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IV. CITY OF MARVELS


Thursday, 2 September 1294

The two knights stroll through the central door of the massive white Romanesque basilica. The Sun peeks over the white crests of the mountains surrounding the town, and on the field before them a long procession waits. The Ark carrying the reliquary and the Sacred Basin sits in the center beneath a portable awning, with a half-dozen bearers stationed before and behind. They are surrounded by an array of guards, a long train of mules bringing up the rear.

“Master, it worked,” the clean-shaven Templar says, putting on his helm. “They said it couldn’t be done, but the bait of the Holy Tub lured the wild hermit out of his cell in the hills. He’s now trapped on the throne of Peter, as you predicted, my lord. After two years, the world rejoices to have a pope again. But I don’t mind saying I’ll feel much safer in the wilds than here in Aquila.”

The other knight strokes his black beard. “I envy you, Sir Edwin. I wish I could leave too, but I must stay near. Pope Celestine may be a holy man but is a poor match for the hungry wolves circling his golden cage. I’ve never seen an ascetic look so unhappy. I doubt he’ll last until Christmas.”

“Sire,” Edwin says, hesitating as he pulled on his gloves, “do you think it wise, parading the Sacred Basin and the Inner Reliquary in full view of those men? What greed they display, my lord: King Philip demands more French cardinals while Charles pours his own poison into the pope’s ear. But that’s nothing compared to the rank avarice of the cardinals.”

Grand Master Jacques de Molay smiles. “If anybody needs their sins forgiven, it’s them. A worthy test of the Holy Tub’s powers, wouldn’t you say?”

“Just so, sire,” the knight says. “But I do not trust them a whit; any one of the college is more dangerous than any armed brigand we might encounter. That’s why I ask yet again to let me take more men-at-arms on this tour.”

“That, I fear, would display more misgivings of our hosts than would be either polite or wise,” his lord responds. “Besides, since we lost the Holy Land, we can’t afford it – another reason to get the show on the road. But hold your peace, Sir Edwin. See what serpent slithers this way through the grass.”

The knight turns. Across the field hastens a fat man in red followed by a gaggle of clerks and men at arms. Cardinal Gaetani, his face as red as his robes and puffing hard, stops before the pair and holds his ring to be kissed. The Templars do so with low bows.

“Oh, I’m so glad I caught you before you left, Sir Edwin,” he huffs.

“What can we do for you, Your Grace?” the Grand Master asks.

The cardinal clasps his fat hands together in earnest prayer. “I wished to ask you, no beg you, once again, to persuade the Holy Father to have you bring the Sacred Basin to Rome, where it truly belongs.”

“Your Eminence,” Edwin says, “the Eternal City is already blessed with an overabundance of spiritual treasures greater than any place –”

“But Jerusalem, which you lost to the infidel a century ago?” Gaetani finishes. “Yet you do not seem too eager for its recapture. There are those who whisper among the cardinals that your order is all too content as bankers, and no longer deserves its many privileges, you know. Such haughty displays of self-will ill become monks, even those in arms.”

“It shall be as God and the Holy Father wills, Eminence,” the Grand Master grasps his pommel hard as he replies. “His Holiness wishes us to bring grace to those less fortunate. So our path now leads us along the Adriatic.”

“No, you don’t understand,” the prelate waves his pudgy fist in anger. “In normal times that would be fine, but these are anything but that. We have a pope to rule again, but who rules him? With no emperor these days, the simple fool relies upon his angelic voices and the steadying influence of the relic – surely you’ve noticed how its mere presence calms his spirit and shores up his thinking. This weak puppet is direly in need of your stout support and mature realism, Grand Master, against King Charles and his wiles. It may already be too late. Do you not know the Holy Father has ordered us not back to Rome, but to Naples?”

The two knights are unimpressed. “I’m sure His Holiness must have his reasons, Eminence,” de Molay assures him. “But this smells of temporal politics with which we Templars, as good monks, should avoid involvement. I will stay at court as you wish, but I must send the Holy Tub far away from these contentions.”

“The hour is late for such pious airs, don’t you think?” Gaetani sneers. “Ever since Frederick bequeathed the Sacred Basin to your order, you Knights of the Temple have turned ever more arrogant. You persuaded Celestine to come down with your promises of its blessing. It’s your responsibility; you owe it to God and His Church to see this papacy does not fail.”

“Blame the Holy Spirit, Your Grace, not us,” de Molay says with open scorn. “You cardinals took so long it required our intervention, but you elected him for us to serve. So be it. Attend to governing your neglected flocks, my lord, and let Sir Edwin get on with his task, as His Holiness commands, bringing hope to the disheartened by permitting sinners a glimpse of the Sacred Basin.”

“And taking their gold for the favor,” the cardinal snorts, “encouraging the very ill-advised idea that a mere look could wipe away their transgressions. Very well, Grand Master, if this is your answer, then you may depart, Sir Edwin. I will not forget, and do you both remember this day, for I swear you will live to rue it.”

Cardinal Gaetani’s prophecy comes true. Within months, with voices in the night, he frightens the saintly mystic into resigning. He grandly replaces him as Pope Boniface VIII. The proud pontiff falls in his own tragic turn, never succeeding in gaining the Maundy Grail for the papacy either, even with violence.

Yet the greed he unleashes ultimately ensures that both Templars would be burned alive when their order is outlawed twenty years later. It is then the legend of the Holy Tub takes a most peculiar and fateful turn, when the road comes to an abrupt end in obscure French city then called Bellegarde.


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“We must be ever cautious,
for even holy things may be used for foul ends by men of guile.”

– St. Thomas Aquinas
(attributed author),
On the Well of Forgiveness,
c. 1274

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