tagNovels and NovellasThe Balance Ch. 19-21

The Balance Ch. 19-21


Chapter 19

Paul was very sure he had made a mistake. One beer had become two, which had become three, and by the time the owner of the tap-house had (politely) asked he and Sean and Kristopher to leave, he was only vaguely aware of his surroundings.

Yes, he thought, trying to focus on the high priestess through the pounding in his head and the roiling of his guts, I have made a big mistake. It was difficult enough to try to match wits with this woman without his head being muddled. To try to do so when he was much the worse for drink was asking the impossible.

"Are you well, Brother Paul?" The voice of the priestess was soft and sweet, and, Paul thought, very faintly amused.

"No," he replied. He gave up the charade. They had been conversing about the various miracles performed by their respective deities, but his heart was not in it. He closed his eyes and slumped back into the couch in his rooms, where they were talking. "I now know why there is a warning against strong drink. I feel like the adversary himself is using my head for my own personal Hell."

"Poor boy," she said. "The last time I saw someone look as ill as you, my son had decided the best way to grow tall was to eat as much as possible for five meals running. By the time I realized his plan, he was in the process of losing the last four." She stood and went to the door. Summoning a guard, she said, "The priest is ill. We need a pitcher of cold juice, and as many buckets of hot water as you can manage."

The juice came quickly. Ariana poured a mug for him.

"Drink," she said.

Paul looked at the mug and shuddered.

"Drink," she said again, "You are dehydrated and need to replenish your liquids. Don't think you can try to out-stubborn me either," she said, catching the look in his eye. "I've been dealing with sick children since before you were born. Drink it."

Paul drank. Gingerly at first, then with growing thirst. When the mug was empty he placed it on the table. Could it be that he felt just a tiny bit better?

"Poor lad," the Ariana remarked. "Now we know better than to go out drinking with soldiers, don't we?"

"Yes, my lady."

Ariana sat beside him on the couch. She was dressed in a dark blue dress edged with silver at the hems of the sleeves. She sniffed disapprovingly "Have you bathed today?"


"Have you bathed in the last two days?"


"Have you bathed this week?"


"That settles it," she said disgustedly. "No wonder you feel awful. A belly full of bad beer and fried food, and clothes full of rancid night-stink? Well," she sighed, "Let's start at the beginning. We'll get the Deity to get rid of that hangover for you and then we'll work on the rest."

"Um. What?"

"Well," she said with a twinkle in her eye, "we were talking about miracles, weren't we? Here is your chance to see an example." Without any more fuss she laid her hands on either side of his head, turning it towards her own. She gently placed her forehead against his, closing her eyes.

"Mighty Deity, He who guides and protects us all, please grant your servant's prayer. Please see fit to remove the pain from this man before you, and to give it to one more deserving of your scorn and spite. We fully admit our errors, and will strive to more fully embrace Your will in the future. Please forgive our weakness, and aid us in our quest for strength."

Bless you, boys. Ariana thought. If Sean and Kristopher had been before them now, she would have kissed them both. How better to teach Paul of the Deity's power than to have a miracle, even a small one, manifested upon him. The warm glow in her mind told her that her prayer had been answered. Even if that had not been there, the look of Paul's face would have told her, as the headache-induced pallor faded and a more healthy shade of pink crept in.

While this had been going on, a procession of maidservants had been filing in and setting down buckets of steaming hot water. With a look and a pointed arm, she directed them into the bathing area to fill up the granite tub set into the floor, blessing all the while the hedonism of generations of rulers who had made sure that guests in the palace would have the advantages they gave themselves. No simple copper tub, the bathing pool was fully four feet deep at one end, eight feet long, and nearly half that wide.

Plenty of room for two, she thought with a smile. She took Paul by the hand and led him into the bathing area. She pointed to the tub, now nearly full of hot water.

"Strip," she said.

Paul looked at her, then down at his clothes, and then at the tub. His eyes were wide and panicked. Very like, Ariana thought, like a spooked cow.

"My lady, I..."

"Oh, do shut up. And don't be silly if you can help it. I am a woman newly-wed only these past three months, and you are young enough to be my son. Nearly. Well, no, you aren't, but do you think I will ravage you here in a desperate attempt to seduce you to betray your god?

"The gift of love-making is a blessing of the Deity. I will not profane His grace by using it in this way. When you come to Her, as you must, there will be no taint on my soul.

"So take of your damn clothes and get into the tub."

God, she is more strong-willed than my first abbot, thought Paul. Better looking, though. He resisted an insane urge to giggle. Six days ago the most exciting thing in his life was a bet he made with himself every morning about how long it would take Ulf to turn into a frothing lunatic at the behavior he saw in the castle. Now he was about to bathe with a woman whose beauty made the tales of the the old goddesses pale by comparison. He rapidly undid his clothes, noticing happily that Ariana had not stayed in the room to watch him disrobe. Wrinkling his nose at the acrid smell of his robe, he cast it aside and stepped gingerly into the bathing pool. Ducking his head under the water, he scrubbed his hair vigorously. When he stood up, Ariana was in the room with him.

She was completely nude, her hair her only adornment, flowing like a dark, curling river down her back. Tall and proud, she walked through the room like a queen through a reception line, completely unconcerned with the judgment of others. Her face was wise, her eyes were bright and clear. Her arms strong, her breasts (oh her breasts) were high and firm and full, capped with dark nipples.

Face burning, he turned away before his traitorous eyes could observe more.

She smiled as she saw him and stepped over the rim of the tub and sank down like an earth goddess into a sacred pool. Her eyes drank him in, noting the blush that spread over his milk-white skin

as he turned away in embarrassment and shame.

No, not a cow, she thought, recalling her earlier thoughts. She looked at his rangy form. More like a horse, albeit one that is underfed and untrained. Not a gelding either, she thought with an inward smile. Almost. Not quite, but almost a stallion. Warmth curled in her belly as the Wanton rose within her, nipples peaking.

Do try to be sensible, Ariana. Take him now and he will enjoy it, and so will you. But five minutes after the deed is done he will be plagued by guilt and every fear he has about you and your people will be vindicated. He will be lost to us, probably forever.

She closed her eyes and with a wrenching act of will she forced the Wanton back down inside her. Her eyes came up and focused on Paul again, then gasped at what she saw.

Abstinence, obedience, and chastity, Paul chanted to himself. Discipline is the key to control. His body was turned away from Ariana, but his flesh remembered what his eyes had seen. Mindless and eager, his manhood raged for release, hard and urgent. Remembering the lessons of his youth, he grappled unseeing for the rim of the bathing pool. Once there, he ground his throbbing erection into the hard granite of the pool, welcoming the pain. Remember, little brother, the ghost of a monk said in his ear, mortification of the flesh is necessary to tame it to our will. Pain is a blessing.

Pain erupted again, this time at the side of his head. Unwilling, he turned around, hauled by a grip on his ear, to look down into the outraged face of a high priestess. Before he could say a word, her hand rose and dealt him a stinging slap across the side of his face.

"What the HELL do you think you are doing to yourself?" she snarled.

Paul looked at her, then himself. All the events of the last several days seemed to crash into his brain at once. Wagers for impossibly high stakes, new friendships, old regrets, the kindness of strangers and the resentment and suspicion of old companions. Lastly, and most importantly, desire which he knew would never be consummated or returned. His mouth opened and closed, refusing to form words for ideas he did not know how to express. Finally, he gave up. He brushed past Ariana, sat in the shallow end of the tub, put his hands over his face, and wept silently.

After a few moments, he became aware of another body beside his. Her arms came around him and she pillowed his head on her shoulder as he gave vent to his confusion and grief.

"Oh, you poor boy," she said. "I forgot how difficult this must be for you. It is no easy thing to be one of the gamepieces of the gods."

Paul sniffled. He wasn't sure what she was talking about, but his body was starved for comfort and a kind touch. He slowly relaxed within her embrace. He dipped his hands into the water, then brought them up, cleaning his face of tears and sweat. Gently, he disengaged himself from Ariana and dipped out a handful of soft soap from the basin at the side of the pool. Silently, he began to clean himself.

Sensing his fragile mood, Ariana kept silent. While Paul washed his front, chest, legs, and arms, she moved behind him. Gathering a handful of soap for herself, she quickly bathed, then turned her attentions to Paul's back. At the first touch of her hands, he flinched violently, but then stood stock-still. Reminding herself to take care, she gently scrubbed his shoulders and back, being careful to avoid his buttocks.

A beam of light came in through the high windows and glanced off the water. Blinking in the brighter light, Ariana saw scars, ridged like ropes on Paul's back. Tracing them with a finger she asked, voice steady, "How did you come by these?"

For a moment she thought he would refuse to answer, or give a quick and easy lie.

"They were a punishment, and a reminder," Paul said flatly.

"For what?"

Paul spoke again, and his voice was one of a prisoner reciting the facts of his incarceration.

"Several years ago, the change of life came upon me. We had been warned of this in the abbey. That this was an opportunity the adversary would use to tempt us. That he would come to us in dreams. That we would want to use our hands on ourselves to bring us pleasure, that we would turn to each other for comfort, or seek out women.

"I may say that I never saw one of my fellow brothers as a object of desire, and that opportunity to lie with a woman of the village never came to me. But the flesh is weak, and though I tried to put temptation aside, I could not resist the demands my body made of me.

"The first time I was caught I was given penance. The second time, I was confined to my cell for a week. The third time...you see the evidence before you.

"The times following...I was very careful not to get caught."

Ariana swallowed. The antipathy she had felt towards Christianity had always been strong, but had been impersonal. More an intellectual exercise than one which had weight in her soul. This...obscenity, however...

Her voice was just as flat as Paul's, "You were...flogged...for masturbation?"

"It is a sin, you see?" she could not make out the emotion in Paul's voice. "We glorify what is fleshly and transitory, while failing to give proper glory to what is heavenly and eternal. Our attention should be focused on the next world, not this one. So we punish the flesh, make it subsidiary to the mind and the soul. Pain is a blessing, driving out the sin. And the scars are a reminder. I was...reminding...myself of that lesson a few moments ago. Five lashes. The punishing brother thought the abbot was too lenient"

"Those bastards."

Paul looked up. Reciting his long-ago crime had taken him away from the present. He looked at Ariana, and what he saw astonished him. Before, he had been mesmerized by her beauty, and impressed with her wit and kindness. But now? Now her face was transformed by fury. So an avenging angel might look, Paul thought, when the time came to smite those who transgressed against her god. Her hands clutched spasmodically at her sides, as if she sought to grasp a non-existent sword.

"Paul," she said, and her voice shook with rage and horror. "Paul, please know what you have told me here is blackest heresy according to my god and my people. We have been taught, and believe, that our bodies are created to give us pleasure. That sharing that pleasure with others is one of the greatest joys in life. That to take that joy away, or to force it upon another unwilling, is an offense against our Deity.

"That you, who were little more than a child, who explored your body in innocence, was whipped for it..." she swallowed her anger and came forward. "If any man or woman in this country had dared to do this, they would have been tried and put to death. That is, if the mob had spared them so that they lived to stand trial."

Ariana stepped back and tried to think. Paul had handed her a potent weapon. If word of this got out, the bargain the king had struck with Lambert would be meaningless. A howling horde would greet any Christian who dared to try to enter their lands, and any who escaped with their lives would count themselves fortunate. But it would only be a temporary solution. Faced with the murder of their envoys, Rome itself would call upon neighboring powers for a crusade, and they could not stand against all of them together.

No, I cannot use this weapon, Ariana thought to herself. Not until everything else is lost, and we are at the uttermost end of need. But what to do with this man before her? With an act she could cast him aside and destroy him, and all the members of his embassy, in a welter of fire and blood. She thought of his faith, and how it had held against even the desecration that had been visited upon his body.

But there is a handle to grasp there, she thought, if you dare. No one who had been abused in this fashion could be without resentment. And she could make use of that. Scars do not only manifest on the flesh.

She took a deep breath and forced calmness into herself. She felt that she was walking on a knife's edge with this man. At first she had thought him simply a pleasant young person, not much different from hundreds she had seen before. But she now realized she would have to be even more circumspect with how she lured him away from his god and to hers. Any outward manifestation of physical love was linked in his mind with sin and pain. But how to remove it?

Healing, Ariana, takes many forms, said a deep voice in her head. Trust yourself.

Gently, hardly daring to breathe, she reached out to Paul and took his hand. Drawing it to her nose, she inhaled, ignoring his flinch.

"It seems we have accomplished one thing this afternoon at least. My nostrils no longer find your presence offensive," she gently grasped his arm and forced him to turn his back to her. She ran a hand up his back, sighing sadly as he jumped again. He is like a stray dog, as afraid of a kind pat as he is of a kick, because he knows the hand that feeds him may also be the one that strikes him.

She put a teasing tone into her voice, "But so tense! No wonder you jump at every touch. It is not well for you to be so nervous," She rose from the pool and put on one of the robes the serving-girls had left for them. She snapped her fingers at him. "Come on out. I am going to give you a massage."

"What? On the couch, or perhaps on this nice cold stone floor?" Paul asked. He was confused by Ariana's tone. A few minutes ago she looked ready to lay waste to continents, and now she was acting like the silliest flutterhead. A massage?

Ariana threw him a towel. "Dry off. This suite has a bed, does it not?"

Paul sighed. "It is my fate, I see, to be ordered about by the religious hierarchy. It doesn't even seem to matter what country I find myself in. I wonder," he said, "is it a flaw in my character, or am I being punished for some unknown sin?" He almost smiled.

He dried himself with the towel, blushing as he realized he was fully visible to the priestess. Hiding his burning face, he turned away and lay down facefirst on the bed, unable to keep from sighing softly in comfort as he sank into the mattress. Closing his eyes, he felt the mattress shift as Ariana joined him on the bed.

Ariana's mind was awash in conflicting thoughts. Part of her wanted to drown this innocent boy in desire, to replace his fear of physical pleasure with the joy such pleasure brought. Another part of her stood away, knowing that to push Paul would be to break him or drive him away. While her mind raced, her hands, working without thought, uncapped a bottle of fragrant oil and poured a measure on Paul's back. Humming softly, she spread the oil over his shoulders and his back, wincing inwardly as her fingertips caught the areas where ragged flesh had awkwardly healed.

Scarred for life, and damn them all. she thought. Then another thought struck her. Keeping her hands steady, she continued to gently knead the oil into Paul's skin. But now she sent up a prayer to the Deity. She asked for healing for the man beneath her.

Gentle Deity, please heal the man in my care. He is not one of ours. Not yet. But his heart is gentle and his soul is kind. Please take these scars away, both of body, and if you are able, of his soul. Prove to him your power, so that he may walk at our side in the days to come.

This was a greater request than heating a tub of water for a bath, or even curing a hangover. Ariana knew from experience that the greater healing miracles were seldom answered, and that more depended upon the person for whom the request was made than the priestess who made the request. Nevertheless, after an agonizing pause, Ariana felt a blaze of heat under her hands, almost uncomfortable to the touch. Giving thanks in her heart, she carefully brushed her fingertips over Paul's back.

Where she touched, the scars disappeared, leaving clean healthy skin in their place, indistinguishable from the surrounding flesh.

Paul shuddered in drowsy pleasure. The caress of Ariana's hands, combined with the emotions of the day and the comfort of the bed had taken him close to sleep. In his half-dreaming state, he was reminded of the great ovens in the bakery at the abbey where he had spent hours in his youth, leaning against them on chill winter days to keep out the cold The heat from Ariana's hands reminded him of soaking up the heat from the stone doors of the ovens. He felt her shift beside him.

"Get up, little brother. Your massage is done. Stretch and put on your clothes. I think we are finshed for the day."

Paul rose from the bed, making sure the towel was still tightly cinched around his waist. Obeying Ariana's instructions, he stretched his arms high above his head, delighting in the loose feel of his muscles.

Suddenly he frowned. Something was missing. The tightness in his upper back and shoulders, which had been with him so long it was almost unnoticed, was missing. Craning his head, he tried to look over his shoulders, and failed. He then grasped at his neck and shoulders with his hands, feeling for the ridges of poorly-healed skin which had been with him for years, and failing to find them.

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