Oh Come All Ye Faithful: A Safehold Vignette
"The last Christian in the entire universe was a machine."
- Off Armageddon Reef
Year of God 894
Informal Audience Chamber
Kingdom of Chisholm
Empress Sharleyan of Charis, Queen of Chisholm, Duchess of Cheryath, wife of Emperor Cayleb and mother of the Royal Heir bounced lightly on the balls of her feet as she stood with her loyal guardsman, Edwyrd Seahamper outside the royal private audience chamber gleefully awaiting the arrival of yet another of her treasured guardsmen.
"Owl. Please show me where Captain Athwares is," she commanded.
Co-opting Merlin's own technology to spy on him and spring their little surprise had been the delight of Cayleb and Sharleyan's time while Merlin had been on his 'retreat' in Zion. Now, on the final Wednesday of the final month of Year 894 since the creation… no, Sharleyan reminded herself, colonization of Safehold all was in readiness. Snow fell beyond the thick stone walls and leaded glass of the castle. Cayleb, with tiny Princess Alahnah ensconced in his arms, was in the audience chamber accompanied by an Owl provided hologram of Maikel Staynair. A roaring fire was going on the hearth to warm the room. The contacts Merlin had given her flickered to life with an image of Merlin exiting the office to which Cayleb had sent him with a message after dinner.
"Are we late, your Majesty?" The Imperial spymaster's smooth voice drew her out of the imagery she was watching.
"Nahrman, Ohlyvya! No, you're just in time!" With a nod from her, the guard leaned to open the door for the package carrying couple. "Please, go right in. Merlin's already on his way up."
The pudgy Prince of Emerald and his loving wife bustled through the open door which latched closed just as the click of Merlin Athwares' boots sent their first echoes down the corridor. With a brilliant smile, the young Empress turned to face the approaching guard captain.
"Your Majesty?" Merlin's questioning tone rose alongside his right eyebrow as he gave her a respectful half-bow.
"Do you trust me?"
"In general My Lady, implicitly. Right now?" He turned his head to watch as she drifted around behind him and he grinned. "Not for one instant out of my sight."
"Incredibly funny you should mention that Mr. Athrawes," she said while drawing a long, dark scarf from her right sleeve. "As it seems that I am charged with applying this blindfold to your person and eliciting a sincere promise from you."
"Promise milady? What promise might that be?"
"Why," the Empress laughed as she drew the scarf across the PICA's sapphire blue eyes. "Not to peek, of course"
Merlin blinked. Owl?
'Yes Lieutenant Commander?'
'What is going on?'
'Per Her Majesty's instructions, I am to inform you... it is a surprise.'
"Now now Nimue," Sharleyan whispered in his ear. "Owl is under instructions to not show you any SNARC feeds from the private audience chamber."
Merlin heard the rustle as Seahamper turned and opened the door, releasing the crackling sound of the fire and the spiced smell of scented candles floating over and trying to disguise the smell of freshly cut evergreens. Sharleyan took his arm and guided him into the chamber and pushing him lightly against a chair.
"Take a seat Merlin," Emperor Caleb instructed. "And before you remove the blindfold, please take a moment to hear what we have to say."
Prince Narhman cleared his throat. "Your arrival here has done many things, not only for those here who consider ourselves your friends, but for our entire world. And for that, you have asked nothing of any of us that we, upon reasonable reflection, have not been unwilling to embrace gladly. Yet in all of this, there is nothing you have asked of this world for yourself."
"Such gifts you have given us," his wife, Olyvya continued. "And so, we here have decided to give you a gift."
"Remove your blindfold, Merlin." Michael Staynair's stentorian tones broke from the vodor attached to the holotransmitter in the chair in which his holographic form reclined.
Removing the blindfold, Merlin took in the transformation that had been made in the royal chamber. Evergreen boughs had been twined together around the ceiling of the room. Bright, colorful candles were arranged in groups on the sideboards and shelves. Gold baubles dangled from the greenery and sat in small groupings around the candles. In the corner, an evergreen tree had been wrapped in beads and sparkling gems hung from the branches. Gold foil wound gaily through the boughs, gleefully reflecting the firelight.
The sight seemed to lift Merlin out of the chair and float him around the tree, beneath which brightly wrapped packages huddled in the shadows. "Is this what I think?" His voice trailing off on the question.
Caleb appeared at his elbow, firmly clasping it in this grip, mirth dancing in his eyes. "I think, Master Traynyr, the time has come to begin restoring traditions that were old before our world was new."
The Emperor of Charis guided his guardsman, and friend, back to his seat. Once Merlin was again settled, he lifted a leather-bound tome from beside his own chair. Its surface markings concealed beneath his hand, he opened the book to a marked page and began to read.
"In those days a decree went out from Ceasar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria..."
As Caleb's familiar words registered, something warm began glowing in the PICA's chest. Such words had not been spoken aloud, not even remembered by the people of Safehold for almost a thousand of their years. And yet these few had sought them out on their own to offer as a gift to soothe the soul of a woman dead for that time and now alive within an artificial casing.
Each took their turn reading from the passage as tears flowed freely down their ancient friend's forever young face. Tears not offered to fit in with flesh and blood humans but true tears of happiness and belonging, of being among friends whom Merlin not only understood, but who understood him all the way down to his core. Their voices expressing all the wonder and joy in the story that Nimue had once embraced as a child, before the Gbaba and humanity's desperate last stab at survival.
Maikel's voice rose from the chair his hologram occupied as he concluded the reading. "And Mary treasured all these words, pondering them in her heart..."
Tears still streaming, Merlin pulled up the memories of reading those verses as a child. "And the shepherds returned to their fields, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen was as the angels had described it to them"
"Merry Christmas Nimue!" The group's ragged range of voices harmonizing into celestial music in the PICA's ears.
The packages under the tree now stood open, gifts of heartfelt value shared among true friends. Merlin stared guiltily at the things his friends had given him, his expression somber.
Sharleyan reached out and brushed a gentle hand on his arm, her voice addressing the woman the man before her once was. "What troubles you dear friend?"
Merlin waved a hand over the pile of gifts his friends had given. "This. I have no gifts to offer you in return."
A chuckle broke from Maikel's throat. "It may be true that you bring no things to offer us, yet you have given us something far more precious." Holding up the book he had read from previously, the hologram of the Bishop of Charis of the Church of Charis, schismatic, reformist sect of the Church of God Awaiting, waved his arm to indicate the copies that each of the people in the room now possessed. "You have given us back the word, uncorrupted by the evil that men attempted to twist it into. That is a gift far more precious than any poor token we could offer you in return."
"Perhaps, but am I worthy to share this properly?"
"Ah, the question asked by all true prophets. Merlin, no, Nimue, when the time comes, God chooses us not the other way around. For nearly a thousand years, the only Christian left in the universe was you. An android with the memories of a woman who died too young. You were chosen for your faith and your doubt, for without your doubt your faith would have no strength to overcome that which is required of you."
Caleb leaned forward in his chair, Princess Alahnah cradled in the crook of his arm. "And you have shared that faith with us in our own moment of doubt. It is the strength of your faith that has opened the door for us to attempt to rediscover what it is that we have forgotten."
"Forgotten, Merlin. Not lost," Nahrmaan rumbled from his seat near the fire. "Because you are here to guide us back to all of what we once had. Not just the technology, but the culture, the life and the spirituality."
Ohlyvya smiled at her husband. "We believe, because of the strength of your own faith and the visibility of your own doubts. You have guided us to the rock upon which we now stand."
Silence descended over the room as each participant pondered the words that seemed to flow from them as if from a foreign source. In each of their hearts, they realized, a line had been crossed, one they had not seen until it was behind them.
A log shifted on the fire sending a crackling cascade of sparks streaming up the flue. As the hissing stream subsided, a quiet, feminine voice rose from the seat occupied by the guardsman. It rose in song as silent as a lullaby and as triumphant as fanfare.
… Holy Night
All is calm
… All is bright..."
And as Owl provided the words to each of those present, their voices joined with Nimue's. Outside the window, the snow ceased and the clouds broke allowing brilliant starlight to illuminate the castle.