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Merlin Athrawes’ Chamber, Charisian Embassy, Siddar City, Republic of Siddarmark
The roaring, shingle-lifting bluster of snow-laden wind only made the sudden, profound silence more complete. The slight sound as a coal settled on the modest bedchamber’s hearth seemed almost deafening, and Merlin Athrawes stood very still, shoulders against the door he’d just closed behind him, sapphire eyes gazing intently through the fire-flickered dimness at the slender woman in the single chair beside that hearth.
The woman who had just called him “Ahbraim.”
Which, he reflected, made the question of how she’d managed to get by the alert sentinels guarding the Charisian Embassy here in the heart of Siddar City rather secondary.
The heavy, utilitarian coat hanging from his coat tree—like the boots and thick woolen stockings she’d slipped from slim, pedicured feet and set before the fire—was soaked with melting snow. The firelight cast dancing light and shadow across her brilliant, expressive eyes, gleamed on the gold and topaz encircling her aristocratic throat, and struck subdued highlights from hair that was almost as dark as Sharleyan Ahrmahk’s own, and the gown she’d worn under that plain, serviceable coat was as exquisitely designed and cut as it was expensive. She was quite possibly the most beautiful woman he’d ever met and he could smell the subtle sweetness of her perfume, but none of those things were what held him so still.
“Why,” he asked after a moment, in a tone which sounded considerably calmer than it should have, “did you call me ‘Ahbraim,’ Madam Pahrsahn?” He cocked his head, expression puzzled. “I assume it’s a reference to Master Zhevons?”
“You really are very good,” Aivah Pahrsahn—who’d once been known as Ahnzhelyk Phonda, among many other names—said approvingly. “Why, you could almost—almost, I say—convince me. But you can’t, you know. I’ve been watching you for too long, and I have a very good memory for details.”
“Watching me?” he repeated. “Watching me do what? I haven’t made any special effort to keep my comings and goings here in Siddar City secret from you or the Lord Protector. Or from your agents, now that I think about it.”
“Well,” she said thoughtfully, leaning back and crossing her long legs elegantly. She propped one elbow on the chair arm and rested her chin on the palm of a perfectly manicured hand as she gazed up at him like a woman contemplating a problem to which she’d devoted much thought. “I’ll concede that at least a part of what gave you away were things I could see working together with you and His Majesty here in the capital, but that wasn’t really decisive. No, what finally convinced me my absurd suspicions might actually be well-founded wasn’t so much the many interesting things you were doing here as it was the timing of all those occasions when you …weren’t here, shall we say.”
“In what way?” The tall, broad-shouldered Imperial Guardsman folded his arms across his chest and raised one eyebrow. “And while I’m asking questions, what sort of ‘suspicions’—well-founded or not—are we talking about?”
“The world went the better part of a thousand years without a single verified seijin-sighting,” Madam Pahrsahn replied. “Then, all of a sudden, you surfaced … in Charis, of all places. During the War Against the Fallen, not a single seijin—not one of them, Merlin—was ever reported in remote, backwater, unimportant little Charis. Until Charis was neither little nor unimportant … and there you were, smack in the middle of Tellesberg.”
She gave him a dimpled smile.
“Now, I realize you’ve always been careful to tell everyone you’re not really a seijin—or to imply it as strongly as possible, at any rate—but no one’s ever actually believed you. Quite reasonably, I concluded, once the reports of your activities came to my ears. Whatever you might choose to say, your accomplishments clearly established what you actually were, I’m afraid. And while the fact that a seijin had surfaced anywhere at this late date was remarkable enough, it became even more remarkable in light of the way you’d given your allegiance to the Church of Charis when everyone knew the seijins had always been Mother Church’s champions. What, I wondered when I heard the first reports about your … astonishing capabilities, was a seijin doing in the service of a clearly heretical church and empire?”
“May I assume you eventually came up with an answer to that question?” he inquired politely.
“Well, given the difference between the heretical church in question and what that pig Clyntahn and his precious Group of Four had done to Mother Church, it didn’t take me long to conclude that you represented a fairly emphatic statement of divine disapproval of their actions.” Her smile disappeared. “And, to be honest, I found myself wondering what had taken God so long.”
He inclined his head in a silent nod, acknowledging the point of her last sentence without responding directly to it.
“I kept as close an eye on you and your activities as I could,” she continued after a moment. “Distance was something of a problem, but as I’m sure you’ve become aware, when I decide to keep an eye on something—or someone—I’m better at it than most. So long before Seijin Ahbraim ever entered my establishment in Zion, I’d come to the conclusion that despite all your protestations to the contrary, you were as genuine a seijin as ever walked the face of this world. And whether or not you chose to proclaim any semidivine status of your own, you were clearly on the side of God.”
Her voice turned softer on the last sentence, and the wind roar behind the stillness gusted momentarily louder as their eyes met. She let silence linger for a long, quiet moment, then shrugged.
“That’s one reason I was prepared to listen to Seijin Ahbraim when he turned up in Zion to warn me to expedite my plans. I think he probably would have convinced me anyway, but I happen to be something of a student of the lore about seijins, and I’d already had all of that time to draw my conclusions about you. Those conclusions applied by extension to him as your fellow seijin and … associate, and his advice turned out to have been remarkably good in the end. After all, it brought me here,” she waved her free hand gracefully, as if to encompass the city beyond the bedchamber’s walls, “where I was able to add my own modest efforts to those of all those people fighting openly to bring down Clyntahn and the others.” She met Merlin’s blue eyes very levelly. “For that privilege, that opportunity, I will be eternally grateful to … Seijin Ahbraim.”
His nod was a bit deeper this time, almost a bow, and he crossed to the fireplace, opened the screen, and used the tongs to settle two more large lumps of coal into the fire. Fresh, brighter light flared, and he listened to the jubilant, hissing crackle as the flames explored the coal’s surface, then closed the screen once more and turned back to Madam Pahrsahn. He raised his left arm, laying it along the small mantel above the hearth, and arched both eyebrows in a silent invitation to continue.
“I will admit,” she said quietly, “that it took me some time to begin to suspect the truth—or at least one of the truths—behind your mask, Merlin. I’m quite certain I haven’t perceived all of them even now. But something about you seemed very familiar when we first met here in Siddar City. As I said, I have an excellent memory, and a woman in my profession—or in Ahnzhelyk Phonda’s, at least—learns to observe very small details about other people. Particularly, if we’re going to be honest, about men. Especially about good-looking men who aren’t simply courteous but gentle and even considerate with the women whose services they seek from someone like Ahnzhelyk. And Ahbraim and I—well, Ahbraim and Frahncyn Tahlbaht, I suppose—spent quite a lot of time together in Bruhstair Freight Haulers’ warehouse and on the trip out of Zion.
“After I met you here in Siddar City, it gradually dawned on me that you reminded me a great deal of him. Oh,” she waved her free hand again, “your hair’s a different color, and so are your eyes, of course. Your voices and accents are very different, too, and Ahbraim’s clean-shaven, whereas you have that dashing beard and mustache. Oh, and that scarred cheek, as well. But, you know, you’re exactly the same height, your shoulders are the same width, and when I looked at you and mentally stripped away that beard and mustache, I realized the chin was almost identical. You really should have taken more care about that, and perhaps about the hands, as well.”
“Oh?” Merlin held out his right hand, looking down at its back and then turning it to examine the long, strong fingers with their swordsman’s calluses.
“I doubt anyone else has noticed a thing,” she told him thoughtfully. “I mean, the entire idea’s preposterous, isn’t it? It took even someone who’s been a student of the seijins for as many years as I have a long time to admit what I’d come to suspect. But when I did, I started keeping track of exactly when and where Ahbraim or any other seijin or suspected seijin made an actual face-to-face appearance rather than restricting himself to written reports. I started keeping track of any information I could find about their physical appearances, as well, and I discovered two fascinating things. First, every single one of those other seijins was quite tall, well above average in height … just like you. And, second, whenever I could positively nail down another seijin’s appearance, it always turned out that you’d left Siddar City on some mission—generally an unspecified and covert one—for Cayleb at exactly the same time. Aren’t those interesting coincidences?”
“Obviously,” Merlin said after a moment, “they aren’t coincidences at all.” He considered her thoughtfully, then shrugged. “I trust you’ll understand if I don’t rush to give you any more information in a sudden excess of enthusiasm?”
Madam Pahrsahn’s sudden laugh was deep, throaty, and very real, and she shook her head.
“Merlin, somehow I don’t really think of you as someone who’s subject to sudden excesses of enthusiasm or anything else!”
“One tries not to be,” he acknowledged politely.
“And quite successfully, too,” she agreed. “But once I’d realized we weren’t really seeing all that many seijinseven now, and once I’d realized how your absence correlated so perfectly with every other verified sighting, I realized there really was only one of you. One of you who could change not just his outward appearance but who he actually was as easily as a mask lizard changes color in a flowerbed, and cover impossible distances with impossible speed. And that, my friend, was the final proof you truly were a seijin. Just as much as SeijinKohdy.”
Despite himself, Merlin blinked at her chosen comparison. Seijin Kohdy was deeply embedded in Safeholdian folklore, but unlike the double handful of “attested” seijins recorded in The Testimonies left by the Adams and Eves who’d survived Shan-Wei’s Rebellion and the War Against the Fallen, there was no historical record of him at all. Not only that, but while the seijins of The Testimonies were all sober, focused, intensely disciplined warriors for God, Archangels, and Church, Seijin Kohdy swirled through the tales about him like some sort of traveling conjurer or laughing vagabond. Or an Odysseus, perhaps. His times had been anything but humorous, yet the vast majority of those tales related as much to his craftiness, his ability to gain his objectives through guile and subterfuge as much as by the deadliness of Helm Cleaver, his magic sword … and to his humor, his weakness for attractive women, and his fondness for a glass of good whiskey. Indeed, “Seijin Kohdy’s Premium Blend,” one of the most popular Chisholmian blended whiskies, was named for him, and its label featured not simply the magical sword which was inextricably bound up with his name but also an artist’s impression of Kohdy himself … with not one but two scantily clad barmaids sitting on his lap.
The stories about him were full of laughter and warmth, stories about someone who was very, very different from the officially recorded seijins, and Merlin had come to the conclusion that he was, in fact, a fictional creation. A construct, fashioned by later generations from the legend of the “real” seijins and seasoned with more than a dash of the trickster DNA so many of Old Earth’s mythologies had treasured.
It would appear, however, that Aivah was entirely serious, and that behooved him to move cautiously.
“Interesting you should bring up Seijin Kohdy,” he said after a moment. “Especially since I don’t recall him being mentioned in the official list of seijins who served the Church and the Archangels.”
“No, he isn’t,” she agreed, and her expression was suddenly much grimmer, her tone darker. “All of those ‘official’ seijins are saints of Mother Church, and he’s not listed there, either … now.”
“Now?” Merlin’s deep voice was gentler than it had been.
“Now,” she repeated. She uncrossed her legs, sitting up straighter, and her nostrils flared as she inhaled deeply. Then she looked directly into his eyes.
“Who are you really, Merlin?” she asked. “Where do you truly come from? And don’t just tell me ‘the Mountains of Light.’”
“Where else might I come from, Aivah?” he asked in return, holding out his arms in a gesture which took in not simply the bedchamber, nor even the Republic’s capital, but the entire world beyond them.
“I don’t know,” she told him very quietly, her eyes deep and dark in the fire-spangled dimness, “but I’ve come to suspect that wherever you truly come from is also where all of the Adams and Eves who awoke here on Safehold on the Day of Creation truly came from, as well.”
Copyright © 2015 by David Weber