And Brit dutifully read them and forwarded them to Arthur. With each one Arthur seemed to become sadder and more detached.
Britomart never mentioned to Petronus that his sister had left France and was living in England, much less that she was living at Corfe Castle and was secretly in Arthur's service. He seemed to have no idea of either fact; as Petronilla had said, they weren't close. But Brit did not raise the least objection when Arthur detached the boy from her service and assigned him as an assistant to Merlin.
Then, late one night, in the smallest hours of the morning, Merlin awoke. Restless, he walked to the window. Two of his ravens were sleeping there. They stirred and looked at him groggily, then closed their eyes again.
He looked out across the main courtyard to see Arthur's rooms in the king's tower ablaze with light. It was unusual; given Arthur's mood—mad drinking—of late, he had been sleeping heavily and late, most mornings. Merlin even found lights mildly alarming. He got his cane and took the stairs down one level to Petronus's room, entered and shook the boy out of a sound sleep. "Petronus, I need you."
Half-awake, the boy gaped at him. "Hmm? What time is it?"
"Late. Late enough that everyone should be asleep. Except— Get up, will you?"
Rubbing his eyes, Petronus did so. He had been sleeping under a down-filled comforter; he was in his underclothes. "I'm sorry. What's wrong?"
"I need you to go to the King's Tower. Arthur is awake. Find out if he is all right. Or if he needs me."
"Yes, sir." He climbed into a pair of trousers and a shirt and pulled his boots on.
The two of them stepped out onto the landing. Just as Petronus was about to leave, Merlin saw someone coming up the spiral stairs with a torch. After a moment he realized who it was. "Arthur!" he called.
The king continued his ascent without answering.
"Arthur. Where are your bodyguards?"
Arthur shrugged, then laughed. Finally he reached them, paused, looked around and walked into Petronus's room without saying a word.
Petronus looked at Merlin. "He's been drinking," he whispered.
Merlin followed the king inside and closed the door. Arthur was sitting on the bed with his face buried in his hands. Without looking up he said, "Merlin, I want this to be over."
"It will be, Arthur. Sooner or later."
"I still love her. Do you understand that? She still owns my love."
Softly Merlin replied, "I know it. I can't imagine why."
He looked up. "You don't think she still loves me?"
"The word in that that gives me trouble is
Arthur looked away from him. "It's late spring, almost
summer. I used to love this time of year. Birds, butterflies, flowers, refreshing rains. Now it all looks more foul to me than I can say. You remember, Merlin. I met Guenevere when I was twenty. Still green, still a boy. She seemed the most magically beautiful, sophisticated woman I'd ever seen. And she said she loved me.
"Love, even when it is not an illusion, rarely lasts. Arthur, you are a king, but you are not exempt from hu man behavior." He lowered his voice a bit. "Or human suffering."
"She's going to kill. There will be death. I know it. Not everyone will survive this year alive."
"We don't know for certain that she was behind the at tempt on you. It seems likely, but—"
"She was. You know it. We both do."
Merlin sat beside him and put an arm around him. "You need sleep. Let me have Petronus take you back to your tower."
Arthur pulled away from him quite violently. "Did you hear what I said? This year will bring death."
"Every year does. Arthur, come along."
"No. Leave me alone."
"When you were a boy, Arthur, you begged me to teach you how to be a king. Show me that you learned your les sons well. It is time."
Outside the door Petronus listened to all this, fascinated. When, finally, ten minutes later, Merlin called him and asked him to get the king back to his rooms, he was wide awake and ready.
But the next morning he knocked softly on Merlin's door. Merlin was grinding another one of his lenses.
"Yes. Come in, Petronus. Thank you for your help last night. I hope you will keep what you saw to yourself."
"Yes, sir, of course. But . . ."
"I don't understand. When I was very small my mother used to tell me I'd understand things better when I grew older. I don't. Even Arthur doesn't."
Merlin sighed and sat down. "Can I tell you a secret? No one does. We all improvise our way through life, missing cues, mistaking motives, trusting the wrong people. Reason and logic—clear vision, to the extent it's possible—is our only hope."
"I don't understand."
"I told you. No one does."
Petronus was lost. "I—I— Is Guenevere really likely to murder someone? Does she have other—does she have agents here?"
"Quite possibly. Maybe even probably. I don't know. I don't see how anyone can know. Brit is investigating, but— Do you not understand what I've been telling you?"
"Well, you are young. It might make sense to you some day. Then again, it might not. It comes down to this: Noth ing human is calculable. I wish I could be more helpful to you. I am not really much of a teacher, am I?"
"You do your best, sir."
"Thank you. But there are times when I think that any one's best can never be good enough."
Clearly bewildered, the boy left.
Merlin watched him go. The boy had started to ask whether Guenevere had
agents at Camelot, then caught himself. He had defected from Guenevere and Lan celot. But was his defection real? He would have to be watched.
Merlin, as Arthur's chief minister, was de facto in charge of diplomacy. Not that that was much of a job. England's status as an island, and its relative isolation from the rest of Europe, meant that diplomacy had never been much more than a cottage industry there. Arthur had posted a few am bassadors here and there, but most of the important Euro pean courts had rebuffed his overtures.
Guenevere's birthday celebration was changing that, and changing it rapidly. Diplomatic correspondence arrived at Camelot almost daily. And most of it had to do with the birthday observance; one court after another accepted Ar thur's invitation. And they had sense enough to advise the court of England quite specifically how many would be in their representatives' parties and what they would require. "They do not seem to trust us to know how to treat them," Merlin complained to Nimue.
Those communiqués began arriving in early summer, and they came in a steady stream. Nimue, as "Colin," took charge of all the diplomatic communication; she sorted it, filed it, drafted routine replies for Arthur's signature and brought the important matters to Merlin's or Arthur's atten tion. Aside from policy concerns, there were practical mat ters to take care of—lodging for emissaries, and so on. She happily took charge of that, also.
One afternoon in early July she approached Merlin, who, uncharacteristically, was relaxing. No books, no lenses, no phosphorus, no medicines. "Merlin, I'm begin ning to feel out of my depth."
"You have taken on a great many duties. Teaching the squires, managing the foreign ministry—such as it is. I should have been more attentive."
"It appears we will have emissaries from at least fifteen European courts, possibly more. Even the king of Armenia, wherever that is, is sending someone. I'm not certain Corfe Castle can accommodate them all, not in proper fashion. I have the sense that their egos can be sensitive. One after another demands to be lodged either next to the Byzantines or as far away from them as possible. They can't all be made happy."
"Do your best and try not to worry. Diplomats can be so undiplomatic. If I am correct, this is only the first evidence of their various rivalries and intrigues. Still, if we are to make the impression Arthur wants, we must arrange this event properly. When will the first of them arrive?"
"The first week in November. Most of them should be arriving in quick succession."
"We can't simply assign them quarters on a first-come, first-served basis. The more important ambassadors will have to be assigned the most impressive rooms."
"If memory serves, Corfe Castle doesn't have that many good rooms. Except for the Great Hall and the refectory, most of the rooms don't even have doors, just curtains hanging at the threshold. You recall? Three of the eight 'arms' are in poor repair. We should have thought twice before we went ahead with an event like this in a place like that."
"You are right. I'll talk to Arthur. We can send as many workmen as we need to renovate. There will not be time to fix up the entire castle, but we can always close off the wings that have not been fixed. We can claim it is a security matter or some such. Why don't you make a quick trip to Corfe and see what needs to be done? We should be able to make at least one of those three arms livable."
"I'll leave first thing in the morning."
"Excellent. And I will have that talk with Arthur. He is quite committed to this event. I can't imagine he'll want to stint on the preparations."
She stood to go. "Merlin, are we out of our depth, here?"
"Everyone is always out of his depth, one way or an other. It is a rule of life."
"Don't be glib. I'm asking seriously."
He considered for a moment. "We can do this. We can bring it off."
"You do realize the downside, don't you?"
"If all these emissaries, legates, ambassadors and so on arrive and find Corfe Castle in good shape, won't that en hance Guenevere's prestige, not Arthur's?"
"Let us hope not. We will make a point of emphasizing to them that Guenevere lives on Arthur's largesse. But that is far from my biggest worry."
She stopped at the door. "What do you mean?"
"Let us hope they leave their poisons, daggers, garrotes and such at home, where they belong. And let us hope, if they do bring them, they do not use them. All we need is a wellplaced knife in the dark to turn this affair into a catastrophe. A strategically done political murder would undermine our cause more effectively than anything I can think of."
Her face was immobile. "You're serious, aren't you?"
"Never more so."
"They really are that savage? I mean, England has the reputation for being the barbaric place in Europe."
"When we kill, we do it with a grimace instead of a nice, sweet diplomatic smile. That, apparently, makes all the difference. In Byzantium there are apothecary shops on every corner, making fine profits vending poisons. They dispense them with a pleasant smile. We would be fools to think Podarthes's people might not bring some with them. Who knows how well they get along with the Armenians or whoever? Or whether they might simply want them out of the way, for profit, for territory, for any of a dozen reasons I can think of."
"Should we worry much about the Armenians, or the Libyans or the Romans or any of the others? Surely our own people are the ones we must be concerned for."
Merlin raised an eyebrow. "Why should they want to kill any of us?"
"With Arthur out of the way they could carry on their negotiations with Guenevere, couldn't they? At least some of them are already committed to that."
He narrowed his eyes and peered at her. "You are getting the hang of international relations far too quickly. It be speaks a bad character."
"You are teaching me."
"Why—I ask myself a thousand times a day—why do human beings have to be so clever?"
"But at least we have one comfort, Merlin."
Suspecting some sarcasm was in the air, he asked her suspiciously, "What is that?"
"You." She grinned.
"What the devil do you mean by that?"
"You are a master detective. If something bad should happen, you will get to the bottom of it."
"Don't be foolish, Nimue."
"I mean it. Amid all the confusing evidence, you uncov ered the last treason that was hatched here. If there should be more murder . . ."
"That is hardly a thing to dwell on. It would be better to be preparing yourself mentally for all the tensions that might erupt. If we anticipate them, we will be able to deal with them when they arise. After the fact . . . Clever assas sins do not leave clues. They strike in the dead of night, in darkened bedchambers or in privies, at victims too drunk to notice or remember anything. Brit has investigated, and we still don't have a clue who struck at Arthur that night."
"Can murder—even diplomatic murder—ever really be anticipated?"
"Yes. I anticipate I will wring your neck if you don't stop harping on this and get back to work."
Late summer night. Well after midnight. Everyone in Camelot, except for the guards at their posts, was asleep. Like everyone else, Merlin was deep in slumber. Three of his pet ravens perched on the edge of his worktable, also lost in repose; his favorite bird, Roc, slept at the head of his bed. Then something woke Merlin and Roc almost simulta
neously. The other birds remained asleep. But there had been some noise in the night, loud enough to waken Merlin, vague enough not to be identifiable.
He climbed from his bed and into a robe. Softly he called, "Who is there?"
There was no answer, not to his surprise. The fire was burning low; he put two small logs on it. Then he got his cane and climbed slowly down the stone stairs to the level where Nimue and Petronus had their rooms. He knocked gently at her door. "Colin?" From inside he heard the sound of snoring. Crossing to Petronus's room he knocked a bit more loudly. "Petronus?" But the boy did not answer.