"I'm no good at planning. You always say so."
"Then leave the thinking to me, but don't distract me."
"We're in jail. What do we have to think about?"
"Getting out." She got to her feet, pulled on a robe and began to pace. "I wish I could know how Arthur learned, or guessed, what we were up to. I wish I could know what he'll do with us."
"We've been caught committing treason. I told you it was a mistake to have a public wedding. But you wanted to rub his nose in it. I guess he'll have us killed. I had such a promising future once, and now—"
"He may have us killed for the affront to his dignity, perhaps. Not for treason. No, Arthur can't possibly know anything." She was trying to convince herself, not Lancelot. "Besides, we were plotting to take what should be right fully mine."
"Rights are a matter of power. Arthur has us. Come over here and make love to me."
She sneered at him. "It was going so smoothly. We would have staged my 'birthday' celebration and invited him. And he wouldn't have been able to resist coming, if only to pry. Once we had him at Corfe—there are a hun dred possibilities: poison, a knife in the dark . . ."
"Instead we now have to worry about the headsman's axe in broad daylight. I want to make love to you. It may be the last time."
"Be quiet, Lancelot. What will he do? Arthur would merely have us killed, yes—if he was left to his own in stincts. But he's advised by that foul old bastard Merlin. Merlin is far too subtle for a simple execution. He'll have some plan, and it will be devious. I've never trusted him, not even back when Arthur and I were on good terms."
"As long ago as that?"
The "foul old bastard" listened, fascinated. So they had in fact been planning to remove Arthur. It only made sense. Someone planning treason would find the living king in convenient, to say the least.
Lancelot crossed to her and threw his arms around her, and this time she did not resist. He began kissing her, fon dling her. She moaned softly. "Does the approach of death make love more exciting?"
Merlin pulled away from his spy hole. Pellenore took his place there and looked. "Don't you want to see more? They're getting undressed."
"Spare me, Pellenore. I once sat quietly on the bank of the Nile and watched a pair of crocodiles make love. The sight of this would be redundant."
"I want to see."
"Come back later, then. If Lancelot's reputation is to be believed, they'll still be at it. But I want to get out of here."
Glumly the old king gestured back the way they'd come. "All right, let's go. Maybe we'll encounter that troll."
"Can I be there when you interrogate her, Merlin?"
Nimue sat with Merlin in his study, sharing a plate of venison and a skin of wine. His mood was blue, and she was trying to shake him out of it.
"I don't think so, no. I don't think Arthur wants anyone there who doesn't have to be. Would you parade your spouse's infidelity in front of an audience?"
"I suppose not. But even with the secrecy . . . well, word is spreading about what Guenevere has done, or tried to do."
"Even so. He hasn't many crutches left to lean on where she is concerned. Let us not deprive him of that one."
"Do you think she would really have given the country to the Byzantines?"
"Between her hatred for Arthur and her lust for power, it is not hard to imagine. And given her sense of selfimportance, I doubt if it would have occurred to her she was being used. It is such a typical plan for the Byzantines. Why bother invading England when you can sweet-talk the king's wife into handing it to you? They would have given her enough freedom, or autonomy, to feel that she had ac complished what she wanted—at first. Justinian has vassal kings all over the map. Then, slowly, inch by inch, they would have taken it away until even Guenevere would have realized what a fool she had been. But by then, of course, it would have been too late for all of us."
"We would have known Byzantine prosperity, wouldn't we? Wouldn't England have flourished under them?"
"It is far more likely we would have known Byzantine cruelty before we ever saw any benefits. Do you know about some of the tortures they have devised? They do things to the human body that would have given pause to Caligula."
They fell into silence for a while and ate and drank. Fi nally Nimue asked, "But if they really want England, won't they come and take it anyway?"
"Perhaps. Perhaps not. Justinian's great general, Belisa rius, might die. People do. Or he might plan to try to seize the throne for himself. Generals have been known to do that." He sighed deeply. "I can't tell you how tired I am of the human race. The things, the awful things we do to each other . . . they are so . . . so . . ."
"Cheer up. You're an old man, Merlin. You won't have to see much more of it."
"If you mean that as a joke—"
"I can't tell you how I hope you are right."
"Let Guenevere go free and we'll see."
"Unfortunately the king is devoted to his kingship. It is not as if I have any real choice."
After a long pause Nimue asked, "What was he like?"
"Yes. When he was young, I mean. Before he took the throne."
"Do young men differ very much? He was a scrawny boy with big dreams and bigger ambitions. His father, Uther, was a minor warlord who ignored his son com pletely. Arthur had potential, but he was painfully trusting, not to mention naïve. And I am afraid he has never quite reconciled himself to the fact that other people's plans might cross his."
"What will he do to Guenevere?"
"Do you care, Nimue?"
"I care because she is a woman. So few of us ever ap proach so near to power."
"Maybe someday you will."
"Don't humor me. Arthur will do what you counsel him to do. What will it be?"
"You overestimate my influence. Sometimes I have to shake him by the shoulders, at least figuratively, to get him to see the simple truth."
"And what is the truth, Merlin?"
He glanced at her sideways. "I don't know. I wish I did. Would
like to shake
The following morning, before dawn, Guenevere was brought to Arthur's chambers in chains by a half dozen soldiers under Britomart. Only two torches burned in the room; the corners were in deep shadow. The queen wore plain clothing made of dyed homespun, no embroidery— not exactly a prisoner's clothes but not much better.
They made her sit on a low, rough wooden stool. Torchlight shined directly into her eyes. Arthur and Merlin sat waiting. She entered the study proudly, head unbowed. But she looked drawn and frightened, and de spite her best efforts, she could not hide it. Merlin won dered if it was Arthur or Lancelot who was wearing her down.
Arthur leaned close to Merlin. "I've never seen her like this."
"Don't lose your resolve, Arthur."
"I know that I can't afford that."
"Then remember your duty to yourself. If that does not carry enough weight, remember your duty to England, to give us a stable monarchy. Do you want to see her on the throne?"
"Of course not. England would be a French province in no time. Or a Byzantine one. I can't tell you how I hate politics."
"Then you must put an end to this scheme now, and for good."
Arthur turned to his chained wife. "Guenevere. We found this dagger among your things." He produced a golden knife with an elaborately carved ivory handle. "It's quite a beautiful piece. Wherever did you get it? Was it a gift, perhaps?"
She did not respond, did not even move.
"From Lancelot, perhaps? On what occasion might he have given you such a thing?"
"So you've finally noticed me. I thought your fascinat ing conversation with Merlin would distract you all day."
"There is no point to sarcasm, Guenevere. It will hardly help your case."
"There is every point to it, Arthur. As a wise man once observed, there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn. And scorn is what I feel for you and your 'chief min ister.' Scorn in abundance."
Merlin decided it would be a mistake to let this go on. He leaned forward in his seat and announced, "Guenevere of Camelliard, you are charged with treason against the crown of England."
"And what," she said softly in a flat tone, "is the nature of this supposed treason?"
"You have conspired to replace your husband at the head of the government of England. You have conspired to assas sinate him. And, unwilling even to wait for his death, you have married bigamously your coconspirator."
She stared at them wordlessly.
After what seemed an eternity of silence Arthur burst out, "Say something. Have you no defense?"
Calmly Guenevere lowered her eyes. "You cannot pos sibly have evidence of any of this, for the simple reason that the charges are false."
Merlin produced several documents. "This," he intoned, "is an eyewitness account of your marriage to Lancelot du Lac. And this letter was intercepted on a ship from Byzan tium. You have been carrying on diplomatic negotiations with Justinian. Or trying to. We have his letter to you as evidence of it."
"I invited them to my birthday celebration, that is all." She looked at the king. "It was your idea, Arthur, remem ber? Months ago you suggested to me that we make my birthday a national event and use it to increase England's prestige internationally."
"I never authorized you to do this." He took the letter and shook it in her direction.
"And at any rate," Merlin interjected, "are you going to suggest that it was also Arthur's idea for you to murder him?"
"I have contemplated nothing of the sort."
"I heard you myself, only yesterday. 'Poison, a knife in the dark.' " He picked up the ivory-handled dagger. "This knife, perhaps?"
Her eyelid fluttered slightly; otherwise she showed no reaction. "How ironic, Merlin. For years you have urged Arthur not to turn England into a society dominated by informers, gossips and spies. Now you have become one yourself."
"Merlin is not the one on trial here." Arthur raised his voice.
"Is that what this is? A trial? Where is the jury, then? Where is the judge? As trials go this is most irregular."
"I am the king of England. The final judge."
She smiled. "So I am to be executed." Almost as if it were an afterthought, she added, "And Lancelot, too, I imagine. In this fair England of yours, this land of justice and equality."
Arthur sat back and crossed his legs casually. "No."
For the first time Guenevere reacted with something like genuine emotion. "What did you say?"
"I said," he told her with a grin, "no. I could easily con sign you to the flames or the chopping block. But that would be too easy, don't you think? Or, let us say, too convenient."
"Do it then, and get this over with. I would never wish to inconvenience you."
"No, it would be much too simple. Merlin?"
The king put his feet up on the table and leaned back; he avoided looking directly at his wife. Merlin spoke for him.
"You are to be taken to Corfe Castle under guard. Both you and Lancelot, that is. There you will be confined but have the freedom of the castle. Any attempt to escape will result in you being transported separately to other castles and imprisoned there for the rest of your lives."
Guenevere smiled. "Or the rest of Arthur's reign, which is likely to be of much shorter duration."
Merlin ignored this and went on. "In November your birthday celebration will occur exactly as planned—with additional guests invited by Arthur."
"May I ask whom?"
"You may not. When the guests arrive you will make a show of supporting Arthur in whatever diplomatic negotia tions he conducts. Once again, failure to do so will result in announcement of your indisposition, and you will be promptly jailed. Once the event has ended, you will remain in Corfe Castle under strict and permanent house arrest. Lancelot will be taken elsewhere."
Guenevere might have been made of granite. She spoke to Arthur, not Merlin. "I have been living in virtual con finement at Corfe for years now. Do you honestly believe that the threat of further confinement will intimidate me?"
Arthur glared at her. "For as long as I can remember you have flouted your marriage vows—one of which was an oath of loyalty to England. If this is what it takes to enforce them, so be it. I am not the one who brought us to this pass, Guenevere."
"No. Of course not. Very well, send us back, then."
"Not right away." Merlin folded the Byzantine letter and put it back in his pocket. "Britomart has arrangements to prepare. Your soldiers—the ones who serve and protect you at Corfe—are technically members of the English army. They are to be posted to the most far-flung parts of the country, to Scotland and Wales. New troops—or should I say guards—will be provided to look after you, ones whose loyalty to Arthur is beyond question. Captain John Dalley from the king's garrison at Corfe will be posted at your castle to command them,"
Guinevere lowered her eyes and softened her voice. "Arthur, please don't do this. I'm begging." Tenderly she whispered, "I still love you."
Arthur laughed at her. "You do? So, was your 'marriage' to Lancelot actually a ritual renewal of our wedding vows, with him standing in for me?" He gestured to Britomart. "Take her away."
Guenevere sprang to her feet. "No! I will not be led in chains like a criminal."
"'Please don't put a saddle on me. Not on
. I am a horse.' " Merlin laughed and shifted his weight, prepared to turn away from her. "Brit."