Copyright ©1990 Michael A. Stackpole
This story first appeared in Amazing Stories, March, 1990
The youth cleared his voice as he waited in the doorway. He'd learned well not to speak until I gave him leave. I suppressed a smile as I narrowed my old, tired eyes, squinted one last time at the stars and reconfirmed the story I'd read there countless times before. I made the last few notes on the wax tablet with my stylus, then I turned to face him.
I saw nothing but a clean-limbed outline silhouetted against the light from below. He waited anxiously to tell me what I'd heard taking place down in the courtyard. He fairly burst with excitement but, mature beyond his seven years, he restrained himself. Not one of my students, not even Balthazar, has shown such self-control, I thought to myself, and none have ever needed so much of it before him.
I let a thin wisp of smile twist my lips just enough for him to notice, then I nodded. "They have finally come?"
The boy nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, Master, they have arrived. The one from the orient brought you tea and I have it brewing."
He stepped forward to help guide me down the stairs, but I waved him back. "Go, see to their needs. Serve them the tea, then leave them. I will address them alone."
He smiled. "Do you wish me to prepare your things for the journey?"
Smart lad, I laughed to myself. I shook my head slowly. "There is no need."
He'd half turned back toward the stairs and the yellow tallow light flickered shadows across his puzzled face. "But they said you would go with them."
"Go do what I told you, and think no more of it." I turned and looked up at that star, the one burning like a torch at midnight. Just as strongly as it beckoned them on, it pinned me in my place. Terrible Star! I cursed, I wish your light would not shine so brightly.
Even without the youth's help I climbed down the worn stairs without mishap. Thoughtfully the boy'd left lamps burning so their light allowed me passage from one illuminated sphere to the next, but he should have known better than to waste the oil. I'd lived my entire life within these walls. My senses would not fail me, and the building itself would never betray me. No, to fall and die, that would be too easy an escape.
They stood, the three of them, when I entered the room and were kind enough to mouth lies about how hale and hearty I looked. They were resplendent in their robes of silk and cloth- of-gold. Though each of them had grown and aged I could still see in them the children I'd trained so long ago. Instantly they dropped to their knees in a rustle of cloth even I could hear, but I held a hand out to forestall any further contradictions about my condition, or any efforts to touch what little vanity I had left in me.
"Please, my Kings, please return to your chairs. We have much to discuss." I paused while they reseated themselves and adjusted their clothing. "It is good to see the three of you again, for this final time. I will not be going with you."
Surprise widened their eyes and emotion rode on faces unaccustomed to showing it. At court any of these men would have been an implacable instrument of wisdom, compassion or justice without revealing anything to those they judged; but here, with me, they became half-trained scholars wrestling with minor problems as if they were titanic monsters, as they had done here years ago.
Jasper, the youngest and furthest traveled here from far Tarshish, could not contain himself. "Why? Why will you not join us in this thing you have prepared us for?" Betrayal seeped into his voice and told me the hot-blooded passions of his nation had nibbled away at my training.
Even before I spoke I knew Balthazar and Melchior anticipated my answer. I smiled at them and bowed my head in a silent salute. Jasper, impulsive but not a dullard, suddenly understood and blushed.
"Could you imagine, Jasper, having asked that question when you left me so long ago?" I shook my head in a mild rebuke. "Use what I gave you, use the training and pierce the mystery of my refusal." I looked to the others and wordlessly invited them to help their companion. "Share what you know with the others, and perhaps you will see why I cannot go."
Jasper swallowed thickly, then bowed his head to me and began to speak. "As I was bidden, I have studied the one we seek and delved into his ancestry. He is noble born, to be sure, for his mother comes from the House of David and he will be every bit a King in blood as any of us are." The King of Tarshish glanced up, and I recognized the look of confusion on his face from long ago.
Melchior, the dark Nubian, likewise caught Jasper's hesitation. "You say nothing of his father."
Jasper shook his head. "The stars confuse me. They tell me he has two fathers. Of one I see nothing, as if the stars cannot contain his story. The other, the one I see guiding his early days, is a good man, also of the House of David. I would take this as a good omen, a fulfillment of the stories, but I fear this man is not his true father."
Melchior would have offered a solution to the mystery, but I shook my head almost imperceptibly and he acceded to my unvoiced request. "What did you bring him as a gift?" I asked, encouraging Jasper to forget his paradox.
Jasper's face brightened. "I have brought him gold, Master."
"Practical as always, Jasper," laughed Balthazar.
Jasper's face flushed again, but he rose to the challenge. "I selected that gift as suitable for a babe of his blood, and because gold is pure and incorruptible. This is the sort of man I sense coming from so noble a beginning, hence an appropriate gift."
He looked to me for agreement and praise. I gave him both in a solemn nod, but turned toward Melchior to forestall Jaspar's demand for the reasons behind my decision not to accompany them. "Melchior, tell what you have learned."
The Nubian smiled and flashed bright eyes and white teeth at me. "As I was asked, I have followed the stars' telling of his childhood." Melchior nodded toward Jasper. "You are right, oh King of Tarshish, for this will be a remarkable man. As a child he is extraordinary in his abilities and devotion to studies. I saw no duality as far as his father was concerned. I saw a boy who loves his parents and who, after helping his father and brothers in the carpentry shop, turns to studies of things ancient and holy. By the time his people count him a man he will possess the wisdom of an elder. I would guess he becomes a great teacher."
Melchior fixed me with an ebon-eyed stare for I was to study the man's adult life, but I ignored his demand to have his speculation confirmed. "And what do you offer this miracle child, Melchior of Nubia?"
Frustration bunched muscles at his jaws, but he banished it and once again acknowledged me his master. "I bring him frankincense. Useful in sacrifice, it can also be burned to banish evil demons and the sweet scent encourages studious behavior." The Nubian smiled wryly and looked at Balthazar. "And, as the King of Chaldea would note, it is valued and could be traded for supplies needed to further his studies."
Balthazar accepted without prompting his part in the discussion. My eldest pupil, his hair and beard were nearly bone- white, but aside from that he had not changed. He was still the practical, calculating man; as cynical a soul as ever born to woman. He stood as he had done to lecture the others so long ago, and explained his studies.
"As the master charged me, I studied his legacy and puzzled out what his life will mean to the world." Balthazar smiled slyly and turned to me. "You asked me to study the effects of his life because, had one of the others said what I will say, I would never have believed it."
I nodded and he turned back to the others. "This man is mortal, in one sense, and will die. But he will not stay dead, he will rise from the tomb and return to confirm the veracity of his teachings. He will be a god then, and his disciples will spread throughout the world. They will topple old empires and create new ones. They will do good things in his name, and they will do evil defending him but, those who are true to his life and message, they will make the world into a paradise."
Jasper and Melchior stared at Balthazar for what he was saying horrified them. Could this man, they wondered, this man we have studied defeat death and have so much power? Balthazar confirmed their fears with a slow nod, then turned back to me. "And what did I bring him for a gift, Master? I brought myrrh so they can anoint his body when he dies."
Jasper laughed. "Hardly practical, your gift, Balthazar, for you yourself say he will not remain dead. He returns a god."
Balthazar narrowed his eyes until they appeared bare slivers of gray. "I give him myrrh for its scent will stay with him in the grave, and will remind him, when he returns, he was once a man."
I levered myself up out of my chair and smiled at my students. "You have seen correctly, and chosen your gifts well. Now you must proceed with your journey so you will arrive in time."
Jasper stood but showed no intention of leaving. "Master, you have not told us why you will not join us."
Balthazar bowed and passed between me and the King of Tarshish. He gently took Jasper's arm and steered him toward the door. "He has told us, Jasper, you did not hear." He looked back at me and swallowed past a lump in his throat that told me he'd studied more than he should have. "He cannot come because his gift for this child is not ready yet."
Jasper thought to protest, but my curt nod and Balthazar's grip on his elbow deterred him. He bowed his head to me, as did Melchior, and the three kings left my home.
The boy found me once again on the roof staring at the stars. Each time I looked at them, half hoping my creeping blindness would swallow one that would change the story they told, I only read again the tale of pain and suffering that sapped my strength and eroded my will. But, just as I'd read his story in the stars, I had read of my pupils and of myself.
Bless you, Balthazar, for making your attempt to accept my burden.
I snorted and shivered, then turned to the boy. "Yes, what is it?"
Mist trailed from his mouth as he replied. "The eldest, King Balthazar, said you would want to speak with me."
The weight of eternity forced me to sit on the roof's edge. "Yes, he is correct. Come here." I pointed to a spot at my feet and forced a smile on my face so I would betray nothing. It was finally time to prepare my gift.
The boy looked up at me, his face innocent and guileless. So trusting, so smart. My gift, the gift that binds all the others.
"One day you will travel from here and meet a man. You will find, Judas, he is a very special man and he will call you friend..."
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