"You never loved me did you, Thomas?" The words bit into the salt air.

It was a question he had been asked in variation upon permutation by countless faces he had known and --at least for a while--held close throughout the passing years. It peeled back the layers of memory to a time when his answer might have been different--although then the question (the accusation) would not have been voiced that way.

At least not by this man.

A time when a frail old archbishop had commended a bright fresh archdeacon to the service of a brazen young king. A time when Thomas had seen to that king's whims with far more relish than to his welfare--an arrangement both men had then held to be entirely fitting and proper.

The requisite drinking and debauchery had not crimped Thomas's erstwhile ethic: To serve his king required proficiency, flexibility and alacrity, and Thomas took pride in the exercise in aesthetics that was the intricate interlacing of all three. If his fleshing the occasional wench amused his prince, then it entertained His Majesty far more so than it did Thomas Becket--which was quite as things should be.

It had not occurred to Thomas to consider his part in these royal romps as sin. Priests made one thing abundantly clear: Be sin mortal or venial, its allure--its lure--lies in the corporeal pleasure, albeit illusory and ephemeral, that it bestows.

As a full night at the whorehouses left him with the same gratification as had a full day of correct recitations at his tutor's knee, at dawn Thomas slipped effortlessly from the night's roustings to the morning's chapel sometimes heavy lidded, but always easy in his place with God.

Until one warm summer night when the two chanced upon an amicable dairymaid with enchanting eyes, but more stomach than stamina for brandywine. This was not by itself a problem as the barn hay was soft and sweet, perfect for bedding down at will. But the king, a long-time expert at confounding the wiles of the grape, was far from done for the night.

"Thomas, do you love me?" Henry's voice and lids sagged with drink, his clothes in disarray. Beneath the folds of sweat-daubed fabric, he fingered his swollen stiff. Naked, the girl with enchanting eyes snored inelegantly at his hip.

"My Prince, you know I do. I have sworn my totality--humble as it may be--to you." Becket kept guard to the side, one eye trained on the barn door and the other always upon his prince.

"Don't sit there and court me with pretty words." Henry grumbled as the straw scratched beneath his weight. "Am I a peasant girl to be milked and wooed? I'm a man! If you love me, show me!" He let fall his hand, and his cockstand jutted high and free.

Since his schooling in the transfiguration, Thomas had hungered and thirsted to taste God. Thousands of times he had knelt, lips parted, tongue extended, mouth salivating --to feel Him, savour Him, know Him inside and out. Thousands of times he had risen enriched only by the paste of dry wafer, the mouldering burp of indifferent wine, and the increasing complaints of his aging knees.

But as he put lips to meat that particular night, buried his nose in the curls he'd towelled and bathed, infused himself in the hidden incense of a man's ardour--as he felt and heard his king writhe beneath him, driven to frenzy through the motions of his mouth--he knew that this was the true communion that had been given to Man to share.

When his king emptied down his throat, twenty years after his First Communion, Thomas felt the epiphany even before his glands released their force inside his breeches: this feeling was as near as mortal man could approach divine love on this sad, lonely plain.

And in that epiphany he knew two other things: one, that he would not--could not--ever choose to leave his king, and two, that he could not--would not--choose to return to God.

For if God judged this miracle of joy to be sin, then God was in the wrong.

How could he worship a God who could be so wrong about love?

"No one does it like you do, Thomas," said Henry with a yawn. He patted the straw and pulled the obtunded girl closer against his loin. "Sleep here with us. When she wakes, we'll tell her she owes us double favours for leaving us in the lurch."

With another yawn, the king of England rolled into the girl and went to sleep.

"You never loved me, did you Thomas?" A wave crashed as if to punctuate the words.

"In so far as I was capable, yes I did," Thomas replied. The wind carried his words across the distance between their mounts, but it would have to travel much farther to convey his meaning across the gap between the men.

Not for the first, but possibly for the last time Thomas wondered how different it might all have been if Henry had offered him anything back. Anything at all. So many times he had been empty enough to have latched on to even a single loving word.

Rosamund, he had heard, was the name of Henry's current mistress. By all accounts she loved him with a passion. With a charity of heart that he was pleased to find that he still harboured, Thomas hoped that if Henry loved her, he had recognized as much this time around.

"What's she like?" Thomas had asked Louis once when maudlin curiosity bested common sense.

"Jolie. Jolie et très jeune."

Thomas had smiled, internally at least. That he could have guessed.

"Elle n'est pas toi." Louis had offered a sympathetic shrug.

Thomas had startled. The smile evaporated like summer drizzle on baked clay. Could everyone except Henry see through them?

Eleanor had made it clear that she had. Gwendolyn too in her own delicate and gentle way. But they thought as women would. If men could see it too…

"Allons," Louis had gathered Thomas by the elbow and hustled him away to show off his newest exotic presents from Spain.

"Did you start to love God?"

The words startled Thomas almost as much for their accuracy as for the fact that, eight years later, Henry still had to ask.

"Yes. I started to love--" Thomas paused to get it precisely accurate. "The honour of God."

And with the rudely forced reunion, he had. The discovery had stunned him even more than Henry or the bishops, if possible. Thomas had missed Him during those years.

He had missed having the goal of otherworldly perfection in his sights.

Forgiving Henry for taking Gwendolyn was easy. Men are flawed--born to sin--and Earthly tribulations will pass.

Forgiving Henry-- no, forgiving himself--for letting his love of Henry separate him from the impeccancy of the divine: that he could not do.

"I didn't want her," Henry confessed, curled on the bed and clinging to his arm. "I only wanted to take her from you. No, I wanted to know that you would give her to me: I had to know who you loved more. Don't you see, Thomas? I had to know that you loved me more than her.”

"You have your answer now?" Rigid, Thomas sat up against the headboard staring ahead. Mostly what disturbed him was how little of anything he felt.

But at what price?" Ragged breathing filled the darkness.

Thomas wondered, besides his wet nurse, how many others had heard Henry cry.

"Love…the knowledge of love, never comes without a price." Thomas philosophized as easily as others breathed.

"You're lucky to have no passion, Thomas. To never feel its swells, crests and surges. To have no idea how the force of love can overwhelm and capsize even the most tautly steadied helm."

Concealed by darkness, Thomas allowed himself a wry smile.

"What you must think of me." Henry's words rose muffled. "I've lost you too. I know I have."

"You cannot lose me, My Prince. I am your servant until and unless you order me away." Absently, Thomas patted the clenched arm.

"Servants I have enough of…too many of. I want you to be my friend. I want your love, but how can I still have that now? Not after--"

Thomas reached beneath the coverlet and put his palm to Henry's crotch. For all the turmoil, Henry's lusts had accumulated unspent and still percolated just beneath the surface. With the first touch, they swelled and sprang to life.

Thomas plunged under Henry's robe and wrapped fingers, leaded down by the Great Seal of England, around Henry's prick.

Henry gasped and thrust into the grip.

"You do love me Thomas, you do," he chanted over and over until he came at a fever pitch. Moments later he slipped into a wine scented sleep.

"I do," said Thomas to no one in particular. He rose from the bed and wiped his hand. He removed his boots and lay back next to his sleeping king on pillows still imbued with Gwendolyn's Welsh perfume.

He didn't sleep at all that night, but lay with his eyes open, wondering where his honour had gone and trying to remember where he had seen it last.

"I should never have seen you; it hurts too much." Henry bowed his head.

"My Prince--" In one last, futile try, Thomas extended a hand. Despite all that had passed between them--despite all the worse times that they had just agreed must come--Thomas knew he would have given away his God, his newfound honour, his newfound peace. He would give it all away and scatter it as cavalierly as weed pollen upon an autumn gale if Henry would only let him in.

"No! No pity! It's dirty!" Henry jerked away. "This is the last time I shall come begging to you. Go back to England." Henry turned his face away, and the cruel sea breeze whipped around them both.

It was not to be Becket's choice to make. As always, in all things of this Earth, he would defer to his king.

"Farewell, My Prince; I sail tomorrow. I know that I shall never see you again." Not as mortal souls see with eyeballs or as men face men on earthly soil, that is.

"How dare you say that to me when I've given you my royal word? Do you take me for a traitor?" The king's madness thundered down the beach.

Who is so deaf or as blind as he, who wilfully will neither hear nor see?

The great amethyst ring became trapped and pinched painfully into his skin as he wrapped his left hand into the reins. Thomas yanked to the left and galloped across the sand. Curious, he thought, that even after all this, turning away from Henry was still harder than turning away from God had been.

Perhaps because he knew with bedrock certainty that Henry needed him and only him whereas God did not.

There would come a time when the honour of God and the honour of the king must meet, but it would not be in France or in England or anywhere on this Earth below. Yet if God was indeed kind and merciful, as Thomas had come to believe, on that day Henry and Thomas would embrace with neither crown nor mitre to come between.

He ached to be able to convey this surety of peace to his king, but it was not something that could be passed from man to man--not even by priest, archbishop or Pope. It was perhaps the one great gift that must come direct from God Himself.

Thomas would leave Henry to find his peace. There was no choice, for where Henry and Becket met, it tended to be difficult to hear God over the furore.

One day Thomas would die with a private chortle of joy upon his lips, for it is written that in Heaven--among its other amenities--all are given perfect understanding.

Even irascible kings.

Thomas kicked his horse to gallop faster as Henry's plaintive cry expired behind him, caught and whipped up in the uncomprehending Norman wind.