ABBEY DES FONTAINES

1:00 PM

Advertisement

DE ROQUEFORT WAS PLEASED. HIS FIRST CONFRONTATION WITH the seneschal had been a resounding victory. Only six masters had ever been successfully challenged, those men's sins ranging from thievery, to cowardice, to lust for a woman, all from centuries ago, in the decades after the Purge, when the brotherhood was weak and chaotic. Unfortunately, the penalty of a challenge was more symbolic than punitive. The master's tenure would still be noted within the Chronicles, his failures and accomplishments duly recorded, but a notation would proclaim that his brothers had deemed him unworthy of memory.

In recent weeks his lieutenants had made sure the requisite two-thirds percent would vote and send a message to the seneschal. That undeserving fool needed to know how difficult the fight ahead was going to be. True, the insult of being challenged mattered not to the master. He would be entombed with his predecessors no matter what. No, the denial was more a way to deflate the supposed successor--and to motivate allies. It was an ancient tool, created by Rule, from a time when honor and memory meant something. But one he'd successfully resurrected as the opening salvo in a war that should be over by sunset.

He was going to be the next master.

The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon had existed, unbroken, since 1118. Philip IV of France, who'd borne the despicable misnomer of Philip the Fair, had tried in 1307 to exterminate them. But like the seneschal, he'd also underestimated his opponent, and managed only to send the Order underground.

-- Advertisement --

Once, tens of thousands of brothers manned commanderies, farms, temples, and castles on nine thousand estates scattered across Europe and the Holy Land. Just the sight of a brother knight clad in white and wearing the red cross patee brought fear to enemies. Brothers were granted immunity from excommunication and were not required to pay feudal duties. The Order was allowed to keep all its spoils from war. Subject only to the pope, the Knights Templar was a nation unto itself.

But no battles had been fought for seven hundred years. Instead, the Order had retreated to a Pyrenean abbey and cloaked itself as a simple monastic community. Connections to the bishops in Toulouse and Perpignan were maintained, and all of the required duties were performed for the Roman Church. Nothing occurred that would draw attention, set the abbey apart, or cause people to question what may be happening within its walls. All brothers took two vows. One to the Church, which was done for necessity. The other to the brotherhood, which meant everything. The ancient rites were still conducted, though now under cover of darkness, behind thick ramparts, with the abbey gates bolted.

And all for the Great Devise.

The paradoxical futility of that duty disgusted him. The Order existed to guard the Devise, but the Devise would not exist but for the Order.

A quandary, for sure.

But still a duty.

His entire life had been only the preamble to the next few hours. Born to unknown parents, he was raised by the Jesuits at a church school near Bordeaux. In the Beginning, brothers were mainly repentant criminals, disappointed lovers, outcasts. Today they came from all walks. The secular world spawned the most recruits, but religious society produced its true leaders. The past ten masters all claimed a cloistered education. His had begun at the university in Paris, then been completed at the seminary in Avignon. He'd stayed on there and taught for three years before the Order approached him. Then he'd embraced Rule with an unfettered enthusiasm.

During his fifty-six years he'd never known the flesh of a woman, nor had he been tempted by a man. Being elevated to marshal, he knew, had been a way for the former master to placate his ambition, perhaps even a trap whereby he might generate enough enemies that further advancement would be impossible. But he'd used his position wisely, making friends, building loyalties, accumulating favors. Monastic life suited him. For the past decade he'd pored through the Chronicles and was now versed in every aspect--good and bad--of the Order's history. He would not repeat the mistakes of the past. He fervently believed that, in the Beginning, the brotherhood's self-imposed isolation was what hastened its downfall. Secrecy bred both an aura and suspicion--a simple step from there to recrimination. So it must end. Seven hundred years of silence needed to be broken.

His time had come.

Rule was clear.

It is to be holden that when anything shall be enjoined by the master, there be no hesitation, but the thing must be done without delay, as though it had been enjoined from heaven.

The phone on his desk gave a low trill and he lifted the receiver.

"Our two brothers in Rennes-le-Chateau," he was told by his under-marshal, "have reported that Stephanie Nelle and Malone are now there. As you predicted, she went straight to the cemetery and found Ernst Scoville's grave."

Good to know one's enemy. "Have our brothers merely observe, but be ready to act."

"On the other matter you asked us to investigate. We still have no idea who assaulted the brothers in Copenhagen."

He hated to hear about failure. "Is everything prepared for this evening?"

"We will be ready."

"How many accompanied the seneschal to the Hall of Fathers?"

"Thirty-four."

"All identified?"

"Every one."

"They shall each be given an opportunity to join us. If not, deal with them. Let's make sure, though, that most join us. Which should not pose a problem. Few like to be part of a losing cause."

"The consistory starts at six PM."

At least the seneschal was discharging his duty, calling the brothers into session before nightfall. The consistory was the one variable in the equation--a procedure specially designed to prevent manipulation--but one he'd long studied and anticipated.

"Be ready," he said. "The seneschal will use speed to generate confusion. That's how his master managed election."

"He will not take defeat lightly."

"Nor would I expect him to. Which is why I have a surprise waiting for him."

-- Advertisement --