tagNovels and NovellasThe Balance Ch. 13-18

The Balance Ch. 13-18

byGlaze72©

Chapter 13

"Love"

Abiron looked for the source of the word, and fell in love.

This had never happened before. He loved his mother-wife, of course, but he had loved her since before he was born. He had never fallen in love before.

And this, said the small, rational part of his brain that remained functioning, was someone worth falling in love with indeed. She stood slightly behind Brother Ulf, and outshone him as the summer sun outshines a sullen fire. She wore a wool habit, severe in shape, belted at the waist. Her feet were unshod, and her white feet whispered across the stone flags of the floor as she made her way towards the two contestants. Her hair, hacked severely short about her shoulders, gleamed with fallow gold. Her body was hidden by her habit, but her upright carriage and confident stride made him confident it was as lovely as her face, which, although set in determined lines, lost none of its sweet beauty to his gaze. Behind her stood two others. One plainly dressed in the fashion of Ulf, one in the finery of Rome. He paid them no mind. His eyes were locked on her.

"My lady Angela," said Hannah, acknowledging her with a nod. "Be welcome. I wondered when I would find a sparring partner," she said, with a withering glance at Ulf, "more worthy of my skill."

"I am only a servant of my Lord," said Angela, and Abiron's knees nearly buckled with the force of his desire, "but I am here to defend Him nonetheless. Not that He needs defending from the likes of you." she said bitterly.

"You speak of love, Sister Angela. Tell me. What love can your Christ offer that is greater than that of the Deity I worship?"

"Love beyond death."

At this, Hannah faltered. For the first time, doubt entered her gaze. Sister Angela saw this, and pressed her attack. "He loved you, He loved me, He loved all of us so much, that He not only took on your sins and allowed His earthly form to die, but He came back to us. Did your Deity, can any other god claim this? He let himself to be put to death, and returned to those who did not halt it, forgiving their cowardice and assuring them they they still rested secure in His divine love. And He allows us to worship him and promises a place at His table when we die.

"Come, my brothers. We have nothing more to say here. Let us take up this debate again, when there are more willing ears to hear." With this, Angela waked away. Casting a malevolent gaze at Hannah, Ulf followed her. The two other men paused for a moment. One approached their group.

"My lady Queen,". It was the elder, a man of some fifty years, garbed in the finery of the Roman hierarchy, with a gaze at once shrewd and kind.

"My lord Lambert. How fortuitous that you arrive. You missed out on all the fun."

"Indeed." Lambert's gaze took in all of them. Cassiopeia, Ariana, Abiron, and Hannah, who had left her circle of admirers and had moved to her mother's side. "A pity I could not have put out this little conflagration before it began. But with a lady of such skill," he said with a slight bow towards Hannah, "I think the result would not have differed." He turned and walked away. "Paul, to me," he snapped. The final member of the Christian's party started and hurried after the bishop. But not without one final glance at Ariana, at whom he had been gazing as if star-struck.

"Come, children," said Cassiopeia with a long sigh. "My lord husband will need to hear of this, and what we decide this evening may eventually decide the fates of us all."

*****

"She did what?"

Benedictos, king and ruler of their nation, looked nothing more than a peasant dressed up in his lord's finery. Short, squat, with a tanned face and thinning blond hair, he seemed as if he would be more comfortable repairing tack in a stable or counting loaves in a bakery than sitting in the most finely appointed room Abiron had ever seen.

"She took on Ulf in the lesser gallery, in front of half the titled nobility of the country. And beat him, hands down," said Ariana.

Benedictos looked at Cassiopeia. "What say you, my lady wife?"

"Benedictos, we are all family here. One way or another. The least you can do is abandon the dreadful formalities."

"Fine. How badly did she kick his ass, Cassie?"

Cassiopeia grinned. "You know how much I love it when you talk dirty, Bennie." Her expression sobered. "She won on points, but I am glad that Lambert and I were there to keep things from escalating. Sister Angela showed up, and she fights dirty. With that milkmaid face and those eyes of hers. By the Deity! She could tempt me to believe in their Christ, and I can barely stomach Paul and Lambert, let alone Ulf."

Benedictos looked at the two other men in the room. "What do you think, lads?"

Prince Alan spoke first. "I only saw the end. I had been delayed by...erm...a prior engagement." Cassiopeia looked sharply at him. "I didn't see most of the punches, as it were, but Sister Angela seemed to make some strong points at the end. I am glad she wasn't there for the entire debate. She may have taken the day. She has the strength of her belief. That counts for a lot."

"No, she doesn't."

All heads turned to Abiron.

"She doesn't believe a thing that she says. Or if she does, much of what she believes is caught up in anger." He looked at Ariana. "Do you remember when you were teaching me debate and elocution, mother?" He heard a gasp from Hannah, as he confirmed their relationship, and Alan drew in his breath with a hiss. "You made me defend impossible positions to strengthen my skills."

"I remember," Ariana smiled. "You made a very convincing argument that blue was green, once upon a time."

"But I hated it. I couldn't stand taking a position I didn't truly believe in. When I spoke, my voice sounded exactly like Sister Angela's did today. Her anger wasn't at Hannah. It was at her circumstances. She isn't saying what she believes. She is saying what she has been taught."

"Well, isn't that interesting," said Benedictos. A light had entered his eyes. "You are sure of this, lad?" he asked Abiron.

Abiron shrugged, uncomfortably caught in the gaze of many. "As sure as I can be, sire. I have never spoken to the lady. But I do not think her faith is as strong as many here suppose. I think that her teachers fell into the same trap. Her beauty so captivated them they chose to believe her faith was real. The more attractive a lady is, the more inclined we are to ascribe to her our own beliefs."

"Well do I know it," sighed Benedictos. Abiron looked at him, and whether it was by the grace of the Deity, or by some insight heretofore unknown to him, he saw that the piercing wit that was so prevalent in Prince Alan and Princess Hannah came not only, nor even primarily, from Queen Cassiopeia, but from this simple stumpy man who looked like nothing more than a turnip-farming peasant. The king smiled at him sadly. "I asked her, you know. I asked her twice. But she would not have me."

Abiron stared at the king, confused, until he saw that his gaze was directed at Ariana. Then he understood.

"You knew I was meant for another, Benedictos." Ariana's voice was gentle.

"Yes, I know," said the king. "For two others, as it seems. That doesn't mean a foolish young man can't dream. After the second time, the Deity Herself came to visit me. She was rather put out about the entire affair. She told me in no uncertain terms that I should pull my head out of my ass and marry the woman that was the best for me. And she was," he looked fondly at his queen. "but that didn't make things any easier at the time."

"But what does this mean for us?" asked Hannah plaintively. She had been sitting out of the way, but now she moved forward. "What are we going to do? The worshipers of Christ are no worse off today than they were yesterday, and every day's delay means we are another day closer to our country being brought under Rome's heel."

"Dissension among ones' enemies is always useful, princess," said Abiron. "It is helpful to know that the Christians are not one monolithic block, but four people, with agendas all their own. Think you on it." He held up a finger. "One. Brother Ulf. Passionate, zealous, but utterly vulnerable to, and infuriated by, logical attacks on his position. Not skilled in debate."

"He is more like the drunk at a tavern who thinks that if he shouts his argument louder than his opponent, he is the victor," put in Prince Alan.

"Actively disliked by both Bishop Lambert and Sister Angela." said the queen.

Abiron held up his second finger. "Two. Bishop Lambert. Ambitious. Intelligent. A diplomat who finds his progress impeded by the rage of Ulf. Ulf probably dislikes him for being patient, and Angela almost certainly resents him if she is a weak in her faith as I suppose."

"She may be vulnerable to a kind ear," said the prince, with a sideways look at Ariana.

"And Lambert may be made vulnerable if he is led to believe that the king's position is weak and that he may give in to the demands of the Christians. Make him overextend," said Ariana.

"Third. Sister Angela. Intelligent. Skilled in debate. She has the wit to know that if she is not strong in her faith, she must learn to fake it, lest others see it and she be cast out."

"Beautiful, as well," said Cassieopeia. "I wonder. Did you see what the poor dear had done to her hair? Was that her doing, or the work of someone else? And if someone else, how much does she resent it?"

"Last. Brother...Paul, isn't it? What can you tell me about him? I only saw him for a moment at the end of the debate this afternoon."

Cassieopeia glanced around the room. "Anyone?" She smiled and looked back at Abiron. "He doesn't say much. I don't think anyone here has had much to do with him so far. Most of us have stayed away from their group on general principles. The King and I have dealt with Lambert as the head of their delegation, and everyone has had to deal with Ulf in one form or another. Until today, Angela and Paul have been in the background, as it were."

"The young novice who came to the high temple had a strong opinion about his religious fervor," said Ariana.

"I don't think either Angela or Paul would have been chosen without for this diplomatic mission without something to commend them," said the king. "Angela is intelligent and skilled in debate. We would be fools to think that Paul does not have similar qualities."

"He is enamored of Lady Ariana," said the prince.

They all turned to look at him. "You didn't see it?" said Alan. "He looked at her the way a man dying of thirst looks at a mug of water. She has but to crook her finger at him, and he will come running."

"Well," said Ariana. "Well well well. Isn't that interesting." Her lips quirked. "He is a comely youth, I'll give him that," Abiron's eyebrows rose.

Ariana seemed to come to a decision. "I think I have a solution for our dilemma. Your Highness," she said to Benedictos, "May the High Priest and myself impose upon you and the queen for a few minutes in private? I would like to discuss our plans for the morrow."

"Why can't we stay?" asked Princess Hannah.

"Because, my child, you should have been in bed two hours past," said the queen. "And you, my son,"she said, bending her gaze to Prince Alan, "will learn one of the secrets of ruling. The fewer that know of a plan, the better chance of keeping it secret."

The prince sighed, "Very well, Mother. Come on, Pookie," he said, jerking his head at Princess Hannah.

"Don't call me Pookie!" she said, and bickering, the two exited the room. Their voice faded as the guards outside closed the doors behind them.

"My heir and the spare," the king sighed. He looked at Ariana. "My dear, one of the reasons I asked for your hand was that, beside your physical charms, which are considerable, I know that you have a first-rate mind. What devious plan is sitting there in your pretty little head?"

Ariana smiled.

Chapter 14

The next day, the throne room was crowded. Peers, members of the army, and anyone who could beg, sneak, or bribe their way past the guards had jammed every inch of available space. Word had leaked from the palace late the night before that the king had decided to answer the petition of the Christians, and was prepared to give an answer to their embassy.

Ariana and Abiron stood to the left of the twin thrones of Benedictos and Cassieopeia. Alan and Hannah, dressed in court finery and subdued, stood to the right. At length, the captain of the guard approached the thrones.

"Your Majesty, the christian delegation is here, in answer to your summons."

"Very good," said Benedictos. "Please, show them in."

The embassy filed into the throne room. Bishop Lambert led, with the others behind with eyes downcast. They halted a few steps away from the thrones. Abiron studied them. Lambert's face was an inscrutable mask, hiding both the intelligence that lay within and whatever nervousness he might be feeling. Ulf's face shifted between rage at the infidels that surrounded him and glee at the prospect of grinding them beneath him. Paul and Angela kept their eyes lowered, though Abiron caught Paul trying to steal glances at Ariana. Angela never looked up at all, and Abiron could not tell if this was due to hostility, boredom, or some other emotion.

"Bishop Lambert," said the king, "I thank you for joining us this afternoon."

"My pleasure, your majesty," replied Lambert. "And I thank you for receiving us. May I hope that this reception today is a sign that you look favorably on our embassy, and that I may tell my superiors that our church will be welcomed in your lands?"

Benedictos frowned. "Not entirely, my lord bishop. As you know, our worship of the Deity has a long history in our lands. Though you do not share our faith, I am sure you are aware that this cannot be overthrown or set aside at a whim, no matter how persuasive the ambassador, or how strong the forces that may be arrayed against us should we refuse.

"Therefore, I have devised a test, both of our faith and of yours. Accept it, and I swear by the Deity itself that I will hold true, else my immortal soul be forfeit. Refuse it, and I will expel you and your embassy, and will deny entry to my lands to all who profess your faith."

Lambert's eyes grew wide, though he made no other sign of surprise. "And what is your test, your majesty?"

"Simply this. You see before you the High Priestess and High Priest of the Deity. They will be the flag-bearers of our faith. Two of your embassy will be chosen to contest against them. At the end of a fortnight's time, we will bring all four before us. If either High Priestess Ariana or High Priest Abiron have had their faith weaken, or will attest to the divinity of your God, I will accept your terms and will allow those of your faith entry to these lands. If either of your party have their faith weakened, it shall be a sign that your God does not hold sway here, and you will sign a treaty that your church, and the nations that hold to it, will not assail our lands or our people by any means, spiritual or corporeal."

Behind Lambert, Ulf stirred, "Foolishness!" he spat, "My lord," he said, addressing Lambert, "This is folly. All these supposed priests have to do is deny our lord for two weeks' time, come to their king, and claim that they saw no sign of divinity. Then their king will sigh, plead circumstance, and tell us to leave, since our faith was not able to overcome theirs."

"What say you to that, your majesty?" asked Lambert. "It seems that Brother Ulf has a point. What possible benefit can we gain by accepting a challenge where a draw means we lose?"

Benedictos smiled. "I have not finished, my lord bishop. Your error is in assuming that a tie would benefit us rather than yourselves. My lords, my ladies!" he cried, standing up and addressing all in the hall. "Hear my oath! So firm are Ariana and Abiron, so sure are they in their faith, that they bid me say this! If they cannot sway one of the two christians to our faith in a period of two weeks, they will accept their entry into our lands. The christians will be free to enter, to preach, to build centers of worship and to convert our people to their faith. This I swear, Benedictos, husband of Cassiopeia, second of that name."

A gasp at the king's audacity echoed through the hall. Alan and Hannah went white. Ulf's face held a look of rapacious glee. Lambert wore a look of restrained joy.

"Allow me to make sure that I understand you clearly, your majesty," he said, "only if either of the two chosen representatives of our faith turn to the worship of yours will we be forced to exit these lands?"

"Exactly," said the king.

"Very well, I accept. Brother Ulf and I will be our rep..."

"Oh no, my lord," said the King. "As this is a matter of faith, we will not allow you to choose who will represent you. This is a matter for the gods themselves, and will be drawn by lot." He reached into his robe and drew forth several scraps of parchment. "Here I have written the names of all four members of your party, along with the members our faith with whom they will contest," he said, showing them to both Ariana and Lambert, who nodded acceptance, "Let fate and the gods choose the ones who will defend your faith," he scanned the hall with his eyes. "Will someone aid me in the choosing, so it cannot be said that the drawing was unfair?"

"Me! I'll do it!" a little boy, no more than seven years old, ran to the king. He had dark hair and blue eyes, and wore a simple tunic, finely woven and belted around the waist. He came up to the king and stood in front of him, as eager as a puppy to go for a walk.

The king smiled, "Very well, my lad," He checked his hands. "First draw one name from my left hand."

The child did so. "Can you read it for us?"

"Of course I can read. It says 'High Priestess Ariana'".

"Now draw from this hand," the king said, holding out his right hand.

"Brother Paul"

"High Priest Abiron"

"Sister Angela"

Abiron smiled inwardly. He remembered the conversation from the night before, where the queen had expressed doubt about the draw coming out the way they wished.

"Cassieopeia, I am a high priestess. If you think that I can't jigger a simple two-hand draw to come out the way I want to, I may as well take off my chain of office and retire."

*****

"Very well," said the king. "Brother Paul and High Priestess Angela will engage in a contest of faith, as will High Priest Abiron and Sister Angela. Two hours each will be set aside in morning and evening for them to speak with each other. We will meet in this place a fortnight hence to hear the outcome of this contest. Will each of you please come forward?"

Ariana and Abiron left their places and stood in front of the throne. After a confused look at each other, Angela and Paul did the same.

The king looked at Angela and Paul. "As you are guests in our land, it may have occurred to you that we may try to intimidate you, by word or deed, into renouncing your faith. Have no fear on those grounds. If our faith is not strong enough to win on its own merits, it is not worth defending. Neither the high priest or priestess will seek to sway your faith through force. If you feel in any way threatened by them, you have only to report it to the least of my guardsmen, and the trial will be over, and our trial will have failed. You shall be left alone and unmolested each day as the contest takes place."

"My lord king. " objected the bishop, "You mean to leave our brethren alone with these people? Unattended and unprotected? You know that we are sworn to a life of chastity, while your..."

" 'These people', my lord bishop? 'While your...', what? Are not sworn to a life of chastity? Tread carefully, Lambert. Do not denigrate the highest representatives of my faith within my hearing." His face grew stern. "What say you? That the lord High Priest Abiron will ravish Sister Angela? That he has so little control over his carnal lust? What are you implying?"

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