Then the familiar sound of the CAVE materialization drowned out the bells and brass of the music the computer was playing. Merlin stepped out, with a boy and another man. This wasn't the first time the king had been visited by Merlin since the time-traveler's death, but it was still startling. The other man appeared to be young, human, of about thirty years of age; wearing a frock coat in the style of Caesar's star empire, of a plain brown in a plainer fabric. He had long fairish hair and an untrimmed but well-groomed beard and was wearing a wide-brimmed hat that was flat on top. Merlin was in a black suit and an orange waistcoat dating approximately a hundred years later, hatless, and carrying a cardboard box about the size of two breadboxes, wrapped up in string. The boy, in a much less formal orange tunic, was, the king felt certain, an even greater time anomaly than Merlin; for the king remembered seeing the boy's face before. Long before. In mirrors.
Upon spotting the king Merlin immediately advanced on him with a wide smile. "Your majesty! Merry Christmas! I have coaxed the correct date out of the CAVE, haven't I?"
"Congratulations, Merlin, you've beaten 1-in-365 odds."
"Capital!" Merlin waved the others forward. "This is my new apprentice," he introduced the boy.
"Your majesty," said the boy, bowing. The recognition didn't appear to be mutual. The king wasn't surprised; the boy must be from some alternate timeline, for the king had never traveled with Merlin as his apprentice.
"And this," said Merlin of the other man, "is my friend Rabbi Joshua."
"How do you do, your majesty," said the rabbi, extending his hand.
The king shook it. "Pleased to meet you," he said, quite sincerely, not at all taken in by the alias.
Merlin hefted the box, which the king had noticed by now was emitting the most enticing aromas. "We wondered," said the Avalonian sorceror, "whether we might tempt you with Christmas dinner."
The box yielded a turkey with stuffing and all the trimmings, and a selection of wines and desserts - the box seemed to be, like the CAVE, bigger on the inside than the outside. The four spent an hour and a half attempting to drain the cornucopia before they admitted defeat.
"So," said the rabbi, as they retreated to the sitting area with their brandies, "men still celebrate Christmas in this time." The king had a small replicated artificial evergreen on an end-table, decorated only with a five-pointed star at the top. The rabbi had sat in the chair next to it and was examining it.
"Does that surprise you?" the king asked.
"It surprises me," Merlin said, mildly annoying the king, who had wanted to hear the rabbi's response. "The humans of this time all seem to be what I might call rational humanists. Humans don't still believe that Christ was the son of God, do they?"
"For myself," said the king, "what I don't believe is that so many humans believed for so long that only Christ was the son of God."
"Really?" The rabbi seemed pleased by that. "Do you still celebrate Easter too? Arguably that's the more significant of the two major Christian holidays, being the affirmation of the promised afterlife."
The king would have noted to him the place Pentecost had always held on the calendar of his court but for the boy's interruption: "The celebration of Easter declined steadily from the third century," the boy recited his lessons, enthused to contribute to the discussion, "commensurate with the commercialization of Christmas."
"I don't think it was solely the commercialism that gave Christmas the edge over Easter," said the king. "If that were all, it would have reversed when humans outgrew the profit motive. It was the growing trend of humanity to regard the living of this life, while we're here, as a priority over the afterlife; even if, or perhaps especially if, one believed in the afterlife."
"So why was Christ still important at all, if his message of the afterlife wasn't important any more?" the rabbi asked.
The king found the question a little disingenuous. But it would be rude to call "Joshua" out now after playing along all evening, even though the king was sure his visitors knew he'd seen through the masquerade. Had Merlin brought the rabbi here just to feed his ego? "Because Christ is still a major historical and philosophical force from human history," said the king. "Our attention just turned to his other message."
"Which was?" Merlin asked.
"Love one another,", said the king. "And the kingdom of heaven is in you - it's not reserved for after you've shuffled off this mortal coil. Humans have learned that, whether we're children of some paternal Creator or not, 'salvation' in is being true to ourselves and to each other."
The rabbi nodded. "So with all this emphasis on life, how do people feel about death?"
The king snapped a look at Merlin, who only looked over at the boy phlegmatically over his brandy glass. The boy was still following the conversation raptly. It wasn't after all for "Joshua" that this get-together had been arranged.
"Death," said the king, rolling the concept around in his head. This was the first time in awhile, and it wasn't falling into the same tracks as it always had before. "Death," he said, wondering as much as his listeners what he was going to say, "is just another unknown. The unknown is to be explored."
"Something to be explored," repeated the boy.
"In its time," the king qualified.
"Not something to be cheated, or tricked your way out of?" Merlin said, the teasing in his tone too subtle for the boy to pick up.
The king shrugged. "I've done those things. But I've seen too much of death - I know it too well to be afraid of it any more."
"Congratulations, sire," said the rabbi. Then Merlin turned the conversation to more innocuous topics.
"My friends," said the king eventually, standing, "it's been a pleasure."
"We're overstaying our welcome," said Merlin. He, the boy and the rabbi rose. "Thanks for your company for dinner, sire."
The king walked his guests to the CAVE. "Thanks for dinner."
"Merry Christmas, Majesty," said the boy, bowing again before entering the CAVE.
"Merry Christmas," said the rabbi.
"Happy birthday," said the king.
"Thank you," said the rabbi without batting an eye, and stepped into the CAVE.
"December 25 isn't actually his birthday, you know," said Merlin pedantically as he boarded the CAVE; and then the night visitors were gone.
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