It is the second meeting of the Red Death and the Detective, and it is a sad and troubled day.
The wind fell away, to be replaced by a solemn calm that left the long grasses of that warm summer field tall and lush. The four men - one, at least, was a man of mortal stock - stood about coolly, stood in their long council as though in fellowship.
One, old and withered and yet spry and nimble all at once, wore the muddy brown decorated cloak of a travelling illusionist, a showman or a hermit-man. There were stars etched into the cloak, and moons and suns, and other pagan runes, and on his head the old thing wore a pointed hat with a wide broad brim that flopped about his face.
This being was an Agent, of a new and rebellious hacienda, and had dwelt in the court of Camelot (where the Cadillae once stood as a thousand great citadels had before that, and would still afterwards as well) under the name of Merlin, a wizard and a magician, an enchanter of great art and great learning.
What he did now was not as Arthur's confidant and chief sage, for Arthur-king was long dead and growing pale in memory in the land of Albion.
What he did now was of his own council, and of his own deciding. He stood now as a new hacienda, of the Crimson Hacienda, sworn to cloud the vision of the Clockwork as the Scarlet had before him.
To make the known unknowable, to end the dull monotony of prophecy something exciting and young and unexpected once more.
To bring about the end of the Agentry.
What made it strange and queer (as most affairs of the Agentry - sad contradiction of Mortality and Clockwork that it is - are) was that the being known as Merlin knew his new hacienda was to fall. Knew as the Agentry of the Scarlet Hacienda had known they would fall, and as the Agent of the Red Hacienda knows he will fall, and even as the Agentry of the Yellow Hacienda knew each rebellious Agent was to break and make this fall.
Perhaps exemplar of this strangeness were the two others of the Agentry that faced the being Merlin on that lonely, luscious green.
The first, gaunt and robed all though a mummer, was the Red Death, that spectral entity that will one day turn to his own new hacienda, that of the Red, and will be cast out of the Agentry and made a broken, fragmented ghost.
The other, now known by his last alias, by his last calling sign, the Detective, stood bemused and yet grim all in sable. He too would rebel, and he would bring about the end of all the haciendas with his own, that of the Vermillion.
Yet both these Agents stand as the Yellow, saying nothing as nothing must be said. They are here to watch the passing of Merlin, once of the Yellow and now of the Crimson, and that is all they can do.
The fourth is not of the Agentry. He is what the Agentry all once were, a mortal man. A childe, an untested knight, he is still young and still ill-fitted to his noble bearing.
He wears plate, though it fits him not at this time, and he carries a steel shield (which he will lose) and a fine sword (which he will keep to his death on a grey and empty street) and his face is already aged in part where the eyes are, for they are cool blue and piercing in their intensity.
His name is Gileas, of Corbenic (and will one day become the Green Knight, among other titles), and he is soon to be the last of his kind, the last of Arthur's knights.
Merlin turns to the boy, who cannot be but seven and ten in years, and smiles the kindly smile of a favourite grandfather, or cherished tutor.
"You have remembered your lessons, boy?"
"I have," Gileas grunted, his voice broken and drawling. His face is collected, and controlled. Through discipline, if not yet through age and harsh experience. There are tears in his eyes that betray his youth.
Merlin chuckles, as though remembering (a show of Mortality, for he is long immersed in the Clockwork and does not forget).
"I called you boy," he muses, kindly. "but that is not quite true now, is it?"
"No, wise one," Gileas grates. He wavers. Camlann is fresh in his memory, fresh in his mind. It always will be. "I have earnt my name. I am Gileas, of Corbenic, son of Balin and knighted by Galahad. The last of all the knights of Arthur's age."
"Not quite the last," Merlin notes, gently.
"I am the last," Gileas repeats, firmly. His voice threats to quaver, to wobble in the last throes of puberty, but does not.
The knights of which Gileas thinks are feuding now, squabbling over the remains of Arthur's Albion. They are Mordred's sons and companions, broken deserters of Mordred's armies, and Gileas will bring them to their ends in the years to come. An act of vengeance, and of retribution.
But Merlin is not speaking of such men alone. Merlin knows, as he has seen the Clockwork, of the camel-skin clad wanderer in the red chalk deserts of Het'Ana. But that is not a matter that will concern Gileas for many, many years.
"I have earnt my name," Gileas says, slowly. "but I would have you call me boy if it pleased you, greatest elder of the court. I would have you call me what you will."
Merlin's smile fixed, creasing the wrinkled skin of his cheeks.
"Then I would call you my executioner, Gileas."
The boy weeps now, unable to stop himself. It is in his own catharsis in hunting the last of Mordred's kin that Gileas will become the stern-faced man he is to be when he leaves J'Oylons in ruins, and that time has yet to come right now.
But it will come soon.
The two onlookers, the Agents of the Yellow Hacienda (at this time) say nothing. They do not restrain the boy as he lifts his shovel and digs, the iron tongue biting into the warm soil and turning it up, cutting neat and disciplined sods of earth with deft and clean stabs.
The childe Gileas works, and in working he forgets to cry, and this is better. The onlookers watch on, bleakly.
And, when Merlin's grave is dug and the elderly man lies down in the soil, they still do nothing. They cannot do anything, because the Clockwork does not run that way. Not this time.
"I cannot cloud the Clockwork, Gileas," Merlin calls from his tomb, as the childe begins to heap the earthy clods back into their home, where they shower the newcomer in welcome greetings. "I am not the one to do that. I will rebel, but I do so passively, and peaceably."
"Suicide is a sin," Gileas grates, bluntly. He is not thinking now, he is working, letting his muscles contract and relax on the shovel shaft with a comforting regularity. "There are no sinners in Paradise."
Merlin laughs, spitting dirty soil through his teeth.
"There is no-one in Paradise, Gileas. There is only the vast nothingness, and it will be many years until I see that."
A moment. The Red Death understands this. The Detective understands it too, perhaps more so, because it is he that will see this end.
End the Agentry, and the wizard's eternity is cut short. Blessedly short. The Vermilion will see it done. But not today.
Merlin speaks again, but now to the two of the Agentry, at long last.
"That of you which is still human might mourn my passing in such a way. But that of you which is not will understand I do what I do because I have to. Because the Clockwork runs that it is thus. And because we all follow the course of the Clockwork, dull and tedious and predictable though it may be."
The two of the Agentry say nothing. They will come to think the same way as Merlin, and they know it. All the Agentry do.
As Merlin disappears under his muddy grave, he says no more. He has no final words or lasting speech to haunt those onlookers. In many ways his silence is worse, perhaps.
Gileas finishes his task, and pats the upturned earth smooth. Merlin, buried alive, will have no marker.
His calling done, his assistance in the magician's suicide complete, the childe looks at the two of the Agentry and purses his lips. His face is pale, but dry now.
His eyes fell on those of the Detective. Eyes that flashed with cogs, and gears, and minute, clever little devices that went tick and tock in perfect harmony.
The Red Death watched on, blankly. Whatever expression might have been under that mask, it was unreadable here.
"You are servants to the Clockwork," Gileas said, coldly. Neither reacted. The childe stood, still and angry. The enormity of what he had done, of what the ancient sage of Arthur's court had sought him out to do, was hitting him hard now. As hard as a hammer-blow on a deep mahogany door.
Gileas might have wondered whether another hammer-blow would cave the door in. Or perhaps make it stronger. He suspected this would not be the last regrettable deed. Not by a long way.
"I know not what the Clockwork is," Gileas grunted. "Nor do I know why an old man must die to see it hidden. I would have you leave this land, now, and never return. Albion has healing to be done. Whatever archaic curse you bear I would not have it here."
The Detective smiled, wanly. He stepped forwards and faced the knight.
"We will not love each other, you or I," the Detective said, slowly. "In the end I will betray you. You will expect this, because you are not without brains, Gileas. But still you will be betrayed."
Gileas said nothing. There was something to the sable-clad man's words. A weight, a severity. The bearing of prophecy.
"There will be a city. Lordon shall be its name," the Detective said, picking up sudden pace and speaking quickly, urgently. "A room over a tavern, in the rough and dirty back streets. It will be called The Sword in the Stone, which is fitting, but the O, D, H and N will be missing. Look for me in that room above that tavern. Look for the Detective. You will know when the time comes."
Gileas said nothing. He would have been shaking, had he been anything other than a knight. It seemed now that the reason everything, the reason all this destruction had happened, lay with this Clockwork. This man. This sable-clad 'Detective'.
The reason Arthur fell, the reason all the knights fell, the reason Camelot was razed and the reason Merlin was buried.
It was the Clockwork. The Clockwork and this man.
Gileas moved, fluidly and suddenly, and drove his sword through the jet black cloth of the bemused sable-clad man's waistcoat. The blade passed through the cloth easily without snagging, and carried on into the Detective's stomach.
The Detective blanched, doubling up. The Red Death watched without interest.
For a moment the childe held the sword there, the long end protruding bloody and glinting through the Agent's back. Then Gileas turned the sword, and let the Detective slide from it.
"Do not return," he said, bluntly, and then he left them.
The Detective rose, fuming, as the knight disappeared over a verge, his cloak billowing about him as he rode his roan palfrey over the plains.
The Red Death said nothing, and simply began to drift away.
"As much as you know it's coming, it still hurts like fuck," the Detective spat, sincere anger about his face. He winced as his stomach knotted itself back together, and the fluids stopped leaking over his high leather boots.
His waistcoat sewed itself together, and hissed as the creases smoothed themselves out.
The Red Death was drifting, now, aimless as a seedling caught in the breeze. His shape shifted, until he became a cloud, a swarm of viral obscenities that danced about the clouds and whispered about the grasses.
The Red Death was moving on, awaiting his own hacienda and his own rebellious day of judgement. Awaiting it...and mourning.