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Updates ... and an Excerpt!

As you can see, I've been busy, and things have been going well. Better than expected, in fact. I'm flying through Draft 4 of Pillars of Barabbas, incorporating the editor's corrections and comments, and Draft 1 of Servant of Helaman has astounded me. That should be done well before the end of January.

As promised, I started doing some pre-work on the Patriot Star sequel, which for now consists of re-reading Patriot Star itself and the portion of Draft 1 of the sequel I completed several years ago, along with all of my notes, kept in an Excel spreadsheet.

My publicist and I are still planning a mid- to late-March rollout of Pillars to time it with the upcoming Easter holiday. That will include a virtual book tour, which should be a lot of fun. We may even cap it with a Facebook Live event. And I love how the book is turning out. I think you will, too!

Here is an excerpt, from Chapter 4:

Paul had long ago gotten used to waiting for plans to unfold—whether his own, those of others, or, most importantly, the Lord’s. It had been several months since the memorable visit of Octellus, and no word had come from the palace in that time. Manius had made respectful inquiries every few weeks, but the official answer always came back that the emperor was very busy and that the time should come soon. Paul knew he would eventually get to meet with Emperor Nero, knew it so completely that sometimes it seemed the meeting had already happened. And yet it still hadn’t.

He smiled as he looked out the office window toward the Palatine Hill. He had gotten used to sitting at his desk. It still seemed too ornate, but it was useful. He was productive in that space, having already written dozens of lengthy letters to the saints scattered across the empire, both in places he had visited and places he had not. Many of the letters still awaited the right courier to deliver them. That required planning and patience as well. Peter and the other apostles were just as busy in their efforts to communicate, organize, and direct, and they were collectively having a powerful impact, aided by the blessed Roman road system and swift, secure shipping lanes. For all the empire’s faults, it was quite efficient, for which Paul was deeply grateful.

Still, he longed to see more of the saints whom he had taught in his journeys. He received correspondences on a nearly weekly basis from one place or another, and they always brightened his day, even when they talked of various problems. Such challenges gave him opportunity, energizing him to respond appropriately and to coordinate whatever other assistance he could.

Every month or so he also received an epistle from Peter, the Chief Apostle, containing encouragement, news, and instructions, often asking for his views on a particular subject or his vote on a policy or course of action. No major decision was made unless all the apostles agreed, and that was a long and sometimes arduous process.

More patience.

A man cleared his throat before knocking lightly on the doorframe of the office. Paul pulled his gaze away from the window to look at the man he could already truly call his friend.

“Yes, Manius?”

“We have just received word, Master Paul. Emperor Nero would like to see you. Um, this afternoon.”

Paul leaned back, feeling no surprise and, strangely, no anxiety. That was the Spirit helping him, which still amazed him sometimes. Most times, actually. “Ah, good. We are ready.”

Manius frowned. “He wants you to come alone.” That wasn’t what Octellus had originally said, but again, Paul felt neither surprise nor alarm. He was to meet with an emperor, after all, and a young, mercurial one at that. He needed another adventure.

He took a long breath. A tinge of anxiety crept in as he mentally reviewed the important points that needed to be covered. He had to do well. “Very well, then,” he said. “Will you pray with me, brother, before I prepare to leave?”

Paul took the west road down from the Quirinal, intending to walk along the Tiber River as he continued to order his thoughts. The instructions from Nero hadn’t said what hour in the afternoon he should arrive, so he left at the sun’s zenith, expecting to wait at least an hour after he arrived at the palace. The emperor always had much business to attend to, and Paul could wait. He smiled to himself as he began to descend, picturing Peter in the same situation. Peter tried to be patient—and often succeeded—but he was always pulling at the bit.

Paul didn’t fault him for it. Peter got a great many things done, and he was courageous and caring. He just seemed to argue with the Lord so much. Maybe argue was too strong a word, but that thought caused him to chuckle. He considered Jacob, wrestling with the man of God for his blessing. What must that have been like?

As he turned left to follow the path for a short distance along the river, with its double line of trees providing a pleasant avenue of shade, he pondered the Lord’s intentions for Rome and its people. He had been earnestly seeking more counsel from the Lord on what his plans were and what he could do to help, but no grand revelations had come. He was to teach as many people as he could, including the emperor. He had little idea how the emperor might react, but Paul had apparently passed Octellus’s test, and he had been left blessedly unhindered by Roman authorities.

He casually noticed the people he passed as he walked. Most were citizens of the upper classes, mainly women, who had time to stroll leisurely along the river near the Capitolene Hill. Before he knew it, he was turning away from the river, passing to the south of the Capitolene before ascending Palatine Hill. He stopped near the top, looking around. Many fine homes stood here—palaces, really—the accumulated wealth among them probably more than he could imagine.

To his right was the temple of Apollo Palatinus, built by Augustus nearly ninety years before. Its massive fluted-front columns of Carrara marble were majestic and regal, inviting awe and obeisance, but Paul had been inside. It was empty and cold, a testament to many such impotent attempts to find comfort and relief from the unknown in idolatrous constructions. Next to it was the temple of Magna Mater, or the ‘Great Mother,’ with its statue of the goddess Cybele and her regal lion attendants at the top of the steps. It had been built more than 160 years earlier than Apollo Palatinus, but still played a major role in public worship.

A little farther on, another hundred years older still, stood the temple of Victoria, goddess of victory. It was perhaps the boldest of the Roman temples, for it came the closest to claiming victory over death. Many Roman generals had claimed her blessings had spared them and their troops from death on the battlefield and granted them great victories. And yet many had died in every one of those battles—which were often fought for the cheapest of reasons—including innocent men, women, and children. No, those haughty Roman generals hadn’t gained any victories over death; they had dealt it and eventually succumbed to it themselves. Only the Christ, a humble Jew, had overcome death—and he had done it for everyone, not just for himself.

Many other such temples were to be found in the Eternal City, the motives for erecting them probably mixed in every case among sincere desire to respect deity, fear of disrespecting that higher power, colossal imperial arrogance, and manipulation of public sentiment driven both by pride and the need for public order. Those thoughts weighed more heavily on his mind than he would have expected as he continued on toward the palace of Emperor Nero, standing at the very top of the hill, with a wide veranda at the back from which the games at the Circus Maximus could be viewed.

As he began ascending the steps to the palace, a familiar voice called out to him. “Master Paul, welcome!” It was Octellus, and Paul wondered at the odd lightness and cheeriness to his voice.

Octellus descended a few of the steps to take him by the elbow and lead him up the remaining steps and through the large, ornately decorated double doors into the welcome foyer.

“It is my honor to be here,” Paul said formally, and he wasn’t being disingenuous. He respected the place of the emperor, but more than that, he knew the Lord wanted him to be there, and he was honored to be trusted with such a mission.

“You grace us with your presence,” responded Octellus. Again, that seemed odd.

Paul suspected that perhaps Octellus was trying to put him off his guard. Such subtle—and sometimes not-so-subtle—tactics were common in state politics. Paul merely smiled and nodded.

“Come, there is time for some refreshment before Emperor Nero can attend you. This way, please.” He gestured with an arm and led him off to the right, toward what sounded like kitchens, where cooks in a household this large always had work to do.

Paul noted that when they entered the dining hall adjacent to the kitchens, the spirit of the place changed. No longer cold, it was warm, and it wasn’t the heat from cooking fires. They were surrounded by servants and slaves, people in humble circumstances, people grateful for regular meals, a roof over their heads, and the chance to be busy at something without being weighed down by it. They were people without much pretense, whose hearts would be open to the preaching of the true gospel.

It appeared that Nero didn’t mistreat his servants and slaves, or at least not to a great extent, as some in similar stations did. Of course, that could simply mean that he or his advisers recognized the value of well-treated servants, but perhaps there was some kindness there as well. Paul hoped there was.

Octellus offered Paul more than just refreshments. A full meal was brought before him, with various meats and fruits and breads, but Paul ate sparingly. It was another political tactic to overfeed your visitors so that their minds might become sluggish and malleable. He was never one for gluttony, anyway. He almost asked that the leftovers be taken to the bottom of the hill and given to a family or two, but he had not that authority.

Octellus didn’t seem perturbed that Paul hadn’t partaken more freely. Instead, he told him a few jokes, including a scandalous story about one of the nobles who lived on the Palatine, laughing and clapping him on the back. Then, when the short repast was over, he led him up some side stairs near the kitchens so that they would be ready to enter the emperor’s secondary audience chamber when the time came.

Paul was taken to a small room with a narrow window looking toward Aventine Hill, beyond the Circus Maximus, where he sat on a small stone bench to wait. Octellus left him there, and Paul bowed his head to pray again. The calm he had felt was beginning to fray at the edges. His meeting with Emperor Nero could begin any minute.

“You already insulted me with shoddy work, and now you stand before me and lie about it?” A shouting voice, heavy with anger, caused him to lift his head. “Did you think I didn’t already know? I brought you here so you could tell me how you were going to fix it! Would you like to be strapped to a cross for a day in the Forum? Would that improve your understanding?”

The booming ceased, and Paul could hear the faintest of noises as the object of the speaker’s wrath tried to answer. Paul presumed the thunderous voice was Nero’s, and he wondered again if he was being manipulated. Was it an act? Did Nero want him to enter his presence feeling intimidated?


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