This short story or flash-fiction is rather different than usual. Thoughtful. I wrote it after thinking for some time about the gift of grace and how--for one of us--it isn't free. And what a wonder it is that Jesus keeps extending that grace to us. Anyway. I hope you enjoy it and can, possibly, relate.
He bent over his knees, the suffocation of guilt pressing him to the marble floor in a way no discipline had yet managed. Breath seemed futile in his shame, but breath came anyway, swift and hot in the pocket of air between his belly and knees. The throne room was empty and silent, but he would come. He always knew when one of his brothers had arrived. Armeddeonan spat a curse on himself into the stillness and his breath quickened. The skin of his belly and chest flashed on and off his sweating thighs like the sleek sides of a hound after a race.
How many times had he folded himself in shame, dissolved in submission and fear...and lived to hurt his older brother again? For he knew it hurt him, somehow. He was not certain how, but he knew he inflicted pain on this most gentle of men and the thought dirtied him further.
Armeddeonan flinched at the sound of the heavy doors being thrown open and the inward rush of jasmine-scented air. His brother had been walking in his gardens again among the pure beauty of the warm summer night while Armeddeonan had been less...nobly occupied.
“Brother, why lie you on your countenance in so sorrowful a state?” His voice was rich and quiet and he drew near with an easy step.
Armeddeonan crumpled deeper into his fold and despised the kindness that chose not to accuse him.
“Please arise,” he said and his courtesy held a regal command both imminent and gentle.
Heart pounding, senses alert, Armeddeonan arose and stretched himself to his full height. In stature, he now stood a head taller than his brother, but he had never felt more insignificant and yet significant than he did now with that comprehensive gaze on his features.
“Good evening, my brother,” Armeddeonan murmured.
He watched the uncertain torchlight burnish his brother’s crimson robes to burgundy and play on the auburn flecks in his dark hair. His face was patient and kind but the scars driving up his arms and extending, as Armeddeonan knew, across his back and shoulders showed him capable of bearing untold sorrows. How did he get the scars? What kept them fresh and red when time ought to have bleached them skin-smooth?
“I have not come merely to say hello,” Armeddeonan said at last. He had spoken too loud and startled the shadows into activity. A dark breeze fell through the open doorway and shook the twin torches, rattling them in their iron brackets.
When Armeddeonan looked back to his brother, he saw that the man’s eyes dwelt on his features as if searching for the Truth in him. Was there truth in him? Had there ever been? Pain like branding seared Armeddeonan’s chest and bitter gall rose in his throat.
“I am sorry,” he whispered. Visions of last night--soft arms, red lips, warm bronze skin and linen sheets slayed him over again with stinking guilt. “I am so sorry.”
“Jazmeriana?” his brother asked and his glance was so swift and piercing it cut the flesh from his bones.
Armeddeonan hung his head. “Again. Always again.”
They breathed together for a quiet space of time and somewhere beyond the doors of the throne room a nightingale sang the tune of all the purity Armeddeonan had spent on the girl. The sound flayed his spirit and he clenched his tunic in his fists, willing the creature to die with its song in its throat.
“Did you enjoy it?” his brother asked. “Jazmeriana’s company?” From anyone else, the question would have seemed insufferable, laden with accusation and despising. From Armeddeonan’s brother, it was only a question.
“I did.” Armmedeonan ground out between clenched teeth. “I always do.” That was what stung like the sting of a thousand bees. It was only here, in the throne room in the presence of his scarred brother, that he ever felt the weight of his wrongs. In Jazmeriana’s arms, he had no thought but pleasure. She did not capture him--he sought her. There was no question of whether the guilt was his own. It was there, pungent and horrible in his mind’s eye.
“Why must it be so good?” he spat in contempt of himself and his problems.
“Because it was created good,” his brother said with quiet finality. “But not to be stolen and enjoyed in a hurried corner by those who will not swear the oath that makes it beautiful. You cheapen it. The gift is not yours.”
Cheap? He was not cheap--he was extravagant. That was why he stood here now, bent and sweating and horrible. He never thought of the price of anything--his nights with Jazmeriana or any of the hundred other sins that now crowded his thoughts. How much did it cost anyway? His head throbbed with the reckoning under the warm pulse of the night. The price to be paid was death--it was death to break the King’s law. How many times over would he need to die to pay it off? Gooseflesh stood up along his bronzed arms even as the sweat dripped down his chest.
His brother waited, silent and sure in the darkness.
“I know I have sinned against my King,” Armeddeonan said at last, head bent. “I am willing to pay the death-price. Forgive me.”
The nightingale sang again but this time it sounded like liquid sorrow and he felt tears joining the sweat on his face. He knew what would come now and he hated and craved the mercy of it, white against his blood-stained blackness.
His brother stepped in and pressed firm, warm lips to his forehead, and the kiss was scented with triumph and grace.“I stand in your stead,” he whispered, pulling away.
Their eyes locked. Armeddeonan tried to look away. He could not look at the golden knowing in his brother’s eyes. He could not accept this. How many times had his brother taken his death-punishment for him? For him and for every one of his subjects in the realm? How many times would he still insist on carrying for them their sins? Was he not weary of the same pageant over and over again?
“It is not a pageant,” came the voice, heavier now as if it came from the center of a soul much-wearied by a weight it bore. “You belong to me. To my King. You are my brother.”
Armeddeonan sliced the air with one fore-arm. “I am adopted! I have spat in the King’s face with my sins!”
“You are my brother,” he repeated. “I have chosen to carry your debts.”
They shared a long look and the shadows of the room closed in about them except where his brother stood, and here a crimson glow shed like drops of blood from his robes. His brother put out a hand and grasped Armeddeonan’s.
“You have been bought at a price,” he whispered, and his lips curved into a smile, curious for its mingled joy and gravity. “Go now, and sin no more.”
A feather’s breadth of a moment and his brother had gone, leaving Armeddeonan alone in the throne-room. He realized he had been holding his breath, and let it out in a ragged stream. He felt cooler and clean now, and he knew his ledger had again--for the untold time--been blotted clean. But there was another stirring beneath the relief; a pulsing in his blood that begged him to keep this moment in his soul and by it, live his life.
On quiet, humbled feet, Armeddeonan hastened across the room. He would thank his brother--he must do that, at least. He tugged open one of the great doors with as little noise as he could manage and stepped into the moon-washed whiteness of the garden. He made to descend the steps of the portico, but a gut-rending sound stopped him short and clenched his heart with cruel fingers.
The sound of a whip lashing the air. The slap of it biting into the skin. A faint cry, then silence. The whip again, the fleshy cut, the painful noise. On and on the hellish thing played and its notes wound tendrils of disgust and hatred over Armeddeonan’s chest. He could not yet discern from whence it came. Why did his brother allow whippings to be carried on in his own garden? It was not like him. Quickly now, before the victim could be beaten any more, Armeddeonan loped across the yard. The stones were cool under his bare feet and jasmine perfumed each breath he drew. A fountain burbled moon-diamonds at his right and the nightingale continued to haunt his hearing. Where was the man?
He entered a circle of pyracantha bushes planted like a thornsome crown around a white sandstone piazza and there he saw a thing that knit terror and confusion into his heart. His brother stooped below a cloaked figure with a whip, back bare and open to the bite of the leather. The figure whipped him with a sickening regularity. Lash, lash, lash, lash.
Frissons of sickness quaked inside Armeddeonan’s gut. He saw whence came the scars.