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Authors: Tracy L. Higley

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BOOK: Palace of Darkness
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Not far from this beautiful chamber he passed a lion sculpted
into the rock wall, with a fountain of water pouring from its mouth. It reminded him of the carving he had seen in the Siq when he first came to Petra.

Why
had
he come here? He climbed higher, trying to go back to his first goals, trying to forget what had happened since he met Malik and Cassia.

He wanted only to hide from the long arm of the emperor, to keep his family safe back in Rome. To forget about Vita.

He could sculpt here, pursue the talent he had always enjoyed. What better place to make a name for himself than a city made of rock?

He paused a moment to catch his breath, his back against the rock wall to fight the dizzying height. The city crawled with ants now, not people. And the sky, though darkening, seemed close enough to touch. Lodged between earth and sky, Julian felt himself the only person alive.

And he began to fear the solitude he had sought. For in solitude, it became easier to hear the voice of the Lord.

Had he thought to come up here and avoid that Voice? As if the evil of the plateau would frighten away the One God? He nearly laughed at his foolishness, however unconscious it had been, and remembered the story of the Hebrew prophet Elijah, hiding in the cleft of a rock while the wind and the fire rushed past, then hearing God in a quiet and still voice.

He was not ready to listen. He climbed again. One foot higher than the next, grabbing at the narrow ledges of orange-red rock as the wind increased and the city dropped farther out of reach.

And then at last he had reached the plateau. He waited for some sense of victory, of accomplishment at the climb, but felt only the pervading sense of evil that spread over the High Place like a dark and heavy blanket.

From the ground, the top of the mountain had seemed like only a ridge, a narrow point. But now that he stood on it, he realized it was more like a wide plain, broken by small variations of rocks, rising and falling to differing levels but still a vast area. Toward the north he could see the promontory that jutted over the city. No doubt the actual altar and holy site were there. But to his right he saw two large obelisks carved from solid stone. Sacred rites must occur there as well, far from the altar.

Again, a wave of heaviness pushed at Julian, and he pulled away from the side of the cliff, fearing it could somehow knock him from the High Place.

He crossed the rock top to the far side, looked down on the east end of the city, and far below could make out the large complex of huge tombs where he worked every day.

Where I belong.

And yet going back to the tombs felt like failure too.

What am I to do, Lord?

Once a call from the Lord was heard, could he turn his back and ignore it? Could he go back to sculpting rock when his heart told him his work was carving out a church?

The wind picked up, and once again Julian backed away from the edge of the cliff and crossed back to the two obelisks that stood like the lone pillars of some fallen temple.

It was nearly dark now, and he still would have to climb down.

Passing the second obelisk, Julian felt a deep vibration shudder through him. He paused and put a hand to the tall rock, curious and fearful at once.

Yes, there it was. Like an earthquake but confined only to the column of stone, radiating out from it, through his hand, across the ground, up and through his feet.

And with the vibration, there was an almost audible rumble. A low growl, angry and threatening.

Julian yanked his hand from the rock as though it burned him, and in a way it did, for he felt pain, both physical and in his spirit at the sense of hatred that flowed from the stone.

A bitterness rose in his throat and he stumbled away from the pillar.
God, what is this?

But even as he asked, he knew the answer. The obelisks were said to be the resting places of the gods, like the large black cube in the Temple of al-‘Uzza. The faithful worshippers of Dushara circled such monuments religiously, in hopes of gaining the favor of the gods housed within. A guttural voice wormed its way into Julian’s mind, and he could not tell if it spoke aloud or only inside of him.

THE PRINCE OF PETRA DEMANDS YOUR OBEDIENCE.

A hand seemed to clamp onto his chest, and Julian gasped and bent at the waist trying to release it.

The entire plateau seemed to buck and rock now, as though caught in the throes of an angry storm. Julian himself felt like a piece of wood on the waves, a shipwreck tossed high, then plunged to the depths.

He put out a hand to steady himself, then yanked it downward when the only solid thing was the obelisk.

The crush of the unseen waves on his lungs grew unbearable, and Julian half walked, half stumbled to the narrow steps that had brought him to the plateau.

I must get down.

When he reached the edge, a sickening urge to throw himself off swept over him and he tripped on the first few steps, his hands scrabbling over the rock wall for something to keep him from pitching downward.

It was too dark to see the steps. His foolishness had caught up with him.

Somehow he kept moving down the path without falling to the rocky ledges that outcropped below.

The minutes stretched on and still he fled downward, the pressure easing slowly on his chest and the city growing larger beneath him.

Halfway down he could go no farther without resting, and when the ground leveled out before a small grouping of tombs, he found a flat rock and stretched himself on it. He stared at the purple sky, his breathing labored.

And lying there, halfway between the city and the High Place, far from Rome and far from friends, the past and his failure crushed down on him like the evil on the plateau, only instead of stopping his breath, it welled up inside and he found himself weeping for all that had happened and all he had failed to achieve.

All his life he had worked to gain the approval of others. To see admiration in their eyes, to hear them praise his work. Yet here he lay, on a rock in the desert, a disappointment to everyone he knew.

You are not a disappointment to Me.

Julian threw an arm over his tearstained face and listened, longing for the Voice to speak again.

You are My dear son.

His heart reached out, desperate, wanting the words to be true. Wanting them to be more than his imagination.

You are My dear son.

Just that, no more. No mention of what he had accomplished, what he could achieve in the future. No conditions, no demands.

His heart stilled.
If God is for me, who can be against me?

Was it presumptuous to believe that God was
for him
? Was it a promise he could claim?

The darkness had come fully now, heavy and black. Julian sat up on his rock and searched the sky, counting the stars as they appeared, then losing count.

And there, caught between the city and the High Place, a change came upon him.

Evil was up there, of that he had no doubt. But it was an evil that had no power in the face of the One God. And it would be defeated.

This is a work that God wishes to do.
And He wanted to use Julian to do it.

He climbed from his rock and looked down toward the city.

What would happen if he gave up his need for approval, if he walked away from the safety of praise and admiration? If he rested in the acceptance gained through Jesus’ death for him? Risked everything to answer the call to lead through humility, to be a servant?

He searched the plateau above and thought he saw a wisp of smoke waver above the rock, as though the altar consumed a sacrifice already.

It is time.

He heard the words from outside himself and knew the final call had come, and he must make his decision now, in this moment.

Follow . . . or deny.

He thought of Cassia, of her accusation that he had once run in fear. And he thought of Vita, given the chance at life if she would renounce her Christ, and the way her face had glowed with something like heaven as the lions were released from under the theatre’s seats to rush across the sand toward the huddled band of believers. Could he do any less?

And you will do much more.

The words filled his heart, assuring him he had new things to accomplish, to achieve—unseen things that would outlast even his stone sculptures.

Julian breathed deeply of the night air, filling his chest with it, breaking the bands that had tethered him for longer than he had realized.
Yes, it is time.

The path down to the city seemed to be only a few cubits long, and as his feet found the road to Malik’s house, Julian knew he had left the guilt of the past on the High Place, where the evil that dwelt there could do nothing to hurt him again.

FORTY-ONE

C
ASSIA SLEPT FITFULLY IN THE BACK OF
C
OMMANDER
Corvinus’s tent, one eye open most of the night. He insisted she stay there, with him sleeping in the front on one of his couches, telling her there was no safer place in the encampment. This she believed to be true, but she still did not sleep easy. Her night was split between nightmares about the festival and waking thoughts about being the only woman in a garrison of nearly a thousand soldiers.

But the morning came, slicing without mercy through gaps in the leather tent and searing her eyes with its arrival. She dragged weary limbs from the bed and rubbed her temples. Her head felt as heavy as a djinn block.

Corvinus had promised her last night that she would ride today with a
contubernium
, ten of his best men, into Petra to rescue Alexander. They would ride without Roman uniform, stagger their entrance into the city to avoid notice, and meet at the palace. Corvinus assured her his men could get into the palace and back out with Alexander before the queen even knew they had arrived.

The commander was gone from the tent already when she straggled to the front room, but a breakfast of grapes and goat cheese had been
laid out. Alexander’s favorite. She ate greedily, realizing she had not eaten since yesterday morning.

“Ah, good, you are awake.” The commander’s voice filled the tent before his body fully passed the front flap. “I have been selecting your men and briefing them on their mission.”

Cassia tried to smile but found herself suddenly nauseated. She put a hand to her stomach to quiet the rolling.

“No fear, my girl,” Corvinus said. “You go with the best-trained army the world has known.”

She nodded. “How soon do we leave?”

He snatched a grape from the table. “As soon as you are ready.”

It was the answer she had hoped for, and Cassia stood, her breakfast forgotten.

They were saddled and ready within the hour, and her horse stood at the point of the ten men, including Decimus, as though she would lead them into battle.

She circled the animal to face the
contubernium
and frowned. They wore the robes and head scarves of Arabs, but everything about them, from their profiles to their bearing, screamed
Roman.
Could they pass into the city without notice?

Corvinus strode in front of the group and gave his final instructions. They were to get in and out quickly, remove the boy, and dispatch the queen.

At this last bit, the heat drained from Cassia’s face. It was clear Corvinus wanted Hagiru dead by the end of the day. Could Cassia be part of this and bear no guilt?

It is Hagiru or Alexander.
She knew this to be true and was only glad it would not need to be her who stood against the queen.

Corvinus patted her leg as though they were old friends. “Courage, girl. Courage.”

She nodded and gave him as much of a smile as she could muster, and then they were off, trotting across the red sand with the early-morning sun warming their heads.

The men behind her spoke little, and the horses’ hooves made no noise as they sank into the soft sand. The only sound was the scrape and swoosh of saddle and leg, leaving Cassia time for her thoughts.

She expected to feel more anxiety as they neared the Siq, but it seemed to her the desert stretched before them like a victory processional. The cliff that hid Petra from view seemed dwarfed compared to her first entrance into the city, friendless and unknown. She straightened her back and lifted her head, then gripped the reins of her horse with steady hands. For the first time in many weeks, she believed Alexander would truly be freed from the queen. Whether it was the Romans behind her, the God who had adopted her, or the strength she had found within herself, she could not say. But while the entrance to the Siq was still far off, Cassia felt as if success was in her hands.

Decimus talked to the soldiers about splitting off. They would separate long before any travelers or traders heading into the city could notice ten Romans dressed as Arabs riding together.

The wide desert narrowed, and they headed between two lowlying hills, one of the many roads that led to the King’s Highway, the main trading route from Egypt to Syria. It was still early, but even in the mornings, these trade routes were unsafe. Bandits could waylay unsuspecting travelers, relieving them of their money and goods. Cassia remembered her fear the first time through one of these straits, but this morning she passed with ten trained Romans with little concern.

BOOK: Palace of Darkness
6.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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