Laurus . . . a short story

Fiction By Aisling // 10/10/2005

- To Warren. H. Carroll -

He made his way quietly through the hallway, his heart thumping loudly beneath his rich tunic. Smoke from the torch the servant bore was getting into his eyes, and they stung.
The servant stopped at a tall door. “Here is the empress’ chamber.”
The door opened and the visitor stepped in. The room smelled lusciously of myrrh and henna.
The empress was accented by the candlelight, all her gold and jewels shimmering, and the embroidery in her gown standing out gorgeously.
“Welcome,” she said, with a voice like honey.
He bowed nearly to the floor. “Your servant, Lady Augusta.”
“I have called you here with a very important and confidential proposal . . .” She paused, as if weighing the effect of her words.
He bowed again. “Of course, Lady Augusta.”
“Make a promise, then—of what you would do if I made it so that you achieve your great ambition of possessing the papacy.”
His head started up. “My lady?”
“Yes, you heard me rightly. You do not believe I can do it?” She idly turned a garnet ring around her finger.
“No. You can, Lady Augusta, if anyone on this earth can.”
She laughed blithely, and her earrings tinkled. “Well?”
He shrank into himself. What could he promise her? Not too much; he must keep his own power. He cannot let her make a slave of him—but he must make it appear as if she had, and he was delighted. She was the empress. He would have to be careful and please her.
She was speaking again. “Promise, good friend. Promise me to abrogate the Council of Chalcedon; to approve the Monophysite belief of our dear patriarchs Theodosius, Severus, and Anthimus; and to restore poor Anthimus to his rightful position.”
He thought a moment. It was a lot to promise.
“Come,” she prodded, smiling graciously. “Promise me. None of the three things are of great matter. And when compared to the awesome prospect of the papacy . . . Surely you see how unwise it would be to refuse.”
He sighed. Yes, he saw. He bowed again. “Yes, Lady Augusta. I am your servant.”
She smiled again—widely and beautifully.
The smile he smiled back at her was every bit as unreal as her own. They both stood there, pretending to be the very epitome of graciousness and charity, and underneath the velvet and silk beat two hearts as cold and hard as steel—beating only for the passionate pursuit of absolute power.
“Thank you, my good friend,” the empress said. “I shall order Belisarius to make you pope, when he takes Rome.”
He was amused by her arrogance—that she should speak of it so easily as that! He bowed yet another time. “I am eternally indebted to your gracious condescension. Farewell, Lady Augusta.”
She nodded gorgeously. “Farewell.”
He slipped out. Life was good. And about to get better.

A few months later . . . The night was old. But hope was young. He was on his way home--and oh, life was good! The letter had been very craftily forged, and soon all of Constantinople would hear of the pontiff’s treasonable communications with the Goths, and how he had been deposed. He would be exiled, and forgotten, and it would be hardly a matter of months before he was dead.
The conspirator chuckled to himself. And then, then the moment he had been waiting for. He wrote again to the empress to keep her appeased by reassuring her of his agreement with her on all theological doctrine.
And the pontiff died.
It all went exactly as he had planned. It all came together perfectly. He took his place in the palace, and relaxed. Finally, he had captured the papacy. Victory at last.
But then a letter came from the empress. What about his promise? When was he going to restore Anthimus?
He sat there for a while, fingering the paper hesitantly. He wished he had never promised the empress anything. It was such a bother. It made him have to think about things . . .
He had won the papacy—he bought it from the heretics, collecting seven hundred pounds of gold and paying with the life of his predecessor.
He sighed, suddenly unable to stop thinking. Especially of the men who had gone before him.
He had watched as Agapitus had told Justinian: “I, sinner that I am, desired to see the most Christian Emperor Justinian, and I found Diocletian.”
He had watched as Silverius, before the that man Belisarius, had the pallium ripped from his very shoulders and a crude monk’s robe thrown over his holy head. Not only had he watched, he had sent the man into exile.
His heart twisted. He could not understand it, but it was more real than anything he had ever known.
He had been wrong: to stand by and watch; to close his eyes and go his own way, steadily pursuing his own ambitious, greedy dreams. He sat there, in the papal palace, and the very same hands that held the power of the pontificate, the actual See of Peter, held also the blood of his predecessor on that selfsame, honored seat.
Funny, it never occurred to him that he could be experiencing what the Church called infallibility; that the emotion that moved in his long-cold heart was the very breath of the Spirit of God.
But he took up a pen and found a sheet of paper. And he wrote a reply to the empress, with a shaking hand and a forever-shaken heart.

"Far be this from me Lady Augusta; formerly I spoke wrongly and foolishly, but now I assuredly refuse to restore a man who is a heretic and under anathema. Though unworthy, I am vicar of Blessed Peter the Apostle, as were my predecessors, the most holy Agapitus and Silverius, who condemned him."
. . . Pope Vigilius to Empress Theodora, 538

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(NOTE: The words are the actual words of the letter that Pope Vigilius wrote to the empress. They had been preserved these thousand-odd years.
I have dedicated the short story to Mr. Carroll because it was inspired by his awesome history book, The Building of Christendom. A.M.)