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Chapter 30 - A Battle of Parables, Part II

He acted like he was listening intently as the bishop retold Art an abridged version of the story as he'd heard from Roland the previous night. Then when he concluded, he asked, "But I'm not sure how that--" -- The bishop waved impatiently at Art. "You see, it was with the prayers and sacrifices of several of the nuns, that the heavens intervened on their behalf, bringing about their salvation. Now, what do you suppose is the lesson that this story is meant to teach us?" -- "Uh…That so long as one professes faith in the truth, that they will be saved, no matter how dark the times may seem?"

The bishop chucked. "Ah, so you're not beyond hope of redemption, then. Yes, that is exactly so. And need it be said that, had they wavered in their devotion, they would have perished, every last one of them?" -- "Yes." -- "So what fate befalls the sisterhood is entirely of their own making, and will be their just reward. For has not the Successive One said, 'for him who believes in the truth shall be given rewards beyond imagining, and for him who believes not in the truth shall be given naught but ashes and death'?" When Art did not immediately reply, the bishop smiled, as one would who thought he'd gotten his prey trapped in a corner. "If the sisters believe they stand no chance, then is it not high time for them to pray to the angels above, and follow the examples set by the sisters of Thaar's Convent, that they may earn their salvation? And as for you and your hypothetical 'acquaintances' -- You seem to think that the sisters are doomed. Doesn't that then imply that you believe the sisters lacking in devotion? Why then do you stand by their side, when they are undeserving of your concern?"

Art figured that the bishop had clearly identified him as an antagonist in this discussion. Hence there was little point in dancing around the matter; and he had to present counter-arguments to oppose the bishop's sooner or later. He put up a hand in a rebuke to Erend. "There are several noticeable flaws in your argument," he said, swapping his earlier, unsure-sounding tone of voice for a more confident air. "First: You seem to think that the sisterhood's survival would prove or disprove their piety. Let me then as you this: If I were to stick a sword through your heart, or burn you to ashes, by what sorcery does that retroactively make you not a devout believer of the faith? Did not the first prince, when he failed to save the wezeer's daughter, make a similar excuse as you? And did not the saint strike him down for his callousness? Have you no fear for how the angels above will reproach you on the day of your judgment?"

The bishop's face had grown redder as Art spoke, and when Art finished, turned and said, "I've had en--" but his eyes fell on Roland, and he stopped mid-sentence. Couldn't bear to lose face before another bishop, Art mused. Erend wagged a finger at Art, and threw him a wan half smile. "You… You actually know the story of the wezeer's daughter and the six princes. We don't often teach the elder scripture around these parts, yet that flowed out of your mouth like water down a fall. Rather well learned, I take it, and yet you didn't know of Thaar's Convent. Hmm…" He shook his finger at him again. "I see. You were pretending! Not many would dare pull that in front of me. Well then, I shall hear you out." -- Art figured that the only reason the bishop hadn't actually booted him out of there was because the bishop still bought Roland's lie about being the bishop Verens.

"Then you will. My second point," said Art, "You seem to have glossed over the part where a majority of the nuns at Thaar's Convent died before ever laying eyes on this miracle. Nevermind how that clearly implies a callous disregard for the Sisters of the Sightless Eye; but it means you hadn't even cared for the travails of the nuns at Thaar's Convent, whom by your own attestation, proved as devout as any of the best. So I find it a bit disingenuous of you, to say that the sisters may save themselves through reaffirming their faith. At that rate, at best half of them will be dead by the time the angels get their act together; at worst there'll be nothing left of them but corpses on the battlefield by the time your templar arrive. Which, I can assume, they will arrive sooner or later, will they not? Just late enough to take the monastery pass for yourself. How very thoughtful of you, but I don't think the angels would think very highly of you if you were to do such."

The fury shone clear on the bishop's face, but instead of either dismissing Art from his presence or calling for the guards, he calmed himself down and replied, "That is quite the unflattering opinion of us you have, sellsword. I have my templar, and my flock, to look after; we cannot simply travel around fighting for whomever seeks a mercenary or two, the way you do. And speaking of sellswords, why don't you go fight on their behalf, if you cared so much for their cause, and spared us your reprobations? That's all your kind are good for, are they not?"

"Ah, the 'I have my responsibilities' excuse. Do you think yourself as having a better excuse than the second prince, who had an entire city-state to defend? And wasn't he also found wanting before the eyes of the saint? You think you'd best protect your people by having them cringe behind the walls of this town? I can tell you what will happen. The redskins will run rampant all over this region. The only way you can hope to truly protect your people is to crush the redskins once and for all; and the best approach for that is to ally with the sisterhood and strike together, as two hands may accomplish what one may not. Surely this expression is not foreign to such a learned man as yourself?"

"Who are you, to judge whether a bishop has done right before the eyes of Heaven? On me and me alone lies the fate of my templar; on me is placed my charge. Do you think I such a fool, as to waste their lives in vain? You speak thus, because you don't feel the chains that bind me to my people. These templar are not your men, hence you think little of risking their lives; but I have grown up with many of them for much of my life, and they I, and as I have been bishop and thus their lord for a dozen odd years, so long have they entrusted their lives to me, and look up to me as their protector."

Art sensed in his mind a reflection of how Sasha had spoken to him, back when he first arrived at Thistledown: her tears in recounting all her fellow sisters who had died that fateful night, her accusations that he, having not suffered a similar loss, could not possibly appreciate the extent of her loss. And here the bishop was throwing a similar argument at him, and he knew it to be true. It made him feel a bit guilty about continuing on as he did, but he knew he had to, or else he would fail to secure the sisterhood the aid they so desperately needed. The looks of desperation on Blaise and Diane, and Liene's falling so low… That stung him just as much as any loss the sisters had incurred, or that the bishop could incur.

"You're right; I don't sympathize much with the fate of your templar. It is only because of this, that I am not blinded to the truth of what needs to be done, by your loyalty and partiality to your men; and thus it is that you should hear me, and weigh my words more heavily than your own. In the story, if you would recall, the saint also had no need to seek out the wezeer's daughter the way the six princes did, for he did not have the same stake as they in winning the sultan's daughter and the sultan's allegiance; and yet he judged them anyway. Would you contest that; would you say that none but you may judge yourself? Then the thief caught tomorrow will protest that there are none but he who may judge himself, and the lot of you should allow him to go free."

Erend slammed a fist on the table, his mouth in a rictus of a snarl. "You would compare me to a thief? What insolence! Get out of my presence!" -- Art retorted, "Ah, the mainstay of one who cannot hold their own by virtue of argument. Is that how this is to go down? Your lordship the great bishop Arevain, unable to continue the argument against a lowly sellsword?" -- "Get!--"

But one look at the startled, disbelieving expression plastered on Roland's face at seeing his outburst, and the man took a moment to recompose himself, and with a great sigh, resumed saying to Art: "You think you understand scripture, but you know just enough for it to lead you astray. Sure, the story of the wezeer's daughter and the six princes is there as a warning against those who would contrive various excuses to avoid doing an action; but one cannot hold anyone and everyone to account for the failure to perform a deed. Else by the time the story ended the saint would have called down lightning upon all of Lut Gholein and left it a ghost city. Scripture must be read with critical eye and thinking mind. You want to hold people to account? Hold yourself to account then, and go defenestrate yourself," he said, pointing to the stained glass window behind him.

"Thus did the sixth prince say to the saint," replied Art. "Thinking that by such a return accusation he could redeem himself. But do you recall the outcome of the story? The saint has the wezeer's daughter reveal herself, and explains how he had taken action. He had not set himself above those whom he judged; but he had done what the others had not, and in so doing had earned himself the right to judge others. And note, not all the others, but only those who ought to have done as he did, and who by all rights ought to have achieved more than he; namely, each of the six princes."

"Ah, and have you achieved what I am refusing to do? Have you brought men to the sisterhood's aid? Have you risked life and limb to aid them? By what token do you deem yourself more honorable than me, and think you might conjure me to deploy my men to this cause?"

"By the token of my missing right hand do I conjure you," he said, taking his right arm out from where he'd hid it and slamming down on the table with it. "From the very first night of the renewed hostilities with the redskins, I had gone to battle with them. I had killed enough of them that, were I to tell you how many of them I slew, you would certainly disbelieve me. I lost this arm in that first battle; and were it not for that fact I would not have bothered to come here to attempt convince you; I would have fought on on my own."

"Then are you not just like the fourth prince: wounded and bested in battle, without any minions to continue your fight, and putting that up as your miserable excuse?"

"No, for I have continued fighting them to this very day, even though you see me disfigured thus."

"Oh?" the bishop replied, sounding amused and letting a grin show on his lips. "And how is it you remain as a sellsword, with the loss of your sword arm, much less continue to wage war against an entire tribe? I admire your courage, but not your stupidity, Roland, and must wonder why should I listen to such a fool."

Roland spoke up. "Brother, never in a million years would I expect to hear such callous words spoken against one who has risked life and limb. Surely you do not speak thus to any of your templar who become injured in battle?"

The bishop looked decidedly away from Roland as if stung by the comment. "Apologies; I seemed to have let my my mouth get the better of me. Regardless," he said, turning back to Art. "Going by that piece of scripture, as you seem wont to do, what matters is not your resolve in the face of adversity, but whether you have succeeded. So tell me: have you? Either you have, and have delivered the sisterhood from their plight, in which case this discussion is moot; or you have failed, in which case the heavens ought to do to you as the saint did unto the sixth prince, for having tried yet still failed."

"The war is not yet done, if you haven't noticed. And I have only come hither to seek out reinforcements to bring to bear against the threat." Art paused for a moment, realizing that somehow, at some point, he'd made the error of allowing the bishop to put him on the defensive. This wasn't about Art's failings, but about getting the templar to act. "But even if I were to stop right this moment, I would have done far more than you have, since you have not yet lifted a finger." Put the pressure on him, put him in a corner so he has no out but in the direction Art desired. "Lest you should incur the vengeance of the angels above, when will you move your forces?"

Erend seemed about to speak, but then closed his mouth, tapped his holy book, and closed his eyes as if in meditation. For several long moments the man remained that way, unmoving, taking in one deep breath after another. Art and Roland merely watched, waiting to see his next response; but it was clear that the bishop had the presence of mind not to be pressured into giving in, as Art had hoped he would.

When he finally opened his eyes he said, "Did not the Successive One rebuke John the Bitter for his remonstrations? Had not he said to Narcissa in her distress, 'look not to what others may do to save you, but what you could do to save yourself'? The gates of Heaven might remain open to those who strive against the servants of the angels, but it is as if they were shut; for such unfortunate souls in their misguidance would not willingly enter to where their foes are destined. As it is written in Prismatic one-fourteen, he who bears the robe and rod stands closer to knowing god's grace than you who know not; therefore aim not to rebuke his words, but listen to them, that you may learn from the wisdom thereof."

What the what the what of the what? thought Art, feeling completely blindsided. Damn the man, he thought; Erend had taken a moment to reconsider why he'd been losing the argument, identified one of Art's potential weaknesses, and put it to the test, and now he was at a loss for how to respond. Well, he had to say something; and that last line sounded like Erend was trying to invoke scripture to say--

"How convenient," said Art, "to claim that you know best simply because you are a cleric and I am not."

The bishop cocked his head at him. "Oh, is that all? I'd have thought you'd have more to say; but what, no response to my other points? Are you admitting that those carry merit?"

Damn him! The man caught on quick to the fact that Art didn't sound nearly as well versed on these other points he'd raised, and was now focusing on that. What other points was he referring to? What did the bishop mean by the gates being open and closed at the same time? Who was this John character, and what was his problem? And… what was the Successive One telling… that other person… to solve on her own? He'd not caught on to the meaning of those words, and so they seemed to have passed in one ear and out the other. If only they'd spent longer last night to go over whatever it was he was alluding to! Art could feel the seconds pass on by, could feel the bishop's intense stare at him.

He couldn't let the bishop focus on what he hadn't known. Art responded, "What, the other things you said? Those points don't even merit a response. You know as well as I the counterarguments to such tangential points. Which leads me back to my previous point--"

Art slunk a bit in his chair as the bishop interrupted, saying, "What? How is that tangential?" -- Damn, thought Art; he shouldn't have said that; now the bishop was going to focus on that one misstep. But this way if the bishop elaborated, Art would have an idea of what the man was talking about, from context. -- The bishop continued, "The story of Narcissa of the strand has everything to do with this, from how the scenario is similar to the plight of the sisterhood, to how she approaches the Second Prophet for aid, to my response. And are you not as John when he presented his case?"

Crap, thought Art; that follow-up had been completely lacking in usable details. What the hell was he supposed to say now? He couldn't simply ask the bishop for details. After Art lulled the man into complacency with his feigned ignorance concerning the siege of Thaar's Convent, and proved quite a challenge to Erend, the bishop didn't seem to be in the instructive mood any more.

"Regardless, I don't think those have any bearing on the case I'm making," said Art, keeping to as generic a response as possible to avoid making any further missteps.

"Well what about the story of the penitent and the three brothers? Surely you won't dismiss that also? Or do you think Ned was wrong in his seeking of the ring of wonders?"

Art cursed inwardly at his not knowing anything about these two either. Were they even in the younger scripture? If so he hadn't read about it. Well, this was what Art got for not being particularly religious and well-read on the holy texts. He made a mental note, for when this was all said and done, to get a hand on a copy and read the whole darn thing from beginning to end; but it would be too late now.

If only Jezebel and Natalie sat by his side! Then they could have intervened at times like this, when he hadn't an idea of what to say. Now he was looking at a total loss, and he couldn't even turn to Roland for help, not if he wanted to maintain their ruse of Roland as a bystander to the conversation.

Seeking to distract Erend, Art replied, "That's not what I was talking about at all! I'm talking about how it's incumbent on you to go to the aid of the sisterhood, and that doing otherwise would be an affront to Tyrael, regardless of what excuse you--"

The bishop stared at Art in silence until he'd gotten that far, then interrupted, "But that's exactly the crux of the story of the penitent! What else did you think I was talking about?" A flash of understanding crossed the man's face and he leaned forward, sounding conspiratorial. "You… don't know what I'm talking about, do you?" -- Art was at a loss for how to reply. -- "As I thought," said the bishop, looking dismissively away from Art. "You don't even know about the basics from the younger scripture, and you seek to lecture me on the matter? Pah!" He slapped down his hand on the table.

He'd been found out. Well if that was the case, then there was no point in not asking: "Then tell me of the story of the penitent."

"No, I think I can bring you up to speed on all these stories anytime soon, and frankly we've had quite enough of this. Come back to me when you've studied the topic inside-out -- that is, if by then you still haven't the presence of mind to come around to see things my way."

Art opened his mouth to respond, but the bishop was looking at Roland and put out a hand palm-out toward Art, not even deigning to listen to what he had to say. He'd lost, Art realized. Art turned to Roland; if the sisters had any chance of winning this it would have to be by Roland's words.

Erend turned to Roland. "Want to cover for him?" with a smile that seemed to say, if you do then I'll know where you stand on this matter. To which Roland replied, -- "No, I have no vested interest in the matter."

"Ah, good, then you wouldn't mind if we turned our discussion to another matter," said the bishop, "namely, how you stand on the topic of electing a replacement for the late Cardinal Reginald," he said, gesturing at Art as if indicating to Roland that this might not be something a swordsman ought to listen in on. He seemed intent on changing the topic, as if the previous one was already settled, and Art couldn't come up with anything to say to stop him.

Roland replied, "Yes, we could certainly discuss that, but not in the presence of others, and the election is still some time away. I find your decision to not support the sisterhood far more relevant, and I have to say, that was quite an interesting discussion to overhear. I am by no means familiar with the regional politics here in this eastern corner of Entsteig, but after hearing what I have, I don't know if I should be appalled. Certainly I worry for the safety of those living close to the redskin tribes, who might come under increasing danger if nothing is done to stop them. After all, I hear they desecrate the bodies of our dead via means of reanimation."

"You seem well versed regarding a few insignificant redskin tribes, brother, for one whose diocese is a thousand miles away. Tell me, was it his idea to appeal on the rogues' behalf, or was it yours?" -- "Why, this discussion came as much as a surprise to me as it was to you."

"Really." The bishop sat back in his seat, looking quite relaxed. "I hear a great many of the sisters had died in the battle in which they lost the monastery, and have been a bit remiss in the performance of certain duties that need to be done. Would you care to do the honors?" -- "I would of course leave the matter to you,--" began Roland, before the bishop interrupted. "Nonsense! You have come all this long way from Kingsport; surely you would do this for us. I insist; it would bring grave distress to many of us if we knew one such as you had came and not done this. Surely you know what needs to be done and have the means to do it. Well?"

Roland stared back for several moments in silence, as if at a loss for words, and it was clear to both Art and the real bishop that with the bishop seemingly intending to avoid any specifics of what he was talking about, that Roland had no idea what he was actually supposed to do and that he was frantically trying to recall some such, and was drawing a blank.

The bishop tapped a finger on his holy book again. "Fine then, but I want you to answer me this, truthfully this time. Was it your idea, or his, for you to play the bishop?"

Game's up, thought Art; now that Erend was suspicious, there was any of a hundred different ways by which he could disprove Roland's fabrication, and given what Art had already seen of the bishop's sharpness, he wouldn't let up until Roland produced convincing proof of his holding his title -- which he didn't have. There was no point acting any more.

Roland snorted, and lowered his head in dismay. "What gave it away?"

"Oh, at this point there's more than I have fingers to tick off with. Did you really think you could fool me?"

"We had to try," said Art.

"Is the sisterhood's plight that dire?" Erend chuckled. "And to think you wanted to get me to commit my forces when the redskins stood superior to the sisterhood. Give me one reason why I shouldn't throw you ought right now as the bunch of liars you are."

"Really now? And just what were we supposed to have done?" retorted Roland. "If we had just presented ourselves as two random caravaners passing through the town, would you have taken us seriously? Or would you have thrown us out immediately like you had so unceremoniously done with Natalie and Jezebel, the two who came here with us?"

"This was none of your business, charlatan, and forswearer of the Seventh Tenet! It's not up to you to judge those greater than you."

"Oh? And is that what your reading of scripture told you? Was not the saint beneath the six princes by noble standing? Why is it you argue so tenaciously, rather than putting your efforts on helping those in need, as was taught in Jeneerah, then again in Isolreh seven twenty-two, and I quote, 'and the Elder Prophet said, 'he who spares a dinar to the truly indigent, shall receive three in kind; he who spares not a drachim to such a one shall be spurned by others in turn, in his own time of need''?"

"Are we really going into round two of this?" retorted the bishop. "For the two of you to question me, one after the other, two against one? I don't answer to you."

"Say what you may, but have you forgotten the Fourth Tenet? And the Third: to do what is right? Or do you still hold to that misbegotten worldview of the first prince, and thus condemn the sisterhood? What about all the other victims who will result from your inaction, will you abandon them also? How will you answer the charges of your followers, when they ask why is it that when their women and children are raped and gutted, you sit here all safe and sound behind the very stone walls which their tithes had purchased? Have you no shame at this?"

"Enough!" Erend shouted, standing up and pounding a fist down on his book. "I have had enough of you two Johns the Bitter! Leave my presence, and may you two be graced with enlightenment, should the angels take pity on you ignoramuses!"

Roland stood up, the fury clearly written on his face. "You think just kicking us out will make amends for all the injuries that you will make possible with your inaction? You think to hide behind your tomes and scrolls, and watch all the lands to the east burn?" -- Stop, thought Art; Stop angering the man any further, or he will really have our heads! Art shot Roland a pleading look, but he hardly seemed to notice. -- "You think that when the enemy comes for you after having subjugated all in their path, that you could remain safe in your citadel? You think that Tyrael on above will forgive you when you are brought before his gavel?"

"Get out of my sight!"

"And we will!" retorted Roland, bringing up a clenched fist. "I for one will have nothing more to do with the likes of you. I may not have any army at my back, but I at least have aided the sisterhood, which is a thousand times more than what you have done! You think you're all so high and mighty? Then stay here and watch. I for one will not cower in a corner with that sickening craveness of yours. I will go forth and fight by the sisters' side in the name of the Ten Tenets of the Church of Light and in the spirit of all that is holy. And on the day of reckoning, when we are brought before the Archangel of Judgment, we'll see which of us shall be exalted above the other." And with that he strode out of the room, with Art following closely thereafter, mute with surprise.

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