In a short time they arrived at Chateau Bellegarde. Jesús was at the door greeting guests. Smiling, he bowed from the waist in formal greeting. In full accord with the occasion, Jesús was garbed, inevitably enough, as his namesake, in a white tunic with a red robe.
“Ah, Professor MacLantis! Plus your charming sister, Miss Alix, and Mister Charles, again welcome! How good to see you. Welcome to Chateau Bellegarde for Count Roland’s Grand Banquet and Fancy Dress Ball!” He waved towards the sparkling hall, already half-filled with costumed party-goers. “You honor us with your presence. I am gratified you will see I did not exaggerate.” If he realized how profoundly silly he looked, he gave no clue, but Allie hid her smile with her fluttering fan.
The hall was a high, wooden-beamed room, hung with medieval chandeliers and rich tapestries along the walls and arches leading onto the terrace. They strolled to the reception line and Nigel quickly cut in line behind them, dressed in a sinister black and white Inquisitor’s frock. His short blonde hair and dark aspect helped him look like a mad monk, and the whites of his eyes and his teeth were gleaming with anticipation.
“Evening,” he said. “My, you’re looking lovely tonight, Allie, and it suits you, Skip. But my Heavens, Gus, did you lose a bet?”
“Not lately,” Gus replied, “though I’d probably look more dignified with that bucket on my head. What’s with the spooky outfit?”
“To help me seek out sins, if I’m lucky tonight. Speaking of which, listen, Gus, I can explain everything. That bloke –”
Gus held up his hand. “Later, Nigel. Let’s just relax and have fun tonight.”
“Great, if that’s how you feel, but honestly...” He still looked nervous.
“Oh fabulous,” Skip suddenly said in disgust. “Look who’s here.”
At the head of the line stood the Count, but also Lord and Lady Fawkeslorne.
“You have to face them sometime, Skip,” Allie said. “Best do it gracefully.”
The stout Count was garbed as Mad Cardinal Gilles in a long, flowing red satin outfit. Though older than him, Lady Melicent Smedley-Fawksler was dressed as his grand-daughter, Lady Alison, while her mate, Sir Gordon came as her husband, Sir Falconer.
“Welcome to my castle,” the Count said with a huge smile. “You know, my friends, I never get tired of saying that.” He bowed, kissing Allie’s hand.
“If it were mine, I probably wouldn’t either,” Allie said with a slight curtsey.
“Ah, for true splendor, you should see the palace of Storisende,” the Count said. “It’s only drawback is that it’s so beautiful, it’s impossible to be totally comfortable there,” he chuckled and presented them to the others. “You know, of course, the Fawkeslornes?”
“It’s been ages, Sir Gordon, Lady Melicent,” Skip said. Count Roland watched them from the corner of his eyes as he turned to greet Nigel.
“We’re so sorry to hear of your father, Charles,” the tiny woman said, looking rather like a nun with her wimple. “Alix, Augustine, please accept our most sincere condolences.”
“Thank you, Lady Melicent.”
“Call me cousin, dear. You must visit us at Chateau des Roches while you’re here.”
“Indeed, splendid idea. Awfully sorry we didn’t send flowers; didn’t mean to be rude. We were on a cruise, you see,” Gordon huffed. He was a brusque, red-faced, narrow-eyed man with bristling eyebrows and a greying walrus mustache. “I didn’t hear a bloody thing until we docked. A most dreadful business, but you should have called or written, my boy. We may not have seen eye to eye on everything with your parents, but we’re still family.”
“Actually, things were so insane –”
Before he could say more, Nigel pushed in. “Sir Smedley? Delighted to meet you, sir. Skip’s told me so much about you.”
“Oh he has? Chevalier Gordon Smedley-Fawksler, K.G.M.G.O. And you are, sir?”
“Not a sir, sir, just Nigel Buckhorn, ee-aye-ee-aye-oh.” Nigel grabbed the other’s hand in a peculiar fashion, pressing his thumb in between the old man’s knuckles. Sir Gordon’s eyes grew big. He switched his hand around, gripping the young man’s forearm, placing his other hand upon his back and leaning against him momentarily. They started exchanging grips, casually at first and then with ever more intensity.
Nigel stepped back, and slid his right hand beneath his robes like Napoleon.
Sir Gordon put his index finger to his lips.
Nigel lifted his hand above his eyes as if peering into the distance.
Sir Gordon raised his hands on either side of his head open and flat. Nigel thrust both arms straight ahead, taking a half step forward.
The older man quickly stepped aside, shielding his face with his left forearm.
Nigel extended his arms sideways, crossed them like a dead Pharaoh, and made fists.
Gordon put both arms to his right side, palms open, elbows bent as if warding something, and looked away.
Nigel drew his right hand level across his throat in a slashing motion.
Gordon covered his face but for his right eye. Nigel touched index finger to thumb and peered between them.
The old man pointed heavenward with his right hand as the younger pointed earthwards with his left. Nigel put his hands together and twisted them in so that he could wiggle his middle fingers upon opposite sides from each other. Sir Gordon did the same.
Smedley slowly placed his hands on his forehead and slightly nodded. With equal formality, Nigel placed his hands above each other on his chest and bowed from the waist.
The two stood regarding each other for a long moment. Suddenly Nigel grabbed the older man’s right hand in both of his, tickling Gordon’s palm with his middle finger.
The Chevalier paled, jerking his hand away as if electrically shocked. “Sorry, sir, I didn’t know.” Trembling slightly, he put his hands together and painfully knelt. “What do you require of me?”
Nigel grinned wickedly as he raised him up. He whispered in Sir Gordon’s ear. The older man nodded. “Instantly; as you wish, sir.” The old man struggled to stand.
He turned to Skip. “Sorry, Charles, old man, I’m told you have higher obligations. I wish you’d informed me. The Knightly Guardians of the Maundy Grail, Outer Order, do hereby formally release you from your oaths and duties. But remember, here you will always have family and friends. You too, Master Buckhorn, will be treated with due courtesy.” He leaned close and whispered something in Skip’s ear. Skip just nodded.
The Chevalier bowed formally and turned to greet the next in line. The hum of conversation resumed while Melicent and others stared after them.
Nigel swaggered away, Clan MacLantis trailing curiously behind.
“What the devil just happened?” Skip demanded. “Why’d the old man freak like that?”
“That was rather cool,” Allie said with a grin.
“Do you really belong to any of those organizations?” Gus asked, frowning.
Nigel laughed. “Me? Of course not; I just love messing with these mystical fraternity blokes. I don’t know what the last bit meant. It was just something my Uncle Louie always used to do when he visited us when I was a lad. But since it impressed Gordon so much, I told him to lay off Skip.”
“I’d wonder about that uncle if I were you,” Skip said, arm around his back, “but, thanks, buddy, I owe you another one.”
“Give me the exclusive when you find the Maundy Grail and call it even, old bean,” Nigel said. “I’m curious; what did the old man say to you?”
With a weary smile, Skip shook his head. “Just reminded me who the true Heirs of the Maundy Grail are. You know, just in case we get lucky.”