Arbitratus Short Fiction

The Ninth Day of Fic-mas …

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No Room at the Inn

Authors’ Note – Those of you familiar with Always Darkest have already met one of the important characters in the following story. He also appears in our short novella Fare Thee Well. And we have a feeling you haven’t seen the last of him. 

 

CLANG. CLANG. CLANG. The bell echoed through the courtyard.

“Was a time people respected a closed gate,” grumbled the innkeeper, as he made himself presentable.

The bell clanged several more times, sounding like whoever was ringing it was starting to get testy. “Well, at least they know how I feel,” he grumbled under his breath.

“Alright! I’m coming!” he called, letting his voice be its most cantankerous.

The Census had been good for his purse, but not his patience, which was, on its best day, usually worn thin by hard work and lack of sleep.

He stomped across the courtyard, beginning with the intention of letting them have a piece of his mind for ignoring the late hour, but memories of lean times tempered his irritation somewhat. He still had several rooms left empty when he’d closed up shop for the night. The prospect of more coin brightened his mood considerably by the time he got to the gate.

Opening the small eye-level door in the gate, the innkeeper peered through. Standing outside, looking right back at him from the back of a well-bred and stunningly outfitted horse was an imposing man. It wasn’t his size that made him imposing, even on horseback. His eyes twinkled with what first looked like amusement, but after a second’s contemplation looked almost … dangerous.

This man was a Roman … No, not necessarily, the innkeeper thought. He didn’t look like the other Romans he’d met. His eyes were a striking blue and his hair was a sandy yellow. But he was certainly dressed like a Roman. A successful one, too. The innkeeper was immediately adding a hefty “tax” to the rate. Served the goyim right, marching into their lands and acting like they owned the place. And their money was as good as any of his own people, the innkeeper reasoned.

He opened the gate to negotiate. “Good evening,” he greeted. “I am David, the keeper of this humble inn. How may I assist you this late evening?” Might as well let the Roman know he’d come later than he normally did business. Then the price tag wouldn’t come as such a shock.

The man flashed a charming smile as he dismounted his impressive steed. “Good evening, sir. I represent Titus Flavius and his party. They are on their way here and I’ve ridden ahead to procure rooms for them.”

“Titus Flavius? Was it not your party who bought up all of Chaim’s rooms this morning?”

“Coulda been.  Titus Flavius doesn’t travel light. I’ve been riding all over town buying up rooms all day. So, do you have any rooms or what, there, David?”

“How many rooms does your party require?”

“How many have you got?”

“I … well, I have three rooms available.”

“I’ll take ‘em,” the man replied without even pausing to think. “Any extra rooms you maybe haven’t mentioned, that you’re maybe saving for somebody important? Because I assure you, Titus Flavius is the most important person who’s going to be asking.”

“There’s room in my laborers’ housing for any servants if that’s …”

“I’ll take those, too.”

“How much space would you like to reserve?”

“Well, son, all of it that you’ve got. The Census has made rooms scarce ‘round here. You may have noticed.”

David forced a smile. “Yes, sir. Of course, sir. Will the party be requiring refreshment?”

It wasn’t a usual offer, but he’d heard the name Titus Flavius, and understood him to be a generous man to those who pleased him. Roman or not, David planned on doing just that and reaping the reward.

“If you would be so kind,” the Roman said with a wolfish grin. “This group tends to eat a great deal.” he paused. “If you ensure there’s plenty for them, I am sure you will be well compensated, good sir.”

David was struggling not to rub his hands together with anticipation at fattening his purse. Their inn often struggled to keep his family fed, given its location, and the idea of collecting enough to keep them afloat for longer than a week or two was extremely attractive.

“Shall we discuss our rate?” he asked, as though it was a matter of little consequence, not realizing his newly blooming avarice was shining in his eyes. “So as to avoid confusion later when I am busy meeting the needs of your party.”

Another grin from the fair-haired Roman. “I’m sure you’ll come up with a fair price.”

“Wonderful.” He listed an exorbitant rate for the rooms, and an astronomical one for the food. The Roman didn’t even blink, just nodded agreeably. “We can settle up on the morrow if that’s convenient to you, sir.”

“Oh, I’ll pay now. I don’t want someone coming along and making you a better offer and finding my Lord Titus without a place to lay his head.” He paused. “I’d like to reserve room in your main stable for six horses as well, if you’d be so kind.”

David calculated the total in his head and gave it to the Roman. Reaching into a heavy looking satchel, the Roman handed him two denarii and three sesterces, as if they were nothing. David was suddenly even more inclined to keep the party happy. “Um … what time can I expect the party? I’d hate to leave your lord waiting at the gate.”

“Oh, by midnight or so I’d say. He’s in a hurry and we’ve been pressing past the point of reason. Our mounts could use a day of rest.” He patted his own horse and remounted it.

“Perhaps he’ll stop over for a few days,” David said greedily. “Our accommodations are most comfortable, sir.”

“Perhaps so,” the Roman agreed. “I’ll return before long. I thank you,” he said as he started to trot away like he was in a bit of a hurry.”

“No, sir, thank you!” he called at the rider’s back. “If you could stay a moment to talk specifics about your party, I could make the most comfortable arrangements possible!” The Roman just waved. “I didn’t even get your name!” David tried in a last-ditch effort to glean any information that might ingratiate him to the wealthy group.

The man glanced over his shoulder with a strange knowing smile. “I’m not able, sorry.” He urged the horse along with his knees, making the familiar clicking sound of a slightly impatient rider, and rode off, leaving a confused innkeeper in his wake.

∞∞∞

When the bell rang later that evening, David hurried outside, nearly tripping over his own feet to get there as quickly as possible.

He’d already woken his wife, his children, and his mother to prepare the rooms for their important guests. Their kitchen smelled of baking bread and roasting meat. The other guests had begun to stir, and all were happy to pay for an unexpected meal, so David had his family working to feed them all. The coin had already more than made up for the loss of the fat goat that had stopped giving milk some time ago.

He swung the gate wide in a grand welcoming gesture, expecting a party of smart but tired Romans. What he was faced with instead was a dusty exhausted looking man holding the rope of a donkey, upon which was a woman, large with child, clutching her belly and grimacing with discomfort.

The man was wringing his hands in worry. “I’m sorry to trouble you this late, good sir. But … my wife … her time has come ‘round, you see, and … we desperately need shelter for the night.” When the innkeeper frowned elaborately at the road-dirtied, weary pair, the man took out a money pouch. “I can pay … Whatever you ask.”

David sniffed disdainfully. He was quite busy enough without some nobody who’d planned their trip poorly wasting it. That money pouch looked heavy enough, but it was tiny compared with that of the nameless Roman who’d visited him a few hours ago. “No room,” he said curtly. “Try the next town over.” He moved to swing the gate closed.

The woman stifled a small whimper of discomfort and her husband put himself in the way of the gate. “There are no other rooms. Not anywhere. Some Roman has bought up every vacant room between here and Jerusalem, I think.”

“Sorry to hear that,” the innkeeper said, not meaning it, and not sounding like he did.

“Please,” the man pleaded. “We’ll take anything. Servants quarters would be fine. I’ll pay the full room rate. She just needs somewhere to … to …” She whimpered again, and the man’s eyes bored into David’s. “Please,” he said, and it was no longer a plea. It had an edge that told the innkeeper he was desperate enough to not be rational. The man had the deeply muscled arms of a laborer, but the sharp intelligent eyes of a scholar. A dangerous combination if pushed past his limits.

“There’s no room in the servant’s quarters either. You can stay in the small barn out back. The straw is clean and there’s plenty of it.”

“Fine,” the man agreed, casting a concerned glance at his wife whose eyes were closed and whose breath was coming in little panting gasps. “How much?”

“Two shekels.”

The woman’s eyes snapped open. “Two shekels to stay in a barn? Are you mad? Joseph, we can’t …”

“Mary, love, it’s alright. We need to get you inside somewhere.”

As if to prove him right, her whole body seemed to tighten in pain, she wrapped both arms around her middle, her eyes squeezed shut again, and she nodded emphatically. The man handed the innkeeper the coins hurriedly and moved himself out of the way of the gate to the main inn. “Thank you,” he said, grateful just to get his wife off the street.

Having already lost interest in the pair already, David moved to close the gate. “I think there’s a horse blanket out there for bedding.” He closed the gate and headed inside to prepare for his important guest.

Joseph started leading the donkey up a well-worn track on the property toward the smallest, furthest barn. Mary puffed out a long breath as her discomfort passed for the moment. “I suppose a barn is the best we can do.”

Joseph kept his current thoughts on that subject to himself. When they got to the barn, Joseph arranged some straw into what might make for a soft place for his wife to rest, and spread his traveling cloak over it. There was a horse blanket, but it looked like it could get up and walk away on his own. He helped Mary lower herself onto the makeshift bed. She smiled up at him, as if some secret knowledge had once again found its way into her heart.

“We must trust that He has a plan,” she said with subdued confidence, then gasped with a sharp pain.

“We’ve trusted so much already, my love, I feel that’s a muscle I’ve nearly worn out.”

Even through the pain, she smiled more brightly. “It’s almost time. You’ll see.”

Kneeling down next to her, as a deep serenity came over her expression, he supposed he would.

∞∞∞

Outside, an angel settled in to watch, silent and invisible. She found herself almost questioning the command not to smite every one of the horrible greedy men who turned away two of their own people in desperate need for something as base and common as simple money. She was intent on making sure no other indignities befell her charges.

From the main building, a figure bustled across the courtyard, arms piled high with a cumbersome bundle. It was a woman, framed in the glow of the now well-lit inn, mumbling and cursing under her breath. Armisael turned her attention to this woman as it became clear she was heading to the little barn.

The angel let her pass. The bundle held clean blankets and linens, food, a wineskin and a bladder of water warmed on their hearth, cloths for the birth and to swaddle an infant, some salt to rub down the child and prevent infection. Anything the couple might need. She was livid with her husband and murmured to any power listening that he ought to be struck with some very personal boils. Armisael smiled. She thought she could arrange that. At least one of the bastards could suffer for letting her charges come to such a state at such a critical time. Although, she did understand the need to conform to prophecy for the purposes of this endeavor. No one had told her she had to like it.

“Kinda says a lot about your Boss, doesn’t it? That this is how He leaves His kid … or is it Himself … to come into this world. I’m kind of fuzzy on this whole three-way thing.”

Armisael jumped in surprise and hated herself for it. It was shameful for her, an Angel of the Lord, to be startled by a human, especially since she should be invisible. But this human had spent thousands of years working magic, causing trouble, so it wasn’t any wonder the rules didn’t apply to him. She smoothed her robes as she regained her composure, very much on her dignity.

The smirking man, dressed like a Roman but not Roman in the slightest, just laughed. “You’re a might jumpy for an angel,” he observed.

Armisael cursed herself when she observed the simple magic that had let him approach without detection. They should have known he’d pull something like this and prepared for it. “Cain,” she greeted tersely. “To what do I owe this annoyance?”

“Oh, I ain’t here for you, sweetheart.” He grinned at how her jaw clenched. “I’m just here for the show. To witness the casus belli.”

“Pardon me? This is no such thing.” Her eyes flashed with indignance and a spark of anger.

“Sure it is, sweetheart. This is why y’all had your little family squabble, ain’t it?”

“It’s not that simple, Human.”

Cain’s eyebrows went up, not in agreement, but in something that might have been amusement, or an understanding he wasn’t willing to share. “With Him, it never is. But all I was sayin’ was you’d think He’d provide for His Son or Self … or whatever the Hell. Like I said, the whole three-way thing has me confused … Since it’s just Him and all.”

“Trinity,” she bit out.

“Yeah, I know Trinity, what about her?”

“No, you arrogant ass. The Trinity. The three-parted nature of the Lord Most High. It’s called The Trinity. The Holy Trinity, in point of fact. One God in Three Divine Personages. You could show some respect and refer to it properly.”

“Now you’re just being pedantic. I like calling it The Holy Three-way.”

“Cain! My patience with your revolting nonsense is at its end. Just because my work is not usually of a bellicose nature does not mean I am unarmed. Leave. NOW!”

“Or what?” The smirk was teasing, baiting. She hated it.

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me. You could hear me if I just thought it. You can’t touch me. Daddy said so. When He had one of you toadies curse me. So, I say, leave or what?”

Her feathers ruffled, then smoothed. “Fine. Stay if you want.”

“Oh, I plan to.”

They were silent for a few minutes, watching the bustling activity now happening inside the little building in front of them. Finally, Armisael glanced at him. “How is it you’re so well dressed? I thought people were to run you out wherever you go.”

He shrugged. “Well, yeah, they used to. But I found a workaround.”

“Really? A workaround for an angelic curse sanctioned by God?”

“Well, now, it’s a funny thing, but one on one, small groups … I manage to get by just nicely.”

Her utterly smooth face creased. “How?” she demanded.

“Now that’s my little secret, sweetheart. And I ain’t tellin’.”

“Whatever,” she said with a dismissive roll of her eyes. She couldn’t believe this little twerp had bought up every room her charges might have found comfort, just to gratify some strange egotistical urge. Most likely just to prove he could do it. To let Heaven know, once again, that he didn’t give a damn what they thought or what their plans were. “Must be nice to live without a conscience.”

He put a theatrical hand to his heart. “You wound me, Armisael. I am right now, as we stand here, in the throes of deepest regret.”

“I somehow doubt that.”

He looked at her earnestly, eyes wide enough to make her believe he could suddenly be near tears. “No really, I am.”

He waited a beat, then his expression morphed into his familiar smirk. “Right now, I regret that I didn’t rent out that damned manger, too.” Her eyes went wide with fury, but he just waved, and turned away. “You have yourself a good night there, fancy bird.”

Cain whistled to himself as he walked away.

 

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