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Chapter 1

Saturday, 18 June 2005

Though a bit hung-over the next day, Gus trudged up the hill to the castle accompanied by his siblings as scheduled. The outside of Chateau Bellegarde was rebuilt to look much as it appeared in the late fourteenth century before it was sacked by an antipope. But the inside was now thoroughly modern.

The huge round tower still held the Cosmoscope planetarium, now with state-of-the-art projectors, plus offices. Heronimo’s own recreated garret stuck on one side was another popular tourist attraction. The main hall housed the Terrace caf� and Chateau Museum, with exhibits relating to the Magus, and of course, a souvenir shop.

Waiting for them in the courtyard at the entrance was a figure Gus recognized. Jes�s, hair neatly tied back, in a black rather than a white suit, instantly smiled. It was not reassuring.

“Professor MacLantis, precisely on time. His Excellency will be most gratified,” he said. “Master Charles, Miss Alix, how good of you to come.”

Brothers and sister shared glances, but there was no time for small talk. The butler led them inside. There, surrounded by glistening glass cases, stood Lacnuit in full mad alchemist costume chatting with a short, burly aristocrat with thin, slicked-down hair and mustache, dressed in formal wear like an old-time diplomat. The conversation halted as they approached.

“May I present His Excellency,” Jes�s intoned, “Roland, Third of that distinguished name, Comte du Storisende, and Chateau Bellegarde’s research director and chief presenter, Emeritus Professor Doctor Lucien Lacnuit, former holder of the Valdez Chair of Astronomy.

“And this is the Clan MacLantis, Miss Alix, Mister Charles, and Professor Augustine.”

“Thank you, Jes�s, I’ll call if I need you.” The Count dismissed his servant with a nod.

“Honored, Your Excellency,” Gus said dryly. “How good it is to meet you at last. You manservant told me so much about you. Ma�tre Heronimo, again you look the part.”

“As you did last night, Professor MacLantis,” the thin man said, energetically pumping Gus’ hand. “Congratulations. Will you be coming to my show in the Cosmoscope later?”

“I certainly hope we have time,” Gus said, rubbing his forehead. “This may take awhile.”

“The Count invited us to see his collection,” Allie said. “I’ve avidly anticipated it.”

“You will see a fraction of it today, I regret to say, though this is the best,” the short man said proudly, spreading his arms, “This, my friends, is for the public to enjoy. We rotate the displays on a seasonal basis. We save the best for the Summer Festival. Welcome, welcome,” he said kissing them in turn on the cheek.

Lucien politely coughed. “I must be off. The Sun is an exacting taskmaster this time of year.” The Count dismissed him with an airy wave. “Yes, yes, later, thank you, Lucien.”

He turned to his guests “Charles, I know you are a climber,” he said. “I have interest in that, too. I’ve done Mont Blanc, of course, but I would love to hear your experiences. As for you, Miss Alix,” he said, taking Allie’s arm. “My dear, I understand you are an artist. You will no doubt find this fascinating. Come, of you. I have much to show you.”

He began an extended tour of the collection. While displays along one wall told the story of the town, the center space was devoted to religious paraphernalia. Simple things told of the deep faith of the people: broken wooden statues, long lacy baptismal gowns for infants, worn rosaries, cases of medals and crucifixes, and statues with shiny spots where kisses wore away their covering.

Many items came with intimate stories which the Count knew, especially when it came to relics of local saints and noted figures. On display was a page from a sermon by the Holy Holmendis. Bits of cloth of the shroud of St. Horrig and a tooth of St. Prunella, the virgin visionary of Antioch and other scraps of ancient waste were reverently kept in small but ornate canisters of crystal and wrought gold. Roland was proudest of a small portrait of the Blessed Madeleine, however.

“Not from life, I understand; Cardinal Gilles had it painted after her death but carried it with him the rest of his life. She looks familiar, does she not?” Allie minutely examined the thin woman’s delicate features and pale skin, not dissimilar from her own. The wisp of hair straying from beneath the wimple was also red.

Skip noticed the resemblance too. “Yeah, a bit like you, sis, but you look more like a nun than a medieval saint,” he teased. She shot him a dirty look but said nothing.

“Certain treasures which the masses would not understand are kept in the Reliquarium in the old study of the palace at Storisende,” the Count confided. “I have one of the seven claimed Holy Foreskins of Christ, for example. I’d love to get my hands on the rest, but it would hardly do to display so scandalous an item here.”

“Didn’t the Church claim they were fake?” Gus asked.

“Indeed, disowned every one last of them, Professor,” the Count said. “But the medieval mind had a ready explanation available for the miraculous multiplication of relics. Once a copy was brought into contact with the original, it acquired its holiness. In time, copies could be confused with the true item, especially if the prototype were lost, but sometimes deliberately.”

“Holy clones!” Allie laughed, “How convenient – for hoaxers and con men, anyway.”

“Doubtless so,” Roland admitted with a shrug. “In the Middle Ages, the spiritual realm seemed far more genuine than this world of shadows. Pious frauds partook of that sublime sphere as effortlessly as the countless wafers of bread and hogsheads of wine transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, the very flesh of God, by a mere word, just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “Hocus pocus.”

“How is it there was one and only one Maundy Grail?” Skip asked.

“Good question,” the Count said. “Before it disappeared, the Maundy Grail was too well known for someone to pass off a fake. Unlike many other fabled relics, its history and appearance was better documented than the Ark of the Covenant, so it would be hard to do. A few frauds came later, like the one Don Yago debunked. Look here.

“As you can see, footbaths were used by the orthodox and heretical Pedilavists and Endurists alike for their own foot-washing ceremonies.” True enough, there was a cascade of medieval pots in the glass cabinet, both ceramic and of metals, in various shapes and qualities.

“So we may be looking at actual replicas of the Holy Tub,” Allie marveled. “Wow.”

“Dad’s department store dish would fit in just fine,” Gus said.

Other items were closely connected to the Miracles: chief among them black twisted metal scraps said to be from the Inquisition’s Iron Maiden which the Scolding Madonna blasted to bits. The prominent places reserved for the two pieces of the Ark’s brass hooks were empty, however. The pieces were nowhere to be seen, but the Count said nothing.

Closer to the center were exhibits of proper church equipment and instruments of the clergy. Bells, incense burners, baptismal fonts, carved kneelers and brass candlesticks almost as tall as the Count gave way to ornate crosiers, bejeweled crosses and plumed fans, displayed under a silken canopy. A bouquet of golden wands with pierced balls for flicking holy water stood next to the array of basins.

Racks were hung with colorful silk vestments, old fiddle-back chasubles and lavishly embroidered copes, stoles of every description – not to mention shelves of miters, fringed gloves, and magnificently brocaded papal vestments. The highlights included a priceless tiara used by the antipopes of Avignon, and a pontifical trowel and hammer from the Vatican.

“I’m afraid the vestments in particular may prove to be a constant near occasion of sin to Cardinal Mortens,” the Count boasted. “I’ve no doubt he envies my collection of robes.”

“They certainly are spectacular,” said Skip, looking a little dazed. “I haven’t seen anything even remotely like this outside of the greatest monasteries of Nepal and the East.”

“You still haven’t seen the best yet,” the Count said, smiling with delight. “Come, I’ve looked forward to showing you this for some time.”



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“If greed, pride, and intolerance cease not,
God’s fury will surely lay waste to your land.
Unending war will stalk you,
and disease like none you have ever seen will mow you down like grass for the fire! ”

– The Scolding Madonna,
14 June 1337; in
Fr. Martin the Sanguine’s
Miracles of the
Scolding Virgin

c. 1357

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