Cayleb knocked on Merlin's door, then opened it without waiting for a reply. It was late, and Merlin sat on his windowsill, looking out over the lights of Charis. There was a faraway look in those sapphire eyes.
He was seeing his visions, Cayleb knew. Merlin could see almost anything, anywhere, if he looked. He'd warned Cayleb that he could see almost anything, but not everything. Even so, Merlin was the only reason the Kingdom of Charis still stood, managing to hold out against all the kingdoms arrayed against her by the Group of Four. One kingdom against a dozen or more, it shouldn't be possible, and yet Merlin made it so.
Cayleb laid a hand on Merlin's shoulder. "Anything interesting?" he asked.
"No, not so far. Nothing new, at least, all the messages are still in transit," Merlin said distractedly, then blinked and focused his attention on his Prince. "How's your father doing?"
As if Merlin wasn't keeping an eye on King Haarald himself, but Cayleb grinned, "Better." He sat down opposite Merlin, so that their knees almost touched. "Thanks to you, that is."
Merlin shook his head, "I only helped. Haarald has the constitution of a draft dragon."
Cayleb didn't say anything, but he knew better – the near-fatal wounds his father had sustained in that battle aboard ship, defending Charis, should have killed any man in a day. Demon or no, Cayleb owed Merlin the life of his family and his kingdom. And Merlin was a demon, Cayleb no longer doubted that. Or if he wasn't a demon, then he might as well be for all the difference it made. Cayleb never said that aloud, but every now and again his heart would clench up cold and painful in his chest as he contemplated that he, Cayleb, was a heretic, an apostate, working against Mother Church and using Merlin's more than mortal abilities to help him.
But he meant what he'd said that night aboard ship, when he'd pressed Merlin into helping him communicate with King Haarald, four thousand miles away. It didn't matter what Merlin was; if God could let His Church become so corrupt that it would attack a kingdom without need or warning, if Merlin could lead him to damnation by asking no more of him than that he follow his better nature, then the God of Safehold was no longer his God.
He was, fortunately, old enough to know not to reveal that to anyone.
"What's bothering you?" Merlin asked.
"Don't you know?" Cayleb asked his friend with a lopsided grin.
Merlin snorted, "I see visions, I don't read minds."
"Just… glad my father survived. Worrying about the war. Wondering about you, again. Sorry," Cayleb added, suppressing his grin at Merlin's sour look, "but you're just so interesting."
"Ha! I guess I should know better by now – there's no distracting the Ahrmakh curiosity once it's gotten the scent, is there."
"I know you've said you're neither angel nor demon, but for all people call you a seijin, you've admitted you're more than that." Cayleb shrugged, "And I don't really care what you are – you're certainly more than mortal – but I just can't help… wanting to know."
"I shouldn't tell you," Merlin said at last, but Cayleb thought he detected a slight wavering there. "Where would I even begin?" he asked helplessly.
"At the beginning?" Cayleb said hopefully, giving Merlin a wide-eyed look of innocence.
Merlin almost said something, then changed his mind, and got a thoughtful look instead. "The beginning…"
"Cayleb, remember what we talked about on Dreadnought that night I went to warn your father? About the Proscriptions?"
Cayleb's heart skipped a beat, and a part of him writhed in unease. The Proscriptions had been handed down by the Archangel Jwo-jeng, but… Merlin had said that the Proscriptions were a lie, and that Jwo-jeng wasn't an Archangel at all…. And Cayleb believed him, but the idea was still terrifying. "…Yes," he said after a too-long pause.
Merlin looked at him with a small, pained smile. "It would be more of the same, Cayleb. A lot more. Explaining everything to you.. I honestly don't know how."
Cayleb wavered for a moment, new uncertainty nagging at him. Merlin was willing to back Charis in the face of the entire rest of the world – for this explanation to have the demon at such a loss, it must be truly terrifying. Cayleb thought that Merlin would be willing to try if Cayleb insisted, but did Cayleb himself want that truth?
What must it be like, he wondered suddenly, to live with people who didn't, who couldn't know all of you? How lonely must it be? Merlin had shared everything he thought he could, Cayleb suspected. He'd even let Cayleb press him into revealing more than was safe, that night on Dreadnought. And yes, Merlin might be a demon of Shan-wei sent to tempt Cayleb into damnation, but Merlin wasn't the one threatening to burn Charis to the ground and rape or kill all her people. No, that was Mother Church, directed by the Group of Four.
Merlin was a demon. And yet Cayleb trusted him with his life, and even with his soul. Cayleb might be wrong, but he'd committed to this path and he didn't regret it.
If he was going to trust Merlin, he decided suddenly, he was going to go all the way. Besides, he might not want the truth, but maybe he needed it. "You said, you said the truth involved 'ideas and concepts' that I didn't have."
Merlin nodded slowly, reluctantly. "Yes."
"Then why not start there?"
"Cayleb," Merlin said, still looking a bit uncertain, "once I start this, there's no turning back."
"I want to know, Merlin. I want to know the truth."
"Are you sure?" Merlin asked.
Some part of Merlin wanted to tell Cayleb, but he was afraid to, the prince realized. Maybe demons weren't so different from humans.
"Yes, Merlin, I'm sure."
Indecision showed plainly on Merlin's face for a few seconds, then the seijin let out a huff of air. "Alright, alright. I still don't know if this is a good idea, but if I tell you, we do this my way."
Cayleb nodded solemnly.
"And this isn't something I can do in a night, it's going to take a while, weeks even, otherwise none of it will make sense." Merlin warned.
"Okay," Merlin paused, gathering his thoughts. "I suppose the beginning is as good a place to start as any. Alright, this probably won't make much sense at first, so try to bear with me." Merlin waited for Cayleb's nod.
"Imagine a world that isn't Safehold."
"Another… world?" Cayleb blinked. "Did God create this other world?"
"Mm. I believe so, but I can't give you a definite answer, because I don't know it," Merlin said, and gave Cayleb a moment to think that over.
"And on this world, a long, long time ago, people started living together in large groups that eventually formed cities. Nobody is exactly sure when this happened, because all this happened before the people there could write."
Cayleb frowned. "Before people could write? But that doesn't make any sense. Did God only give them writing later?"
"Well, you see… Nobody gave them writing," Merlin glanced up at Cayleb's perplexed face, "they invented their own."
"People can do that?" Cayleb asked, dumbfounded. "But, why didn't God give them writing? Did they reject His gifts somehow?"
A conflicted look settled on Merlin's face, like he was desperately looking for a way to delicately word something. "Merlin! I'm not made of blown glass – I'm not going to shatter if you tell me something impossible. Something else impossible," Cayleb corrected himself. "Just tell me!"
Merlin grimaced, but continued. "You know just how to ask the really difficult questions, don't you. Okay. It was never a possibility for them. They didn't worship God, or even a god, they believed in many gods, and even goddesses, most with specific domains. A god of the sun, a goddess of childbirth, and so on."
Cayleb felt like he'd been hit between the eyes, "what-" A thousand questions crowded his tongue, but Merlin continued before he could pick one to start with.
"Of course, that group of people is long gone now, and nobody worships those gods anymore. Most people who came after them considered those gods to be nothing more than stories, made up to explain rain, and illness, and things like that, things that people didn't understand."
"But," Cayleb frowned, head whirling. People inventing writing? And a different god, many different gods, but they might not have been real? Where could anywhere be that wasn't Safehold and how did Merlin know about it? How- Why-
Cayleb found himself standing, hands on Merlin's shoulders. He was breathing heavily and the skin across his shoulders twitched like someone was about to put a blade between them. "Stop." He managed, voice thick.
"I'm making a mess of this," Merlin said unhappily. "I shouldn't have- Cayleb, I'm sorry."
"No," Cayleb shook his head and squeezed Merlin's shoulders – warm, solid, and real under his grip. "No, just… just give me a minute."
"I know you're probably having a hard time believing me-" Merlin started, and Cayleb startled both of them with a bark of laughter.
"That's actually not the problem, you know. I do believe you. I don't think I'd be panicking half this much if I didn't. It's just… I don't understand," Cayleb managed to make himself say. Merlin had always said that Cayleb wouldn't, but Cayleb had never quite been convinced. He supposed that'd teach him to have a little bit more humility.
"It's just not like anything you know here," Merlin agreed quietly. "Cayleb, I think this is enough for tonight."
Cayleb made to protest, but Merlin held up a hand. "I think I've unbalanced your world enough for now. It's not going to get less strange from here on out," Merlin added, "give yourself some time to think about what I've said so far."
That… might be a good idea, Cayleb conceded reluctantly. "But you will continue?" he asked.
"Yes," Merlin's lips twitched into the ghost of a smile. "You're remarkable, you know that?"
"Just too stubborn for my own good," Cayleb said, amused in spite of himself. Trust a prince of the House of Ahrmakh to walk into his own damnation with eyes wide open.