The leader of the perfecti hesitated, aware that the initiative had gone from him. Yet that might be good. It showed at least that this man, this king, was no common man. It might be, might well be, that he was the one they sought. To gain a moment’s time he pulled his cowl back, raised a hand, waved for the lamps to be brought out of their hiding-places in the stone and lit.
“What is it that you wear round your neck?” he asked.
“It is a ladder, which I am told you call a graduale. It was the Emperor of Rome himself who told me that. Many years ago and many miles away. Sitting on a green hill, outside a city wall.”
The perfectus licked his lips nervously. The conversation was getting away from him already. “It is the Holy Graduale,” he insisted, “which we in our tongue call the Seint Graal. But before I tell you why it is that, you must swear to tell no one what is said here in this chamber. You must swear to be one of us. For if what I have to tell you were to come to the wrong ears, there would be in it…” He paused. “The death of Christianity.
“You must swear to silence! What will you swear by?”
Shef considered a moment. These people seemed to have no clear idea of how to deal with him. The death of Christianity—that was nothing to him. They should have understood that. Yet he did not believe in swearing false oaths. It might bring bad luck.
“I will swear by this,” he said, laying his hand on his pendant. His father-in-heaven, or in his own mind, whichever it might be, would not worry about a false oath, or an oath honored only to the letter. “I swear by my own emblem and by your holy graduale to reveal nothing of what I am told in this chamber.”
Tension began to drain out of the seated men, out of the one face he could now see: an elderly man with a face of shrewd cunning, the face of a successful trader among peasants.
“Good. The story has come to us that you gave the Emperor the Holy Lance he bears. You must know, then, why it is the Holy Lance. It was the weapon of the centurion who stabbed Our Lord on the Cross.”
“Why should there be a ladder to go with a lance? I will tell you. After the centurion stabbed Our Lord, and the blood and water gushed over his hands, pious men prayed the Romans for Our Lord’s body. They were Joseph of Arimathea and his cousin, Nicodemus.”
At the last name all the seated men moved together, making a zigzag sign across their bodies.
“They took the body down from the cross. And, of course, they used a ladder. That ladder is the graduale. They lashed the body to the ladder to carry it to the stone grave that Joseph had reserved for the man he accepted as a prophet.
“Now, king, I must ask you this. They tell me you were baptized, brought up as a follower of Christ. So, tell me this: what is it that the Christians offer to those who believe?”
Shef considered. This did not have the ring of ritual, seemed an honest question. He did not know the answer. As far as he remembered Father Andreas had said that Christians should be Christians or go to Hell with the heathen. Hell? Or heaven? Perhaps that was the answer.
“They offer life,” he said. “Eternal life.”
“And how can they offer it? How dare they offer it? They offer it because, they say, Christ Himself rose from the grave. But I can tell you. He did not rise from the grave of Joseph. Because he did not die on the cross! He lived.”
The perfectus sank back on his chair, to see the effect of his words. Not what he expected. Shef shook his head emphatically.
“A German centurion stabbed him. He called himself Longinus. Stabbed him with an infantry issue javelin, a pilum. I have held the weapon, I saw the blow.”