tagNovels and NovellasThe Balance Ch. 22-24

The Balance Ch. 22-24

byGlaze72©

Hello All:

This story is now complete. The last chapters will be submitted over the last few weeks. I welcome your comments and votes.

*****

Chapter 22

A short time earlier...

Ariana and Pathia sat in companionable silence in Pathia's quarters in the temple of the Deity. Ariana held a goblet of Pathia's best mulled wine cradled in her palms. Sighing, she took a long sip, savoring the warmth. They had spent some time reminiscing about the past and old friends, long gone to other temples. At last Pathia had brought her around to the reason for her visit, and she had handed over the prince's missive.

Sighing, Pathia dropped the letter to her desk. Closing her eyes, she reached out to the Deity for guidance. What she was told startled her. Frowning, she asked again, and was given the same instructions.

She reached for a bell on her desk and rang it. When a novice appeared, she wrote a note and passed it to her.

"Make sure the head novice on duty gets this," she said.

"I will, my lady," the novice disappeared.

Pathia smiled at Ariana's questioning look. "Just some minor housekeeping I forgot to address before we came in here," she said, trembling at her audacity in deceiving the high priestess, her former lover in their youth, regardless of the fact that the orders came from the Deity Himself.

"Tell me," she said, changing the subject. "Do you think Prince Alan's concerns are valid?"

"Well, without knowing what he said..." Ariana shrugged. "I do know that I have concerns, and the Deity has asked me to come here and to speak with you. I have already sent letters to several other of the larger temples, both here and and the other cities. But since you and I know each other so well," she smiled, "I thought I would come here myself.

"You know the Deity thinks in terms of generations. That is the reason why our line has maintained a policy of inbreeding in order to keep the purity of our faith stable."

Pathia waved her hand. "I know. Seems like a plot to keep the most gorgeous men for yourself, if I can be permitted an opinion. Your father-husband was a beautiful man, and your husband-son! I only saw him for a short time at the assembly last week, but if he had been unwed, my dear, I would have done my best to trip him then and there."

"You're welcome to try," laughed Ariana. "It seems the Deity has decided to make a change. When He married us, He changed the vows. We are not to cleave to each other alone."

"Oh my," Pathia breathed, and Ariana could see her eyes widen in happy speculation.

"Concentrate, dear," she said. "This has to do with all of us. The Wanton, the Lover, the Father, and the Mother. Not the Children, I believe, nor the Youth and the Maiden. Not yet. We are bid to be fruitful and multiply, as the christians would say. We will recruit more priests and priestesses for the days to come, when our lands may be harried by those who seek to expunge our faith from the pages of history. And those who bear the seeds of great faith will be asked to pass those down to the next generation."

Pathia put the pieces together. "Ariana, are you saying what I think?"

Ariana smiled grimly, "If what the Deity desires comes to pass, I will have many more children. And they will not all be those of my husband-son. And Abiron will have children of his body who are not of mine. The Deity is casting His net wide and arming His borders. The same will hold true for you. More priestesses will come here, and more to the Lover, the Mother, and the Father. You will be asked to bear children, offspring of your loins, whose faith will be as great as your own, and who will carry our belief forward when we are gone.

"The Deity has decided that this storm cannot be held back. We will have to weather it as best we may. But we will fight it every step of the way, from this moment until the very Day of Doom."

"Children," said Pathia, amusement clear in her tone. "That will be new. When we take up this role, the Deity has always closed the gates of The Wanton's womb. The same holds true for the Lovers. What other way to be sure that an unwanted child is not conceived? We will have to put new protocols in place to make sure those who come to us for guidance know they may be siring children."

"I think some would choose to bear a child of the Lover, or be pleased knowing they had sired a child on a Wanton. Who knows, it may be seen as a sign of heavenly favor. If not, the Great Temple of the Deity will see to their care," said Ariana. "We have more money than we know what to do with. And no one will be forced to bear or sire a child unwilling.

"And if my foretelling holds true, Abiron and I will be asked to make our home here, in the capital. We can no longer live apart from the rest of the world."

Pathia gave the first honest smile since they had entered the room. "That's splendid! I always said that you were wasted out there in the boondocks. And honestly, Ari dear, how much influence can you hope to wield when you are so far away from the court? Yes, I know there were reasons," she said, waving Ariana's protest away with her hands, "but I am glad you are finally seeing sense. The Great Temple is still here, well-cared for and ready for you and the High Priest to take possession.

"All of our best should be in one place. The leaders of our nation, spiritual and corporeal, should march together. "

Ariana nodded. She hoped Paul would return soon. They spoke more of the time to come, and Pathia, greatly cheered by the thought of Ariana returning to the capital, prattled on, speaking of her plans for when she and Abiron came back to court permanently. Taking a moments 'leave, Ariana left to visit the garderobe, but Paul was not there when she returned. She wandered about the temple, looking for a man wearing a dark blue jacket with light brown hair, but he was not to be seen. Impatiently, she went outdoors. She saw Kris and Sean, her two guards, along with an ill-favored lout that they seemed to have captured spying on them, but no sign of a thin, well-dressed young priest.

"Sergeant, where is Brother Paul? He was to have come for me in the temple long since."

Kris frowned. "You have not seen him, my lady? He left us some time ago. After we caught this piece of dung," he said, nudging Titus with his boot, "he went in to seek you."

Ariana went cold. Walking swiftly, almost running, she clattered back through the temple to Pathia's quarters. She glared at her friend.

"Where is the monk?"

"I sent him to Diana. She is accompanying him now."

"Well, that is well, I feared..." her memory of the terminology of the Temple of the Wanton returned. She blanched and her sight went dim. She heard her voice speaking as if from a great distance.

"You sent...a christian priest...sworn to celibacy...to one of your priestesses...to take away his virginity? Are you completely mad?!"

Pathia smiled, untroubled by her rage. "I have done as I have been bid by the Deity."

"By the Lover's Balls!" she spat, and fled out of Pathia's chamber and through the temple. Guided by instinct, she turned into hall leading to Diana's chamber, crashed through the sitting room, barely sensing the clothes strewn on the floor, and threw open the door to the bedchamber.

Two young people, one obviously male and the other spectacularly female, sweaty and looking terribly well-pleased with themselves, met her horrified gaze.

Too late too late too late.

"Paul," she whispered.

"Oh, Brother Paul. I am so sorry. I did not mean for this to happen."

Paul stood. He looked at her and his face was a blank. No warmth, almost no humanity at all. The grave, quiet young man that she had known was gone. When he spoke, his voice was as cold and harsh as the ice floes of the northern seas.

"My lady. I see that you are here at last. I think it is time that we go." With that, he bent to retrieve his discarded garments, not even looking at his companion. He stepped out of the bedroom, leaving Ariana alone with Diana.

"You," she snarled. "You have ruined us all. Do you have any idea of the damage you have done?"

Diana smiled, immune to her anger, "I have done as my lady has bid. She is pleased. Very well pleased."

"Mad," Ariana said flatly. "You are all mad." she stalked out, slamming the door behind her.

Left alone in the bedroom, Diana laid her hands gently over her womb and smiled.

When Ariana rejoined Paul, he was already nearly dressed. Not even looking at her, he finished buttoning his vest and shrugged into his jacket. Stomping into his boots, he spared her one scornful glance, "Shall we go?"

When they left the building, Paul stopped and took a deep breath. He turned and looked at them all. Ariana, all but weeping with distress. Kris and Sean, honest faces confused by the tension between the two of them. Behind them, squatting like a toad against a wall, the sneering face of Titus.

He spoke, voice flat, barely looking at her.

No, Ariana thought despairingly, looking through me. He cannot stand the sight of me.

"My lady, it gives me no pleasure to say this. I think our time together, as pleasant as it has been, is at an end. I have seen the depths to which a person may sink to try to gain victory. The lies, the betrayals of those who should have been honored and cherished. The depravity," his lip curled, "of those who dare call themselves priests.

"Upon my return to the castle, I will seek an audience with the king. I will tell him that my part in this contest is over. I have made my decision. I will have no more part of it."

Ariana's heart broke within her. She had been so close. So close to breaking through! Her hand shaking, heedless of her dignity and standing, she reached out to put a hand on Paul's sleeve.

"Brother! But your headache! Your back! The Deity healed them for you when I asked! Surely you know He is divine! You cannot deny Him!"

Paul twitched his arm out of her grasp, "I know no such thing. Satan tempted our Lord and showed him all the glories of Earth. He did not fall. Neither will I."

He turned his back on her and walked up the street towards the castle. With an apologetic look, Sean and Kris followed him, dragging Titus between them.

Sobbing with the realization of her failure, Ariana followed.

###

When Abiron and Angela returned to the castle, they found it in an uproar. Servants were clustered in every corner, whispering with round eyes and nervous faces. They stood aside as two lords of the court pounded along the hallway, nearly running them down.

"What can have possibly happened?" Angela was asking, when a sergeant in the palace guard approached them.

"My Lord Abiron, Sister Angela, the king asks that you present yourselves to him in their majesty's private chambers immediately."

They traded glances, confused, then followed the guard.

When they entered the king's chambers, Angela was even more confused than before. It seemed that anyone who was involved in the contest was there. Besides the royal family, the High Priestess and Brother Paul were also present. Paul was wedged into a corner, his arms folded, looking at Ariana with expression of uttermost contempt. Ariana looked like she had been weeping, her eyes red and puffy.

First time I've ever seen her looking other than gorgeous, Angela thought spitefully. Even the guards assigned to them were present, looking uncomfortable and trying to appear unobtrusive.

Talking quietly together were Bishop Lambert and brother Ulf. Angela wandered over to them and caught the end of their conversation.

"...doesn't have much to charge him with. Watching somebody isn't a crime, even in this pit of iniquity," Lambert was saying. He noticed Angela's approach and broke off. "Good evening, Sister."

"Good evening, Your Grace," Angela glanced about the room. "Do you know why we are here?"

"Your guess is as good as mine," Lambert shrugged, eyes hooded. "From what I hear, Paul returned from an afternoon in the town with that strumpet," he said, nodding at Ariana, "in a towering rage, and demanded to see their majesties, and all of us with them."

Even as Lambert finished speaking, the King rose for attention, and all conversation was muted.

"Here we are," he said, "though I am still not sure why. Brother Paul, this contest still has three days to run. May I ask why you have seen fit to draw us all together?"

Paul left his corner. The bow he gave the king was barely polite. His voice bordered on outright rudeness.

"Your majesty, I have seen enough of Heklos and your people. And especially of your clergy. This afternoon I accompanied High Priestess Ariana to a temple in town. What I witnessed today I have no desire to share with anyone, not even my confessor. Suffice it to say that I have been shocked to the very core of my being. I have made my decision. If Sister Angela will agree, I say we put an end to this farce and end it all today."

Angela looked at her companions. Lambert wore a hopeful smile. Ulf grinned, showing bad teeth in his unpleasant face.

The king nodded slowly. Beside him, Queen Cassieopeia sat, pale as carved wax. Prince Alan's fists were clenched in rage as he stared at Paul, and Princess Hannah's eyes burned with hatred.

"Very well. I will not try to sway a man against his conscience. My lady Ariana? My Lord Abiron? Are you ready to give your answers as well?"

Ariana gave a jerky nod. "Your Majesty, I am," said Abiron.

Benedictos' gentle gaze fell on her. "Sister Angela?"

Angela took three steps toward the throne, and gave the full curtsy, from a member of the nobility to royalty. Holding it, eyes cast down demurely, wishing she had a full court gown to make the pose more appealing, she spoke. "Your Majesty, I did not anticipate such an enormous decision being thrust upon me so soon. Being a weak and feeble woman, I ask that I be given time to order my thoughts." From the corner of her eye, she saw Abiron's eyes narrow at her choice of words. "I beg leave for one nights' contemplation."

The king nodded sharply. "A courteous request and well-spoken. Sister, you shall have what you ask. We will meet tomorrow morning at nine of the clock in the throne room for a formal end to this matter. For the nonce, all guards will keep their assigned duties to Brother Paul and Sister Angela. I would hate," he said drily, "for an unfortunate accident to befall Brother Paul, no matter how ill-mannered he is."

Without a glance at the priests of the Deity or the royal family, Paul made for the door. Nearing Angela, he paused briefly. His whisper came warm into her ear. "It would have been better had you agreed to be heard this evening. If you have a weapon, ward yourself. He will come for you tonight." He walked away quickly, giving the bishop a courteous nod as he left the chambers, followed by his guards.

Lambert frowned as he watched him leave. "What did he say to you?" he asked.

Angela blinked. "I'll be blessed if I know. Some nonsense about being afraid of Abiron, I think. As if that boy could ever harm anyone." She yawned. "Your Grace, I am fatigued by the events of the day. I will return to my chambers and contemplate how best to frame my answer to the king tomorrow without giving offense."

Lambert chuckled. "After the treatment Brother Paul has given him, I don't know how anything you say could offend him further." With a bow he withdrew.

&&&

Once he was free of the king's chambers, Paul gave a great sigh of relief. Taking care to make sure the corridor was clear of eavesdroppers, he turned and faced Sean and Kris.

"Gentlemen, can I trust you?" he asked.

"What the hell are you playing at, boy?" asked Sean. His normally friendly face was grim. "You know that Lambert is planning an invasion as soon as this game is over, and there you are sucking up to him like he is your best pal. And don't think," he said, prodding Paul's chest with a stiff finger, "that we didn't notice the way you treated Lady Ariana. Once upon a time I thought you were sweet on her. Now you look at her like she is dog crap on your boots."

"But who knows about Lambert's invasion, Sean?" Paul said, ignoring the painfully true words about his treatment of Ariana. His heart felt like it was breaking. "You, me, Kris here, and that toad in his cell. Lambert knows we have him, but he doesn't know what we have been told. Once Lambert has a chance to think, he is going to realize that Titus is no longer useful. If I know Lambert, he will have records of every corrupt official, noble, and officer Titus has subverted. Titus is no longer a tool to the bishop. He is a threat. If he opens his mouth, Lambert is done for.

"That is why I had to keep him off-balance by that act in the throne room. He is going to be so happy that he is going to win that he hasn't thought about disposing of Titus. But he will."

"So...that means...you aren't actually going to come down on the side of the Christians? You will side with our Lady?" asked Kris, as he tried to follow Paul's thought.

Paul drew himself up. "My faith is as firm as it has ever been," he said coldly. "This is not about whether Christians are allowed into this land to preach, Sergeant. If you remember, that is how this whole thing started. This is about invasion and rape and slaughter. If we can spike Lambert's wheel by exposing the traitors in Benedictos' government, then he can show a strong face to the outside world. He can keep the balance. Your army is strong, gentlemen. If it wasn't, you would have been ground down long since.

"Now, I ask again. Do you trust me?"

Sean and Kris looked at each other. Sean shrugged.

"What do you need?"

"One of you needs to stay with Titus and make sure there aren't any 'accidents' around him."

"I don't see why," Sean shrugged, "He is safe in the cells and the palace guard is in charge of him."

Paul restrained the urge to beat his head against the wall.

"Damn it, Sean, I thought you two were the smart ones. The palace guard might be full of traitors. If Lambert got to one of them, how hard would it be for one of them to slip in his cell tonight and slit his throat?"

"Shit," said Sean. "Not hard at all." He looked at the sergeant. If you can take that one, Kris, I'll take the other." He paused. "What's the other?" he asked.

"As soon as I get to my chamber I am locking the door and bolting the windows. I am not coming out until the audience tomorrow. I am not a warrior, and I can't risk Ulf or Lambert or someone he has corrupted getting to me tonight. I need someone to watch my door. Not too obtrusive," he added. "We don't want anyone to get suspicious by having an armed guard standing in my doorway. Just someone who can look menacing if someone should be seen trying to sneak in late at night."

"I can do that."

Chapter 23

The last stragglers left the king's chambers. Ariana waited until the doors were closed, then hurled herself into her husband's arms, weeping as if her heart would break. Abiron cradled her there, trying to piece together what had happened. He felt a tug on his sleeve, and saw the queen. She pressed a glass of wine into his hands and pointed at Ariana.

He led his wife to a couch and sat down with her. Murmuring quietly, he at last convinced her to take a drink. Slowly, the tears faded to sniffles and hiccups. She wiped her eyes with her sleeve and looked up.

Cassie smiled sadly, "Well, Ariana, you might as well tell us what happened. But from your reaction and the look on that boy's face, it seems you have made a rare muddle of things."

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