Friday, 17 May 1816
“You’re finally doing it, eh? Deserting fair France for the wilds of America?” the old raconteur asks, pouring the wine. His one good eye, still as keen as a hawk’s, drills into his younger companion. “Good for you!”
He holds up his glass. “I salute you, Jean, for doing what I always dreamed of but could not. May you find in that Republic what we lost in ours!”
“Quiet, you drunken fool.” The younger man looks around the smoky tavern, but none of the few drinkers still there at this late hour noticed. “Do you have a caution, Don Yago,” he whispers. “Napoleon may be finally done for, but neither his embittered supporters nor the strutting royalists will stand such words. Why do you think I’m leaving?”
“Your problem,” his companion, the celebrated “Reliquarian,” slurs, clearly in his cups, “is having come of age during the Terror in Paris, you see nothing but plots. Plots, plots and more plots. Yet for all that, you know piss about schemers. You want plots? Here,” he says, tapping his finger upon the table, “this town is the fountainhead of every sinister scheme – Bellegarde. Not simple-minded ‘country bumpkin conspiracies’ as you put it, either.”
As the old rogue drains his cup, Jean-Baptiste sighs heavily, expecting the once-famous explorer to launch again into fantastic stories of his strange adventures in the devils’ realm below, his escape, and encounter with the dragon-bones. But the old man glances at him as if he divined the younger man’s thoughts.
He smiles. “You’re a good listener, young Jean, though you roll your eyes at my tales, being such a sophisticated writer of journals. But let me tell you something may help your career, scribbler. Not all fabulous tales are false. The best ones conceal hidden, darker truths.”
He refills their drinks and hunches low. “Those devils you scorn as contrivances to scare children should terrify you,” he hisses. “They exist, my friend, not as bogeymen, but living flesh and blood. Do you not know of the Endurists? The followers of Tobias’ heresy of lashes and lust still hide beneath the cathedral; count on it, boy. I have seen their debauches.”
“But I heard they were all hunted down a century ago,” Jean objects.
“They were?” Don Yago scoffs. “Since when do you, of all people, believe everything you hear? Do you believe your eyes?” He digs in his purse beneath his coiled whip and brings out a dirty envelope. It holds a folded scrap of parchment, covered with tiny, erratic scrawls. “I found bones, not gold; but also something far more precious. Behold the last words of the Red Pope in his own hand,” he says. “They worship this, yet I stole it during my escape. His final vision, telling where the Maundy Grail is. Maybe – it makes little sense to me.”
He waves it before Jean. “They hunt me still, without ceasing, which is why I wish I could go with you. Too bad I’m too old to make a crossing. My thin flesh requires feather-beds and warm quilts, not hard life on the frontier. But there’s more.” Don Yago looks around, his voice gets lower. “They’re not the only sneaky bunch seeking the Jesus Pot. Three other groups there are which do so, too, maybe more dangerous. I speak,” he hisses, “of the Triple Knot. Shhh.”
“The Triple Knot?” Jean repeats, eyebrow cocked. “Never heard of them.”
“You wouldn’t – their ends aren’t what you’d call ‘political.’ They no more give a fart as to who sits above us as those below. Cut-throat rivals all craving the Holy Tub, they made up and joined together after that damned Corsican made himself our Emperor. ‘Ware them, lad; they’ll go to any means to get it, too.” His eyes flutter. “Beware…”
The Reliquarian falls asleep upon the table, snoring and muttering to himself. The younger man sits thinking, finishes his drink, and stands. He leaves several coins, picks up his hat, and deftly plucks the parchment from the snoring man’s hand.
Don Yago mutters indistinctly and Jean places the old man’s plumed hat gently over his face. “Sleep safely, old rascal,” Jean-Baptiste Beauregarde quietly says with a cynical smirk. “No one need hunt you anymore.”
But perhaps someone still did. A year after the monarchy is restored, Don Yago is found murdered in a confessional, a dagger in his throat and surprise writ large on his face. Almost twenty-three years later, across an ocean and an untamed continent from Bellegarde, an assassin finds Beauregarde, too.
Suspicion grows that a party with a long reach and matching patience watches over the Sacred Basin and its secrets. Who are these “Unknown Guardians?” Are they Endurists? The Triple Knot? Do they exist? In old Bellegarde, one could never be sure.