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   Seemingly from nowhere Guenevere produced a knife, a small silver one whose blade gleamed in the torchlight. She made a move toward Arthur. But Britomart overpowered her and the knife clattered to the floor. Merlin called for soldiers.
   "So help me, Arthur, you will pay for this." She strug­ gled as Brit coiled another length of chain around her; she spit in Brit's face. Brit smiled and pulled the chains tighter. Then two of the soldiers took her by her arms and led her from the room as she struggled vainly against their grasp.
   When they were gone Merlin turned to Arthur. "So help me, you have the strangest taste in women."
   "I was a boy when we met. She seduced me. I fell in love. Don't make this harder for me than it is."
   "Sorry, Arthur. I've suspected for a long time that you still love her."
   "Forgive me, Merlin, for being such an irrational crea­ ture."
   "Forgive you for being human?"
   Suddenly Arthur peered at him. "Does anyone have a secret from you, Merlin? I thought I was being very close with my emotions."
   "Perhaps I know you too well. How long has it been? Twenty years? More?"
   "Brit plants her spies here, there and everywhere, yet she only knows half of what goes on. You, Merlin—you stay in your tower with your ravens and your lenses and your medicines, and you read us as clearly as you do those books that line your walls."
"Comedies, mostly."
"Don't be flippant."
   "Sorry, Arthur. But it really isn't hard to understand people. Most of them do the obvious thing from the obvi­ ous motive. Only the Byzantines have learned to be consis­ tently more subtle. That is why the prospect of having them here chills me so."
   "What is it you said once? We are stepping into a viper's nest of our own construction. When all their subtle devices fail, they murder."
   "Let us hope we can defang these vipers before they strike."
   "Let us hope they never strike at all."
   "To hope for that would be to deny the viper's nature. But we must be permanently watchful, Arthur. We have no choice but to go ahead with the birthday nonsense. If we back away from it, I am afraid Justinian would see us as weak. And he would strike—invade. But while we are reveling and eating Guenevere's birthday cake and drink­ ing toasts to one another's good health, let us remember to voice a hope that everyone will emerge from this alive."
Arthur was drunk. Fully, completely, numbly drunk. His wife's perfidy was not forgotten, exactly, but it didn't seem to matter.
   It was the dark middle of the night, and three candles burned low in his bedroom; they did not give much light at all. The king lay in bed. Four empty wineskins sat on the floor beside him. The room spun around him, and he found it reassuring. No one could penetrate that kind of moving room, not Guenevere, not Lancelot, not Justinian.
   Slowly, groggily, he climbed out of bed and reeled to­ ward the door, holding on to this piece of furniture or that for support. A part of his mind understood that it was not the room that was reeling but himself. He laughed, quite loudly.
   At the door the guard had been nodding off. He was only half awake when Arthur staggered past him. "Sir— Your Majesty!"
   "I'm going to the privy, Walter."
   "Let me help you."
   "You want to help me take a piss?"
   "Let me help you get there and back. The stairs are steep, and you are—you may need someone to steady you."
   "I'll be fine. Stay here."
   "But—"
   "Stay."
   "Yes, sir."
   Arthur took a candle from a wall sconce and lurched forward. And lost his balance, slamming into the wall. The guard Walter moved to help him, but Arthur glanced back over his shoulder with a look that warned him to keep his distance. "I'll be fine, Walter."
   "Yes, sir. But I—"
   "Stay!" He roared it.
   Walter, quite uncertainly, resumed his post. Arthur stag­ gered on.
   The stairs were in fact steep and he had to steady him­ self against the wall as he descended. The castle was dark; absolutely no one was awake at that hour and in that deep, deep night. Wax from his candle dripped onto Arthur's hand, burning it, but he didn't mind and kept going.
   Finally he reached the privy. The blackness was Stygian; he had that thought, then decided to leave the Styx to Mer­ lin's classical library and laughed to himself. The candle he was carrying barely cut the darkness; but the privy was fa­ miliar and he found his way to the seat without much trou­ ble. And he plopped himself down quite heavily. Then after a few moments he lowered his head and drowsed off, think­ ing that he wished he'd brought a skin of wine with him.
   Suddenly there was an explosion of pain, like a lightning bolt striking his shoulder. He opened his eyes and looked around. There was someone there in the dark room. He reached for the man, missed and fell to the floor. The can­ dle fell and went out. "Help! Murder! Help!" As the last echoes of his voice died off he could hear his assailant's footsteps as he—or she?—ran away in the dark. Then, un­ consciousness took him.
When he woke he was on a bed in Merlin's surgery. Merlin was rubbing a salve on the knife wound in his shoulder; Nimue was behind Merlin, preparing bandages.
   "It is not too bad, Arthur. At least it is not too deep. I think the attacker wanted to stab you in the neck. But in that darkness . . ." He smiled.
   "An assassin has struck and you find it amusing."
   "I was thinking that I have lectured you about your drinking often enough. I will not do it again."
   "For this relief, much thanks."
   "Did you see who it was?"
   Arthur tried to shift his weight and winced in pain. "Drunk, in the darkest part of the night, in a privy with nothing but a candle?"
   "Britomart wants to talk to you. She will ask."
   "Let her."
   "She will press you to remember harder than I would."
   "Women."
   "Silly woman—she wants to keep you alive." Merlin grinned again. "Which seems to be more than you do."
   "Don't nag." Arthur sat up on the bed, winced again and buried his face in his hands. "Guenevere. She is behind this. She must be."
   "Or Justinian, or Leodegrance, or someone else we don't even know about."
   Arthur tried to stand up and winced with pain. "You said this wasn't bad."
   "I said it is not
too
bad."
   "It hurts like hell." Slowly he stood, steadying himself against the bed. Then he looked Merlin in the eyes. "I hate this, Merlin. I hate a world where people do things like this."
   "You wanted the throne."
   "Stop saying that all the time."
   "Sorry, Arthur. But this is the world you wanted. You could have been a jolly farmer, plowing fields and hoping the brood sow will drop healthy piglets."
   "Stop it, Merlin. My sweet loving wife has tried to have me murdered. What did I ever do to her—what could I pos­ sibly have done—to make her hate me so?"
   "Simple. You got between her and her ambition. Brit is planning to take personal charge of your security now. This will not happen again."
   "Not now, it won't. But what will happen when we all gather at Corfe?"
   "We will all get fat on birthday cake."
   "If it isn't poisoned." He started to pull his shirt on and winced again. "Give me a drug to kill the pain, will you?"

Three

Arthur's wounds healed well but slowly. He complained to Merlin about it. "When I was a boy I used to heal so quickly. Maybe you should try another ointment."
   "You are not a boy anymore, Arthur. No physician, not Hippocrates himself, has an ointment that could reverse ag­ ing. You need to take better care of yourself. And drink less."
   "Somewhere there must be court physicians who don't nag."
   "There were, Arthur, but all their kings are dead."
   "Be quiet."
   Britomart doubled the number of guards assigned to pro­ tect Arthur and gave them emphatic orders to be especially vigilant when he was "vulnerable"; they all understood that she meant "when he has too much to drink." Arthur bristled at it, but Brit and Merlin insisted strongly enough and vehe­ mently enough that they finally wore him down; he was re­ signed to constant attention, which he had never wanted.
   Merlin drafted letters of invitation to all the courts they
had discussed. He was careful to mention that Podarthes would be coming, representing Justinian; most of the lesser rulers would be anxious to curry favor. Then he took them to Arthur for approval. Liking the tone of what he read, he signed them with a flourish,
Arturus Rex
. "These are per­ fect, Merlin. They strike the precise tone between humility, diplomacy and royal majesty. I'll dispatch couriers to the various courts to deliver them first thing in the morning."
   "Choose your couriers carefully, Arthur. Remember the image we wish to project. The whole idea is to persuade Europe to take us seriously. Sending a drunken lout—no, that would not do at all."
   "Some of the younger knights, perhaps," the king mused. "And some of the older squires—the ones you've been teaching. Perhaps we might delay their leaving for a few days while you school them in the ways of diplomacy."
   "Turning a lump of coal into a gemstone takes more than a few days, Arthur."
   "Even so. It will help. Select the ones you think are most promising for a mission like this."
   "I'll give it some thought."
   "Excellent. Merlin, where would I be without you?"
   He pretended to think about this. "In Guenevere's dun­ geon?"
   "Stop it."
   Merlin began to gather up the letters and put them in his pouch.
   Arthur had another thought. "Let's consult Brit about who to send. They may be able to gather intelligence for her while they're on their travels."
   "In that case, we must really select them carefully. Hav­ ing the more loutish ones tip their hands could be disas­ trous." He stood to go.
   "Merlin?"
   "Yes, Arthur?"
   "Where is this going to end? Where will this all lead?"
   "If you want divination, send for your sister, Morgan. I have enough duties."
   "Always difficult, aren't you?" He paused for a moment. "Merlin, I've never been involved in a situation like this. I want to establish England as a power on the map of Europe; I want the world's respect. But I'm a bit frightened. Overwhelmed,"
   "That is understandable. But which situation are you talking about? A huge diplomatic effort, or treason on the scale Guenevere may be planning?"
   "Is there a difference?"
   He shrugged. "Probably not. I have been meaning to ask a favor of you."
   "Ask. Anything."
   "Colin has been helping me with the boys' education. In fact, he has shouldered most of the work. So he doesn't really have time to assist me in my other duties as he used to. Might you assign me another assistant?"
   Arthur rubbed his chin. "Hmm . . . what do you think of young Petronus?"
   "A bright boy. Solid, reliable, conscientious. But he's Brit's squire."
   "I've been thinking that she's so busy with the army she doesn't really have time to train him properly. And, quite honestly, he isn't a very good athlete. He might make a good assistant for you, don't you think?"
   "Yes, but . . ."
   "But?"
   "He wants to be a knight, doesn't he? He might find working with me a disappointment."
   "I'll have to talk to him about it."
   "Of course . . ." Merlin put on a show of thoughtfulness for the king's benefit.
   "Yes?"
   "Has it ever occurred to you that military service is not the only way of being useful to the court and the country?"
"What do you mean?"
   "Suppose—when the time comes— you award Petronus a knighthood for scholarship and for assisting in the formu­ lation of policy?"
   "A knighthood for something other than military train­ ing? That's unheard of. No king in Europe has done such a thing."
   "Be the first. Start a vogue. It might even catch on everywhere."
   "But—but—I mean, where would that end? Sooner or later I might even have to make knights of poets and ac­ tors." He made a sour face to show what he thought of the prospect.
   "There are many ways to serve England, Arthur."
   "And I suppose you'd want a knighthood for yourself, too?"
   "It has never occurred to me. But there are so many others who—"
   "I wish you didn't have so many damned ideas, Merlin. Why can't I have counselors who are less clever? All this original thinking." He grumped for a moment. "I'll think about it, all right?"
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