Wednesday, 15 June 2005
They passed the night at a small hotel near the airport. Nigel’s flight came in later and as arranged, rendezvoused with them as planned the next morning after a Spartan breakfast. They hit the road before noon in the biggest van available and began to relax a little.
Once north of Montpellier they left the highway for the old road to the city once called Bellegarde, and nowadays Bellegraal. Allie opened the window. As the rich, warm air flowed through the car, she laughed. “France! Provence! Vieux Poictesme! I can’t believe how green everything is compared to the desert back home. Just smell it! You know, until now, I didn’t think we’d make it. I’d just like to relax and have a good time as far as possible.”
“Might as well, we have a couple of weeks,” Skip said, never taking his eyes off the road. “Plenty of time to solve an ancient mystery and get a little sight-seeing in, too.”
“A wee break is all we need,” Nigel said. “Oh, and a daft bit of luck and craft and keeping mum; too many seekers greet the reaper mysteriously soon as they tell anyone they’ve almost got it, you know. Best to avoid such inconveniences.”
“We don’t need those sneaky Unknown Guardians for that.” Gus was still grumpy from sleeping in a strange bed. “The ravenous factions can devour us alive without any help.”
“Not very cheerful news, little brother,” Skip’s brown eyes darted in the mirror. “How’s the translation coming? Is the text that grim?”
“Beauregarde’s rants would make you ill-tempered, too. I had no idea of the hanky-panky that took place during the French Revolution. Sure, I knew the nobles were decadent, but you wouldn’t believe the whacky antics of the republicans.” He shook his head. “Some serious shit went down in Old Bellegarde. We may indeed be lambs walking into the lion’s den.”
“Now you tell us,” Allie snorted. “That why the book was so guarded?”
“Beauregarde’s library is the kernel of the Studiorum. I had thought Dad was interested in the book because it outlines who the players are, but I’m not sure,” Gus leaned forward, and began counting fingers. “First, there’s the Church, which would love to get their holy prize back, no doubt. For centuries, their chief competitors were the Endurists, a fanatic cult said to combine foot-washing with flagellation. They wanted it to bring about the End of the World.”
“A funny combo, to say the least,” Nigel said with an odd smile. “No doubt their parties were something quite peculiar. I imagine the ex would feel totally at home.”
“Then I should add that it did become an infamous sex cult,” Gus said, turning pink. The reporter just smiled and shrugged.
“But by Beauregarde’s time, the Endurists had vanished, stamped out by the French state, which would probably like to get the Holy Tub, too, but mainly for tourism. And that’s just the beginning.”
“More than pothunters, tubbies, mystics, whackos, and dear old Dad?” Allie asked.
“Amateurs all, sorry. Secret societies are the big players. Beauregarde said they started with a group in Old Bellegarde, founded by the twin dwarf assistants of Heronimo le Mage –”
“Who?” Skip interrupted.
“You know, Ieronimus Magus, the mad monk who created the marvels,” Allie explained.
“That’s him, alright. The two little people and their associates split into factions which squabbled for centuries after he died.” Gus continued. “Dig this: the original gang was known as the ‘Secret Sages.’ They split into the ‘Secret Seers,’ who wanted the Jesus Pot for political power, and the ‘Silent Sages,’ who sought to master its mysterious occult properties. I think the first bunch was the impetus behind the Studiorum.”
The others laughed. “You think it’s a bad joke in English; in the local French it’s even worse, believe me,” Gus complained. “However, it doesn’t matter because they merged with a third group during the reign of Napoleon. You’ll never guess who.”
“The ‘Sinister Stooges?’” Allie proposed.
“Nah, the ‘Sneaky Servants!’” Nigel said, “So hard to get good help in those days.”
“Oh, oh, oh, I know this one, Prof,” Skip answered confidently. “The Heirs.”
“Give the boy a gold star,” Gus said. “Yep, the third faction was the Fawksler family, through whom our glorious English cousins, Lord and Lady Fawkeslorne, claim legitimate descent from Cardinal Gilles – unlike us – and thus hereditary rights to the Maundy Grail.”
Allie asked, “You’re not still in that mystical woo-woo society of theirs, are you, Skip?”
The driver squirmed in embarrassment. “Do you refer to ‘The Knightly Guardians of the Maundy Grail, Outer Order,’ my dear?” he intoned, imitating their stuffy cousin. He sighed. “No, well okay; I never formally quit, but I got past the mumbo-jumbo pretty quick. Embarrassing now, but so mysterious and exciting to my young and impressionable self. Once I found we were indeed related to them through Mom, I got carried away… and naïve! Oh brother.”
“You, carried away?” laughed Nigel. “Whoever told you that you were the sensible one had you on, mate. I’d love to hear more about this bunch.”
Neat fields and orchards rolled by as Skip drove on. He shook his head. “Not me, I wish I never got involved with them and their claptrap. Sir Gordon seemed slimier each time we met. I began to have a creepy feeling they feared I might try to invalidate their claim.”
He sighed again. “I wonder if that’s what irritated Dad so much. Aunt Imelda said he’d gone to so much trouble to get away, and just like Gus, I jumped back in. We won’t be able to avoid them while we’re here, I reckon.”
“Probably not,” Gus agreed. “Here’s the point: all three groups, Beauregarde said – Seers, Sages, and Heirs – came together as a new combination during the Empire of Napoleon. You’ve heard the name yourself, Skip, ‘the Triple Knot,’ something to do with a Bible verse.”
“Ah, the gang your pal Jesus mentioned in the library,” Skip said.
“Hence the three question marks, as you put it, Skip, as their sign,” Allie added.
“Makes perfect sense,” Gus said. “The Triple Knot must be those mysterious ‘friends of the Count.’ Who else that includes beside him and the Fawkeslornes, I guess we’ll find out.”
“What about those wacky ‘Unknown Guardians,’ Prof?” Nigel asked.
“The ‘Invisibles’ terrified Beauregarde but he never knew who they were, or if they actually existed, either. But when he was bushwhacked, just like Don Yago twenty years earlier, ‘strange marks’ were found nearby. He’s been assumed to be one of their victims ever since.”
“But if this Triple Knot didn’t put the figures on the sign and the Endurists are no more,” Allie wondered, “is that whom Reuben’s with? The Invisibles?”
“Doubtful; these blokes wouldn’t be here talking about it,” Nigel said. “But confusion is all part of the plan. Tell me, did the manuscript give any recognition signs or passwords, Gus?”
“Plenty of weird symbols and diagrams, but nothing like that so far, sorry,” Gus said.
Allie checked a map. “Beauseant is not far ahead. Skip, you need to take the next exit to get to the hotel from the south and avoid the Summer Festival mess.”
“Or, she said, glancing at her watch. “We’ve plenty of time, and the road’s not closed yet. We could continue straight to the roundabout, park in the big lot, and walk into town through the main gate. You know, like medieval pilgrims,” Allie suggested with a hopeful grin.
Skip glanced around. Ahead on the left the gray ruins of the Templar preceptory the knights had striven to reach poked through the trees. The increasing number of homes appearing amid the dappled fields meant Bellegraal was not far beyond.
“Sure, why not, sounds fun? The sooner we get to the hotel, the sooner we’ll have to be on guard.”
They passed the ancient Roman theatre on the right carved into a bowl in a hill where the Summer Festival concerts would take place. Beyond, a cluster of tents already designated where the camping and merchant areas would appear like mushrooms amid the vineyards soon. Further stood the green mass of the once-great haunted forest of Acaire which once lapped the city’s walls. Beyond upon the eastern horizon, hunkered the low, dark hills of Haute Maureven.
“And deal with the Conference and the tubbies.” Gus added with faint enthusiasm. “We’ll have to watch our backs – and tongues – constantly while here. This place is still dangerous, just as it was when Dad was here as a secret agent during the War.”
And so they first spied Bellegraal, the “City of Marvels,” as the brochures called it. First into view on the left rose the high medieval walls of the old city, shining white in the afternoon Sun beneath the clear azure dome of heaven. The red-tiled turrets of the Chateau peaked above the fortifications, silken pennants floating overhead. A small bartizan tower with a bright glint at the window budded off the great round tower of the keep. Below, diners overlooking the road on a terrace could be seen behind a wide green lawn and flowery arches. The Clan MacLantis had returned at last.