle, sir."
"So she can contact whatever spies or agents she's planted here? No, Simon, we're all safer with her in the North Tower. It leaks and there are terrible drafts." He smiled, pleased at the thought. "But I like her there."
"Have you talked to her?"
"Good God no. What would I ask her? 'How does your new husband measure up in bed?' "
"You shouldn't be so bitter, sir."
"Find yourself a wife like Geuenvere, then come back and tell me that. Why don't you go and count the silverware or something?"
Meanwhile, Merlin and Brit had conferred privately about the situation. When they were satisfied they had ar rived at a good plan they approached Arthur in his study. Greffys, as always, was in attendance and made certain the wine kept flowing. Merlin brought "Colin" to take notes.
"Arthur, we've decided the best course of action would be to send her back to Corfe."
The king slammed his goblet on the table. "What?! You're the ones who told me to have her brought here in the first place."
"Calm down, Arthur. We didn't say you should release her. Keep her here for a little while, so we can interrogate her and her French clod.
send them back—under heavy guard. Keep them imprisoned in their own castle."
"The Spider's House? I've always thought it perfectly appropriate that of all the castles in England, she chose the one with that name."
Brit spoke up. "We have more than enough troops to control Corfe Castle—or the Spider's House, if you prefer— and everything that happens in it. Keep the two of them there."
"Why? What on earth will that gain me?"
"The upper hand, Arthur." Merlin spoke softly and calmly. "I've suggested it before. Proceed with this damned foolish birthday celebration for her. Proclaim it throughout England and announce it to the rest of Europe. Invite dele gates from every civilized European court, and even some from Asia and Africa if possible. They will arrive here to find an England in peace and prosperity, with no dissension and with you firmly in charge. Guenevere's little diplomatic coup will become yours."
The king looked from one to the other. "What about this Byzantine, Podarthes? Do we know anything about him?"
"I knew him when I visited Byzantium," Merlin said. "He was not much more than an acquaintance, but—"
"Is there anyplace you haven't lived?"
"Very few, and none of them are in any way interesting or desirable. Podarthes was a minor court functionary when I knew him. He seems to have climbed the Byzantine po litical ladder very nicely."
"Is he honest? Is he trustworthy? Can we count on him to support us, or at least to keep his word?"
Brit laughed. "Arthur, he's a diplomat. And a Byzantine diplomat, at that."
"Point taken. One more thing occurs to me."
"Yes?" Merlin was pleased the king seemed to be taking their suggestion seriously.
"When Guenevere was a schoolgirl, she lived in Byzan tium. Or Constantinople, as they call it now. Her mother sent her there to be schooled. Suppose she has ties there we know nothing about?"
Merlin consulted some notes. "She was there for two years from the time she was twelve. Not even a woman as devious as Guenevere could have been hatching plots at that age."
Arthur fell into silence, mulling over the idea they'd suggested. Finally he asked, "Who should we invite, then?"
Merlin produced a sheet of paper covered with written notes. "Brit and I have discussed that. We have a few sugges tions. We would advise not inviting your knights and nobles. You know how they babble, especially when they've been drinking. One of them would almost certainly spill a few inconvenient beans."
"Obviously. Who, then?"
"Well . . . I was thinking you ought to invite the Pope to send someone."
Arthur blinked. "Pope? What the devil is a pope?"
"I've told you about him," Merlin said patiently. "Pope Honorius. He is the bishop of Rome."
"If you don't stop talking in riddles . . . So the Pope is a bishop. Fine. What on earth is a bishop?"
"Arthur, I've explained this all before. I wish you didn't drink so much."
"Don't nag me. I'm the king."
"Fine. The Pope is emerging as the leader of the Chris tians. They've been squabbling among themselves for gen erations, bickering for precedence, and Rome seems to have taken the most influential position. Europe is leaving the old gods, country by country, and adopting this new Christian one. And the Pope is the leader of it all. As with all religious matters, it involves politics. International poli tics. Guenevere's parents are both nominally Christians, and—"
"That is not exactly an endorsement."
"—and if you recall, she herself claimed to be one till she came here and married you. A delegate from the Pope might carry considerable influence with the three of them."
"It's difficult to believe any religion could turn that fam ily decent. But fine, go ahead and write to this—this—"
"Pope Honorius. The head of the Christian Church. Even Justinian is Christian. As I am certain you must know." He said this with a tone of heavy irony. "If we can win Honorius to our side, he may even be able to restrain Justinian. I wish you'd pay more attention."
"Stop talking to me as if I were still a schoolboy. I'm a king, damn it. I'm old enough to have a treacherous wife."
Brit added, "Having a Christian leader here will cer tainly annoy your sister, Morgan le Fay, Arthur. You know how devoted she is to traditional religion."
He beamed at the thought. "Good."
Ignoring this, Merlin went on. "I think it would also be useful to have someone else from the Byzantine administra tion here, to counter any plots Podarthes may hatch. They never stop working against one another. I'd like to invite my old friend Germanicus Genentius."
Arthur had been drinking steadily. His attention was be ginning to drift. "You knew this man in Byzantium, too?"
"I first met him there, yes. And he and Podarthes were— what is the polite term?—rivals. But I really got to know him when I lived in Egypt. He was adjutant to the imperial governor. Now he is governor himself."
"Merlin and I talked about this man," Brit said. "I'm not sure I agree that having another Byzantine official here would help us in any way. They all reek of murder and treachery."
"Brit," Merlin said patiently, "he is one of Justinian's officials, yes. But as I've explained to you, he is not quite the same kind of careerist as Podarthes. He fosters the arts and learning. The Library at Alexandria has flourished un der his rule, and so have the scholars who work there. Ger manicus and I speak the same language. He could be very helpful to us."
"But can we invite him here without going through Justinian?" Arthur did not like the sound of it. "And Po darthes?"
"As I said, Germanicus is an old friend. If I write to him informally, and if he decides he misses me and wants to pay his old companion a visit . . ." He grinned and spread his hands apart as if to say
. "Justinian is crafty. We must be, too."
"Fine. Write to him."
Merlin beamed. "As for the rest of Europe . . . I'm not at all certain. We should definitely avoid any of the other French kings. They would likely as not support Guenevere."
For the first time Nimue spoke up. "What about Leode grance and Leonilla? It would look odd to everyone if they weren't invited to their daughter's big party."
"Agreed again. I'd be surprised if Guenevere hadn't alerted them already. I can't imagine them missing this for anything." Arthur's speech was becoming slurred. "Espe cially if it involves plots against me."
Merlin decided the meeting had gone on too long; it was time to end it.
"That only leaves one issue to be dealt with," Arthur said softly.
"And what is that?"
The king furrowed his brow, trying to concentrate through the fog of wine. "How can we persuade her to go along with this?"
"Persuade, Arthur? I would use the word
Brit was emphatic.
The king pounded the table. "No torture. I've told you that time and again."
"No, Arthur, of course not. We wouldn't want to dam age that beautiful olive skin of hers. But there are other threats. She is already bristling at her confinement. The suggestion that it might become permanent . . ." She smiled.
Arthur sighed. "We are constructing a nest of vipers, all of them seething with venom. Why does kingship have to be so interesting?"
"You wanted it, Arthur." Merlin was serene. "Don't remind me."
The mad old king, who had been conquered by Arthur and whose castle Arthur now occupied, was galloping along a corridor on an imaginary horse. When he saw his friend Merlin he reined it in. "Merlin. Hello, Merlin. There is a troll loose in the castle. Help me find it."
"Wouldn't you rather hunt down a venomous serpent?"
Pellenore seemed to forget his pretend horse and imagi nary quarry almost at once. "What do you mean?"
"You know all the passages that riddle Camelot. I've tried to have other people find them, but . . ." He spread his hands in a gesture of futility. "I need your help."
"I'll do anything I can for you, Merlin. You're the only one who ever takes my quests seriously. There are mon sters."
"Believe me, I know it. And none of them are so awful as the human ones. What hidden passageways are there in the North Tower?"
"Not many. It's the oldest part of Camelot. But there are a few."
"Will you show them to me?"
Within moments they were inside the castle walls, mov ing toward the north wing, lighting their way with torches. Dust and cobwebs covered everything, and the floor was littered with all kinds of objects from scraps of cloth to old rusted swords and armor. "Be careful not to stray from this passage," Pellenore said at one point. "You will find the remains of the dead." Unwilling to pursue this topic, Merlin pressed on. Then the corridor began to ascend. Soon they were in the wall behind Guenevere's rooms.
There were enough chinks in the masonry to permit sound to carry quite clearly and even to permit limited views of the rooms. Merlin pressed his eye to one of the cracks.
Lancelot and Guenevere were on the bed, locked in one another's arms. Merlin watched, intrigued. "It is like watching the mating dance of Egyptian cobras," he whis pered.
In the bedroom, Guenevere pushed her man impatiently away. "Not now, Lancelot. This isn't the time. We have to think."