True Faith

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"You were a naughty little thing," the blond man admonished. His jade green eyes held a slight mirth as he regarded the small figure sitting by his desk. It didn't move, but it never moved, frozen forever, holding a small earthen jar in its hands. The man knelt to come closer to its still, brown face, leaning close.

"You may have your heart, Akari, but I have your soul. I didn't feel you leave, but I felt you coming back. Don't make me hurt you. Tell me, where were you?" He regarded the mummified boy for a moment and then straightened as a sandaled servant came into the room.

"Yes Idir?" he asked of the tall, slender man without turning.

"The guest. He is awake."

"Can he manage breakfast?"

The black man shook his head slightly as the other man finally faced him.

The blond man let out a martyred sigh. "Conversation?" he asked flatly, not hiding his ire.

"With respect, Master, he was injured in the wreck."

"I thought you healed him."

The turbaned head bowed. "He is healed, but he is tired. His wounds were grave. You were not gentle bringing his flying machine down."

The green eyes narrowed as the blond man's elegant mouth twisted in a wry smile. "I had faith that his god would save him. I'm certain that he did too. Bring him to the solarium and make him as comfortable as you can. And bring breakfast."

The dark face did not change although he seemed to emote disapproval. His master watched him leave and then turned again to the mummy. "Our conversation isn't over," he growled, "but I do need to shave. It's only polite." He then left the room.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Ezekiel pushed himself upright, looking around the light-filled room as the words of the Bible verse played in his head. A gentle breeze stirred the muslin curtains swathing the bed, enough to keep the heat of the day at bay but barely. There was not a bone in his body that did not ache, not a muscle that didn't feel ill used. He groaned and swung his legs off the bed and paused there to gather strength enough to stand.

A tall African came swiftly to him, his bare feet almost soundless on the floor.

"Here, Sahib. Let me help you." He gathered Ezekiel's elbow, helped him stand, and steadied him a moment before standing back respectfully.

"Thank you," Ezekiel said gratefully. His legs were unsteady, but he was used to that in the past. It just hadn't been as pronounced in a long while. He looked around the room and gave a slight smile. "Where am I and what happened?" Taking a step, he swayed and was caught by the tall man.

Idir guided him to a wicker chair. "You were in a crash. We found you while we were hunting lions, brought you back here."

"Crash? But. . ." Ezekiel frowned as shadowed and murky images flashed in his mind and firmly banished them. There were more important things at hand. "Who else survived?"

There was a flicker in the dark eyes, slight and almost imperceptive. "No one but you, Sahib. You were smiled upon."

His heart sank and he put his head into his hands. "O Lord," Ezekiel muttered and rubbed his face. "I will pray for them." He looked up, his eyes widening. "My wife. My children. Do they know I'm alive?"

"We are far from civilization, Sahib. Master will surely send word." Idir bowed slightly. "I am to bring you to breakfast. Your presence is requested by the master."

"Who is?" It occurred to Ezekiel that he still did not know where he was.

"Master Vars Stelljes. It is his house that you stay at now. Come please." He waited for the Englishman to get to his feet and took his arm. "You are unsteady. I will help you walk."

It was a beautiful house, Ezekiel observed. Simple and rustic, it flowed from room to room with white-washed simplicity, maximizing the simple breezes. But it was a man's house. Whoever owned it hunted and was proud to decorate with his kills. The tall man led him into a solarium set with a wicker table upon which a simple spread of fruit and breads lay. A middle aged man with sandy blond hair sat comfortably in one of the chairs, a tall frosted glass of fruit juice before him. He smiled lightly and stood as Idir guided his charge into the room.

The blond man bowed slightly from the waist. "Welcome to my home, Lord Fleming-Drake. I am honored to have you as my guest."

At the sound of his name, Ezekiel immediately went on alert. The situation had immediately changed and his instincts all told him that he was fighting for his life here, just as if he had his sword in hand. "Your house has a wonderful openness to it, Master Stelljes. But you have me at a disadvantage, sir. You seemingly know much more about me than I do about you."

"Yes," came the simple, flat answer. "Idir, serve and then leave us." The tall man poured juice for Ezekiel and ladened a plate with sweet bread and fruit for each of them before bowing and backing out of the room. Stelljes nodded and held up his glass. "To survival."

Ezekiel raised his glass. "To a higher purpose." Every word felt important here. He did not want to give any ground to this highly confident man whose very house demonstrated his willing to hunt down and kill those not capable of keeping up.

His lips twisted with mirth, but Stelljes saluted and drank deep. "You may call me by my given name, Mr. Fleming-Drake, if I may be so familiar as to call you Ezekiel. To answer your question, it is a simple answer as to why I know you and you do not know me. I can read. And your treatises have been very. . .interesting." He took a bite of melon and gestured for Ezekiel to do the same. "What, may I ask, is your higher purpose?"

"Ah, but Vars, it is not my purpose," Ezekiel objected right before taking a sip from his own glass. His brain was working overtime, every new piece of information painting his situation with a dire brush. What was the likelihood that this man, who had read his treatises (not widely read, to be sure), would be the one to rescue him? And just how did a highly protected and guarded dirigible end up crashing with no survivors other than himself? The Lord had revealed a dangerous road in front of him, to be sure...but that had not stopped Ezekiel in the past and he certainly did not intend for it to stop him here. He would fence with this man, using words for the moment, rather than swords. Cautiously. After all, Ezekiel thought, the Lord had something for him to discover here and many people had paid the steepest of prices to get him here.

Those thoughts passed by in the briefest of moments - just long enough a pause to emphasize Ezekiel's point. "It is His purpose. He asks and I follow to the best of my ability. It is a complicated relationship. In many ways, I consider it a friendship between non-equals, with all the trials that entails."

The sandy-haired man nodded slowly as Ezekiel spoke as if he understood with warmth, but his eyes were as cold as the jade they resembled. "So," he said, spearing a piece of melon, "it is a one-sided friendship. One where 'He knows what his purpose is and you dutifully follow it. Seems more master and contented slave than friendship." He looked to where Idir stood respectfully near, decanter in hand to refill the men's drinks. "Are we "friends" Idir? We are non-equals. Do you feel as if your opinions can sway my actions, move my hand. . ." His eyes glittered softly. "Call mercy from me when it isn't my inclination to give it?"

The tall black man shook his head imperceptibly. "No, Master," was his soft answer.

Stelljes raised his eyebrow, his lips twisted. "But then again, He does not give you more burden than you can bear. Or is that your pure and simple faith keeping you from thinking that He is using you as a pawn in his games, Ezekiel Drake?" He then put the melon in his mouth, chewing slowly with satisfaction.

"I did say it was a complicated relationship." Despite the situation, despite the danger, Ezekiel was warming up to the topic. "I ask of Him, He asks of me, we both make independent choices as whether we want to fulfill those requests. But God is too complicated to be understood by any mortal man or woman, so we each frame our relationship with Him in a way that makes sense to us."

He took another sip of his drink, which was excellent. This man did not skimp on the small things and Ezekiel could be reasonably sure he did not skimp on the larger picture either. A dangerous man opposing him. "But I think you underestimate faith by calling it simple. Perhaps even by calling it pure. Faith is forged, built, worked. It is constantly tested and re-examined, again and again and again. The Lord does not want me to obey without question and I would not choose to serve a Lord who wanted that."

A short pause. "And yes, I am being used. But I choose that path willingly because I believe in Him. Because I have this faith in the righteousness of His cause. A world made of nothing but people who chose only to lead rather than follow would be a world that fell apart in short time. I choose to follow and I am not lessened by that. Rather, I am strengthened by it." Ezekiel calmly stared at Vars Stelljes as he took another sip, bringing his glass down to half full.

"You have been given many wonderful things, Ezekiel," Stelljes countered. "But if one or all of them were taken away, would you be so devoted?" The orange he broke open was red and the juices that ran down his hand were the color of blood. "Your wealth?" He paused, studying his guest. "No, you care nothing for that. Your life?" He waited another beat and shook his head slowly with a smile. "No, you have faith you will be carried in the arms of an angel to a better place."

"Wife and children then?" He took a bite of blood orange, watching Ezekiel carefully. "Yes, I can see the beatific light in your eyes change at that. What if He takes them from you? What of your faith then? What if your generous God takes instead of gives?"

Ezekiel recognized the underlying threat, but his anger emerged as a soft chuckle. This man thought he understood Ezekiel, but it was clear he understood very little. "Sir, you think I stay with the Lord because he gives me things? Like a parent bribing a child? Then you completely misunderstood.I follow the path the Lord sets me upon because I *trust* in Him." Ezekiel's voice was raised only slightly, but if Katherine had been there (and thank the heavens she was not in this danger), she would have recognized anger beginning a slow boil. "If some fool with more power than sense killed my wife and children, would I be angry with the Lord? Of course I would be. Even as the blood of the person responsible dripped off my sword would I be screaming at God, trying to figure out why. His reasons are often hidden but never does He ask of me without reason. I trust He would not test me in that way. But faith untested is not faith at all, you see, Mr. Stelljes."

"But a faith unjustified. God would give you happiness and yet not save them if you asked. God would give you vengeance but not prevent that which caused it? You would call on Him and would He speak? Would he even honor you with revealing His plan for which you lost so much?"

He put down the other half of the fruit and shook his head slowly. "No. And yet despite that, you would comfort yourself with faith, with the sense that His plan was greater than you, that you were a cog in the great plan. Doing the Lord's work." Stelljes gazed at Ezekiel cooly, only the tiniest frown crossing his brow. "Has it never occurred to you that God might be using you in a greater game? Against another opponent? That the Lord is not as kind and loving as you wish to believe?" He pushed a bit of melon around his plate. "What if He is lying to you? Where will your faith be then?"

Ezekiel shook his head. "Have you not been listening? Mine is not an unquestioning faith. It is faith built on trust. Perhaps one day, I will discover something that throws everything I know into question. In that day, then will I reevaluate my relationship with Him. I would hope that it would come out for the stronger, but perhaps not. But that day is not today."

The anger faded away from Ezekiel's eyes and voice, leaving only sadness. "I'm sorry you have suffered whatever loss that has driven you away from God."

His eyes locked onto Ezekiel's. "Don't waste your pity and sympathy on me. I don't have any for you and I'd hate for you to waste those emotions for me." He spoke frankly and matter of factly. "I think your faith makes you weak. Whatever questions you think you ask your god are obviously answered in a way that you do not think any harder than what your god needs you to think. Faith is a weak man's attempt to retain his sanity. His refusal to realize that this world is a capricious place, where gods play with mortals and are willing to placate and reward them to succor love, adoration, and fear. There are other gods Ezekiel. Allah, Yahweh, or just plain the Lord is one of many. You will fail Him or He will," Stelljes gasped lightly, feigning mock surprise, "fail you. Then we will see where your faith lies. Mine lies within me."

"You have no pity or sympathy for me? I think that is what makes *you* weak. It's a lonely road when you can't trust anyone but yourself. You only hear from me the answers you wished to hear, not the answers which I gave. How so are you any better than what you accuse me of?" Ezekiel shrugged internally. Every petty tyrant thought he knew better than the Lord. Stelljes was no different. But the Lord had put Ezekiel here for a reason. And he trusted he would find out why soon enough.

There was silence for while and then Stelljes rose to his feet abruptly. "Why are you so favored? Who are you and what have you promised that He has chosen you?" He walked from the table, going to look through the windows to the scenery outside. His voice was low, intense, but not angry. He turned back to Ezekiel. "Why?"

"He granted me His vision and I chose to follow it, not knowing what trials I might suffer through and with no promises of anything. I do not know what He saw in me that day in the woods, but I thank Him every day for the chance to serve." Ezekiel's words were clipped and curt as he stood still, watching this stranger suffer through the pains of envy, even if he did not realize that was the affliction he suffered from. Stelljes would end up greatly disappointed if he thought there was some pot of gold that Ezekiel had been promised. Everything great in his life had been freely gifted and unasked for, but welcomed with open arms. Ezekiel felt another surge of compassion go through him as he looked at the man staring for answers through the window. He must have suffered greatly, indeed.

"Idir, leave us." He watched as the man bowed slightly and departed. There was an alienness to him abruptly, a quiet stillness that was unnatural. His eyes flickered to Ezekiel appraising and predatory. "You will know the whole of my story in time. What I want is to know what you are and what you are capable of if pushed. What inner power does your faith give you and what are your weaknesses. I brought you here to study you, Ezekiel Fleming-Drake. To see what God's mortal champion is made of. That you survived that crash assured me that He watched over you. That He did it so poorly either showed that He is trying your patience or mine. But I will know what you are and whether or not you are capable of standing in my way."

"My patience is just fine, sir." The implication that God was choosing to frustrate this man, this seeming hunter of souls...well, that pleased Ezekiel greatly. "And if your way means attempting to thwart God's will, then I think you will find me at every turn and wish that you had not."

His blond head quirked and Stelljes stared for a moment before beginning to laugh. "No, my young champion of God. I mean to cast him from this world. And if you are standing at every turn, then I shall be happy to let you watch as I close the door to Him forever."

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