“He will be a Liar when he comes.”
“Not a monster, but a man.”
“He will be the great deceiver.”
Even with a blazing hearth and four snug walls, the room wanted warmth and light. The two men sipping wine in front of the fire—Brattlebane, the king’s chancellor, and Julian Chalke, the Archbishop of Gill—had been reduced by their spiritless talk to shadows incapable of radiant being. There was no laughter between them, very little trust and not enough warm blood in their veins to draw the must of mildew from the air.
The king’s chancellor continued with his vision of the great deceiver. “He will be a lion like Christ, a king like Christ—and a lamb—but a wolf within.”
Julian Chalke, who had been squinting at the fire to hold Brattlebane at a safe distance—in the corner of one eye—turned suddenly. “My lord chancellor. Did you come here tonight to speak riddles about the end of time?”
“Riddles? Not riddles, no. I have seen it. In the bloodstone and the pentagram and the sacred Phrygian texts.”
Chalke raised one hand. “I don’t need to hear that.”
“I am a man of the Church.”
A dismissive sneer crimped Brattlebane’s upper lip. It was the closest he ever came to smiling. “Your protest I take as proof that we have indeed arrived at the final age of hypocrisy.”
Chalke’s fingers seized up around his goblet. He found himself glaring at the ruby froth of an excellent Poitu wine and regretting his selection of so dear an offering from his buttery. He regretted the rich supper they had just eaten, the partridge and crusty saffron-colored rolls he had ordered out of respect for Brattlebane’s high office. He regretted the sauce made from precious St. Rule pears as he glanced up from his goblet and recalled how deeply he despised the man seated opposite him.
Chalke took pleasure in the fact that his guest looked ridiculous with his obese body crammed inside the straits of a single-seated, high-backed bench. Brattlebane certainly did not appear comfortable, rather like a sack of laundry stuffed inside a cupboard on the verge of bursting and bundling out. He looked scarcely animate.
If Julian Chalke could have done so without the other noticing, he would have recoiled from the sight. In the whole of the kingdom there could not be found a man as fat as Brattlebane. And in the whole of Brattlebane there could not be found evidence of a soul. His was the bulk of an edifice not lived in, as stagnant and foul as a tomb. He looked uninhabited by life-giving things, fueled instead by gases and flooded with bile. His ashen eyes were toneless, their affect lackluster and inert, as if he had been shut indoors all his life and redemption had never reached his inner being, not the natural light of day or the glory of heaven or grace.
Chalke, whose name matched the pallor of his skin, leaned suddenly toward his guest, as pale and quietly combative as the ivory chess pieces deployed on the gaming table between them. “My lord chancellor. Human intelligence cannot determine the time of the Final Enemy. Every attempt thus far to discover a date for the End of Time has been wrong. These ‘prophets’ saw revelation in wisps of cloud.”
Brattlebane answered, “Their prophecy failed because they were far removed from the time itself. But we are very near it. And the signs are unmistakable. Can you deny that the Mongol hordes have unloosed the Satanic nations of Gog and Magog? Can you doubt that the recent fall of Baghdad foreshadows the fate of the Arabic race? By their own calculations they have intersected with the number of the Beast.”
“Mongol hordes, the fall of Baghdad? These are events of history,” Chalke said. “Nothing more. And nothing less, for that matter.”
“There have been other signs, your grace.”
Chalke’s ice-blue eyes rolled upward in a labored show of indifference. “Oh?”
“One of them occurred more near to home.”
“Yes. In his final days our own king Gerald claimed to be divine.”
Although Brattlebane’s goblet was only half-empty, Chalke picked up the pitcher of wine and poured, a seemingly hospitable gesture calculated to draw attention to the large rings of power on his fingers. “My lord chancellor,” he said. “There have been many candidates for the Antichrist. The heretic of Bourges, for one. And Mahommet, for another. The present pope. And Nero raised from hell. But Gerald? His claims for divine status had more to do with the rant of senility than with signs and wonders. Besides, he is dead.”
“Can the Man of Sin not live on in his seed?”
“Godfrey?” With the pitcher of wine tipped and suspended in air, Chalke stared at his guest. “I never knew a more blameless man.”
“He will be a lion like Christ and a king like Christ and a lamb.”
“I have seen it.”
“Well I have not.” The archbishop set the pitcher down. “And between the two of us, lord chancellor, I am the man of the Church.”
“You are indeed. As such you will have more occasion than anyone to fear a king who will set his throne above the stars of God.”
With the fingers of one hand, Chalke began to fidget with the prelatial rings on the other. “Fear him? I do not fear him.”
“Even a man of the Church may resort to extreme measures when dealing with a king who does not know his place. I can help you there.”
“Help? I don’t need your help. Godfrey is young, yes. And eager. But he has found a swift conclusion to the war and he has revealed himself as merciful, even to the defeated foe. He speaks only of improving the lot of his people. ”
“Indeed. Yes.” Brattlebane shut his eyes and recited from an ancient text. “He will perform wonders. He will heal lepers and cast out demons. He will improve the lot of widows and orphans, love everyone and he will transform the times until Truth is laid in the dust.”
Julian Chalke’s natural complexion was as white as a lady’s ought to be, but it was destitute of the creamy blush or glow that made a lady’s presence warm and cheering. He was a cold man, cold in his heart and his belly and his limbs. In winter he sat unnaturally close to the fire and in summer, although it failed to effect his pigmentation, he was always seeking out the sun. Nobody liked him, not even the faithful, and he knew it.
“It’s true,” he said with a fleeting scowl. “Godfrey is a winning king. Already the people love him.”
“Precisely.” Brattlebane paused, whether for effect or to accommodate a slight expulsion of gas, the archbishop could not say. “It has been said that those who are doomed God first puts under a spell, a delusion, which persuades them to believe the Lie. I have seen it. I have seen it in my bloodless offerings. I have seen it in the vapors of the white poppy, the lodestone and the root of hellebore.”
“I don’t need to hear that.”
“Right. Yes. You are a man of God.”
“I am. And you, my lord chancellor, ought to be more discreet. It has been suggested –by Cyril of Jerusalem, I believe— that the Antichrist will be a magician skilled in the arts of enchantment.”
“I have additional skills, your grace, and other means. Political office may take me daily to court at Gloriette, where I engage with many nobles and knights of name, but politics itself compels me to the haunts of lesser men. When my more exalted fellows overreach themselves and need restraining, I seek out the dregs.”
Chalke muttered, “This is absurd.”
“I can place such men at your disposal.”
“Absurd. Why would you? What do you want?”
Brattlebane’s expression, already absent of recognizable human response, emptied into a blank, marmoreal stare. It was as though everything with color had expired and left only the whites of his eyes. It occurred to Chalke that if anyone of his acquaintance should be a candidate for the Antichrist, it would be Brattlebane. Looking into his eyes was like looking into the void. The archbishop felt sick inside and after a moment’s thought, aware of the fact that he had posed a question his guest did not intend to truthfully answer.
“What I want,” said Brattlebane, “is to serve a righteous master.”
Liar, thought Chalke. Out loud he remarked, “I believe that there is a universal need for the Antichrist because in the mind of man there is a need for two extremities. But I would not mistake evil for good or good for evil. I would not ascribe pride and sedition to a young king who is so clearly devout.”
“And his brother?”
The archbishop looked startled, then unhappy, as though he had forgotten the existence of such a person and preferred not to be reminded of him. “Frederick?”
“The king has no other brother that I know of.”
“He should be watched. But at the moment, I have no quarrel with a prince who by dint of circumstance, not choice, grew up in a country without priests. Now that he is home again — in Christendom — well, we shall see.”
Brattlebane said, “There is a man who lives in the swamp forest of Gutmoor. A thief by trade, a brute by nature and an assassin for a fee. I can send him to you. If you wish.”
“My lord chancellor. I am a man of God.”
“Yes. I know.”
Chalke stared hard at the flames of the fire. “His name?”
“He is called Babiana the Sweat.”
“I shall not need him. You’re wrong about Godfrey. He is as good a king as any king could be. And you, my lord chancellor, are the king’s man, although why Godfrey has kept you in his service exceeds my ability to comprehend. It’s true, you virtually ruled in mad Gerald’s stead, especially toward the end. But the son is no more mad than I.”
“I am the crown’s authority on Justinian law.”
“Then stop talking like a simpleton. And do not speak to me of assassins and thieves, for I am a man of—“
“Good God Almighty, yes, good night,” said his guest. “Thank you for supper. Good night.”
Long after Brattlebane had gone, Chalke remained where he was, refilling his goblet several times, flicking his jaundiced fingernails at chess pieces until they toppled and slowly coming to the conclusion that there was no reason why an archbishop could not also be chancellor. And if Brattlebane could be disposed of — which would be difficult but not impossible — there was no reason why a man of such absolute power could not be hailed as the new Elijah and be accorded the privilege of defending the Church against the wickedness of kings.
But Godfrey. The Antichrist? Chalke peered into the fire, seeking images of the Beast and any resemblance they might bear to the new-crowned king of Crossly Ho. It seemed unlikely. Still. Brattlebane had a rich reputation for sorcery. If he claimed to have seen something significant in his old parchment and cooked vessels, or in the stars or in the roots of a toxic plant, it was worth considering at least.
But the Antichrist? The Beast’s head of flame, his gloomy face and eyebrows that reached to his ears did not describe this king. Godfrey’s eyelashes were not white, his right eye was not bloodshot, his left was not blue-black. His fingers were not like sickles and there was no leprous spot on the back of one hand.
In the end, however, the archbishop found small comfort in Godfrey’s lack of resemblance to the Beast. It was known that the Son of Satan could transform himself at will and make himself as handsome as he wished.
As handsome as a rogue king who seemed able and willing to transform the times.
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