J. M. C. Blair

The Pendragon Murders

The third book in the Merlin Investigation series, 2010


England was at peace, at least superficially, and King Arthur was enjoying his kingship for the first time in memory. “My kingdom is quiet,” he told Merlin, astonished at his own words. “Can you believe it? For once there are no insurrections and the nobles are quiet. No one in England is scheming against me.”

“The barons are always scheming.”

“Always, perhaps. But not now. You are such a killjoy, Merlin. Let me enjoy it while it lasts, will you?”

There were no foreign intrigues for him to concern himself with. Since the deaths of Leodegrance and Leonilla, France had been fragmented and posed no threat to the British. The Byzantine Empire had been distracted by wars on its eastern and northern frontiers; thus preoccupied, Justinian had evidently forgotten his interest in the British Isles. The only foreign concerns arose from Scandinavian raiders who plundered the northeast coast from time to time. But that was a military matter, and a relatively minor one, not a concern of Merlin’s. Britomart had organized defenses and the situation seemed to be well in hand.

Domestically things were even calmer. Arthur’s treacherous wife, Guenevere, was safely imprisoned in the far north of Scotland and showed no signs of hatching any new schemes against her husband’s kingship. Her erstwhile lover and bigamous husband, the French knight Lancelot, was likewise securely held at a nearly inaccessible castle on an island off the Welsh coast. They had had no communication with each other, though they had tried. Although it was a given that they would find a way to make more trouble sooner or later, for the moment they were quiet.

Arthur’s barons, who enjoyed the peace and prosperity of his reign, were showing signs of restlessness; submission to an overlord did not come easily to them, not even to an overlord as beneficent as Arthur. Now and then their discontent erupted into something approaching rebellion, but Arthur, aided by his minister of state, Merlin, and his military commander, Britomart, always managed to quell the unrest without bloodshed. For the moment things were calm even though England was far from unified.

That summer had been long and unusually temperate; when it rained, the rains were warm and nurturing, not cold and sterile. Now signs of autumn were everywhere. Trees turned color and shed their leaves. Unusual numbers of butterflies flitted about the countryside. Small game abounded. The coming winter would not be too hard on the people.

Merlin kept a watchful eye on all of the country. Arthur fretted occasionally about his royal security and the future, but for the most part he was pleasingly content. And Merlin was happy to leave him that way.

But Arthur could never resist goading him. “You worry too much, Merlin. You should learn to relax.”

“Do not be lulled into thinking the world is well, Arthur. You do not worry enough.”

“I wish you could stop being such a fussbudget.”

“It is the fussbudgets and the worrywarts who always see approaching storms first.”

“What storms?” The king was growing testy. “There are no storms. Do you think a swarm of cabbage moths will commit treason? Look around, Merlin. See the pastoral calm, see the beauty. Should we be alarmed by all the glow-worms?”

“There are worms that do not advertise their presence, Arthur. We have encountered enough of them. The seeds of war are always sown in peace. Crime is hatched in tran quility.”

“You don’t drink enough, Merlin. There are times when I wish you did.”

“A lot of good I would be to you, drunk as a knight.”

“A lot of good you are, fretting like an old woman.”

They were at loggerheads, but then, they often were. When something happened, they would focus on it and not on their bickering. Merlin knew that. Arthur seemed not to want to.

“You should try and relax, Merlin.” His assistant Nimue, who lived her life as a boy called Colin, was even more amused than the king by Merlin’s constant watchfulness. “You’re like a vain queen, always expecting a blemish to appear on her pure white skin.”

“More like a physician, Colin, monitoring a healthy body for signs of disease.” He smiled at her, pleased with his simile. “ England is my patient.”

“You must learn to take life easy, Merlin. England is at peace. Enjoy it.” She gestured at the serene landscape outside the tower at Camelot where they lived and worked.

“While it lasts. Peace never does. Storms brew over calm seas. Wars erupt among nations in harmony. The country is too quiet for my taste. I would feel better if we had a few treasonous dukes to deal with. You and Arthur-” He snorted and left the sentence unfinished.

She put a foot up on the windowsill, gestured at Petronus, the French boy who was Merlin’s other assistant, and said breezily, “We should make a trip to Dover. Petronus and I think it would be fun.”

Merlin was busily heating some glass pellets over an open flame; with one hand he pumped a small bellows and with the other he turned the glass slowly till it was molten and ready to be blown. Without looking up from his work at Nimue, he said, “ Dover? Have you developed a sudden passion for fish?”

The door opened and Simon of York, Arthur’s majordomo, stepped into the room. He was breathing heavily. “Good Lord, Merlin, why don’t you move to a decent part of the castle? Or at least to a lower level of this tower? I exhaust myself every time I come up here.”

“Stay below, then.” Merlin was gruff.

“The king sent me.”

“Then stop grumbling. Or use the lift I installed.”

“That thing? Only a madman would trust it.”

“You could use a little madness, Simon. You spend too much time worrying about protocol. Try concerning yourself with something the rest of us care about.”

Simon bristled. “When my king sends me, I come. He wants you.”

“So help me, if he wants me to give him still another opinion about those bloody portraits of his…”

“He does.”

“Then let him wait. Perhaps he will get bored and find something productive to worry over.”

“Shall I tell him you said so?”

“If you like. Now leave me. I am blowing glass.”

Simon stiffened; he was the very picture of a bureaucrat whose dignity had been offended. “That is your final word?”

“It is. I will join Arthur shortly. Now, go.”

The man turned and left.

After him Merlin shouted, “Ride the lift down. You will enjoy it.”

He stood and listened for a moment; there was no sound of the lift mechanism. Merlin chuckled softly. “Oh, the pleasure I get from needling that fool.”

“There are times when you act like an adolescent boy.” Nimue laughed. “Now about Dover.”

“I have been there more than often enough, thank you.”

“You know perfectly well Dover is not only a fishing town. It’s one of our most important ports. Ships from all over the Mediterranean put in there.”

“Yes, and sailors. And half the whores in England, to keep them happy. I hardly need you to tell me that. Be quiet while I blow these globes.”

Quickly, carefully, he blew the glass into a series of small globes and placed them on a cooling rack. As he was working, one of his pet ravens flew into the room and perched on his shoulder; the bird nuzzled his ear in an attempt to get his attention, but he continued working without missing a beat. Vexed, the bird pecked him lightly, and he shushed it gently. “Be still, Roc.”

Nimue smirked at him. “You expect us to be still but you permit that bird to behave in that unruly way.”

“Human beings are governed by reason-or ought to be. Birds have only their instincts.” Merlin continued his glass blowing.

“You’re changing your tune, Merlin. You never stop complaining about how irrational human beings are.”

“Be quiet.” The operation was completed in a surprisingly short time. When he had set the last of the globes aside to cool, Nimue picked up where she’d left off. “Petronus and I haven’t been anywhere for months, Merlin. I’m feeling stale. And I’d like to take a trip somewhere before winter sets in.”

“There have been reports of raids on the Scottish coast by Norsemen.” He smiled at her ironically. “Would you like to go there? You could gather intelligence.”

“Don’t be difficult about this, Merlin. You know Dover will have a huge autumn market festival in two weeks. People from all over the southeast will be there, and probably visitors from around the Mediterranean, and Petronus and I want to go. And you should come, too. Who knows? We might pick up some interesting news.”

“In Dover? The only news we could possibly pick up there is the price of mackerel.” He turned to look at Petronus and asked him, in inquisitorial tones, “You wish to go there, too?”

The boy had been silent for the longest time, listening, amused, at their exchange. Now he nodded energetically and said in strongly accented English, “I love fairs. The ones at home used to have roundabouts. I love rides.”

“You are too old for that sort of thing.”

“I am not. Besides, if the weather is good, you can see France from Dover. I’m feeling a little bit homesick.”

Merlin picked up the first globe he’d blown and inspected it. “No flaws. I believe I am getting better.” To Petronus he said, “ Dover attracts-what would the word be?- eccentrics from far and near. You might be shocked at some of the behavior.”

“I am French, remember, not an English prude. Nothing shocks me.” He tried to sound worldly, not quite successfully. “I attended a fair at Mendola once, in the Pyrenees, and there were young women there dressed as boys. I found it very exciting.”

Merlin glanced at Nimue, who was keeping her features carefully neutral. Then to Petronus he said, “You are too young to be excited.”

“Stop saying things like that. I turn sixteen in a few months.”

“A man of the world, then.” Merlin grinned at the boy; Nimue laughed openly.

Petronus sulked. “Why are both of you so determined to think of me as a child? You act as if you were my parents.”

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