Friday, February 24, 2017

Prester John, Chapter 14 (Part 1)

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Chapter 14 (Part 1)
            Lucius waited along the roadway, watching as dusk fell over the city of Smyrna. His overlook was hidden behind a series of boulders about halfway up the first set of foothills, where the road began to leave behind the settled streets of the valley and wind its lonely way into the rougher highlands.
            The brigands had set their trap, and all that was left now was to see if Ariston took the bait. Alexander, the father whom they had entrapped into their scheme as a go-between, had fulfilled his last act, setting rumors loose in the city that some of the brigands had been seen quietly infiltrating the edges of the town. Those rumors would have made it to Ariston’s ears, and, they hoped, would encourage him to risk the long hike out to the brigands’ cave to recover the bit of family treasure he had lost in their earlier encounter. Lucius had persuaded the brigands to release Alexander’s son to him unharmed; the poor father had played his part faithfully, and if the scheme fell through on some unforeseen mistake, Lucius didn’t want the boy’s blood on their hands just for that. So Alexander and his son were gone, having been sent back up the Ephesus road in the late afternoon. Now all that was left was to wait.
            Lucius peered up the road toward the brigands’ hideout. They were all lying in wait there, weapons at ready, for Ariston to make his way up to them. There was no telling, though, at what point during the long night the young nobleman would make his attempt.
            Lucius didn’t have long to wait. As soon as the darkness of night had gathered its full strength over the countryside, Lucius made out the shadowy shape of his nemesis ascending the dusty path. His white toga caught the light of the crescent moon, and gave him the aura of a ghost as he made his slow way upward. Just as he was about to pass the boulders at the overlook, Lucius stepped out to meet him.
            Ariston looked up, startled, a quick burst of fear coursing over his face. But he recovered himself and put on his habitual mocking grin.
            “Ha! A true highwayman, then? Just like they say in town—I always knew you were a murderer at heart, Tiro. Or wait, it’s no longer Tiro, is it? It’s the famed assassin of Roman noblemen, Lucius Caelius Pius, here to add another tally to his scroll!”
            “Mock me if you like, Ariston,” Lucius spoke through clenched teeth. “But your life is in my hands right now.”
            “Is it then?” Ariston chuckled. “The way I hear it, all your muscular friends are sneaking into town right now, only to be arrested by the town’s magistrates. That means it’s just you and me out here.” In a flash of silver light, he pulled out a short sword from beneath his toga. “And I think I could have the better of a weak little runaway like you.”
            Lucius drew a deep breath. Anger and resentment were welling up inside him, but he tried to think of what John might say in that moment.
            “Ariston,” he said softly.
            There was a note of gentleness in his voice that made Ariston take a step backward.
            Lucius held out his hands to show that he was unarmed. “Ariston, I tricked you into coming out here tonight, to stumble into your death at my hands.”
            “What do you mean?”
            “The brigands aren’t in town right now. They’re up in the hideout, waiting for you.”
            Ariston digested this news with a quizzical expression. “Not to question your tactics, my dear friend Lucius, but wouldn’t you have had a better chance of killing me if you had also waited for me up there? I might be able to kill you in a fight, but I can’t kill all of them. Yours would have been a good plan, if you hadn’t popped out of these rocks just now. What’s to keep me from going back down safely?”
            “Nothing,” said Lucius. “I expect you to. Of course, if you still want to go try to recover the money that we managed to steal away from your father’s house, then you’re welcome to go up there and have a go at it.”
            Ariston smiled. “I rather think I might let them keep it at this point.” He lowered his sword and looked at Lucius in the moonlight. “Why are you doing this, then?”
            “It would have been a stroke of justice for me to kill you, Ariston. You had stolen away the only life I had left; for that and for your other crimes, your own life was forfeit. But I can’t be your judge and executioner—that belongs to someone else.”
“And why can’t you be my judge? I’ve certainly merited your revenge, I would think.”
“Yes—but I merited death, too. It would have been just for God to kill me—I had taken a life and lived a lie before his people—but I was shown not the harshness of justice, but mercy. Forgiveness. I’m here tonight, Ariston, to forgive you for what you’ve done, and to extend mercy to you.”
            Ariston smiled cockily and brought up his sword again. “Weak…as I thought. Perhaps I should kill you now, and save you the agony of bumbling so stupidly down any further roads of life. You will not find many pleasant paths to walk, my friend, if you’re so quick to throw away every lucky advantage you’ve gained.”
            Lucius shook his head. “You can strike if you choose to, Ariston. But I can give you something even better than killing me here on this lonely hillside.”
            “Ha! What’s that?”
            “Come with me to the church tomorrow. Find forgiveness. Find freedom. You don’t have to live your life as an enemy to everyone you meet. You can come home.”
            Ariston stood there, holding out his sword, balancing on the edge of indecision. Lucius expected him to laugh.
            But he didn’t laugh. Slowly, he lowered his arm and tucked his sword back beneath his toga.
            Then, brow furrowed, he growled out grumpily toward Lucius: “Just leave me alone. That’ll be enough.”
            And with that, he turned and trudged back down the dusty roadway, to where the hearth-fires and oil-lamps of Smyrna flickered out through a thousand windows.

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